Letter from South America

Dear Bob,
I’m taking my first MOOC (Massive Open Online Course). The course is called “The Science of Happiness” offered by Berkeley University on the EdX platform. It’s really cool: having all the material available at any time, and then the discussion enriched by the diverse views of the so many participants. And it is free! Great indeed. But if I had the option I would not take distance education as opposed to attending a class in person. There is, in my opinion, something about the teacher, the real person, the character and the human interaction that it is supposed to educate, facilitate, and help one develop the mind. And perhaps I would prefer that every human connection I have was a real one. But this is the era of technology and we get to have “virtual” connections and yet, manage to have the feeling that there is a true human relationship. In the course, just like here, when we have an exchange of thoughts, we do it without seeing each other, without listening to our voices (at least not in real time, except for the live Q&A session) or seeing our reaction. But still, it feels like there is connection and attraction and it is fun.
Human connection is a necessary condition for happiness, scientists have found. I don’t have many close friends, in fact, I just have … boy, not many strong relationships as we usually consider them. Do our relationships here in the blog count? I say they do because although we might not contact each other through our senses, I “see” you through your thoughts, your words, the stories you tell here, your interpretation of things, your humor. And likewise, I think you “see” me in the same way. I find meaning and meaning is what matters.  
I think human connection is very complicated and one might wonder if it is true that it is possible to have really good relationships. I guess it goes with one’s personality and culture. Where there is a culture of non-trust, where a common view is that the other is always up to something, something that might affect you negatively, meaningful relationships are not going to flourish. War, poverty, corruption, injustice corrupt the soul. When I lived on Gabriola Island, in Canada, I was always amazed of how nobody seemed to be on guard, suspecting the other’s intentions; nice feeling. This is the second week of the course and the topic is precisely how human connection is such key to happiness. I have to admit that I never thought much about how to make my relationships very strong but how not to be affected by others and be free and supposedly happy. But it seems that this is not the correct approach if happy is what I want to be. A lot to study and eight more weeks to go; I am excited.
I want to tell you that you are a very important person in my life, dear Bob, and that my relationship with you and the contributors of this blog is of the most importance to me.
Until next time,

Practical philosophy

Files found in a scrapbook:

Back in another century I had a newsgroup for philosophy students.

They could ask questions about course content, rant about most anything,
and communicate any time of day or night. The first piece comes from
the newsgroup for existentialism:

I don’t wanna make a long talk even more drawn out, but I feel compelled
to relate my story. 1’11 keep it brief.
Towards the end of the semester last year I was diagnosed with a sinus
arrythmia and premature ventricular contractions -layman’s terms: a
funny heart beat that sometimes beats backwards. Fortunately these are
relatively benign conditions and since there’s no underlying heart
disease I’m gonna be safe. However, it was during the first week or so
of my diagnosis when I was completely terrified that I first discovered
aloneness. It was the oddest thing, during one episode of a tachycardia
(a racing heart beat) all the people in the room and everything I was
watching became something akin to a TV screen. It was as though I was
just watching actors on a screen, that they really weren’t people and
that there was only me, for if my vision did fade and I fell into that
black hole that I’m constantly struggling against those people I saw
would be gone away from me and no longer BE THERE. I was alone. I wish
I had to words to explain it, but there I was alone. Everything else
was just a fiction, the only thing there was for me was me, waiting for
my heart to explode. Scary stuff . However, when I came home to my
girl friend, and saw the worry, pain, anguish and everything I felt
reflected in her face, and then when our eyes met and I realized that
those feelings she had were because of me, I realized I was not alone,
and that everything I do is connected with her. A deep and touching
moment. I do now believe that if there is one saving grace in this
lonely world, it is love and with love you don’t need to be alone, for
love transcends words, consciousness, all that love says what words
can’t. In other words, I’ll never die alone as long as my girlfriend is
with me, I’ll just be alone after I die.

Deep stuff huh?

