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In Search of ‘The One’: Disfiguring the Myth of American Individualism

In the dramatic dialogue The Symposium, Plato placed on the lips of Aristophanes a tale about the origins of romantic love. Aristophanes recounted how it was that humans had come to search for love. In the beginning, he tells us, the gods created three sexes: male, female, and the androgynous sex. The primal humans had four legs, four arms, and one head with two faces. They used to cartwheel around, and were rather powerful. In due time, Zeus became frightened at the possibility of an invasion of the gods’ residence at the hands of the primal humans—so he sought to strike them down with lightning. But the sacrifices the primal humans rendered unto the gods were enticing, so another way of limiting their primeval power was devised instead: cut them into halves.

Having sliced every primal human into half, the gods watched the humans run around as if lost in a haze looking for their other halves. The males sliced in half went looking for their counterparts—thus explaining homosexuality. The females sliced in half went looking for their counterparts—thus explaining lesbianism. And the androgynous primal humans cut in half went looking for their counterparts likewise—thus explaining heterosexuality.

“And when one of them meets with his other half, the actual half of himself, whether he be a lover of youth or a lover of another sort, the pair are lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy, and would not be out of the other’s sight, as I may say, even for a moment: these are the people who pass their whole lives together; yet they could not explain what they desire of one another. For the intense yearning which each of them has towards the other does not appear to be the desire of lover’s intercourse, but of something else which the soul of either evidently desires and cannot tell, and of which she has only a dark and doubtful presentiment.”[1]

And if ever asked what it was that these lost “halves” desired, they would readily admit they desired to be one, to be whole again. “[T]here is not a man of them who when he heard the proposal would deny or would not acknowledge that this meeting and melting into one another, this becoming one instead of two, was the very expression of his ancient need.”[2]

This Greek myth is at the center of American individualism. It pervades our culture, our religion, our romantic rendezvous, our language, our literature and our arts. There is not a single facet of American life that is not rendered absolutely helpless in the face of this myth. What, then, is our version of this Greek myth? In this essay, I will argue that American individualism is the idealized obsession that some singular individual—seen as an “autonomous self” detached from a communal reality—exists who could satisfy another individual’s universal cravings. I believe that our individualism plays a particular role when it comes to human relationships. According to our myth, there exists such a person—whom we endow with the endearing phrase “the one”—who is able to fulfill virtually all (if not all) our primal and present urges. This person, this “the one,” is predominantly seen as the end-all-be-all of our entire existence, a person who is able to make us feel “whole again” (whatever that means). In our myth, then, the community—i.e., communal reality—is almost entirely displaced by thoroughgoing individualism. The person is not seen as a part of a community of human beings that share one another’s burdens; instead, the person is seen as a detached individual who must embody the totality of his or her culture’s existence. No longer is the burden of embodying the aforementioned existence placed on the community; in our American culture—driven by the myth of individualism—the burden is shifted onto the individual: a single individual is thought to be capable of embodying an entire religion, an entire nation, and an entire culture.

When the individual is seen as separate and distinct from his or her community—when the community plays virtually no role in romantic relationships—the burden placed on individuals is exceedingly great, even impossible, in my opinion, to bear. The expectations are enormous, being intolerable to sustain. No single individual, no matter how great they may be, could possibly embody an entire community. No single individual could play the role of spouse, lover, sex symbol, parent, employee, religious cleric, food critic, arts and culture specialist, etc., etc. The myth of American individualism supports the ludicrous idea that a single individual—whom we call “the one”—is able to replace the community. In this essay, I will argue that no individual can replace communal reality—and it is detrimental to the human psyche for someone else to expect the impossible from him or her.

In the beginning was the myth, and the myth gave birth to other myths. A thousand myths sprung from this one myth, and this one myth found its way into a book we know worship and adore: the Bible. And God allegedly endorsed this myth, and he called it good. “…[A]nd the two are united into one” (Genesis 2:24).[3]

In the book of Genesis, whatever its origins may be, the idea of two becoming one is present—as it is present in Plato’s Symposium. Whatever interpretations one may conjure up in regards to Genesis, the myth, as found in Plato, would be fully and lucidly presupposed in a Jewish text called the Book of Tobit, which dates from around the second-century BCE.

In Tobit, a young man by the name of Tobias falls in love with a virgin girl named Sarah. However, despite the presumed romantic future, Tobias is made aware of a sinister rumor: Sarah had been married to seven different men—and all have been killed by a demon whenever they tried to have sex with her. The demon was thought to be madly in love with Sarah, forbidding any man to sleep with her. En route to Sarah’s house, Tobias was instructed by Raphael, an angel. In his angelic instructions, Raphael told Tobias what he was to do on the first wedding night to make the demon go away. In addition, the angel assured Tobias that Sarah was meant for him. “Do not be afraid, for she was set apart for you before the world was made” (Tobit 6:18 NRSV). The story ends on a happy note, as everything goes as planned. My interest continues, however, because of the verse cited. What the angelic instructions presuppose is the idea of romantic predestination “before the world was made.”

Many Americans today, except for the few Catholics, probably have never heard of Tobit. But that’s all beside the point. The point is that our culture continues to tell this very story using different people and different names. Our romance novels betray romantic predestination; our pop music betrays romantic predestination; even our language betrays predestination. For example, the fact that a definite article precedes “one” in the phrase “the one” assures us of the singularity of this person’s existence. The idea is that there aren’t just several “ones” out there; nay, there is merely “the one.” If we had not bought into the Greek myth, we would have, at the very least, had a language in which “a one” was a colloquial expression. Such is not the case, however. Instead, the myth is shaping our language, the very discourse governing our romantic relations.

From scattered verses in the Bible to love songs buzzing on the radio, the myth of individualism continues. It is not that individually these ideas form a coherent myth; rather, taken as a whole, the ideas shape the underlying myth governing our romantic endeavors. Somewhere in the thousand or so years in which myths such as those found in Plato’s Symposium or the Book of Tobit found their voice, we have tuned in to them along the way and have become their audience. Whether we like it or not, the myth has ruined marriages. A husband turns to his wife for psychiatric consultation when, in fact, he should probably be turning to a trained psychiatrist, one who is within the community. A wife turns to her husband for an emotional need that may only be satisfied, instead, at an all-girls night out. But the myth is there: she was predestined for you; he was predestined for you. The struggle to make an individual replace a community is an impossible struggle—but the myth sustains that very idea. The marriage fails because an ideal is held up as a kind of reality. “I want my husband to be a good parent, an excellent lover, a perfect engineer, a humorous socialite, a…” The list continues into eternity until it vanishes from human sight. It’s okay, in other words, to have a wife that doesn’t function as your psychologist. Maybe you should actually talk about psychology with your friend who is a psychologist. It’s okay, in other words, to have a husband who doesn’t write you breathtaking poems and take you on wild dates. Maybe you should let him take you to the theater and let Hollywood do the romancing on his behalf. It’s okay to be married—and remain in need of community.

The myth of American individualism needs to be disfigured for what it really is: a myth. It’s not helping anyone by implying that someone could function as your everyone.

 

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

Dedicated to Andrei Semenov–for being a good conversationalist as we sipped on Woodford bourbon and discussed the finer things in life…

 

 

[1] Plato, “Symposium,” The Internet Classics Archive, accessed December 17, 2016, http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/symposium.html.

[2] Ibid. Italics mine.

[3] New Living Translation.

autumn

In Defense of Materialism: Philosophy of Language and Employing Material Things as Symbols

Materialism has been criticized on many grounds that I will not cover here. In fact, I have, in various ways, been strongly opposed to materialism. (Read my essay Materialism; Or, The Human in Decay as a case in point.) That is, until now. In this paper, I will attempt to articulate a sympathetic approach towards materialism. More specifically, I will argue that materialism, when seen through the perspective of the philosophy of language, is actually a type of “language” used to communicate certain things (like wealth, power, prestige, responsibility, success, etc.). In fact, “the pursuit and possession of grand material objects” (my modest, working definition of “materialism” in this paper) is beneficial to a human being attempting to communicate and convey certain values and/or facts. First, I will argue that the philosophy of language sheds light on how we humans employ “communication” (and it is not simply reduced to “language” and “writing”). Second, I will argue that materialism allows humans to communicate certain messages rapidly/promptly (without resorting to “proving yourself”). Third, I will argue that this is actually a good thing, that materialism, as I see it, is beneficial to finite human beings.

Paul Ricoeur, a phenomenologist interested in language, once said, “The word is my work; the word is my kingdom.”[1] That is, within our words, within our language, that is where all life and communicating occurs—it is our “kingdom.” Ricoeur defined language as using “symbols,” symbols that functioned as pointers to objective things in reality, myth, etc. Such symbols had multiple meanings, and, hence, could confuse interpreters. Ultimately, all acts in which the reading and understanding of texts—which used symbols—occurred were inevitably going to end up being interpretations. However, it should be noted that symbols in and of themselves need not be inherently reduced to language/writing. A symbol could be a national flag or, as in my case, a luxury vehicle. All such “symbols” communicate and stand-in-for something else. (A luxury vehicle, for example, may communicate to those around you that you are a successful individual who is responsible, who will provide for a future family, etc., etc.) The point here is the following: as we try to communicate things to those around us, we use symbols all the time. In most cases, symbols are words or phrases. I say, “I love you” and that means that I will take you on dates, buy you dinner, send you flowers on Thursdays, be concerned about your wellbeing, etc., etc. The phrase, “I love you,” is a stand-in-for something else. In and of itself it means…nothing. (Of course, this, too, could be debated.) I employ the phrase in such a way that it points to something outside it; it points to actions I will take on behalf of my beloved. The phrase, in this case, is a “symbol.”

Ricoeur writes: “I define symbol as: any structure of signification in which a direct, primary, literal meaning designates, in addition, another meaning which is indirect, secondary, and figurative and which can be apprehended only through the first.” Moreover, he goes on to define the process of “interpretation.” “Interpretation, we will say, is the work of thought which consists in deciphering the hidden meaning in the apparent meaning, in unfolding the levels of meaning implied in the literal meaning.”[2] Ultimately, he writes, “[T]here is interpretation wherever there is multiple meaning…”[3] Since symbols are almost always open to being interpreted in a plurality of ways—and, thus, of being found guilty of “double meaning”—it is the task of the interpreter to discover what the meaning is.

Going back to our luxury vehicle example, the “symbol” (i.e., the vehicle) may also be interpreted to mean, “I am a thorough-going materialist only interested in material things. I care not for relationships and people. Give me a dollar, and I’ll sell you my soul.” Of course, this is one way of reading materialism. It is one way of interpreting the symbol.

But notice what I am saying here, even as I speak the critique: it is merely one way of interpretation. (“One” way implies there are more ways.) It is possible to behold a symbol (i.e., a luxury vehicle) and to interpret it in a different way, another way. It is possible to see its owner as a good person. It is possible to see its owner as being a thoughtful person who goes to work on time, is punctual, cares about his family and tries to provide for them. Notice, then, that there is nothing in this interpretation of the symbol that is utterly negative and/or derogatory. In fact, I would like to be such a person. And maybe you’d like to meet such a person.

