The infinity standard

by Carl Dyke

The infinity standard will be familiar to anyone who is interested in doing good in their work. It goes something like this. 1.) In the work of doing good, effort causes good. 2.) All possible good should be done, and 3.) all foregone effort is foregone good. 4.) In principle, there is no condition one can be in where slightly more effort is not possible. 5.) With infinite effort, infinite good can be done. 6.) Therefore, infinity is the standard. Anything short is deplorable dereliction.

Usually when outsiders have helpful thoughts for folks in the good-doing activities, they have something like this model in mind, stopping at 4 and not thinking it through to the apparent conclusion at 6. So the infinity standard may not be immediately visible in these interactions. Each suggestion is just one more little thing, one slight retool, what’s the big deal? Responsible do-gooders have generally thought or at least felt it through to 6, but like the Helpy Helpertons miss the real conclusion at 7, this is an absurdity, until it’s too late. Making do-gooders feel guilty that they’re not doing enough or that they’re doing it wrong is like shooting ducks in a bucket. In the short run it can even get more effort out of them.

Get to work!

Get to work!

Rachel and I talk a lot about things I could do to improve my teaching. She’s on board with course blogs, for example, as I probably will be before too long. It can be exciting to add new tricks to the bag, as I regularly do, as long as infinity isn’t the standard. Rachel herself is a cautionary tale. For a year she worked with at-risk high school students in rural Maine who had been kicked out of every available public school and finally alighted in her chronically underfunded specialized private school. Rachel poured her heart into it and did buckets of good by devoting most of her waking moments to figuring out a whole series of creative ways to engage and enlighten these kids. She found their interests, bonded with them, reimagined the curriculum to leverage their strengths against their weaknesses, and really got through to quite a few of them. One even graduated high school and got a job at Walmart. The rest continued to get pregnant and arrested, but they had a much better general view of their own possibilities as thinking persons.

As a result of this experience Rachel has no particular interest in teaching ever again. Which is really a shame, because she was great at it. But she burnt out, one of two classic outcomes of the infinity standard. The other is bitter disillusionment. We all know some of each.

Nothing makes me see red like the infinity standard. There’s much about how good is done that can and should be changed, sooner preferably, and there’s always more good to be done. But gifted teachers and other do-gooders do not grow on trees, so to eject or degrade them with the infinity standard is shortsighted and self-defeating. This just hits the reset button, as often as not with someone less gifted and responsible. I’m in favor of a more realistic standard and a more sustainable rate of good-delivery. Sometimes, Helpy, it’s not that we’re dragging our feet but that we’re pacing ourselves.


40 Responses to “The infinity standard”

  1. I can relate to this. I’m an trad. artist and a wanna-be 3D artist and in the latter the push is constantly towards higher and higher levels of realism. How far can one go? Jorge Seva goes quite far.

    Still, I do think the “infinity standard” should be in service to some other goal. If one’s only reason for doing something, in my case artistic realism, then yes, I think you could get locked into a never ending spiral. But if there is a higher purpose that your quest is subordinate to then perhaps at some point one would say: “Ok, that’s enough for now.”

    So in teaching, my father was a teacher BTW, perhaps the rule one might adopt would be: “I need to not burn out so that I may help more students.” Or as my therapist would say, “You need to set proper boundaries between your needs and the demands of your work.”


  2. Noen, I agree the infinity standard shows up a lot of places. I take this to be an anomic effect, as we ratrace ourselves out of more humane standards before they have a chance to settle.

    I play tennis with a guy who brokers capital for a company that makes cutting-edge VR systems, largely for the military market. He says the new ones are pretty much like Star Trek holodecks. I guess the infinity limit on simulated reality is alternate reality, as the cyberpunks kept telling us.

  3. I like it, but “6.) Therefore, infinity is the standard. Anything short is deplorable dereliction.” is ridiculous in its negativity. It neglect the other rationality (belonging to Spinoza) that the infinity is already acting, completely, through your actions.

  4. I am reminded of a comparison my memory attributes to Nietzsche in The Birth of the Tragedy and the Genealogy of Morals. Two men are watching Salome perform the dance of the seven veils. The Scientist is content to be tantalized as one veil after another is slowly lifted. The Metaphysician is the boor shouting, “Take it all off! Now!!”

    Why not the craftsman’s pride in small improvements instead of the scholar’s despair that all is not perfect?

