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. 🙂 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 is 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? 🙂

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. 🙂

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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. 🙂

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’, ‘habit’, ‘nonconformity’ and — of all things! — Abraham Maslow’s 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’s 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 “self-actualization” and “self-transcendence” – 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 Pensées:

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

 

On the Eve of (Relative) Financial Independence: How Losing my Job was a Blessing

Approximately two years ago my employer informed me that my tenure-track contract would not be renewed. Needless to say, I was shocked. I cried. A lot. I suspected foul play (though I will never know for sure; was it me or was it them?). I was genuinely heartbroken, as the small college felt like a second family to me. Following the advice of colleagues, I consulted an employment attorney, who agreed to handle my case pro bono. But ultimately I decided, “their loss”. And I walked away. Because it really was their loss.

All the while I ruminated on what I had learned about higher education. Through the college appeals process I learned more about institutional “governance” (or rather, lack thereof) than I ever would have learned had I won tenure. As a young junior faculty member, I saw what happens “behind closed doors”. I was afforded the opportunity to explore the nature of my former institutional home, eyes wide open. At the same time I investigated the interior of myself, and I owned my own mistakes. I am still owning my mistakes, which are many.

When I was “let go” I had a mortgage, a car loan, a small student loan and a credit card balance or two. I did not possess the other most common form of American debt: medical debt. Though I needed the money, I was not eager to pursue another tenure-track position in philosophy.

I do not believe that I should have to struggle against sexism.  I grew up believing I could do whatever I set my mind to (and have had that belief confirmed, time and time again), but then the reality of this weird cultural moment slapped me in the face. I signed my severance agreement the day after the 2016 US presidential election. Not worth the fight, I figured. America needs to do some soul searching, and so do I. I do not regret my decision. It was not worth my time or my energy, the twin currencies of my life. Instead, I set my sights on the regular kind of currency: money.

I never planned to achieve financial independence. Rather, I was extremely fortunate. I negotiated a good severance package, sold my house at a huge profit (after four short years of home ownership) and parlayed those funds to pay off all debts. Instead of prioritizing low-paying academic publications, I published a book about bikepacking the Arizona Trail. I practiced frugality like a madwoman, lowering my monthly bills to almost nothing.

My hard-won profits went toward a small condo, purchased for cash. Between savings, retirement accounts and (meager) book royalties, my finances are such that I only need to work half-time, minimum wage to live securely and comfortably. I am semi-retired, at age 33, and — so long as I invest wisely — I may fully retire at the regular retirement age. Yes, my job loss was a good thing, though it did not seem so at the time. Lemonade out of lemons!

So, the next salaried job I take (if any) will be on my terms. From hereon out, I contribute to society in ways that I define. Because, fundamentally, financial freedom is not about money. It is about having control over your time and your energy, such that you do not have to pursue an agenda you disagree with. You get to live your values, which is worth more than any amount of money. (To learn more about financial independence and living your values, check out Vicki Robin’s Your Money or Your Life, recently featured in Time Money.)

I still have hope in our institutions; but I also believe they will not change until we demand it — and that requires being no longer bound to them through financial (or medical) necessity. Why wait until you are 65 to achieve a measure of financial independence? Why spend an entire lifetime paying off your basic shelter, vehicle or education?

Is achieving financial freedom easy? Of course not, especially given our consumer culture. But it is worth more than a giant house or a nice car or all the cool vacations in the world. Because you own your own time. And that, my friends, is a priceless thing.