An Introvert in an Extrovert Family

The central subject for one to understand in Stoicism is oneself, and I think I know myself very well; yet knowing my lover and her family has, unexpectedly, provided insight on myself that I never truly grasped when I was solitary. As I am drawn towards a more philosophic life (ie stoicism), I find that it both illuminates, and is illuminated by, my daily life; particularly, my relationship with my lover and her family. In three years of matrimony, our greatest struggles have been in regards to how I treat her family, especially her parents (who are currently guests in our house for several months).

I am an introvert. I enjoy friends, and had numerous as a bachelor; yet it was never a necessary or consuming part of my life. I have sometimes considered myself a recluse, but such an extreme definition is, perhaps, too extreme; so let me be content with reclusive. Now that I and my lover are married, and have two children, I am quite content with them as the limit of my social life. Sure, I try to be friendly with those at work, and social as expected of my rank and position, yet I have secluded myself (and am content) to the social limits of the nuclear family.

My wife is an extrovert. Her entire family (parents, six [living] siblings, 19 nieces/nephews, etc…) is extroverted. From a distance, it was generally easy for me to interact with them (minus the discussions resulting from cultural and linguistic differences); however, I now, and for the previous three months, find our home filled with my lover’s parents. This is amicably tolerable at best, and on the precipice of separation at the worst moments.

Why? Because I find myself instinctively more passive-aggressive and malcontent; like a caged beast lashing out at a bewildered audience. The lion’s share, perhaps all, of the blame is mine. I am neither accustomed nor happy with such enduring invasion of privacy and convivience, which, through my in-law’s gracious and servicial behavior, has shown me how not only an introvert can feel when necessarily in the world of many extroverts but also how different people can, talking about the same actions and virtues, come to polar opposite judgements and definitions of said actions and virtues.

Recognizing the perilous and unpleasant situation this is for everyone, my meditations have driven myself to those of Marcus Aurelius; and his Meditations have illuminated my recent past and show a very stoic (and it seems successful so far) way for an introvert to live in a world with extroverts.

May you understand yourself and those around you,

May you seek virtue, harmony and well-being for all,

May your actions be guided by calm reason and love,

Always adapting to circumstances, always true to virtue.

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The Pursuit of Happiness

The pursuit of happiness was one of the most important ideas agreed upon by the Founding Fathers. Yet as a society, and especially as a professional military, our way of life reviles that pursuit, even if our words say otherwise. Happiness is not playing Angry Birds or staying up-to-speed with your favorite show. For some it may be, and if that is there truth then those who disagree, like myself, ought to tolerate such a benign happiness as the free choice of people. We are so caught up in more stuff, more money, higher positions that I think the pursuit of more has replaced the pursuit of happiness.

It’s not that more can’t lead to happiness, or enhance it; but when you continually bypass current amenities (whether it be a walk in the park, leisure reading or a light but enjoyable conversation with someone) for another hour at work or the gym in order to make yourself more competitive, then I suggest you are no longer truly pursuing happiness; but, instead, have placed progress and producing over happiness. I am not espousing a lazy attitude, rather I am suggesting that while one must work hard, we must remember to play hard, as well.

I am a hard worker. I enjoy working hard and figuring out problems at work. But I also enjoy spending time with my lover; and in reality, she is the most important in my life, so work should be secondary. Not only is she the most important, but she is also my happiness; I enjoy her company and making her happy and being happy with her. That makes me less productive at work because I don’t like to work past 5, unless necessary (to the operational effectiveness of the unit). While at the office, I work hard as a professional Soldier, but I see no reason to be one of those Soldiers who is always one of the last ones to leave. My tombstone will not say “I wish I had worked more.” If it says anything, it will say that I loved my lady and want to be with her always, even through eternity.

I can say whatever I want; but words are meaningless if they do not guide our actions. I have consciously made life, liberty (tempered tolerance) and the pursuit of happiness my guiding ideas in life; my lover is my happiness, not draining my life in the pursuit of the next rank or assignment. I bear no ill will against those who do. For them that may truly be their happiness or the most important thing in their life, for which I applaud them fulfilling their life’s goal. So I ask you to slow down for just long enough to think for yourself about what is truly important to you, and then to see if your daily life reflects that.

