My Misanthropy – 2. Friendships

2. Friendships

When I was 20, my friend introduced the psychological test The Cube to me. I had to relax and focus on my mental awareness. My friend talked me through the scenery. I found myself in a desert. I saw a sand desert (like an extended beach) with dark yellow sand dunes and a dark blue sky. The atmosphere was pleasant and calm. The line of the horizon was more or less in the middle of my image. Now, the first object appeared: a cubic structure. Immediately, in front of my inner eye, a monolithic black massive cube stood firmly and unshakably in the desert sand. It had a metallic flawless surface that nothing could ever scratch. Certainly, it wasn’t hollow, even though we would never be able to find out. The second item was a ladder. I found an old wooden ladder leaning on one of the cube’s walls, about half the height. It was slightly damaged, with missing and broken rungs. Actually, it looked a bit like the old ladder in our horse barn. Now, a horse entered the picture. An impressively majestic black horse, rearing like the one on the Ferrari logo. It stood in a slight distance on the rear left of the cube. The next thing, a storm, didn’t want to fit into my desert. There was no space for a storm, it felt wrong. After a bit of hesitation, I settled my unease with a twister that roamed around at the horizon on the right. It added up to the impressive scenery by being at save distance (certainly never coming closer) and by being an impressive natural phenomenon itself. The last element that I had to add to the picture was flowers (or only one, if that seems more appropriate). A well arranged flower bed, yellow-red flowers surrounded by red bricks, appeared in front of the cube. It felt a bit misplaced, but was much more acceptable than the storm.

cube

After returning to this world, my friend explained to me that all the elements in this image mean something and tell something about me. The desert depicts my soul, the cube is me (or the image I have of myself, my ego), the ladder symbolises friendships, the horse is my partner, the storm represents my perception of problems in my life, and the flowers stand for my (future) children. I learned that my soul is balanced and grounded, that I have a huge ego and strong self-confidence, that the main connection to my partner is admiration and that I wish her to have a strong and independent character, that my life is obviously free from any troubles and problems, and that my ideal concerning my future children will be to take good care of them and let them flourish. I skipped the ladder, here, because I want to talk about this particular item, since this article is about friendship. I may talk about the other insights in other blog posts, maybe. Or I leave it to your interpretation.

The ladder was short (in comparison to the cube), useless and weak. It leaned on the cube and didn’t seem to attract anyone’s attention, like a forgotten tool or discarded trash. The book that my friend used to interpret my picture suggested for this case: Friendships don’t mean much to me. It is rather me who is a stronghold and listener for others who see me as a friend, but not vice versa. My friends don’t lift me up or support me reaching different (higher) spheres. The fact that my ladder is old and broken might hint at past disappointments or other negative experiences with friends. Moreover, while my self appeared indestructible, eternal and firm, my friendships appear labile, perishable and transient.

I can’t tell whether psychology tests like this one make any sense or have any empiric foundation, or if they are not better than astrology and horoscopes. I know from my own experience, playing this game with many of my friends, that it very often resembles the life situation or worldviews of the proband. A woman with huge problems at her job (causing her a broken partnership) had a very strong and devastating storm in her image, blowing away her horse. Another friend who made the conscious decision never to have kids had the flowers trampled down and eaten by the horse. A friend that I would characterise as a dreamer with emotional weaknesses had a fragile glass cube floating above the sand. Let’s just assume for a moment that the depictions somehow represent the actual attitudes and personality traits of the image-maker. In my case, the ladder I visualised made very much sense to me!

