It’s an overcast Saturday morning in Philadelphia. I’ve a cup of tea in hand; my dog is still lazily crashed out on the sofa. I’ve yet to build a desire to start my weekend chores so I’m banging out a post.
This post has been knocking around in my head for a couple of weeks now. The idea for it came from an exchange I had recently with a good friend who I haven’t seen in over a decade. He used to be a student employee of mine, and has since had a very successful career overseas and is still stationed in Hong Kong. I had sent him an example of some poetry I’d written (he was/is a poet as well and I thought he’d appreciate the note). The response he sent was a thoughtful mix of thanks, and regret for not staying in touch. And then he said this,
I know how much I've changed since those days -- some of the changes I'm glad for and some I'm not so sure about ..
And that’s what started it. I know I’ve changed in the past twenty years of adulthood; but how would I describe that change? If I had to boil it down into essentials, what would I say is different? I like thinking about that sort of thing; trying to see if I can look at this mass of data that is the last twenty years of my life and see if I can tease out some fundamental understanding from it. What I came up with interested me and so I decided to turn it into a series of posts (originally just to have been Facebook posts, but now deemed quality enough for The Crucible)
Starting to think on this topic, my mind wandered back to a facebook status update I’d made only a day before that seemed really fundamental to the tone of the change that the last twenty years of my life has taken. I wrote this,
There's no other place in the world I'd rather be right now than right here living this life.
That blurb was not some sort of self-talk, scripted phrase I was speaking to myself because I wanted to feel that way. No, at the moment I wrote it I was in the throes of a powerful emotional response to my life in general. I had just left work after a good day; it was a beautiful September day in Philadelphia, and I was headed home to a slate of activities that night around a whole set of goals I’d set for myself. I was feeling this incredible emotional high about my life. But instead of being a rare occurrence it is something I feel almost daily. While I don’t think that the feeling itself is a rare thing, I think the consistency, strength and level of integration of that emotion throughout my daily life is, well, rare.
That became my lead. I certainly couldn’t have said that about my life twenty years ago. Find the root of that change in my life, and I had this sense that I’d find some of the key things that have happened to me over the last two decades.
So I began noodling. I started by chronicling in my head data related to this idea. What other changes could I describe that in part lead to this feeling? Here are a few of the things that I noticed about myself that are very different from the me of twenty years ago (some of this will sound a bit “zen” to my Objectivist friends. Don’t worry, I didn’t leave it at that level of mystery, but instead try to look at the fundamental causes.) :
- I find today a far greater integration of my head and my heart, of my thoughts and emotions. This yields a feeling of peace or centeredness or balance.
- I think my daily emotional responses today are far less mixed, or clouded and as a result are much more intense, pure and powerful. I describe this to people as living in “technicolor.”
- I seem to be able to stop and live purely in the moment, savoring even small pleasures and joys fully without the immediate weight of that adult list of goals, and tasks, and worries. Again, this lends an incredible feeling of intensity in the moment.
- Yet, in contrast, today my goals are far more long range and far more complex than they’ve ever been, and I simultaneously feel incredibly effective and competent in my ability to plan and make decisions that will affect my life years out in the future.
- I don’t feel a nostalgia for a “simpler, easier” time in my life. The simplest, easiest, most joyful time in my life is right now.
- I find that my relationships with other people are far richer, deeper and stronger than they have ever been. This includes both my ability to strike up a rapport with new people I meet, my ability to develop deep lasting friendships with a wide variety of people, and my ability to hold those friendships even across time and distance (as with my friend.)
Now I look at this list and the first thing I feel is pride. I’m not suggesting perfection in describing these things, but when I think across a continuum, I am far more to this side of things than their less mature counterparts. And certainly after thinking about this list, I was highly motivated to ask the next question: How? How have these sorts of things come about in me? What were the key causal factors that led to these changes? Like my friend I wondered if they were changes I had made consciously or had simply happened to me. Where they mysterious or could they be traced back to certain actions and choices?
Of course, my Objectivist friends know what perspective I’ll start with as a default, that the things that others might see as “mysteries” in life are actually knowable, understandable, and actionable. That somewhere these changes are the result of choices conscious or unconscious in my life over the last twenty years. And that there is a causal aspects to them. This doesn’t make life less wondrous, but in fact (I think) even more wondrous and beautiful.
