I had as lief have been myself alone

Being alone is not easy for many of us -perhaps because it allows an inner dialogue to emerge that is ordinarily submerged in the noise of the crowd. And yet it is in solitude that a still small voice emerges: the one that allows us to assess our actions, and to argue with ourselves.

This, of course, was a central theme of the Jewish-German thinker Hannah Arendt who fled Nazi Germany to America. I suppose she came to public attention largely because in 1961, The New Yorker commissioned Arendt to cover the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi SS officer who helped to orchestrate the Holocaust.

I happened upon an essay on solitude by Jennifer Stitt, then studying at University of Wisconsin-Madison who was obviously impressed by Arendt’s work: https://aeon.co/ideas/before-you-can-be-with-others-first-learn-to-be-alone

Arendt believed that ‘solitude empowers the individual to contemplate her actions and develop her conscience, to escape the cacophony of the crowd – to finally hear herself think… Arendt was surprised by Eichmann’s lack of imagination, his consummate conventionality. She argued that while Eichmann’s actions were evil, Eichmann himself – the person – ‘was quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither demonic nor monstrous. There was no sign in him of firm ideological convictions.’ She attributed his immorality – his capacity, even his eagerness, to commit crimes – to his ‘thoughtlessness’. It was his inability to stop and think that permitted Eichmann to participate in mass murder… A person who does not know that silent intercourse (in which we examine what we say and what we do) will not mind contradicting himself, and this means he will never be either able or willing to account for what he says or does; nor will he mind committing any crime, since he can count on its being forgotten the next moment.’ The banality of evil.

I also discussed this in an essay I wrote last year in relation to extremism and loneliness: https://musingsonwomenshealth.com/2019/03/27/society-is-no-comfort-to-one-not-sociable/

But here I’m not so concerned with the aberrant aspects of enforced solitude -during a quarantine, say- because being lonely and being alone are separate creatures. Most of us are never really alone -that’s when we meet our inner selves. It’s when there is no one else inside, that we feel lonely. ‘Eichmann had shunned Socratic self-reflection. He had failed to return home to himself, to a state of solitude. He had discarded the vita contemplativa, and thus he had failed to embark upon the essential question-and-answering process that would have allowed him to examine the meaning of things, to distinguish between fact and fiction, truth and falsehood, good and evil.’ This suggested to Arendt ‘that society could function freely and democratically only if it were made up of individuals engaged in the thinking activity – an activity that required solitude. Arendt believed that ‘living together with others begins with living together with oneself’… Thinking, existentially speaking, is a solitary but not a lonely business; solitude is that human situation in which I keep myself company. Loneliness comes about … when I am one and without company’ but desire it and cannot find it.’

‘Arendt reminds us, if we lose our capacity for solitude, our ability to be alone with ourselves, then we lose our very ability to think. We risk getting caught up in the crowd. We risk being ‘swept away’, as she put it, ‘by what everybody else does and believes in’ – no longer able, in the cage of thoughtless conformity, to distinguish ‘right from wrong, beautiful from ugly’. Solitude is not only a state of mind essential to the development of an individual’s consciousness – and conscience – but also a practice that prepares one for participation in social and political life. Before we can keep company with others, we must learn to keep company with ourselves.’

Millenia ago, when I was a child in Winnipeg, I remember having to stay away from school and in our house for a week or two because, in those pre-vaccine days, I had the measles. I would stare through the bedroom window at my friends playing in the field outside in the snow and tell my mother how bored I was. After reading every book I could find, and tiring of the adult radio programs she was fond of listening to while she cooked, I would wander into the kitchen and complain that there was nothing to do. She would listen patiently for a while, and then shoo me out of the room.

I still remember the day at breakfast that I announced that I had decided I was going to go out and play with my friends. It was Saturday and everybody was throwing snowballs at each other -I could even see them through the frosty kitchen window. I tried to look determined and crossed my arms over my chest like I’d seen my father do when he was intent on something.

“It’s only been 5 days, G,” she said, shaking her head. “You’re still contagious.”

I shrugged at the argument. “They’ve all had measles, mother… And besides, I’ll be so wrapped up none of my measles could get at them.”

She smiled at me -it was one of those fake smiles she usually put on when she was trying to hide her frustration. “How do you know they’ve all had it, G?” Her face softened when she could see I no longer had my arms crossed over my chest. “What do you think would happen then?”

I thought about it for a moment. The teacher had warned us that measles could be dangerous to some children. She’d never actually told us what that meant, but at recess Jamie told me that his uncle had got a bad case when he was young and something had happened to his head –‘gitis’, or something. He was never the same after it, apparently, but he didn’t explain.

“What could happen, G…?” I was taking too long to answer her question, I suppose.

I remember shrugging and looking first at the window, and then at the floor. “Gitis,” I mumbled guiltily, not confident I had pronounced it correctly. Anyway, I should have thought of that, and prepared a suitable rebuttal.

It had an unexpected result at any rate: she bent down and hugged me. “That’s right, sweetie,” she said after kissing the top of my head. “I knew you understood why I need to keep you home. You just had to think about it, that’s all…”

I now realize that Arendt was on to something. There really is a voice somewhere inside if we stop to listen to it. Mine sounds suspiciously like my mother’s, though…

An accident of birth

For years now, I have picked through the garden of my life -sometimes for pleasure, and sometimes for utility. I weed, of course -the privilege of growing in my aging plot is largely contingent on my having planted it in the first place. Contingent on the purpose for which it was intended. Things that arrive unannounced might be tolerated at times, but the recent discovery of a flower tucked in amongst the lettuce plants instead of growing where I’d planted others of its kind, spoke more of my neglect than serendipity.

And now that I’ve been retired long enough to ponder these things, it occurred to me that the peripatetic guest may not have the same value in its new home. It’s still a flower to be sure -it’s still beautiful, and still proffers its petals as seductively to passing bees- but is it really the same flower as one that was the product of my labour? Does the intent flavour the result?

For some, I suspect it’s a trivial question: surely a daisy, say, is a daisy, no matter whether it arrived accidentally or was planted in the spot. It is a gift, they might say -something for which gratitude not deliberation is appropriate. In a sense, of course, they are correct. And yet, is all the work I may have expended -choosing its pedigree and colour,  calculating a location that might offer it the best chance to thrive, and then watering and weeding- do these not affect the appreciation of the resulting flower? And was appreciation not a large part of the original incentive that led to its planting?

For that matter, does a gift share an equal merit as the same item obtained through work and planning? Does it even possess the same meaning?

It occurred to me that maybe I simply have too much time on my hands now that I’m retired, and I tried to shelve the thought along with all those books I have been meaning to read once the opportunity presented itself. But the question continued to poke annoyingly at my brain in the evenings whenever my eyes tired of reading. I just could not understand what it was about the problem that was continuing to disturb me; and more, was I the only one who even thought there might be something to it?

