Archive for July, 2009

My new book, The Case for Rational Optimism

July 19, 2009

I am pleased to announce release of my new book, The Case for Rational Optimism, by Transaction Books at Rutgers University — “Publishers of Record in International Social Science.”

It shows not only how life and the world are improving, but analyzes the underlying causes, bringing in evolutionary biology, neuroscience, psychology, sociology, economics, and history. A fun read that challenges many commonly held ideas, it will lift your heart and change your thinking.

For more information, click on this link.

Sex, power, and death?

July 15, 2009

There are three basic theories: (1) it’s all about sex [Freud]; (2) it’s all about power [modern social criticism]; (3) it’s all about fear of death [religion].

Unquestionably, all three loom large in human life. And they are intertwined; sex is partly eros but also partly about power; power is partly about sexual opportunity; and, perhaps, deep in our psyches, fear of death figures in both.

However, each of these theories is wrong, because human life is much too complex to be boiled down to one imperative. Nor, even, is it a combination of all three – at least not just that.

As important as is the sexual urge, the fact is that, out of 16 or so waking hours, only a small part is spent thinking about sex, let alone doing it. Likewise, for the typical human, power relationships just aren’t a constant preoccupation. And, while we all fear death at some level, we don’t consume our lives with that preoccupation either. To the contrary, most of us evolve a modus vivendi with mortality – while it lurks in the background, we keep it there, keep it from impinging much on our consciousness, and in substance live our lives as if it weren’t there.

All these “big things” – power, sex, death – may shape the background of our lives, but not the foreground – wherein we actually live from day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute. That foreground is shaped instead by a skein of smaller, immediate concerns, over how we are going to negotiate all the little problems, issues, challenges, and opportunities that constitute the stuff of everyday life. It’s all about how we are going to get through the day, from Point A to Point B, avoiding pain and trouble, and obtaining what pleasure and happiness we can.

The big things, big events, big milestones of life have their impact. But, in the larger picture, that impact is enormously diluted because it is embedded within the vast flood of smaller things that occupy our attention from one moment to the next. At the moment when you are eating a cookie, or listening to a song, or writing an e-mail, or mowing the lawn, or driving to work, that particular thing is what life is about at that particular moment, because that is what occupies your mind. Not death, not power, not sex, but rather the cookie, the song, the e-mail, the lawn, the road. And life is very largely the sum total of all those moments; it is overwhelmingly through those little moments, one after another after another, that our lives are lived.

As Viktor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search For Meaning: “what matters is not the meaning of life in general, but the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.”

That is what life is really about. And its quality for us is, primarily, a function of how well, in all those small moments, we are able to extract pleasure and happiness. When you bite into that cookie, and experience a moment of pleasure from it, that truly is what life is about.

“How we met”

July 6, 2009

     (The local newspaper has a “contest” seeking brief “how we met” stories. I sent one in, and, for a change of pace on this blog, thought I’d post it here as well)

     First, I stepped on her foot. 

    We were on line, signing in for a singles organization’s discussion on “romantic love.” I noticed her name, written above mine, because it seemed curiously half French and half Irish: Therese Broderick. 

     I was 40, newly single, and looking. I cased the room with a gimlet eye. The women appeared, well, “mature.” Now, I actually wanted maturity, having resolved against chasing the flighty young things I had vainly pursued in my youth. Yet I wasn’t quite ready for middle age either, and that’s what confronted me. The only exception was Therese Broderick – who, alas, looked to me like a mere teenager. 

     Well, doggedly, I went through the grim business, meeting all these gals whom I saw more like my mother than like romantic prospects. Finally, at the very end, I sat beside Therese, and remarked that she seemed out of place here, age-wise. 

     She replied, “I’m twenty-eight.” 

    I perked up. I had figured thirty as my cut-off; but, okay, 28, close enough. So I phoned her at the library where she’d mentioned working: “I’m the guy who stepped on your foot.” We made a lunch date. 

    As it ended, I was frankly still skeptical about her presumed youthful callowness. Then she asked me who my favorite artist was. “Magritte,” I answered, smugly supposing she’d never heard of him. But no: Therese was quite conversant with the works of Magritte! 

     She had me. 

    We married six months later. That was in 1988. Therese has told me that after the singles event, she wanted to kick herself for apparently letting me get away. Good thing I’d remembered her name from the sign-up sheet.

     That original page of signatures now hangs in a frame on our wall. 

     And she still looks (to me) like a teenager.