Practicing Pacifism: Bicycle Commuting and Vulnerability

This blog has been quite an adventure! I have written some essays I am proud of, and many more that I am not proud of. Thank goodness for the “delete” button! Sometimes I wonder whether it is worth putting these words out there, and then one of my readers thanks me for what I have written. So, I press on, hopeful that I am creating more good than bad in the world.

But I should probably find something better to do on Friday nights. ūüôā

Part of what I have tried to do with this blog is direct attention to lifestyle matters. Because life continues to show me that the chaos I witness in the world is a function of the chaos people carry around within themselves.

As a bicycle commuter, I often witness this chaos firsthand in the form of “road rage”. I have been called a “cunt”. I have had water bottles thrown at me. I have been threatened and leered at and chased. (I have also had many wonderful interactions!)

Bicycle commuting has been a great lesson in vulnerability. As a puny cyclist, I am defenseless. I do not have a 4,000 pound vehicle. I have an eighteen pound vehicle, and my small, female body.

I am vulnerable.

My response to these aggressions is always the same: I smile and wave. Sometimes I am stunned. But afterward I always feel sorry for those people. I really do. I recognize their rage, because, as a human being, I have felt it myself (mostly only when I am on the phone with robotic customer service representatives!).

I am not a pushover. There is so much I simply will not compromise on. As a result, I have had to let go of people and projects I love, which, let me tell you, is a lot harder than being angry at them! One can have the firmest hand without ever resorting to violence. We can be effective in the world without rage, of this I am certain.

Unfortunately, right now our social and political climate is such that we are often peer pressured into feeling rage, to show that we care. But is rage the only way to care?

I care when I privately and carefully research the issues and candidates before voting. I care when I actually participate in local government. I care when I volunteer in my community. I care when I consume in a sustainable way that respects the Earth and her inhabitants. These are all critical forms of caring.

For far too long we Americans have accepted a mode of political “debate” that simply does not work for the more quiet and less fractious people among us. My own childhood was enough trauma for a lifetime. I will pass on the violence. I will always pass on the violence.

Happy weekend,

Sarah

 

Ethics & Everyday Life: Cultivating Peace & Connection

Why lead an ethical life? And what is an ethical life, anyway? 

I am going to try to answer these questions, though my answers will only be partial and provisional. As I sat down to think about how I might approach this question, my mind flooded, and I started to drown a little bit. So, I hope I will not completely sink as I write this — and if I do, please send me a life raft!

The reason I am addressing these questions to myself and answering them in this public way is because it occurred to me that there may be some value in someone with my background (ancient ethics scholar) saying something about how I, personally, understand ethical living. I have obviously devoted an enormous amount of time and resources to thinking about these questions. However, I will shy away from academic discussions of particular ethical traditions, though those debates and that history inform my understanding, as do my various life experiences. For I do not believe one must have this academic background to ask these kinds of questions or to arrive at promising and unique answers. And in fact, my academic pedigree might speak against me, as some studies have shown that academic ethicists are less ethical in practice than non-ethicists!

Before I begin, I want to emphasize that I have no religious or political agenda. Though my extended family are Christian missionaries, I walked away from religion when I was thirteen. I belong to no political party; I see problems with both conservative and liberal ideologies. In any case, it seems to me like the more important question to ask ourselves is not what particular religious or political sect we happen to belong to, but rather, how we ourselves are living, or failing to live, ethical lives. This is a question that cuts across traditions and sects, politics and religion.

This reorientation or refocusing is liberating. Instead of placing one’s entire focus onto something one has limited control over (e.g., national and global politics, religious fundamentalism, blind consumerism, the spiritual crises of our time, etc.), one can greatly improve one’s own thoughts, feelings and actions, the world within oneself. Despite whatever turmoil is going on outside of ourselves, we can create a profoundly peaceful and joyous world within ourselves and with the people in our lives. Indeed, it is our right as human beings to do so. What is more, we can lead lives that express our values and peacefulness, and when we do this, we feel more connected to our fellow humans and to our natural environment.

And truly, this is the greatest human happiness: to feel connection and peace within oneself and with other people. The recipe for happiness is simple, not complex.

So, I think I have said a little about why one might try to lead an ethical life. Seeing the bigger ethical picture in each little action helps one feel connected to the world and to the human race. And caring about the world and other people helps one feel at peace, even if the world is not a particularly peaceful place.

If you do not believe me, give it a try. ūüôā Is there any harm in trying?

Now I want to say just a few things about what an ethical life is (and is not). It is not about performing actions that have definitive positive consequences. The world is too complex for us to know the exact consequences of our actions. What is more, my individual action (e.g., not using plastic because of environmental pollution) might have no discernible positive consequence or even a negative consequence. Who knows?! It is a big world, after all. However, if everyone, under the grip of this consequentialist reasoning and the feeling of futility it inspires, failed to alter their individual actions and continued on their present course, then we humans would sink ourselves in environmental toxins. In order to avoid social and environmental disasters, most of us must try to do the right thing with no guarantee or assurance that there will be any positive outcome whatsoever.