I can’t say I actively sought an answer -quite frankly, I couldn’t even think of a way to phrase the question- but I did stumble upon a short philosophical enquiry written by Jonny Robinson, a tutor and ‘casual lecturer’ in the department of philosophy at Macquarie University in Australia: https://aeon.co/ideas/would-you-rather-have-a-fish-or-know-how-to-fish

It touched on a theme that seemed eerily similar: how there may be a difference in the quality of the knowledge of Truth, depending upon how it was acquired. ‘Many are born into severe poverty with a slim chance at a good education, and others grow up in religious or social communities that prohibit certain lines of enquiry. Others still face restrictions because of language, transport, money, sickness, technology, bad luck and so on. The truth, for various reasons, is much harder to access at these times. At the opposite end of the scale, some are effectively handed the truth about some matter as if it were a mint on their pillow, pleasantly materialising and not a big deal. Pride in this mere knowledge of the truth ignores the way in which some people come to possess it without any care or effort, and the way that others strive relentlessly against the odds for it and still miss out.’

Each type is in possession of the same Truth, presumably, although in one case it is a gift and in the other, has required an effort to obtain it. It seems to me there is a difference, though: ‘the person ready to correct herself, courageous in her pursuit of the truth, open-minded in her deliberation, and driven by a deep curiosity has a better relationship to truth even where she occasionally fails to obtain it than does the indifferent person who is occasionally handed the truth on a silver platter.’

So, to my question about the itinerant daisy: does it possess the same intrinsic worth as one that has been purposely planted and nourished? Robinson, for his essay, puts the question slightly differently: ‘Is it better to know, or to seek to know?’ Both seem labyrinthine, and unanswerable -trivial, perhaps- largely because they are both perspectival.

So he rephrases the question in the form of a thought-experiment: ‘Would you rather have a fish or know how to fish?’ If having a fish is the result of knowing how to catch it, that is different from having to wait for someone who knows how to fish, and hoping she will actually give the one she caught to you.

Robinson feels it is the same with knowledge. An isolated fact (knowledge) may be valuable, but if you have learned how to acquire more knowledge, you are not limited to that one fact. It is, in fact, a type of synergism: knowledge plus the ability to add to it turns out to be better than the mere fact of knowledge on its own.

That accidental daisy growing by itself amongst the lettuce is still beautiful, but if it truly was an accident, that may or may not be the end of the line for it -especially if I don’t know how to care for it. It is, in that case, on its own. In fact, given its location, I may even think of it as an undesirable -a weed- and pull it out.

It does seem to suggest that it has a different value, a different essence, from a bed of cherished Gerbera Daisies planted and growing contentedly, in their assigned place. In a sense, it is no longer a flower -or, at any rate, not one that I treasure.

One question, though, inevitably leads to another: what is growing alongside the lettuce then…?

Light, seeking light, doth light of light beguile

I have to admit that I have always had trouble with arguments. I dislike confrontation, and whenever it occurs, I seem to get backed into a corner from which I am forced to lash out. Often, I feel that my very identity is at risk: how could any thinking person who was in tune with reality, believe what I do? And if my argument is, in fact, wrong then what does that say about my other opinions that we haven’t yet touched on? Disagreements suggest as much about me as they do about the positions I espouse.

I have had a life-long passion for Philosophy, and I know many of the drills. An argument is seen less as combat or an attempt to disparage the opponent, but more as an exercise in clarification and a search, perhaps, for common ground. So, one hears the opponent’s position and attempts to reword it to show it has been understood. If the opponent agrees that their opinion has been correctly grasped, then ideally, they can state why they disagree with what they’ve heard from me. And so it goes, back and forth -each position clarified and understood before either moves on. Not infrequently, commonalities emerge, and hopefully, the ability to reach some form of compromise begins to materialize.

The problem in most of our encounters, of course, is proceeding without one side being forced to lose face -without feeling that only one side is correct -or, in the case of being proven incorrect, not feeling heard. Why, in other words, did the side espousing Fake News, let us say, come to believe it? Shouting at them, or belittling them is pretty well guaranteed to further intrench them in their views. We all do it, though -okay, I do, anyway.

Sometimes my way of seeing things seems so… obvious to me, that I become infuriated with the expression on the other person’s face, or when they shrug, sigh, or even roll their eyes at my opinion. I suppose I don’t feel heard -no, I don’t feel respected

I was dreading phoning a dear friend of mine who lives on the other side of the country. I hadn’t heard from her for a couple of months, and I wondered if there was something wrong. Since university, we’d always found ourselves on opposite sides of the political and ecological spectrum -we disagreed about almost everything, and so our Emails had to be carefully worded; even with phone calls we had to tip-toe around many of the issues. Skype was especially problematic because I could read the frustration in her eyes, and the way she wrinkled her forehead, or clenched her teeth. I realize I probably did the same and that just amplified the conflict. And yet, each time, despite my determination to change, I usually found myself rerouted along the same trail we always seemed to travel.

I’m always looking for helpful hints and so I was drawn to an essay from Australia by Hugh Breakey, a research fellow at Griffith University in Queensland. I wondered if they did things differently in the antipodes. https://theconversation.com/actually-its-ok-to-disagree-here-are-5-ways-we-can-argue-better-121178

Argument is everywhere, he writes, but ‘Unfortunately, we often fail to consider the ethics of arguing. This makes it perilously easy to mistreat others.’ So, there are certain norms we should follow in an argument: ‘we should be open to their views. We should listen carefully and try to understand their reasoning. And while we can’t all be Socrates, we should do our best to respond to their thoughts with clear, rational and relevant arguments… norms are valuable because they promote knowledge, insight and self-understanding… being reasonable and open-minded ensures we treat our partners in argument in a consensual and reciprocal way. During arguments, people open themselves up to attaining worthwhile benefits, like understanding and truth.’ And, ‘obeying the norms of argument shows respect for our partners in argument as intelligent, rational individuals. It acknowledges they can change their minds based on reason.’

It was also encouraging to find that Breakey and I were on the same track. ‘Two arguers, over time, can collectively achieve a shared intellectual creation. As partners in argument, they define terms, acknowledge areas of shared agreement, and mutually explore each other’s reasons. They do something together.’

All fine and good, but sticking to that in the heat of battle has always been my problem. My heart may be in the right place, but my mouth is not. My mind tricks me into thinking my opponent is being illogical -it’s them, and not me, who’s failing to argue properly. So, to counter this, Breakey offers a few tips. Like, trying not to think I’m being attacked, and remembering that I don’t want to lose my opponent as a friend. I should treat them with respect, and not judge their argument (and hence them) as faulty; they may well be open to changing their views -I shouldn’t assume otherwise -and let’s face it, we may both be wrong…

I don’t know why, but I suddenly felt equipped to phone my friend. I can do this, I told myself when she answered.

“Are you phoning to lecture me on climate change again, G?”

Wow, that started early, I thought. My first reaction was to feel hurt, but I caught myself in time. “Well, actually, I wanted to know how you were doing. I haven’t heard from you in a while…”

That seemed to soften her voice. “Oh, that’s nice of you,” she said tenderly. “I would have let you know if I was sick, you know…” I breathed a bit easier. “But you usually only phone when you’ve thought of a new argument to try out on me,” she continued, her voice noticeably harder.

