Season on Flourishing – Acquaintances

This is week twenty of the Season on Flourishing.

This week we continue to examine the relationships we have with the various people in our lives. Specifically, we turn our attention to our acquaintances, to those people with whom we have the least contact. Though individually any acquaintance only takes up a small part of our lives, collectively most of us spend considerable time talking to such people. Take special care of these relationships this week. You could, for example, focus on being better at small talk (this advice comes from a quality website which is marketed to men but is certainly useful for everyone). If you want to, you might even try to develop a deeper friendship with a casual acquaintance. You might be surprised at what a difference these activities make in both your life and your acquaintances’ lives.

Have other ideas for how to relate to those you only casually know? Tell us!

Season on Flourishing – Colleagues

This is week nineteen of the Season on Flourishing.

After spending a week thinking about our friends, we now move on to other important people in our lives. This week, we focus on the workplace and on interacting with our co-workers. We spend a third of our lives (maybe more) with these people, so it is well worth investing in those relationships. Our relationships with our colleagues are not so different than other relationships. We don’t get to pick our colleagues, and our relationships with them are more goal-oriented, but they require the same nurturing and we can approach them with the same tools we use elsewhere.

How can you be the best colleague you can be? How can you develop friendships with people you work with? How can you draw an important line between your personal and professional life and not develop friendships with some of the people you work with? Here are some suggestions, but above all, simply pay attention this week to these relationships. As you go through your week, be mindful of how everything you do impacts them, and try to nurture rather than put stress on them.

Season on Flourishing – Friendship

This is week eighteen of the Season on Flourishing.

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle enumerates three kinds of friendship. First, he tells us of the friendships of use. These are the relationships we have with people from whom we need something. We engage in them because we have to. Our relationships with co-workers or landlords are friendships of use. They are nice. They are cordial. But they depend for their existence on mutual advantage in a straightforward and immediate way.

Second, Aristotle tells us that there are friendships of pleasure. These are the relationships we have with people we enjoy spending time with. We engage in them because they make us happy. These are what most friendships are. These too depend for their existence on mutual advantage, though in a more subtle and longer-term way.

The third type of friendship Aristotle covers is friendships of goodness. These are the friendships we have with people we think of as good people (or at least people who endeavor to be good). Canonically, we engage in them for their own sake. That is to say, we recognize and love the good and so are naturally drawn to these kinds of friendships. As a corollary to this idea, I want to point out that friendships of goodness make us better. These are the relationships in which all parties are striving for the good and mutually supporting each other in that great endeavor. Whereas friendships of pleasure produce a comfortable stasis, friendships of goodness produce progress.

These three types obviously form a hierarchy, but to say that friendships of goodness are best is not to say that the others are bad. They are smaller goods. More importantly, they are a step on the way to higher forms. Rejoice in them. But think also about how you might move a relationship to a higher form.

Want to learn more about Aristotle’s view of friendship? Read books VIII and IX of the Nicomachean Ethics.

Care for your friendships, whatever their level. Take some time out to do something nice for a friend. Remember to support your good friends in their efforts to be good. Remember to hang out with your pleasant friends. Even just make a point of saying hello to a co-worker. Those relationships are important too and they need looking after.

Remind yourself of all of the good times with your friends by reviewing old pictures and making a scrapbook/album. Even if it’s just ten minutes of looking at Facebook, take this opportunity to remember your friends and reflect on your relationships with them. If you have more time, make an album of your favorite pictures and share it with your friends, or get hard copies and make a scrapbook/collage to give to your friend(s) as a gift.

Check out the official Friendship Day website for more ideas.

Make an effort to progress a relationship. You could ask a co-worker out for drinks, or have a long talk with a drinking buddy about your values. Don’t be discouraged if it does not work. Strong friendships are not built overnight. Try again. Or try with a different person.

Make new friends! It is not nearly as hard as you think it is.

Have other ideas for how to celebrate Friendship Week? Let us know!

Season on Flourishing – Spiritual Practice

This is week seventeen of the Season on Flourishing.

