Self-Mastery and Physical Pain

In Xenophon’s book on Socrates, he describes the great man like this:

In the first place, apart from what I have said, in control of his own passions and appetites he was the strictest of men; further, in endurance of cold and heat and every kind of toil he was most resolute; and besides, his needs were so schooled to moderation that having very little he was yet very content.[1]

The Greek word for “control” can also be translated as “mastery.” I prefer this translation, but I used the work on another in the quote above because translating classical Greek takes me longer than I care to spend. But back to the main idea. At a young age, I wished to learn the virtue of self-mastery or enkrateia. Here is my experience with this virtue in relationship to physical and emotional distress:

When I was a kid, I often experienced extreme physical pain.

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Roid Rage vs Confidence

When I was 18, I did some personal training. During my certification test, the cert group had to move us to a different building across the city.

One of the guys needed a ride because a friend had dropped him off. He was jacked. I mean, a really really big dude. He was my height but weighed about 190 pounds. I remember feeling pretty good about myself when he asked if I used steroids based on my squat numbers (which were relatively high, but not absolutely high).

Anyhow, I knew how to get to the other location, but it was on the opposite side of San Antonio, so I drove through town rather than getting on the loop because it was a straight shot.

They guy started thinking I went the wrong way and began to yell at me. He also started punching my dashboard telling me to turn around or he was going to kick my ass.

I had been doing martial arts for a couple of years by this point and I’d beaten larger men in bjj matches, but I’d never been in a real fight against a guy that big with morals turned off.

I was trying to figure out what to do, so I told the guy that it didn’t matter how big he was he had two options:

  1. Get beaten into the pavement and left on the side of the road.
  2. Shut up and go finish his certification exam.

The reason I offered the concession in option two was that I knew that unless I used a weapon, I couldn’t win but the bluff seemed pretty serious.

He chose option 2 and as we pulled up to the test site, he apologized.

I would have done two things differently now:

  1. Not offered the guy a ride.
  2. If somehow, I had given him a ride, I would have made him get out of the truck.

There’s no moral to this story, I just suddenly remembered this event that I probably hadn’t ever told anybody about outside of a small circle of friends and my karate instructor.

New Job or Learning by Doing

I recently got a job as a software developer/computer programmer.

This is weird for several reasons. One of which is that when I was in high school, one of my goals prior to being thirty was to become a computer programmer to pay for seminary. I just did it in reverse. The programming I’m doing is pretty top level, but it’s all new to me and in many ways is more frustrating than some of the “harder” stuff I learned in college.

Anyway, I basically create UI tests for laboratory software. In the very brief time I’ve done this job I’ve learned:

  1. A handy version of git
  2. Way more C# than I would have covered in any college course (I was hired only knowing C++, Sci-Lab, and Mat-Lab).
  3. Selenium
  4. Way more HTML than I ever cared to know.
  5. And I’ve learned to use the laboratory management software for which I’m creating tests.

There is a great deal more to learn. But this reminds of a time when I was younger and I went down a water slide and my aunt realized I was struggling to swim because I panicked. It was really weird, I still remember wondering, “Why am I not swimming like I normally do.” She said, ‘Do or die, Geoffrey!” So I paddled to the side of the pool and she or my grandma yanked me out.

This job is like that. It isn’t like being in a college class. That can be motivating because I’ve paid for it. But it has the limitation of being easy to make second place to my other job (teaching). Getting paid for this requires me to learn a great deal at a fairly quick pace or I have nothing to produce and thus no money to make.

Anyway, for folks who wish to learn new things I recommend reading up on it for a while and then jumping into it. Nothing helps you learn like sitting and staring at something until it hurts with no answers in sight. You’re forced to be creative, ask good questions, and fail. Such events force us to learn.

