Friday, May 20, 2016

"Less is More." The Cardinal Virtues Part Two

(The Cardinal Virtues Part Two)

Temperance by Baroque artist Luca Giordano

I remember my first hangover. I was twenty-five, and I thought to myself, “This feels like I have a head cold. My face feels all hot and flushed. My nose is stuffed up, and I'm tired. I'm not doing this again.”

Less than a month later I did it again, and had the same results. Since then I'd not had a hangover. I have the occasional drink, but never to excess. I guess that makes me an aberration, because in America people pride themselves on how much they can drink, and how drunk they can get. I remember in high school I'd overhear kids brag about how “F—ed up” they were going to get on Friday night. It almost seemed to be a place of pride for them to get so plastered they'd not remember their own zip code. 

We all go through that phase when we first start drinking. After a while we learn that drinking isn't about the destination, it's about the journey. You can enjoy a fine glass of scotch if you've bolted it down. For that matter, you can't enjoy a mixed drink if you chug it like Kool-Aid. Instead, of saying, “Oh, YEAAAAH,” you'll be calling your friend Ralph on the porcelain phone.

Drinking to excess is one thing.
Living to excess is another.

Not to sound preachy here, but I do live in a country where excess is praised and encouraged. “Go big, or go home!” is a not just a slogan, it's a mantra. We are even taught to admire those who have more, while ignoring those who have less. Bigger, better, faster, stronger, hipper; that's the American way.

But is that way killing us slowly?

Sure, we can demonize fast food all we want. We can demonize consumerism, and any kind of system that encouraged the “take, take, take,” mentality. Ultimately, we are then shifting the blame to a system, or a corporation. We can blame the Big Mac for an extended waistline, instead of ourselves. It makes for a convenient scapegoat; especially since Ronald McDonald is one scary clown. However, to do so we no longer take responsibility for our own eating habits. Instead, we assume that we are mindless creatures who must feed and never be replete. In that essence we cast ourselves as zombies. Though we live in a culture where we are expected to consume and consume again, we don't have to live like that. You do have a choice.

A common pattern that I've noticed with the Cardinal Virtues is that they are not alien to human nature. While they may seem divinely appointed, they really are not. We possess each of the four qualities (and the bonus three “theological virtues”) to some extent. They seem to be built into our nature. The problem is that we often shut them off. The safety device that tells us, “you've gone too far,” is often ignored.

That is where temperance comes into play. It lets us know when we've gone to excess, and have lost control. We then need to ask ourselves, “How much is enough?” How much drinking is enough? How much sex is enough? How much sleep is enough? How much food is enough? How much money is enough? The answers to these questions will vary per person. Some people need more sleep than others. Some people are fine with an occasional drink. Some people need more or less sex than others. 

The problem with our culture is that it tries to impose a standard that says, “You all need to do what everyone else is doing, or else there's something wrong with you.” That then becomes a sort of monkey-see-monkey-do mentality. The result is that we have people who are not only trying to keep up with the Joneses, they are also trying to replicate them. The end result is that the person winds up losing themselves in the process.

That's another discussion, for another time. What level temperance a person needs varies. What we cannot allow to lapse is the need for temperance. In a country where a new gadgets and devices are pumped out every second it seems, we often forget that. We forget that having the newest isn't the same as having the best. Likewise, we often forget, as Mies Van Der Rohe pointed out, “Less is more.”

If temperance can be summed up by any phrase, it is that quote. 

Excess is the real problem at hand. We don't always need more to be better. We need to be a better versions of ourselves, or else more will not suffice. Temperance suggests that we do not try to fill the void in our lives with more, and more, and more. Instead, we get what we need, and learn to utilize what we have. I'm not against buying a new computer when an old one is on the blink. But what I am against is just buying something new for the sake that it is new, and not needed or wanted. Wanting is one thing, but actually needed something, or even desiring it past the trendy aspect is another. Trends themselves are a way of trying to fill the void, and finding out that one is still hungry.

To live well is a good thing. In order to do that, one must have over-indulge. This can be practiced at any financial level, or social level. One doesn't need the most expensive, the biggest, or the most popular. One needs to meet their needs, whatever they may be, and then proceed from there. If not, then one will never be satisfied.

Copyright J.X. Joyce 2016

Sunday, May 8, 2016

An Expensive Virtue--Cardinal Virtues Part One

An Expensive Virtue
(Alms giving)

Charity by Bouguereau

About two years ago, myself and a friend were walking down The Embarcadero In San Francisco when a Buddhist monk approached us. He was bald, middle-aged, and Asian. He wore bright orange and yellow robes and dark red sandals. He looked every bit what you'd expect.

