Some early-morning thoughts on how we should feel about Bin Laden’s death.

Every time I’ve gotten on Facebook over the past few days I’ve read people’s reactions to the death of Osama Bin Laden. Most of these statements regarding OBL’s death haven’t been about the man himself, the life he lived, or the way he died; they’ve mostly been reactions to others’ celebration of his death. Most of these reactions have been negative; they object to the celebration of the death of a fellow human being, no matter how vile he may have been. Here’s an especially good one I read just before writing this:

“I am sure [Osama Bin Laden] celebrated all of the deaths of his enemies… I thought that was why he was the bad guy, though?” 

I feel the sentiment too. There’s something in me that writhes about when I see others, or myself, smiling or laughing or cheering about the fact that there’s one more bullet-riddled, lifeless body in the world.

But I think the sentiment that being glad at, or even celebrating, the death of another human being is wrong – isn’t always right. I think that the feeling that it’s always wrong to be glad someone has died or been killed is based on the beautiful, but false, belief that no one lives in such a way that their death is a victory for good. People do live this way, and Osama Bin Laden was one of them. I don’t think that you should ignore that part of yourself that  cringes when you see someone smiling over his death, but I do think you should consider exactly what you should be cringing over. I don’t think that you should cringe over his death, per se. I think you should feel saddened and grieved not that a man was killed, but rather that a man – a fellow human – lived in such a way that he put his other fellow humans in such a painful predicament, where they were forced to either willfully live with the danger that, at any moment, innocence and beauty could be snuffed out by this man, or willfully eliminate the threat to innocents by taking another’s life. In this way, by living the life he did, Osama Bin Laden victimized humanity on multiple levels. He played an active, conscious role in taking the lives of thousands of people – thousands of boyfriends and girlfriends, children, fiancees, parents, siblings and friends. He helped traumatize thousands of other lives forever. And he promised to do this as long as he lived. He thereby placed the world of innocents between the horns of a dilemma: live in fear and danger, or eliminate a life. And in this instance, the second option is the moral one. Weighing the value of the lives of thousands of innocents against the value of a moral monster who threatens those lives makes the right choice clear. To not do everything possible to preserve the lives of innocents in this case would have been wrong. Bin Laden forced other humans into the position where, in order to do the right thing, they had to kill someone. That’s not their fault. It’s his.

But why should we be happy he’s dead? Sure, killing him wasn’t the wrong thing to do, you might say, but is celebrating another’s death, no matter how evil they are, ever right? Isn’t celebrating the death of another human sadistic and cruel? I think it is, normally. But I don’t think it’s always sadistic, cruel, or mean-spirited to celebrate another’s death. Consider the following scenarios.

The Roman Emperor, Nero, was a sadistic tyrant. Stories illustrating his cruelty abound. He, according to some accounts, used to light the city of Rome at night by hanging Christians, alive, by their limbs throughout the city and setting them on fire. Perhaps those stories are true, perhaps not. It doesn’t really matter. There certainly could have been such a ruler. And there certainly have been sick, terrifying tyrants. Perhaps Nero did light the city with live, screaming humans. Perhaps he taxed people so severely that many starved to death while he sat on a mountain of money. And perhaps he skinned alive all who dared to look in his face. Imagine this is how Nero was. All his subjects would live in constant fear of his next whimsical bout of sadism. They would struggle under the financial burdens he placed on them. Many would watch their children starve to death under his unjust rule.

Now imagine, having ruled in this way, Nero suddenly dies, and his throne passes to another – a just and kind man. He was stabbed to death by a guard; or perhaps he died of a sudden stroke, or bone cancer, and with his death so dies his tyrannical rule. How would you, a pitiful, starving subject of his, living in constant fear of torture or taxation, feel? You’d rejoice! The tyrant is dead! You’d take the money you have, knowing it will no longer go to the Monster King, and prepare a feast for your family! And would you be evil for it? For laughing and dancing and crying for joy with your husband or wife? Of course not! This man’s death is not a tragedy; it’s a blessing to the world, for it has made us safer; it has removed from our lives injustice, terror, pain, death, and hatred. That is a cause for celebration. If we mourn at all it should come last, and we should not mourn over the man’s death, but over his life. We should be sorry not that he died, but that he lived in the way he did.

