Morning Reflection: On Disaster

Today is the 16th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and it’s (yet another) day where hundreds of thousands of Americans may be waking up to find their homes and communities devastated by natural disaster.  Such times sober us and focus us on what is most important.

What, if anything, can philosophy do for us under such circumstances–where the stability of our lives is ripped asunder? Certainly, this is no time to ponder circular questions.  But I would argue that this is when a philosophy of life is most useful. Like a hurricane ripping the roof off of a house, these events lay bare the flaws in our personal philosophies of how to live. If living a good life is only about sidestepping misfortune for long enough to acquire more possessions than anyone else you went to school with, then we are always one storm wall away from being complete failures.  Just as we may need to hurricane-proof our structures, we need to hurricane-proof our minds.

How do we do that? The ancient philosophy of Stoicism provides a crucial insight. We can gain a kind of invincibility by not tying our worth to what is beyond our control.  A hurricane or a terrorist attack can take many things away from you (including your life) but these events cannot force you to make choices that are opposed to your understanding of the human good.  If your philosophy of living emphasizes excellence of character above all else than these momentous events provide you with an opportunity to exercise your human potential.

So maybe, if you are fortunate enough to not have to wade through your living room today, take today as an opportunity to think about your own philosophy of life and what you see as the most important elements of human excellence. Try to emphasize those things that are actually under your control because whatever isn’t, will, eventually, float away.

One last thing, if you do find that helping others in need is important to you, Global Giving is generally a well regarded organization by charity watchdog groups.

Morning Meditation


Today I am thinking about how to respond to failures. What can we do when we find ourselves looking back at something we did and that we disapprove of?  If we apply the dichotomy of control (accepting what we cannot change and only consider our actual options) this seems to be a pretty easy question. After all, we can no more change what we did yesterday than we can change the fact that a meteor wiped out the dinosaurs. But that’s not how it feels.  It feels like our past failings are a special category of event, one we are charged to carry around for the rest of our lives.  I would argue that these memories are only significant in two ways: one, we may be able to make reparations, and, two, we may be able to learn something about ourselves that will be useful in guiding our behavior in the future.  Once you have considered these two aspects, it would seem the only logical thing is to let it go. This is generally referred to as “forgiving yourself.” I see self-forgiveness as involving a sober acknowledgement of what you have done, a recognition therefore of what you are capable of doing (i.e. you are a flawed human), a comparison between this behavior and your values, a recognition that you have in this instance not lived according to your values, and a recommitment to how you want to live going forward.

What do you think?  How do you respond to your own failings?