Logic, Error, Judgmentalism, and Love

Being able to think is a disadvantage with which most people are not burdened. Being able to think merely makes you aware of the outrages around you. – Arthur Jones

You should not be over much righteous nor should you seek overmuch to be clever. Why destroy yourself? Ecclesiastes 7:16 (author’s translation)

When I was in high school my senior English teacher taught us basic logic and recommended to us that we read Aristotle. He was pretty sure that Aristotle was the smartest man who had ever lived. I did that. I also read several books on logic and how to use it. In this process I was still trying to learn to be a disciple of Jesus. The skills acquired from studying basic logic helped me tremendously in my efforts to understand Scripture and theological debates throughout church history. I remember during my seminary certain students would get frustrated that I could read the books so quickly, like I had some sort of unfair super power. It really wasn’t that. It was nothing other than an application of logic that allowed me to move beyond difficult paragraph arrangements and enthymemes (arguments that skip steps) quickly.

In the mean time, I tried to stay out of any debates involving politics with other people simply because I saw how divisive and ugly they could get. I was certain that there was some moral flaw in the very nature of modern political discourse that required people to be so harsh and illogical. I simply tried to stay out of it. Fast forward to a few years later and (I’ll leave my stances of political issues out of this) I started getting into political thinking because I realized how many poor decisions seemed to be made by politicians with a non-understanding of statistics. I started reading pundit pieces from various sides of numerous debates, reading actual books about economics from various perspectives (even the books on probability and human nature by certain famous economists), I started looking at (insofar as it is possible) the progress of various civilizations and the narratives that purportedly led to their demise, and then something interesting started to happen.

I found myself looking at people, individuals, in terms of their participation in ideologies (which is certainly a part of their lives) and not in terms of their need for grace. I’d look at people and think, “dude, that kind of behavior and thinking has obvious deleterious effects upon yourself and the culture upon which you parasite (if I can use that as a verb).” Now, it certainly is important to think of our actions in terms of personal/subjective as well as civilizational impact, but that does not change the fact that people are still intrinsically valuable (especially if Christianity is true).

Examples:

  1. I love making fun of the city in which I live and its denizens. It is, in terms of markers of social health (road quality, obesity rate, literacy rate, teen pregnancy, civil participation, etc), one of the silliest places on the planet. But that does not make the people less created in God’s image.
  2. I love making fun of people at the gym. I affectionately call them gymbeciles. But once again, these people are in the gym because they don’t want to contribute to my city’s health crisis!
  3. I love making fun of people who make basic factual errors.
  4. I love making fun of scientists who try to be historians and fail to get simple timelines correct. My favorite is the claim that the medieval church persecuted Galileo (who was a contemporary of Descartes).
  5. I sometimes use the phrase “maliciously stupid” to talk about the things people do.

Now, making fun of stupid things is an important inoculation against them. But, making fun of people as though they are objects of contempt can really dehumanize them outside of the rhetorical context of debate (in debate, if you’re correct you might have the moral obligation to not only prove your opponent wrong but if the opposition’s idea is dangerous, to make the idea look positively stupid). This habit can very easily lead you (at least it leads me) to treat them with contempt. It is so very easy to go from the ability to point out simple reasoning errors, then to finding those errors funny, and finally to finding human misery caused by bad ideas funny.

The quip from Qoheleth and the note from the inventor of Nautilus equipment are both important to take in to account. Not because thinking is intrinsically wrong, but because logic divorced from ethics tends to produce judgmental attitudes toward people rather than compassion. Thus, Paul notes that “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”

Anyhow, Jesus said, “Whatever you want others to do to you, you should do to them (Matthew 7:12).”

This tells me three things:

  1. I do not want to be written off because of my intellectual errors, therefore I should not do the same.
  2. I do not want my individuals actions to be judged solely on the basis of my ideological commitments (even if there is a connection between them), therefore I should not do the same.
  3. I do not want my actions done on the basis of mistaken logic to be treated as though they reveal my intent, therefore I should not do the same.

