Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Arsenal, Nihilsm and the Meaning of Life


Simon Barnes, the sports journalist, muses (The Times 26/8/11) on the Champions League play off between Arsenal and Udinese. Prior to the match, the majority of pundits predicted that Arsenal would lose. The pundits were proved wrong. Arsenal won. But what caught my attention was a philosophical aside in the article. Barnes writes:

We humans understand what happens in the world by making a story out of it. Narrative is the way we think, the way we see the world. Sport keeps us enthralled not only because of the beauty of its action but also because of the unending narratives it presents us with. And what is a story without a moral? A story that has no meaning is no story at all, it’s just a recording of the chaos of life. We make narratives to make sense of the chaos, to make the chaos bearable.

This appears to be a thinly disguised form of nihilism: life viewed as nothing more than a series of contingent, chaotic events. But human beings, not having the strength to sustain this view in their everyday lives, impose fabricated narratives (in some cases, religious meta-narratives) on this chaos to deceive themselves into thinking that life does have meaning. Sport, Barnes suggests, is one of those narratives that appears “to make the chaos bearable”. But the meaning is an illusion. Life is absurd.

Part of my holiday reading was a collection of essays, Seeking Meaning and Making Sense, by John Haldane, Professor of Philosophy at the University of St Andrews. As the title of the book suggests, Haldane opposes the subversive position that “searching for meaning in life is like hunting for unicorns – both are pointless activities based on empty myths.”

The nihilist argues that we cannot trust the cultural order to provide us with clues as to who we are and how we ought to live. The social, moral, aesthetic and spiritual spheres are so fragmented that the tools to construct a human philosophy – a way for living wisely – are no longer available to us. As a consequence, we have been set adrift in an indifferent universe. Our lives are meaningless. The way we understand ourselves and the world around is desiccated. This is “the postmodern condition”.

In response, Haldane believes that it is possible to show that the various areas of human life – society, art, science, nature, politics, morals, religion – do contain objective value and that these values can be known by human reason. Demonstrating this will refute the nihilist’s impoverished view of man and society.

Contrary to the critics, most human beings continue to believe that there are values and goods in life worth pursuing. Such values and goods integrate and stabilise the way we act and think. They make us free and stop us being slaves to whim, desire and fashion. Part of the recognisable human form of life is to look for meaning - that which ennobles and unifies the way we experience and live life. Haldane writes:

I believe we need a re-articulation of older conceptions of human nature, human values and public culture. In the first instance this may be a task for philosophers, but the various intellectual disciplines and the elements of deep culture such as the arts have an essential role to play if a sense of value and meaning is to become prevalent once more. Certainly one cannot operate as if “modernity” had not been, nor should one simply ignore the points made by postmodern critics. Reform and renewal are recurrent necessities in any living tradition: na├»ve pre-modernism is not an option; and the idea of a Golden Age untroubled by scepticism is a fantasy of the ignorant. But before we try to finesse older ways of thinking we need first to show that they are not bankrupt.

Essay by essay, Seeking Meaning and Making Sense considers those areas of life familiar to humans and uncovers that which is valuable within them. As the quotation above indicates, this is not an exercise in nostalgia nor an attempt to pastiche the past (attitudes that are becoming increasingly fashionable in a number of religious and cultural arenas). Instead, Haldane is attempting something more demanding and subtle – to retrieve those ways of thinking that can now creatively contribute to an animating philosophy of what it means to be human at the beginning of the twenty-first century. He makes no secret of the fact that underpinning this retrieval is his conviction that human beings “can make sense of things by having discovered real truths about human life and its fulfilment”.

In this slim volume, Haldane casts a forensic eye over a wide ranging cultural landscape, from embryonic stem cell research to The Exorcist to the artist, Richard Long. All that is missing is an essay that references Arsenal. If there was one, I am confident that Haldane would make a strong case for homo ludens finding real meaning in his sport and play.

Seeking Meaning and Making Sense, John Haldane, Imprint Academic, 2008

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Leadership and a sacred heart


Earlier in the summer, The Times newspaper carried a photo of the Labour Party leader, Ed Miliband, carrying a pile of books. His holiday reading. One of the books was Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading by two Harvard leadership experts, Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky. It’s an ambitious and inspirational book, with a wealth of practical advice and vivid stories that successfully illustrate its serious academic intent.

