Sunday, December 18, 2022

Because I Think I'm Making Progress

I know it's tiresome, the way I yatter on about my attempts to control my eating, and I know that the project seems endless. I'm well into its sixth year, and rolling out an elaborate "maintenance" plan, complete with graphs and algorithms, and I think it would be reasonable for a reader to say, "why don't you just get the hell over it and think about something different, and more interesting, for a change? Nobody else gives a damn about this"

Which is quite true: there's really nobody anymore who cares that much whether I weigh 150 or 250 pounds. And it doesn't even matter to me that much: I'm close enough to the end of my life that moving life expectancies around by 5% or 10% doesn't, in absolute terms, amount to much. Who cares?

There's three reasons I do care. One psychological: it's that this bears crucially on the narrative of my life. I grew up believing that under challenge I would always collapse, and that being fat was the outward sign of my cowardice and lack of fortitude. I believed also, like my mother, that this doomed me to being perpetually, and essentially, unlovable. So psychologically, it's as fraught as it can be. Is it my fate to become ever fatter and ever less loved? 

That reason is nonsense and always has been. It was nonsense of my mother as well, who grew ever fatter and had three devoted husbands. The fat wasn't particularly a problem, even to her longevity: she made it into her early 80s. The Doom of our House was always a stupid fiction.

So if this was only a psychological problem, it would make sense to simply drop it. Who cares how much I eat? Nobody. It's of compelling interest to no one at all.

However. The second reason has to do, not with longevity or lovability, but with physical well-being. Being fat renders me sulky, pimply, smelly, and impotent. It makes me susceptible to joint pain and back problems. Very little of that has to do with subcutaneous fat, which is pretty harmless: I think it has to do with visceral fat and chronic systemic inflammation. When I have a big belly my baseline is feeling really pretty crappy.

I used to think that people were exaggerating all these things, in the interests of the diet industry and so forth. Now that I have direct experience of it, I no longer think so. The differences are large, unmistakable, and unmistakably tied to a very particular threshold of belly fat. My body hates being fat.

The third reason though is much more important, and it has to do with -- I know a lot of you dislike this way of talking about it -- cultivating virtue. 

The opposite of gluttony is supposedly temperance, but in my case the virtue I'm cultivating is actually fortitude. It is the virtue I have always missed most. It has to do with keeping resolutions, and remaining steadfast in the face of adversity: it has to do keeping commitments. It has to do with not letting passing whims and glittery little distractions drive your life. The reason I keep practicing "whupping the food thing" is that I keep benefitting from it. Fortitude generalizes, in all sorts of ways. It keeps making me a better person: it keeps making my life better. Pablo Casals, when asked why he continued practicing the cello at age 96, answered simply, "because I think I'm making progress." And that's my answer too.

The difference in how I work, now, is striking: I used often to hit a wall -- if I was lucky, not till mid-afternoon -- beyond which I was utterly unable to push myself to do anything more. This happened daily; and there were days when I never managed to work at all. That just doesn't happen to me now. I get tired, sure, but if I look at a stack of work that will just take an hour more, and make tomorrow much easier -- I just do the work. No fuss, no bucking or shying of the mind. This is intimately related to restraining my eating: it's subjectively obvious that the virtue that enables me to proceed with work is the same one that enables me to refrain from eating what I've decided not to eat. I'd call it fortitude. Psychologists call it self-regulation. The general public calls it will power. 

I really think fortitude is a better name. Because it's not a matter of one part of me dominating the other parts: it's a matter of holding fast to a larger understanding of what's going on, and a matter of the various constituents of my spirit being better aligned. Self-regulation and will power suffer all the ills of despotism: blindness and caprice and grandiosity. And they're prone to sudden catastrophic failure. Fortitude is the opposite of that. I don't try to not to be tired, or not to be hungry. I just do what needs to be done anyway.

There is not much glory to this progress. I am well aware that this is remedial work. Many people were trained up in fortitude, as children, or at least discovered it early. I came to it late: so I'm celebrating triumphs more appropriate to a nine-year-old than a sixty-four-year-old. But it was the obvious, first thing that I needed to do, and I'm doing it.

Thursday, December 08, 2022

How to Live

The leitmotif of my social, political, and personal life: we don't know how to live. At one point I was thinking: you know, Dale, maybe all you mean is I don't know how to live. There's a great deal of profit in mulling that one over, and I'm not done doing it, but I think I'll stand by the first formulation. This is not just my problem. This is our problem. 

