Category Archives: Friends and Family

Emotional Intelligence and Hissy Fits: The Cultural Ecology of Antifragility

turkey prozac

We all have experienced this at times: other people can drive us crazy! We love our families and friends, so why this old saying: fish and house-guests stink after three days?   Why can’t we live together peacefully, like elephants? Why aren’t we rational enough to avoid doing things that annoy each other?

Look at the list of things about, um, other people that can grind our gears… and even drive friends and family wild with frustration, or even apart with resentful anger: recklessness, cruelty, meanness, inconsistency, pranking, deceit, maudlin sentimentality, duplicity, illogical beliefs, gullibility, hubris, sanctimoniousness, jealousy, manipulative wheedling, conniving, and sheer over-the-top emotionality (making “a scene”, being a “drama queen”)

What if I suggested that such things about human behavior are not bugs but features? What if they are all part of the overall adaptation of human nature, that somehow helped turn our adjustments to living in social groups into the building blocks of a whole second replicator?

I suggest that “rationality” and analytical intelligence are evolved traits, with a starring role in shifting our species into a new level of networking and communicating, bumping up the flow of information, and personnel, within much larger communities and much wider geographical ranges than are characteristic of any other primate.   Inter-links between people at several or more degrees of separation meant that  individual networking actually disarticulated the individual from restriction to any local group. I suggest that even territoriality, linked to defensive aggression, and such a normal feature of the behavior of many primates, fell under negative selection in hominids at some point in our evolutionary history.

I, furthermore, suggest that dominance hierarchies and ranking systems, based on aggression, were actively curtailed. They had to be, to permit the evolution of the degree of infant helplessness, and the longer childhoods that accompanied brain enlargement during human evolution.   Sure, humans are capable of violence, especially in groups.   But I am suggesting that this was because violently aggressive individuals have always had to be contained and countered by coalitions of the brave and compassionate.   Without such opposition from the “good guys” who rally behind heroes, there would never have been sufficient blow-back to keep bullies and killers in line.

We individual humans are, for the most part, the products of a long evolutionary history that has favored compassion and cooperation, but that does not mean we are uniformly so kind and rational that we never lose our tempers, never yearn to get our own way, never wish for the personal luxury of solitude, having a beautiful object (a bauble or a blanket…!)

Now we might ask ourselves, what exactly was the evolutionary environment that gave a thumbs up to hyper-sociability, and a thumbs down to inter-group and intra-group competition and aggression? What possible environment generated higher fitness for individuals whose activity tended to flatten gradients of stress and life expectancy?

My initial insights in trying to answer this question arose from a field study among a patient and kindly bunch of hunter-gatherers. The Kua were my teachers for three years, and yet, as I left the Kalahari, my dominant sensation was not that I was leaving a group of peaceful and “noble savages”, but rather that this foraging economy produced individuals as ordinary, as flawed, as insightful, wistful, funny, and sometimes as intensely annoying, as any other humans I have ever known. It was merely a different economy, not another way of being human.

I have thought about this over the intervening years. What if our obvious capacity, for small deceptions, fractiousness,  and occasional surliness,  actually balances our kindness and sociability not by accident but, rather, as it were, by design? We can hardly ignore these aspects of human interpersonal antics today… well, what if it was precisely some kind of continuing see-saw between naughty and nice, convivial and argumentative, politeness interspersed with occasional huffy misunderstandings and temperamental behaviour, that was precisely the behavioural mechanism that kept these bipedal apes ecologically solvent?

2cab2e339136fb565536e7576f611f5cWhat if, in the long game of playing off individual genetic destinies against benefits to the collective cognitive niche, the occasionally explosive mix of emotional and irrational behavior was the key to generating “antifragile” cultural ecologies that were less likely to over-exploit any given local resource?

Thus, as humans evolved, reflection literally was an after-thought. As irritations and small conflicts increased, even as individuals found themselves holding back from escalating an argument, even as everyone’s impulse control was tested, there was always “the last straw”: an emotional scene that might set everyone packing to leave.   And, just as we still often find ourselves doing today, reflection after the event will then supply “good reasons” to justify it.

The fact that this pattern is at least partly learned, and not just an innate drive, made it more flexible still. It permitted more condensed and sedentary organization in richer ecosystems, more dispersed and mobile organization in poorer ones. Further, as learned system, it could incorporate the tighter social control during the more condensed phases within a cultural repertoire or an annual round of economic activity, without sacrificing the overall scope of individual networking.

People, today, when living in more crowded and sedentary communities, still tend to establish networks, through marriage and friendship, and those of each individual are still variable and rarely identical even among siblings. Furthermore, these tend not to be limited to a single community or neighbourhood. indeed, many individuals have maintained networks spanning the globe.

Despite the idea of “tribal” tendencies that cause links between people in groups to converge, individual life histories among human beings still tend to create ties (even “weak” ties) to more physically distant relatives, acquaintances, “pen pals”, and “old childhood friends”. Such links tend to be kept up more actively by some individuals. Sociological research into networks has suggested that such people are hubs in terms of information flows between communities. The idea that people across continents are hardly ever more than six links away from everyone else – the “six degrees of separation” model, has been experimentally confirmed many times. It began with the appearance, n 1961, of a seminal piece of work, in the form of a doctoral thesis by Michael Gurevitch, entitled “The social structure of acquaintanceship networks”.  This was presented and accepted by the  Department of Economics and Social Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

This research, and the many studies that followed, suggest that extensive networking is a human adaptation to culture, an aspect of the “social brain”: so perhaps it is not a contingency of any one kind of economic system. It is species specific, not culture specific. And we come by it through our evolutionary history as social mammals, and particularly, as social apes.