I had to think. Do I argue with that point, or ignore it? I decided to clarify her assertion. “Do you really think that’s why I phone?”

There was a pause at the end of the line. “It seems that way, G.”

I wasn’t sure whether I should become defensive, or agree with her and apologize. I decided on the middle road. “I guess I do come on a bit strong sometimes, don’t I?”

Another pause -she was obviously having difficulty deciding how to reply as well. She finally settled on “I know you mean well…”

Not a victory, but a white flag of sorts I suppose.

Then, “But I don’t think you can convince me, you know…”

Was she trying to say I was incapable of convincing her, or just that I hadn’t approached her the right way? “Well, maybe I can suggest…” was all I could think of to say before she interrupted me.

“Although that article you sent me a while back was certainly worth thinking about…”

“The one on renewables, you mean?”

“Mmm Hmm…” I could hear her breathing into her phone. “I’ve even decided to ride my bike to work.”

It seemed like a turning point. “That’s great, Melissa!” I thought I’d share in her decision. “Maybe I should do the same, eh?”

A friendly chuckle echoed through my phone. “You’re retired G… But maybe you could at least ride down to the store…”

We were friends again; maybe they really have figured out how to argue in Australia.

Are you really my friend?

There was something that Albert Camus, the Algerian-French philosopher, once wrote that has continued to inspire me since I first read it, so many years ago: “Don’t walk in front of me… I may not follow. Don’t walk behind me… I may not lead. Walk beside me… just be my friend

Friendship is a magical thing that is hard to define; it is like St. Thomas Aquinas’ view of Time: you know what it is until someone asks. Poets, perhaps, with their metaphors come closest to capturing it -Shakespeare for example:

Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel.

Or, the wisdom of Rumi, a 13th century Persian poet: ‘Friend, our closeness is this: anywhere you put your foot, feel me in the firmness under you.’

And even the humour of Oscar Wilde:A good friend will always stab you in the front‘.

And yet, despite the feeling that its essence remains just at the tip of our tongues, there has always been an abiding faith in friendships, a trust that, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, ‘I destroy my enemies when I make them my friends’. In more modern times, however, the concept of ‘friend’ has undergone a not-so-subtle shift -everything from ‘friending’ people on social media, to online bullying, to trolling individuals for their putative beliefs, to unintended disclosure of confidences in internet postings.

So should a friend always bear his friend’s infirmities, as Cassius asked Brutus, in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar? There was a time when the answer seemed obvious; now I am not so sure.

Quite by chance, I came across an essay by Leah Plunkett, an associate dean at the University of New Hampshire’s Franklin Pierce School of Law which raised the question of whether friendship should be policed. Whether it should remain a simple state of loyalty or, if declared, entail a legal obligation -like, say, marriage.   https://aeon.co/ideas/friendship-is-about-loyalty-not-laws-should-it-be-policed

The concept caught me totally by surprise. ‘Friendship is the most lawless of our close relationships,’ she writes. Somehow, the idea that there might even be a need of a legal framework for friendship seemed dystopian to me, so I read on.

‘Friends are tied to each other through emotions, customs and norms – not through a legally defined relationship, such as marriage or parenting, that imposes obligations. Anybody can become friends, we believe…  But with the advent of the digital domain, friendship has become more fraught. Online and off, we can share information about our friends without their permission and without legal restriction (except for slander and libel).’ But, of course, that means that ‘Information shared between friends can wind up being seen by people outside the friendship network who are not the intended audience…  confidences can inadvertently find their way to the public domain; all it takes is one careless email or the wrong privacy setting on a Facebook post.’

And there may even be legal consequences to what we or our friends have posted. ‘Digital social networks are already used to detain people trying to cross into the United States when statements by friends in their network are deemed by border agents to be suspicious or threatening.’ And, although most of us are aware that most social media platforms are collecting and selling our information, ‘Fewer recognise the third-party companies typically behind the scenes of our interactions, often using our information in unknown and uncontrollable ways in pursuit of their own goals.’

And yet, ‘Amid all this chaos, friendship itself remains unregulated. You don’t need a licence to become someone’s friend, like you do to get married. You don’t assume legal obligations when you become someone’s friend, like you do when you have a child. You don’t enter into any sort of contract, written or implied, like you do when you buy something.’ There’s no legal definition of ‘friend’, either.

But, Plunkett has an interesting idea: some U.S. states (like New Hampshire, her own) have definitions of bullying: the state’s Pupil Safety and Violence Prevention Act (2000) for students in primary and secondary school defines what bullying would entail. She wonders if it might be possible to apply its converse to define friendship. So, instead of saying you can’t harm somebody, a friend should need to support a peer or their property; cause emotional comfort, and so on. And, ‘To engage in cyberfriendship, this behaviour would need to take place electronically.’ Interesting idea.

But, although promoting friendship -online or in person- is worthwhile, one clearly has to be careful about how rigorously it is applied. ‘If you could be punished for not being a friend rather than for being a bully, that would undermine the lawlessness that makes friendship so generative.’

And Plunkett feels one has to be particularly careful about this lawlessness. ‘As friendship becomes less lawless, [and] more guarded by cybersurveillance… it might also become less about loyalty, affinity and trust, and more about strategy, currency and a prisoner’s dilemma of sorts (‘I won’t reveal what I know about you if you don’t reveal it about me’).’

It seems to me, she is correct in suggesting that we would be unwise to imprison friendship in too tight a definition -we might find ourselves confined to stocks for punishment and public humiliation like misbehaving villagers in the 16th and 17th centuries.  So, ‘Let’s keep paying our respects to those bonds of friendship that are lawless at heart, opening new frontiers within ourselves.’

And listen to the words of poets like Kahlil Gibran:

When your friend speaks his mind you fear not the “nay” in your own mind, nor do you withhold the “ay.”
And when he is silent your heart ceases not to listen to his heart;
For without words, in friendship, all thoughts, all desires, all expectations are born and shared, with joy that is unacclaimed.
When you part from your friend, you grieve not;
For that which you love most in him may be clearer in his absence, as the mountain to the climber is clearer from the plain.
And let there be no purpose in friendship save the deepening of the spirit.
For love that seeks aught but the disclosure of its own mystery is not love but a net cast forth: and only the unprofitable is caught
.’

If only…

Look the other way, please.

There really are inconvenient truths, aren’t there? There are some things that seem to slip quietly under the radar -things that go unremarked until they  are brought our our attention. And even then, they are perhaps dismissed as unimportant -or worse, accepted and rationalized in an attempt to justify them as tools that enable the greater good of humanity. We, after all, are what it’s all about; our welfare is paramount, not to mention our survival. And when you frame it in those terms, there is little room for noblesse oblige. Survival of the fittest, quickly becomes survival of the ruthless -of the remorseless.