The next point I want to make has to do with prompt communication. If I am attempting to—let us theorize here—meet a girl, in what ways should I go about doing it? First, I am a finite human being, bound to space-time. I cannot be everywhere at once, meeting millions of girls in the span of one minute. Being thus bound, I have to make the most of my time. Second, and by implication, if I want to make the most of my time, I have to communicate things clearly and promptly. I could, in theory, be an “anti-materialist,” and resort to explaining to each and every girl I meet that I am successful, that I will take care of her, that I am a responsible human being, etc., etc. That’s one way of doing. It’s a very time-consuming way, but it is certainly an option. (If you have the time for it, go ahead and do it, I say!) In this case, you would essentially have to “prove” to every girl you meet all of the above. Or, you could do things differently.

It is possible to use symbols that communicate more rather than less. A picture says a thousand words. Driving up on a luxury vehicle conveys more than several hours of conversation over coffee. (And what makes you think she’ll believe you when all you’re doing is feeding her “words”?) That is, the symbol (i.e., the vehicle) conveys more than a million words spoken in defense of your alleged success.

Finally, as I’ve already hinted, materialism—as I have defined it here—seems to be something that is possibly beneficial to human beings. It allows us to communicate things to those around us. It allows us to do more with less. It also allows us to spend our coffee dates talking about things like love and romance, loves and hates, rather than trying to prove to the Other that we are responsible, successful, wealthy, etc., etc. In other words, I stand by my word: buy yourself that Lamborghini and enjoy your finite life!

 

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

 

Dedicated to: Petr Bulkhak—for being a good conversationalist regarding this particular subject.

 

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Paul Ricoeur, “La Parole est mon royaume,” Espirit, XXIII (February, 1995), p. 192.

[2] Paul Ricoeur, “Existence and Hermeneutics,” in The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur: An Anthology of His Work, eds. Charles E. Reagan and David Stewart (Boston: Beacon Press, 1978), 98. Italics original for both citations.

[3] Ibid.

human decay materialism critique of

Materialism; Or, The Human in Decay

Material things function as extensions of ourselves, extensions that serve as substitutes for the living and breathing beings that we cannot have. A romantic in despair is an impulsive consumer. When the life which we lead forces us to be “at peace” with the unpredictable, we, naturally, seek something stable, something material that will numb our senses. For example, if you were involved romantically with someone, and out-of-the-blue he or she decided to call it quits on the relationship, this instability—this unpredictable and uncontrollable chaos—would have terrified you, the romantic. Maybe it was all in my head the entire time? Maybe love was never there to begin with? Maybe people are just too unpredictable? Perhaps, this is why my own world is so prone to falling apart…

The unstable characters which surround us, characters that are no different than us, create within us the desire—nay, the demanding need!—to find something eternal, something stable, something that would last “forever.” And what could be the polar opposite of the unstable and the human? Material things of course!

It is in material things that we find a kind of permanence. No, I’m not suggesting that material things are permanent (for one knows that steel rusts and wood burns); rather, I am suggesting that material things are permanent enough for us to feel as if they are, indeed, stable. This stability, this permanence that we desire begins to surround us in our chaotic world as our material things increase in number. The more material things we buy, the more stable the environment around us feels.

Take me, for example (allow me to function as a sort of “martyr” for this piece!). In losing a relationship—or should I rather state “since having lost a relationship”?—I have done nothing but consume. And it was this nonsensical consumption that prompted my interest in examining, philosophically, what exactly it was that was causing me to consume.

I purchased a Fossil wallet, throwing my old, black leather one away. I use my wallets all the time, and the fact that I changed the wallet gave me a sense of “Well, you’ve entered a different stage in life; now you are a different person. Cast off your worries! The things that occurred in the past are no more!” Maybe that’s what I had been looking for all this time: I wanted to feel as if the past was the past, the relationship was over, and it was time for me to move on. My old wallet would have hindered that process. I am no longer that man who had used that wallet!

I purchased a new car, trading in my hybrid for a convertible Lexus. And why the hell not? You only live once, they say. I drive a lot. Maybe this, too, was a way for me to evade reliving the past—and I wanted nothing to do with it.

I also went shopping. (You might as well change out your wardrobe if you are planning on reinventing yourself, correct?) Why wear the same clothes that you used to wear? That person that wore them, that was a different he. That was a he that belonged to a she; a he that lived a life that is now completely foreign to you. You’ve left all of that behind too.

I then dyed my hair. Why look the same when you are no longer that you?

And so, in a mere few weeks, a distance had been created between the present you and the you who had lived in the past. Lines were drawn, phone numbers deleted, photos erased—an entire epoch in your life brought to a slow and annihilating death. And that was that.

You left it all behind.

You walk around feeling like a million bucks; you laugh in the most evolved of manners—for, by all means, you have changed.

But that is all change controlled by you. The entire time, you had been in charge. The dying of the hair, the purchasing of a new vehicle, the sheer mind-numbness of materialism—that was all “controlled demolition.” You were in charge. It gave you a sense of power, a sense of control. And it had been control that you had wanted the entire time. You wanted to feel like life made sense. People made sense.

But they didn’t. And they don’t.

Out of the tumultuous dizziness of heartbreaks and sorrows, out of the nauseating suppression of the human—there, in the dampest and darkest of places, out of the utter decay of the human, there materialism rears its monstrous head.

But materialism is not some sort of dream-state. Like anything else, it has its problems. Surrounded by the nonsensical possessions, one sinks into a despair far worse than the original wound—for the plastics and the steels of this world cannot quench the fires of a burning love, a dying-yet-resilient passion.

And so all one can do is return to the initial despair, to the initial wounds, the initial life-beginnings of a romance that would not be. “As a dog returns to its vomit…” (Proverbs 26:11). Perhaps it is here, in that most remedial of places, that one discovers a single truth: tgtyelijtlablir.[1]

Or maybe not.

 

 

As I leave the Mall of Georgia, sporting a new jacket, the sound of a folk artist playing guitar and singing some melancholic tunes distracts me. I approach him, toss him some money, and sit next to him. I ask him to “play me something romantic.” He complies with my wish.

After playing three songs for me, I finally leave a lighter and happier soul.

 

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

 

[1] For those who do not know, this is the acronym for “the greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.” It is a lyric written by Eden Ahbez for Nat King Cole’s song Nature Boy.

An Existentialist's Survival Guide to Recovering From Heartbreak: 6 Wonderful Ideas to Help You After a Break-Up

An Existentialist’s Survival Guide to Recovering from Heartbreak: 6 Wonderful Ideas to Help You After a Break-Up

If you have an ounce of human in you—and, believe me, some of us do—you’ll probably experience some form of heartbreak at some point in your life. Ever since I was a teenager madly in love with the girl next door, I have been prone to experiencing all forms of emotional distress. Over the years—and they are nearing three decades—I have discovered ways of dealing with all things heartbreak-related. (If I ever die from heart disease, it’ll almost certainly be Takotsubo’s cardiomyopathy.) So the following suggestions are based on my life experience. I present them to the reader with the hope that you, too, may survive to witness another romance, as I have. (The incurable romantic in me hopes for more such romances to come—hell, at least let me write another poem!)

1. Try “The Mikheyev Potion” for Restless Nights: Alcohol, Tylenol, and Benadryl

After I get “the news” (whichever form it may come in; often times, the worst is “cold shoulder,” which I have dubbed “ignoring bliss” in my more younger and vulnerable years), I usually end up sleeping poorly. In fact, to quote a Hawk Nelson song, I “sleep all day, gonna stay up all night.” To be completely honest: I never considered medicating myself in my more vulnerable years. I guess I thought that I could deal with anything and everything. But as I grew older—and as the world became a more distant place—I realized something profound: alcohol has all kinds of wonderful uses. I remember a time, not too long ago, when I was working full-time and finishing my undergraduate degree at Whitworth University. I let some girl get the best of me without taking care of myself. At the time, I had to wake up around six in the morning to study Hebrew. In addition to this, the night before, I’d only come home from the hospital around eleven in the evening. Once the shower and meal were thrown in, I was going to sleep past midnight. And if you’re any good at math, then you would know that I was maybe getting five to six hours of sleep per night. But now I had “girl problems.” And this meant virtually no sleep. I couldn’t possibly function as a nurse at the hospital the following day without getting sleep. So sleep became a huge issue in my life. I purchased a SleepNumber M7 mattress (with all the fancy remote controls and such) with the hopes that this would solve my problem. It did, and it didn’t. It was an excellent bed, but I couldn’t sleep. So I went through all kinds of different sleeping medications with the hopes that they would solve my problem. Some worked all right; some didn’t. In the end, I developed what works pretty well for me. I call it “the Mikheyev potion.”

I essentially believe in the power of the “synergistic effect” (that is, I believe in what others have called “stacking”); I combine multiple medications in relatively “low doses.” While every individual is different—and this will certainly not work for everybody—I combine alcohol (half a bottle of wine, preferably chardonnay), a thousand (1000) milligrams of Tylenol, and fifty (50) milligrams of Benadryl.

Prior to the recent scientific studies that only came out this year, I recognized that, in addition to pain relief, Tylenol actually dulled emotions. And boy did I need that.

I also drink a bottle of Gatorade prior to going to bed—as the Benadryl and alcohol will make you relatively thirsty halfway through your good night’s rest. And so, cheers to good sleep!

2. Rewrite Your “Narrative”

I recommend rewriting your life’s narrative. If you are anything like me, then you probably spend a lot of time daydreaming and writing a narrative for your life. When in love, you probably include the other person, attempting to see if your life together would look wonderful. Once the Other is out of the picture—as a break-up would imply—you must begin rewriting your narrative. I suggest rewriting the narrative as soon as possible. Don’t wait.

3. Probably Forego the “Rebound” and, Instead, Talk to Friends

This point is certainly commonsensical. Some prefer hitting up a “rebound” practically immediately (which works for you, the sufferer, but is also an unethical move; to invoke Kantian ethics, you are using the person, i.e., the rebound, mostly as a means to an end without treating them as a subject of their own reality [as you are mostly treating them as an object, which is not a good thing]). Instead of rebounds, I prefer the more ethical alternative: talk about your break-up with your friends, be they male or female. I also suggest being as honest as possible about both yours and the Other’s failures (that is, don’t entirely demonize the other person) when discussing the relationship.

4. Okay, Demonize A Little

Disregard the previous point somewhat: it’s okay to demonize the other person, if only a little bit. (I am invoking Kierkegaard’s “teleological suspension of the ethical” here.) While it is not entirely ethical to badmouth anyone, if you are on the verge of committing suicide, I recommend demonizing (if that’s what it’s going to take for you to make it out alive). I don’t recommend this in the long run, but I do okay it for short-term purposes. Talk shit about the Other for a week or two—and then move the fuck on. (However, I would also like to point out that if you choose this route, please be conscientious of the fact that the Other is merely human—they are not perfect.)