  5. Thanks, John, that was my point and yours is a good question. Why not? My sense is that the same reaching for transcendence that gives us religion and metaphysics is back of the infinity standard; which as I’m describing it is much less conscious and responsible than either, consisting merely of a nebulous imperative for more, more, more.

    And yes, this is ridiculous and negative. Whether there’s another way to think about infinity that isn’t, I’m happy to take your word for Kvond, without seeing much profit in the hypothesis. In my own version of pragmatism there are only multifarious finities, composed of objects and relationships that may or may not be acting through me from time to time. But in any case my point was not a philosophical one. I am pointing to a real mean thing we do to ourselves, and each other — this irresponsible holding to impossible standards.

  6. This is the thing, perhaps, and what I enjoy most about the standard that you posted. The idea that you can always do a little more, try a little more (or more efficiently, more wholly) is a powerful and significant one…and one which requires the imagination of the Infinite. This is not a subsumptive infinite though, at least in my mind.

    Important though is that nothing of the first five actually leads to 6. This is a horrific distortion, in my view…or in Spinoza’s…

    “…On the other hand, those whose skill is to criticize mankind and to censure vice rather than to teach virtue, and to shatter men’s spirit rather than strengthen it, are a stumbling block both to themselves and to others” Ethics part IV, App.

    Perhaps though you draw upon the positiveness of ALWAYS being able to do more (or better) from a different place (or your investment in the Infinite is unconscious). But what the imagination of the Infinite does is, I might suggest, is turn the soul, the mind towards all those pragmatic continuances of the Self, those outside variety of entities and objects/relationships, of which “doing more, doing better” is ultimayely composed.

    I can say this though because my view of the Infinite Standard holds no water for the 6th conclusion. In this I would agree with you, it is irresponsible to hold people to impossible standards.

  7. In a traditional religious mode, one might argue that 6. is blasphemy. Only someone willing to imagine that they are God would have the infinite resources to achieve infinite success. Not in the Lutheran universe in which I grew up!

    I recall once again that passage from the Second Isaiah. “Shall the clay say to Him who molds it, what makest thou? Let the potsherds speak to each other.” The image of us all as fragments, speaking to other fragments, seems to me to contain a deep truth.

  8. I work in a program that provides services to people who are experiencing homelessness; why, yes, I do work with some people who use the infinity standard, not least because we are surrounded by people whose lives are monumentally difficult. . . . Two general comments.

    1. The perfect (or, in this case, the infinite) is not just the enemy of the good, it is also the enemy of the done. There is no universal solution. There are incremental things that can be done right now. Do those. Then go have a beer, preferably with a Phillies game on, if you can arrange that.

    2. One must take care of oneself. I do not (necessarily) mean this in the sense of spa-day-and-pampering (though that may well be what it means for some people). But one must attempt to act as a whole, thoughtful being, so much as one can, and the anxiety that results from the impossible task of performing the infinite will ultimately diminish one’s capacity to act at all. I realize that it can be a boiling-frogs problem, which is why a certain amount of self-evaluation, meditation, whatever, is probably useful.

    3. Okay, nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition. No matter how much one works at these things, one will still fail sometimes. Sometimes it’s in the sending, sometimes in the receiving, sometimes it’s just bad timing or bad weather or whatthefuckever. Which is not to say that I particularly enjoy finding myself in the midst of a failure episode, but I’ve come to believe that I can only try to learn from the failure (in such a way that I fail in a whole DIFFERENT way next time), not eliminate the possibility of failure.

  9. Narya, That’s interesting. I’m a recipient of such services here in Minn.

    “it is irresponsible to hold people to impossible standards.”

    I don’t know. It seems to me that we are back at the crooked timber paradox. Are we as human being only able to achieve great things out of our “brokenness”? In my experience there was a time in my life when all was chaos but I was producing, I was getting somewhere. A artist friend at that time told me “Don’t cure your neurosis!” Well, I did, more or less, and now I find I am not at the same level as I once was. The beast is no longer on my back whipping me. Which is a relief but…

  10. Perhaps a bit off-topic, but I do love the way in which the Net introduces me to people doing amazing things that may push the limits of what others think is possible. Case in point: Paul Mason, writing on Neuroanthropology.

  11. Thanks for this discussion. Summing up my thoughts about it, I guess I’m more than willing to forego the ‘greatness’ driven by the whipping back-beast. I don’t like the somewheres we get at that price. If today’s problems were yesterday’s solutions, it’s regularly the biggest solutions that create the biggest problems.