I was never a dominant person that had a large group of peers and buddies around. Dominant and loud people scared me. My circle of friends has always been rather small. As a teenager, I had my Pannonia friends, my band mates, and around 5-6 good friends in my class at school. I had no friends in my village except the two boys in my class at Gymnasium. I was boy scout and member of the table tennis club in Hoetmar until the age of 14, and after that didn’t keep any contact with any of the boys and girls there. After Abitur (final exam of Gymnasium), most of the friendships faded away, because I didn’t really feel any urge to maintain them. In many cases I was happy that I didn’t have to meet those idiots anymore, in other cases they were happy that they didn’t have to meet me anymore. I remember, six months after end of Gymnasium, I complained to my best friend Jonas that he and some others meet up but never invite me. He replied that he felt like I don’t fit into that group and that the others don’t have a good image of me. Honestly, I never found out what is wrong with me. I can’t remember being rude or mean or offensive. I guess it has to do with the massive black cube…

The same happened after graduating from university. The few friendships I established – I was never a member of the Club of Cool People – just faded away after some time. When I left Germany in 2013 for Asia, I didn’t feel like leaving any important friendships behind. With modern communication facilities (social media, chat programs), I tried to keep in touch with some friends, but the mutual interest dropped rapidly after being out of sight. At my new (and current) home Taiwan, I only have rather superficial friendships with language exchange partners and (ex) band mates. The interest in what I have to share (for example in this blog, or on facebook) is close to zero. I guess, most people in my friend list on facebook unfollowed my posts. The focus of my current life is you (Tsolmo) and your Mom, besides my books, my music, and my writing.

Why am I so bad at maintaining friendships? Option 1: I am a complete idiot that nobody can like or get along with. Feedback from my wife, from family members, from friends, shows me that I am not that bad. My flaws are at a reasonable level, like everyone has flaws. Option 2: I don’t care. This is what the ladder in the desert image suggests. Friends don’t raise me up. I do! Friends come and go, anyway. Why invest energy, then? An important aspect might also be that I am the kind of person that is very much de-motivated by criticism and personal complaint. I tend to focus on things that I know I am good at and that I know I have a chance to get praised for. I will never sing an unknown song in Karaoke because there is a chance of failure and looking like a fool. I don’t like dancing in a club but would rather play the drums on stage. I will rather choose to meet a friend who likes to hear my advice on something than a group of people who might choose to do something that I am afraid of (like going ice skating). Whenever I feel unpleasant or stressful with people, I will give up trying to be their friend. This was the case with class mates at school, with those at university, with colleagues, and even band mates. Additionally, I am a total homey! I don’t like to go out drinking (but rather invite some buddies to come to my place and have a beer here!), am too thrifty to waste money for expensive drinks or food in restaurants and cafés (but rather invite… see above), and feel most comfortable at home, doing the things that I like (reading, writing, DIY, cooking, baking,…). So, it seems, I just don’t care about friendships.

How is this linked to misanthropy? The crucial question is: Does my situation make me unhappy or even depressed, or not? It is surprisingly difficult for me to answer this, and I spend quite some time and effort on finding out. Psychologists (like my ex-girlfriend, and in many books and research articles) often point out the strong link between firm embedment in social relations and perceived life quality and satisfaction. People with either quantitatively (many) or qualitatively (good) well established friendships are happier, less depressed, more successful and healthier. If that is true, I should be unhappy and gloomy. At the same time, I wonder if it is this generalised insight from the psychologists that causes me pressure and dissatisfaction, but not my situation as such, since I don’t feel unhappy with only few friends and little social interaction. As I explained, I am happy doing the things that I do, and I don’t need friends to ease my mind, because as an introvert I do that remotely on my own. Yet, it bothers me that obviously nobody is interested in my thoughts, ideas and reflections. The quantity is not an issue, but maybe the quality is!

What is a good friend, then? I define friendship mostly via communication. A friend is someone who is willing to share his or her thoughts and ideas, and to listen to my thoughts and ideas and talk about them. Conversations with a good friend don’t need to have any limits or restriction, we can just talk what we feel like. Especially, friends may give each other direct and honest feedback, something that not so close people shouldn’t do! I want a friend who can tell me “Your idea is wrong! Look how you appear like an idiot in this or that situation!“, but also “Wow, I never thought like this! Thanks for the inspiration!“. The basis is, of course, a mutual interest in each other and the other’s well-being. Unfortunately, in the age of facebook, instagram & co., real personal interest is rare. People have 2000 friends in their list, but don’t care about any of them like “traditional” friends. People lose interest when having to read more than three lines of text, but only want to see photos or funny memes. Same as I am not good at (and not interested in) small talk about meaningless nonsense, I am also not good at (in the sense of not willing to) sharing private photos and irrelevant trivial daily-life choices and decisions (like what to eat or what to wear or what to buy). A friend is someone who can give me inspiration, sometimes confirmation, sometimes criticism. I expect open-mindedness, honesty, the willingness to use the brain, and a consciously chosen high level of ethical integrity.