This is how we should feel about Osama Bin Laden’s death. We didn’t all live in the same terror that those under my (probably fictitious) Nero did. But many of our fellow humans did. Many have lived for ten years with the suffering and loss he helped inflict on them, and a hatred for the man who chose to hurt them so badly. His death has given some sense of closure and real justice to their pain. There are people today who, had Bin Laden been allowed to live out his natural life, would have surely died at his hands. They don’t know who they are, but there are such people. And we should be glad that they won’t die in this unjust way now. We should, also, be glad for all the people who  have lived with a constant, phobic anxiety at the fact that Bin Laden is out there, trying to find some way to drop another plane on their city. They can rest a bit easier, I think, knowing that that monster isn’t out there now.

So, I think that celebration is absolutely appropriate, if it is done with the right facts in mind. We should be happy that the world is a bit safer, that there’s one less monster out there, and that there are likely lives that would have ended unjustly, but have now been saved. That is worth celebrating. But most who celebrate don’t do so with these facts in mind. They celebrate the death of Bin Laden as a victory for the ‘home team’. It’s ‘us’ versus ‘them’ and we just scored a touchdown. This sort of stupid, machismo, fanboy exuberance is shameful and totally out of place. It embodies, albiet to a much smaller degree, the very same divisive, inhumane prejudices that make real atrocities, such as terrorism, possible in the first place. It ought to be snuffed out too. But, that said, I think that you, the reader, should feel entitled to a real sense of satisfaction at the fact that, in the death of a monster, the world has been bettered.



Two movies you need to see (with me)

Most sci-fi out there sucks, regardless of the medium. The main characters have stupid names like “Dirk Steelhammer”, and the plots are either ruined because they require you to have read the “Quantum Mechanics of Star Trek” book the author ripped his science from, or because they’re painfully formulaic – usually involving stock characters like an emotionless, lone-ranger-type main character and a beautiful and scientifically-minded woman with a tough-as-nails exterior that hides her desire for love. This is why I don’t read much sci-fi or watch many sci-fi movies, even though sci-fi is probably my favorite genre.

But, this year my sci-fi intake is going to spike dramatically because there seems to be a rise in the number of talented story tellers who care about the human condition, and who are interested in making sci-fi movies that have not only brains to them, but hearts as well. Big, bleeding hearts.

So here are previews for two, really interesting-looking, soon-to-be-released “soft sci-fi” movies (that is, sci-fi movies that focus more on the ‘fi’ than the ‘sci’).

The first is from a guy who might be my new favorite director – Lars von Trier. He’s the guy responsible for Antichrist, which caused such a ruckus at Cannes last year. I thought that movie was really excellent (certainly one of the most affective movies I’ve seen). He also did Dancer in the Dark, which is a sledgehammer-to-the-chest of a film if there ever was one (it also won the Palm D’or, which is sort of the yearly “Best Movie In The World” award). In fact, he’s known for making movies that seem to aim (though not, I think, in a contrived way) at devastating the viewer. And, at the debut of the film below, he simply said that, from here out, his films would have “no more happy endings”.


This next film seems a bit more hopeful, though still heavy. I don’t know anything about the director or anyone else associated with the film.

The plot seems to depend on this idea popular among some cosmologists that, since the universe is infinitely large (which it actually isn’t), and contains an infinite amount of matter (which it actually doesn’t), every possible combination of matter will occur an infinite number of times. Thus, there are an infinite number of planets just like this one, with people on them with the same names and appearance, and who make the same choices, as this one – as well as an infinite number of planets exactly like this one with very minute to very large differences in the choices, names, looks, etc. of their inhabitants. I only say all that to give you some background on what looks like an important idea to the film. But the fact that that idea is just plain wrong (for reasons to do with the pure mathematics of the theory) shouldn’t affect our judgement of the film, I think, even though it’s sure to create some discussion on the science it relies on.