    I like Narya’s and John’s middle way. An honest day’s work followed by a beer and a Phillies’ game seems like a livable pace to me. Especially now that the Philberts are halfway decent.

    We keep re-inventing the middle way, and we keep doing it in response to outbreaks of extremism in which infinity of some kind is the standard. What’s up with that?

  12. Carl: “If today’s problems were yesterday’s solutions, it’s regularly the biggest solutions that create the biggest problems.

    I like Narya’s and John’s middle way. An honest day’s work followed by a beer and a Phillies’ game seems like a livable pace to me. Especially now that the Philberts are halfway decent.”

    Kvond: Yes, no doubt poverty and social cruelty will be solved by more beer and greater Philly game attendance. The upper-crust affluence of a “livable pace” certainly is an antidote to the Infinity Standard.

    …but I know you can try a little harder to consume a little more beer, and cheer a little more for Lidge not to blow another save.

  13. Oh man, don’t get me started on Lidge. And yes, as I’ve mentioned making do-gooders feel guilty that we’re not doing enough is easy pickins. My point, again, is that burning out good folks is not a growth strategy for social justice.

    Btw, weren’t we agreeing just recently on another blog about the problems with the marxist version of the Big Fix? Is there a different Big Fix you like better? How many zealots devoting the maximum effort of all their waking moments plus one to the cause will it take to make the master plan work? And what shall we do with the slackers and backsliders who obstruct the path of progress?

    And what is it with Lidge, anyway? Seems like his confidence is shot. Like he got overused or something, I dunno.

  14. I really don’t see any logical connection between the “big fix” and the “infinity standard”. The infinity standard in fact would find big fixes problematic at any number of levels.

    But the idea that we are “burning out good folks” by trying to tell them that drinking beer and worrying about box scores is NOT a “middle” way, but rather a crisp edge of sleepily living affluently, implies that beer drinkers are ipso facto “good folks” or that “beer drinking” itself will naturally grow into social justice.

    You don’t know what’s with Lidge? I guess you forgot what happened in Houston.

  15. It may be a bad idea to pop up here – I promise I’ll keep things mild and friendly – but I think the problem with the middle way is that it’s the middle way between two (or more) things, and what those things are determines what the middle is. I think Obama is finding this out to his cost at the moment, for example – the larger and more vocal extreme has huge power over the conciliatory moderate. That’s one reason, imo, why we should care (as a society, I mean – to the extent that that means anything) about the nature or direction of our (our society’s) significant extremes. We don’t (as individuals now) have to endorse the extremes, in order to find some extremes more productive of praiseworthy middle way politics than others. So Social Democratic politics, for instance, wouldn’t historically have taken the form it did, were it not for far more extreme possibilities influencing the larger political space. Likewise, or contrariwise, with the US healthcare bill. To the extent that middle way politics is just middle way politics, it’s going to be largely subject to the ebb and flow of a broader and much more diverse political space.

  16. Hi Duncan, always a pleasure. Keeping things mild and friendly is the middle road that sleepy affluent beer drinkers substitute for social justice. Out at the wings eggs must be broken, as Kvond keeps reminding us. Whether breaking eggs is any better than a more dramatic substitute for social justice, history has yet to definitively teach us.

    I don’t suppose you actually mean that middles require extremes to define them, but given that there are extremes I completely agree that some are more productive of praiseworthy middles than others. Your examples are apt.

    Kvond, I also don’t suppose you actually thought I was arguing that beer drinking in itself qualifies as either activism or good character.

  17. Carl,

    The best eggs to break are those broken from the inside.

    As for whether you were “arguing” that beer drinking qualifies as “good character”, it did seem that you felt good character described those beer drinkers that occupied the so-called “middle road”. I’m really not sure what the connection is, but I’m also in doubt whether that particular road you cheer on leads any place really good…unless you mean another blown save.

  18. Poverty and social cruelty will not be solved by beer and Phillies games; however, they will also not be solved by any given person, or even many people, setting an Infinity Standard for themselves and working every moment of their lives, stopping only to eat some crackers or collapse from exhaustion.

    I do not think that I can fix the world, even if I work really really hard at it and sacrifice all time, money, and bourgeois pleasure at my disposal. Thus, I’ve had to ask myself just what “morality” requires of me (and I think everyone here does the same thing, though we perhaps come up with different answers). I don’t think it’s an easy answer, I don’t think the answer is the same over time, and I do recognize the all-too-human tendency to let myself off the hook more than I maybe should. I’ve also recognized that this is the one life I get, and I’d like to enjoy the pleasures available to me as I can. If you’re arguing that I should instead devote those resources to persons worse off than I am–I should not have beer and baseball until and unless everyone can have beer and baseball–then I disagree, though I do see the point (and potential moral force) of the argument.