It means: Maybe I would care more about friendships if there were people around me that are worth it? Now, this is a highly offensive statement, of course! And THIS is the misanthropy I am talking about! My image of people in general is so low that I don’t see any necessity in making anybody my friend. If you don’t understand what I am talking about when reflecting on mindfulness, epistemology, constructivism, ethics, good life conduct, then leave it and don’t waste my time! If you don’t appreciate my cognitive skills and my creativity, then I am also not interested in you! I am working on and eliminating my own flaws, but if you are not willing to even face yours, then I have difficulties having any respect for you! You smoke? Weakling! You wear make-up? Mindless consumer! You think philosophy is useless? End of the conversation! You hate jazz? Goodbye!

Obviously, my expectation on people is very very high! Some (my Mom, for example) interpret that as arrogance. I look down on people, obviously. I disagree. I am very self-critical! I have many flaws! I am not better than anybody else. Sure, I have skills that others don’t have, but others have skills that I don’t have and never will have! I am not above anyone, so I can’t look down on anyone. I just demand a lot! Especially smartness and wisdom. And this is the major problem, as mentioned earlier: Most personal flaws are the result of not using the brain properly. The cardinal vice that people can have, the deadliest sin, is idiocy. I try very hard to eliminate all idiocy from my personality and character. However, I can’t see this attempt in many people. That’s what I dislike about people: lack of effort on self-reflection and self-cultivation! That’s my misanthropy and the reason for me having so little motivation to build friendships.

Or, maybe, I didn’t meet the right people, for reasons that are my very own problem. Fear (of failure, of humiliation, of trouble), attachment (in the Buddhist sense, to my habits and patterns), bitterness (from past experiences). Instead, I am King in my castle. The massive black cube…

To close this topic, here is one last message to you, Tsolmo: Don’t be like your father! Probably, you won’t experience your father as a very social person, going out with his buddies, often inviting visitors, or giving friendships an outstanding value. Yet, I hope you won’t become an asocial person like me! Meet friends, invite them to our home, visit theirs, establish strong bonds that give you emotional and cognitive support! It is important for your independence and for your personal development and integrity! You may take me as an idol in some respect, but please not in this one!

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My Heroes – Visionary: Francisco Varela

This category could also be labelled “Everything”. What I have in mind is an award for someone who contributed extraordinarily to the “larger picture” we have of the world and mankind’s place in it, both in terms of a scientific understanding and in view of philosophical reflections. Nobody bridged these two domains better and more consistently than the Chilean biologist, cognitive scientist, constructivist and ordained Buddhist Francisco Varela (1946-2001)!

francisco_varela

When he died in 2001 of Hepatitis C, the world lost a brilliant mind and engaged scientist much too early! His legacy included a great deal of insights for contemporary constructivism, a connection between biology, neuroscience and human cognition, and new concepts like autopoiesis and self-referentiality, greatly impacting our modern view of the human mind and its potentials in the world fabric. Among his most recognised and rewarded publications are:

  • 1980 (with Humberto Maturana). Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living. Boston: Reidel.
  • 1987 (with Humberto Maturana). The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding. Boston: Shambhala Press. ISBN 978-0877736424
  • 1991 (with Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch). The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. MIT Press. ISBN 978-0-262-72021-2
  • 1999 (with J. Petitot, B. Pachoud, and J-M. Roy, eds.). Naturalizing Phenomenology: Contemporary Issues in Phenomenology and Cognitive Science. Stanford University Press.