People appear to activate networks to achieve some consensus about who should undertake leadership roles.   In small scale subsistence economies, such leadership roles – in rituals, in setting up task forces, in dispute resolution, and in disciplinary courts, and in safeguarding community assets – often go to quiet and modest people that can be trusted not to abuse their positions. Often such responsibilities fall upon older people, especially those who are already hubs within local networks.

A reputation-based system of rank, thus, imposes a burden of responsibility on the most trusted elders, so they have authority over communal working groups, as well as for the convening of assemblies to undertake dispute resolution.

Even mobile hunter-gatherers can stick it out despite arguments with neighbors and even intimate betrayal, especially at times of greater aggregation, given that such ephemeral institutions for conflict resolution emerge at such times.  The rest of the year,  impulse control and reflective philosophizing over human foibles comes into its own.  And this is incorporated into even the most mobile forager culture. Networks of family and friends, therefore, can effectively restrain people: no one wants to lose a hard-won reputation for strength of character.

That the historical and ethnographic record from hunter-gatherer societies suggests that such roles can disappear and reappear with the seasonal cycles of aggregation and dispersal is critical. Mobile hunter-gatherers are not nomadic in the sense of wandering ceaselessly in search of food: on the contrary, they circulate through a variety of locations with known resources.

Arrangements between families to meet at particular localities to camp together are often made during seasonal aggregations, and are always negotiated via networks among friends and relatives. So the times of aggregation could be characterized as a kind of network convergence, pulled toward those particular gregarious and trusted persons who serve a hubs linking many individual networks together. And this temporary integration of networks in a larger gathering, under leadership of the most trusted and respected persons, affords people the necessary time to negotiate camping parties and permissions with those who hold primary rights to each small local part of the overall territory within the aggregate.

It is conceivable that this flexibility – what Julian Steward called various “levels of integration” above simple “bands” – represents a capacity for organizational complexity not often attributed to foragers. And yes, it does indicate that even mobile foragers have the capacity for political and social organizational arrangements well beyond the scale and scope of the simple camping party.

Recently, David Graeber and David Wengrow suggested that the emergence of such leadership and more complex organization, during hunter-gatherer aggregations, indicates that humans have an innate tendency to develop political hierarchy. Is the term hierarchy the correct one in this case?   The term is synonymous with “pecking order” and has often been used to describe the way dominance of one animal over another in a ranked system is related to access to food and solace.   It conjures up a flow of authority and even coercion from the individual at the “top” which controls the movement and opportunities of individuals further down.

Brian Hayden has even suggested that “aggrandizer” personalities make use of these emerging hierarchies during periods of aggregation to seize power over others, partly by persuasion and partly by Machiavellian manipulation of others.

Hayden suggests that these self-promoting persons may have some overlap with the sociopathic traits seen on Hare’s checklist. In other words, when people live in more settled aggregations, they become vulnerable to the self-serving aspirations of a narcissistic and psychopathic minority, who make themselves “big Men” and assume power over others. In other words, the emergence of the bully gang explains the way hierarchical political power evolved in humans. (1)

One of the difficulties with this interpretation is that it does not always correspond with observed behaviour in people who are diagnosed as psychopaths today (2).  Another is that it does not situate the cultural behavior (or the ruthless individual) in terms of the consequences within that particular environment (3).  The most striking aspect is, of course, the way both the New Guinea and the NW coastal systems of leadership tend to exhort their communities to produce surpluses.   There is an obligation to contribute to a communal store of fish or other food and even material goods, a store managed by a trusted – and haranguing – senior leader. This results in higher overall productivity than is called for by the simple calculus of dependency ratios.

This communal store is risk insurance. Food and other assistance can be secured for families who meet with illness or injury. I would suggest that is why leadership in a band or tribal system is a function of trust and respect; if leaders merely hoarded or extorted tribute for personal gain, they would not last long.

Such surpluses also fuel a certain level of recurrent ceremonial socializing. Feasts can be planned which assemble people from many more surrounding communities. Thus, while a display of generosity towards those in hardship within a community can demonstrate the character of the leader, any display of generosity where a village hosts many of its neighbors during a festival goes well beyond this. It demonstrates the quality of the people of the hosting community. The net effect is that the people in each community are given additional motivation to work harder.

Why is this important? I suggest that such regional festivals also redistribute food across regions where not all harvests of are likely to be equal. Each local community is thus less exposed to risks of famine. The community, with the most surplus food in any given year, trades this food for higher prestige and simultaneously reduces the chances that hungry neighbors will come to raid.

What happens if the concentrated settlement becomes more permanent: a village? Organizational improvisations can become entrenched institutions, with people developing hereditary rights to leadership roles – especially in adjudicating disputes.   Vested interests that resist change can entail internal conflict, which can be resolved by proof of generosity and earned reputation for diligence. In this case, the famous “potlatch” can also offset conflicts between neighboring communities over access to fixed resources.   Political and judicial roles maintain cooperation, restore peace, and offset risks in a sedentary community.

Lineages and “big man” systems, therefore, appear to be risk aversion strategies – aspects of cultural adaptation, not evidence of selection pressures on human genomes causing novel shifts in innate behaviours during the Holocene.  Hierarchies of coercion and the self-affirming narcissists are not, as Hayden suggests, products of evolutionary genetic change, but rather, I think,  illustrations of the behavioral plasticity of human beings, and the way people have learned to collectively cope with higher environmental risk.