    At least they finally beat the Astros, anyway.

  19. And: while drinking beer =/= good character, I can say that drinking the weasel piss that is sold as mass-produced American beer and claiming to enjoy it is a sign of bad character, or, at least, bad taste buds.

  20. Narya, I agree with your taste in beer except when I’ve just finished hard sweaty physical labor, in which case nothing tastes better than a Bud. The swills also lend themselves well to serial boilermakers, I’ve found (or as can be observed on the second season of “The Wire”). Perhaps in preferring foreign and craft beers we betray an elitist taste? Come the revolution, will we all be drinking IPA; and if the masses persist in their low preferences, will we need to raise their consciousness? Or will we all reacquaint ourselves with the hard labor that makes Bud appealing, as the Red Guards and Khmer Rouge thought? Hmm, on second thought maybe it’s best not to make beer about morals.

    Speaking of which Kvond said “I’m also in doubt whether that particular road you cheer on leads any place really good…”

    Well that’s the problem, isn’t it. We don’t actually know what would lead to any place really good, or even entirely agree on what that place would look like. In fact, we’re all familiar with a whole range of compelling moral arguments and their compelling refutations. In practice we’ve been inspired by moral individuals, irritated by moral majorities and horrified by moral vanguards. We’ve seen total self-sacrifice advocated by Christians, Muslims, Fascists and Communists, all in the name of a greater good.

    It’s possible of course to bracket competing claims and troubling histories (the various crusades, jihads, holocausts and gulags) and make a pascalian wager or existential gamble on a particular set of principles, priorities and practices. I expect we all do some version of this. But with the infinity standard I’m getting at a different kind of moral totalitarianism, in which not knowing what road will lead to what good means that a whole range of moral imperatives from competing and often incompatible systems are (however dimly) understood to have some reasonable claim on our practice, such that every thought and in/action is moralized and there is no escape from the disapproving, goading eye of some god or another.

  21. As I’ve said, I probably follow the Infinity Standard, but see no reason to include number 6. I see none of the connections or consequences of it that you do. Perhaps though, as someone who does not follow the Infinity Standard, you have a privileged position from which to judge it.

  22. Of course I have a privileged position, and so does everyone else commenting here, relative to at least some other people. The privileges vary, of course, and possibly dramatically, but how one’s privilege is relevant in a given conversation is a different argument, perhaps. Not following the infinity standard is not what makes my position privileged, however, and following the infinity standard does not mean your position is not privileged.

    To go back to the original assumptions, then: I’m going to take issue with 4., to start. You can argue that “in principle” more effort is possible, but in any given specific instance, it may not be; weightlifting is a rather simple example of the truth of that. If more effort is always possible, then there is no weight a person cannot lift, and that is demonstrably not true. If it is true in arenas outside of weightlifting, as well, then the argument falls apart earlier than the invocation of the infinity standard, which leads to exactly the point about which we’re arguing. When has someone expended “enough” effort? What are the limits of effort? For the person who is trying to be moral/good/what-have-you, this is a non-trivial question. And you reach the point where, as Carl observes about Rachael, some people will burn out: should we castigate them as weak? Should we exhort them to continue expending infinite effort, at the expense of their own physical or mental well-being, because the others are even worse off?

    I will also quarrel with 5.: infinite effort does not necessarily result in infinite good. Pointing one’s efforts in a direction that proves fruitless, for example, possibly means that one’s efforts have actually been Bad: I expended every waking moment and all of my resources into Doing X to Fix Problem Y, but instead of Fixing Y, I actually either Did Not Fix it, or perhaps Caused Z, which is, in some calculations, a worse situation than the original problem. Did I do infinite good even though I expended infinite effort? Nope. (This may also be a critique of 1., come to think of it: effort does not necessarily result in good, and not all good comes about as a result of effort.)

    Of course, none of these calculations are simple, and at least some of us want to have a beer now and again; I know at least a few people who also feel guilty about that. I’m going to take a stab at this from a different direction. Rather than trying to apply the amount-of-effort calculation, one might argue that it is the obligation of every person to become a Full Human Being (yes, that would need to be unpacked, but leave it in the box for now), and that part of what it means to be a FHB is to work toward a society where everyone has an opportunity and the means to also do that. (That is why John Adams opposed slavery: he thought that it prevented both slaves and slaveowners from being the best they could be.) Thus, we all have an obligation to think seriously about and work with some diligence toward social justice (another still-packed box there); we may not simply rest on our privilege and have another beer all the time.