The psychological dangers through which earlier generations were guided by the symbols and spiritual exercises of their mythological and religious inheritance, we today… must face alone, or, at best, with only tentative, impromptu, and not often very effective guidance. This is our problem as modern, “enlightened” individuals, for whom all gods and devils have been rationalized out of existence.” – Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces

We are speaking here of no more and no less than the development of good habits. The lives we want to lead are sometimes difficult to approach directly, so various semi-arbitrary commitments can be incredible stepping stones. That is what we mean by talking about spiritual practices. Such practices might be as esoteric as an actual devotional practice (devoting yourself to living well or to the Good) or as mundane as cleaning your apartment. To be a spiritual practice, you just need to conceive of it as something which you do specifically to make yourself a better person, to enrich your life and the lives of others.

Start a practice of learning, perhaps by reading for a half-hour every day or committing to going to a museum once a month.

Start a practice of reflecting, perhaps by sitting alone with yourself and your thoughts once a day or by journaling.

Check out the list of spiritual practices on this website devoted to them. Not every practice will make sense for you to try, but some will.

Start a practice of helping others, perhaps by doing something good for someone else without accepting a reward (or even without their knowledge).

What spiritual practices do you find helpful? Let us know!

Season on Flourishing – Ambition

This is week sixteen of the Season on Flourishing.

After our week of living simply, we turn now to examine ambition. They might seem like opposed concepts, but I encourage you to think about how they can be reconciled. There is much in life which is not addressed by a narrow focus on the peace of mind which comes from simplicity. Much that can be gained by engaging with its more active counterpart.

Ambition is often maligned. We sometimes think of ambitious people as selfish, destructive people who will ride roughshod over others. But ambition is also the wellspring of all the great (or even mildly good) achievements of humanity. Ambition is striving to make things better than they were, to bring beauty into the world, to exercise the energies of a full and flourishing life. Ambition can carry one through turmoil and difficulty to heights one could never have reached otherwise. We need ambition, both to build the lives we want, and to contribute meaningfully to the world.

I recognize that the quality of the content on this blog has varied pretty wildly. Sometimes our ambition outstrips our ability (or at least the price we are willing to pay to realize our ambitions). But failing to completely realize one’s ambitions is not the end of the world. Sometimes the half-built enterprise is still worthwhile. I hope you find this project, whatever its faults, worth something.

Check out this scholarly article on “The Causes and Consequences of Ambition.

Read these two interesting blog posts on the value of ambition.

Remember that, like all character traits, ambition has its excesses and its costs.

Sit down and reflect on your goals in life. Are they ambitious enough? Too ambitious? What are you going to do to consciously shape the life you want? Now stand back up and get going.

Have other ideas about how to observe this week? Let us know!

Season on Flourishing – Simplicity

This is week fifteen of the Season on Flourishing.

In a world which is overly busy, it is worth reflecting on how little we actually need to be happy. This is a common theme, even a cliche, but it is not thereby wrong. Perhaps it is so common precisely because the problem it addresses is so pervasive. We really can reap great benefits from living, if not like Buddhist monks, at least a little more simply.

I think simplicity is often misunderstood. It is about being happier by focusing on what you actually need and not being distracted by extraneous things. Simplicity is not the enemy of success (see Cicero as an example). Simplicity isn’t about eating buckwheat for every meal and never watching T.V. (though Epicurus did famously say that with a crust of bread and a glass of water he could rival Zeus himself for happiness). Simplicity is about recognizing what is essential and what is merely nice. It is about cultivating an attitude where you can appreciate the finer things of life but are not dependent upon them. It is about self-sufficiency, about being content and unfazed by most (if not all) of the vicissitudes of life.

For a quick introduction to Stoicism, an ancient philosophy centered around simplicity, listen to the Philosophy Bites podcast on the topic.

If you want to try out Stoicism for yourself, take part in Stoic Week. Do it with them (at the end of November), or do it with us this week (or do it both times). Also, check out the rest of the website. It has some great stuff on it.

With all this talk of Stoicism, I must point out it’s much-slandered contemporary, Epicureanism. Personally, I find Epicureanism offers a more compelling picture of how life works, though it has not had Stoicism’s historical staying power. Read Epicurus’ “Letter to Menoeceus.” It is an excellent introduction to his philosophy and a must-read for anyone interested in simplicity as a way of life.