But I’ll shut up. Here’s Another Earth:

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What do I need to add to my list of ‘books to read’? (list below)

Books I Want To Read


1984 – Orwell
A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
Alas, Babylon – Pat Frank
Animal Farm – George Orwell
At the Mountains of Madness – Lovecraft
The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
The Brothers Karamazov – Dostoyevsky
Contact – Carl Sagan
The Crucible – Arthur Miller
The Death of Ivan Ilyich – Tolstoy
Dhalgren –  Samuel Delany
The Divine Comedy – Dante
Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes
Dune – Frank Herbert
The Engines of God – Jack McDevitt
Faust – Goethe
Fear and Trembling – Kierkegaard
Frankenstein – Mary Shelly
Galapagos – Kurt Vonnegut
Gateway – Frederik Pohl
A Good Man Is Hard to Find – Flannery O’Connor
Great Expectations – Dickens
Hamlet – Shakespeare
Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace
King Lear – Shakespeare
Leaves of Grass – Walt Whitman
Light in August – Faulkner
Lolita – Nabakov
The Luzhin Defense – Nabakov
The Man in the High Castle – Philip K. Dick
The Master and Margarita – Bulgakov
Les Miserables – Victor Hugo
Moby Dick – Melville
The Name of the Rose – Umberto Eco
Nausea – Sartre
The Odyssey – Homer
The Old Man and the Sea – Hemingway
One Day in the LIfe of Ivan Denisovich – Solzhenitsyn
Pale Fire – Nabakov
Paradise Lost – Milton
The Pillars of the Earth – Ken Follett
The Plague – Camus
The Portrait of a Lady – Henry James
Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
Rainbow’s End – Vernor Vinge
Ubik – Philip K. Dick
The Rama Series – Arthur C. Clarke
The Road – McCarthy
The Sirens of Titan – Vonnegut
Slaughterhouse-Five – Vonnegut
Song of Kali – Dan SImmons
The Sorrows of Young Werther – Goethe
The Sparrow – Mary Doria Russell
Thus Spoke Zarathustra – Nietzsche
The Stranger – Camus
Stranger In A Strange Land – Heinlein
A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
The Trial – Kafka
The Turn of the Screw – Henry James
Watership Down – Richard Adams
Wizard – John Varley

[“(VSI)” indicates that the book is part of Oxford Press’ “Very Short Introduction” series.]

