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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The hidden vice

The killer Anton Chigurh is a metaphor
for the randomness of fate in
No Country for Old Men. (c) Miramax Films.
A friend of mine has been having a really hard time in her home life. Things are not good with her partner and she is distraught that he is rejecting her, becoming emotionally abusive, and they seem to be falling apart. She is scared for her kids and what will come of things; where she will go. She asks why people bother forming relationships if they can be dissolved so easily? If nothing is permanent then what was it all for? Why bother? She also finds herself wondering where she went wrong and what she could possibly do to make things right again - to change her partner's behavior. She believes her needs to be so simple and so humble. She is a loving, caring, smart, and selfless person, but all she has ever wanted is a loving stable family life, and she believes this should not be too much to ask.

If Socrates and Epictetus are correct in saying "virtue is both sufficient and necessary for happiness", then it stands to reason that the inverse is also true. Where there is suffering, there is also vice of some sort. This is true no matter how good a person the sufferer appears to be. But saying vice is present is merely a way to track down what may be contributing to our suffering. Here is what I do not mean by suggesting vice is present in the sufferer:

  • I do not mean that all forms of suffering are included:
    We all know the difference between happiness or pleasure, and True Happiness - a deep contented happiness independent of circumstance. Along the same lines, True Suffering is a deeper inner crisis than physical pain or tragedy of circumstance. Therefore, for example, there is no vice of the sufferer of deformities or tragedies, whether caused by others or other acts of nature.
  • I do not mean that vice is equal to evil:
    Saying there is a vice present does not mean 'evil intent'. Rather, in the broader view, it means there is some defect of perception or value system that is magnifying the suffering.
  • I do not mean that our circumstances are our fault:
    This is not about assigning blame, or blaming the victim, or minimizing moral responsibility for those who do wrong to us. The vice has not necessarily caused our circumstance, but it is making our happiness more vulnerable to circumstance than it could be.
  • I do not mean that we deserve our suffering:
    Every one of us has vice of some variety or degree, and we always will. As William Munny (Clint Eastwood) said in the film Unforgiven, "deserve's got nothin' to do with it".

Rather, if we can use the inverse of the Epictetan and Socratic virtue/happiness relationship as a means to spot vice, we can proceed to ask what are we missing - what are we lacking - that will allow us to overcome this suffering and weather our circumstances? This is not about blame, but about discovering opportunity and hope; it is about empowerment.

Living in Nature

Marcus Aurelius (Book 2, #11) reminds that "death and life, success and failure, pain and pleasure, wealth and poverty, all these happen to good and bad alike..." He goes on (Book 4, #6) to talk about bad people: "These [people] are natural and necessary results from creatures of this kind, and one who wants this to be otherwise may as well resent the fig tree for yielding its acrid juice. And in general remember this, that within a very little while both he and you will be dead, and a little after not even your name nor his will be remembered."

This helps us to realize that bad things happening because of the actions of others are just like natural disasters; they are inevitable and a part of how the universe is. They are equally outside of our control. We already knew that people did bad things to one another, and should not be so surprised when, on occasion, we find ourselves in the way of it. On the other hand Marcus' note on death truly inspires us to ask what the point of it all is?

The first alternative: the promise of permanence

When my friend asked "why bother?" it reminded me of the time I've written before on the distinction between two major branches of thought about life, which find themselves in our philosophies, religions, and spiritual traditions. The first being the notion that there is a permanent and stable condition which we might achieve or have given to us. For Christians there is a notion of salvation and an everlasting realm beyond death, but there are other examples of this as well. These philosophies must contend with the undeniable impermanent nature of reality we see around us. As such, the reward is generally relegated to another kind of unseen reality beyond this one.

This philosophic approach has profound implications in our psychology, our history, and our culture. In movies we commonly see good triumph over evil and the happy ending. Our deep fantasies to control what seems like insurmountable challenges are fulfilled as we see superhuman heroes use their powers to defeat evil and stop the bad things from happening.

Yet, at least where living this present life is concerned, these superheroes betray us - be they in movies or in scriptures. They color our mindset and our general way of thinking becomes such that if something doesn't lead to a permanent preferred external outcome, that it lacks purpose or value - that it was all for nothing. This is a very vulnerable condition in which to live, surrounded by such an unpredictable and impermanent universe.

The second alternative: acceptance of change

The second major branch of thought about life takes another approach. It faces full on the reality of our world. It calls us to accept life as a continuous flux of change and impermanence. Although anyone of any faith or philosophy can benefit from doing this, Stoicism and Buddhism are two philosophies that have exemplified this approach.