For a related, though somewhat different approach to living simply, check out the modern Voluntary Simplicity movement.

For a scholarly take on the (modern) history of the idea of simple living, read The Simple Life: Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture by David Shi.

Listen to the old Shaker spiritual “Simple Gifts.” It is a beautiful song with a beautiful message.

Read Walden by Henry David Thoreau. It is a classic text about one man’s experience living simply.

While much of this week has been focused on not needing things, take some time also to appreciate a thing you have. Once we have things, we usually move on and take them for granted, but think back to how you felt when you wanted it and when you first got it. Try to see it that way again. Notice it and appreciate it. To help in that endeavor, meditate on this insightful Calvin and Hobbes comic.

Get rid of some of your unnecessary stuff. Donate it to a thrift store. One person’s burdensome junk is another’s useful tool.

Share your experiences this week with a friend. Letting go is easier with support and you’ll be introducing them to a valuable idea.

Have other ideas for how to celebrate Simplicity Week? Comment and let us know!

Season on Flourishing – Science

This is week fourteen of the Season on Flourishing.

Science and the scientific method are central to the Humanist worldview. Our commitment to empirically testing all of our beliefs is what sets us apart from the various religious traditions. Scientific rigor is our watchword and our strength, and we should be justly proud of it. At the same time, we must recognize the danger of scientism, of ignoring those things in life which have not yet been captured by scientific explanation or which lie outside of the scope of scientific inquiry altogether. Let this week be a call to a greater understanding of the scientific endeavor. Celebrate science this week as a symbol of progress and rationality and also as a living tradition of thought and practice which we are all engaged in.

Take a look at these two articles explaining how to read scientific papers. A must-read for anyone who wants to understand what is going on in current research.

Check out (if you haven’t already) the wildly popular “I fucking love science” phenomenon. Blogger Elise Andrew links to articles about all kinds of fascinating things going on in the world of science.

Be a (financial) part of a scientific project. Crowdfund science.

If you’re feeling particularly generous, you can donate your body to science (after you die, of course).

Science being as close to the hearts of many Humanists as it is, I’m sure many of you have some great ideas about how to celebrate science this week. Let us know by commenting!

Summer Festival

Apologies for my lack of posts recently. We’re back up and will be posting for the remainder of the year.

A Humanist Year’s major festivals occur four times throughout the year, at the solstices and the equinoxes. These are times for celebration. They are times when we laugh and sing and come together with others to revel in the turning of the year. They are also often transitional times between the liturgical seasons, times when we separate from the previous season’s concerns and refocus our attention on new topics and new ways of thinking and interacting with the world.

The Summer Solstice marks, literally and metaphorically, the brightest day of the year. In astronomical terms, it is the day with the most sunlight. In Humanist terms, it is World Humanist Day, a time for special pride in our Humanist community. The Solstice is also comes at the height of the Season on Flourishing, a time for rejoicing in all that is good in life. Join us this week as we celebrate the Summer Solstice, World Humanist Day, and AHY’s Summer Festival.

Read this excellent and thorough treatment of humanism as a worldview.

Read the current Humanist Manifesto (and it’s forerunners).

If you want more information, Wikipedia is the way to go. That article has a wealth of information, including links to follow-up on and a list of (the many) Humanist organizations.

I do want to highlight a few specific Humanist organizations:
The American Humanist Association is perhaps the closest thing we have to a central organization.
The American Ethical Union is essential to the history of Humanism and is still the best example of Humanist community.
The Foundation Beyond Belief is an organization of Humanists doing good in the world. It is the place to go for Humanist philanthropy (consider donating!).
The Secular Coalition for America does a lot of very important political work around Humanist issues (consider writing a letter to your representatives!).
The Secular Student Alliance is a wonderful resource for university students looking to get involved in the Humanist movement.

Take a look at the IHEU’s World Humanist Day website for ideas about how to observe this important holiday.

Reflect on and discuss with others what being a Humanist means to you. How does it influence your day-to-day life? How does it relate to your other identities?

Read or watch Humanist works of art. Take a look at, for example, Star Trek or the His Dark Materials trilogy.

Sing Humanist songs.