    And speaking of beer, for those hot sweaty days, I’d still prefer a saison or a farmhouse ale rather than a Bud; many of those styles were brewed with just the kind of effort you’re describing in mind. Even a stout or another “session” beer could do in this situation. This past weekend, however, I had an opportunity to sample about 10 Oktoberfests, which was quite fun. The best of the bunch was from Capitol brewery in Madison, WI, so you may not be able to get that one, but I also liked Dogtoberfest from Flying Dog.

  23. Wait, so beer-drinking =/= activism, and =/= good character, and =/= morals. I’m starting to think I’m just an alcoholic.

    I like the concept of the infinity standard a lot. But my gut feel is that this is a psychological (/social-psychological) disposition – i.e. I don’t think it maps very well at all onto political regimes. (It maps well onto a variety of personal political practices.) iow, the critique of the infinity standard is a separate thing from the critique of the Big Fix, though both may be accurate.

    Narya – imo, your comment @ 18 is powerful. I think it expresses something that a lot of people feel, and that is right.

    I’m self-indulgently curious about folks’ views on this passage from Derrida’s Gift of Death, which seems to me to articulate something related to the infinity standard – and to Narya’s comment also:

    As soon as I enter into a relation with the other, with the gaze, look, request, love, command, or call of the other, I know that I can respond only by sacrificing ethics, that is, by sacrificing whatever obliges me to also respond, in the same way, in the same instant, to all the others. I offer a gift of death, I betray, I don’t need to raise my knife over my son on Mount Moriah for that. Day and night, at every instant, on all the Mount Moriahs of this world, I am doing that, raising my knife over what I love and must love, over all those to whom I owe absolute fidelity, incommensurably.

  24. Oops, I killed the thread. 😦 Sorry. As you were.

  25. Nope, it’s alive, I just can’t answer a question like that off the cuff (or I could, but it would be some crap like I saw on a door at UCSD once, “What’s da creed-a, Jacques Derrida? Dere ain’t no writa; dere ain’t no reada, eida!”). Been a while since I’ve read any JD and I don’t have a quick hook for your question.

    Just to return serve I’ll say that I completely agree that the infinity standard is a social-psychological syndrome, not a rigorous logical proposition. So while Kvond is absolutely right that there’s nothing about 6 that follows from what comes before, 6 is an effective conclusion nonetheless and figuring out why, and with what consequence, is of some interest, both for persons and for political regimes.

  26. Carl: “Just to return serve I’ll say that I completely agree that the infinity standard is a social-psychological syndrome, not a rigorous logical proposition. So while Kvond is absolutely right that there’s nothing about 6 that follows from what comes before, 6 is an effective conclusion nonetheless and figuring out why, and with what consequence, is of some interest, both for persons and for political regimes.”

    Kvond: And this is where I will disagree. Six comes from not adequately applying the Infinity Standard in the first place. The infinity Standard is the antidote to 6, not its foundation. Putting it at the end of a list of infinity standard principles is simply a polemical device. One should remove the “therefore” which you have included, which reads as a logical conclusion. I would argue that it is not the “consequence” of what is stated above it.

    One does not need the Infinity Standard to make people feel bad about themselves or their effort.

  27. The journey of a thousand *li* begins with a single step. Doesn’t have to end the next day.

  28. Dang, I’m still not being clear. OK, let’s try this.

    I see your point, Kvond. But the infinity standard, as I am discussing it, is #6. In the context of #6 the stuff that comes before it is the sort of pseudo-rational window-dressing that Gramsci called ‘common sense’, in distinction to ‘good sense’ (more reflective) and ‘philosophy’ (fully coherent, systematic thought). That stuff can be turned into philosophy only by jettisoning #6, just as you say, and I like the way you’ve done it. But since social-psychologically the core of the syndrome is #6, in lived life that does not happen. It’s more like a superstition than a thought, and just as resistant to reality therapy.

    The infinity standard is a uniquely comprehensive and successful way to make people feel bad about their efforts, but of course it is not the only way. I do think it’s quite distinctive as a syndrome to a moment in history characterized by the fragmentation of community and the disarticulation of moral order. Like religious fundamentalism, it is one of the backlash responses to the anxious flux of modern life. Much is expected, we don’t know what exactly, competing standards apply, demands come from all over; lather, rinse, repeat.