So after weeks of mulling things over, of taking examples from my life and testing out my ideas, I think I’ve boiled it down to 3 major things. Listed with most fundamental first they are:
- The use of philosophy as a practical science for determining how to live one’s life, and more specifically a framework to understand what role value plays in one’s life. i.e. this is the science of ethics, what should man value, and how should he go about pursuing those values.
- The development of a useful framework to be able to deal with and integrate my emotional responses.
- The development of a useful framework to characterize and deal with my relations with other people.
So obviously these are three very broad and abstract ideas. I’ll try to deal with one each in a series of posts, beginning with what I viewed as the least fundamental but one of the most enriching, relationships.
The basic principles on relationships comes straight from Objectivism and Rand, but learning how to operationalize those principles has been a years long journey of steady progress. When I speak of relationships here I speak both of romantic love as well as the respect and admiration that form a friendship as I think that at the root, they are driven by the same sorts of guiding mechanisms. I’ll use the term “love” to denote all these forms in my discussion.
As an aside, I recently met Objectivist blogger Dan Edge, and over a brief dinner the topic of relationships, and specifically my ideas in this post came up. This is a big area of interest for Dan and he’s written extensively on the psycho-epistemology of relationships. He was extremely helpful in clarifying some of my ideas, and I’m sure he’ll have a few comments as well.
So here is my framework and a little bit of development of each of these guiding principles.
Love as the selfish expression of value for oneself and another.
If there is one idea that is the most pernicious today and that I hear repeated far too often with regard to relationships it is the idea that the essence, the fundamentality of love lies in its unconditionality. Yet, if the highest moral form of love is to love, without regard for ourselves or for the type of person whom we are to love, then the very concept of love is destroyed. And I would counter that if we look at the relationships that we have that we feel strongly about, that we get emotional about, that one would find that this response is not directed at those things that are common to every man including the cretin or mooch. But rather that these responses result from the unique, the highest in others. We respond to people because we admire them, because we respect them. And we respect them not because they are like every other man including the thief and the liar, but because they are different, because they are good, because they share the same sorts of ideals that we hold. When we admire, we must differentiate, and when we admire, we admire the best, the uncommon. And we admire those things because we share in them.
This is a profoundly selfish act. And it is causal. Love, respect and admiration are the things that we feel when we find in others the things that we hold to be the best within us. This, not selflessness or unconditionality is fundamental essence of love and friendship. Here is how Rand puts it.
“Love, friendship, respect, admiration are the emotional response of one man to the virtues of another, the spiritual payment given in exchange for the personal, selfish pleasure which one man derives from the virtues of another man’s character. Only a brute or an altruist would claim that the appreciation of another’s person’s virtues is an act of selflessness, that as far as one’s own selfish interest and pleasure are concerned, it makes no difference whether one deals with a genius or a fool, whether one meets a hero or a thug, whether one marries and ideal woman or a slut.” – The Objectivist Ethics
So this is a fundamental shift in my thinking over the last several decades. Coming from a Christian background I used to believe in the unconditionally principle, that love was a selfless thing and that its highest expression was to give of our selves to all people regardless of status, expecting nothing in return. I can’t begin to describe how destructive this idea was in my life, and it took years to weed out all of the places that it’s tentacles reached into my psyche.
So does unconditionally describe something that has merit. Yes, but only in a very limited contextual sense. When we evaluate a person we do so in a hierarchy of value. Some things are more important than others in a person’s character. To forgive someone a fault is a recognition of this hierarchy. We forgive the small things, but we do so because the more important things are good and valuable. We forgive a good husband the fact that he sometimes forgets to take out the trash, but we do so because he is a solid, good, and faithful husband. This is not an expression of true unconditionality, but rather a reflection of the fact that that love is based upon the virtues of another and that those virtues have a priority of importance. We do not ask the beaten wife to forgive her unrepentant, violent husband by virtue of the fact that he remembers steadfastly to take out the trash. That would be true unconditionality.