It's a political problem in the local and immediate sense that until we know how to live, our opponents have not the slightest reason to listen to us. If we're not offering a better life, why should they? We consider ourselves just reeking with virtue and goodness, but of course so do they, for equally flimsy reasons. Given that we can't and won't talk to each other, what else could we ground our choices on? Each of us looks at the other and thinks, "well, that looks like a petty and stupid life." And we're both right. So. Impasse.

It's our problem, not just mine, also in this way: I can't work it out by myself. I can't unilaterally start living a different life. I need people to live it with. And, more importantly, I need people to work it out with. Hegel (I'm told) said of Kant, "he wants to learn to swim before he gets in the water," and that's what I think I'm doing when I try to figure out how to live before I have a community to live with. That's not how how to live works. But I'm so imbued with individualist doctrine that any whiff of community panics me. I might be circumscribed! Horrors! As if this present life was freedom.


"Every particular view of the virtues is linked to some particular notion of the narrative structure or structures of human life." Alisdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, p 174.

I used to like the way my Buddhist teachers talked about ethics. They likened it to gardening. You clear away weeds, not because you hate weeds, but because you're trying to grow something else, something not yet robust, that might otherwise be crowded out. Likewise you clear away vices, obstructions (kleshas) to make room for wisdom and compassion to grow.

The narrative structure of human life implicit here is of growth over time. And it's unproblematic to Buddhists because they have lots of time: life after life. Clear the weeds and time will do the rest. 

One of the things that alienated me from Buddhism was that I never thought reincarnation was likely, or even particularly plausible in its own terms. No one of course insisted that I "believe in" reincarnation -- that's not the way modern Western Buddhists do things. They just suggested that I hold my opinions of death lightly, and imagine that it might not be so. Good advice. I did that.

It's not terribly easy to tell the difference between holding your opinions lightly, and pretending to believe something you don't: but at some point I realized I had gone from one to the other. I really don't think anything continues after death. I think life ends -- like a candle flame that's blown out, or a song that comes to a close. There isn't any more after that, and it doesn't make any sense to justify what we do now in terms of what will happen then. Holding that lightly felt less and less authentic. There was a wobble in my practice that I didn't know how to handle.

Thursday, December 01, 2022

Alisdair MacIntyre

 "... it was because a moral tradition of which Aristotle's thought was the intellectual core was repudiated during the transitions of the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries that the Enlightenment project of discovering new rational secular foundations for morality had to be undertaken. And it was because that project failed, because the views advanced by its most intellectually powerful protagonists, and more especially by Kant, could not be sustained in the face of rational criticism that Nietzsche and all his existentialist and emotivist* successors were able to mount their apparently successful critique of all previous morality. Hence the defensibility of the Nietzschean position turns in the end on the answer to the question: was it right in the first place to reject Aristotle?" After Virtue, 3rd ed., p 117

*emotivism: the doctrine that all moral positions are subjective emotions masquerading as objective truths 

Smite the Vices

Here I am in the sixth year of my weight-loss project, and it is still the project that consumes most of my disposable will-power. Humiliating, but there’s nothing to be gained by trying to ignore or conceal it. It gains a certain shabby philosophical dignity if I call it “cultivating temperance,” I guess. It has the advantage of being easily and precisely calculable. If my waist/hip ratio is over 91%, then I’m not temperate enough. Hardly a full account of the virtue, but as a heuristic it works fine. Some virtues are difficult to evaluate. Not this one.

Looming behind this is the project of cultivating chastity. Lest this one should seem interesting – it amounts to not squandering precious work time on stupid, repetitive, commercial pornography. This also is humiliating, but there it is. But until I have the temperance habits fully in place, and have freed up some self-regulatory oomph, I may not make much progress on it. Although I think the temperance skills have already been transferring to this realm. (But possibly that’s just age-related decline of libido. Here again, the nuts and bolts of cultivating virtue contribute all too generously to the prime virtue of humility.)

There is the danger of sinking into a sort of mindless video game of smite the vices, and forgetting what all this is in aid of. The vices and virtues are not the point. Unbearable, dazzling beauty: being overwhelmed by the infinite fractal elaboration of the worlds, visible and hidden – that is the point. I could win the game and lose the life. This is necessary, but it’s not sufficient. Remember that.