The following exchange is from an email discussion:


I just wanted to thank and congratulate you on “The Absurd Hero” which
I just finished reading from the Internet. Camus is my hero, really, and I
find him, among all, the most courageous and honest of humans in his frank
confrontation with life. Your essay is timely. I have a heart disease which
which is progressive and can only be treated by transplant sometime in the
next few years (whenever my condition reaches the point of end-stage). My
problem is: being a follower of Camus, and agreeing with him that life is a
struggle of Sisyphus’ proportions, why get a transplant?  It seems to me
that he’s right about suicide, and that, like William James, the passion
and the struggle to do the right thing make it worth it, to seek to extend
it 15 years (by transplant) when one is given by nature an “out” is
another, more tormenting, choice. At present, I’ve “gone along” with the
intent to transplant me (I’m seeing transplant clinic doctors every other
month), purely on the pretense that when I am in a hospital bed, and the
only thing that can save my life is a transplant, I’ll see things
differently. However, I am tormented by my lack of authenticity here: I am
not making a choice that I would make if I were going along with my real
desires, which is to let nature take its course and quit the struggle. I’d
welcome your observations. How would you, or Camus for that matter,
respond to my plight?

Dr. Richard ****,
Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.


Thanks for the message. I appreciate your comments on my paper, and the
description for the tormenting problem you are facing. Your description
of your situation is moving and the torment sounds genuine.

Observations? Let me start with my favourite quote from Camus: ‘To
breathe is to judge” – whether taking the next breath is valuable or not
is a judgment you must make; no one can make it for you. Just remember
that although Camus starts with that provocative sentence about suicide,
his essay is really an argument against suicide. Part of the struggle
may indeed be to have a heart transplant which, I’m sure is a struggle.
As you indicate, the real torment comes from your attempt to be
authentic, by which, I take it you mean to match your desires and your
actions. But you don’t, I take it, have the necessary information to
make any final decision now. Nor can you predict’ with anything like
certainty, what your decision will be as you approach the O.R.

I wonder also about your notion that you should let ”nature take its
course” – which ‘seems to presuppose that nature has a course. But as
Camus would say, nature has no particular course, she just IS. We’re the
ones who make decisions, have a program, look for value.

As Koheleth says: ‘Truly the light is sweet, and a pleasant thing it is
to behold the sun.” As long as that is possible, celebrate it.

Director, Institute of Practical Philosophy

Many, many thanks for your observations. This is precisely what I
needed and conforms to my intuition about things. What I am feeling right
now, is, I wish I knew this Bob Lane. I very much admire the handle you
have on the greatest philosopher I have ever read.
Thanks again, Bob Lane.


Richard ****,
Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.

Letter from Sayward – 2

Community:  “a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.”

by Paul Stahnke for Episyllogism


Lately, I have been thinking a great deal about ‘community’. For me, ‘community’ is the idea of belonging, feeling at peace with other people, and with where and how I live. This is an odd concept because I often go for days on end without speaking to anyone beyond my wife, Michelle. Every Wednesday morning I drive into town in order to visit my mother who is slowly dying in a care facility. I usually buy a few groceries, woodshop products, or welding supplies. I also meet with a local discussion group for one hour. In addition to following a formal meeting format, about 45 minutes is spent discussing a scheduled topic. Sometimes, a member might talk about a particular family situation or experience that has been bothering them, but by and large the meeting topic organises the flow of ideas into a particular theme. There is no cross talk that might hijack discussion although the thoughts of one member might be taken up by another, and so on. There is no formal order of member participation.  Sometimes, there is silence. For unknown reasons, in this small group simple silence is quite pleasant and allows a time for reflection.  The experience can only be described as ‘intimate’, for we share our most private concerns and thoughts. The size of the group varies between 10-18 people, and usually I am the only male. The ages range from 40 – 80, and group members come from all walks of life.


Last Wednesday’s topic was, ‘belonging’. I found it pretty hard to separate the sense of ‘community’ from this theme.


Today, while thinking more about this concept, I researched and subsequently read an article from a CS Lewis website. The author is Art Lindsey (senior fellow), and the article title is: “Community – and why we need it….Love is never stimulated apart from community”.  One particular quote caught my eye, “When we live our lives in isolation, what we have is unavailable and what we lack is unprocurable”. (Basil, an early Church Father). It goes on to say, “When we live our lives independently, other people are poorer because they cannot benefit from our gifts”. And, “When we isolate ourselves, we are poorer because the benefits of other’s gifts are lost to us, so what we lack, we cannot get”. [Source]

Why do people often feel isolated and estranged when living in large groups or in today’s western societies?

