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Posts Tagged ‘Damon Young

The Case for Desire

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Hint: your smartphone is symptom not cause

Advertisers bank on it. Ascetics deny it. Libertines fan it while most of us try to tame it. Desire always drives behavior. The question is training ourselves to desire the best things, which are often not the immediate things. Habit can work for or against us in training desire. But it is desire—that glowing reactor in my mind/heart/instinct—that pushes me toward some object that has just now become irresistible.

Beautiful things can grow from years of tending

Beautiful things can grow from years of tending

But when desire fails—what then? That sounds perfect, right? Always in control.

Not so much: In talking with my depressed friend, desire seems suppressed and/or forgotten and nothing matters. Nothing is interesting. Tiredness, life-weariness, stress, maybe age—all of these seem to affect desire. Without desire, curiosity vanishes. Without curiosity, life’s luster languishes.

How to rekindle desire—and especially desire for things/people/relationships that will prove generative after five, ten, or 70 years?

My hunch is that my smartphone is not the secret to rekindling the right desire. Whatever is being sold there is likely not the direction that will sustain over the long haul. Gratitude seems a potential route to rekindled desire—on this point, both my atheist friend and the poet-king agree. A good conversation with a person full of life may rekindle desire.

Connection may rekindle desire. If your smartphone helps make connections with real humans, that’s good.

If not, focus.



Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

May 13, 2015 at 1:00 pm

A Word About Thanks

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And that word is “Thanks.”

In the United States we have a day set aside for giving thanks.

Media-wise it is overshadowed by Black Friday and the ritual purchase of unnecessaries. And please don’t miss the tasty irony that at least one definition of “Black Friday” pins it as the day of the year when retailers move from financial loss to profit–so here in the U.S. we celebrate the religion of corporate solvency.

But for me Thanksgiving has little to do with buying stuff.  Instead, I prefer to see Thanksgiving as a time to pause.

I like the work of Australian philosopher Damon Young, who at the end of his Distraction recommended giving thanks. Though an atheist he still noted that gratitude was a pretty good way of going through life—it ordered things, kept desire at bay and helped set perspective—though I wondered aloud how gratitude works without a being at the other end.

LookingWestFromOregonThanks-11272014For quite a while I’ve taken cues from a poet-king who penned a number of poems, each deeply infused with gratitude. His poems offered gratitude as a way of ordering life and seeing opportunity and obstacle as part of the whole deal. Unlike the Australian philosopher, the poet-king cited Jehovah as the One to offer thanks to, and he did it again and again. And again. This is typical:

You make the going out of the morning and the evening to shout for joy. (Psalm 65.8b)

The whole poem shows off stuff Jehovah does in the world and it is worth reading (check it here). Interesting that most of the 150 poems (not all written by the poet-king) had very little to do with the ritual purchase of unnecessaries—but our culture won’t rethink that until the next great depression.

Two things strike me about the poet-king’s words:

  1. Gratitude incites calm. When I meditate on those words, calm happens. I appreciate that. Thanks is a much more potent perspective-maker than desire.
  2. Gratitude generates a sense of presence. In particular, the poet-king had the sense of taking a seat at table with the very One. Invited by Jehovah. And that is pretty cool stuff.

I’m grateful for Mrs. Kirkistan and for our kids, parents, in-laws and friends. I’m grateful for way more than enough (food, shelter, clothing). I’m grateful that you stop here and read these posts.



Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

November 27, 2014 at 9:42 am

Why So Distracted? Distraction by Damon Young

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Any shiny bauble catches my eye.11132013-tumblr_mvsq94YlZG1qe0lqqo1_500

Any bare wisp of an idea pulls me from a thought-intensive task.

Is there a book I’ve not read? Let me order it right now, in the middle of this sentence.

I am easily distracted.

I am not alone in this.

I recently had the distinct joy of slowly reading Distraction by Damon Young.  I followed Mortimer Adler’s advice in his lovely How To Read a Book (I should reread that—let me order it right now), which often leads to relaxed hours of thoughtful graffiti in a bound book.

I’ve written about Mr. Young’s book before, like here and here. But now that I’ve gone through it a second time, made annotations, outlined his argument, tweeted the author (twice) (now thrice), ordered half a dozen of his suggested books and quibbled about and finally recommended it to friends and family, I need to look at my own patterns of distraction before disengaging from the book’s orbit.

First:  Mr. Young did a good job explaining why it is we are easily distracted and, in fact, why seek out distractions. The short answer is that we seem to recoil from our life purpose. As free people we choose where we spend our time (or at least how we spend our otium). We can spend it sorting out our life purpose. Or not. But we have to know our life purpose. And that takes work, which is why distractions are often so preferred to focus.

