Contemplative thinking

John Cuddeback writes on fostering leisure:

Aristotle has distinguished amusement and leisure, calling the former a kind of ‘medicine’ that causes relaxation so that one can return, rested, to more serious things. Leisure, on the other hand, “of itself gives pleasure and happiness and enjoyment of life.” If amusement is medicine, leisure is the center of the healthy living one seeks.

But what are these mysterious and seemingly elusive activities that are supposed to be so meaningful? Aristotle points to the ‘contemplative activity of reason.’ This phrase that might leave us a bit perplexed calls for a closer look. What is ‘contemplative activity’ and where is it to be found? Here are a few things that can help us think about this.

Contemplative thinking always implies that we ‘see’ something—with our intellect—that is beautiful, worth simply gazing upon. This gazing is more of a resting than a moving, since an insight has already come and is now savored.

For instance, one might come to the insight that so many aspects of life have been a gift—a gift that could not have been anticipated and cannot be fully repaid. This can be almost overwhelming, and it calls among other things, that we simply see this truth and rest in it.

This insight could come while observing children play, or when reading a story, or when walking in the woods. We might be alone, or with someone we love. Whenever it comes, it calls for lingering, and entering into it, and receiving it. While such insights cannot be simply fabricated or demanded, we can foster them. We can set aside times and do activities that lend themselves to their arising, and to their having a place to be received. A mindset of readiness, and of longing to see more deeply can go far.

Leisure: The Basis of Culture was one of the most important books I read in my 20s. What proper leisure looks like, and how to cultivate it, has been something I think about often, and try to bring about as much as possible.

Late summer street scene

Since our office moved into Washington in June, I’ve been walking home as often as possible—it’s about a mile from the office to home, and most of the way is along M Street. And sometimes I’ll walk halfway, then pick up a Capitol Bikeshare bike and ride the rest of the way. I did that recently, and as I was approaching the bikes just past 23rd and M Streets this is what I saw:

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There’s nothing special about this. It’s a typical corner, on a typical (even unremarkable) block. Still, there’s so much going on here—the sunlight, the shadows, the color, the variety of ways we’ve shaped this particular spot.

A lot like the advice to “stop and smell the flowers,” I think similar advice holds for stopping to appreciate the view.

A patriotic parade

Childe Hassam’s “Allies Day, May 1917” hangs in the National Gallery of Art on Constitution Avenue:

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If you look on this far long enough, you’re transported to that time in America—a time before the Great War shattered the faith of Western nations and when the Anglosphere was still a living reality; when Western nations were connected by deeper ties than commerce and economics. National Gallery of Art offers this:

A patriotic whirlwind overtook mid–town Manhattan as America entered the First World War in the spring of 1917. On Fifth Avenue, the British Union Jack, the French Tricolor, and Stars and Stripes were displayed prominently during parades honoring America’s allies. The colorful pageantry inspired Childe Hassam, who dedicated this picture “to the coming together of [our] three peoples in the fight for democracy.” Hassam’s flag paintings were first shown as a group in New York’s Durand–Ruel Gallery in November 1918, just four days after the armistice was declared. Thus, the works, originally created to herald America’s entry into the war, also served to commemorate its victorious resolution.

Hassam had studied in Paris from 1886–1889 and was strongly influenced by the impressionists. In many respects, Allies Day resembles the vibrant boulevard paintings of Monet and Pissarro. Like these contemporary French artists, Haassam selected a high vantage point overlooking a crowded urban thoroughfare to achieve an illusion of dramatic spatial recession. But, rather than using daubs of shimmering pigment to dissolve form, he applied fluid parallel paint strokes to create an architectonic patterning. Although he shared the impressionists’ interest in bright colors, broken brushwork, and modern themes, Hassam’s overall approach was less theoretical and his pictorial forms remained far more substantial than those of his European contemporaries.

The next conservatism

After work on September 5th I was initially headed home and walking down M Street, until I ran into a friend from Newsmax and decided to head to Catholic University for the Institute for Human Ecology-hosted debate between Sohrab Ahmari and David French. I’ve been following this debate since Sohrab Ahmari’s May piece, “Against David Frenchism“. It drew an incredible audience, probably 500+:

I think the debate itself was basically a disaster, in the sense that neither Ahmari nor French really debated one another—they spent most of the conversation trying to feel each other out, and so much of the conversation felt like a series of Twitter-style barbs rather than a good back-and-forth. You can watch/hear it here.

