From: The New York Times
The Arena Culture
By DAVID BROOKS
Academic life encourages specialization and technical thinking, and, oddly, there are few fields in which this is more true than philosophy. The discipline that should be of interest to everybody is often the most impenetrable.
But occasionally brave philosophers do leap out of their professional lanes and illuminate things for the wider public. Hubert Dreyfus of Berkeley and Sean Dorrance Kelly of Harvard have just done this with their new book, “All Things Shining.” They take a smart, sweeping run through the history of Western philosophy. But their book is important for the way it illuminates life today and for the controversial advice it offers on how to live.
Dreyfus and Kelly start with Vico’s old idea that each age has its own lens through which people see the world. In the Middle Ages, for example, “people could not help but experience themselves as determined or created by God.” They assumed that God’s plans encompassed their lives the way we assume the laws of physics do.
For the past hundred years or so, we have lived in a secular age. That does not mean that people aren’t religious. It means there is no shared set of values we all absorb as preconscious assumptions. In our world, individuals have to find or create their own meaning.
This, Dreyfus and Kelly argue, has led to a pervasive sadness. Individuals are usually not capable of creating their own lives from the ground up. So modern life is marked by frequent feelings of indecision and anxiety. People often lack the foundations upon which to make the most important choices.
Dreyfus and Kelly suffer from the usual Cambridge/Berkeley parochialism. They assume that nobody believes in eternal truth anymore. They write as if all of America’s moral quandaries are best expressed by the novelist David Foster Wallace. But they are on to something important when they describe the way — far more than in past ages — sports has risen up to fill a spiritual void.
Spiritually unmoored, many people nonetheless experience intense elevation during the magical moments that sport often affords. Dreyfus and Kelly mention the mood that swept through the crowd at Yankee Stadium when Lou Gehrig delivered his “Luckiest Man Alive” speech, or the mood that swept through Wimbledon as Roger Federer completed one of his greatest matches.
The most real things in life, they write, well up and take us over. They call this experience “whooshing up.” We get whooshed up at a sports arena, at a political rally or even at magical moments while woodworking or walking through nature.
Dreyfus and Kelly say that we should have the courage not to look for some unitary, totalistic explanation for the universe. Instead, we should live perceptively at the surface, receptive to the moments of transcendent whooshes that we can feel in, say, a concert crowd, or while engaging in a meaningful activity, like making a perfect cup of coffee with a well-crafted pot and cup.
We should not expect these experiences to cohere into a single “meaning of life.” Transcendent experiences are plural and incompatible. We should instead cultivate a spirit of gratitude and wonder for the many excellent things the world supplies.
I’m not sure this way of living will ever prove satisfying to most readers. Most people have a powerful sense that there is a Supreme Being over us, attached to eternal truths. Though they try, Dreyfus and Kelly don’t give us a satisfying basis upon which to distinguish the whooshing some people felt at civil rights rallies from the whooshing others felt at Nazi rallies.
But Dreyfus and Kelly might help invert the way we see the world. We have official stories we tell about our culture: each individual is the captain of his own ship; we are all children of God. But in practice, willy-nilly, the way we actually live is at odds with the official story. Our most vibrant institutions are collective, not individual or religious. They are there to create that group whoosh: the sports stadium, the concert hall, the political rally, the theater, the museum and the gourmet restaurant. Even church is often more about the ecstatic whoosh than the theology.
The activities often dismissed as mere diversions are actually central. Real life is more about serial whooshes than coherent meaning.
We can either rebel against this superficial drift, or like Dreyfus and Kelly, go with the flow, acknowledging that the autonomous life is impossible, not seeking totalistic theologies, but instead becoming sensitive participants in the collective whooshings that life offers.
This clarifies the choices before us. This book is also a rejection of the excessive individualism of the past several decades, the emphasis on maximum spiritual freedom. In this, it’s a harbinger of future philosophies to come. Our culture is defined by arenas. Our self-conception just hasn’t caught up.
By BRETT ARENDS
It's time to think about getting in financial shape in 2011. Vague resolutions and good intentions won't do it. You have to have a plan. Stumped for ideas? Here's a 12-month agenda.
No, it's not comprehensive. But it's doable.
Each month, set one financial target and hit it. Easy, manageable -- and it means this time next year you'll be looking back on 2011 with some satisfaction.