5. Create a Break-Up Soundtrack

People who don’t like music are usually soulless. If you are experiencing heartbreak, I assume you have a soul—and that’s why you need music. I prefer doing something entirely erratic when it comes to my choice of music: I listen to everything. I usually tend to oscillate between very dark music and very upbeat music. Here’s a sample of my recent playlist:

  1. “Shattered” by O.A.R.
  2. “I Took a Pill in Ibiza” by Mike Posner
  3. “Nuvole Bianche” by Ludovico Einaudi
  4. “Wildest Dreams” by Taylor Swift
  5. “Gravity Lies” by Red
  6. “It’s Your Move” by Josh Kelley
  7. “It Is What It Is” by Lifehouse
  8. “Jenny” by Nothing More
  9. “I Will Not Bow” by Breaking Benjamin
  10. “Gravity” by Papa Roach
  11. “The Middle” by Jimmy Eat World
  12. “Paperthin Hymn” by Anberlin

Often times, I find walking in nature and listening to music to be a relatively soothing experience. In fact, I recommend getting away from people—at some point—and simply walking. You’d be surprised how many problems one can literally walk from.

6. Distract Yourself: Go Out and Read a Boring Book

Distraction has always served its purposes. I prefer to either watch a movie—preferably in a theater—or read a book. I don’t mind watching horrors after a break-up; they usually function as excellent distractors. In addition, excellent reading material may be something very easy, like The Little Prince, or something intellectually stimulating, like Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. As a general rule of thumb, anything by Søren Kierkegaard is usually good when feeling depressed—he is so depressed, he makes your life look amazing.

Concluding Remarks

This guide was written from an existentialist’s point of view. What that means is the following: as an existentialist, I know how hard it is for us not to remain hopeful and optimistic. You’re probably yelling “What?” Yes, I did just say “hopeful” and “optimistic.” This is actually deduced from the idea that human beings are, as Kierkegaard reminds us, “a becoming.” Since we all are always changing, it makes us—who are cognizant of this fact—remain very hopeful. When a girl turns me down, I’m often times reluctant to call it quits. After all, she’s just “a becoming”—that is, she’ll come around. One of these days she’ll figure out what she’s missing out on, right? Being aware of this fluidity to life makes us, inherently, resilient. It also makes us prone to delusions of change. The other person is not required to change. They probably will change their mind at some point, but it may not be “soon” or even “ever.” (I once had a girl apologize for how she treated me in her teenage years after she had gotten married, had a child, and had grown the fuck up. The apology came almost a decade too late. But it did come. And it no longer mattered.) The point I am trying to make is this: it’s okay for us to sit back and watch others make foolish decisions. We all do that. We all make mistakes. And, hell, it sucks when you love someone and they fuck up. I know it does. But maybe that’s life? Maybe we’re all here just to be good people, try to make things work with others, and try to be as forgiving as possible when things don’t go our way.

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

bored

This Was Written to Prevent You From Being Bored: 7 Reasons Why Your Life is Interesting; Or, An Ode To Women

Søren Kierkegaard once wrote, “People with experience maintain that proceeding from a basic principle is supposed to be very reasonable; I yield to them and proceed from the basic principle that all people are boring. Or is there anyone who would be boring enough to contradict me in this regard?”[1] I accept Kierkegaard’s challenge, and so take the contrary position: I will be arguing against Kierkegaard’s categorically universal claim “all people.” In my humble opinion, “most people are bores.” I reserve the right to call myself—and a few limited individuals—quite interesting people. I, perhaps, may be a bit pretentious when I say that I am certainly a degree removed from “the bores.” And is there anything wrong with my saying so? As ostentatious as my remarks sound, I, in the most un-humble of manners, beg to differ.

Even on the most boring of days—one which most “bores” would find hugely entertaining—I never cease to surprise myself. Maybe I am closest to boredom when boring people surround me; it is only then that I begin truly contemplating the following thoughts. I think of publishing writings titled something akin to: “On the Ethics of Boredom; Or, How to Be Bored Ethically.” Perhaps something like “The Philosophy of Excitement: How To Wet Your Pants Even While Bored” would serve as delicious entertainment on the most boring of days for a fellow human being struggling to make ends meet. After all, even that bore, Blaise Pascal, managed to dissertate on boredom. “Human beings are so unhappy that they would be bored even if they had no reason for boredom, simply because of their nature. They are so vain that with thousands of legitimate reasons for boredom the slightest thing like tapping a billiard ball with a cue is enough to distract them.”[2]

Take today, for example. Hell, one could even begin with this week. And, while we are at it, let’s just describe the past two weeks. I’ve met swarms of bores. Allow me to indulge myself—and, perhaps, your voyeuristic tendencies would allow you to double-dip in my indulgences. I was smack dab in the middle of Seattle, and all sorts of boring people surrounded me. Some were bored independently—they sat there twitching on their own, possibly undergoing a seizure, while intently gazing at the wonderful artwork being projected from iPhone to eye; others were bored en masse—they twitched together, pulsating to the hypnotic bleedings of TV screens in synch with one another. Some were bored in the most idealistic of manners: they sat absolutely still and drank their (probably) alcoholic beverage. (Well, maybe I’m wrong here: “beverage” should certainly be plural.) Some were so bored they were out chasing Pokémon. And who could blame them? I would be chasing Pokémon too had people chasing Pokémon not surrounded me. So, naturally, I sat back and watched “the Games.” But don’t get too excited: I was bored almost instantly, so I began writing about them. (What else does one do when one is—like everyone else—participating in the act of boredom?)

And amidst the hustle and bustle of boring beings, I eyed a few interesting creatures: women. (This prompted me to forget all about them.) When women are beautiful, a good antidote to male boredom they can be. On my most boring of days—an event that does not occur that often—I go to a coffee shop to write and people watch. But I single-handedly and categorically ignore males. They are too boring to observe for aesthetic purposes.

Women secretly despise me because they know that I know that they are all bores. I go on dates sometimes with this one girl. She’s got two un-boring traits about her: she can hold a discussion with me about virtually anything, and she has beautiful, beautiful blue eyes. If she didn’t have eyes, I’d find her utterly boring. Sometimes I catch myself going on dates with her just to look into her eyes. I’m sure she doesn’t even know it because I’m very tenuous like that. And if she does know, who cares? She probably likes looking into my eyes too. Or maybe she just likes being looked at? I don’t know. I never claimed to specialize in the psychology of women…

Allow me to pontificate still more. I find all women to be utterly boring. I mean, on a scale of 1-10—actually, I prefer not to go there. But on a serious note, men are the least boring conversationalists. My favorite discussions have taken place in the presence of other males. I probably should have been born Ludwig Wittgenstein. And gay. Very gay. But here I am, a very straight male bored with females. Let’s sample a few of the most intellectually satisfying discussions I have ever had. I won’t mention any names, but if I did, they’d all be masculine.

But men are bores too. They talk abstract nonsense all day long. They pretend to know what the hell “the ethics of care” are even when they don’t. They even attempt to write novels that exploit and elaborate upon female psychology. Please! Leo Tolstoy was a man. And Anna Karenina—I hate to break it to you—was a character created by a dude. Enjoy it all you want, fellows, but the girl you’re all drooling over is really “a dude.” And maybe we’re all secretly homosexual anyway…

I like beautiful women for several reasons. In fact, if I must confess, I’d say women are the most beautiful when they are most like themselves. I’ve met some charming debutantes in my life, and all of them have inspired me; that is, they have distracted me from my own self-inflicted boredom.

How many men have inspired me? Nada. Women? All of them. I find women to be singularly beautiful. This means that women are, naturally, the very epitome of beauty. We probably cannot talk about beauty as a Platonic ideal without resorting to a foundational principle, and that very principle is reduced to the female body.

I like beautiful women for several reasons. (Did I already say that?)

First, beautiful women remind us bored males that Platonic ideals probably exist—that is, beautiful women are the very embodiment of Forms (with a capital “f”); they serve as Platonism incarnate, reminding us, males, that philosophy is real. Very real.

Second, beautiful women are distracting. Has anyone read Song of Solomon? Allow me to plagiarize my own work. In the Song of Solomon verse 1:9 reads: “To a mare among the chariots of Pharaoh have I likened you, my darling!” Most people probably read that and react with a “What the hell is he talking about?!” And that’s a very fair reaction. However, the Hebrew poet actually recognized a singular and universal truth; it is to that truth that I now turn my attention. Robert Alter writes regarding this passage:

“Pharaoh’s chariots were drawn by stallions, but the military stratagem alluded to has been clearly understood by commentators as far back as the classical Midrashim: a mare in heat, let loose among chariotry, could transform well-drawn battle lines into a chaos of wildly plunging stallions…The lover speaks out of a keen awareness of the power of figurative language to break open closed frames of reference and make us see things with a shock of new recognition… [T]he sexual attraction she exerts also has an almost violent power to drive males to distraction, as the equine military image powerfully suggests.”[3]

Maybe not all women would enjoy being likened to a mare in heat, but I could think of several Kim Kardashian wannabes. And, personally, I find the Hebraic poetry here quite romantic. But maybe I’m being too much of a male.The truth? Women are distraction par excellence.

Third, beautiful women are always—first and foremost—women. While the adjective may try to annihilate the noun’s place of chief prominence, it serves mostly as a sort of subordinate clause in the phrase “beautiful women”—for even I know that it is “women” here that functions as the main point of departure. Women are, naturally, more beautiful when they are least like men. Because men are brute beasts—and nobody wants to be a man anyhow. The word “women” carries with it a sort of mysterious aura. In the word we meet all the women we have ever encountered. The word reminds us of all the wonderful ladies we have ever met. In particular, the singular “woman” carries the weight of the more universal, plural “women.” It is in her that we meet all of them. (God, how I wish English had a third person feminine plural pronoun—something akin to the Hebrew הֵן!) In the singular woman, we encounter all of the “shes,” all of the “hers,” all of the heartbreaks, romances, and feminine universals we have observed throughout life. So whenever I think of her—or of women in general—I always find the word to be a vast ocean of verbs, adjectives, participles, and conjunctions that I cannot but feel helpless in.

And, finally—if there is such a thing as “finality,” which I emphatically reject—I have one last observation to remark upon. (It’s not my “last,” but let’s pretend it is.) Women are so much better than men. For one, they are genetically predestined to play mind-games. (And that, in and of itself, is a wonderful and delightful distraction from my mind-numbing boredom.) Males, such as myself, read novels and so train ourselves to be weird and strange—“eccentric,” in this case, perhaps. But these traits I have developed, not inherited. Second, women are extremely loyal creatures once you endow them with all things beautiful—be it words of affection or something of a romantic nature. Strange how words have such ethical repercussions!

And there you have it: I have refrained from being bored. I am least bored when I am alone, being surrounded by beautiful women.

And, honestly—allow us, that is, you and I, to have a moment of truth—how many of you read my writing out of sheer boredom? That, right there, is the irony.

(But it is I who had the aesthetic element pleasurably bestowed upon me, not you.)

As for the “7 Reasons Why Your Life is Interesting” part, I have one word: oh please. (It’s actually two words, but who’s counting, right?)