Things I used to Believe

This article has some personal information. Not just in the sense of observations I’ve made, but in the sense of information about myself. For instance, when I wrote about quitting Calvinism, it was about me, but it was mostly about evidence that made a particular view untenable for me. Anyhow:

  1.  I used to believe that people can change or be influenced positively.
    I almost gave up on this idea. A particular piece of counter evidence came to me in thought experiment in a book by Nassim Taleb’s book, The Black Swan: The Impact of Highly Improbably Fragility. On pages 105-106 he gives an interesting scenario. I’ll summarize it. Imagine a group of rats which I expose to increasingly higher dosages of dangerous radiation. Over time rats die. By the end, I have the strongest rats left. I then advertise that I found a method for producing the strongest rats. It hit me that as an educator, any school system that carries students to graduation, also had a series of fail safes (radiation dosages) that kept struggling students from making it along. Anything, it seems, that we should advertise as our own doing can be explained away as the result of poor students failing out, making grades too low to get into college, etc. Do students succeed because of good teacher or do good teachers look good because certain students who would have succeeded went through their class rooms? IQ scores are not static, but unless a student can be motivated to take ownership of active learning, IQ often does stay the same throughout traditional education. Thus, as math classes get harder and reasoning gets more abstract, larger class sizes do less and less for those of average or below intelligence. This led me to think of churches. Do some churches seem to “help people change” because they only attract people who have their act together already?  If a church is legalistic enough or full of enough people who are ‘with it’ then only people who like legalism or who are already ‘with it’ will stick with the program and thus it appears that discipleship has happened. This is sad because people may just be there for similarity of affinity. So on the level of thought experiment (which is what Galileo did, by the way), there is good reason to be skeptical of the efficacy of institutions meant to help people change. Plus, there are good reasons (on the surface of things) to be determinists based upon Scripture itself (Romans 9:6-33)
    But:
    • Arthur Whimbey demonstrated that in certain cases young people under appropriate guidance could improve their abstract reasoning and thus their IQ.
    • Roy Baumeister has demonstrated that people who believe in free will are more likely to overcome addictions, less likely to give up in challenging circumstances, and more likely to try harder at work.
    • Eric Jensen has shown how neuroplasticity is directly relevant to teaching in all subjects.
    • Rodney Stark has demonstrated that Christianity lead to numerous ethical, economic, and scientific reforms in Western Civilization upon which we still rely today. The development, in particular, of the scientific method relies upon the rigorous application of Aristotelian logic that was developed during the Scholastic era, whereas Plato thought that math and geometry were so wonderful precisely because they took logic beyond matter to the pure realm of though, Christians applied Aristotle’s logic to, what they presupposed, was an orderly world.
    • Jeremiah teaches this:
      “Arise, and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. And the vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to do. Then the word of the LORD came to me: “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done? declares the LORD. Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it. Now, therefore, say to the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: ‘Thus says the LORD, Behold, I am shaping disaster against you and devising a plan against you. Return, every one from his evil way, and amend your ways and your deeds.’ “But they say, ‘That is in vain! We will follow our own plans, and will every one act according to the stubbornness of his evil heart.’
      (Jer 18:2-12)
      Even for God (if you take Scripture to have anything useful to say about God), whatever this means for theories of divine predestination, takes it as given that his judgments upon sinners (apparently even whole nations) can change should those people change their behaviour. The very idea that Jeremiah is trying to combat is in verse 12: the idea that evil people cannot repent and seek God’s mercy. The Lord wants Jeremiah to tell them that they can indeed repent. Thus, nobody is, of necessity, beyond hope. This is the same Jeremiah who elsewhere is asked to stop praying for people because they no longer will be heard, yet the Lord wants Jeremiah to give them opportunity to repent anyway.