Meanwhile, we see further cultural reification of emotional sensitivities to behavior causing physical or reputational damage to other persons. This takes the form of legal codes, ethics, human rights, and codes of polite behavior. This always involves symbolic evaluation; labeling behaviors as negative, positive and even sacred and profane.

However the danger under such circumstances comes not from people who are born psychopaths but from brain changes caused by power.  What the foragers seem to all have understood only too well was that the human “behavioural plasticity” can take a wicked turn: people have a great emotional weakness- the “sin” of pride, more specifically the kind of hubris that comes of being placed somehow above one’s fellows (4). That was the point that Richard Lee was trying to drive home when he wrote “Eating Christmas in the Kalahari”. One  old guy’s comment was: “If a man is praised for sharing the meat of his kill, he may come to think he is better (more important) than other people. Someday he might kill someone.” 

It has taken years of research to uncover this aspect of our human nature. To uncover the fact that the assumption of authority or wealth, even the the conformity that prompts a person to suspend their own judgement to a higher authority, can give rise to evil actions that hurt other people.  Even in an experimental setting putting people into roles that permit harm to others somehow turns off empathy and compassion. It seems that even just being richer than others, or higher up in the chain of a corporate or civil service ladder, can set in motion the “banality of evil.”.  This is a human characteristic that is far beyond normal fractiousness  and occasional hissy fits, and it gives rise to far more serious trauma and human tragedy than mere incidents of rage and tears.

The only good thing this research discovered is that it does not happen to everyone – there are people who see what is happening and fight it. People who say “this is wrong”. Often they are the folks who either stop the experiment, or in real life will resist tyranny and injustice.  They risk their lives – or die on the barricades. Human beings do have the capacity to act with heroism. The fact that we have a word for this in every known culture should tell us something.

By the way, the word for “hero” among foragers is often translated incorrectly as “warrior” since it means one who fights on behalf of others. I have a feeling that the first battles among human beings were fought, in fact, by heroes of this kind.  In his book, Hierarchy in the Forest, Christopher Boehm suggested that one of the very early developments on the path that led to the evolution of our species, was an overthrow of aggression-based dominance hierarchy.  This led to an egalitarian revolution led by coalitions of people who resisted bullies and protected the vulnerable.  If so, this converted the desirable ideal of adulthood from a self-serving “alpha” into a heroic “first among equals”.. the epitome of the trusted leader.

A human being who lives as a hunter-gatherer could thus refuse injustice; could fight for equal treatment – or walk away. Personal faults and foibles, jealousies and temper tantrums were possibly part of  human nature evolved to create a relatively antifragile economy where high mobility makes it possible to vote with one’s feet. A hunter-gatherer inhabits an economic system that preserved and even enhanced the stability and diversity of the ecosystem that supported that way of life.   A hunter-gatherer cannot be thrown out of their job or lodgings.

But most humans on this planet can, and frequently are. Entire peoples have had their whole landscape taken taken out from under them. Look at the Scottish highland clearances. And that was done by their own clan leaders. And the pain of people under such circumstances, and the guts it takes for them to try to remake their lives elsewhere, is heart-breaking. Makes me weep. And we wonder why the world is full of people in a rage, crying out for justice and radicalized; while those who are relatively well-off tend to develop elaborate explanations that affirm their own superiority. 


1) Brian Hayden Big Man, Big Heart? The Political Role of Aggrandizers in Egalitarian and Transegalitarian Societies


Anthropological theories of elites (leaders) in traditional societies tend to focus on how elites can be viewed as helping the community at large. The origin of elites is cast in functionalist or communitarian terms (viewing societies as adaptive systems). A minority opinion argues that elites were not established by communities for the community benefit, but emerged as a result of manipulative strategies used by ambitious, exploitative individuals (aggrandizers). While the communitarian perspective may be appropriate for understanding simple hunter/gatherer communities, I argue that elites in complex hunter/gatherer communities and horticultural communities operate much more in accordance with aggrandizer principles, and that it is their pursuit of aggrandizer self-interests that really explains the initial emergence of elites. This occurs preferentially under conditions of resource abundance and involves a variety of strategies used to manipulate community opinions, values, surplus production, and surplus use.

2) Although Hare does suggest that psychopaths might be more successful within aggressively competitive systems, their comparative rarity even after some five thousand years of hierarchical civilization tends to weaken arguments that such systems are functionally dependent upon the success of a type of personality. It seems more likely to me that the development of stratified societies may have occasionally increased the chances of highborn psychopaths not being spotted and eliminated.

3) See: “Pathways to power: Principles for creating socioeconomic inequalities” in Foundation of Social Inequality edited by T. D. Price and G. Feinman. 1995.“Pathways+to+power:+Principles+for+creating+socioeconomic+inequalities”+in+Foundation+of+Social+Inequality+edited+by+T.+D.+Price+and+G.+Feinman.&source=gbs_navlinks_s

(4) see  Monbiot on “the Self-affirmation Fallacy” where he summarizes recent research showing that socio-economic inequality generates precisely the kinds of narcissism that Hayden wishes us to believe is psychopathology  expressed in hierarchical leaders. “The findings of the psychologist Daniel  Kahneman, winner of a Nobel economics prize, are devastating to the beliefs that financial high-fliers entertain about themselves . He discovered that their apparent success is a cognitive illusion. For example, he studied the results achieved by 25 wealth advisers, across eight years. He found that the consistency of their performance was zero. “The results resembled what you would expect from a dice-rolling contest, not a game of skill.” Those who received the biggest bonuses had simply got lucky.