So, why should we be motivated to express our values in individual action? The motivation, I think, needs to come from a deep desire to express our values in the world, no matter what the concrete consequences might be, to recognize that each and every one of our lives is like a beautiful work of art, and though we have limited control over what concrete consequences our individual lives have, we can construct a morally beautiful life of connection, peace and purpose.

Thinking about beauty is so helpful here: anybody who engages in creative endeavors (i.e, all of us!) has an interest in creating something beautiful or intellectually engaging. We can just as easily apply that creative approach to our own lives, in our actions and speech and thoughts and even feelings. And as I have suggested, when we take this ethical orientation we feel more at peace and more connected to humanity and to the world, whether or not our individual actions have discernible consequences. No matter what the condition of the outer world is, those inner feelings of peace and connectedness cannot be taken away, and they are of immeasurable value. They are the stuff of happiness, as I have said.

As a matter of fact, I believe that living in this way does, over time, enable one to live a life of great consequence. Because the more one expresses one’s values in each moment, the more one¬†strengthens¬†one’s character, values and habits of heart and mind. And then, when life throws us a curve ball and we have to make the¬†really big choices¬†that have¬†really big impacts,¬†we choose better, because we have formed ourselves in the right way, through all those seemingly inconsequential, mini-choices.

If we were all engaged in this project, what would the outer world look like? If we were all aware that¬†every¬†moment is an opportunity to express our deepest values, what would the world look like? If we joyously pursued an ethical life — and forgave ourselves and others whenever we/they slipped up — how happy could we all be? Much happier than we are now, I reckon!

I will end with a cautionary note, as it is something I have struggled with and one of the reasons I try not to moralize too much. It is easy to become egotistical about ethical living. The second we begin to form an identity for ourselves as a “moral exemplar” or an “activist”, we lose the feeling of peace and connection that forms the basis of any well lived life. Living an ethical life is not about becoming self-righteous; that only alienates us from the human race and possibly even the natural world. There is so much destruction in the world, so if we form an identity as an ethical or enlightened being, then we pit ourselves against a whole lot of people. This undermines the purpose of living an ethical life; namely, connection and peace.

The ancient Chinese tradition has a solution to the problem of ethical showmanship. Whenever we see someone doing something violent or destructive, we should simply remind ourselves of a time when we acted in a similar way. This will help allay our own tendency to see ourselves as ethically superior. And it fosters compassion, both for the other person and for ourselves. Because nobody, no matter how hard she tries, can lead a perfectly ethical life — no more than anybody can create a flawless piece of art. This is why the ethical life, just like the creative life, is about¬†striving.¬†It is about conscious practice and small improvements, not perfection.

The inner peace and connectedness comes from the adventurous striving, not from the finished product.

What does your life raft look like? ūüôā

Sarah

Sonoran Desert, after the rain

Lush. Cool. The cholla (bright gold) and ocotillo (bright green) are on fire right now. So much color! Cloudy sunset, views of the city and mountains. ūüôā

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Becoming an Independent Author: Reflections Along the Way

Pictured: New front and back cover of Pedaling Home: One Woman’s Race Across the Arizona Trail

Last year I self-published my first book, Pedaling Home, about my experience bicycle racing the Arizona Trail from Mexico to Utah. I completed the 100-page book in five or six weeks of full-time work. I created my own book and cover design, learning the ins and outs of self-publishing platforms like Kindle Direct Publishing and IngramSpark. I enlisted my (gifted!) friends to help with editing. I read manuals and watched instructional videos. I studied the basics of Amazon advertising. After the book came out, I agreed to speaking engagements, where I sold books in person.

It was terrifying. It all happened so fast, perhaps too fast. Yet I was able to face my fear of public speaking, as well as the hatred of my own artless handwriting, scrawled into the books I signed.

Recently I walked into a local business, where I was taking a yoga class. To my surprise, my book was on display, though I never approached the business. It was an important moment for me, not because I was flattered (though I was). It was important because it helped me recognize my own yearning to connect and share ideas with people beyond a small group of academic specialists.

Though the book was “garage band” quality, I got my story out there. And people liked the story. Nearly every week somebody reads the book, in countries all around the world. I have yet to make a substantial income from it, but it is a job I take more and more seriously. For stories are powerful, and our culture needs better stories. Whenever I feel as though I am alone in the way I see the world, I find a kindred soul in an author, narrator or filmmaker. At other times stories help me see the world in a newer, better way.