After Religion – Vattimo
After Theory – Terry Eagleton
Authentic Happiness – Seligman
Beyond Good and Evil – Nietzsche
Beyond the Pleasure Principle – Freud
The Birth of Tragedy – Nietzsche
Blink – Malcolm Gladwell
The Brain (VSI)
A Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
A Brief History of Time – Stephen Hawking
A Brief History of Western Philosophy – Robert Solomon
Christ – Jack Miles
Christian Spirituality – Alilster McGrath
Civilization and its Discontents – Freud
Confessions – St. Augustine
Consciousness Explained – Dennett
Critique of Religion and Philosophy – Walter Kaufmann
De Anima – Aristotle
The Death of God and the Meaning of Life – Julian Young
Desire – William B. Irvine
The Ego and the Id – Freud
Either/Or – Kierkegaard
The Elements of Style – Strunk and White
Enchiridion – Epictetus
Existentialism, from Dostoyevsky to Sartre – Kaufmann
Existentialism is a Humanism – Sartre
Finite and Infinite Games – James P. Carse
Flow – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Freedom Evolves – Dennett
Freud and Beyond, a history of psychoanalysis – Mitchell and Black
God – Etienne Gilson
God, a biography – Jack Miles
The God We Never Knew – Marcus Borg
Godel Escher Bach – Hofstader
The Good Life – William B. Irvine
Greek Mythology – Edith Hamilton
Hegel – (Solomon or Kaufmann or Singer)
A History of Christian Thought – Paul Tillich
A History of Christianity – Paul Johnson
A History of Western Philosophy – Bertrand Russell
I Am A Strange Loop – Douglas Hofstader
I and Thou – Martin Buber
Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis – Freud
Jesus, a biography – Paul Johnson
Jesus Through Middle-Eastern Eyes – Bailey
The Koran
Man and His Symbols – Carl Jung
Man’s Search for Meaning – Victor Frankl
The Many Faces of Realism – Putnam
Mathematics (VSI)
Meditations – Marcus Aurelius
Metaphysics and the Idea of God – Pannenberg
Modern Philosophy – Roger Scruton
Modernism – Christopher Butler
Naming and Necessity – Kripke
A New History of Western Philosophy – Anthony Kenny
New Seeds of Contemplation – Thomas Merton
On Belief – Zizek
On Writing – Stephen King
Paul – N.T. Wright
A People’s History of the World
Philosophical Investigations – Wittgenstein
Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature – Rorty
The Philosophy of Science (VSI)
Postmodern Theory – Best and Kellner
Pragmatism – William James
The Pragmatism Reader – Talisse and Aikin
Principles of Mathematical Philosophy – Russell
Psychology (VSI)
Quantum Physics (VSI)
Rapt – Gallagher
Reading the Bible Again for the First Time – Marcus Borg
The Resurrection of the Son of God – N.T. Wright
The Right to Write − Cameron
The Secular Age – Charles Taylor
The Singularity Is Near – Ray Kurzweil
Sources of Self – Taylor
Spirituality for Skeptics – Robert Solomon
The Story of Christian Theology – Roger E. Olson
The Story of Thought – Bryan Magee
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions – Thomas Kuhn
Stumbling on Happiness – Daniel Goldman
The Symbolism of Evil – Paul Ricoeur
Tao Te Ching – Lao Tsu
Truth and Method – Gadamer
The Unity of Knowledge – E. O. Wilson
Varieties of Religious Experience – William James
The View from Nowhere – Nagel
Walden – Thoreau
The World as Will and Representation – Schopenhauer
Your Memory – Kenneth Higbee


Some Thoughts on Writing from Bertrand Russell

It’s now one of those times of the year when those of us who work in academics have lots of writing to get done. If you’re at that point now and find yourself in need of some encouragement, advice, or something to distract you from your work for a minute, I suggest this piece from a guy who knew a thing or two about the craft of writing, Bertrand Russell.  I inevitably think about it every time I sit down to work on a paper. Hope you enjoy.


“How I Write”

I cannot pretend to know how writing ought to be done, or what a wise critic would advise me to do with a view to improving my own writing. The most that I can do is to relate some things about my own attempts.

Until I was twenty-one, I wished to write more or less in the style of John Stuart Mill. I liked the structure of his sentences and his manner of develop- ing a subject. I had, however, already a different ideal, derived, I suppose, from mathematics. I wished to say everything in the smallest number of words in which it could be said clearly. Perhaps, I thought, one should imitate Baedeker rather than any more literary model. I would spend hours trying to find the shortest way of saying something without ambiguity, and to this aim I was willing to sacrifice all attempts at aesthetic excellence.

At the age of twenty-one, however, I came under a new influence, that of my future brother-in-law, Logan Pearsall Smith. He was at that time exclusively interested in style as opposed to matter. His gods were Flaubert and Walter Pater, and I was quite ready to believe that the way to learn how to write was to copy their technique. He gave me various simple rules, of which I remember only two: ‘Put a comma every four words’, and ‘never use “and” except at the beginning of a sentence.’ His most emphatic advice was that one must always re-write. I conscientiously tried this, but found that my first draft was almost always better than my second. This discovery has saved me an immense amount of time. I do not, of course, apply it to the substance, but only to the form. When I discover an error of an important kind, I re-write the whole. What I do not find is that I can improve a sentence when I am satisfied with what it means.

Very gradually I have discovered ways of writing with a minimum of worry and anxiety. When I was young each fresh piece of serious work used to seem to me for a time—perhaps a long time—to be beyond my powers. I would fret myself into a nervous state from fear that it was never going to come right. I would make one unsatisfying attempt after another, and in the end have to discard them all. At last I found that such fumbling attempts were a waste of time. It appeared that after first contemplating a book on some subject, and after giving serious preliminary attention to it, I needed a period of subconscious incubation which could not be hurried and was, if anything, impeded by deliberate thinking. Sometimes I would find, after a time, that I had made a mistake, and that I could not write the book I had had in mind. But often I was more fortunate. Having, by a time of very intense concentra- tion, planted the problem in my subconsciousness, it would germinate underground until, suddenly, the solution emerged with blinding clarity, so that it only remained to write down what had appeared as if in a revelation.