A Perspective on the Incident in Mexico

The violence in Mexico upsets me. It’s not my homeland, but I know the country. I know it’s people. I know it’s history. I can’t fully empathize with the grief of many Mexicans, but must we all have a significant emotional event in order to elicit action? The war on drugs could be better termed the war on Mexicans, as over 30,000 Mexicans and people in Mexico have died in the corruption and cartel-related violence. Where is the Mexican government? The Mexican police? Even the Mexican army as Mexico does not have an equivalent of US Posse Comitatus, which precludes military action inside the country? Current events in the Mexican state of Guerrero indict the Mexican police, at the orders or the Mexican governor allowed by the inaction of the Mexican military, of killing at least 6 Mexicans and possibly 43 others.

Over 200 years ago the United States began an experiment which has become an example for many of our brothers and sisters around the world, which preached life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as the rights of all people, and the goal of a people’s government to protect those freedoms. Of course, our Founding Fathers were not perfect in their application (remember slavery, bigotry and racism, against Native Americans and others), but the ideas have had such resonance in many parts of the world that we can state them as archetypal virtues (within which there is obviously room for interpretation and variance: at what point does one person’s freedom create an advantage over another person such that the second person’s life, liberty and pursuit of happiness is infringed upon?).

Nor is the present-day situation in the US an idyllic society truly exemplifying such virtues (so as I write about Mexico, let us not forget our pursuit of virtue in our own country; if you champion the freedom of others [be it in Mexico or Syria or many other countries around the world], remember to feel so compellingly the calls of virtue for your own country). Should not virtue be a pursuit of all people in every matter? Should we let ourselves be so blinded by entertainment and mindless passions (Angry Birds and an innumerable host of other entities [really almost anything can distort our trueness when it comes to being good people]) that we become numb or blind to the bloody and cruel reality that is often our world?

I don’t envy those in the Mexican army. What would I do if my commander told me to arrest a group of people and (presumably) kill them or hand them over to others with the knowledge they would kill those I took? What would you do? Would I risk my life and the lives of my family for the ambiguous honor of virtue? Would the desire to be with and protect my lover override my concern for others? Would it be wrong if it did?

How will the Mexicans act? How can they best act to make their country better? How can we help? Do I train with the Mexican military in the hopes of slowly instilling a sense of honor and courage? While at the same time I am actively training them in counter-terrorism operations? Styles of war which, if they have not also learned honor and courage, will likely be used by corrupt and cruel leadership against Mexican innocents?

Who Died for You?

The other day I was driving around town and I noticed a bumper-sticker that said in the history of the world only two entities have died for you: Jesus for your soul, and the US Soldier for your freedom. That is a very bold statement with many implications. Is my army really the only entity in the history of the world that has ever, supposedly, fought for freedom? What about the Jews and Israelis who have fought for religious and political freedom? What about the Native Americans who fought against the Spanish, Portuguese, British and French, and died en masse? What about the Confederacy (The US clearly fought to bring the Confederacy back under control, because they didn’t have the freedom to do as they wished and secede)? What about all our allies who have fought with us in various wars and conflicts from World War 1 through the current War on Terror? So maybe the bumper-sticker should have taken out the words “only two entities;” there are still other questions.

Who is this bumper-sticker directed to? US citizens? Christians? Surely not the whole world, because if the US army fights for freedom, therefore they are fighting against those who oppress. That seems very selfish and unlikely that the rest of the world is so messed up everyone only cares about themselves and oppressing others. Even if only part of the world is oppressive (which is a fair observation), saying the US army fights for freedom gave me the impression the owner of the bumper-sticker thinks this is a good thing; and if it’s a good thing then we ought to liberate the rest of the world from oppression, because one ought to do good, and who thinks helping oppress people is good? Oppression is by common sense a bad thing. So if oppression is bad, then allowing it to exist is bad by proxy.

But how does one liberate people from oppression to freedom? Is it as simply as toppling a political system and replacing it with a democracy or republic? Afghanistan and Iraq seem to indicate more is needed for freedom than a simple government change. Freedom is an idea, and can only be embraced through a change in culture and perspective. Laws can help, but one cannot enact a law to change peoples’ minds; laws only affect actions and consequences, not ideas.

This bumper-sticker implies one can die for freedom; how? Freedom is an idea, not a hill that a soldier can climb to and defend with a weapon. Do people have freedom if I bring it to them at the point of a rifle? Am I not forcing my will upon them by force? Force can change behaviors, but not thoughts, because thoughts are inside the brain and a gun can’t get there, it can only regulate what the body does.

This whole issue raises two questions that have hitherto been unmentioned: what exactly is freedom, and how important is it? Is it necessary for happiness? Is it necessary to have a meaningful life? Is it worth dying for? But most importantly: what is freedom?