I spoke with Hadley Arkes afterwards, and he previewed what ultimately became this review/response to the debate. I think that’s worth reading if you watch the debate and come away as ambivalent by both Ahmari and French as I think many should have been after their debate. I have heard that their second encounter at Notre Dame went much better, but I haven’t had time to hear it.

All that said, Sohrab Ahmari’s latest First Things piece states very directly what wasn’t ultimately sussed out at Catholic University: “The New American Right: An Outline for a Post-Fusionist Conservatism“. It really is worth reading in its entirety, but I think this excerpt particularly helps explain why Ahmari started critiquing “Frenchism” (what Ahmari calls “a program for negotiating Christian retreat from the public square into a safe private sphere”) in the first place:

The common good and the highest good are among the bedrock principles of classical and Christian political philosophy. It is a sign of the times that their use now elicits a parade of horribles: the Inquisition and Islamic State, Francisco Franco and Ayatollah Khomeini, Vichyism and Leninism. The arch-liberal political theorist John Rawls seems to reign over the imaginations of many, even supposedly conservative, minds, for strong metaphysical claims to the public square are widely assumed to violate its neutrality. This truism is asserted even as the critics’ intemperate reactions reveal that the liberal public square is anything but neutral—that it is bathed in its own metaphysics and theology.

Progressive liberals are quite open about their aim: to raze all structures that stand in the way of an empire of autonomy-maximizing norms, an empire populated by the “free individual who no longer acknowledges any limits,” as Pierre Manent has written. Conservative liberals and libertarians share in this view of the highest good: The unfettered life is the best life. Most recognize the need for some limits, at least against freedoms that harm others. But the regulative ideal remains always operative: an ideal of ever-greater autonomy won through the removal of limits.

Our classical and biblical heritage holds a different lesson: that we are not free merely to the degree that we are unregulated, unrestricted, and undisciplined. Rather, true freedom is above all the free affirmation of the personal responsibilities attendant on individual rights. “I shall walk in liberty,” sings the psalmist, “for I have sought thy precepts” (Ps. 119:45). Freedom requires a moral and religious horizon, not just in man’s private sphere, not just at the level of culture and civil society, but also in his collective experience—that is, in the state and the political community.

Critics fret that such talk risks unsettling the peace of modernity and resurrecting “a premodern concept of the higher good.” It was precisely liberalism’s “ability to filter out the old prejudices,” one critic asserted, “that made the peace of the modern world possible.”

That is a cartoonish critique. It reduces millennia of religious tradition and philosophical contemplation to so many “old prejudices.” But it expresses a belief that is common enough: that liberalism has put an end to the religious conflicts of the past and ushered in an unprecedented peace by relegating faith to its proper—that is, private—sphere. To its critics, then, the new American right raises the specter of religious and moral conflicts that will imperil the peaceful freedom of the West.

But the new right begins from a different premise: that a great deal of our peaceful freedom is already lost. The free world doesn’t feel free, because often it isn’t. But this new unfreedom doesn’t arise from a dearth of individual liberties. The modern West is unfree because it is irresponsible, unbounded, unattached.

Ahmari writes elsewhere in the piece: “Yes, plenty of men and women still make commitments: They get married, have children, serve their communities, and so on. But they do so in spite of, and with little help from, our liberal-technocratic arrangement. At every step, disorder menaces families and communities.”

If any of this makes sense, or “sounds right” in some way, this is a debate worth following…

Unreasonable foreign assistance

Lauretta Brown of National Catholic Register reports on the increasing push amongst Democrats to make it a priority for American tax dollars to fund optional, non-medically indicated abortions for foreign nations. I’m quoted in the piece:

As the 2020 Democratic presidential race heats up, many of the candidates have called for the repeal of a long-standing ban on the use of U.S. taxpayer funds for abortion overseas.

Seven of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates recently confirmed their opposition to the Helms Amendment, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Cory Booker of New Jersey, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, author Marianne Williamson and former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke.

Permitting taxpayer dollars to fund abortions overseas also was included recently on the wish list of a coalition of abortion groups and was added to the Democratic Party platform in 2016.