The most curious example of this process, and the one which led me subsequently to rely upon it, occurred at the beginning of 1914. I had under- taken to give the Lowell Lectures at Boston, and had chosen as my subject ‘Our Knowledge of the External World’. Throughout 1913 I thought about this topic. In term time in my rooms at Cambridge, in vacations in a quiet inn on the upper reaches of the Thames, I concentrated with such intensity that I sometimes forgot to breathe and emerged panting as from a trance. But all to no avail. To every theory that I could think of I could perceive fatal objec- tions. At last, in despair, I went off to Rome for Christmas, hoping that a holiday would revive my flagging energy. I got back to Cambridge on the last day of 1913, and although my difficulties were still completely unresolved I arranged, because the remaining time was short, to dictate as best as I could to a stenographer. Next morning, as she came in at the door, I suddenly saw exactly what I had to say, and proceeded to dictate the whole book without a moment’s hesitation.

I do not want to convey an exaggerated impression. The book was very imperfect, and I now think that it contains serious errors. But it was the best that I could have done at that time, and a more leisurely method (within the time at my disposal) would almost certainly have produced something worse. Whatever may be true of other people, this is the right method for me. Flaubert and Pater, I have found, are best forgotten so far as I am concerned.

Although what I now think about how to write is not so very different from what I thought at the age of eighteen, my development has not been by any means rectilinear. There was a time, in the first years of this century, when I had more florid and rhetorical ambitions. This was the time when I wrote A Free Man’s Worship, a work of which I do not now think well. At that time I was steeped in Milton’s prose, and his rolling periods reverberated through the caverns of my mind. I cannot say that I no longer admire them, but for me to imitate them involves a certain insincerity. In fact, all imitation is dangerous. Nothing could be better in style than the Prayer Book and the Authorized Version of the Bible, but they express a way of thinking and feeling which is different from that of our time. A style is not good unless it is an intimate and almost involuntary expression of the personality of the writer, and then only if the writer’s personality is worth expressing. But although direct imitation is always to be deprecated, there is much to be gained by familiarity with good prose, especially in cultivating a sense for prose rhythm.

There are some simple maxims—not perhaps quite so simple as those which my brother-in-law Logan Pearsall Smith offered me—which I think might be commended to writers of expository prose. First: never use a long word if a short word will do. Second: if you want to make a statement with a great many qualifications, put some of the qualifications in separate sen- tences. Third: do not let the beginning of your sentence lead the reader to an expectation which is contradicted by the end. Take, say, such a sentence as the following, which might occur in a work on sociology: ‘Human beings are completely exempt from undesirable behaviour-patterns only when certain prerequisites, not satisfied except in a small percentage of actual cases, have, through some fortuitous concourse of favourable circumstances, whether congenital or environmental, chanced to combine in producing an individual in whom many factors deviate from the norm in a socially advantageous manner.’ Let us see if we can translate this sentence into English. I suggest the following: ‘All men are scoundrels, or at any rate almost all. The men who are not must have had unusual luck, both in their birth and in their upbringing.’ This is shorter and more intelligible, and says just the same thing. But I am afraid any professor who used the second sentence instead of the first would get the sack.

This suggests a word of advice to such of my hearers as may happen to be professors. I am allowed to use plain English because everybody knows that I could use mathematical logic if I chose. Take the statement: ‘Some people marry their deceased wives’ sisters.’ I can express this in language which only becomes intelligible after years of study, and this gives me freedom. I suggest to young professors that their first work should be written in a jargon only to be understood by the erudite few. With that behind them, they can ever after say what they have to say in a language ‘understanded of the people’. In these days, when our very lives are at the mercy of the professors, I cannot but think that they would deserve our gratitude if they adopted my advice.