JANUARY: Max those savings! Financial planners argue you should be saving 15% or more of your income each year. Set your 401(k) contributions to the highest level you can handle. At least contribute up to any company match, and ideally push the limits -- $16,500 if you're under 50, $22,000 if you're over. If you are self-employed, or have self-employment income, talk to a broker about special tax-savings vehicles open to you, including Solo 401(k) plans, SEP-IRAs and Keoghs.
FEBRUARY: Target your cash flow. Get out all your statements and check stubs for 2010 and work out where all your money went. Chances are you spent more than you planned, or maybe realized. Restaurants, shopping, premium cable, car payments -- it all adds up. If you want to get control of it, you have to understand it. Now set a budget, and talk to your family about ways to cut back and save more.
MARCH: Live without plastic for a month. Lock up your credit and ATM/debit cards. Generations lived without the spending ease and convenience of plastic. It is no coincidence they found it much easier to live within their means. Try it. Set a weekly budget, cash a check for that amount at the bank each week, and live on it. Unless you are traveling -- where a card can be invaluable -- you may find it easier than you imagined. Once you get used to it, keep going.
APRIL: Spring clean your investments. Decide on the asset allocation you should have. Then look at what you have right now. There's probably a ton of rubbish in there -- mediocre mutual funds, stocks bought on tips, money left sitting in a low-yielding account. Don't forget the unused car in the garage that's still worth $4,000. Time to stop procrastinating. Clear out the rubbish, and put the money to better use.
MAY: Zap the debt. Pretty much any debt other than a reasonable mortgage is a burden. Credit-card debt is a disaster -- you're basically going backward financially as long as you carry a balance from month to month. To pay the 15% interest rate, you have to earn maybe 20% before tax. Not gonna happen. Cut up the cards, and live like a pauper till you get out of credit-card jail.
JUNE: Invest in yourself. Kudos to financial planner Dennis Stearns of Greenboro, N.C., for this suggestion: When someone asks him about investments, he writes, "I ask them how much they could improve their lot in life if they invested [some money instead] in a leadership workshop, better communication skills or anything to improve their productivity." After all, your knowledge and skills are your most important asset. This month, explore adult-education opportunities in your area.
JULY: Check your progress on the cash flow. Print out all your statements. Analyze spending by categories. See what you planned to spend, and what you actually spent. This is a constant battle. Still looking for savings ideas? Cancel cable for the next few months. It's summer time -- what are you doing indoors watching TV?
AUGUST: Convert your traditional individual retirement accounts to a Roth IRA. There will be a tax hit upfront, but thereafter money in a Roth grows tax free forever. Even better: There are no required minimum distributions after age 70. Before 2010, Roth conversions were typically limited to those earning below about $100,000, but that limit was abolished: Anyone can now convert to a Roth.
SEPTEMBER: Negotiate a Christmas truce with all the adults you know. That means family, extended family and co-workers. Stop the holiday shopping waste before it starts. This may save you hundreds of dollars. The only thing you will lose will be a bunch of sweaters you won't wear and trinkets you don't want. They'll save the same thing, too.
OCTOBER: Tackle your insurance. Dull? Chances are you are wasting hundreds of dollars a year on homeowners and car insurance. The insurance industry thrives on your laziness: Studies repeatedly find that identical coverage can sometimes cost half as much. Take this month to shop around aggressively to find cheaper coverage. And find out how much you can cut your premiums if you raise your deductibles. Sometimes that's a no-brainer.
NOVEMBER: Update your will. Do you have one? And if you do, how long ago did you check it? Circumstances change. Maybe you've had children or grandchildren. Or minors have graduated. Your assets have grown (or, alas, shrunk). Too many people avoid dealing with their wills because thinking about death makes them feel yucky. Too bad. You're going to die, like me, like everyone else. Deal with it. Dying with an out-of-date will can cost your family incredible amounts of pain and money and throw away decades of hard work.
DECEMBER: Open 529 plans for your children and grandchildren. These are no-brainers. The money grows tax deferred (and tax free if it's spent on qualified education expenses). It will help discipline college savings. After two years, the money is also sheltered from creditors -- something to keep in mind as you contemplate the financial upheavals and increases in personal bankruptcies of the last few years. Oh, and you keep control of the money, so Missy can't take it and run off to join a cult. (Well, she can, but at least she can't take the college money with her.)
Good luck -- and best wishes for a happy, prosperous and financially fit 2011.