I’ve been thinking about what makes for good leadership - the kind of leadership that carries people through change (sometimes, difficult change where people may be asked to give up values, habits and the things they hold dear in exchange for an uncertain future). A leadership that inspires/ challenges people with new ways of acting and thinking and has the determination to make sure a “vision” doesn’t just remain an admirable idea but becomes a concrete reality that can actually be lived. I thought Leadership on the Line might help knock my undisciplined thoughts into some shape. It did.

Leading is a perilous activity – leading a team, a family, a parish, a company, etc –and is rarely achieved without some personal cost. It can mean making others face uncomfortable truths about themselves and particular situations. Asking people to question the status quo, to consider alternative models of reality and have them accept change is never easy. In fact, it can be very painful for all concerned. People may try to derail, marginalise or sabotage your ideas. Challenging an institution, corporation or society, can unleash personal criticism. You might be ridiculed, ostracised or persecuted. There is a chance that you will be branded a “troublemaker” or, worse, a “traitor”. As Mahatma Gandhi pointed out, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they get angry, then you win.” Although, experience suggests Gandhi’s upbeat conclusion is not always the case.

There are not only the dangers inherent in presenting your ideas to others, but the challenge of making sure those ideas are taken seriously and acted upon. Finding ways to ensure that a proposed change becomes an historic reality takes time, perseverance and grit. It is rarely achieved single-handedly or overnight.

Given all this, it’s easy to see why we many of us shy away from leadership roles in preference for the quiet life, the one that does not rock the boat and keeps us popular. I’ve heard myself use the phrase, “Let’s leave well alone”, when, in truth, I knew that all was far from “well” but that I wasn’t prepared to take a lead in trying to improve it.

Heifetz and Linsky remind us that although leadership is a risky business, used wisely, it can also have incredible value. Leadership makes a difference. It can bring about positive change and help others to live more complete, stable lives. Leadership gives our lives a potent meaning - one that is, ultimately, rooted in love and service:

…the answer to the question “Why lead?” is both simple and profound. The sources of meaning most essential in the human experience draw from our yearning for connection with other people. The exercise of leadership can give life meaning beyond the usual day-to-day stakes – approval of friends and peers, material gain, or the immediate gratification of success – because, as a practical art, leadership allows us to connect with others in a significant way. The word we use for that kind of connection is love.


To find the word “love” in a textbook on leadership is surprising. But Heifetz and Linsky’s aim is to reveal the fundamental philosophy that lies behind all forms of leadership, the “thing” that will make all the stresses, strains and setbacks of leadership meaningful. Their radical thesis is that love makes for good leadership. Only this orientation gives someone the courage to raise difficult questions and search for creative answers to them. This search can unleash all sorts of tensions and conflict. Yet, you often need some conflict in order for an issue to really surface and be considered honestly, otherwise, the issue lies dormant and nothing changes. But, it is not helpful if tensions boil over and the temperature cannot be controlled. The challenge is to find ways for people to absorb change and to make sure that new adaptations are deep rooted and not just superficial exercises with no long term dimension. Depending on circumstances, this might be achieved in a bold, radical way or by small baby steps.

At the same time, the leader must be aware of his own “hungers”, those human frailties that can so easily distort the very meaning of leadership and turn it into a vehicle of exploitation and abuse. Heifetz and Linsky name some of those hungers: an excessive desire for power and control, the desperate need for affirmation and a sense of your own importance, the use of your position to transgress sexual boundaries in a reckless search for intimacy. Heifetz and Linsky caution:

History is replete with charismatic authorities who, with their self-importance and air of certainty, galvanized people looking for certainty.

Most people who preach or teach know something of this appeal. There is a strong temptation to believe it when people say, “You’re the One.” Of course, you may indeed have valuable wisdom, but the need to be of special importance creates a dangerous condition, where leading can become misleading

What purifies the “hungers” of a leader and keeps them under control is love. We need to develop, what Heifetz and Linsky call, a “sacred heart”. They explain: “A sacred heart means you may feel tortured and betrayed, powerless and hopeless, and yet stay open…you remain connected to people and to the sources of your most profound purposes.” In other words, love is leadership’s internal dynamic:

Any form of service to others is an expression, essentially, of love. And because the opportunities for service are always present, there are few, if any, reasons that anyone should lack for rich and deep experiences of meaning in life.