(Portraits from Memory, London: Allen & Unwin; New York: Simon & Schuster, 1956.)

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Some Thoughts on Time Management (pt. 3)

If you’re a procrastinator, you’re probably a closet perfectionist. It may not seem so because you often fail to do your work in a very perfect way, but it’s the truth. It’s probably the feeling that your work needs to be flawless – that any flaw in your work means you’ve failed in some way – that leads you to procrastinate. Writing a report or a letter, doesn’t sound like a very tough task, but writing a perfect paper or a perfect letter sounds terrible, even impossible. And the good news for you is that it probably is. You can’t write a perfect paper, at least not given the time you have. And this goes for every other task too. You can’t make a presentation, write a speech or report, do your taxes, clean your garage, or bathe your dog without leaving something, however small, undone.

It’s a myth that there are many people who do things perfectly, and in the rare instances where people do get the job done flawlessly it’s either because the job was trivial (tying your shoes), or because they devoted an ungodly amount of time to it. Trivial jobs aren’t worth worrying about. And there are few tasks in your life worth obsessing over to the degree that you actually do it perfectly. Michelangelo’s David is perfect. But he used to work so obsessively on it that, after his assistant realized he hadn’t taken his shoes off in weeks, he took them off in Michelangelo’s sleep, and the skin of his feet came off with them.That is the price of perfection. For Michelangelo, it was worth it. But you can’t sculpt a David every day, and you’re probably not willing to pay the price of perfection for any of the tasks on your to-do list.

So what do you do? Forget perfection. Don’t make it your goal. Ever. Your new goal should be “good enough”. But good enough for what? Not the perfectionist that lives in the wrinkles of your brain. Good enough for you, given your desires, ambitions, and goals for life. If your goal is to pass the class, then passing is good enough. If your goal is to keep your scholarship, then the goal is a B+.

But your goal might not be these. Your goal, given that you’re really a terrible perfectionist, deep down, is greatness, excellence, the best possible. This is simply not a legitimate goal. Because, as you can see, the cost of perfection is rarely worth paying. You might be able to pull off a perfect paper or presentation or garage cleaning, but it will take exponentially longer than a good, or even really good job on the same task. And one of the most important skills for success in life is being able to tell which tasks are worthy of a really good performance, which demand nothing more than a fair performance, which can be done sloppily, and which are those extraordinarily rare tasks that ought to be done with pristine excellence. Chances are the tasks that you agonize about the most aren’t worth the sort of devotion that you’re imagining. Some of them may just need to get done in whatever sloppy, half-assed way you can do them. But most require at least good work. And remember, just because great is better than good, it doesn’t make good bad. Good work is just that: good work. And for most everything in life, good is quite good enough.

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Some Thoughts on Time Management (pt. 2)

One of the main reasons you might avoid the task of consciously, intentionally managing your time is the feeling of anxiety that arises when you think about all that you “have” to do. I put “have” in quotation marks because one of the first things to realize is that you don’t really have to do much of anything. The report for work, filing your taxes, the paper for class, buying life insurance – none of these things is anything you really must do. Like everything else, the truth is that, if you don’t do them there will definitely be some result, but life will go on, and often in much the same way.

Perhaps you’re saying, “yes, I don’t really have to do any of those things, but if you take “have” in this strict sense as something that you cannot avoid doing, then the only thing anyone really has to do is die”. Quite true. But my point is not that there really aren’t many things you have to do, so you can just skip doing anything you don’t like. My point is much simpler, and it is this: the nature of “have” or “must” or “necessity” always presupposes some goal. “I have to do the laundry today” presupposes that you really want the laundry to be done before tomorrow. So, “I have to do the laundry today,” really means “I want the laundry done before tomorrow, and the way to satisfy that want is by doing the laundry today”. This is the nature of every “have” (except death, maybe).