Especially his works with Humberto Maturana are outstanding in the sense that they pave the way for a new definition of living systems and organisms. Autopoiesis describes the tendency of an organised system like a biological cell to sufficiently maintain itself solely by its own means and drives (but in exchange with its environment, of course), which is in contrast to allopoietic systems (like car factories, for example, that use the input of resources to produce cars but not themselves). Autopoiesis can be defined as the ratio between the complexity of a system and the complexity of its environment, with other words: we can describe autopoietic systems as those producing more of their own complexity than the one produced by their environment. Initially intended by Maturana and Varela to be applied to biological entities, it soon expanded to other fields such as cognition, consciousness, and social system theory as that of Niklas Luhmann. His tree of knowledge combines Heinz von Foerster’s first and second order cybernetics and the developmental and linguistic psychology of Ernst von Glasersfeld with Humberto Maturana’s and his own insights into biological systems. Therefore, he is regarded as a key figure (and his respective book as a key work) in contemporary constructivism.

From my perspective, it is not a co-incidence that he was attracted by the Buddhist worldview and its implications on daily life practice. I agree completely with Varela (and many others who recognise it) that Buddhist philosophy can be characterised as inherently constructivistic. Dependent origination (Pratītyasamutpāda) becomes even more clear and convincing in light of Varela’s autopoiesis model! Thus, key ideas of Buddhism such as karma, dukkha, the mind poisons, emptiness, etc. fit perfectly into this picture. Moreover, since the early days of scholarly Buddhism (the days of Nagarjuna), it has a lot to say about consciousness, human psyche and mind, so that an exchange with biological and cognitive sciences seems due. Varela (together with Adam Engle) founded the “Mind and Life Institute” that facilitates the dialogue of (cognitive) science with the Dalai Lama on the connections between our scientific insights into the human mind and the Buddhist understanding of it. Many conferences with renowned scientists and venerable Buddhist masters have been held since then, with very fruitful output.

I call him a visionary because in his last years he tried eagerly to connect the puzzle pieces to a picture in which normative implications of constructivism become obvious. What does it mean for our understanding of ethics? What does it mean for individual well-being and the creation of quality of life in a social collective? Unfortunately, before he could elaborate his thoughts to the fullest he passed away. His last contribution was the combination of Husserl’s phenomenology with first person approaches from neurosciences (so called neurophenomenology). He inspired many scientists and philosophers alike to continue working on what he started. I like to see myself as one of them, carrying on the mission to fruitfully connect our scientific knowledge base with normative orientational knowledge for which philosophical ethics as well as sophisticated worldviews such as Buddhism can (and must) be a source.

My Heroes – Ancient Philosophy: Nagarjuna

I guess it has become very obvious in all my previous letters that I am much closer to ancient Asian philosophies than to European philosophical traditions. I find the classical Indian and Chinese exegeses on holistic and non-separative ontology, constructivist and naturalistic epistemology, and especially the pragmatic and psychologistic (in contrast to many Western meta-ethicists, for me that is something positive) ethics conceptualisations  much more plausible and convincing than the premature and naïve Western realism, dualism, substance metaphysics and transcendentalism. The most famous figures in ancient Asian philosophy are certainly Siddhartha Gautama (the historical Buddha), Laozi (even though it is not certain that this was one real person) and Kongzi (Confucius). They are regarded as the founders of Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism, respectively. However, in each schools of thought, there are other thinkers that achieved much greater insights than their predecessors: Zhuangzi put the Daoist philosophy on more solid grounds, Mengzi (Mencius) and Xunzi sophisticated Kongzi’s ideas substantially, and Nagarjuna is without any doubt the most important and influential Buddhist philosopher before it became a modern academic discipline! His enormous merits in advancing the insights on Sunyata (emptiness), Satyadvaya (Two Truths), Madhyamāpratipad (the Middle Way) and Pratītyasamutpāda (Dependent Origination) make him my personal hero in the category Ancient Philosophy!

nagarjuna

Nagarjuna (Sanskrit: नागार्जुन, Chinese: 龍樹) lived in South India around 150-250CE (widely shared scholarly view). According to the legend, he received the Prajñāpāramitā sutras from mystical creatures called “Naga” (a mix of snake and dragon) who kept in on behalf of the historical Buddha at the bottom of a lake. His name means “white snake”, and he is often depicted with snakes (an Indian symbol for wisdom) around his head. The historical record of his works is incomplete and still vividly debated among contemporary scholars. Some of the text attributed to him might be from other philosophers. It is widely acknowledged that his major contribution is the Mūlamādhyamakakārikā, a treatise of 27 chapters on The Middle Way.