Perhaps I should explain. I live on a little hobby farm in the country, and when I was actively breeding sheep, chickens, and llamas, I was well acquainted with interested visitors, both two and four-legged. Everybody, it seemed, had or wanted, a stake in the game. Friends wanted eggs for their breakfasts, colleagues wanted lamb for their dinners, and I wanted an escape from the city. But, to share with some, was to share with all.

That’s how Life works, I suppose: word gets around, and soon there are all manner of uninvited guests -not all of whom knock, or ask permission. Some just appear -like carpenter ants- but some try not to advertise their arrival, and in fact seem to want to stay out of sight, if not out of mind. They’re the ones I used to worry about -if they’re in the barn, where else might they hide?

Of course I’m talking about rats -not so much the mice which kept my three cats busy in the night. No, the rats who hid in the engine of my pickup truck and ate the plastic off the wires to my distributor, or the battery wires in my car; the rats who patrolled the barn and left their distinctive trail through the uneaten bits of grain I fed the sheep; the rats who also holed up in the woodpile in my garage, and wherever else they could gather relatively undisturbed.

And yes, I declared war on them with spring traps baited with peanut butter, and put warfarin-like pellets in short, narrow little PVC pipes so the cats couldn’t get into them, but alas, the rats outlasted my efforts. Only when I retired and the chickens died in a well-fed old age, and only when I sold the sheep and llamas did the supply of grain eventually disappear -only then did the rats disappear. And I’ve never seen a rat, or droppings since. It reminded me of  the last stanza of Longfellow’s poem The Day is Done:

                                 And the night shall be filled with music,

                                      And the cares, that infest the day,

                                Shall fold their tents, like the Arabs,

                                     And as silently steal away.

I know, I know -they’re only rats, but their leaving seemed so sudden; I came to think of them as having made a collective decision to move their troupe away to greener fields -sort of like the Travellers in Britain with their little trailers, able to leave when conditions are no longer hospitable for them. I suppose I Disneyfied them in my over-active imagination, and yet there was something about their migration that softened their attributes. I’ve never been fond of rats -especially their tails- but on the other hand I’ve always found it hard to believe all of the sinister lore attached to their sneaky habits. After all, they’ve lived with mankind and our middens from the beginning, I would imagine… and we’re both still here in spades. You have to assume a certain degree of intelligence to coexist with us for so long, despite our best efforts to exterminate them.

As these things happen, I tripped over a tantalizing essay co-written by Kristin Andrews, a professor of philosophy at York University in Toronto, and Susana Monsó, a post-doctoral fellow at the Messerli Research Institute in Vienna. https://aeon.co/essays/why-dont-rats-get-the-same-ethical-protections-as-primates

The first three sentences of the article hooked me: ‘In the late 1990s, Jaak Panksepp, the father of affective neuroscience, discovered that rats laugh. This fact had remained hidden because rats laugh in ultrasonic chirps that we can’t hear. It was only when Brian Knutson, a member of Panksepp’s lab, started to monitor their vocalisations during social play that he realised there was something that appeared unexpectedly similar to human laughter.’ And then, okay, they tickled them. ‘They found that the rats’ vocalisations more than doubled during tickling, and that rats bonded with the ticklers, approaching them more frequently for social play. The rats were enjoying themselves.’

Of course, there were some other features, that if further substantiated, we likely don’t want to hear: ‘We now know that rats don’t live merely in the present, but are capable of reliving memories of past experiences and mentally planning ahead the navigation route they will later follow. They reciprocally trade different kinds of goods with each other – and understand not only when they owe a favour to another rat, but also that the favour can be paid back in a different currency. When they make a wrong choice, they display something that appears very close to regret.’ I’ve left the links intact, for reference, in case the reader’s credulity level sinks to the Fake News level.

But, for me at least, ‘The most unexpected discovery, however, was that rats are capable of empathy…  It all began with a study in which the rats refused to press a lever to obtain food when that lever also delivered a shock to a fellow rat in an adjacent cage. The rats would rather starve than witness a rat suffering. Follow-up studies found that rats would press a lever to lower a rat who was suspended from a harness; that they would refuse to walk down a path in a maze if it resulted in a shock delivered to another rat; and that rats who had been shocked themselves were less likely to allow other rats to be shocked, having been through the discomfort themselves.’

The reason the essay intrigued me, I’m sure, is because it has long been a practice to utilize rats (and mice, of course) as mindless fodder for our experimental quandaries. And, there’s little question that it is better to experiment on an animal than on a human, and especially a time-honoured nuisance and villain like a rat rather than a chimpanzee, or whatever. I don’t think I would be prepared to argue their utility for this, nor that until we have devised non-living alternatives -cell cultures, or AI modelling, perhaps- some things will require validation in functioning organisms to advance our knowledge for the benefit of the rulers (us).

My hope, however, is to point out that our hubris may tend to blind us to the increasing likelihood that rats, are not mindless protoplasms living forever in the ‘now’ of their experiences. Are they sentient beings…? I suppose their sentience , like ours, is on a spectrum, isn’t it?

But if we are to continue to utilize them as unwitting research subjects, it seems to me that we should treat them with kindness and a degree of respect. Remember the words of Gloucester after he has been blinded by Cornwall, in Shakespeare’s King Lear: ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.’ Let us not stoop to that…

Sine fide, sine amicis

Have you ever wondered whether or not you could trust someone? Or wondered what that would mean for the person you’re thinking about; what it might mean for you; what it could mean for the very idea of trust itself? These are difficult issues -uncertainty itself is difficult. But, the fact there is even a question suggests that there are reasonable doubts about the reliability of other person -because if there were no doubts about them, would you still be wondering if you could trust them?

Trust risks betrayal, but it also builds something; if it turns out to be justified (when it might not have been), something valuable has been gained, even if it is only belief in the other person. Let’s face it, most of what we know about the world is because of the contributions of other people; some things -like, say, the the advice you receive from your doctor, or the knowledge that it is possible to recharge your cell phone- you are unlikely going to be able to work out for yourself from first principles. So, there are some things you are probably better off to take on trust. Some are far less clear cut, however; there are fewer guideposts. Therein lie our doubts.

There is another reason for trusting, however: the informational asymmetry between trusting and not trusting. I happened upon a brief essay by the French evolutionary and cognitive psychologist Hugo Mercier from the CNRS (Institut Jean Nicod) in Paris. I suppose it was the title that initially attracted me: ‘The Smart move: we learn more by trusting than by not trusting’. https://aeon.co/ideas/the-smart-move-we-learn-more-by-trusting-than-by-not-trusting

In a way, that sounds counterintuitive; surely it’s the other way around -the lesson is more strident if our trust is discovered to be unwarranted. It makes one wary of doing it again; it is not easily forgotten. Then again, whatever one learns from trusting -whether good or bad- is important, too. Trusting advice -solicited or not- often tests more than just the individual giving it. As Mercier points out, ‘when we trust, we learn not only about specific individuals, we learn more generally about the type of situations in which we should or shouldn’t trust. We get better at trusting… People who trust the media more are more knowledgeable about politics and the news. The more people trust science, the more scientifically literate they are.’ Uhmm, I didn’t just make that up…

But there is more to it than that. ‘When our trust is disappointed – when we trust someone we shouldn’t have – the costs are salient, and our reaction ranges from annoyance all the way to fury and despair. The benefit – what we’ve learnt from our mistake – is easy to overlook. By contrast, the costs of not trusting someone we could have trusted are, as a rule, all but invisible. We don’t know about the friendship we could have struck… We don’t realise how useful some advice would have been… We don’t trust enough because the costs of mistaken trust are all too obvious, while the (learning) benefits of mistaken trust, as well as the costs of mistaken mistrust, are largely hidden. We should consider these hidden costs and benefits: think of what we learn by trusting, the people whom we can befriend, the knowledge that we can gain.’