    So, I guess I do still think that people can change, but I guess I think it in a different way. In God’s kingdom nothing comes without a cross and self-denial. In taking loving dominion over the earth, nothing comes without effort. Similarly, in personal change there must be self-denial. In helping other people change, there must be effort. There must, one could say, be open revolt against evil and against a false determinism that says, “It has to be this way, I shall just resign myself to my fate and others to their own.” Whatever else Scripture says about God’s ordination of certain events in the cosmos, it also says that Satan is the ‘god of this present age (2 Corinthians 4:4),’ if some evil seems determined or woven into creation it might be because of the previously mentioned reality, not because it is ‘supposed to be this way…therefore there is no use trying to change it.’ So, people can change, things can get better, but only in the context of open revolt against evil. Besides, people make things worse all the time and lots of things are better than they used to be (though admittedly many things are more brutal and terrible than we once thought possible).

  2. I used to believe I was smart enough to get past a system of credentialism.
    I really thought that I could find a way to get certain things to work out in my academic and career goals without going through proper channels. If only it were the 1700s (when I was in junior high we learned about the ‘phlogiston’ theory of combustion and I refuted it based on my knowledge of the combustibility of metals which gain mass through oxidation…I’d have been a pro-chemist). Due to despair about certain mishaps that made getting into my original undergraduate program very difficult, I decided to get my undergraduate degree in humanities. I do not resent the things I learned, nor the fine people who taught me in that department. But I was convinced that I’d find a way through hard work or IQ points to get into a doctoral program in the future. It does work sometimes. For instance, I was told I needed remedial math classes when I tried to take a Calculus class recently. I told her my GRE scores and promised her I’d find a way to learn the material quickly and make an ‘A.’ That kind of trick does not work often though.Turns out that cleverness is only like 5% of things (I did work hard for my Master’s degree, but ultimately the courses on my transcript just weren’t the kind that certain folks expected me to have). If I were 25, I’d just move wherever I needed to move, live at a subsistence level, and take some classes to fix the problem. As it stands, the sobering realities that would face me in the future with any form of student debt and a PhD in the humanities are something I couldn’t justify rationally. Anyhow, to solve this problem I have come up with several solutions:
    1. Get an engineering degree.
      My GRE score, despite not having taken a math class for nearly 10 years was above the average for top 10 graduate programs in engineering. My verbal was even higher, though not by much. My scores weren’t perfect, but I took the test on an extended break from work to avoid needing to use a whole personal day. If I can do SAT math at the level of an engineering graduate applicant (the Calculus class I took last summer just to see if I could handle it: A+), then I should be able to get a B.S. in it no problem.
    2. Get A+ certified.
      Seems easy enough. I can use that to pay for said engineering degree. No problemo (except for all of the studying).
    3. Try as hard as I can to get published in mathematics/geophysics/engineering while I am working on my degree.
      A friend has offered to help with this already. If it can’t work out, I’ll just come up with my own idea.
    4. But what about Greek/Hebrew?
      I’ve kept up with Greek on a very high level while being a full time math teacher. And my Hebrew is not so good. Who knows how I can deal with this problem in the future?
  3. I used to believe that Thomas Aquinas was not worth reading
    I’ve been reading the Summa Contra Gentiles and the Summa Theologica. A Roman Catholic I will not become, but a hater on scholastic theology I will never be again. Aquinas was wrong about a lot, but he was rigorous, Aristotelian, attempted to be Biblical and often nailed it, and he was clear. It is a silly prejudice and disservice that writers like St. Thomas, Richard Baxter, and Maximus the Confessor are not read more often. I’d take any of those three plus some Calvin, Descartes, and Brunner over most of the recent systematic theologians I’ve read (I’m not saying that those who deal with such contemporary issues as do Alan Padgett, Dave Black, Rebecca Groothius, David Bentley Hart, Martha Dawn, C.S. Lewis, Greg Boyd, Tom Wright, Paul Helm, or Michael Horton are never worth reading). Anyhow, read yourself some Aquinas, or at least some Edward Feser’s Aquinas.