The Helms Amendment, named for its author, the late Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., says that “no foreign assistance funds may be used to pay for the performance of abortion as a method of family planning or to motivate or coerce any person to practice abortions.” It was enacted as a permanent amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act of 1973 shortly after abortion was legalized in the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision. …

Tom Shakely, the chief engagement officer at Americans United for Life, agreed, telling the Register that the 2020 Democrats were making an extreme break against long-established bipartisan bans on taxpayer-funded abortion.

“When Roe was imposed on America in 1973 by seven men on the U.S. Supreme Court, elected officials responded by making clear that no American taxpayer would be expected to fund abortion overseas and that no taxpayer dollars could be used to either coerce or motivate anyone to perform abortions overseas,” he emphasized. “That’s what the simple, commonsense Helms Amendment makes clear.”

“It has been the American consensus for nearly a half-century, and it’s a sign of the needless extremism of our time that some politicians believe that trashing the Helms Amendment and spending precious American tax dollars to promote abortion internationally makes any fiscal or ethical sense,” he said.

Reasonable foreign assistance can take many forms, but never abortion or other forms of violence or encouraged self-harm.

World Suicide Prevention Day

Leonardo Blair of Christian Post reports on the issues of suicide and suicide prevention, in light of World Suicide Prevention Day. I’m quoted in the piece, pointing out that America is taking an incoherent position on the issue of suicide prevention—discouraging some forms of suicide, while legalizing and promoting other forms of suicide:

According to the World Health Organization, nearly to 800,000 people die due to suicide every year. That’s one person taking their life every 40 seconds. Studies also show that for every adult who died by suicide there might have been more than 20 others attempting suicide.

In 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that suicide was the tenth leading cause of death overall in the United States, claiming the lives of over 47,000 people. Among individuals between the ages of 10 and 34, it was ranked as the second leading cause of death and the fourth leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 35 and 54. There were also twice as many suicides as there were homicides that year.

As the world marked Suicide Prevention Day on Tuesday, suicide prevention advocates like Tom Shakely, chief engagement officer of Americans United for Life, called attention to the rise in physician-assisted suicide laws that allow terminally ill people to end their lives with a prescription from their doctor.

On Sept. 15, Maine is expected to become the ninth state to allow physician-assisted suicide, joining New Jersey, Oregon, Washington, Vermont, Montana, California, Colorado and Hawaii, as well as the District of Columbia.

“When we lose a loved one to suicide, we lose someone who belonged in our world and in our lives. We live with the unresolvable grief and trauma of the loss, even as we encourage those wrestling with thoughts of hopelessness that where there is life, there is hope,” Shakely of Americans United for Life, a pro-life nonprofit, public-interest law and policy organization, said in a statement to CP.

“At this critical time in our nation, we have to do better for all our vulnerable brothers and sisters, and recognize that if we continue to make certain forms of suicide lawful, particularly suicide by physician, we send a terrible message to some members of the human family that they are owed some measure less of suicide prevention than others. We must do better,” he added.

Trust and emotional resiliency

What’s the number one thing couples fight about? Nothing. Kyle Benson writes at The Gottman Institute:

In an interview with Anderson Cooper, John Gottman reveals that the number one thing that couples fight about is exactly that: nothing. …

What matters is not the fight itself, and especially not what it is about. What matters is how partners respond to negative emotions in the relationship. If couples see the conflict as an opportunity for growth, they can attune to each other and increase their understanding of one another, which deepens their trust in each other and in the relationship. …

Negative events will always happen in relationships, and couples will always fight, but that isn’t what drives couples to separate. Relationships fail when the Story of Us—a couple’s history, shared beliefs, and overall attitude toward their relationship—is focused on the problems partners create, not the love partners offer, and the overall attitude becomes negative.

What couples need to buffer against that kind of negativity is a “positive perspective” on the relationship. You need to remind yourself of the good things you share in your relationship, how much you admire and appreciate your partner, and how much you accept and understand their flaws despite whatever conflicts arise from them.

However, if you have a negative perspective, you slowly disconnect, sometimes without even realizing it. …

Regrettable incidents like fights, arguments, and interactions that are primarily negative will happen in all relationships. According to our research, both partners in a relationship are emotionally available only 9% of the time. This leaves 91% of our relational interactions ripe for miscommunication.

