Sunday, November 29, 2009

Get Over Yourself!, Part II

or: Selfishness vs. Self-Centeredness in Maintaining Friendships

Way back in October of 2008, I wrote an article titled Get Over Yourself!, or Selfishness vs. Self-Centeredness in Meeting New People. In that article, I contrasted the approaches of the rationally selfish man vs. the self-centered man in meeting new people. The selfish man, I explained, treats each new person as a potential value to be explored; while the self-centered man sees new people primarily as a potential receptacle for information about himself. The selfish man endeavors to make new people comfortable and asks them questions about their lives and interests; the self-centered man looks for opportunities to soliloquy about his own life and interests. The selfish man tends to make friends, influence people, nail the interview, and get the girl; the self-centered man comes across as arrogant and annoying.

Since the conflation of selfishness and self-centeredness is relatively common among Objectivists, I had always intended to follow-up on my 2008 article to further explore this widely misunderstood issue. And over a year later, it’s high time to do so. This time, I will contrast the approaches of the selfish vs. the self-centered man in maintaining friendships. I will conclude the series (ideally before 2011!) with a discussion of these principles in relation to long term romantic love relationships.

Long term friendships are among the most significant values one can attain in his lifetime. Their survival value is crucial in many ways, including: emotional support, psychological visibility, specializations in different hobbies and areas of knowledge (allowing one more effectively to expand his horizons), and as deep wells of spiritual fuel. So critical a value warrants special study, specifically how to gain and keep it. In the last article of this series, I discussed some methods of gaining and earning this value. This article will focus on how to keep it. So: how does the rationally self-interested man maintain friendships?

First, the selfish man acknowledges that long term friendships are indeed values which require maintenance. A friendship is not a static entity automatically formed and sustained given the existence of shared values. It requires work to create, build, and sustain. The selfish man understands this and looks for ways to build and nurture his friendships. The self-centered man does not understand this. He believes, in effect, that friendships spring into existence, grow in depth, fade away, or collapse into enmity -- all without action on his part. He does not consider ways in which he can build a friendship or contribute to its growth. He is often not even aware of the state of his own relationships: Are they healthy and thriving or sick and dying? He does not know, nor does he think it in his self-interest to care.

The selfish man places value on the individuating characteristics of his long term friends. By individuating characteristics, I mean those legitimate optional values (hobbies, interests, career, etc.) that make each man unique. Just as the selfish man initiates relationships by showing sincere interest and asking questions, so he continues to show interest and ask questions about his friends’ values throughout the life of a friendship. He does this even if he does not share those particular values. Such questions go a long way in adding depth to the relationship, even with regard to a friend’s minor hobbies.

For instance, I have no particular interest in World of Warcraft (WoW), but I have a good friend, Nancy, who absolutely loves it. When I talk to her on the phone, or visit her apartment, I often ask how her Blood Elf is doing, what new weapons the Elf has acquired, if she’s created any new characters, if she’s gotten into any new similar games, etc. And believe me, she can spend many happy hours waxing philosophical about WoW! This is a good example, because knowledge of WoW does not otherwise improve my life -- I don’t learn any special life lessons from these conversations. But I do gain a value from taking the time to talk to her about WoW: I am learning more about what makes this woman unique. Nancy would not be Nancy if she wasn’t a fanatic RPG enthusiast.

But her love of RPGs is only a small part of Nancy’s personality. With a friend’s more significant values, like career or children, it’s much more important to keep tabs on these things. For instance, I have no particular interest in the World of Wall St. (I don’t even read the Business section of the Newspaper), but my good friend Sherry has dedicated her life to it. She is a superstar in her field, and I am very proud to be her friend. But I would never have known how passionate she is, how competent a businesswoman, how brilliant her business acumen, had I not taken the time to talk to her about her work life. I take pleasure in hearing about the World of Wall St. from Sherry’s perspective. I share her elation when she closes an important business deal, and I share her pain when a client pulls out at the last minute. Gaining knowledge about the business world and her role in it serves to strengthen our relationship.