Such results have been widely replicated. They show that traders and fund managers across Wall Street receive their massive remuneration for doing no better than would a chimpanzee flipping a coin. When Kahneman tried to point this out they blanked him. “The illusion of skill … is deeply ingrained in their culture.”

So much for the financial sector and its super-educated analysts. As for other kinds of business, you tell me. Is your boss possessed of judgment, vision and management skills superior to those of anyone else in the firm, or did he or she get there through bluff, bullshit and bullying?”

In contrast, of course, the operation of networks – which can be sensitive communicators of reputations based on observed ethical and kind behavior, continue to do, in these other forms of economic system, exactly what they do in hunting and gathering economies:

Staring at Stars with Soldiers

13308609_10153713608587683_3511624982502320709_oA concert program falls from the balcony to the floor, like a meteor, causing confused parents to look up and see the auditorium’s Big Dipper, a constellation composed of glowing red SORTIE signs. Cellphones pulsate in the darkness, like fireflies, as we wait for our little stars to come out. How fitting it is, that this marching music was created by military men! Because I feel a kind of martial pride tonight, as I look out upon this vast army of mothers and fathers, soldiering through the disasters and disappointments of midlife with admirable aplomb. We’ll tolerate the friendly-fire of our flash-happy friends, and the deafening shrieks of the newborns in our midst; but we shoot all deserters, who leave early, with deadly looks. Because we love our children. And they were good tonight. This, thought I, is what the Olympians must have felt like when they looked down upon the children of men; this, thought I, is what God must have felt like when He parted the heavens and declared: “Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

—John Faithful Hamer, The Goldfish (2016)

Something Democratic

“There’s something democratic about being the occasional asshole—you make a mistake, you apologize and everyone else breathes easier”—Tony Hoagland, “Dear John,” What Narcissism Means to Me (2003)

yqaexAristotle maintains that you’ll never know if someone is really your friend until the shit hits the fan. So long as you’re fun or useful to them, you just can’t be sure. The friendship’s true colors will come into view only at that moment when you cease to be useful and fun. For instance, I know a charismatic young creep who befriended a professor friend of mine just as long as he needed letters of recommendation and mentoring from him. But as soon as my friend’s usefulness to him was done, he broke off contact and moved to Japan. What’s worse, when my professor friend’s daughter went out for dinner and drinks with this guy in Japan, he proceeded to trash talk her father the entire night. Apparently he had never even liked my friend. Alas, their “friendship” was never more than a matter of convenience for him. Betrayals like this are always sad. But Aristotle insists they’re for the best. Purging your life of false friends is one of those things that’s best done sooner rather than later. True friends stick by each other even when it’s no longer convenient. And it’s good to know who your true friends are.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a rather Aristotelian philosopher when it comes to ethical matters, maintains that you can never really know what a friendship is made of until you mess up. This is, I think, a rather important addition to Aristotle’s theory of friendship. Can your friendship survive “the occasional asshole” incident? Is it ruined by it? Does it become stronger? Can your friend accept a heartfelt apology? Can they forgive you? Will they hold a grudge? These are questions of vital importance, questions that will ultimately decide whether or not it’s possible to have a long-term friendship with this person. But alas, these questions can be answered only after someone makes a mistake. As such, perhaps it’s best to get this stuff out of the way as soon as possible. To that end, I suggest that you make a big scene at tomorrow night’s dinner party. Seriously, get wasted and make a total ass out of yourself. Talk about how much you love The Da Vinci Code and Ann Coulter. Be loud and silly. Spill a drink or two. And let the chips fall where they may.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Goldfish (2016)

Can Friendship Replace Family?

“Friendship is fragile; kinship is robust; attraction is antifragile.”
—Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile: Things That Benefit from Disorder (2012)


In The Meaning of Friendship (2010), the philosopher Mark Vernon comes to a rather startling conclusion: friendship cannot replace family, much as he once wished (and claimed) that it could. As a gay man, Vernon says he (and many of his friends) had really hoped that the ties between networks of friends could replace the fraught family ties that so many gays and lesbians have to deal with. They wanted to transcend the family, as well as the need for the institution of the family. But alas, Vernon says that he came to the conclusion that the bonds of friendship were, by and large, far too fragile.

People are surprisingly fickle, and they drift with astonishing regularity. The friends you hold dear today might be strangers to you in ten years. By contrast, your cousins will still be your cousins, and your siblings will still be your siblings. You’ll still see them at family gatherings (e.g., weddings, funerals, etc.). And, in all likelihood, you’ll know where they live and what they’re up to, ten or twenty years from now. For these reasons, and others, Vernon concludes that family ties, messed up as they are, should be salvaged and maintained; forgiveness should be offered, time and again, even to the unforgivable. Family is maddeningly flawed, but it’s (perhaps tragically) irreplaceable.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Myth of the Fuckbuddy (2016)

Optimism and Cynicism

“Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now”
—Bob Dylan, “My Back Pages”

IMG_2532-001When children are born, they have few skills, little ability to protect themselves, but as anyone can see, a wild-eyed curiosity and openness to wonder and beauty, with an unconscious but solid expectation that their parents and community will keep them safe. They are unbridled optimists, drinking deeply of openness and exploration, who have, of necessity, outsourced any cynicism to their parents and community.

IMG_2533-001Usually we bear the burden of such cynicism and protection willingly, and call it love. This gift of being allowed unselfconscious engagement with the world lets the sense of openness, adventure, wonder, trust, and yes, love grow strong enough that it may survive the coming challenges. Our achievement is a kind of mystical golden orb living somewhere inside the child.