While many see conflict in a relationship as a sign of incompatibility, it should be seen as a sign that the relationship needs growth and understanding. Conflict is really an opportunity to learn more about your partner. So, when it feels like you’re fighting about nothing and it goes nowhere, there’s likely a lack of understanding. Perhaps you need to discuss how to compromise and share decision-making, or how to recognize and realize deeper life dreams, or how to address core needs that aren’t being met. The fight itself—like arguing about where to have dinner—is about nothing. …

Typical conflicts are merely a reminder that a relationship is two different people working together to understand differences and love each other despite flaws. And the reason why all couples fight is that we’re all a bit different from each other—personalities, needs, likes, dislikes, preferences, life dreams—and many of those differences (69%, to be precise) cannot be resolved.

So, we fight. But that’s okay, because the trick is to learn how to fight in a way that doesn’t cause harm and that increases understanding. …

When conflict occurs in a relationship, partners need to come together to understand each other better. Often times, that means taking a step back and saying something like, “What do you really need from me?” or “What does this mean to you? Tell me more.” It also means that, before you think of a response, or before you want to dismiss something your partner says that you disagree with, you need to really listen to your partner so that you can understand their perspective.

Trust is built when there’s a positive perspective—that, despite the flaws, disagreements, and differences, it’s a good relationship and that each partner is there for each other. Those fights about nothing won’t happen as often when partners can really open up about their needs, concerns, and dreams. They know that they can work through it, even if negative interactions happen here and there. And for that to happen, couples need to intentionally try to understand each other’s perspectives. When understanding happens regularly, connection is built and a positive perspective blossoms.

I’m also thinking of Jordan Peterson’s clinical perspective, which intersects to with the question of how to “fight better” in relationships:

“Most people who trust are naive—and [to be] naive is not a virtue, it’s a fault. It’s partly a fault because if you’re naive, and you run into someone who’s malevolent—including you!—they night do you incalculable damage so that you never recover. That’s not a good thing, so you don’t want to be naive. If you’re not naive, that means you’ve been burned once or twice—or three or four times. And once you’ve been burned in that manner, well then it’s hard to trust! Because you think, ‘Well, why would I trust you or me for that matter, knowing full well that I can be betrayed?’ So then you’re cynical, and you [incorrectly] think that’s an improvement over being naive. You think you’re more mature.

How do you get out of that conundrum? This is crucial to note: You trust people because you’re courageous. It’s the same reason that you’re grateful. It’s a mark of courage. It’s a mark of commitment. … I don’t think there is any other natural resource than trust. And for trust you need courage, and not naiveté. And you’ve got to overcome your cynicism, so that you trust.”

You don’t want to be naive. You don’t want to be cynical. You choose to trust because you’re courageous. It’s a mark of courage.

Because love is an act of the will more than an expression of the sensual emotions (we choose to love, we choose to will the good of the other), we need this courage and we need to regret the critical, negative tendencies of our hearts in our relationships with other people, especially those nearest to our own hearts.

And with respect to ourselves, and our self-judgments, we’ve got to walk the same path between a false naiveté and a toxic cynicism, in order to reach a place of trust and positive perspective where a permanent sort of love and relationship continually takes shape.

September 11th, 18 years later

It’s September 11th. We’re sharing and remembering the events of that day, and as I do every year I remember where I was: a freshman in high school, watching the World Trade Center ablaze during my second period history class. But how do you commemorate September 11th if you don’t remember it—because you were too young, or because you’ve become ideologically warped? Daniel Byman writes:

Today’s students … lack a sense of historical perspective. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was an average of more than one airplane hijacking per week globally, and those two decades saw hundreds of bombings in the United States by groups ranging from the Ku Klux Klan to the Weather Underground. Indeed, on U.S. soil, both terrorist incidents and fatalities are down in the post-9/11 era compared with the years before.

However, because 9/11 defines what a terrorist incident can do, a bombing or shooting, especially if done by a Muslim in the name of jihad, looms far larger in the imagination than it did in the past. It is hard for students to picture a country remaining relatively calm about a 1970s-level pace of attacks. It is also difficult for them to imagine a U.S. government with only dozens, not tens of thousands, of counterterrorism officers.

Although most students would be loath to admit it, based on class discussions they often seem to agree with Trump on some of his assumptions about how to respond to the terrorism threat. They are skeptical of intervention in the Middle East, especially on a massive scale. However, they also accept a grinding set of miniature wars, with air strikes and special-operations force deployments in much of the Muslim world on a near constant basis. They are also comfortable working with dictatorships in the Middle East, seeing this as a necessary price for counterterrorism cooperation. Perhaps most important, they often see every emergence of a jihadi group as a potential threat to the United States, and thus Islamic State-linked attacks in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sri Lanka are seen as proof of a continued danger to the United States.

