Friday, August 19, 2016

Time Orientation of Politics

The two major political orientations in American politics are conservative and progressive. But this pattern is not distinctly American - it is widespread throughout history. Late Republican Rome had their own conservative and progressive factions: the Optimates and the Populares. These orientations are persistent because they derive from basic psychological attitudes towards time.

Conservatives love what is. They delight in the present and the particular. They tend to be older than progressives. People become more conservative as they age and fall in love with the world. Conservatives in different places have little in common with each other because they want to preserve different things. Conservatism is local.

Progressives are in love with the future. Progressive thought tends to be abstract and speculative. It measures the present against its ideals and finds it wanting. At its best, progressivism is the conscience of society. At its worst, it is an overactive, guilty conscience that turns into puritanism. Young people, filled with a desire to leave a dent in the universe, tend to be progressive.

Reading these descriptions you might be tempted to pick which side is right. But this is the wrong way to go about it. These are two basic poles of the human psyche and they need each other to be whole. Every human institution is polarized in this way. Even a group of progressive activists will have its more conservative and progressive members*. Split a magnet in half and what you have is two half-sized magnets, fractally, down to the polarization of individual atoms.

It is the task of wisdom to balance these two impulses within individuals and within human institutions. Both orientations have failure modes when they are allowed to dominate.

The failure mode of conservatism is latching on too tightly to the existing arrangement of things. When conservatism is well balanced, it is the skeleton of society, defender of things worth defending. When it becomes too entrenched it calcifies the body politic. The society fails to address a building problem until it is too late and bursts forth into catastrophe.

The failure mode of progressivism is impatience. When progressives change things too quickly, they destroy pieces of the old order without regards to their value. The fragile, irreplaceable beauty of the world is sacrificed in service of some promised future utopia. Often, there is great bloodshed, such as in the French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions. Iconoclasm in its old sense - the destruction of icons - is solely an actively of progressives.

In the abstract, both suffer from impossibility. The conservative must make peace that the present cannot stay the same and the progressive that the task of eliminating evil eventually generates negative returns.

The continuum of time is split into past, present, and future and so far we have discovered political attitudes that correspond to two of the three: present -> conservative and future -> progressive. There is one other basic political orientation but it is less common: the reactionary. Reaction is in love with things past.

To explain reaction and how it influences modern politics would be a large tangent that would distract from the elegant model so far developed in this post. So I will leave that for later. But a healthy psyche or good society will also balance reactionary feeling with conservative and progressive.

* Progressive movements, driven by the fuel of righteous anger, are especially tempted to purify the whole by purging more conservative members. See the infighting of the modern social justice movement, or more spectacular bloody purges of the past:

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Stuck in the Muck

I have a hard time organizing my life in the adult world. How do I choose what to spend my time on? This is a difficult question.

If I have a pressing physical need, then the answer is obvious. I will try to address that physical need in a graceful way. For example, if I need money to pay for rent, I will find a job doing some good in the world, in a way that uses my existing talents and helps me develop new ones. That is how I chose my last job.

Over the last year I did not work at a job. I was able to take a year off thanks to money I saved, support from loved ones, and a little bit of luck. Without the constraint of work I come into direct confrontation with the burning question of how to spend my time.

I thought being jobless would be a paradise. Sometimes it is a blessing. I am grateful for the freedom to pursue experiences, retreats, and courses of study that are hard or impossible for the employed to enjoy.

But other times the jobless life is hell. I wallow in agony with how to spend my time. I hit the back of my head against the wall behind my bed and groan.

The problem is not lack of options. I can think of so many worthwhile ways to spend my time. On a typical day I rapidly fluctuate back and forth between 5 of them. I practice guitar for 5 minutes. I start on an essay. I start writing a list of friends I want to spend time with. I open up a code editor.

In the swamp of infinite choices, I get stuck. I make no forward progress on any one thing and I start to feel frustrated. This is where the groaning and banging my head against the wall comes in. So much is started but nothing is finished. Another day went by with nothing to show.

My energy starts to flag and along with it my will. I might start to read articles on the internet - never just one piece, but about eight articles at a time. My attention will flow back and forth between the tabs, split into tiny pieces. Maybe in despair I will go for a walk or find a friend. Then I feel better for awhile.

I think to myself that I should multitask less and single-task more. So over the weeks I make progress in fighting one media addiction or another. But it is not enough. I crave some ordering principle, something to work towards, something that will limit the infinite possibilities that each day presents to me.

Over the months, I make a little forward motion. But it is condensed into 4 or 5 days a month that feel worthwhile. In those, I have some new experience in which I feel that I make forward progress, such as teaching a workshop or attending one. Most of my time is spent on little of importance.

I am operating well below peak capacity. For a man, this is a slow death. We are creatures meant to be used. I feel of little use to anybody.

I am disconnected from the web of meaning. The most meaningful things I do are trainings that I hope will give me skills that one day may be useful to people. But I am not much use now.

The times of my life I felt the least lost were college and grad school. The several classes I took at any one time gave my life structure and variety. My daily efforts pointed to a long-term goal of earning a degree. I had flexibility - between each rigorous semester there was a long break to recharge and travel. And I had the social support of friends who were working with me.

I think to myself that with the infinite freedom of the real world I could craft a program of learning that was more gratifying than any college could offer. But I need help. I can’t craft it on my own. There is too much flexibility, too many good options.

I need a guidance counselor for life.

My money will run out eventually and I will need to get a job. Probably. That will solve my problem. But I would much rather solve it by learning how to live gracefully as a free soul.