Give me a break, your life is boring. Go out there and be bored en masse with “the bores.”

 

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

When I’m not bored, I can be found writing my thesis in the philosophy of language and religion at Emory University. 

 

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or, Part I, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987), 285.

[2] Blaise Pascal, Pensées and Other Writings, trans. Honor Levi (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 47.

[3] Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Poetry (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1985), 193.

October to December

Endowing Life With The Sacred: An Essay on Human Limitations and Exclusivity

Humans have the ability to self-generate “the sacred.” While the Platonist philosopher wishes to universalize human behavior, the human being chained to his or her own existential reality gets through life by making those relations “sacred” that are immediately most close to him or her; in essence, the existential human is concerned with the particular. Humans are finite creatures limited to time and place. We cannot possibly love everyone and make every moment sacred. Hence, we embrace those closest to us—set them apart—and, in effect, make our relations sacred. We are, by all means, an exclusive-making species. We exclude everyone else in the process. We include those we chose, and amongst those chosen, we further make sacred some relations. In this essay, I will argue that exclusivity is essential to the human life, since it is inherent to our finite natures. Moreover, I will argue that we self-generate “the sacred” by (a) a process of exclusion, which is an inherent by-product of our finite nature; and (b) a process of selecting from those included a select few individuals who share a particular act, a particular thing, with us in common. It is this particularity that makes something “sacred.” It is this particularity that makes up what we call “special moments.” The thing that we choose to willfully set-apart becomes holy (“sacred”) unto us.

In this essay, I will deal with the example of sacred sex, something common to many religions. Because sex has taken on this sort of “sacred element,” I have decided that it serves as a clear example of how humans go about excluding others and endowing life with the sacred by a process of particularization. I will first begin by dealing with human limitations. I will then proceed to show how this is inextricably related to our finite natures. After that, I will demonstrate that humans qua humans could only be exclusive-making creatures. Finally, I will argue that sex serves as a perfect example of self-generated “sacredness.” Moreover, I will argue that endowing life with “the sacred” is something all humans could, theoretically, do. In fact, I will argue for all of us to embrace particularity as it alone allows us to value one another as unique individuals.

Humans have limitations. We cannot think omnisciently, for one. And we cannot think for an infinite period of time; instead, we must limit ourselves to time-constrained actions. Let’s briefly deal with the first issue, namely, omniscience.

Let’s suppose that Anna and Mike go on a date. Anna tells Mike that she is a very honest person. Mike values honesty, and does not think that he would be able to love Anna (or any other woman for that matter) who could not make honesty a prioritized virtue. Let us suppose that Anna consciously thinks she is honest indeed. So she tells Mike on their tenth date that she values and embodies the virtue of honesty. Mike, being very keen on finding himself an honest person to date, takes Anna at her word and proceeds with the relationship.

But Mike is not omniscient. He doesn’t know everything. He doesn’t know that even while Anna was speaking honestly—that is, in her subjective opinion she was being “honest” about her “honesty”—Anna was actually not the most honest of human beings. In fact, relative to the rest of the human population, Anna’s “honesty ranking” was somewhere in the fiftieth percentile, making her mundanely stereotypical and average. But Mike isn’t omniscient, so he cannot possibly know that. He doesn’t have access to her thoughts—both conscious and subconscious. He doesn’t have access to her history, to her contextualized-to-self language-games. He doesn’t have access to her worldviews, be they tacit or explicit. He doesn’t have that sort of monopoly on truth. As we all know, none of us do. Given such facts, Mike, by continuing to date her, actually commits a sort of sin against himself: he acts in a way that is not consistent with what he believes.

As boring as this example may sound, humans do this all the time. That’s simply how we approach the world. We listen to people; we give them the benefit of the doubt; we trust their choice of words; we accept their version of themselves; we trust that the words spoken reflect who they actually are, etc., etc.

There is this certain strand of “basic trust” that runs throughout our engagement with other human beings. But, once exposed to critical scrutiny, much of what we believe about one another is misconstrued, misinterpreted, misplaced, misdiagnosed, etc., etc. And it’s not something to be upset about. Why should we be? When a million years is what one needs for perfection, a hundred years could only grant us faint slivers of it. Every decade or so we make a perfect move, a perfect decision; every month or two, we say something that sounds absolutely perfect to someone else. But these are rare glimpses of eternity. These are those special moments in which we strangely find ourselves doing things in a manner almost unnatural to us. We dance in a way that seems to have been written in the stars—for one night only. Again, this isn’t inherent to our natures. This is a misfire. Perfection could never be something we get served on a daily basis. For how could it be otherwise? In a world of omniscient-less beings, we can only expect acts that betray a certain lack of intelligence and thought. This brings us to the second issue: finitude.

For omniscience to be useful, it must also be found conjoined to infinity. Only an infinite existence, coupled with omniscience, could possibly create dates, scenes, vacations, etc., where things turned out perfectly planned. But we are finite creatures, bound to the post-Einsteinian space-time continuum. We spend decades growing up, only to discover that growing-up also involves the inevitability of growing-old. And growing-old also included dessert after the main dish: death. We live a life spending the majority of our youth—years wasted—on simply figuring ourselves out. And while we’re busy doing that, we realize that our twenties don’t last forever—they too shall pass. We hit our thirties and realize that (a) we are much more wiser now; and (b) we are certainly not as visually appealing. And the entire time we are pressured to be something, to do something. We get lost in the hypnotic mazes of our careers. We spend a decade trying to resurface. In the sea of dizzying freedom, we are then forced, by our very sexually driven natures, to find ourselves a companion who would take that road with us.

But our thoughts are lost. Shattered. Heads spinning. Out there in the twilight zone our minds are left wondering. We fall back to earth only to land in a vast blue sea of broken dreams, shitty errands, traffic, and all-things irritating; we get suffocated by the waters of our own lives. Underwater we learn to survive. Then—in the twinkling of an eye—we come up for air. Ah. That shit feels good. Every once in a while we catch glimpses of eternity. We transcend our skin and bones to realize that there’s got to be more to this stuff called “life.” It is in moments like these that we begin to value what little time we have been given.

A thought occurs to us. Call it a sacred thought. “Hmm,” we say to ourselves. “Maybe wasting my precious time on a sea of useless faces isn’t the best way to go about living life. Isn’t it possible to know and be known?” And in such moments we find the existentially appealing idea of particularization, of setting apart, of exclusive-making to be something worth pursuing.

And out of a dizzying array of faces, names, nicotine-stained smiles, tattoos and piercings, I have chosen you.

Here—in the midst of what was once an eternal hole the size of Texas, swirling in galactic black hole space-ness—I have called out, striking chords on imperative notes: you.

Here, falling to the ground like a leaf in dead winter, lonely and single, I have made an impression on someone. It’s a truly singular event. It’s an event where you discover that something sacred is going on. This you that I have called becomes set-apart from all other such yous.

I don’t how many of you feel anything right now, but I’m kind of giddy-all-over typing this, pausing and reflecting on my use of verbs, adjectives, and participles. Just writing this is making this sentence, this paragraph, feel special.

Why you?

And we find our thoughts continuously percolating around this particular individual, this you. Out of an infinite sea of innumerable I-Thou relationships, we find ourselves particularizing. Limiting. Setting apart. Making plans for an exclusive Other. We recognize that our finitude, our creatureliness, our very bad habit of familiarity, drives us into the wastelands of particularity. Moving from the universal, moving from the ideals we have created for ourselves, we zoom in on a specific individual. Moving from all of the contextualized history we have created about ourselves, for ourselves, we become cognizant of a very acute fact. The ideal world is ideal for a very specific reason: it has no boundaries, no realized finitude, no palatable reality to it. We imagine a perfect Other. We concoct for ourselves a dream life. (But allow me to emphasize the word “dream” in the sentence.) All of our ambitions, our dreams, our perfection-driven tendencies, find themselves useless due to one single fact: none of it is real.

Perhaps there is a reason why we do this, perhaps not. What is important to note, however, is that we all do this. These universal ideals, these unadulterated thoughts, only become embodied in an imperfect world, full of imperfect people, forced to make decisions in poorly timed conditions.

Our ideals remain distant to us. They share brain-space with us, but that is all. Most of us, at some point, shed ideals like snakes shed their skins. We let go of our childhood fantasies and move on to conquer the day with Godspeed. Our need for reality, for embodiment, for Incarnation is written in our religious texts, our coffee shop meet-ups, our handshakes, and our face-to-face encounters with the objective Other. We cannot taste without touch. In this perpetual motion, this never-ending desire for a palatable reality, we become aware of just how tangible we want things to be. Our visions take on their own realities, growing hands and fingers as we speak them into life.

This all brings us to the very pressing issue of the process of particularization. We like doing things that are particular. Maybe because it is only in the particular that we find comfort. I don’t know why this is the case, but it is. A universal idea of a perfect spouse isn’t as comforting as the particular reality of an imperfect spouse holding your fragile body while your atoms decay with each collapse of the wave function.

When we particularize our lives, we begin to engage people on a more intimate level. Spending one minute on each individual out of a group of ten thousand persons isn’t as satisfying as spending ten thousand minutes with one person. The quality of our relationships is proportionally related to the amount of time we invest in them.

And so it is in moments like these that we perform what I have called “exclusive-making” actions. We start excluding all other relations in favor of one. Given the fact that we value our time, and given the fact that we have very little of it, the person whom we most value is blessed with the majority of what little time we have. We narrow down our choices. We select people on whom to spend our skin on. Life is short, so we don’t waste time excluding others.

Allow me to remind my readers that I am by no means arguing that this is bad. This is not only good; this is a brute fact of life. It is the only way a finite creature could and (probably) should live.

Finally, this brings us to the issue of sexual relations. If what you value is depth of knowledge, intimacy, and quality in your human relations, I suppose, by implication, you probably are careful with whom you share the sexual experience. (Now, this is not a universal claim that I am making. Some people, I am told, are perfectly fine with loose sexual mores, and say they are genuinely satisfied with them. I am not speaking on behalf of such people. In fact, I cannot possibly relate to them.) The process of particularization brings us to the issue of whom we choose to have sex with. Now, it is evident that relationships are not always sacred. Moreover, it should also be made clear that not everyone cares about the sacred. Some people just don’t give a fuck—and I won’t interrupt their orgy. Having said that, for those of us who do care about the sacred, who do care about investing every second of our time in someone we deeply care about, the rest is dedicated to us…

If the quality of our relationships is directly related to time spent on them, then, quite possibly, the quality of sexual intimacy is directly related to time invested in the person we’re having sex with. We go on dates, walk on foreign shores, and share sunsets—all for the sake of the possibility of loving and being loved. And sexual expression is one way of “doing love.” Generally speaking, we don’t get stark naked for those who do not know us. The act of clothing ourselves symbolizes our act of hiding ourselves from others. We don’t want to be known and seen by those we don’t care to be known and seen by. Most people cannot and do not know us. And so we remain forever “hidden” from their sights.

And then something happens.