Now Dan Edge challenged me a bit on this idea, asking whether it is really always virtue that we identify and psychologically respond to. What of this notion of the idea of psychological “chemistry.” In his series “The Psycho-Epistemology of Sexuality” he discusses what he calls “individuating elements of self,” that we are also drawn to and have emotional responses to. If for instance you and someone else share a love of the baseball and specifically the Philadelphia Phillies, that this aspect could be a basis for having a shared emotional connection, and that this is also a fundamental part of a relationship. Doesn’t this fly in the face of a claim that virtue is what we really respond to? I agree with this in a qualified sense. A few years ago, as I was crystallizing the ideas in my head that would lead to my decision to divorce, I wrote to a friend on the topic of relationships. It’s still one of the best posts I’ve written on the topic. Here is what I said about chemistry.
“Character before chemistry (or make sure the chemistry you're attracted to is tied to character)…
I'm not saying that chemistry (i.e. all those behavior things that attract you to a person) isn't important. What we are really attracted to initially in a person is their "sense of life" [after all]. But some of what makes up chemistry is easily mutable, and some of it is more stable. The part that is more stable is more closely tied to values and virtues. If you can, ask yourself if you can tell that behaviors have value judgments behind them, or if they are value-less, or if they show contradictions. Find the chemistry that you believe flows out of character and that is the chemistry that is likely to be more stable. Additionally I think some elements of chemistry can be "learned", so even if you don't feel chemistry in a particular area look for character traits that are still there.”
So what has this change in perspective led to in terms of my relationships? What did my previous more self-less relationships look like? I think when you lose the idea of self, and it’s importance, two things happen. First, if respect and admiration are a reflection of value, one fails to know explicitly their own values, leaving ones responses to other people to be whatever your range of the moment emotional responses give you. In essence I didn’t know why I valued people so I found myself choosing based solely upon my emotional responses. Secondly, without this concept of value in a relationship, one completely fails to recognize and take into account why another person would want to reciprocate. That is, one fails to recognize that a relationship requires not only value on your end, but on the end of the other person. This leads to a very sort of immature conception of relationships, where one response to one’s own range of the moment emotional responses without focusing on either one’s own or the other’s needs in the relationship. Some people mislabel this as a “selfish” response. Dan calls it “self-centeredness” contrasting it with objective selfishness. I prefer to keep it distinct as a form of selflessness because I think at it’s heart that is what really drives is.
The substance of that value as a series of actions, as trades, or spiritual payments.
So what makes up the substance of a personal relationship with someone else? What does it consist of? Certainly we’ve talked about valuing and respecting another, and we’ve talked a bit about the emotional joy one takes in that esteem for another. But these are not enough. At its core a relationship is made up of a series of actions. In the Objectivist ethics, to value something is to act to keep and or gain it. What you think about something is important because it helps you decide what to value, but it is insufficient. The same is true of a friendship or love that you value. It is defined by the actions you choose. what is the nature of this set of actions? It has a unique set of characteristics. Back to Rand,
“Love, friendship, respect, admiration are the emotional response of one man to the virtues of another, the spiritual payment given in exchange for the personal, selfish pleasure which one man derives from the virtues of another man’s character.” – The Objectivist Ethics
We act out of respect, admiration or love because we have received pleasure or joy from another person, and if we are consciously explicit about it, that pleasure is derived from the best within them. In that sense the action is a payment or trade with another. Now I’ve heard some decry the idea of actions as trades or exchanges as a crude example of why conditionality is bad. “How can you force a claim on someone by giving to them with the expectation of some return.” My answer is that this is a mischaracterization of the trade. I am not making a payment with the expectation that I can now claim some reciprocation. It is not a quid pro quo, in that sense. I have already received my benefit! It is the joy I am already deriving from this relationship! My payment is not for future benefit, but for benefit already received. This is why Rand calls it a spiritual payment. Such actions say, “I’m doing this for you, because I admire/respect/love you, and the person you are today brings me great joy.” And that’s all. There is no claim on future returns. Accounts are already paid.