To miss this stage is to risk a life without “juice,” vibrancy, joy, or passion. Sometimes those so deprived accept this as their lot, and other times the need is so strong they attempt to recreate this Garden of Eden as adolescents or adults, when the stakes are considerably higher, and the protections much less.

liz-mcThere comes an age when being enveloped in such protection is no longer helpful. We must leave (or be kicked out of) our garden. We back off from protecting our young. We allow, or cannot prevent, the skinned knee, the failed exam, the betrayal, the broken heart, the loss of a home, or even the death of treasured souls. We try to judge the ability of our children to handle these challenges. We play the role of Titan, of the hero, when we fear the risk is too great, but more importantly, we allow them to face their own fights, feel the spark of their own divinity, and become the heroes of their own stories when they can.

Adolescents (extending through young adulthood) must take and accept from their parents and community the burden of cynicism, the duty to sustain and protect, if they are to become adults. Those who have never moved past the unconscious expectation that others will protect and serve them are pathological optimists. The term may seem odd, because of the positive associations, but if they reject further development, they are immature, reckless, entitled, and self-centered. To them, life is about, “What can you do for me?” (Tell you to “Grow the —- up!” you might hear from the voice in your head.)

The achievements required to become an adult are significant – physical, intellectual, and social skills, knowledge of one’s culture and the world, and an ego capable of self-regulation, culminating in the ability protect and sustain oneself as a peer among adults. These skills, this ego, and this self can be so impressive, that one may not notice the mistake of believing this is the pinnacle of development.

aw-Alan-20Cumming_20120118111628316010-420x0The pathological cynic (who ultimately seems somewhat adolescent) takes pride in his or her defensive and sustaining skills – physical, intellectual, or social. He or she can point out limitless examples of dangers or risks, and dazzle you with his or her prowess in attack, defense, or sustenance – and yes, the world is filled with dangers, and such skills can be really quite useful, but they are also a dead end because the world moves forward only through optimism, through openness, wonder, and trust.

It is through finding a passion, something greater than oneself, often through love, or even more powerfully through becoming a parent, that one begins to remember the mystical golden orb inside. One gains the courage to let it back out, but with full awareness that the beauty and fragility of life coexist, maybe as different names for the same thing. One dares to treasure a fading flower, to try to make a dream real, to love a fallible and fickle human, to bring a fragile child into this dangerous but beautiful world, to hold a smile on one’s face and tears in one’s eyes without demanding that either prevail. To be a full adult is not to be a better version of a worldly young adult, capable of more impressive cynicism, but to contain both the child and the young adult, to contain both optimism and cynicism, wariness and hope.

—Aaron Elliott


“Philosophy’s first and most general task, in the war against anger and fear, is to make things clear—to give the soul an understanding of its own situation and its possibilities. . . . the anxiety that gives rise to strife can be put to flight only by knowledge and self-knowledge . . . . Anxiety is the soul’s darkness, philosophy its light. . . . The triumph of philosophy, in short, is a triumph not through political action . . . but within each human soul in relation to itself—as the soul learns . . . to understand and accept the ways in which a human life is necessarily vulnerable and incomplete, to be willing to live as a soft body rather than an armed fortress.”—Martha Nussbaum, The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics (1994)

Invisible-woman-artwork-20060626041749688_640w_1205023163_7756It is most likely a defense mechanism against extensive physical, verbal and emotional abuse in childhood that led me to believe that I was untouchable. Maybe it was some sort of ‘never again’ reaction but I just sort of naturally came to believe that if I thought myself untouchable I was untouchable: I couldn’t be abused, just wasn’t possible. This belief system was delusional on many levels. If I was nice to anyone who made fun of me or harassed me, then they were my friends and I remained untouched; if I scrutinized myself and offered up what I had done wrong and apologized to someone bullying me, then we were just having a disagreement and I had managed to resolve it, and so I remained untouchable; if something done to me was too bad, I would try to bury it – refusing to talk or think about it (although the inevitable period of obsessive rumination would lead me to justify burying the events to prevent others from seeing how deeply flawed I must be to provoke such violence) and so I was tenuously untouchable.

I had to appear untouchable because or else, I believed, everyone would see the fatal flaw of who I really was and join in, turn their backs on me and hurt me. I had to be untouchable because the cost of being touched was too high.

jalba13And so I never really addressed anything that happened to me. Just ran away from it – either physically through travel or mentally through books and a rich fantasy life of one day achieving something. Anything, really. Though I was so ‘nice and friendly’, I did everything alone. I travelled alone, I walked alone, I read alone, I wrote alone, I dreamed alone. The only thing I did not do alone was go out at night alone – too many sexual assaults led me to believe in all honesty that a woman should not go out alone at night. Never mind that none of that had happened while I had been out alone. It’s just that the only way I could cope with all that was by beating myself up about things like my blonde hair being ‘bad’, being too nice or not nice enough, the clothes that I wore, etc.. I stopped drinking for years because I wanted to better be able to gauge other’s behaviour; if I failed to do that the consequences were obviously my fault.

And yet through all this I really thought I was untouchable. It was completely delusional.

It took an extremely abusive ex-boyfriend to get me to confront the ways in which I enable abusers by constantly seeking compromise with them, refusing to judge them for their behaviour and placing full responsibility on me to control other’s behaviours. It’s delusional to think I can act in such a way that nothing bad will ever happen to me. Obviously, I still believe a person’s behaviour influences generally the kind of reactions they will get, but it does not control specific reactions. And while as a general rule my approach to life was extremely successful, in a narrow way there were pathological people that could pick-up on signals I was sending that I would do anything to refuse to acknowledge I was experiencing an instance or a sequence of abuse : that I was really a wet noodle with no spine. And even just with luck of the draw, as most women will definitely experience, a crazy random guy that just pinballs his way through life only knowing that I am the only one trying to be nice and understanding, and not telling him to shove off.