But what does this rephrasing of all “I have to” statements give us? Well, statements with “I have to” or “I must” have a certain inordinate psychological power over us. The second we hear “I have to” or “you must” we tighten up, our anxiety levels rise, our fears of failure take hold, and then we often procrastinate or rebel. Rebellion makes a lot of psychological sense in this situation, because hearing “I have to” and “you must” feel like hitting a big rock wall, they feel like commands from some inscrutable Master that wants to make us servants, or slaves, and no one wants to be a slave. So we naturally rebel out of the fear that we’re being controlled or dominated by these commands out of nowhere – and I say “out of nowhere” because they really feel that way. “I have to write this report” gives no reason or motivation that is really appealing or that makes writing the report feel like a natural, desirable activity. It just feels like the commands our parents used to give us – “Do it. Why? Because I say so.” – and that’s not very attractive.

Rephrasing “have to” statements to reveal their actual meaning – “it is necessary to do this if I want such-and-such result” – robs them of their authoritarian feel and makes them reasonable, sane, and non-threatening. It also gives us the chance to ask whether this end-goal (getting the laundry done by tomorrow) is really all that important to us. “I have to do the laundry today” sounds like a burdensome command that can stress you out, while “If I want the laundry done tomorrow, I need to do it” gives you the chance to say “Yeah, but I don’t really care that much if it’s done tomorrow; I have some other things to do today. I’ll get to it if I can, after these.” Now, laundry is a pretty mundane example, and chances are laundry isn’t really what stresses you out; it’s something bigger. And for lots of the more important things in our lives we don’t have the chance to just not do them the way we can with laundry. But rephrasing our thoughts about these larger tasks still carries the advantage of removing some of their authoritarian feel and reminding us just why we’re doing them.

And there are more and less complete (and so, more and less true) ways of rephrasing these tasks. Writing the upcoming term paper might not be something you can put off like laundry, but you can still rephrase in psychologically beneficial ways. “I have to write this paper.” Can then become, “I must write this paper if I want to pass this class,” and then “I need to write this paper to understand this area in my field, to get the feel of doing scholarly work, and to have a piece of work I can genuinely be proud of.” There’s no denying that this last rephrasing is much more motivating and freeing, and the first phrasing much more burdensome and anxious. This simple linguistic trick can really be helpful to motivate you to do your work gladly, and get real satisfaction out of doing it. Use it constantly, for every task that feels even slightly daunting or dreadful.


Some Thoughts on Time Management

I struggle constantly with time management. So the other day, whilst procrastinating from researching, I wrote down some of the thoughts that have been helpful to me lately on using my time (i.e., my life) wisely. They’re basically little pieces of advice written to myself, so if any of them comes off preachy, it’s not you I think needs preaching to. Here’s the first two. More to follow.

One and Two:

1. The central goal of time management is to get out of your stream of moments something that is worthwhile. “Worthwhile” is unclear, and entirely subjective though. Thus, hidden in the question of how to manage your time is the deeper question of what is worth doing. The best way to answer this question is to do so from an envisioned retrospective view. That is, envision yourself looking back on your usage of time and ask how you would have liked for it to have gone. This is a more helpful viewpoint than viewing time from the present, because at any particular moment there are lots of different drives, desires, impulses, and tendencies that, if acted upon, won’t in the end lead you to view that usage of time as a worthwhile one. The very fact that there is the practice of time management proves this point, for if acting out of whatever immediate drive strikes you ended up in a worthwhile usage of time, there’d be no need to consciously manage your time. It would automatically just work out well. But it doesn’t.

2. One might feel that the practice of time management is by nature restrictive of personal choice, or repressive of one’s natural self, or makes one’s life artificial in some sense. This is not so, or not necessarily so. While one could of course lead a restricted, repressed, artificial life, and while the act of leading this life would probably require a sort of “management” of one’s way of living, the central notion of time management is being conscious and intentional about, and in control of, how you live your life. This, as it turns out, is the very opposite of what one might fear. And, as it also turns out, failing to practice time management in this simple sense leads exactly to what one fears: a life directed totally by what it outside of your control – your impulses, moods, and present drives. The only way to be truly in control of your life, the only way to live a free life, is to live intentionally and consciously. And this is nothing more than “managing” what you’re doing, which necessarily takes place within time.


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