Exercising leadership is a way of giving meaning to your life by contributing to the lives of others. At its best, leadership is a labor of love. Opportunities for these labors cross your path every day, though we appreciate through the scar tissue of our own experiences that seizing these opportunities takes heart.

Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading, Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky, Harvard Business Review Press, 2002

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Project Nim: Chimps and the language of love


In November 1973, the psychology department of Columbia University headed by Herbert Terrace began a potentially groundbreaking experiment. An infant male chimpanzee was taken from his mother a few days after birth and placed in the care of a “surrogate” human family living in Manhattan. The aim of the experiment was to examine whether the chimpanzee could acquire enough sign language to communicate with human beings. The chimpanzee was christened Nim Chimpsky a play on the name of the celebrated linguistics professor, Noam Chomsky, who contends that human beings alone are hard wired for language.

James Marsh (the director of the acclaimed Man on Wire) has taken this experiment as the subject matter for his latest film-documentary, Project Nim. “I wondered whether it was actually going to be possible to devote a whole film to the life story of an individual animal – and one who is no longer with us,” Marsh explains, “Nim’s life was lived entirely in view of humans and was very well documented in photographs and on film.”

Utilising these sources, Marsh adds contemporary testimonies from those involved in the experiment. These provide fascinating insights into the tendency to anthropomorphism and the very nature of language itself. Project Nim is far more than a film about hubristic scientists or animal cruelty. Without sacrificing cinematic pace or tension (the film’s editing by Jinx Godfrey is a thing to behold), Marsh exposes the dubious philosophical principles that underpinned this experiment and presents this as evidence of the larger moral contradictions that existed in the 1970’s.

For example, Project Nim provides a cultural snapshot of sexual mores in the 1970's. Promiscuity appears to have been the norm in this particular academic jungle. Here, the myth of sexual liberation was played out but without any of the ideological sexual theorising of the 1960’s and, before, the spread of AIDS had cast its shadow. Research assistants were invariably young, beautiful women, handpicked by Terrace, to satisfy his sexual, as well as, intellectual requirements. “I don’t think my feelings about [research assistant] Laura [Pettito] got in the way of science,” he feebly explains at one point. The evidence suggests otherwise. Nick Roddick considering such sexual behaviour writes:

“They may tell us nothing about Nim, but they do tell us a lot about the 1970’s. The notion of emotional responsibility – to partners, children, and, indeed, other human beings – is absent, as is any idea of treating Nim himself as a sentient being with his own agenda, rather than the subject of an experiment. As a result, Nim learns more about the people than most of the people learn about Nim.”

This final speculative assertion is open to debate, but what Marsh’s film does prove was that Nim did learn some basic sign language. His favourite signs were “play”, “banana” and when he got bored in the research lab, “potty”, which meant that he would be taken out to the toilet. Nim could make himself understood to human beings. However, the scientists had hoped that by using a language human beings could interpret, the veil separating species would be lifted and we would be given a chimpanzee’s view of the world (a bit like in James Lever’s satirical autobiography of Tarzan’s chimp companion, Me Cheeta). This never happened.

Nim only used language to communicate his immediate needs and wants. His motives (if we can speak of motives) were purely selfish. His language was, thus, limited. When he wanted affection or attention, he would sign “play”. When he wanted food, he would sign “banana”. He had no interest in acquiring language that could express other conditions, possibly because those other conditions (even if they existed within his mental ambit) were of little or no interest to a chimpanzee.

Human beings use language to express needs. But language is also a sublime tool to communicate ideas that transcend such base, self-aggrandizing impulses and passions. On the one hand, language shapes and orders our lives. It helps us describe the world around us and helps us navigate our way through that world in practical and poetic ways. But, language can, also, be used creatively to speak, for example, of the sacred or of the human being as a mystery. There is a language that arises as much from wonder as from knowing. A language that is not interested in explaining life, but is interested in capturing it in all its heartbreaking glory. Such language allows us to utter words of healing benevolence and offer blessings. It feeds the hunger of the soul and makes the invisible appear. Language articulates our disgust at death and acts as a repository for grief.