The longer answer is to look at the smart and thoughtful writers, poets and artists Mr. Young researched to see how they were distracted and how they attempted to focus. His stories brought to life Heidegger, T.S. Eliot, Nietzsche, Matisse and Henry James and many others (especially Plato). That’s why Distraction is fun to read (are stories always magnetic?)

Second: toward the end, Mr. Young cites the notion of gratefulness. That set me to wondering whether thanks needs a being at the other end. Young, a [critical but] sympathetic atheist, pointed to giving thanks as a primary building block for the undistracted life. But not the thanks of the poor to the benefactor for relief from a low condition. Instead:

…there is a primordial, anonymous gratitude, not to a patron or a savior but for the simple fact of existence itself. If we cannot choose our birth, or vault the impermeable barriers of place and time, we can still warm to the existential endeavor; we can smile at the opportunity to live, instead of flinching or close our eyes.

Thanks, for Mr. Young, is a bold “Yes!” to all the stuff of life:

But at its most profound, this is a simple, primal yes: to the attempt, the aspiration, the lurch towards freedom. To seek emancipation from distraction is to accept this ambivalent liberty – an unspoken, unrepentant thank you for the adventure of becoming. (160)

But is there such a thing as “anonymous gratitude”?09032013-9781844652549_p0_v2_s260x420

Maybe: friends have thanked the universe for bestowing good fortune on them. And certainly developing a generally grateful attitude to the stuff of life makes rational sense. But for me “thanks” minus the Almighty is like leaving Minneapolis intending to drive to Des Moines but finding yourself living for decades in Ankeny without ever having reached Des Moines (surely you know the splendors of Des Moines, Iowa).

But that’s just me. I greatly respect Mr. Young’s marvelous book and I agree that thankfulness opens the quintessential way of living. Thankfulness puts all other things in perspective, which is the essence of focus.


Image credit: Robert Huber via MPD

Written by kirkistan

November 13, 2013 at 8:28 am

Stop-Action Living & How to Pay Attention

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Jean Laughton’s Mythic West Borders Her Real West

Put a frame around the scene before you and the scene changes. The frame creates distance from the action, which is both useful and off-putting.


Useful in that the frame helps you stop and see what is going on. Moving parts fall (momentarily) silent and you are released to think critically about the action. Note that critical thought need not be negative or a complaint or a sardonic aside. Critical thinking can result in even more whole-hearted agreement with the action. Critical thinking can also lead to backing away from the action.

Off-putting in that the frame truncates the scene and isolates it from everything else. Off-putting because the people in the scene see the camera and note you’ve switched from action to observer, which most of us find discomfiting. Pick up a camera or sketch pad and you’ve suddenly marked yourself as something other than what is happening right here and now. Pick up a camera and watch people freeze or back away.

Edmund Husserl (that 19th century mathematician/philosopher/phenomenologist) talked about leaving the “natural attitude” and bracketing his experience to come to fully understand/appreciate the experience. Actually, Husserl advised breaking with the natural attitude and bracketing experience to get on with his phenomenological work. Henri Cartier-Bresson always used a 50mm lens to capture the surrounding action, so his audience could see the central action in context and form stronger conclusions. Damon Young, in his Distraction, cites Henri Matisse in explaining how art became his way of looking at the world:

“I am unable to distinguish,” he wrote in 1908, “between the feeling I have for life, and my way of expressing it.”

Any way you cut it, paying attention and making your experience available to others are somehow linked. In Jean Laughton’s work, she takes her camera in the saddle and documents life as working cowgirl. The images she creates are mythic and telling and honest.

Walk through a few of Jean Laughton’s images and you’ll be glad she is paying attention. Laughton seems to have found a way to live in the scenes even as she brackets them. Her frames seem to not take her away from the action. The result is both memorable and accessible.



Image credit: Jean Laughton via Lenscratch

Written by kirkistan

September 18, 2013 at 10:03 am

You Don’t Have to be a Professor to be a Professor

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Rock Your Otium With Purpose09032013-philippe-ramette-15

Australian philosopher Damon Young’s Distraction cites the fascinating example of Dutch philosopher Benedict de Spinoza. An able, talented and academic-class thinker, he did much of his work outside the academy. But in 1673 Spinoza was offered a position at Heidelberg University where he would teach while earning the salary of a full professor—opening for him a “life worthy of a philosopher.”

Spinoza refused.

He preferred to continue to practice his craft: grinding optical lenses for short-sighted friends. Spinoza wanted to earn his own income and use his free time (his otium) to uncover the mysteries of the universe and sort out how people should treat each other. Teaching would be a distraction from his primary work of writing and thinking. He refused the distraction, though the job seems a much easier route for what he was already doing.