Get together with a Humanist community near you. If you do this only once a year, now is a great time for it. Let this week of Humanist unity be the impetus for finding out what Humanist community is all about. Here is a great list of local groups which are affiliated with the American Humanist Association. Also well worth checking out is the American Ethical Union’s list of local Ethical Culture Societies. The Sunday Assembly is another great organization with local secular gatherings to look into.

Plan a pilgrimage to a Humanist landmark – perhaps the AHA or AEU annual conferences (the AEU one is next weekend!) or the grave of a famous Humanist.

Have other suggestions for how to celebrate the Summer Festival? Let us know!

Season on Flourishing – Freedom

● Read Sir Isaiah Berlin’s seminal work on political freedom, “Two Concepts of Liberty.” This fascinating article analyzes two concepts – what Berlin calls negative liberty, which has to do with freedom from constraints, and positive liberty, which has to do with being part of the ultimate source of those constraints. It traces the historical development (and abuse) of these two very different conceptions of what it is to be free.

● World Press Freedom Day is next week. Take a look at UNESCO’s website to learn more about this important holiday.

● Read this article by psychologist Jonathan Haidt about the role of freedom in the current culture wars in the United States (it uses Berlin’s concepts of negative and positive liberty, among others).

● Play this fun philosophy game which introduces you to the debate surrounding the question of what it means for our wills to be free.

● Listen to some songs about freedom (there are a lot of them out there).

● Donate to Freedom House, an organization which champions the cause of civil liberties and human rights across the globe through research, advocacy, and direct action.

Have other ideas for how to celebrate Freedom Week? Let us know!

Season on Flourishing – Earth Week

This is week five of the Season on Flourishing.

Wednesday is Earth Day, so this week we reflect on our place in nature and our relationship to the earth itself. We humans often act as though we were separate from and above the natural world of plants and non-human animals. We act as though our concerns were radically different from those of the rest of nature. In reality, of course, we are very much a part of that world. We are special, we are different in many ways, but many more are the ways in which we are the same. Many more are the ways in which our fate is bound up with the fate of the earth we live on. For our own sake as well as that of the rest of nature, we must use the power we have over our environment well.

● Watch the official Earth Day Network educational videos and do the associated activities.  These are great to do with your children, but they can be engaging at any age. For a more in-depth perspective, take this fantastic online course in environmental science.

● Read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. This book about the dangers of pesticides is a classic of the early environmental movement. Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction is another interesting book detailing the often disastrous effect that we humans often have upon our environment.

● Watch An Inconvenient Truth. This famous documentary about global warming has won numerous awards and has been credited with re-energizing the environmental movement.

● Go be in nature. Go hiking, have a picnic, do whatever it is that will get you out into as much wild as you can find. Appreciate that experience. Be mindful of it. Turn your attention to the wind as it blows through the trees, to the grass beneath your feet. Revel in the peace and serenity of the glade and the breathtaking majesty of the mountain.

● Gather berries and edible plants (make sure they are safe to eat first). Go hunting if you have a permit. Make a feast out of nature’s bounty.

● Watch “Planet Earth” the miniseries. This amazing BBC documentary is visually stunning and offers a fascinating look at the biodiversity of our planet.

● Join or start an official Earth Day event. While you’re looking into that, check out the rest of the Earth Day website. It has a wealth of other stuff, from t-shirts to twitter handles, to help you observe the holiday.

● Observe the holiday by observing plants blooming! Moreover, you can participate in democratized science! Project Budburst and Nature’s Notebook are two really cool projects which use lay observers to track important environmental changes.

Plant a tree. Nothing says you care about the future of our planet like making the long-term investment in air quality that is a tree.

● Buy a high-efficiency appliance to cut down on your energy usage.

● Donate to the Earth Day Network or the Natural Resources Defense Council. These organizations are doing important work which is worth supporting.

● On the political front, sign the Earth Day Network petition urging political leaders to phase out carbon pollution. More importantly, think about the environment when making political choices. The people we elect in the coming years will have a huge impact on the environmental policies of our nations. Make sure that you vote for someone who takes that responsibility seriously.

Have other ideas for how to celebrate Earth Week? Let us know!