Above all, human beings use language in a way that points beyond themselves to realities that exist outside themselves. Language bridges these realities, reconciling them without erasing their differences or contradictions. Used in this miraculous way, language becomes a defining characteristic that sets human beings apart from all other animals. Unlike any other species, human beings can speak (often, in a faltering, inarticulate manner) a language of love. We can sound love for each other. Nim couldn’t. The language of love is unique to human beings. It makes us who we are. It makes us more than animals.

Friday, 12 August 2011

The Sense of an Ending


Memory shapes who we are or, more accurately, it provides points of reference by which we can claim some understanding of ourselves. Individual memories accumulate like geological strata and have a formative function in accounting for a person. Memories place us within history, assure us that we are not isolated monads. Early memories (our first friendships, our first love affair and so on) have a particular potency. Yet, our memories are rarely reliable accounts of a particular event, let alone accurate descriptions of the person we are. The process of remembering is a slippery affair. It can be partial, prejudiced, tainted with historical imperfections and the desire to reinvent ourselves in the best possible light. As Julian Barnes writes in his latest book, The Sense of an Ending:

How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but – mainly – to ourselves.

Tony Webster, the narrator in The Sense of the Ending, is a man in his late sixties who has led an unremarkable life, someone “who had neither won nor lost, but just let life happen to him”. “What did I know of life?” he wonders at the end of the novel. It is a question familiar to many of us.

A mysterious letter makes him revisit his schoolboy friendships with a gang of three boys who were joined by a fourth, Adrian Finn, who possessed a laser-sharp mind. In a history lesson, Finn challenges the teacher about the causes of the First World War: “That’s one of the central problems of history, isn’t it, sir? The question of subjective versus objective interpretation, the fact that we need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that is being put in front of us.”

With the passage of time, the bonds of boyhood friendship unravel and the friends lose contact. Webster marries and divorces and works in arts administration. But, he cannot shake off the memory of his first girlfriend, Veronica, whose family he spent an awkward weekend with. In the end, Veronica dumped him for Finn. Yet, when Webster learns that Finn committed suicide and left him his diary, the past returns with a renewed vibrancy. Finn, Veronica and that weekend begin to acquire new, unsettling meanings. The novel becomes an investigation into the way memory can betray us and can have the property of psychological quicksand. In Webster's case, it is the surfacing of new facts that makes him revise long-held versions of the past that he held to be “true”.

The question Barnes is interested in is how does one interpret the past and one’s involvement in it. Can we rely on memory alone? Is the way we remember figures from our past accurate or is it riddled with the woodworm of falsity? Webster reflecting on Adrian’s early death muses:

When you are in your twenties, even if you’re confused and uncertain about your aims and purposes, you have a strong sense of what life itself is, and of what you are in life, and might become. Later...later there is more uncertainty, more overlapping, more backtracking, more false memories. Back then, you can remember your short life in its entirety. Later, the memory becomes a thing of shreds and patches. It’s a bit like the black box aeroplanes carry to record what happens in a crash. If nothing goes wrong, the tape erases itself. So if you do crash, it’s obvious why you did; if you don’t, then the log of your journey is much less clear.

The Sense of an Ending has all the tension of a psychological thriller and the final denouement makes the reader question everything he has read in the previous 150 pages. It is a page turner (an intelligent read for any summer holiday), but one filled with unsettling ideas and insights. A lucid and provocative novel that will stay in my memory for a long time.

The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes, Jonathan Cape, 2011

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Lance Armstrong: cancer, a yellow jersey and life


I recently accused someone of being too competitive. I’m not competitive, he countered, I’m interested in competition. It’s a subtle distinction that you could not imagine the cyclist, Lance Armstrong, making. He is fiercely competitive, swaggeringly self-confident and driven. Putting on his socks in the morning could easily become a time trial for someone like him. But, I suspect, he is not very different to many top class sportsmen and women. Yet, it is the young Armstrong’s braggadocio and intolerance of any form of weakness that make him so difficult to like. He’s an invincible superman on a bike, playing to all the worst American stereotypes: brash, loud, in your face. He doesn’t seem to be one of us or, at any rate, he doesn’t want to be one of those who are known as the mortals.