I admit that Mercier doesn’t make his case about the informational asymmetry as strongly as I would have liked, but although he hasn’t convinced me, the idea is an interesting one, and something which had not occurred to me before. Still, trusting someone you know is different from trusting a bot that sends you an Email, or a voice that tries to interest you in something on the phone. And nowadays, with the economy still reeling from the pandemic, there seem to be a lot of entreaties on a lot of venues trying to get you to trust what they say -of course, they’re often simply trying to survive…

I do not have a land line phone -I gave that up once I had retired; I rely on my cell phone on which the name of the caller is displayed if they are on my list of contacts, or at least the phone number if they are not. I mention that because I seldom answer the call if I don’t recognize the caller -or at least the number on the screen.

 A few days ago, however, I did answer without full compos mentis -I had been snoozing if you must know, and I am never at my best when I initially awaken; my croaky voice gives me away, I fear. The caller’s initial confusion at its huskiness usually allows me time to collect my wits, so I see it as a plus, really. And anyway, that day I couldn’t understand the message I was being given. The voice spoke with an accent and a rush of syllables that baffled me, although the caller did know my name and used it to suggest there was a reason I should listen to what he had to say. The slowness of my response worked in my favour, however, and it only increased my advantage when I asked the caller -a gentle sounding man, from what I could tell- to repeat the purpose of his call.

He did, of course, but although I still couldn’t make out the name of the company he represented, I could tell my hesitation was having an effect on him. I gathered he was advertising some online teaching course, and that he, in turn, was beginning to hesitate. But there was patience in his voice, and the softness in his words softened mine.

Normally, if I think I am being unfairly solicited, I either end the call, or become quite rude. For some reason, though, his voice was one which, under different circumstances, I would be inclined to trust. I just couldn’t hang up on him -it would have been impolite, I thought.

“No, I’m not interested.” I added after his second repetition, but the yawning silence that ensued made me feel I had disappointed him, or something. I quickly reconsidered my response. “But, while perhaps I should be interested in your product,” I continued, searching for an excuse to end the call politely, “As you can tell by my voice, I am rather old…” It suddenly occurred to me that I was now playing the ‘elder’ card. “I’m not sure my brain still works the way it used to at University,” I chuckled. “I don’t really want to have to confront that though… My kids would have me in the Senior’s Home in no time if they found out.” He laughed at that. My god, I was actually having a conversation with the man -befriending him almost.

The tenor of his voice changed and he apologized for bothering me -I don’t think that has ever happened to me before on one of those crank calls. And then he thanked me for being so polite over the phone. “You’ve been very patient with me sir,” he said, almost as if he was talking to his aged father. “And I’m going to take your phone number off our call list, so we don’t bother you again.”

I was beginning to like the guy, and without even hesitating, said “I really appreciate that, you know. Thank you!”

“You take care, G,” he said, using my first name.

“And you as well,” I added as I ended the call, feeling a little sad that I hadn’t asked for his name.

You know, Mercier may be on to something – there really is something to be gained by trusting…

A spur to prick the sides of my intent

Suppose it were possible to change things about your own birth? What a great idea, right? Just think what that might mean: at the very least, perhaps, that you would not be imprisoned by whatever genetics you were allotted; you might actually have a chance to be the master of your own fate; and if you chose, be able to excel in fields currently beyond your reach.

And yet, would it even matter if it were yours to choose? Surely, not every daughter born to university professors succeeds as well as her parents; not every wealthy scion is able to make use of the educational opportunities he is able to access. It seems to me that there is more to it than the circumstances of birth -or the ticket you were issued in the chromosomal lottery: even hereditary instructions are malleable.

Genes are only blueprints -guidelines in a way- and what gets built in the end, often depends on how consistently each instruction is followed. Sometimes, circumstances prevent, or simply delay, completion of the initial plan. One of the mechanisms that allows this is epigenetic interference with the chromosomal directions: chemical signals that turn genes on or off -changes that are not inherited through DNA but rather result from interactions between genetic processes and experience. And these signals, or switches if you will, can be activated by a variety of circumstances: environment, stress, illness, diet, and even intrauterine factors- just to name a few. Genes are not the handcuffs we once thought they were.

But, I think most of us suspected that the exigencies imposed by birth were not absolute long before we knew anything about epigenetics. Or genes… or inheritance, for that matter. Philosophy has long wondered about who, what, and why we are; I was reminded of this by an essay written by Ada Jaarsma, a professor of philosophy at Mount Royal University in Calgary. https://aeon.co/essays/in-genetics-as-in-philosophy-existence-precedes-essence?

She writes that ‘In the early aftermath of the war, the French philosophers Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre used the term ‘existential’ to mark a radically first-person approach to history. Instead of the seemingly implacable nature of an event in time, these existentialists pointed to the subjective meaning that such events hold.’ Indeed, ‘I need to choose the circumstances of my birth, Sartre explained in Being and Nothingness (1943).’

On its own, his statement seems more metaphor than prescriptive, and yet, reality is conditional, isn’t it? To some extent, we all control how we perceive it, and therefore what it is like for each of us. I, like many of those in my philosophy lectures, was attracted to existentialism, and yet, although the poster figures were people like Sartre and Camus, I was drawn to Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre’s long-time friend. I loved her metaphor of existence being a drama.

And yet, one of their rallying cries was ‘existence precedes essence’ which I never understood. The only thing I could figure was that they were simply saying that you couldn’t become anything unless you existed -and that didn’t seem particularly profound to me at the time. But Jaarsma helped me with this when she explained that ‘Beauvoir and Sartre were drawing attention to the utterly singular way in which we each become the selves that we are, with our own memories, stories and storytelling habits.’ There is for each of us, some control, if and when we weave these into some form of meaning. It’s the process of weaving that marks our humanity: that takes us from being a ‘thing’ into a ‘project’, to paraphrase Beauvoir from her Pyrrhus and Cineas. To choose our own births, in other words.

Jaarsma’s essay deals with far more than my brief précis has included, but I suppose we only take what information we need from any text. For me, it was the memory of those introductory philosophy lectures in my early years at university -my impressionable years, perhaps, but maybe also my formative years.