In November I will release a revised, expanded and redesigned version of Pedaling Home¬†— a book I will more wholeheartedly market, something more within the realm of professional quality. In the spring I will sell and sign copies at my city’s annual book festival, where I will meet readers and other indie authors. Already I more often spend weekends at an author conference or workshop than at an academic conference.¬†I still read philosophy books and articles; but I read a lot more besides that. Next year I will write (and hopefully publish!) fiction,¬†while teaching philosophy part-time¬†at my local community college. (Altering your career path does not require giving up the parts of your former job — or life — that you find meaningful! Quite the contrary.)

This is a new track, different from the tenure-track. I am excited to see what it holds. Unlike my academic career, the path forward is less clear, less certain. So, I try to enjoy each day of writing, revising or business strategizing. One thing I have learned through my bikepacking adventures is how to enjoy the ride. And that is what I am doing right now. I try to bring that adventurous spirit to each and every day.

Peace and Love on your own Career Voyage!

Sarah

Coming Full Circle: Creating a Rich Life

Last spring I made the decision to move back to my hometown. I bought a share in a co-housing community located in the heart of my city. I said “goodbye” to rent, a mortgage, a car, all forms of debt and all the demands of my academic career. I said “hello” to daily meditation or yoga, daily reading and writing (including letters to friends!), bicycling advocacy and intellectual pursuits that satisfy my true interests and values.

Co-Housing & The Elderly 

Nearly every day I talk to my neighbors, most of whom are seniors. Retirees have time to talk to their neighbors. They have time to reflect on life. And they are, for the most part, finished with the business of acquiring money, status, looks and people to feed their egos. So, I am quite content living with people much older than I, though my choice is not a conventional one. I have always enjoyed the company of aged people. I find it odd how society separates us from them.

Advocacy & Service

In the time I have been away my hometown has grown, distinguishing itself as one of the most bicycle-friendly cities in the nation. The same bike paths I used to ride on as a kid have expanded and now encircle the entire city. It is as though my own passion for cycling has grown up alongside my hometown. It is strange in a wonderful way. But perhaps it is not so strange. After all, this city formed me. It was here than I worked at my first bike shop and bought my first commuter bicycle.

This week I entered two elections: one for my city’s Bicycle Advisory Committee, another for our Cooperative Housing Board. I volunteer for several organizations. Lately I have been spending my afternoons painting my father’s house. In the Spring¬†I will work as a Professor, teaching two small introductory philosophy¬†classes at the community college. Half a lifetime ago I took my first philosophy class there!

Intellectual Needs

Though my academic career is not the center of my life, I am an intellectual, and so I fill my curiosity by going to talks at the university, engaging in discussion with my former students and colleagues or reading material from the university library. I also tune out a lot of the mass media in order to make room in my mind for more important ideas and concepts. Not having a Smart Phone or TV has helped me limit my participation in spectacle or rage, so that I can focus on more meaningful endeavors. (No, I do not know Donald Trump’s latest theatrics. What is more, I do not care!)

Happiness

It is no wonder I have a growing sense of having come ‘full circle’. I am twice as old as I was when I left, but I am different and happier. Even though I do not work for pay full-time, I still experience stress and anxiety, especially social anxiety. I am an Introvert who happens to love people. Often I am tired. Sometimes I am too busy, reverting to my old tendency to schedule every minute. But at least now I am able to slow down, savor the moment and appreciate everywhere I have been and where I am now.

Gracias world!

Sarah

 

 

 

How to be a (Real) Citizen

Riding “The Loop Trail”, a bicycle path encircling my city

Lest my title mislead you, this is¬†not a “how-to” post; rather, this is a blog entry about my own fumblings toward authentic citizenship. Now that I am semi-retired (or rather, I “work for pay” only part-time), I have more time. I have more time to explore ideas and landscapes. I have more time for friends and family. And I have more time for crafting words (like these ones!).¬†I also have more time for a citizenship that demands more of me than simply casting a vote or reading a news story.

I use the term “citizen” broadly, to encompass political participation, community involvement and environmental stewardship. Also, I do not mean to imply that citizenship has clear geographical boundaries. ‘Global citizenship’ is important, too (perhaps the¬†most important, in our increasingly global world). For the time being, I practice global citizenship through “conscientious consumption” – e.g., challenging unthinking consumerism by using renewable energy, recycling and reusing, eating a plant-based diet, buying used, bicycle commuting, researching the environmental and social impacts of particular products, and purchasing goods that perform multiple functions. (For example, I make my personal care products and cleaning agents with five simple ingredients: fair trade coconut oil, baking soda, vinegar, zinc oxide and castile soap!)

Of course, conscientious consumption is only the start; for failing to have a negative impact on the global environment is not the same as having a positive impact on the global environment. Nevertheless, conscientious consumption has helped me strengthen my values and sharpen my awareness, even if I am not (yet) sure what robust global citizenship looks like for me.