We choose someone. Out of the plurality of voices beckoning to us, we respond to only one. Only they see us as we want to be seen; only they experience the nudity we have left impenetrable to others. In essence, then, we—as volitional human beings—self-generate our own notions of the sacred. If sex is sacred to you, you will set it apart. What I am stating here is that sacred sex is not something that religion has a monopoly on. In fact, the atheist could lead a life in which certain acts (such as the sexual act), certain traditions, or certain gestures are made sacred: they are set apart for special people and special occasions. One could, in theory, make sacred the phrase “I love you” and whisper it only to three people in the entire world. It doesn’t take a god to make life sacred. It takes a human being who wants to make it so.

Personally, I already lead a sacred life. I value my time, and try not to waste it on people I don’t care about. And, there, I said it: most people I don’t give a damn about. I don’t think there’s anything special about my not giving a damn. I just see it as something that must be. I can’t have it both ways. To give a damn, I have to spend time with you. But I won’t. For I have already chosen to do that with someone else. And that someone else has had my time graciously bestowed upon them. In the minutes that are leading up to midnight, I have chosen to set myself apart for someone else. Not because I don’t value people; no, it is precisely because of the fact that I do.

I relish every moment spent with a person who is both broken and familiar. I value our shared history, whatever it may include. I do this because I want to, nothing more and nothing less. I have chosen to endow my life with the sacred because I believe that this particular way of leading it is, for me, most existentially satisfying. I also encourage others to think about their lives. I encourage you to revaluate your priorities. What do you spend your finite time on? With whom have you chosen to share the sacred, if anyone? It is only in the particular that we are able to find a human being worth loving. And figuring out who that particular person is takes time. But in taking that finite time and spending it on a particular individual makes for some very good times. It allows us to know the Other on an intimate level. In knowing him or her on such a level, we are allowing them the chance to share their unique individuality with us. Only in experiencing the Other as they really are gives us the opportunity to love them in an appropriate manner. But all of that takes time, which brings us back to the issue of exclusive-making activities, the sacred, and…

 

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

I’m a graduate student at Emory University interested in religion, philosophy, and the philosophy of language. 

Juliette (Yuriy Ku Watercolor)

The Ethics of Dating: Modern Inter-Sex Relationships and Some Advice from an Existentialist

 

The dating scene has become something which late night talk shows and psychologists discuss on a daily basis. With so much talk going on, I thought I’d get onboard and tell you what you’ve all already heard. Well, actually, I’m not sure that will be the case. I hope to offer some advice, which, I hope, may actually be somewhat idiosyncratic. Having said that, I also must restrain any potential surprise by saying that I’m probably not going to say anything too radical. And, as a heads up, I’ll use as few words as possible. Here I go.

Honesty

The first ethical premise I defend in relationships has to be that most foundational of principles: honesty. You’ve probably heard it before, and you’ll hear it again, be yourself. Be honest to those around regarding who you are, how you feel, and what your justifications are. Expect the Other to be honest, too. If everyone lied, we’d not be able to even ask what time it is without getting confused. So, please stay honest in your relationship. If you don’t want to discuss something, be honest and say, “I am uncomfortable discussing this at this point due to X, Y, and Z.” It’s okay to be honest and say, “I simply can’t discuss this with you, babe, at the moment.” It’s okay. We’ll appreciate the honesty. Sure, maybe it’ll leave us searching for answers, feeding our curiosity, but, in my experience, relationships usually fair well with some mystery. An element of surprise doesn’t kill a relationship based on truth and honesty.

Virtually all humans, if not all, want to know and be known. In order for us to know, we must know things that are true. If my attempt is to know a girl named Lily, it would help me if she is being honest about who she is, what she enjoys, what her dreams are, etc. My subjective construction of Lily—who she is, what she likes, what she believes—consists of data. What kind of data? That data could be her body language, verbal content, emotional reactions, moods, her general approach towards life (that is, how does she treat the world on a daily basis?), etc. Already, as a human being incapable of experiencing anything but my own feelings, emotions, thoughts, etc., I am limited as to what I imagine the Other feeling and thinking. I am imprisoned to my subjectivity. This makes all my evaluations of the Other very tentative. (In fact, I’m epistemically agnostic across the epistemic spectrum.) Since I cannot experience what Lily is thinking—I have no access to that—all I can do is take her at her word. If she tells me that she is excited to see me, I simply must accept that datum—the thing she told me—as being true. If she honestly is tired, exhausted, and bored at the moment, it may be better for her to tell me, “Let’s do this another time.” Given the fact that most of us create all kinds of associations on a daily basis, if I associate golf with Lily’s happiness—even though she isn’t really “happy” to play golf with me—this may contribute to difficulties later on in the relationship. We associate things all the time. Because of our nature—we look for cause and effect everywhere (that is, we try to associate anything we come into contact with with something else)—it is imperative that we be honest and allow others to have honest and truthful feedback. I’m giving a lecture on honesty because, frankly, people aren’t honest. Even I am not honest at times. I try to be. However, the shitty human in all of us some days gets the best of us.

Lucidity

The second ethical premise I defend is: lucidity. What do I mean by “be lucid”? It’s actually very much related to being honest: if you’re interested in someone for X reason, tell him or her you’re interested in them for X reason. There’s really no need to beat around the bush. We have no time for that. For example, I once worked with a fellow nurse whom I liked. We exchanged numbers. And then nothing happened. We talked about the weather, her sunroof, good places to eat, and her grandma. When I received texts from her, I would literally get bored. Instantly. “Why the hell were we talking about her sunroof,” I asked myself one day. So I sat her down and asked her to tell me what drives her. I asked her to relate to me what gives her life meaning. In other words, “What do you live for? If you were to live for another year only, how would you spend it?” I asked her some deep shit. Because I cared about her and about myself. I didn’t want to waste her time, neither did I want her wasting mine. If we didn’t see eye-to-eye when it came to core values (for example, I’m very conservative when it comes to sexual relations [no need for me to elaborate]), how the hell would we make it work? But before I could even contemplate such a thing, I need to know what the hell your core values are. And stop feeding me your bullshit “I had a cheeseburger at X restaurant last night” lines! Seriously. We’re not here to discuss cheeseburgers and sunroofs. We could do that for like one second. After that, tell me why you didn’t commit suicide last night. What prevented you? What does your heart ache after? Those are the things I want to know. Expose yourself.

I was recently involved in several bullshit exchanges with the opposite sex. Goddamn! I can’t tolerate the mediocre and the mundane. Drive me up the wall with philosophy, civil rights, whatever, just don’t bore me with platitudes. It, to be blunt, annoys me.

I have the bad habit of valuing my time. I am the guy sitting on the toilet reading three books at once. I cannot even begin to fathom what sort of unproductive waste of time it would be for me to simply not think. I don’t have the time for not-thinking. (I’ll do that when I’m dead.) And then along comes this girl whom I find attractive. I love to spend time with her and such, but she bores me with the mediocre. And so I call it quits. Seriously, bare your soul to me, lady. I’m not leaving until I see you nude. Really nude. That’s some real nudity for you. I want to see your soul bare before me, way before I see your nipples. Please, do enlighten me.

So, in other words, be lucid with one another. Speak your mind. Don’t waste your time or someone else’s. Trust me, when you’re dying, you’ll not regret having read that.

Finitude

The third concept is foundational for all human behavior, including the ethical: we all are finite creatures. This is directly related to lucidity, as we shall come to find out. Because we only have X amount of time for Y, we have to make decisions and judgments—and sometimes our judgments are prematurely made. In fact, in a perfect world, for any given action, I would demand eternity. I would demand to have an infinite amount of time to think about my action, why I would act, in which way, how it would affect those around me, and every possible outcome from the aforementioned action. I think that in such a world I would make little mistakes. Imagine the divorce rate. “Wait, what divorce rate are you talking about?” What would happen if I could take my fiancé out for dinner three billion times before marrying her. We’d probably have each other figured out. We’d probably know all the idiosyncrasies, the things that set us off, etc.

But we don’t have eternity.

Now think about this: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, the Internet, and Match.com have screwed us all over. They have increased our options by infinity while not increasing our lifespan. I now have three million Katherine McNamaras to choose from. But in a short span of time—roughly between the ripe ages of 18-30—I have to figure out with whom to mate, with whom to raise a family, etc. But my time is still very finite.

Take Billy Joe, for example. Back in the sixties, he came from a small town of five thousand. There were two hundred girls his age. He was ugly and dumb, so that increased the pool to two hundred fifty candidates (for marriage). Now most of these girls he had probably never spoken to. Most likely, he spent time with something like 20-30 of them. He could spend a year getting to know each girl after the age of 18. Since there are thirty, and Billy became wiser with age, he decided to spend a year with every individual girl. He really wanted to be fair when deciding whom to marry; he wanted to give every girl a chance. So at eighteen he dated Mary for a year. By the year’s end, ten of the other girls became engaged and five became married. Billy realized he was now stuck with Mary. He became ambivalent. Moreover, he nurtured his attraction to Liza and dumped Mary. After dumping Mary and dating Liza for a year, he realized she wasn’t worth his time. By now all the girls had gotten married. Five had gotten divorced. About ten became pregnant. And, amidst this existential crisis, Billy Joe realized that Mary was his favorite one. But, there was now a problem, since time didn’t stop: she had become engaged to his friend, Mark. So, despite everything that had happened, Billy had no choice but to live with his now-pregnant ex-girlfriend, Liza. And that’s what life looks like for most of us. We spend our elderly years in a rotting rocking chair regretting “the one who got away.”

The point of the funny anecdote is this: time doesn’t wait for us. You don’t have all year long to make decisions. And, of course, that means you’ll probably marry someone you will divorce. That’s life. Accept it. It’s not you, really. It’s your finitude. I’m at a point in my own life where I probably should be dating someone with the hopes of marriage in the next couple of years. I am getting old. It’s a fact of life. And nothing has happened as of yet. (Which is why I am still writing about dating at such a “dirty” age! Not!) But the fact remains: we all are running out of time. Time is such a beautiful thing. We don’t have enough of it. I really wish we had. Please spend your time with the person you love, in an honest manner, being completely lucid and bare. Yes, don’t forget to bare your soul!

 

With love,

Moses Y. Mikheyev

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People are Flowers: The Art of Morality as Painted in The Little Prince

Roughly once a year, I grab some coffee, settle comfortably in a sofa, and re-read The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. It serves as a transcendental gateway between who I am and who I want to be; that is, in Kierkegaard’s language: “The measure of a person’s fundamental disposition is determined by how far is what he understands from what he does, how great is the distance between his understanding and his action.” It allows me to bridge the vast chasm between what I think and what I do.[1] The book reminds the child that I once was—and, maybe, still am!—that I must constantly reevaluate what I do, how I do it, and why I do it. In the following pages, I wish to reflect upon this book as a piece of art that introduces us to “the little prince,” who, I will argue, is a moral leader; one who reminds us, time and time again, what it is we really need to focus on while living on earth. Moreover, many of the fictional characters in the story are also involved in providing witty and ingenious remarks on what it means to lead a moral life.