So I’ve been learning how to do fight instead of flight. The worst part is that that some people think suddenly I’m a bitch or that I’ve gone crazy, thinking that there are all these crazy men out there when surely it must be me. Trust me, I’ve gone over the possibility that I’m the person at fault about thirty-three thousand times already. I’m not perfect, but it’s not me. It’s just that I went from having blinders on and thinking abuse was something that exclusively happened to others to suddenly realizing, wow, there’s a real sense in which I do not know how to draw proper limits around myself.

In one case, I verbally expressed to a house guest that I was not in a good mood and wanted to be left alone. He became infuriated and screamed insults at me until I cried and he vaguely threatened about ‘really getting mad’ (his girlfriend made him leave). At this point, it might seem like it’s my fault but think about it : everyone has bad days and especially if someone verbalizes their needs, an emotionally adequate response is to give the person space, not attack them. The next day when I said good morning to his girl friend he was apparently still mad and came one inch away from my face screaming extremely personal insults; he was very much in my personal space and when someone does this in a threatening matter your gut reaction is to push the person – I knew if I did he would knock me unconscious and his girlfriend had locked herself in the bathroom when he entered the room, he was refusing to leave my house when I asked him 3 times, I informed him if he did not leave immediately I would call the cops, he left the room and sat on the couch still yelling insults so I called the cops. Oh man did I ever cry and beat myself up about this hair trigger reaction. I felt I had no right to remove him from my space and send him home. I was so mad at myself. Why didn’t I calmly walk away? Why wasn’t I the bigger person? The truth is he would likely have started again next time he saw me (since a day away had not calmed him down) and in even if he calmed down he would learn that he had the right to talk to me that way. I knew I had made the right choice – so why was I so sad?

I wasn’t untouchable.

In the other case, a man I had met through friends was just a text maniac. The day after meeting him, I took two hours for dinner and returned to 8 messages asking me why I wasn’t answering and what he had done. Plus to be honest half the things he messaged me sounded like straight up lies. I really did not like this person and I was having a hard time remaining patient. Still I wanted to be nice and not just ghost. So I told him I did not like to text, that I was extremely busy and that I was sorry but that maybe in a month if I had time I would let him know. Pretty obvious – but, yes, ever so slightly ambiguous. Well, he started calling (because I didn’t like texting). I never picked up. More texts. Like six in an hour. Never answered. Than he wrote me asking if I thought I was stalking him. I told him listen, you are a very nice guy, you are not a stalker but yes I was overwhelmed by his communication style and did not see this working. Responded that when I had more free time we should hang out. More calls. More texts. Now Facebook messages – ten of them(!) going from ‘hey how are you’ to angry ‘I do not like how you make it look like I’m chasing after you by not responding, I’ve made my intentions clear and I’d like you to make your intentions clear’. So I responded ‘I think I have. I’m confused’. 8 responses including ‘Oh I think you must have messaged the wrong person’. So I bite the bullet, tell him that I’m sorry for being harsh but I feel he will misinterpret anything else, that I have multiple times said I was not interested and that there were no mixed signals (that ‘you are not a stalker does not = I’m interested’ (!)) and that at this point I wanted absolutely no further contact with him. The messages just kept coming ‘I’m not done with you’, ‘I don’t want to talk your head off’, ‘the texts are psychological warfare’ at which point I tell him I’m considering blocking him. 6 messages later I block him. Then he starts texting me. At which point I tell him that this is why I’m blocking him and to please not turn into a weird cliché before I figure out how to block texts on Android 5.0. I know I did the right thing and was actually considerably patient with him… just not the kind of patient I used to be. Just not the kind of person that would figure out a way to make things OK for this guy at the expense of my time and energy. But also to avoid feeling, well, contaminated. If I ended things well and platonically with him than there was nothing to feel weird and exhausted about. It was in my control to decide if this ended though blocking or mutual agreement, right? It wasn’t delusional at all to think somehow I could control the behaviour of someone that I had met once amongst all the other factors contributing to how he chooses to communicate? Right?

Why else do I feel so sad? Why else do I only want to sleep? Why else do I not want to see anyone again? I admire people that medicate their anxiety with activity. Me, I just stare at the wall and ruminate all the ways this is my fault and what I could have done differently for this never to have happened so that I can be untouchable. Actually, it’s not that all the time, but it is that often enough that it always surprises me when people think I go out a lot and do, you know, stuff.

I don’t want people to know these are the kind of people that have been in my life this last month because what if they think that I must be attracting this kind of attention, that I love and crave drama, that I’m provoking otherwise normal people into odd patterns of behaviour, that somehow I’m beyond just manipulative and I actually have this power to make people behave in odd ways because I’m so abnormal and flawed that I would drive anyone to madness — much the way I’m driving myself to madness… But I’m driving myself mad trying to cope with a world in which I’ve had to experience some pretty horrible things at an age so young that my mind was not equipped to explain it. When the only ways I was taught to cope with these things was silence, shame, secrecy and self-reprimands. These tools worked as a delusional child who believed that you could just keep these things a secret and strive to be perfect and untouchable and that was the way the world worked. People that did not have horrible things happen to them were normal. I just wanted to be normal. But I was so abnormal I had to be stronger. I had to be untouchable. The times I have been manipulative almost exclusively are in times I sensed physical danger was imminent. Have you ever manipulated violence into love? I had to be delusional because reality was strangling me.