I loved philosophy and thought long and hard about it for those all-night discussions that my three close friends and I seemed fated for every Saturday night over a few beers. One of them, Arvid, was a Science major, and another, Bertram, was in Engineering, and then there was Judy who was enrolled in Arts, but intended to switch to philosophy when she had enough credits, or whatever. The discussions were really arguments, but isn’t that what philosophy is all about?

At any rate, the time that sticks out in my memory, was when Judy and I had just been to a seminar on Simone de Beauvoir earlier that week and were both primed with her feminist perspective.  Feminism was still considered quite radical at the time- and although I didn’t understand most of it, she decided to spring it on the other two.

“That’s just crap,” was Arvid’s traditional response to feminism -most of us were still trapped in the Zeitgeist of the time, I’m afraid. Even Bertie, who professed to a neutrality he couldn’t maintain for more than two or three sentences in an argument, wasn’t able to see why we men should have to yield anything to ‘the other side’ as he put it.

“We are the stories we tell,” I tried to interject to calm him down.

“Well, I was brought up with a different story, G,” he said with clenched jaws as he tried to stare me down.

Judy was sitting on the floor, her head leaning against the wall in the little dorm room where we had gathered, and had a sip of her beer. “And what was that story, Bertie?”

His expression softened as he tried to put it into words. “Well…” -Bertie hated confrontation- “I guess that I don’t see the need to capitulate…”

“Is that what it would be if you accepted women as equals, Bertie: capitulation…?”

He looked confused. “But I do accept women as equals.” Judy wrinkled her nose at that and he blushed. “I mean, we should all do what we’re good at, right…?”

“And what are women good at?” She pinned him to the wall he was leaning against with her eyes. “Having babies? Cooking? Cleaning the house?” She blinked seductively. “Being a good wife for her man?”

“Well, no…”

“A woman philosopher named Simone de Beauvoir once said ‘I am not a thing, but a project’. What do you think she meant, Bertie,” she said with a glance in my direction.

Bertie seemed flustered at the question. “Uhmm, that she was still working at what she was good at? Or…” He hesitated; he had obviously not thought about women like this before.

“Or that she could become somebody else?” Judy interjected, smiling at his discomfort. “Maybe whatever she wanted…? Perhaps her project was to tell a story –her story?”

“But…” Bertie had a quick swallow of his beer, and stared at her. “Just because you tell a story about yourself doesn’t make it true, or anything.” He thought about it for a moment. “I mean, maybe you’re just making it up -telling yourself something that will never happen…”

“It’s a goal though, isn’t it Bertie? Something to aim for.”

He shook his head. “But suppose it’s unrealistic…”

She sighed and smiled at him -sadly, I thought- then put down her beer. “What’s your story?”

He closed his eyes, as if he wished he’d never said anything. “I… I don’t really have one, I don’t think.”

Judy smiled again, this time like a mother, or maybe a sister. “Yes you do, Bertie,” she said softly. “You want to be an Engineer.”

He slowly shook his head, eyes still closed as if she’d hit a sore point. “I told myself I did, but now I’m not so sure.” He opened his eyes slowly and let his eyes rest gently on her cheek. “I don’t think I can do it, you know…”

Judy got up off the floor and went over to sit beside him. “Sometimes you just have to believe the story you wrote, Bertie.” She touched his shoulder affectionately. “At this stage in our lives, the story is all we have…”

I don’t remember much of the night after that, but I did happen to run into Bertie years later. “So, what are you doing with yourself nowadays, G?” he said after we shook hands and did the man-thing of slapping each other’s shoulder. “You always wanted to be a doctor, I remember…”

I nodded my head. “And you were going to be an engineer, weren’t you…?” I was curious about what had happened to him. Circumstances change as semesters bring new classes, and our little group of friends gradually dissolved. Within a year, we’d pretty well lost touch with each other…

“Flunked out after a couple of years,” he answered. “Anyway, I switched into science like -what was his name? Arvid? Now I’m a teacher.”

He looked happy enough, but as I was leaving, I saw the wistful expression on his face. I think I must have stirred some long-buried memories; I think he remembered he’d had a different story once…

To this hour bewail the injury

It seems I grew up in a male purdah -I think all men did, and perhaps most still do. And yet, the triumph of women in academics, business, and sports in particular, has begun to open the male curtain a little. No longer would most of us be surprised to find women competing at the highest levels in sports as disparate as, say, rugby and tennis, soccer and hockey -albeit in their own leagues for now. Still, this is a fairly large departure from the days when sports were largely -if not completely- male dominated.

Women were not thought to have either the temperament or the musculature important for effective competition that their male counterparts so obviously possessed. Add to that their differing hormones which suited them for the roles to which society had long assigned them, and males felt they could relax in their smug complacency, secure in the knowledge that there were things that women just could not do -and also had no desire to.

Furthermore, because of the nuisance of the cyclic fluctuations in female metabolism, sexual differences were often discounted as too expensive and too variable to be taken into account in medication design and testing, so many of the drugs available on the market that were only tested on males were assumed to work as well in either sex. Unfortunately -although predictably- this led to problems in both outcome and side effects. In fact, I discussed some of these issues in an essay I wrote several years ago: https://musingsonwomenshealth.com/2016/10/12/women-are-from-earth/

More recently however, although many sports have become increasingly aware of the different types of dangers in their respective competitions, it comes as no surprise that there was an assumption that the occurrence of concussions in female athletes mirrored the frequency, symptomatology, and outcome in their male cohorts.

I don’t wish to embark upon a gendered jeremiad, because studies and evidence of sex difference is slowly accumulating, and in the more gladiatorial sports, there still seems to be a preponderance of men, so perhaps it makes sense to start with the effects of concussions on them -but nevertheless…

Thank goodness there was an interesting essay on female concussions in an article in BBC Future entitled, helpfully enough, Why women are more at risk from concussion written by David Robson: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200131-why-women-are-more-at-risk-from-concussion

‘Concussion is changed neurological function as the result of a bump, blow or jolt to the head. The violent movement of the head causes a momentary release of various neurotransmitters that throws the brain’s signalling out of balance. It can also cause the neural tissue to swell and reduce the flow of blood to the brain – and along with it, the glucose and oxygen – starving our nerve cells of their fuel… The potential long-term impact of concussion is now well known and has led many sports associations to change their rules and procedures to reduce the danger of injury. But there is low awareness of the potentially higher risks to female players and the possible need for differing diagnosis and treatment, including among healthcare professionals… Recent research… suggests that female athletes are not only more likely to sustain a concussion in any given sport; they also tend to have more severe symptoms, and to take longer to recover.’

I still remember the words we once used to describe the symptoms in boxers towards the end of their careers: punch-drunk. Of course, I was fairly young then, but I don’t remember the word ‘concussion’ being used with any frequency; I assumed an appreciation of the concept was fairly recent, and yet ‘Concussion is thought to have first been distinguished from other types of brain injury more than 1,000 years ago, by the Persian physician Rhazes, but sex differences in concussion have only been the subject of serious research within the last two decades or so.’ Then again, ‘The sex differences in concussion were also obscured by the fact that many of these injuries are the result of accidents in sport, and girls and women were historically less likely to compete in events where concussion has attracted most attention.