He immediately slipped a set of beads on my friend's right wrist. He then nodded, and smiled.

My friend said, "Thank you."

He prepared to walk away when the monk stopped both of us.

He then presented me with a set of beads. They were a dark rosewood color, and held together be an elastic band. They reminded me of rosary beads, except these fit in a tight circle around the wrist.

The monk then insisted, "YOU PAY NOW!"

"How much?" My friend asked.

"Twenty!" The monk proclaimed.

My friend almost took his beads off rather than pay. Instead, he handed the man a twenty. I did likewise, albeit reluctantly. We got to keep our beads, and he entered our names in a prayer book. He then handed us both laminated Buddhist prayer cards.

After we payed up the monk smiled at us, clasped his hands in prayer, and then bowed. We did likewise, and then stepped away casually.

I laughed, and then said to my friend, "Is that the Buddhist equivalent of a mugging?"

He laughed, and then said, "I don't know...I think we made a donation."

Moments later a younger Buddhist monk approached us. He too tried to shake us down, but we showed the beads on our wrists, and he left us alone.

I've often wondered where that phrase, "If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him," originated from. While I'd never condone the harming of any Buddhist, it may be cheaper than shelling out twenty bucks for beads.

I also hoped the beads were fresh, and not recycled from Mardi Gras. What I do know for sure is that a Buddhist monk said a prayer for me that night.

I still have the beads, and occasionally wear them. They remind me that charity is one of the cardinal virtues. Though that guy was a monk, not a cardinal. Still, I felt pretty virtuous that day. I hope just he was. It's bad karma for a monk to hose people.

All joking aside, charity is a difficult virtue to practice. It means we either have to give money, time or something else to those in need. That something else can be something as simple as canned goods for a food bank, or as complex as blood for a blood bank. Either way we don't like to part with money in large quantities. We also get a bit squeamish about willfully giving up a pint of blood, but that's nothing a sticker and a cookie can't fix. Besides, you'll get your blood back. No matter what your type, it will be used. But will you see that your money is used properly? How much of it really goes to the people who need it? I donate to the March of Dimes every time I check out at a department store. I like to think it goes to something worthwhile, and it does. There are other charities I've donated to as well, and I have faith that what little I can give goes to those who need it.

The main problem with charity isn't so much the doubt that it works. It's the separation anxiety from oneself and their own money.

I'm reminded of a joke I once heard a minister tell.

“A recession is when you're out of a job. Depression is when I'm out of a job.”

He was right. We can be selfish at times, and think, “As long as I got mine, I'm good.” We all want to help the homeless, but giving a dollar to a woman on the street doesn't get to the root cause of poverty. It also doesn't get to the cause of how that person became homeless.

We all want to help the whales, or the chimpanzees, or the endangered rhinos. Will donating to campaigns help them? I like to think so, based on the quality of said campaigns. However, donating that money doesn't get to the root cause of why the black rhino is endangered (superstition dictates that the horn is an aphrodisiac. You'd think reruns of Baywatch would do the trick, and no rhinos would ever suffer).

There's also the problem of being poor, and not having enough money to donate. I get letters from charities that I've supported all the time. I wish I could give more, but I can't afford it.

Nowadays we have Kickstarter, Go Fund Me, and other sites like them. They are a form of alms giving for creative projects. Patreon as well is a form of donation for creative services rendered. With Kickstarter or Patreon you get some kind of tangible reward. If you donate to a religious institution, or a get the knowledge that you helped somebody. You may not know how you helped them, but you did something good. Maybe the ten bucks you sent helped vaccinated children in a third world country. Or, maybe it went to new coffeemaker in the physicians lounge? You may never know.

Charity doesn't always have to be monetary. The definition of charity is, “A supernatural virtue that helps us love God and our neighbors, more than ourselves.”

In other words, regardless of your belief systems, it means that you genuinely care what happens to other people. You care for their well-being. You don't have to give money, or blood, you can just give your time. Sometimes the act of listening is all the person needs. Other times, the may need the act of grace; to give credit to them by your presence.
Perhaps based on this definition, love itself is charity. Caring for one's children, one's friends, or even the care of a patient, or a client can be an act of charity. The care is in the acts that we perform to make sure others are safe. We act to ease their suffering, and thereby we perform an act of charity.

Of course, it doesn't help to donate a little bit of money either. Whatever you can spare is nice.

So if you do see a Buddhist on the side of the road, don't kill him. Hand him a few bills, even if he has no beads to give you. You may have just bought stock in karma...if one believes in such things.

Copyright J.X. Joyce 2016