Reading The Little Prince is like being ripped from the delusional reality most of us have grown callously accustomed to. In the first few pages, the text demonstrates this rather memorably. The narrator describes a time when he was a young child and drew a boa constrictor swallowing an elephant. He was aspiring to be an artist. When he showed “grown-ups” his drawing, all they could see was what looked like a hat; they had lost what children still had: imagination. The narrator eventually became a pilot, his dreams of becoming an artist crushed by the cold comments made by the grown-ups that surrounded him. Eventually, the now-adult narrator ends up in a plane wreck in the Sahara Desert. He awakes only to find a golden-haired boy, from a distant planet, whom he calls “the little prince.” The prince asks the pilot to draw a sheep for him. When the pilot attempts to draw sheep he ends up drawing his “hat.” The prince immediately recognizes it for what it is: a boa constrictor swallowing an elephant, of course! The prince is not yet a grown-up; he is able to see more than the mundane things grown-ups see. “Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is exhausting for children to have to provide explanations over and over again.”[2]

In the discussions that ensue, the prince reminds the once-child (who is only now a “grown-up”) what is truly important in life: “[a]nything essential is invisible to the eyes.”[3] The objective mumbo-jumbo that adults find themselves caught up in is not what makes life beautiful or meaningful. Things like friendship, beauty, and love make the world go ‘round—and all such things are invisible. When the pilot, attempting to fix a part of his plane’s engine, becomes angry and short-tempered with the prince—while the prince is describing something “important”—the prince responds appropriately:

“You confuse everything…You’ve got it all mixed up!” He was really annoyed. He tossed his golden curls in the wind. “I know a planet inhabited by a red-faced gentleman. He’s never smelled a flower. He’s never looked at a star. He’s never loved anyone. He’s never done anything except add up numbers. And all day long he says over and over, just like you, ‘I’m a serious man! I’m a serious man!’ And that puffs him up with pride. But he’s not a man at all—he’s a mushroom!”

The prince was asking the pilot if his sheep—one which the pilot drew—would be able to graze on flowers. The pilot was unaware of the subjective importance of this question. The prince, living on a small planet, took great care of a rose with four thorns. He watered it daily, spoke with it, and loved it. The rose was threatened by a wild species of weed called baobabs. These baobabs would kill the rose if they were left to grow on their own; the prince’s job was to maintain his planet and protect his rose. In contemplating bringing a sheep to the planet—albeit, one which may potentially threaten the rose’s survival—the prince was profoundly distressed at the thought of a rose-eating sheep.

“If someone loves a flower of which just one example exists among all the millions and millions of stars, that’s enough to make him happy when he looks at the stars. He tells himself, ‘My flower’s up there somewhere…’ But if the sheep eats the flower, then for him it’s as if, suddenly, all the stars went out. And that isn’t important?”[4]

Once the pilot realized the context of the prince’s question, he immediately ran to the prince, hugged him tightly, and suggested he draw a muzzle for the sheep.

Due to some “pretensions” between the rose and himself—one’s which he later would reflect upon with remorse and guilt—the prince left the rose on his planet to explore other planets. He felt as if the rose did not need him.

“In those days , I didn’t understand anything. I should have judged her according to her actions, not her words. She perfumed my planet and lit up my life. I should never have run away!…Flowers are so contradictory! But I was too young to know how to love her.[5]

Saint-Exupery, in writing this, implied that people are flowers; and that sometimes we are immature and do not know how to love them.

Even the rose functions as a moral agent by telling the prince that, “I need to put up with two or three caterpillars if I want to get to know the butterflies.”[6] (This was said in response to his wanting to destroy the caterpillars prior to his departure.) In this quotable aphorism, Saint-Exupery implicitly suggests that some suffering can sometimes lead to beauty.

Once the little prince departs his planet, he finds himself landing on the “first” planet. There he finds a rather sensible “king” who only commands that which his “subjects,” and objects he oversees, are already doing (or are prone to do). The king explains why he commands what someone or something is already doing. “One must command from each what each can perform.” For “[a]uthority is based first of all upon reason. If you command your subjects to jump in the ocean, there will be a revolution. I am entitled to command obedience because my orders are reasonable.”[7] When the king commands the little prince to become a minister of justice, the prince asks whom he’ll judge, if there’s no one on the planet. The king suggests that judging oneself is much more harder than judging others.[8] But then the king remembers that there may be a single rat on the planet, one he hears ever so often.

“You could judge that old rat. From time to time you will condemn him to death. That way his life will depend on your justice. But you’ll pardon him each time for economy’s sake. There’s only one rat.”[9]

In saying this, the king succinctly reminds us all that we first begin with judging ourselves; and, if we ever do judge others, we should be merciful—for, “there’s only one rat.” Also, another concept is at play here: the concept of inter-dependent existence. The king’s suggestion reveals that it is good to be in “need” of other people. The judge “needs” a criminal; the criminal “needs” a judge. Both must exist in order for their roles to be played out.

By the time the prince visits all the small planets—six in all—he realizes that only on the fifth planet lived a man who cared about something other than himself. The fifth planet had a lamplighter who lit the lamp every minute, since day and night all occurred within the short span of sixty seconds. As to why he was doing what he was doing, the lamplighter could only say: “Orders.” Here was a man who was almost as ridiculous as the inhabitants of the other planets—but in a way less so.

Finally, the prince arrives to earth. It is on earth that he meets the pilot. It is also on earth that he meets a fox, one which explains to him the meaning of friendship and time. The fox tells the little prince that he is not “tamed.” The prince wonders what “tamed” means. The fox explains that it means “to create ties.”[10] If one creates ties, according to the fox, one tames the animal, and the animal becomes your friend. No longer would the fox be just an ordinary fox, one in a billion; rather, the fox would become the only fox for you in the world. “But if you tame me, we’ll need each other. You’ll be the only boy in the world for me. I’ll be the only fox in the world for you…”[11] The fox goes on to teach the little prince a thing or two about human relations and friendship. “The only things you learn are the things you tame…People haven’t time to learn anything…” It is because of a lack of friendship, time, and involvement that humans don’t really “tame” anything or really know anything anymore. In other words, they are lazy and boring.

The prince, on his way towards finding human beings, encounters a field of five thousand roses, just like the one on his own planet. He is shocked to discover that his rose isn’t the only rose in the universe, as he previously thought. He begins speaking to the roses:

“You’re lovely, but you’re empty,” he went on. “One couldn’t die for you. Of course, an ordinary passerby would think my rose looked just like you. But my rose, all on her own, is more important than all of you together, since she’s the one I’ve watered. Since she’s the one I put under glass. Since she’s the one for whom I killed the caterpillars (except the two or three for butterflies). Since she’s the one I listened to when she complained, or when she boasted, or even sometimes when she said nothing at all. Since she’s my rose.”[12]

The prince, in finding this field of roses, realizes something important—something all of us could empathize with: the importance of our subjectivity. Sure, the roses were similar. But there was a rose out there, far above all the other stars, on a small planet, that belonged to the prince; it was his rose. They have had a long relationship. They went through thick and through thin together. They had a shared history, a “we-ness” about them. The prince races back to the fox in time to hear him disclose “secrets” to life: “One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.”[13] For what is invisible? Time. “It’s the time you spent on your rose that makes your rose so important,” the fox finishes.

The Little Prince is a literary achievement of immense moral significance, being a museum of moral aphorisms, witty jokes, and touching tales. How, then, does it compare to the likes of, say, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics? Is it possible to relay morality by means of art and literature? I’m not sure what an agreed-upon answer may be, one which functions as some universal truth, but I think that this book does an excellent job reminding all of us regarding what it is that makes us live and thrive. In writing this “children’s tale,” Saint-Exupery really meant to remind us that we were all children once, and that most times a child’s simplicity and honesty is better than a million quantum equations.

In dealing with love and friendship, the book points out—I think, correctly—that we have to spend time with people. We have to “tame” people in order to begin understanding them. And when we love, we must do so by recognizing that the Other may be like the rest of the “five thousand,” but the Other is ultimately ours. In loving, the book gently urges us to learn “how” to love the Other. And not only that. Love requires the ability to think about someone other than yourself. It was the rose that made the prince’s world light up. It was his rose that made it worthwhile to look up at the stars at night, knowing that somewhere out there the love of his life waited for him. Aristotle, likewise, spends a great deal of time talking about friendship in a vein akin to the sense Saint-Exupery is trying to convey.

“The base person is held to do everything for his own sake, and the more corrupt he is, the more he does this: people accuse him of doing nothing apart from what concerns his own [good]. The decent person, by contrast, acts on account of what is noble; and the better a person he is, the more he acts on account of what is noble and for the sake of a friend, while disregarding himself.”[14]

Aristotle recognizes, as many Christian theologians do, that there is something intrinsically good about caring for someone other than yourself; there is something good about caring enough to lay your life down for your friends.

What in particular stands out for me are the many ways in which moral instruction—such as Aristotle’s Ethics, The Little Prince, or the Parables of Jesus—take form. It could easily be argued that all three offer relatively similar teachings regarding friendship. Living in a post-Freud world, we know that childhood experiences have a profound effect on children’s later adult life. Being able to instill morals from an early age is, arguably, a huge benefit, one that enriches the life of a child. Reading Aristotle presupposes a grown-up; whereas the parables of Jesus and The Little Prince are not limited to age as much. Specifically, The Little Prince is easily digested by a two-year-old child. It invites children to begin thinking about morality and the meaning of life. It invites children to think about their “flowers”—what matters to them? And, as grown-ups, we know that people are flowers.

“People where you live,” the little prince said, “grow five thousand roses in one garden…yet they don’t find what they’re looking for…”

“They don’t find it,” I answered.

“And yet what they’re looking for could be found in a single rose, or a little water…”

“Of course,” I answered.

And the little prince added, “But eyes are blind. You have to look with the heart.”[15]

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard, compiled and edited by Charles E. Moore (Farmington: The Plough Publishing Co., 1999), 265-6.

[2] Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Harcourt Publishing, 2000), 2.

[3] Ibid., 64.

[4] Ibid., 21.

[5] Ibid., 24-5.

[6] Ibid., 27.

[7] Ibid., 31.

[8] Ibid., 32.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 59.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 63.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Robert C. Bartlett and Susan D. Collins, trans., Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics: A New Translation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 200.

[15] Ibid., 71.

On the Axiomatic Self: The I as the Foundational Principle in Which “Truth” is Grounded

I have observed this for a very long time and have decided to write a short piece about it. This idea is not anything new; it has been articulated before. My present purpose is to repeat it in my own words, adding my own peculiar flavors to it. Human beings are interesting creatures. They are born with this innate tendency to view themselves, their own selves, as so-called “truth.” The human individual begins the conversation with the immediate—and unhealthy, in my view—assumption that whatever spews out of the individual’s mouth is truth ex cathedra. The individual’s I functions as a sort of “foundational principle” upon which the whole of reality is grounded.