‘Tracey Covassin, who is now based at Michigan State University, has been one of the leading researchers looking at potential sex differences in concussion… In soccer, basketball and softball…  she found that female players are almost twice as likely to suffer a concussion as male ones.’ And their symptoms were often different. ‘While male concussions are more likely to be followed by amnesia, for instance, female ones are more likely to lead to prolonged headaches, mental fatigue and difficulties with concentration, and mood changes… Female athletes also seem to require more time for those symptoms to disappear.’

The problem is that sometimes the differences were attributable to sexual stereotyping and hence glossed over. That’s a fraught subject with many of the (largely male) therapists, but where there’s smoke, there’s often fire. For example, ‘Some researchers have proposed that it may be due to the fact that female necks tend to be slimmer and less muscular than male ones… the brain is free to move within the skull – it is like jelly tightly packed into a Tupperware container – and this means that any sharp movement of the head can cause it to shift around, potentially causing damage.’ So, ‘anything that helps to protect the skull from sharp movements should protect you from concussion – and that includes a sturdier neck that is better able to buffer a blow.’ Currently, there are a few team physiotherapists who have devised exercises to help strengthen these muscles -especially in rugby players where padding and helmets are certainly not de rigueur.

There are other theories why female concussions are different. For example, ‘small anatomical differences within the brain itself. Female brains are thought to have slightly faster metabolisms than male ones, with greater blood flow to the head… if a head injury momentarily disrupts that supply of glucose and oxygen, it could cause greater damage.’

There is even some evidence that the cyclic nature of female hormone production may also play a role in susceptibility to concussions. For example, ‘Researchers at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry… found that injuries during the follicular phase (after menstruation and before ovulation) were less likely to lead to symptoms a month later, while an injury during the luteal phase (after ovulation and before menstruation) resulted in significantly worse outcomes.’

Clearly research of female concussions is still in its early stage, but even these preliminary findings might suggest some possible mitigating strategies. For example, some studies have demonstrated the benefit of suppressing endogenous cyclicity in hormone production with, say, oral contraceptives.

And yet, perhaps the most hopeful thing is the recognition of the dangers of concussion in both sexes. It isn’t something that only occurs in high-contact sports like rugby or hockey; it’s something which crosses the gender divide with seeming ease. It’s the mask we’re beginning to see through, the condition that finds itself harder and harder to camouflage.

Let me swallow the sunset and drink the rainbow

Colour has always held me in thrall. I suspect I can trace its origins to those pre-recollection times when my mother read to me as I sat pointing at pictures in whatever book she had chosen for my bedtime. I had my favourites, I imagine, but all I can remember from those very early years were the vivid colours. They seemed more important than the words she spoke, or perhaps more accurately, they were the words, alive and beckoning from the page -depictions of things I suppose I was yet too young to understand. But, as the poet Kahlil Gibran once wrote, Let me swallow the sunset and drink the rainbow. And in those days, I think I did.

There are still faint traces of this atavism that linger in the colours I see in numbers, but I hesitate to attribute beauty to the pallid tints afforded to me from a lingering synaesthesia in my doddering years. They possess no magic -in fact, I rather think I’d like to colour them in bolder pigments that would elevate them like saints from their boring lists.

But there I go again -the need to colour things is strong, yet unfulfilled. Although my father tried his best to guide my hand, I never managed to colour within the lines of the many books that called me to my crayons. In looking back to those halcyon days, I suspect I saw the outlines as prisons I needed to escape -early evidence, maybe, of how I saw edges more as links to things around them, than boundaries that brooked no trespass.

At any rate, now that I am in Macbeth’s famous yellow leaf, I have begun to realize the subtle allure of margins. More often than not, they are only beginnings -invitations to explore what lies beyond. To experience only that which is insensibly glued to us is not to transgress, and yet skin is merely the introductory handshake with the world.

Of course, with age comes the inevitable rationalizations of both past behaviours and current epiphanies: things to excuse my inability to confine myself to standard doctrinal crayonal restraints -times when I no doubt felt I could label my obvious lack of talent as youthful exuberance. Seeing what others could not, outside the lines.

But in those almost ante-Gutenberg days, the choices I was offered in the colouring books to which I was privy, were not legion -a few standardized animals, and the occasional landscape which almost always included a house with a smoking chimney. None of these encouraged much experimentation outside the lines without confusing whatever archetypal subject with which I was forced to contend. Indeed, in retrospect I’m surprised that any of the obediently constrained colouring book acolytes ever succeeded in Art or Philosophy -or Life, for that matter- although I suppose there has always been more support for those who obey the rules.

The subject matter has changed however, I’m happy to report. As I was browsing through my Smithsonian app archives, I was drawn (sorry) to an article reporting on new colouring opportunities that promised great things: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/100-museums-transformed-their-collections-free-coloring-pages-just-you-180974116/

Written by Katherine J. Wu, a science journalist, as well as a PhD. in Microbiology and Immunobiology from Harvard, she notes that most classical historical art is preserved and guarded in museums, and is almost never made available to public crayons.

Recently, however, ‘with the annual  #ColorOurCollections social media campaign, the world’s art enthusiasts can try them out. The idea was apparently first launched by the New York Academy of Medicine Library [NYAM] in 2016. People can ‘download, color and reimagine thousands of black-and-white artworks sourced from dozens of cultural mainstays around the world. Currently at 101 strong, the list may continue to grow and is already encroaching on last year’s roster of 114 participants.

‘Among the institutions advertising their contributions are representatives from the academic world, including  Harvard University’s Countway Library and the University of Waterloo, as well as museums like  Les Champs Libres and the Huntington Library. The only commonality shared by the thousands of prints and drawings available on the NYAM website is their black-and-white appearance.’

There is a time-limit for these downloads (already passed, I’m afraid) but ‘this year’s illustrations—as well as a large repository of past submissions—will remain available to download.’

The temptation was overwhelming, and so I risked the ever-present threat of being phished and followed the links. Some of the drawings were just too charming to resist, so I have to admit to planning a trip to Walmart to stock up on crayons -I still feel more comfortable with them than coloured pencils with their oh-so precisely sharpenable points that seem programmed to stop on their own at each and every line they encounter.

I ended up buying a 96-pack box of crayons online, though, since I was there anyway. Do you remember what it was like in a candy store when you were a child and your mother asked you to choose, oh maybe five, from the thousands of specimens on display? I always chose the brightest coloured wrappers, not realizing that what they contained seldom lived up to their appearance. I suppose what I’m getting at is that I should probably have chosen the basic crayon box of 16 (Maybe it’s not in their best interests to sell an even smaller-sized selection) because I really only used the red (for the sundry brick walls and chimneys), blue (for the sky -what else?), and green (by now, I’m sure you can guess) -childhood habits, I imagine. I did colour-shift once or twice though, once I really got into it.

Sometimes a building, or the garden in front of it seemed to beg for what I would now rationalize as an aura and I would grab a yellow and engage in what might seem to be random smears outside the lines. I tried orange and pink on a whim, but they seemed garish somehow -like Parkinsonian blunders. Not at all what I was striving for.