Young wondered if there was something of the work of the mind in the crafting of the lenses that helped Spinoza move his thinking forward. That connection between thinking and craft is something Matthew Crawford (Shop Class as Soulcraft) would likely agree with. Spinoza’s lenses were renowned and admired—he did good glass work. But his philosophical writings are why we remember him.

We still read Spinoza today. Young points out that while Spinoza’s prose makes for boring reading, it is among those unusual texts that have passed the test of time.

09032013-9781844652549_p0_v2_s260x420The truth is there are only so many hours in a day. If you’re an adjunct professor, you are basically volunteering your time, which might have gone toward research. If you are a full-time professor, you must diligently make clean breaks from distraction to do the research you studied for.

I relish Spinoza’s example for the intrinsic motivation that led to his colossal works. I am also intrigued by the relationship between his daily lens grinding and the sight he brought to his writing. I very much enjoyed Damon Young’s book.


Image credit: Philippe Ramette via Frank T. Zumbachs Mysterious World

Written by kirkistan

September 3, 2013 at 9:18 am

Are You a Philosopher or a Popularizer?

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Must I choose?

08052013-tumblr_mqzif3nYDT1r31mkdo1_500In recent conversation with a local philosopher and food writer, we got to talking about the work of a philosopher in the world today. There’s teaching, which employs academic rigor to help students understand where philosophy has been and what it has been up to. There’s research, typically a subset of teaching, that sorts truth from fiction and sometimes swaps the two. And then there’s, well…that’s it. That’s what a philosopher does in our culture.


Teaches rarified stuff only a few understand and even fewer care about.

Which is not to say philosophy is not happening all over the place.

I’ve begun to argue we’re all philosophizing all the time. We’re not all at the highly abstracted levels represented by academic philosophy. But we’re all in the business of making meaning. Most of us don’t much think about it: once we’ve figured out the basics of family and job and faith and community, the business of meaning-making largely runs on auto-pilot. Until we get cancer. Or age. Or lose a spouse.

Or see a sunrise.

The more questions we ask in everyday life—the less we take as a given—the more life we experience. This is the wonder of being amazed at the small connections that occupy those making meaning every day. Which should be all of us.

My recent conversation turned to the author Alain de Botton, who I described as a philosopher but then back pedaled. We allowed he was certainly a popularizer. I’m a fan of de Botton. I like the places his books send me and the meaning-making tasks he introduces. I also like to read Damon Young, the Australian who is a bona fide philosopher and card-carrying popularizer (meaning only that he regularly publishes philosophy columns in Australian newspapers).

I’m not sure so a philosopher cannot also be a popularizer.

I’ll argue my friend’s food writing displays a philosophical bent even as he courageously walks into the smallest, diviest joints in the metro. I’ll also argue that the ordinary conversations we have with each other, the ones where we try to sort out the details of life together, are themselves often instances of practicing a sort of popular philosophy.

Ordinary conversation is the very stuff of thinking together.

I hope it becomes more popular.


Image credit: Via 2headedsnake

Written by kirkistan

August 5, 2013 at 10:02 am

What Pulls You In Again and Again?

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A Photo. A Paragraph. A Word That Helps You Understand.

07102013-tumblr_mpfpktAmbY1qzprlbo1_500I’ve stumbled at least twice over this useful blurb about writing. I’m not the only one to find and re-find it: a number of Twitterers keep tweeting this particular blog post. It’s from the Australian writer Charlotte Wood who wrote a guest blog back in 2011 for an Australian philosopher I enjoy: Damon Young (‘The Write Tools’ #32 – Charlotte Wood). Ms. Wood wrote about her process for producing novels and how at a certain point in the process she starts to take photos as a way of capturing detail. The entire post is worth your time, but I keep rereading this paragraph:

Iris Murdoch said that paying attention is in itself a moral act. I think this is true – it is hard to dismiss someone if you listen very carefully and watch them, and enter into what they truly believe. I think this is what my photographs and notebooks are telling me: remember not to skate over the surface of an imagined thing or person or act, but really sit, and go quiet, and listen. Pay attention to everything there in the frame, and then also perhaps wonder about what is not there, and why. I think a commitment to paying attention is perhaps as good a way as any to try to understand the world. And trying to understand the world is why I read, and why I write.

Ms. Wood’s attention to detail is a source of inspiration to me. And I like how reading, writing and observing are all helping serve her goal of understanding.


Image credit: Kateoplis via 2headedsnake

Written by kirkistan

July 10, 2013 at 9:58 am

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