So what sort of actions might we choose in this exchange? The answer to this question lies in the recognition that a relationship must be of value to the other person for them to want to continue it as well. And if relationships at their core are based upon admiration for the highest virtue and character in another, then that should be a component of what you return. If you derive joy from the best and the highest in another, then give of the best and the highest within yourself. Give what will be valued, in terms that the other person will see and value. Sounds awfully abstract. What does this mean?…
Dan challenged me again on this point over dinner, effectively saying “Come on Kendall, do you really think that every action we undertake in a relationship is somehow tied to our value of another? Every single little action?” My answer to that Dan is that it need not be. But in fact, to the extent that it is, to the extent that I hold those ideas explicitly in my mind, and act consistently on them, is the extent to which one is able to enrich and deepen connections with other people. It is the very illustration of the point I’m trying to make. For those of you who weren’t there, Dan stopped by Philly on his way north, and we had a brief dinner and conversation. Within about ten minutes of meeting we bonded. I don’t think that was an accident, and that it was our choices and actions that became a series of trades which ultimately led to a very intense discussion and a feeling of connection. I offered dinner and conversation because I know we both revel in ideas. I specifically chose to discuss this post because I know relationship theory is a particular interest for Dan. And he chose to engage me, to challenge my ideas where he saw gaps, because I’m sure he knew that if I was rational and honest, I would value such a frank discussion. To the extent that we held this framework consciously in our minds and acted upon it, I’m convinced helps explain why we bonded. That has been my experience.
I’ll give another example in a more romantic context. One of the best dates I can think of is cooking dinner for a woman. I am a huge lover of all things beautiful and sensual, of esthetics in general; art, music, food, flowers. On one level to prepare a meal with all the trimmings (music, flowers, candlelight) for a woman takes effort and skill. It is not an easy thing, and to do it in a sense requires the best of what you are. But on a sensual level it is an esthetic, spiritual gift. It says “I’m going to use all my effort and skill to surround you with things that are beautiful; that you can directly perceive as beautiful through your senses, and in doing so directly create for you the emotional response that you bring me.”
Look at how the nature of a relationship changes with this framework. One admires the best in people, gives of the best in themselves to express this admiration. One understand explicitly why one feels the way they do, and seeks to understand how they can provide value for value gained from the relationships. One does not seek to be loved in spite of their flaws but because of their virtues. The things that generate pride in me, generate admiration when I see them in others. When reciprocated in the same fashion it creates an almost electric spiral of connection whether a friendship or a romantic relationship. I can only describe relationships like these as heroic. This is what I feel so much more of today.
Love as a dually volitional
I think the final aspect of relationships that I’ve come to understand and appreciate much more deeply is the aspect of relationships as dually volitional. That is, both people must decide that they value and want to pursue a relationship. Unlike goals or values that we pursue individually, where only our own choice determines if we succeed or fail, one aspect of any relationship is forever out of our direct control: the choice of the other person.
The younger me had trouble sometimes differentiating this difference. I would take it personally when others chose not to pursue relationships with me. I would continue even after that to try to pursue such relationships, thinking somehow (as with all my own individual goals) that the force of my will would eventually persuade them that they really did value me.
I no longer take this personally, nor do I take responsibility for another’s choices. I am responsible only for my half of the equation. I hold myself responsible to know why I value people. There is no guarantee that I’ll be valued in the same way. I hold myself responsible to offer the best within me. There is no guarantee it will be reciprocated. I hold myself responsible because I want and pursue relationships because I value them, and derive selfish joy and pleasure from them. There is no guarantee that others view relationships in the same way.
So here are my four action rules that operationalize the principles listed above. I’m not going to expound on them too much as hopefully they will seem clear after the discussion.
- Find people of the highest character you can. Seek out admirable people regardless of means, background, and all the other superfluous characteristics. Where chemistry is concerned, its ok to seek more optional factors, but seek out those that ultimately stem from character if you can determine them.
- Know why you like them. Spend time to introspect and be explicit and concrete about why you like them. Yes, you have direct emotional responses to people. They are not magic or mysterious. They are causal. Know the causes. Doing this will help you become a better judge of people, and it will help you hold that admiration and respect much more strongly and clearly.
- Seek to understand them. Understand what they value and how they value it. This will help you not only understand their character, but also help you craft actions that they will strongly value.
- Act to express you admiration, respect and love. Remember, it’s not a relationship until you act to keep it. Do this by reflecting that respect and admiration, by offering of yourself in ways that give of the best of you, and in ways that the other person will value.
I believe these ideas are at the core of the relationships I have today. I believe they are the reasons that I have the strong connections with people that I do. And while there is no guarantee that everyone you approach will reciprocate, I can assure you that if you practice these ideals, that you will end up with an incredible rich and durable set of relationships in your life.
In my next post I’ll deal with the topic of emotions.