And yet, I’m beginning to wonder if I was actually striving for anything other than proving to myself that there’s still a remnant of the younger me inside. My hoped-for free form seemed contrived at my age. And that which drew gasps of admiration for my extra-linear adventures when I was a toddler, now seemed to bespeak something far more ominous than naïve playfulness. At my age, I suspect it is not seen as a mere idiosyncrasy. Society is harder on its elders than its children for their misadventures, I fear. More suspicious. More circumspect.

It was epiphanous that I suddenly recognized the freedom I had to lose were I to leave evidence of my folly in plain view. Even the crayons might arouse concerns -provoke questions I would as lief avoid. It is perhaps enough to live through youth but once; any return may be judged as an ill-advised trip through the mirror, so I have donated my uncoloured downloads to the community kindergarten. Perhaps I will return some time to see what they have decided to pin on their walls; I’d like to see if they have dared to show any crayonal attempts by their children that stray beyond accepted boundaries. Of course, maybe they only use soft felt pens with sharply pointed edges and raised, built-in borders to colour nowadays -I forgot to ask…

Is time really out of joint?

I imagine there comes a time for each of us when we finally realize we are getting old; a time when we feel that we are just catching up on news so aged that we were only children when it first arose. Information so old that I’m not sure what it should be called –opinion perhaps; or, since it is still around and circulating quietly and seemingly  immune to the cobwebs draped across its shoulders, wisdom…? And although some things may really be changing quickly, others are just now soaking through like water in a thick sponge and seem new to me.

I realize that not even young people can stay au courant with everything -the trick, I suppose, is to specialize one’s interests. Mine were never all that well defined, it seems; apart from my particular professional métier, the rest was spread as unevenly as the peanut butter on my morning toast. Retirement merely allowed me to pile more toppings on it, I fear -some of them dated, albeit untarnished by their ages, and, as far as I can tell, unburdened by a best-before stipulation.

Thus did I discover Simone de Beauvoir’s writings as I began redabbling in the existentialist work of Sartre. The two of them were an item, you remember. At any rate, I soon realized I would need some help, so it was with no little relief that I happened upon an edifying essay by Kate Kirkpatrick, a lecturer in religion, philosophy, and culture  at King’s College London among other things. https://aeon.co/essays/simone-de-beauvoirs-authentic-love-is-a-project-of-equals

‘The desires to love and be loved are, on Simone de Beauvoir’s view, part of the structure of human existence. Often, they go awry. But even so, she claimed, authentic love is not only possible but one of the most powerful tools available to individuals who want to be free… In The Second Sex (1949), Beauvoir argued that culture led men and women to have asymmetrical expectations, with the result that ‘love’ frequently felt like a battlefield of conflicting desires or a graveyard for their disappointments… As a young philosophy student in Paris, she had already recognised that some conceptions of ‘love’ legitimated injustice and perpetuated suffering.’

Some of what she observed in those days no longer obtains, of course -Zeitgeist evolves along with societal values- and yet there are still things to be learned from her writings. Pitfalls to avoid in our headlong rush for change.

‘Beauvoir’s ethics were shaped by a tradition according to which whom and what we love plays a pivotal role in whom we become.’ And love, as difficult to define then as now, ‘was abused to legitimate forms of hierarchy that were anathema to love itself.’ As she saw it in her early writings, love had two components: self-interest (narcissism), and devotion – the former plagued by forgetting there are two in love and that love must seek the good of the other, whereas the latter (devotion) can be suffocating -a form of ‘moral suicide’ in its abnegation of self.

‘Ethical love, by contrast, consists in what Beauvoir calls ‘equilibrium’ and ‘reciprocity’. In equilibrium there is self-giving without self-loss: lover and beloved ‘simply walk side by side, mutually helping each other a little’.’ And yet, suppose one of the two does not feel equal -or feel they have not earned or deserved the love of the other? ‘The ‘most fruitful’ type of love, Beauvoir claimed, was ‘not a subordination’, but rather a relationship in which each person supported the other in seeking an independent, individual life.’

Despite my lengthening toll of years, I have to admit that, although her initial observations make sense, I am more intrigued by the direction in which they evolved. Obviously, unlike De Beauvoir, I had not taken as much time or effort to analyze the question of love. Throughout my life, I suspect I have been more a captive than a general.

Later, reflecting on the parable of the Good Samaritan, Beauvoir came to realize that ‘One is not the neighbour of anyone. One makes the other a neighbour by treating him as a neighbour in action.’ Love required action. There was a growing concern about the meaning of life that was rife in France towards the end of WWII that bred the existentialist movement, one of whose champions, was Sartre. Beauvoir (in Pyrrhus and Cinéas) suggested ‘an answer to the problem of how human life could have value, and how ethics could have a foundation, without a God to provide them. Her proposal was that, in the absence of a divine law-giver, our actions should be oriented to the human others because, even without an infinite being, our actions can take on an infinite dimension by being witnessed.’ We need to love and be loved; we need to be affirmed.

But there is a middle road. ‘Devotion can be tyrannical – it claims to want the good of the other but in fact it imposes a value on the other that might not be of his or her choosing. The ‘ethics of self-interest’ [narcissism], by contrast, assumes that only I could meet the other person’s need for justification: it makes the other a satellite, whose value is contingent upon being in my orbit… What is truly needed, on Beauvoir’s view, is that the other be respected as ‘a freedom’: as a person who is perpetually becoming, with projects for her life that must be of her choosing… there must be two freedoms, both of which respect the value of freedom in each other – such that neither of them suffers the mutilation of subordination.’ Reciprocity, in other words.

Much as I continue to have trouble forcing myself to struggle through Tolstoy’s War and Peace, I’m still trying to psyche myself into reading her Second Sex, but like eating, it’s probably wise to stop when you’re full. In a sense, we all have rumens in our brains that allow us to re-chew what we’ve read to make more sense of it -put it in a more contemporary context, perhaps.

I suspect, for example, that most of us are at least more aware of the existence of hierarchical societal roles that still begrudge women their rightful places in the world. Even the ability to see that there are hierarchies is a victory of sorts; it seems almost unbelievable when we remember that at one time men could claim ‘that it was just in their nature to dominate women – and that it was in women’s nature to submit.’ It was culture that was sanctioning this, and just as society has been evolving, so too, however slowly, has the male Weltanschauung.

In Beauvoir’s day, ‘many women were taught that their value was conditional upon being loved by men, girls were encouraged to conceive of themselves ‘as seen through the man’s eyes’, to fulfil men’s fantasies and help them pursue their projects rather than dream dreams or pursue projects of their own… [mistaking] the desire for love for love itself.’

Of course, it’s still deceptively easy for either sex fall into that trap, I fear, And yet, it was people like Beauvoir who helped us to understand that we create our own shadows. I suppose it’s never too late, but I wish I’d studied more about her than Sartre when I was young… although maybe you have to be old to really understand the wisdom, eh?