An excerpt from a Globe and Mail article states it this way:


“Chronic loneliness has roots that are both internal and external, a combination of genes and social circumstance, but something is making it worse. Blame the garage-door opener, which keeps neighbours from seeing each other at the end of the day, or our fetish for roads over parks, or the bright forest of condo towers that bloom on our city’s skylines.

Or blame an increasingly self-absorbed society, as John Cacioppo does. Prof. Cacioppo, the leading authority on the health effects of loneliness, is director of the University of Chicago’s Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience. “One of the things we’ve seen is a movement away from a concern for others,” he says in a phone interview. “Economics basically says you should be concerned about your own short-term interests. There’s more division in society, more segmentation; there’s less identity with a national or global persona, but rather on the family or the individual. People aren’t as loyal to their employers, and employers are certainly not as loyal to their workers.”

Last fall, an old school friend came for a visit. It did not go well. I had really been looking forward to seeing him and made sure we had lots of food and wine. Michelle left to visit her sister and we were planning to fish, cook out on the fire, and generally get caught up. After a day I found myself wishing he would just stop talking. It was incessant, and while it was certainly company, there was absolutely no connection left in our lives. I tried to understand why I felt that way? I was also upset at my attitude. What had changed in the last 15 years? I’m not sure, but I did have a few ideas. One, in that time cell phones came into existence and have since morphed into the ever-present smart phones with camera; being connected, supposedly. Cell phones don’t work at our house but we do have Wi-Fi. He ran around taking picture after picture and continually tried to phone or text his wife. He would interrupt a walk or talk with, “Wait one second, I’ve got to ‘get’ this”. He brought up other people from our past and I had only a vague recollection of what they looked like. Finally, I told him that I hadn’t really thought about school after I had left. I suppose the main reason for our bad visit is that I have changed; I am no longer the same person.

We no longer lived in the same ‘community’.

Continue reading

March’s Letter from South America

Dear Bob,

 I don’t know if I’ve told you that when I think of happiness I often think of you. You’re a true professor, a role model for many, an intellectual, an author, a man with a wonderful family, so successful, so admired. And I say and think these things, like Bob must be happysomeone must be happy, or I want to be happy or someone is not happy. It is a fact that everyone wants to be happy (or at least it is a fact that people say that). What do we mean? We look at so many things that are supposed to make us happy: tenure, money, beauty, or skillfulness. My mother used to say that a peasant must be happy: the countryside is so beautiful, so peaceful and so natural. But country life is hard work for little reward; especially in the developing world. And if you belong to a pampered circle you surely find a lot of satisfaction, basic needs fully satisfied and so many perks, but no happiness is guaranteed of course.

 The point here, the thing that I am thinking about, is not the profound question of what happiness is, although perhaps it is unavoidable. My question is how can I be happy? This doesn’t imply that I don’t feel like I am happy at times. You know, every time I go into my classroom and I engage my students in some fun topic I truly feel alive and useful and formidable. And whenever I sit to write to you I truly feel gooood (please don’t correct it. I mean it!). The thing is, is it possible to achieve this ideal: be happy? Not to have moments of glory, or moments of pleasure, or moments of success, but to reach some state of mind, impervious to tragedy, loss, failure, to your own tendency to regret or anything that seems opposed to happiness.

 The definition of being happy eludes me. But I somehow feel that the definition escapes language and I just know what that is. Perhaps I am bullshitting myself here. Maybe I believe it on faith! Who invented this term “happy” anyway! Did she refer just to moments of glory, moments of pleasure or moments of accomplishment? So is there only the temporary mood of feeling happy? Estoy feliz, as opposed to Soy feliz, the first one indicating a mood, the second one an inner characteristic.

 I want to tell you about a practice I have: if I feel lazy or tired or slow at times when I am not supposed to feel that way, first, I have something sweet to eat, and second, I make an inventory of the positive in my life which requires an inventory of the negative that is not part of my life; something like: I don’t have any debts, I don’t have ailments, etc. It works and I feel good. But of course I want more than that. Anyway, Bob, I meant what I said at the beginning of this letter. Being as intellectually active as you are must be happiness, just like Aristotle’s happiness: a philosopher always exercising his reason.


Until next time,


More on happiness: here and here.