One easily sees this when listening to a group of individuals debating. People do not seem to listen. They talk past each other. One of them, usually the center of attention, babbles away about a particular point. Adding volume to speech as if to increase the presupposed “truth’s” validity. The others babble away too. One points something out only to be ignored by the others. Another defends his position, grounding it in science. A third points out that the research is now obsolete, referring to another “scientific journal.” A fourth proclaims all such research “ideologically driven” and expounds upon his own version of “the truth.” A fifth accepts the fourth’s position, embracing it hook, line, and sinker; his identifying with the fourth’s position makes it his own, thereby making it synonymous with absolute “truth.”

One observes, also, just how passionate some people become when they argue. Disagreement over something as trivial as acceptance of moral luck (as popularized by Thomas Nagel) in ethics is unacceptable; they become angry, spewing out all kinds of rage at their opponents.

And this is precisely where my observation hits home. No longer is truth something that can be distinguished from the individual; “truth,” at least the individual’s conception of it, is to be made synonymous with the individual. In other words, moral luck, just to follow the aforementioned example, is no longer an idea (that can be held separate of the person); it is “truth.” Once such an association is made—where the individual fallaciously equates the idea of truth with the person of truth, thus forever erasing the demarcation between person and idea—every disagreement, every argument, every comment, becomes an attack on the individual holding the idea [of “truth”]. Once you identify the idea of truth with yourself as a person, you become susceptible to “attack” and “emotional distress.” Now every person criticizing your ideas is, according to such reasoning, criticizing you!

But this is all just hogwash. It is not really so. People disagree all the time. And, while we are on the subject, people’s own perception of “truth” changes with time. Most of us “grow up.” Most people, except those few geniuses born with correct innate knowledge, struggle along life’s path to figure out what is true. Such individuals believe now this and now that. Their person is, by and large, not identified with their particular beliefs. This is not to say that their beliefs do not influence them; of course they do. It is to say that the person holding an idea is separable from that particular idea. A person who used to be a utilitarian does not cease to exist once he or she converts to the correct view (!) of deontological ethics. The person still exists. Given this reality, it is strange to see people fighting over everything. Arguing to the point of murder (I’m referring to the Russians who recently got into a fight over Kant, which left one of them dead.) People everywhere need to simply recognize the reality that we are all thrown into: oceans of subjectivities vying for attention and significance. We wish to rise above the other subjectivities; we wish to become a kind of “herd mentality”; we want our version of reality to become not just a version of reality but the version of reality. This drive for universalization of our own truths is something that stems from what I have called “the axiomatic self.” The axiomatic self is precisely the self (the I) that articulates all truths, all arguments, and all reasons, with the idea that the self, the point of departure, is somehow both trustworthy and true. The self becomes the groundwork for everything else the individual says or does. From this, the individual, for whatever reason, seeks to establish his or her own subjective reality as the truth. The individual seeks to universalize something that probably is relativistic and contingent (…upon the individual).

To conclude: this observation is merely to be used as a properly basic idea when dealing with other human individuals. Humans work this way, at least most of them do, and we all should become familiar with their modus operandi.

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

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A Policy Recommendation for The United Methodist Church: Standardized and Mandatory Pre-Marital Counseling Sessions for All Couples

Divorce in the church is happening at an alarming rate, causing empirically documented, fatally devastating harm to both the couple and, most importantly, their children. In several studies done throughout the 1980s, the rate of divorce was anywhere from 50%-67% in the United States.[1] Recent studies done in the 2000s all confirm that divorce had stayed the same: roughly half of all marriages will end in divorce.[2] The rates of divorce are high, but the problems which divorce causes are notoriously higher. One of the world’s most renowned marital researchers, John Gottman, writes, “Separation and divorce have strong negative consequences for the mental and physical health of spouses.”[3] In fact, the best predictor for dying or staying alive, all other factors controlled, is the stability of marriage![4] Divorce compromises immune functioning—making humans more susceptible to diseases and cancer;[5] it also effects deleteriously children, causing them to have depression, withdrawal, poor social competence, health problems, poor academic performance, amongst other issues.[6] Judith Wallerstein, a family researcher and founder of the Judith Wallerstein Center for the Family in Transition, has conducted research on more than six thousand children of divorce, summarizes the effects of divorce on children poignantly:

“We saw children who were very frightened. There were sleep disturbances. Children who had never been particularly aggressive in elementary school and in preschool were hitting other children. The nursery school teachers and the elementary school teachers are saying these kids are out of control, and the only change that occurred in their lives had been the divorce of their parents.”[7]

Wallerstein further notes how “children rarely vote for divorce.”[8] Why would they? The average amount of years it takes for the child to “get over” divorce is “about three and a half or four years.”[9] And yet: “[T]he major impact of divorce on the child is in adulthood, when the man-woman relationship moves center stage.”[10] And, finally, for the final ultimatum: for roughly 70%[11] of those couples who do get divorced, their kids are going to be the sad “Gottman statistics” cited above—they’ll be the poor performance college students, the ones having trouble in human relationships, etc. The problem with divorce should be obvious by now: it is not a clear-cut, black-and-white so-called “solution” to a long-standing “problem” (i.e., marriage). Divorce is, most of the time, not much of a solution at all. Recent studies suggest that roughly 50% of all divorces “occur in families that can be categorized as low-conflict.”[12] That is, many of these negative effects of divorce could have been avoided. If divorce is as bad as the empirical evidence suggests, how is the Methodist Church to go about reducing the incidence of divorce?

Currently, The Book of Discipline [2012] has this to say about marriage:

“To perform the marriage ceremony after due counsel with the parties involved and in accordance with the laws of the state and the rules of The United Methodist Church. The decision to perform the ceremony shall be the right and responsibility of the pastor.”[13]

These are all very vague guidelines.

Ethics and Worldviews: Onto a Tentative Solution

I propose that we implement a policy which is grounded in several presuppositions. First of all, I believe that Kantian ethics should be our “default” setting when it comes to day-to-day ethics. That is, I believe that most of our ethical decisions should be grounded in Kant’s categorical imperative.[14]

Second, I presuppose the existence of such categorical imperatives which are grounded in human reason and, possibly, God. However, I do not see God as a necessary axiom for the existence of a universal categorical imperative; it is possible to argue for universals apart from God (see Kant’s On a Supposed Right to Lie). Since the Christian Church at large has accepted (and continues to accept) the view that God had verbally[15] commanded humans to follow certain imperatives, it follows suit that my own policy would make use of Divine Command Theory ethics. In Malachi 2:16, for example, God states: “I hate divorce!”[16]

Third, given the fact that I favor deontological (Kantian) ethics, being one who sees duty as a compelling part of any ethical system, I believe that human beings, being inherently prone to committing both boring sins and atrocious crimes, must have relatively constructive and guiding laws by which we live by; laws which constrain and bind us; laws which punish us when we fail to fulfill our end of the bargain (e.g., punishment for failing to provide financial support for children bred). In sum, my view of human nature is, in some ways, constrained.

Fourth, and finally, I paradoxically embrace a modified utilitarian approach which coexists with Kantian ethics; that is, I see Kantian ethics as a default position which functions at large for the individual, whereas utilitarian ethics are taken up by society to implement laws and regulations which benefit the majority (a majority comprised of Kantian individuals). To put it bluntly, utilitarianism—being nothing but a reflection of a given culture wearing philosophical garb[17]—is to be grounded in and built upon a democratic society of individuals who live according to Kantian ethics. I am concerned about what benefits the majority if, and only if, the majority’s decisions have been made while grounded in a deontological approach. For example, a husband may be “forced” to stay in a low-conflict marriage from a deontological perspective (i.e., he is fulfilling a duty, a categorical imperative, a divine command, etc.) because empirical evidence suggests that, communally speaking, the children are affected by the individual’s actions. Hence a “modified utilitarian” approach.

Given the above presuppositions, several objections could be made to my approach. First, a strict consequentialist (Utilitarian) may ground his or her subjective (and relative[18]) “happiness” in, well, nothing other than “happiness” itself (in this case “happiness” being nothing empirically verifiable, being simply a subjective state). A wife could subjectively divorce her husband if he does not make her feel happy. If the action (in the realm of the ethical) leads to more or increased forms of happiness for either the wife (or even both) then divorce is commendable—if not necessary! Why be stuck in a dead-end marriage which, consequentially speaking, results in lower rates of happiness for the woman, man, or couple? Divorce is the answer. (Provided that such a divorce results in increased happiness for the couple.)

Second, an existentialist who is of a Nietzschean bent may very well object to the implementation of a policy that incorporates premarital counseling sessions for the sake of divorce prevention. “Why not divorce?” he or she may ask. In fact, “Why believe in some God or universal law regarding this at all?” Why can’t I just do as I please?!

            And, finally, a researcher may very well ask: “What if the wife is stuck in an abusive relationship with a man who abuses both her and her children?” Such questions are certainly worth their salt. If divorce is at an all-time high, if divorce is as horrible as the studies suggest (both for the couple and the children), if there may be evidence that suggests that premarital counseling helps prevent divorce, what are possible responses to this concrete issue?

Solutions, Research, and Critiques

The first possible solution is simply do nothing. In this scenario, we maintain our status quo and believe in its superiority and validity; that is, divorce is not really a problem to be solved—it is a reality to merely be experienced on your personal journey to success and happiness. We allow both the state and the Methodist Church to continue serving us vague and directionless guidelines for marrying couples. The obvious problem with this approach is that it does not change the statistics nor the research: we have a divorce problem in this nation that needs to be quelled. In fact, I am not alone in seeing this as a problem: “90% of young Americans believe the divorce rate is too high and should be lowered [2001].”[19] If there is anything positive about this particular approach (i.e., maintaining the status quo) it is this: it allows room for less government and church intervention, while allowing much room for individual autonomy. In this case, the individual human being is seen not necessarily as being in relation to other human beings but in isolation to them; the individual wife’s happiness and sense of direction is grounded in nothing but self—“I can divorce this man because he is not satisfying me in bed as much as my boss.” The children, the husband, the family, the society—all of that—is left on the sidelines at the expense of what is now commonly called (in other countries) “Western individualism.” The underlying presupposition of individualism is that the individual in isolation to society is seen as a better arbiter of truth than the community; the individual knows best. This presupposes a humanistic “unconstrained” view of human nature; that is, the human individual has the capacity to reason, and to reason well indeed! I simply beg to differ.[20] The problem with individualism[21] and such unconstrained thinking is that it neglects the communal aspects of marriage. Marriage is more than love of self and love towards self: it is about the Other (i.e., the spouse) and the family, too. “Although some starry-eyed young adults may believe they are marrying only their spouse, they usually marry into an entire family with attendant interactions, relationships, and responsibilities that extend far beyond the spouse.”[22] While Kantian ethics accepts human reason as the chief arbiter of truth, DCT balances this out with its imperatives—such imperatives which may fall outside the realm of human reason. While you may think that divorce is good—maybe God is right: it’s not as good or as green on that other side.