  29. Hmmm. I know very few people who COMMONLY think of Infinity as either a standard, or even a means of interaction. To invoke the “infinity standard” expressed in strictly philosophical terms (propositions), and then to put it into a kind of logical development which you then claim doesn’t even hold, and then lastly claim that people don’t even think that way at all, its just part of their common sense, makes me feel like I’m playing a game of three-card-monty.

    The truth of the matter is the Common Sense digestion of the guilt people feel for “not doing enough” probably has very to do with an inner “logic” that is “not a logic” of an Infinity Standard. It probably hsa to do with letting specific people or models down that one feels they can’t live up to (not Infinite Models), and has to do with the prior, one might almost say, a priori establishment of subjectivity itself as a condition for guilt (at least in the West), a mechanism of storing up energies of self-infliction, much more locally organized and defined from any logic of infinity (real or imagined).

    To put it in short, I don’t think that your Infinity Standard actually explains anything here. There is a big difference between “much is expected” and “infinity effort produces infinite good”

  30. Perhaps if you talk less abstractly (because you are not arguing a conclusion) I would know more about what you mean. Give an actual situation where the “window dressing” of the infinity standard is in full employ. Your examples in your newest post seemed non sequitor to me, and would yield to other, more classic explanations.

  31. “It probably hsa to do with letting specific people or models down that one feels they can’t live up to (not Infinite Models), and has to do with the prior, one might almost say, a priori establishment of subjectivity itself as a condition for guilt (at least in the West), a mechanism of storing up energies of self-infliction, much more locally organized and defined from any logic of infinity (real or imagined).”

    This is well said. I think we’re converging here. Now, what I’m trying to get at is the superstructure of affect that gets built on top of this, such that when one so inflicted hears yet another (internal, external) ‘you should’, the camel’s back breaks, the glass spills over — threshold effects rationally disproportionate to the stimulus — as this multiplicity of people and models passes through the lens of guilty subjectivity and diffracts into a sensation of infinity (not unlike what Durkheim called the ‘oceanic feeling’ of vastness that comes from participating in effervescent social events) that can be quite overwhelming.

    I’ve suggested another line of explanation for the examples in the newest post myself, in the comments. But I think that at least part of what is going on is an aversion/avoidance feedback loop where parenting is constructed around anticipating and intercepting the affectual infinity of possible judgments. I know for sure that teachers do the same thing, because I watch them, and myself, do it every day.

  32. I guess that I don’t experience the (negative) “oceanic” feeling of any paralysis as something of an Infinity (and perhaps you, or persons close to you, do). For me the feeling that one cannot go on is much more local, fixed, straight-jacketed. There might as well be a “Nothingness” rather than an Infinity beyond those local restrictions, but that would be far too philosophical, ie, not what I would be feeling/thinking. Dispiriting is for me a local affair. Its more structural, like prison walls. Infinity is far too abstract, even for layers of affects.

    And a Superstructure of Affects, if I follow what that would be, would not be sheerly a restriction. It must also be a mode of action as well.

  33. You are a significant data point for me, Kvond. I see that what I’m talking about here does not fit you. I ask only that you now look for what I’ve indicated how to look for.

    As always I really like your turn from what’s restricting to what’s enabling. As a general principle of generosity, resilience and effectiveness this can’t be beat.

  34. Are we talking here about two opposed readings of a never-ending story? One sees that no end of this and despairs. The other sees no end of this and feels aren’t we lucky. There is, of course, a difference of initial conditions: The former starts in feelings of failure and fatigue, the latter in those moments of joy when new beginnings reveal themselves. I have experienced both, but in the darkest moments always taken comfort from a Robert Louis Stevenson poem about an “India rubber ball” that always bounces back.

  35. John, I at least am not talking about quirks of personal psychology and interpretation of the glass-half-full-half-empty variety, but about the ways that the shrapnel of moral artillery being fired by various competing communities tears into those of us with a sense of obligation to something larger than ourselves but no stable sense of what that might be. Certainly resilience is a nice thing to have in these circumstances, but it’s the circumstances I’m addressing.

  36. Good point. No question that we are all increasingly bombarded by claims on our moral sympathies and feelings of guilt and shame. A real problem for me is how simple it is to deploy the same defense mechanisms I use at funerals and lock everything out.

  37. Being a significant data point is pretty much all that one could ask.


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