In a good friendship, these kinds of efforts are reciprocal. My close friends also take stake in my interests, my career, my field of study, etc. Most of them don’t regularly attend Slam poetry performances, but they are always interested to hear any new poems I write. They will often read my essays and comment on them. They will spring to my defense if I am wrongfully arrested. These efforts do not go unnoticed. These are the kinds of friends who contribute the spiritual fuel to keep me going. They actively love, encourage, and inspire me.

The self-centered man, by contrast, does not expend much effort to maintain his friendships. To him, “selfishness” means that any friendships ought to focus on his own interests, his own life, his own career. He is very happy to tell friends about his values, but he usually doesn’t take the time to ask about theirs. He will tolerate friends telling him about their lives, but learning about them is not a primary objective to him. He doesn’t seek out friends whose interests differ from his own; he has no desire to broaden his horizons. Instead, he thinks that friendships ought to focus on “shared interests,” i.e., on interests he already has. He may ask Nancy about her Blood Elf in World of Warcraft, but only if he is already an RPG fan. And even then, his inquiry is usually only an excuse to pontificate on the virtues of his own Orc Beserker.

With regards to emotional support, again the rationally selfish man makes a point to contribute to the emotional health of his friends. He maintains an awareness of his friends’ emotional states, and can usually tell if they are proud or discouraged, joyous or depressed. Just as he relishes in sharing his friends’ triumphs, so he gladly shoulders their pain in difficult times.

For instance, I often talk to my friends about their romantic lives. I can often tell when a friend is unhappy with his current romantic relationship, even before the friend recognizes it himself. This is not at all uncommon. The outside perspective of a good friend can be invaluable in helping one understand relationship issues. But this kind of understanding does not come automatically. It is only because I take interest in my friends’ love lives that I am able to provide appropriate emotional support and friendly advice. I can share their hopeful excitement when love begins to bloom, and offer sympathy when a promising relationship disintegrates. I look for opportunities to be there for my friends, to hear their stories, to take part in their emotional lives.

But to the self-centered man, taking stake in his friends’ emotional lives seems sacrificial or altruistic. He acknowledges that sharing his own emotional pain with a friend can have a positive cathartic effect, and he may lean on them in difficult times. But when roles are reversed, he would rather not endure a friend’s tears over some heartache which he does not share. Why put a bummer on an otherwise pleasant day? The self-centered man may be happy to share in his friend’s triumphs at work, particularly if he shares an interest in his friend’s profession. But when sorrow strikes, he prefers to keep his distance. He is the classic fair-weather friend.

I don’t need to tell you which kind of person, the selfish man or the self-centered man, makes a better friend. Everyone has at some point been exposed to both types, and anyone could tell you that the rationally self-interested man makes the better business partner, the better lover, and overall the better person to have in one’s life. We seek out those who not only share our moral values, but who also take sincere interest in our individuating characteristics. Most of us tend to avoid those who take the self-centered approach, those who take interest only in those aspects of one’s personality that he already shares. We seek out friends who relish sharing in both our joys and pains, and we eschew those for whom emotional support is a one-way street. The selfish man is the kind of life-long friend who can become like a family member. The self-centered man usually doesn’t rise above the status of “temporary activity partner.”

Over time, long term friendships can grow into some of the highest values in one’s life. Whether one acknowledges it or not, we need deep friendships; they have a survival value which is difficult to quantify. In theory, it is easy to make the mistake that being independent means that one doesn’t need friends. In some respects, this is true. One ought not need anyone else to provide him with epistemological certainty, productive independence, or self-esteem. But friendships -- and to a greater degree romantic relationships -- so enrich our lives that they deserve a high degree of focus, consideration, and sustained effort.

In part III of this series, which I hope to publish with a few weeks, I will apply these same principles to romantic love relationships. How does the rationally self-interested man treat his lover at home, in the bedroom, with family, and in public? How does the self-centered man act in these situations? Which type of man makes a better lover, and why?

As always, thanks for reading, and I look forward to any comments!

--Dan Edge

Master Edge?

I am very pleased to announce that I have been accepted into the Marriage and Family Therapy program at Converse College in Spartanburg, SC. If all goes well, I will be a fully licensed Master of this subject by the close of 2011. Wish me luck!