After the death of Siddhartha Gautama, his followers split, basically, into two groups: The worshippers who focused on the practices taught by Buddha, and the scholars who wanted the Dharma (transferred in the sutras of the Pali canon) to be understood as philosophical wisdom. The former can be regarded as the religious interpretation of Buddhism, the latter as the philosophical school. For around 400 years, it seemed that the worshippers were the predominant group. The theoretical schools divided further and further and disputed with one another about who represents the true Dharma and who understands Buddha’s teachings in the best and most appropriate way. By the time of Nagarjuna, the original philosophy conveyed in Buddha’s doctrines were at the risk of being lost. Nagarjuna’s analysis of the concepts mentioned above formed a new firm connection between our philosophical understanding with Buddha’s original accounts. He is regarded as the founder of the Madhyamaka school in the Mahayana branch of Buddhism.

Mahayana_lineage

As pointed out earlier, I regard the 12 links of interdependent co-arising as the core of Buddhist teachings, even more fundamental than the Four Noble Truths or the Eight-fold Path (which are rather easy-to-understand doctrines of folk Buddhism, in my humble opinion). Once familiar with this model, it is easy to understand the difficult notions of sunyata (emptiness) and the practical implications of a Middle Way philosophy (which is the center of Nagarjuna’s teachings). Thanks to Nagarjuna we have today a better and philosophically more grounded idea of these important elements of Buddhist worldview. I can see how it applies to many daily life situations and how I can make use of it to increase my life quality. For a philosophical Buddhist (but probably also for religious ones), Nagarjuna’s writings are essential reads, but there is also a lot of good and insightful secondary literature about him and his teachings (see a list in this article by Jan Westerhoff in the Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). If you want to gain deeper insights into Buddhist thinking, there is no way around Nagarjuna, but it is definitely a way that is worth the time and effort!

My Heroes – Politics: Nelson Mandela

Apparently, this “my heroes” thing is a series of posts. To disclose the secret: It will be seven, altogether. There won’t be a category “sports”, because I am not much interested in sports. For the same reason, there won’t be actors, cartoon characters or PC and smartphone inventors. I am also not much interested in politics. However, when reflecting on who impressed me positively and who is an outstanding historical figure with inspiring and idol-like vita, the name Nelson Mandela always comes to my mind.

Nelson Mandela

I believe there is no need to introduce him. He might be one of the most famous political leaders in contemporary history. After years in prison, as president of South Africa, he contributed a lot to overcoming the long grown hatred and racism (“Apartheid”) that split the population. Awarded with a Nobel Prize of Peace in 1993, internationally respected and admired, he was honoured with very special tributes after his death in 2013. If you want to learn more about him, watch the movie “Invictus“.

What makes him so special? I believe it is, above all, two things: His impressive capability of forgiveness, and his farsightedness in overcoming hatred and ideological division. They are best captured in a statement made by him on his release from prison:

As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.

He would have had many reasons to hate his suppressors, tormentors and humiliators. But he didn’t! His only concern was “to build the nation” (of South Africa). To realise this vision, as he knew, it would be absolutely crucial to break the vicious cycle of hatred, resentments and revenge. He embodied many characteristic virtues of Buddhism, I think: Forgiveness, not being attached to the past, not giving in to “the dark side” of aggression and bitterness. He famously cited William Ernest Henley’s poem “Invictus”: “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul!”. This also became one of my mottos. We become who we cultivate ourselves to be. We create karmic potential with everything we do, so we better reflect mindfully on what we do, what effect it would have and which of the options we may choose from is best in line with our values and visions. Mandela was a very wise man! He knew that his goal of a unified nation would only be realisable when the circle would be broken. By this, he mastered his fate, and – at least for his era – the fate of his nation.