The second possible solution is to continue the trend of cohabitation and see where it leads. Popular opinion has it that cohabitation allows couples to find out if they “fit” (sexually and psychologically) for each other. This is commonsensical: if we like living with each other, we’ll get married! In fact, three-fifths of all unmarried Americans believe that “living together prior to marriage will facilitate marital stability [2001].”[23] Where the tongue is, there the actions lie also. So we now have half of all Americans cohabiting before marriage.[24] The problem? This reasoning doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Across the board—whether you are looking at research done in Sweden, Canada, or the United States—those who cohabit before marriage are less likely to stay married.[25] Moreover, cohabitation leads to “fairly high levels of depression.”[26] According to Pepper Schwartz, cohabitation is not a good idea for a number of reasons: (a) it is “less equitable and egalitarian than marriage”;[27] and (b) cohabitation does change the way a couple engages with one another, and those changes “don’t bode well for marriage.”[28] In other words, if you want to get married—and stay married—do not cohabit. Not only that, but cohabiters also experience more “domestic violence” than their married counterparts.[29] Finally, the research indicates that “the best predictor of nonmonagamy after marriage is how much premarital sex there has been before it.”[30] Which makes perfect sense, given the fact that the number of sexual partners is directly and proportionally “associated with an increase in the cohabitation rate…”[31] The more one cohabits, the more sexual partners one has. Jonathan Burnside conclusively notes that “the benefits of marriage, as opposed to cohabitation and lone parenting, are well-documented across a wide range of indices, including benefits to children and building social capital.”[32] The one positive thing about cohabitation which I have found? Well, those who cohabit have sex sooner than those who get married, probably.

The third possible option which I will consider here is an implementation of a policy which mandates the use of PREP for all couples seeking to be married within The United Methodist Church. The pastor would perform the wedding ceremony if, and only if, the requirements of the premarital sessions had been met. Moreover, the pastor, at the end of these sessions, would then be allowed to exercise his or her own best judgment to perform the ceremony or not.

The benefits of PREP have been well-documented. In general, premarital counseling decreases the likelihood of divorce. For example, research done on PREP shows that after counseling, Follow-up 1 revealed that 0% of the intervention group (i.e., the group that participated in PREP) dissolved their relationships, whereas 19% of the control group dissolved their relationships. A little later, at Follow-up 2, 5% of the intervention group dissolved their relationships, whereas 24% of the control group dissolved theirs.[33] Obviously, premarital is not some magical wand that one waves to annihilate or make extinct divorce; it does decrease the likelihood of it. In another study, one done in 1993, couples who participated in premarital counseling sessions were roughly 50% less likely to divorce than the control group![34] To date, there are no known negative effects of premarital counseling sessions. This is, in simple language, a win-win situation for all.

Several problems with my policy may exist, if approached from another perspective. First, what if the husband is abusive? Judith Wallerstein, despite documenting the evils of divorce, does not believe that taking away no-fault divorce or making divorce harder to obtain would change the game for the better. “Trapping people in bad marriages or making the exit very narrow, I think, is very foolish…”[35] In the end, even Wallerstein is uncertain about what, ultimately, we are to do—to divorce or not to divorce, is the question. On the flip side, Judge Helen E. Brown points out that “50 percent of the people don’t need to get divorced if they learn how to resolve conflict and communicate better. If they make a commitment and stick with it, it’s going to be better for them and better for their children.”[36] Underlying her statement is this notion of duty-based (deontological/Kantian) ethics: one must weather the storm—for there is hope on the other side.

Implementation of Policy

I recommend that we begin by presenting the latest research and statistics to the members of the Methodist Church. After these presentations, which would seek to educate as many church members as possible, I recommend we have church pastors and selected representatives vote for the implementation of mandatory premarital counseling (with my personal recommendation of PREP). This democratic vote would try to represent faithfully the will of the majority while recognizing the value of Kantian ethics and the seriousness of God’s commands to humanity.[37] The governor of Oklahoma, Frank Keating, said it best: “Since you marry 75 percent of the people in your churches or synagogues or mosques, require a premarital course which includes counseling, dispute resolution, arguing fairly, and other issues that are most important in marriage breakup.”[38] In fact, covenant marriages (a new form of marriage which requires premarital counseling and difficult divorce) is available in at least three states with “a large fraction of Americans wanting to make it more widely available [2002].”[39] I suggest that I—and now we—are not alone: there is solid evidence supporting the goodness of a two-parent home, the damage divorce causes, the value of premarital counseling, and the fact that a rising proportion of us want good marriages and counseling. The evidence is in. What will you do?

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Anderson, Katherine, Don Browning, and Brian Boyer. Marriage—Just a Piece of Paper? Religion, Marriage, and Family Series. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002.

Burnside, Jonathan. God, Justice and Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Gottman, John Mordecai. What Predicts Divorce?: The Relationship Between Marital Processes and Marital Outcomes. Hillsdale: Laurence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., Publishers, 1994.

Thornton, Arland, William G. Axinn, and Yu Xie. Marriage and Cohabitation.

Edited by R. A. Easterlin. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007.

Schwartz, Pepper. Everything You Know About Love and Sex is Wrong. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2000.

The United Methodist Church. “The Book of Discipline—¶ 340a. Responsibilities and Duties of Elders and Licensed Pastors.” The United Methodist Church, 2012. Accessed November 7, 2014. http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/para-340-responsibilities-and-duties-of-elders-and-licensed-pastors.

FOOTNOTES:

[1] John Mordecai Gottman, What Predicts Divorce?: The Relationship Between Marital Processes and Marital Outcomes (Hillsdale: Laurence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., Publishers, 1994), 2.

[2] Arland Thornton, William G. Axinn, and Yu Xie, Marriage and Cohabitation, Population and Development, series ed., Richard A. Easterlin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 57. While this statistic suggests that the divorce rate had stayed the same, in fact, this is merely an illusion. Less people are marrying, more and more are cohabiting. Those cohabitations which result in break-up (in marriage we would call this “divorce”) do not register and are not a part of the “divorce statistics.” This artificially creates, in turn, a divorce rate that appears to have stayed the same—which, in reality, has actually continued to rise…

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 3.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 4.

[7] Judith Wallerstein, “What About the Children?” in MarriageJust a Piece of Paper?, eds. Katherine Anderson, Don Browning, and Brian Boyer, Religion, Marriage, and Family, series eds., Don S. Browning and John Wall (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002), 93.

[8] Ibid., 95.

[9] Ibid., 100.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Linda Waite, “Looking for Love,” in MarriageJust a Piece of Paper?, 168.

[12] William Galston, “Where Are We Going?” in MarriageJust a Piece of Paper?, 327.

[13] “The Book of Discipline—¶ 340a: Responsibilities and Duties of Elders and Licensed Pastors,” The United Methodist Church, accessed November 7, 2014, http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/para-340-responsibilities-and-duties-of-elders-and-licensed-pastors.

[14] “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” Moreover, human beings should live according to the Kingdom of Ends.

[15] By “verbally” I mean that God had given us commands via a medium different than DNA or RNA. God gave us commands to follow which were passed on orally, in written form, or via (alleged) “divine revelation.” In this sense, God, by necessity, is handcuffed to a text (or some such medium of communication).

[16] There are numerous problems with the Hebrew Masoretic text—whether it is God who hates divorce or a man divorcing his wife in hate, divorce is not seen as something commendable. Moreover, the Bible has more to say on this subject (cf. Matt. 19:6; Mk 10:2-12; Lk 16:18; Rom 7:2-3, etc.).

[17] Utilitarianism has several problems with it. First, utilitarian ethics cannot really explain change. If a society in the 1800s banned divorce, a utilitarian ethicist would argue that divorce is “evil” (according to the society). However, the same society, two-hundred years later could allow and embrace divorce; they could use utilitarian ethics to argue for the implementation of no-fault divorce. That is, the majority first chose and banned divorce; then the same majority embraced and allowed divorce. In this case, “the majority” being most happy. How does a utilitarian ethicist explain such changes? If utilitarian ethical approaches “banned” divorce in a given culture and, later, they “embraced” divorce, is not “utilitarianism” really a meaningless term? A term that merely explains what makes subjective people “happy” at a given moment in society’s history (a society which is prone to fluidity and change—being, as I hold, influenced by other factors [such as Kantian ethics, DCT, the Bible, etc.]). But in this example, utilitarianism is really nothing but a mere reflection of the culture. Hence my accusation that it is “culture in philosophical garb.” The culture banned divorce; the culture embraced divorce. But what underlies the culture’s decisions? That’s where I say that Kantian ethics is to guide culture and society at an individual level. A philosopher that may help clarify this issue is Soren Kierkegaard. He, too, I would argue, would support such an idea. His own approach is deontological—but then he has this idea of the “teleological suspension of the ethical.” In my own modified utilitarian approach (for society at large—not necessarily concerned here with the individual), the Kantian individuals which comprise society—would be “suspended” for the utilitarian, overall good of society at large. My position is more nuanced than both Kantian ethics and Utilitarianism…

[18] Not everything that is “subjective” is “relative.” A human being such as myself may exist in reality objectively, but I am constantly experienced and encountered by other human beings subjectively; that is, I am an objective object (an absolute) but I am not ever “absolutely” known by the Other.

[19] William G. Axinn et al., Marriage and Cohabitation, 58.

[20] Those who have chosen their marriage partners in accordance with their own reason are also the ones divorcing them in accordance with their “divine” reason!

[21] Larry Bumpass, “Where Are We and How Did We Get Here?” in MarriageJust a Piece of Paper?, 74.

[22] William G. Axinn et al., Marriage and Cohabitation, 8.

[23] William G. Axinn et al., Marriage and Cohabitation, 57.

[24] Ibid., 5.

[25] Ibid., 57-8. “[P]eople who lived together before they get married are significantly more likely to divorce later. It’s true in Canada. It’s true in Sweden. It’s true in the U.S. It’s true wherever we’ve looked” (Linda Waite, “Looking for Love,” in MarriageJust a Piece of Paper?, 165).

[26] Ibid., 164.

[27] Pepper Schwartz, Everything You Know About Love and Sex is Wrong (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2000), 213. Italics original.

[28] Ibid., 210.

[29] Linda Waite, “Looking For Love,” in MarriageJust a Piece of Paper?, 165.

[30] Schwartz, Everything You Know About Love and Sex is Wrong, 74.

[31] William G. Axinn et al., Marriage and Cohabitation, 197.

[32] Jonathan Burnside, God, Justice and Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 341.

[33] Gottman, What Predicts Divorce?, 428.

[34] Ibid., 430.

[35] Judith Wallerstein, “What About the Children?” in MarriageJust a Piece of Paper?, 104.

[36] Judge Helen E. Brown, “What About the Children?” in MarriageJust a Piece of Paper?, 108.

[37] Moreover, my modified utilitarian approach would allow for a temporary teleological suspension of Kantian ethics (i.e., divorce would be permissible if certain criteria are met, such as abuse, abandonment of family, habitual adultery, etc.) in favor of this consequentialist (utilitarian) approach, which teleologically seeks to bring benefit to the majority (be it wife, husband, and/or children).

[38] Frank Keating, “Where Are We Going?” in MarriageJust a Piece of Paper?, 338.

[39] William G. Axinn et al., Marriage and Cohabitation, 58.