--Dan Edge

Monday, November 16, 2009

Leonids Meteor Shower Tonight!

Tonight, the Earth passes through the Leonids Meteor Shower. It will be even more visible -- more beautiful -- from more places than the Perseid Meteor shower was. The best viewing time is from 11pm tonight until dawn (the evening of Nov. 16 / morning of Nov. 17), though it should also be visible tomorrow evening. I stayed up all night to witness another natural wonder when the Earth passed through the Perseid Comet's trail. I chronicled my experience in a blog post, reproduced below. I highly recommend "attending" this event. It is more than worth the price of admission -- one sleepless night. This may be the best meteor shower of your lifetime, something you can tell your kids about. So go see it! And share it with someone you love...


A Benevolent Universe -- The Perseid Meteor Shower

While I have many reservations about plugging my neural interface into the Face-Borg Hivemind, it does have its benefits. Yesterday, an old high school friend posted on his Facebook Wall an article about the 2009 Perseid Meteor Shower. I had never witnessed a meteor shower before, and my interest was piqued. To my great pleasure, I found that astronomers regard Perseid as the "granddaddy of all meteor showers." Even better, the peak viewing time for Perseid was last night (Tuesday, August 11), the same day I discovered its existence.

I sprang into action, gathering up snacks, bug spray, blanket, pillows, flashlight, and my trusty knife. When considering where to go to experience Perseid, one location immediately came to mind: Bald Rock. Just as its name implies, Bald Rock is a giant, treeless rock face in the Blue Ridge Mountains which faces east towards the rising sun. From this lofty perch, one can see the cities of Greenville and Spartanburg, both over 30 miles away. There is hardly any ambient light in the surrounding area, making it a perfect spot for admiring the stars.

I got there at around 10:45pm and, despite its remote location, at least 15 others were already on the Rock, waiting for the show to begin. Some groups of people kept their distance from others, but most walked about confidently in the dark, adjusting their eyes to the moonlight and connecting with others who had come to witness the event. People were chatting, singing, playing guitars, and cuddling -- but after a while, nearly all were flat on their backs gazing at the expanse of sky above them. The cloud cover was thick at times, but at around 11:30pm, windows of clear sky began to appear. I didn't take any pictures, but here's an image similar to what I saw:

I stayed on the Rock until around 2:45am, when the cloud cover became more dense and showed no signs of clearing up. Many people stayed on the mountain all night, laying either on blankets or bare rock, sleeping peacefully under the stars.

While last night was the peak viewing for Perseid, hundreds of meteors will still be visible over the next few evenings. I highly recommend this experience, even if it means a groggy beginning to the following morning.

What a joy it is to live in such a beautiful universe, and how wonderful it is to share this beauty with other human beings!

--Dan Edge

Friday, November 6, 2009

Harbinger of Terror at Fort Hood

Yesterday, November 5, 2009, a lone gunman murdered 13 people and injured dozens more at the Fort Hood military base in Texas. The shooter was Nadal Malik Hasan, a Major in the U.S. Army. When news broke that a U.S. military base had been attacked, the story immediately saturated major media outlets. As details trickled in, journalists and politicians began to analyze the data. What had happened here?

Within hours, it became public knowledge that Major Hasan was the shooter, and that he was a Muslim who had spoken out against U.S. military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. While a few news outlets reported this information, for the most part these facts were purposefully ignored by the press. One CNN reporter commented that “it would be irresponsible of us to speculate about any possible motives for these attacks,” and that “right now, our only thoughts should be for the families of those who were killed.” This was the attitude taken by most news outlets, and by all politicians I saw interviewed yesterday.

President Obama, in his initial comments about the attacks, said that his “immediate thoughts and prayers [were] with the wounded and with the families of the fallen and with those who live and serve at Fort Hood.” Though the President must have known about the shooter’s identity and ideological motives at this point, nowhere in his speech did Obama mention the words “Islamic” or “terrorism.”

