Free Will For Others

I was listening to a 2009 Design Matters podcast where Debbie Millman interviews Milton Glaser, a celebrated graphic designer.

At around minute 28:00 they were talking about the ethical limits in the use of design services; where would the line be drawn when a designer was asked to promote a product or service or idea that could possibly end up causing harm.

Based on a survey of design students Milton took in one of the classes he taught, they were discussion whether there was a difference between promoting a product that involved child labor in its fabrication and a product that could kill the voluntary (adult) user. Is there a case to be made for one saying the deadly product is OK to promote because it involves the free will of one who may not care enough about his own well-being to refrain from using it? Is he choosing it freely? Many in that survey said yes.

Milton made the point that, when you defend the so-called ‘free will’ of another person to choose a harmful thing, it requires you to objectify that person who uses his free will in a way that may harm himself. This person you refer to must be a faceless, nameless other that you really don’t know or care about. But if you were talking instead about the freedom for your loved one – such as your spouse, sibling or child – to choose something that harms himself, most likely you would reconsider your role in making that harmful product available.

The ethical line we draw when it affects those closest to us – our family and tribe – is often much tighter than the line we draw when it affects people who mean much less to us personally. We are much more likely to exercise a right to interfere with the free will of a loved one where we stand to lose if they lose.

But, in this age where (I hope) humanity is slowly starting to emerge from a my-tribe-only mentality, does it make sense to refrain from interfering with the choices made available to the rest of the inhabitants on this small, struggling planet? Can we afford any more to say, “It’s not my problem. I’ve got a job to do.” ?


One Word For Love

Many times I have found myself frustrated that we have only one word in English to describe a wide range of feelings and intentions that we call ‘love’.

“I love you,” can be spoken by a lover, by a parent to a child, by a politician’s or guru’s fanatic, by one life-long friend to another, by a rock star to his audience.

We use it for ordinary objects in one moment and sacred things in another.

“I love God.”

“I love America.”

“I love the way you say that!”

“I love chocolate chip mint ice cream.”

To love something can mean I lust for it, I adore it, I am devoted to it, I crave it, I appreciate it, I prefer it over other things on the menu, or I am ready to die for it. It can be extremely strong, or slightly more attractive than other trivial objects.

It is used so much, for so many common things, over such a wide range of intensity, that it is difficult to communicate precise feelings with that word alone.

Up until now, I have found it hard to use that word toward someone in the situation where I held one form of love for that person, but definitely did not feel or focus on another form of it. If I were to to say “I love you,” in that context the person may be mistaken about which form of love I currently held and which form I did not. At other times I have found myself feeling unauthentic, or even manipulative in the use of that word because my intention would have been to express a more shallow form of love when they would most likely interpret it as a deeper one – I had only one word to choose from.

But I’ve recently realized, for this very same reason, the vagueness of the word ‘love’ could actually be useful. The inability to be precise with that single word leaves room to mean one aspect of love without meaning all of them – yet, leaves me without obligation to precisely define the boundaries of my current feelings and give an explanation for it.

For example, there are times when there is a strain in my relationship with my spouse or with my child. It would be important for me to affirm that some essential feature of love is standing firm in that moment, while I may not be obligated to feel or declare love the other forms of love that might apply at other times in that relationship. “I love you” can communicate there are boundaries to our conflict, but we’re still having a conflict.

The vow to unconditionally love the other person – as in the context of marriage and parenting – does not mean I have to always uphold all the forms that might be appropriate under good and easy circumstances. I can love you, but not particularly like you at this moment; I am committed to working this out but I don’t feel like kissing or throwing the baseball around.

Sometimes, to someone I am having a conflict with, I need to say “I love you” and leave it certain that some essential form of love is there – that the other person is safe, in this regard – while leave it mysterious as to what other forms are missing. It may be good that the other person notice the imprecision, and wonder which parts of love have gone missing and why. Hopefully, he will notice the commitment and the protest loaded in that single word.  Hopefully, he will be motivated by his own love to ask and find out if he has done something to injure it.

Seeing Without Prejudice

We all have them – a prejudice that emerges, a quick judgment, when we see another person with some characteristics that we look down upon.

I study a lot about health and causation of illness, and work on creating lifestyle solutions. In the locker room at my fitness club I cannot help but notice when others are taking off their clothes to reveal the signs of disease or destruction caused by a poorly maintained body.

The indicators of disease are just impersonal biological and sociological facts. The general causes are fairly well documented: a mixture of personal lifestyle and the patterns of our culture. But this individual has a unique story that I don’t know. I rationally understand that it is really difficult, if not impossible, even with the best education and practice, for any individual to avoid some destruction from our modern lifestyle.

Yet, the judgment pops up: you’ve done this to yourself. Don’t complain, especially if you are still not taking appropriate measures to remove those causes in your lifestyle.

People ask, “When you know all this, do you just see these problems everywhere you turn?”

Yes, I do notice involuntarily… unless I train myself to not notice, and look past it, and first notice positive characteristics instead. This doesn’t come naturally.

The first stage of the training of mindfulness – for the removal of prejudice – is to simply notice that a judgment arose in my mind and that I have grabbed on to it and am stimulating it. It takes some time for this initial act of awareness to become a habit, and not condemn myself for having the thought.

The next stage of training is to let go of that thought, to quit handling it. This takes some time time to form into a habit also.

The next stage of training is to notice the thought emerging, without grabbing on to it in the first place. Just watch it come and watch it eventually go. It takes a great deal of effort, at first, to do nothing with that thought.

With this level of practice done over time, it is anticipated that this kind of thought will just quit coming at all. If I no longer exercise the neural pathway it depends on – by grabbing onto it and giving it stimulation – that pathway will eventually atrophy and fade away from disuse. There will be no more impulse for this kind of thought.

This training is easily described, but not easily accomplished.

Mutual Maturity

I’ve had this observation for a while. It seems that if one stays in a marriage relationship long enough – the maturity of the people involved tends to be quite similar, even if they seem to have a difference in age or experience.

The less mature may be pulled up a bit, and the more mature might be pulled down a bit. But somehow, when the going gets rough, they operate at a similar level. Or, they don’t stay together long.

It is most noticeable when there is a disagreement or conflict.

The one who thinks he is more mature doesn’t quite end up acting more mature than the other in how he deals with it.

I catch myself feeling ‘above’ my spouse on certain matters, but when I imagine having someone step in to mediate the impasse, I see the discussion of what’s wrong always leading back to some way I’ve contributed to the problem – just as negligent or careless, just as immature in my expectations or response to frustration. In the court of my own head, I never find the higher ground.

I suspect that those who are truly more mature don’t position themselves the same way when they enter into a relationship with someone less mature – parents are clearly parents, for example. They are not as vulnerable to the gravity of one with far less maturity. Not that they consciously do this, but that it is the way it works.

I see some marriages where there is an unusual difference in age, and one might assume there would also be a difference in maturity. But I am not quite so sure. Either one is more mature than he seems, or the other is less than she seems. Or something is really weird that causes us to question the health or appropriateness of that relationship.