The events of 9/11 are increasingly a memory, and without education that memory can easily become a caricature. Americans who are not fortunate enough to study at an elite university are particularly susceptible to vague threats being used to justify unnecessary government spending or an administration’s preferred policy, without a recognition of how the dangers facing the country have changed since 2001. Capturing all the nuances surrounding 9/11 is vital, but the proper response today also requires recognizing that terrorism is constantly evolving, and when it strikes again it may not come from an expected or familiar source.

Newman’s ‘buried inner fire’

A New York friend recently shared the excerpt below on John Henry Newman’s style of preaching. I’ve had a devotion to Newman for a long time, and prayed for his intercession at Brompton Oratory when I was in London in 2012. I wish I could be in Rome next month for his canonization. Anyway, I’m not sure what the source of this passage is, whether book or article or something else:

Newman’s matter and manner of delivery made no bid for popularity. He preached non-controversially on self-denial and the hunger for holiness, and on the majesty and awe-inspiring and all consuming love of God for man. One of his converts simply wrote that he ‘rooted in their hearts and minds a personal conviction of the living God’. But his speech was quick and his voice was low, and though it had a strangely musical quality, there was nothing obviously oratorical to attract the hero-worshipper, as he did not either vary his tone or move about or even gesture. Rather, he entered with such an imaginative power into the doubts and temptations of his hearers that they were caught up into a sense of the drama within themselves, even as they were transfixed by his projection of the utter reality of the supernatural world and by the sheer simple directness of his language describing it. Preaching or writing, he was calm and passionless as marble, and might well feel ‘like the pane of glass … which transmits heat yet is cold’. Yet his very restraint hinted at the fire within, suggesting a spiritual depth the more fascinating for being so artlessly concealed.

These qualities are summed up by Hurrell’s younger brother James Anthony, who came up to Oxford in 1835. Newman disliked Evangelical preaching of the Atonement for its want of reserve, and for bandying the most sacred doctrine of Christ’s suffering about like a talisman or charm to convert. His own preaching of the Passion was exactly the reverse. As Froude recalled it, Newman paused in his recital:

“For a few moments there was a breathless silence. Then, in a low, clear voice, of which the faintest vibration was audible in the farthest corner of St. Mary’s, he said, ‘Now, I bid you recollect that He to whom these things were done was Almighty God’. It was as if an electric stroke had gone through the church, as if every person present understood for the first time the meaning of what he had all his life been saying.”

Treat the doctrine in tones of quiet, though it is tremendous; even hide it; then when you unveil it, strike, and strike to the heart.

It was this quality of hidden power, of an heroic self-control over a buried inner fire, that was missed by Matthew Arnold, when he wistfully recalled Newman’s preaching in old age. “No such voices as those which we heard in our youth at Oxford are sounding there now. Oxford has more criticism now, more knowledge, more light; but such voices as those of our youth it has no longer … Newman … was preaching in St. Mary’s pulpit every Sunday … Who could resist the charm of that spiritual apparition, gliding in the dim afternoon light through the aisles of St. Mary’s, rising into the pulpit, and then, in the most entrancing of voices, breaking the silence with words and thoughts which were a religious music—subtle, sweet, mournful.”

I’m generally turned off by homiletics that sound like performance art. In a sense, Newman’s style of preaching sounds like a performance, but in the true sense of the word—no artifice, but an attempt at pointing toward the transcendent and true, in the same way all good art and beautiful things do in pointing beyond themselves.

Biking the Mount Vernon Trail

On Labor Day I biked the Mount Vernon Trail, picking up a Capitol Bikeshare bike from Georgetown and eventually docking it in Old Town Alexandria. I had started Labor Day at Epiphany for morning mass, spent the early afternoon reading Luigi Guiassani’s “Christ, God’s Companionship with Man” by the Potomac, got time in at Washington Sports Club, and closed out the day in Alexandria caught in rain showers.

Discovering that at Gravelly Point, along the Mount Vernon Trail, you can stand right beneath the planes arriving every 3-5 minutes at DCA was great.