In a recent meeting of my Humanist Contemplatives group, we were discussing Stoicism as opposed to say, Epicureanism. One member said he thought of Stoicism as nihilistic or pessimistic. This is a common first impression of these kinds of philosophies. However, there is an eye to this hurricane. In other words, there is a point you come to in acceptance of what seems to be so negative, which ultimately brings an even greater peace, contentment and hope that we had before. I have written on this sense of hope in my article, Adieu to Immortality.


In the film No Country for Old Men, Sheriff Ed Bell is close to retirement but tracking a ruthless killer whose seemingly senseless wake of destruction only highlights to him a changing world where the morals he'd grown up with are slipping away. It is all too much for him to handle. Another law man concurs, saying, "It's not the one thing, it's the dismal tide." He feels overwhelmed, and defeated. Upon retiring he goes to visit his uncle, an older law man himself, now retired and disabled by a man who had shot him some years earlier. Bell conveys this feeling, to which his uncle replies, "What you got ain't nothin' new... You can't stop what's comin'. Ain't all waitin' on you. That's vanity."

There is a common idea of what vanity is, but this particular vice has many guises. I think most people, when thinking about vanity, would imagine a person who is conceited or elitist; a person who is concerned with looks and who treats others as inferior. But this is only the most outward and obvious example of vanity. We all know that kind of behavior is poor and ultimately harmful to ourselves and others; that's no revelation. But there are other forms of vanity that are less obvious, more insideous, and can sneak up on even the best natured of us. This kind of vanity hurts ourselves the most, because we believe ourselves to have greater control over things than we do. Unaware of the presence of this vice, we begin to ruminate about what we can do to make things go our way, and what we could have done to have made things turn out differently.

Universal wisdom

While this wisdom may be prominent in Eastern religion and ancient Greek philosophy, anyone may be helped by its insight. Christians will notice similarity to the concept of leaving things in God's hands. The serenity prayer says, "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference". Matthew 5:45 (KJV) reads, "That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust."

As a literal tale, the story of Job doesn't paint a very flattering picture of God, who tortures Job with misfortune after misfortune. But like the Architect in The Matrix, or the villain in No Country for Old Men, the murdering Anton Chigurh, both represent the grandiose magnitude Nature, which can seem capricious, random, and cruel but which are ultimately not what they appear. When Job finally questions God, he replies out of a storm (Job 38-40), asking, "Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation?... when I set the stars in the sky... and made the clouds its garment... when I set the borders of the oceans? Can you bring forth the seasons? Do you know the laws of the heavens?" As a figurative tale it inspires appreciation of the fact that the universe which brings us everything we thought bad, also made possible everything good, and that we lack the control or understanding to even know what is good for us and what is bad. How can we take on such a task as to think we can engineer all events? How strange that we dwell over what we "should have done", or endlessly ruminate upon machinations to "make everything right"? When God finishes his questions, Job has no reply, and shuts his mouth.

Asking 'only' for a happy stable home life and family may seem more humble and noble on the surface, but in terms of how it functions in our minds and in the world in which we find ourselves, it is no different than asking for money, power, or fame. That's not a judgment on a person who seeks these things, but it is a fact about life. In this sense, both are 'asking too much' because both are a form of demanding certain conditions for your happiness. But whether you believe the dealer to be Nature or God the point is, you don't get to tell the dealer what cards you get. It is your job to simply play your hand right.

Controlling the outcome of events is not your job. Saying that is not an admonition; it's not a punishment or a restriction. Rather, recognizing that managing the universe isn't your job is the lifting of a burden. You don't have to worry about how everything turns out, or how others behave, or what choices they make. All you need do is be a good person, make sure your motivations are pure, do your best, and let your happiness spring from that. You have power over your choices and those choices can be compassionate for those in need, including compassion toward yourself.

Whatever happens after those choices is external to you; it is a matter for the universe, fate, the Logos, or God to decide (take your pick). You may or may not get what you want, but you can choose to reject bad treatment and the bad things that happen to you and move on. Regardless, there is no 'should have' and there is no 'what if'; it happened the only way it could happen, just the way it was 'supposed' to happen.

This burden presses on our shoulders because of the sneaking vice of vanity. When we recognize our efforts to judge ourselves and control more than we really do control are symptoms of that vice, it makes it easier to let go. Then we can place our sense of value and our source of happiness where it belongs - with our virtuous choices and motivations, and not with their outcomes.

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