“Sir, Roll Up Your Sleeves”

Today I went to the bookstore immediately after work (I was still in uniform) to find a book for my lover and as I got to the sidewalk from the parking lot, a man in civilian clothes with his wife and kids accosted me and when he approached me he said “Sir, you need to roll down your sleeves and tighten them.” Since I didn’t want to argue or get into a discussion with him in front of his family, I simply said “Okay, thanks,” and continued on inside, doing as he said, lest he harass me about it.

For those who don’t understand what happened: it is against Army regulation to wear the sleeves of your outer shirt unvelcroed/unbuttoned and/or rolled up. The practical reason for such a regulation is the protection of the wearer’s limbs from cuts, burns and debris from entering the wearer’s clothing and causing discomfort or injury.

Why did he do this? Because I was in the wrong, and it was his duty as a NCO and Soldier to enforce, blindly I think, even the minutest non-conformity amongst one of his own. Why was I wrong? Because I was not in accordance with Army Regulation 670-1. He didn’t correct me because I was putting myself in danger; there was no danger. If he was simple-minded, it was just obedience; if he was smart, it was to instill the proper discipline in a leader, to train the muscle-memory to always do the right thing. Is that discipline practical as well as proper? Is it guided by commonsense? His actions bespeak a culture of conformity that is so overwhelmingly powerful that even off duty, off post and towards someone who outranked him a Soldier was internally compelled to act.

If the military had a culture of innovation, adaptation and personal freedom then he would not have seen anything wrong. He would have seen it was a hot day and, in light of my circumstances on a hot day (and without fear of cuts, burns or debris, in which case I would probably have determined it unwise to roll my sleeves), I used my own judgment to adapt myself and my uniform to my environment, allowing me to more comfortably and quickly act, even if that only meant walking across a parking lot.

What else could this culture of conformity be doing to an organization whose survival depends on outthinking and outmaneuvering an enemy that knows no conformity except the mission of evicting us from their territory and killing us? The Army talks a great deal about Mission Command: empowering junior leaders to act on their own, quickly and practically, given only general guidance from higher; but are we training ourselves to be the smartest military in the world, or the one who looks the same on every level that we look so perfect we don’t realize a few men on the other side of the mountain with minimum equipment and hierarchy can defeat us?

It is more complicated than this question would directly imply, but it is the idea that is most important. What ideas is the military instilling in its soldiers and leaders? Are we teaching them how to be blind, obedient followers or bold, creative and adaptive leaders who can carry out the doctrine of Mission Command in deed as well as word, not just as an idea that lets people brainstorm on a whiteboard?

The beginning: what is truth?

Some time ago a retired veteran was hanging out in the middle of the city where all the people were; he began talking with random people (anyone who would listen, really), and asking questions about many topics. The sum of his questions was “why?” “Why do we do things like this or that?” Why do we believe such and such?” Over time enough people stopped to talk with him, and enough people began to ask the same questions, that politicians accused him of being anti-patriotic: threatening national security by causing disunity among the nation, creating opportunities and weaknesses for enemies to exploit. Once this happened, they got enough popular and political support to convict him. He was executed by poison: Hemlock, specifically; and his name was Socrates, one of the first philosophers.

I don’t exactly know what he said or why, and it doesn’t matter because it’s the ideas behind the story (however true or mythical; whether the ideas of Socrates himself or those of the people who wrote about him) that matters: truth and tempered tolerance. If something is not true; why believe it or do it, why risk your life for it? That’s part of why many of you are soldiers, isn’t it? You believe your country and what it stands for are worth risking your death. You believe you’re making the world a better place. Yet at the same time he pursued truth, Socrates supposedly said “the more I know, the more I realize I don’t know anything;” meaning the more people he talked with, the more perspectives he heard, the more he realized it is impossible for humanity to really know something; and if we can’t know something then we ought to be careful about what we are willing to kill and be killed for.

That is what I want for you: to consider carefully for what you risk your life. And when I say your life, I don’t just mean your beating heart; I mean everything about your life: your family, friends, contributions to society and the things you aren’t doing because you’re a soldier. I don’t want to convince you to become a member of this political party or that; this church or that group; to have these beliefs or those. If the only impact I have is to make a few people ponder (whether they change their minds or not) their actions and beliefs, then I will consider this effort of mine not wasted.

So my first questions to you are “what is truth?” and “what is true?” If you don’t have a working concept of truth then every other intellectual endeavor is pointless. Or is it?