The compelling quality about Armstrong’s autobiography (ghost written by Sally Jenkins), It’s not About the Bike, is that he exposes these personal defects and makes no attempt to rationalise them away. But this courageous self-knowledge was only achieved after he was diagnosed with advanced, stage 4 testicular cancer in 1996. This gut-winding news made Armstrong realise that he was, in fact, a mortal, one of us:

My illness was humbly and starkly revealing, and it forced me to survey my life with an unforgiving eye. There are some shameful episodes in it: instances of meanness, unfinished tasks, weakness, and regrets. I had to ask myself, “If I live who is it that I intend to be?” I found that I had a lot of growing to do as a man.

I won’t kid you. There are two Lance Armstrong, pre-cancer , and post. Everybody’s favourite question is “How did cancer change you?” The real question is how didn’t change me? I left my house on October 2, 1996, as one person and came back home another. I was a world-class athlete with a mansion on a riverbank, keys to a Porsche, and a self-made fortune in the bank...I returned a different person, literally. In a way, the old me did die, and I was given a second life.

However, there are no purple passages in this book where Armstrong romanticises his cancer or makes it a cheap vehicle for self-improvement tips. Any moments of self-understanding are weighed against the terror of seeing one’s mortality up close and personal, the debilitating horrors of chemotherapy, the sick-in-the-pit-of-your-stomach as you wait for the next scan result, the sadness in the eyes of family and close friends. Illumination is not easily achieved. It is not a superficial process. For Armstrong, the dying to one’s old self in order to rise to a new life, was as gruelling, dangerous and lonely an experience as any Tour de France uphill climb. Yet, it also proved an opportunity to escape from the factory of alibis that maintained the personal inauthenticity he had grown accustomed to. It was a chance to win back his life. He writes:

There is an unthinking simplicity in something so hard [as cycling], which is why there ‘s probably some truth to the idea that all world-class athletes are actually running away from something. Once, someone asked me what pleasure I took in riding for so long. “Pleasure” I said. “I don’t understand the question.” I didn’t do it for pleasure. I did it for pain.

Before the cancer, I had never examined the psychology of jumping on a bicycle and riding for six hours. The reasons weren’t especially tangible to me; a lot of what we do doesn’t make sense to us while we’re doing it. I didn’t want to dissect it, because that might let the genie out of the bottle.

But now I knew exactly why I was riding: if I could continue to pedal a bike, somehow I wouldn’t be so sick.




It’s Not About the Bike may focus on Armstrong’s cancer, but it also provides a fascinating glimpse behind the coloured blur of the peloton. I know nothing about cycling. But, after reading Armstrong’s book, I have gained some appreciation of how finely calibrated this sport is, where every fraction of acceleration is analysed and measured. It is a sport of personal rivalry and bodies pushed to the very extremes of what they are physically capable of. And along with the endless manoeuvring for best position on the road, there is the chasing of agents, sponsors and the best support team. This is a game of chess played out on feather light bicycles and at high-speed. The chapters describing Armstrong’s training for the punishing 2,500 km Tour de France in 1999 and his eventual victory are as exciting as any piece of sports writing I have come across. It is a riveting read.

Slipping on the maillot jeune, the yellow jersey worn by the winner of each stage of the Tour de France, took on a symbolic significance for Armstrong. He recognised that he could not be defined by his achievements – however, impressive they were – but that his significance was to be found elsewhere. It was who he was that mattered. “Sometimes I think the biggest thing cancer did was knock down a wall in me. Before cancer I defined myself in terms of winner or loser, but I don’t have that kind of rigid vanity anymore.”

In the final analysis, this autobiography is what it says on the cover. It is not a book about the bike. It is a book about Lance Armstrong and some of those tangible and intangible things that make us want to both embrace and reach beyond our mortality. A book, then, about life.

It's Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life, Lance Armstrong with Sally Jenkins, Yellow Jersey Press, 2001