Like most Americans, I was saddened when I heard the news of the Fort Hood attack. But also like most Americans, my “immediate thoughts” on the issue included the vital question: Was this an act of terrorism? Why haven’t President Obama, the Governor of Texas, or any other political leaders raised the issue of Hasan’s ideological motivation for these attacks? Why has the press (for the most part) ignored this issue? The FBI quickly noted on Thursday that the Fort Hood murders had “no known nexus to terrorism.” They said this within hours of the attack, before Hasan had even been publicly identified as the shooter. Why the hasty public statement dissociating the Fort Hood attack from Islamic Terrorism?

While this was not an act of foreign aggression, a critical part of the story here is that Hasan was motivated by the same violent philosophy as most of the political leaders in the Muslim world. Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and many other nations are dominated by supporters of militant Islam. It is these nations which now pose the greatest threat to the free world.

But the United States has so far been unable to win its “War on Terror,” a war it wages against backwards nations without a tenth of her military might. The public response to the Fort Hood shootings provides insight as to why we are losing this fight.

Western journalists, diplomats – and above all, political leaders – refuse properly to identify the enemy: proponents of militant Islam. It is not just the cave-dwelling, goat riding bunch of murderous Theocrats in Afghanistan who pose a threat to us. It is the Mulsim governments who support these terrorists, materially and otherwise. It is the millions of Muslims worldwide who cheer for them every time they claim a new victim.

Not every Muslim is my enemy. If a Muslim man – like the average American Christian – refuses to take some aspects of his religion seriously; if he opposes the integration of state and religion; if he denounces the motivations, objectives, and tactics of militant Islamists around the world; then he is not my enemy. But if he does support these things, then he is my enemy, and a nation full of people like him is a serious threat to my life.

The sooner the West is willing to identify the enemy, the sooner we can fight and defeat him.

--Dan Edge

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Dr. Yaron Brook on "Capitalism Without Guilt"

This past Tuesday, November 3rd, I attended Dr. Yaron Brook's talk "Capitalism Without Guilt" at Georgia Tech's downtown Atlanta campus. The turnout was amazing; there must have been over 100 attendees, most of them students. There were a few dissenters in the audience who surfaced during the question period, along with more than a few Objectivist faithful, like myself. But the strongest contingent appeared to be students who had heard of Ayn Rand, who had heard about her radical political views, and wanted to learn more. Brook's lecture was perfect for this group of people -- in fact, it specifically targeted them.

Brook is famously knowledgeable about financial and economic issues. His life and work experience qualify him as an expert in these matters, which is why so many financial news venues have had him on as a guest. So when Brook presents his version of how and why the mixed economy failed us over the past few years (and decades and centuries), he is extraordinarily convincing. He talked about government intervention in the housing and banking industries which lead directly to the problems we face today. He talked about various price controls attempted throughout the decades, and how and why they have failed. He talked about the biggest, most complex, and most destructive price control of them all: the Fed's control of interest rates. But as usual, Dr. Brook found a way to relate all of this information, not only to politics, but to morality.

A good 1/2 of Brook's talk was about morality, which may come a a surprise to those unfamiliar with Brook's lecturing style or with the ARI's general strategy in disseminating a philosophy of freedom. This continuing focus on morality, in my view, is what makes Brook (and other ARI speakers) so effective. This lecture was about economics, finance, politics, capitalism, etc., but Brook kept coming back to the moral defense of capitalism. Even pro-capitalists find it difficult to endorse free markets on moral grounds. Why, he asks? Because the predominant Judeo-Christian ethics of altruism conflicts directly with the individualistic ethics which necessarily must underlie a capitalist system. Brook addresses this conflict head on. And I'm lovin' it!

Don't just argue that socialized medicine is impractical, he says -- argue that it is fundamentally immoral! Same with banking regulations, Medicare, Social Security, etc. While it's true that these statist policies are always economically impractical and destructive, the primary objection to them is that they violate individual rights, and are therefore immoral. Brook gets to the heart of the matter, and is not afraid proudly to endorse the virtue of rational self-interest.

I was very pleased with Brook's talk, and with his handling of questions afterward. Brook is an excellent communicator, and a strong leader in the fight for freedom in the US. Keep it up, Brook!

Aside from the lecture itself, I had a great time with friends, old and new. Thanks to all for making my Georgia/Athens romp so memorable!

--Dan Edge