It’s cognitive dissonance in motion, but is this a ‘girl thing’? Surely a lot of women experience these frustrating stereotypes about women, strange double-binds and never-ending prescriptive demands and come out semi-normal? Is this a ‘child of abuse thing’? Surely it’s like some sort of Stockholm Syndrome where you identify with your aggressors more than with your own plight because, well, they have the power to end this nightmare, not you — so if you identify with them you have the illusion of power… Is this ‘my own special brand of weirdness’? God knows I’m convinced I’m weirder than I probably am because I just want to make myself interesting because that’s the kind of piece of shit I am that drives people so crazy. I don’t know. I really don’t know.

But now I know I’m not untouchable. I’ve cut the hippie karma krap and have started being bitchy and defensive sometimes. I do not do it because I enjoy it but because I want to truly and genuinely feel safe. People have hurt me and will continue to hurt me. But I have the right and the ability to defend myself and set limits for appropriate interactions. It will always hurt me to do so because it reminds me that I’m not untouchable. A limit I’m setting for appropriate interaction is you do not have the right to question the limits I set for behaviour I don’t feel comfortable handling. My limit might be lower than yours, or maybe my limit rebuffed someone you know and you think that makes me ‘too sensitive’ or ‘crazy’– well yes I’m too sensitive. I set a limit because the behaviour was more than I could handle. Even with the limit I’m the one sitting alone crying for a couple of days wondering what I did to deserve this. I set the limit so that it wouldn’t trigger a full-on depression. You questioning my limit in a mean-spirited manner or in a way in which you are trying to shift blame onto me is stepping on that limit. Maybe try understanding why I have a limit with the same care you are putting into understanding the behaviour of the person who went loco and contributed to me temporarily retreating from the world in fear tomorrow will bring just some other bullshit that I do not want in my life.

I’m extremely sensitive and have to be careful the people I allow into my life as I easily set myself aside to try and figure out how they can be happy. Yes, a certain happiness comes from casting aside one’s own ego – but I no longer believe trying to create a void in the self to suppress negative emotions about one’s self is ‘healthy’. I don’t know what the answer is but I’m in my own body and mind and I’m going to start by placing limits around me because I’m not untouchable.

—V. Lynn Therrien

Tolerance Isn’t Tolerance Unless It Hurts

IMG_0647-002Much of what passes for tolerance these days is in fact a kind of glorified indifference. So the next time you’re about to self-righteously pat yourself on the back for your tolerance, ask yourself: Was it hard to tolerate this? Did it require effort? Did it cost me anything? If the answer’s NO, if it was more or less effortless, you’re probably trafficking in counterfeit virtue. Because tolerance isn’t tolerance unless it hurts. We tolerate the heat. We tolerate the cold.

It’s easy to be open-minded about things you deem trivial or unimportant. It’s much harder to be open-minded about things you care about. For instance, it’s easy to tolerate your friend’s belief in astrology or prayer when you secretly think it’s all bullshit and you really couldn’t give a shit one way or the other. But when a diehard feminist decides to put up with her sexist little brother, despite all of his MRA bullshit, I know I’m looking at real tolerance. Likewise, when a hardcore fundamentalist decides to accept and love his gay son (and his son’s partner), despite his heartfelt beliefs about homosexuality, I know I’m looking at real tolerance.

In The Bed of Procrustes (2010), Nassim Nicholas Taleb maintains that “love without sacrifice is like theft.” What I’m saying about tolerance is of a similar stamp: tolerance that doesn’t involve some sort of sacrifice isn’t tolerance. That being said, it would be a mistake to conclude that I’m trashing indifference. Indifference is, for most of us, a coping mechanism, a highly effective coping mechanism; and, truth be told, I suspect that I’d be a total stress case if it weren’t for my well developed capacity for indifference. So I’m not knocking indifference, I’m merely saying that indifference isn’t tolerance.

Nor, I hasten to add, am I saying that we should tolerate everything. Tolerance without reasonable limits is like walking around with a “KICK ME” sign that you put on your own back. Some things are intolerable. Some things shouldn’t be tolerated. And we all have to balance the moral imperative to be tolerant with other equally valid moral imperatives: such as the need to be kind, loving, humble, and just. Ultimately, we choose to tolerate that which we can live with but are not exactly cool with.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)

A Response to Mike Pawelski’s “The Craftsman”

Dear Mike,

Although I don’t know you, I was nevertheless profoundly moved by what you said about your father, Ray Pawelski. I wanted to respond to your post immediately, but I waited because I felt that I ought to give this a great deal of thought. I haven’t experienced a loss of this magnitude yet, and, as such, I’m sort of skeptical about what kind of solace mere words can provide, especially the words of a stranger. Be that as it may, I can relate to having a craftsman in my life, and perhaps what I have to say will be in some way meaningful to you:

While growing up, I remember my grandfather showing me how to solder wires, patiently going through the steps with me, allowing a young teen to handle a blow torch and melt metal in an act of creation. With a tug on each end of the wire, he showed me the strength in what I had just created. The permanence and accomplishment that he showed me through his simple acts have become ingrained in my memory. The pleasure that glowed on his face after he helped someone with his craft. Even today he retains this ingenuity of a craftsman. He recently showed me his contraptions in the retirement home where he lives. He’s a little out of his environment, but he’s making the best of it despite his old age. Still, he has that infectious craftsman’s grin of fascination.