In any case, I believe citizenship starts with inhabiting the place (or places) I live, with getting to know what, and who, lives in my town. This is not as easy as it sounds, especially in modern times. Being present in the place I live requires resisting the technologies, or even the career, that, over and over again, transport me away from home. It also requires a willingness to enter spaces in which my particular identities or beliefs are not represented, reflected or even respected. I believe this is where true citizenship starts, at home, respecting the place and the people you live with, whether or not they respect you back.

My own sputterings toward citizenship:

Earlier in the summer I took a bicycle maintenance course through my city’s local bicycle cooperative. Recently I was asked to volunteer my time and (clunky) skill. I spent an afternoon fixing kids’ bicycles and teaching them how to fix their own bicycles. And they taught me a thing or two!

 

 

I was asked if I wanted to join the writing group at my local independent bookstore — a beautiful shop that is solar powered and employee owned. I joined. Complete strangers shared deeply personal poetry and essays, reading their work out loud. Even though it terrified me, I read my work out loud.

I was asked to teach a class on nature writing to retirees. I agreed. In December I will spend a day at a retirement community, with people who have much more life experience than I.

I participate in free community yoga in our local parks and businesses. It is open to everyone.

I hike or bike in the desert, acquainting myself with the native plants and animals, getting to know and respect species that were hitherto unknown to me.

Starting next month I will attend all city council meetings. In the course of a year of attending these meetings, I hope to come to a more nuanced and complex understanding of the issues my city faces. And at that point I may raise my own voice.

Real citizenship is a lot more demanding — and a lot more special — than simply casting a vote or consuming mass media. It is a lifelong practice requiring lifelong commitment. But I think that if I am open to real citizenship, it will come to me. Most of the time just¬†being here (and being present)¬†is enough. I am asked to help. I am asked to participate. And all I have to do is say “yes”. And then show up. ūüôā

Sarah

 

 

 

Photo Credit: Anonymous

 

Needs, Non-Distraction and Non-Conformity: Making Counter-Habits

Image Source

As I embark on a more simple and less technological way of life, I have been thinking about a tangle of concepts: ‘distraction’, ‚Äėhabit‚Äô, ‚Äėnonconformity‚Äô and — of all things! — Abraham Maslow‚Äôs Hierarchy of Needs. While I am not able to tie them all together here and now, I hope to thread some ideas together. After all, I am after better patterns.

Contrary to what I have written, I do find some psychology interesting. If we leave the rungs of Maslow’s pyramid vague (so as to account for situational and cultural differences), it is hard to disagree.¬†Maslow‚Äôs basic idea is this: once we achieve shelter, clothing, sleep and nutrients; safety (including financial security, a measure of health and freedom from harm); social belonging and, finally, esteem or respect, then and only then can we¬†finally achieve ‚Äúself-actualization‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúself-transcendence‚ÄĚ ‚Äď the very marrow of life¬†at the peak of the pyramid. By incorporating ‘self-transcendence’ into ‘self-actualization’, Maslow addressed some fair criticisms of his philosophy; in particular, that his story about human development is too narrowly focused on the evolution of the¬†individual self, cutoff from her communities.

There are counterexamples to Maslow’s theory; for example, the self-transcendence Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl experienced in Nazi concentration camps. Perhaps¬†both basic fulfillment and extreme deprivation prompt self-transcendence. Or, better yet, perhaps extreme deprivation gifts us new values, while basic fulfillment affords us the opportunity to practice those values.

What is so interesting about this pyramid of needs (ordered from more fundamental to more refined) is how few people ever achieve the more foundational needs in their lifetime. Even in “developed” countries like the US, we bounce around the bottom levels,¬†surviving¬†instead of¬†living.

I wonder why more of us are not focused on meeting our basic needs — those fundamental needs that are so essential to our well-being, both individually and as a society. Are we afraid of our own company, so much so that we pursue endless distraction? As Blaise Pascal wrote in his¬†Pens√©es:

When I have occasionally set myself to consider the different distractions of men, the pains and perils to which they expose themselves at court or in war, whence arise so many quarrels, passions, bold and often bad ventures, etc., I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber. A man who has enough to live on, if he knew how to stay with pleasure at home, would not leave it to go to sea or to besiege a town (139).

Pascal overlooks another key force that works against self-actualization and self-transcendence; namely, conformity. Even though we Americans are more likely to encounter floundering consumers rather than flourishing citizens, we nevertheless conform. We want to belong, and distractions steal away the energy we require to counter our culture in meaningful ways.

But should “belonging” and “exciting distraction” be bought for the price of self-actualization and self-transcendence? Is it worth it? Or, in a society so obviously unhappy, is it better to seek non-conformity and to practice counter-habits? For it is habit —¬†and only habit —¬†that empowers us to live better, more meaningful lives.

Happy habit making!

Sarah