I think these fond memories of my grandfather where a driving factor in why I couldn’t complete my conversion to Judaism. I would hear that my pursuing this new path made my grandfather uncomfortable, and it was starting to make me uncomfortable as well. Judaism began to distance me from him, and that worried me. When I was in mechanics school, a teacher would remind me of these moments I spent with my grandfather, how he would teach me, and each time it hurt a lot. Judaism was clashing with the system of values that my grandfather had instilled in me, values I did not yet know I cherished. Only in this pain did I begin to understand the simple values that he clearly exemplified: namely, that being a mechanic is a way of life (e.g., stopping on the road for a person having car trouble, fixing or welding a broken tool back into functionality, to be used again by a friend in need).

I can relate to the pride that you expressed about your father. We craftsmen strive to create works that we can be proud of, works that will, as you say, stand the test of time. And I realize this lesson is one I treasure deeply, as I see kids around me mindlessly rushing through their mechanical work, unaware of what it really means to be a mechanic, what it really means to be a craftsman, like your dearly departed father.

With great respect,


The Craftsman (by Mike Pawelski)

My grandfather died this past week.  In his life, he served in the Army National Guard and then worked as both a power plant engineer and boiler operator until his retirement.  My family, rather than eschewing what is now called “blue collar” work, has always valued the labor and lessons of learning a craft.  To this end, my uncle wrote this to honor my grandfather’s memory as a craftsman who applies the lessons of his work to life.  As Matthew Crawford writes in Shop Class as Soul Craft (2009), these lessons are often presently given short shrift in the ‘new economy’ driven by the ‘new’ occupations rather than the intellectual work required to learn something–one thing that stands the test of time–really well.  More to the point, Crawford, who learned a craft then did a PhD only to reject the cubicle and return to the craft, argues that we have, in encouraging an entire generation to look to liberal arts university education rather than shop class for value, has lost the profound wisdom of the craftsman.    

As Crawford writes, “At the beginning of the Western tradition, sophia (wisdom) meant ‘skill’ for Homer: the technical skill of a carpenter, for example.  Through pragmatic engagement, the carpenter learns the different species of wood, their fitness for such needs as load bearing and water holding, their dimensional stability with changes in the weather, and their varying resistance to rot and insects.  The carpenter also gains a knowledge of universals, such as the right angle, the plumb, and the level, which are indispensable for sound construction.  It is in the crafts that nature first becomes a thematic object of study, and that study is grounded by a regard for human utility.”

This post is a dedication to the craftsman, as articulated by Michael Pawelski (my uncle) upon his father’s death on July 10, 2015. —Anna-Liisa Aunio

The Craftsman

My dad, Ray Pawelski, dancing with one of his granddaughters (Anna-Liisa).

Reflecting on my dad’s life, and how it might be best summed up, one idea overwhelmingly comes to mind: namely, my dad as “The Craftsman”.

The craftsman pursues excellence by building and creating something that is of the highest quality, something that will stand the test of time: a work of art that lasts and can be passed on from generation to generation.

As is true of any craftsman, most of my father’s failures occurred early on his endeavors; but, like all true craftsman, he learned from all of his mistakes and experiences, and got better and better at his craft over time.

I believe that in every aspect of my dad’s life he pursued the excellence of the craftsman he was. Like every old-school craftsman, he learned by trial and error to build something he could be proud of: his family, home, work, all reflected his deep-seated commitment to learning from his experiences and constantly improving. He had a natural drive to better himself, and help those around him to better themselves.

He ultimately succeeded in building a life of excellence, and he became a master of his craft. He left works of art that he could be proud of and will stand the test of time.

My dad is still looking over my shoulder, as he has for so many years, constantly making sure my works are something I can be proud of: knowledge, experience, and the desire to excel, passing from one generation to another. The art and teachings of the craftsman knows no end; it echoes through time.

Son, husband, father, brother, grandfather, great grandfather, uncle, and friend: my dad, The Craftsman.

—Mike Pawelski

Thank God for Inconsistency!

Shockingly consistent Abraham was ready and willing to sacrifice his own son. The horrific scene is depicted in Caravaggio’s “Sacrificio de Isaac”.

Some of the most profoundly decent people I know are decent precisely because they’re inconsistent. They don’t take all of their beliefs to their logical conclusions (e.g., the devout fundamentalist who accepts and loves his gay son, and his son’s partner, even though he believes homosexuality is a sin; the devout feminist who accepts and loves her little brother even though she thinks he’s a sexist pig, etc.). By contrast, some of the most monstrous people I’ve known were monstrous precisely because they were shockingly consistent (e.g., the Jehovah’s Witness who shunned her own children when they fell away from the faith; the 18-year-old ideologue who turned in his own parents under a totalitarian regime, etc.).

Sometimes I think that inconsistency is nature’s way of dealing with the epistemological problem Nassim Nicholas Taleb refers to as domain dependence (i.e., the fact that things which are true in one context aren’t necessarily true in another). Maybe our natural tendency towards inconsistency—much like our natural tendency towards forgetting—is nature’s way of keeping us out of trouble. At other times, I suspect that inconsistency might be a way for people to live with the sociological paradox: namely, that to be a decent human being you have to treat people like they’re special, but to be a decent sociologist you have to remember that they’re not.

Just to be clear: consistency is indeed a virtue in many contexts. No doubt about that. But we should be careful not to rank it too highly on our hierarchy of virtues. Nietzsche once quipped: “Be careful lest, in casting out your demons, you cast out the best thing that is in you.” Thinking along similar lines, we might say, in light of these reflections: Be careful lest, in casting out your inconsistencies, you cast out the best thing that is in you.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)