Choosing Dearth

With the economy such as it is, I am approached with much greater frequency than before by a man with a story of his family, just in from Alabama in search of work, who only lacks 13.00 needed to keep from being booted out of Motel Six. I am slowly learning more about this man than he ever intended for me to know.

I will call this grimy fellow, and all like him, Cain.
Cain is not the minority: the people who had good jobs and lost them. I am talking about career paupers. Despite their chicanery, I know some things about them. For instance, they are liars.
I know they are probably lazy, most likely alcohol and drug addicted, and definitely unmotivated. I know they would be doing much better if they had only the smallest smidgeon of an industrious spirit. I know they have abandoned the American dream, and now they are pleading with me to give up mine, one small scene at a time. They are undeniably dirty, unquestionably disruptive to my routine: a complete nuisance. They have the freedom to become anything they could imagine and they turn their backs on this American feature in favor of pan handling.
Oh, did I mention that I was one of them? I was never homeless, but I could have been. I was in debt, earned a low wage, and lived paycheck to paycheck, which by the grace of God, kept trickling in. If I had been laid off, which could have easily happened, I would have been destroyed by next week. If I had lost my apartment, I would have quickly become dirty, smelly and unable to function well enough to satisfy most critics. I was just like them, only employed. I did not see any way out of my circumstance and was convinced by the combined forces of reason and faith that no salvation was forthcoming and there was no way for me to save myself. I suffered a severe case of spiritual insomnia. I knew about the American dream, but I did not know how to dream it. I accepted the fact that I would never be happy or successful. That I was destined to die a miserable pauper was a painful truth that made perfect sense.
How could I do any more than I was doing already? I had scored an irreplaceable job: low pay, overtime allowed. I worked 70 hours per week at a fast food establishment, alongside a bitter middle aged shift manager named Brenda-lee. I told Brenda-lee I wanted more. She informed me that I would be right there beside her ten years from now and to get used to it. I did get used to it. I accepted it. I knew it instinctively. Though I didn’t mind the tasks of the job, and even found them delightfully challenging around lunch time, I despised the idea that this was it: my future.
From that view, I could not see any way out. The idea that I could become a doctor or a lawyer, a businessman, or even a courier, seemed unthinkable. I did not know how to do it. Without a miracle I could never get through college and if I did, I would exit with a useless degree because I did not have it in me to put forth the effort needed to go after more, when I knew that my reward lived in the distant future if it existed at all, and that I was destined to suffer for years, grasping at the hope of this faraway blessing. Keep this in mind: years of suffering was the best case scenario. On the bad end of my prospects was failure or the possibility that my efforts would fizzle out for whatever reason or that they would be obstructed by some pernicious force I had yet to identify. Even if I could overcome all of this, I probably could not really make it happen. Finances, time, my level of intelligence: something would be in the way. The possibility was just not real to me.
I equated success with money at the time; not because that is how I saw life, but because a total lack of financial freedom enslaved me. I would tell people that I didn’t know how to do anything about my situation, that I didn’t know how to make money, that I was doing all I could. This was the absolute truth. If I had taken my rightful place among the homeless, I would have been no more capable than they of finding my way out.
The surface of my head is an infertile garden. Kim, a Vietnamese stylist, is responsible for maintaining my memory of this once magnificent head of hair. Her job gets no easier as the yard grows smaller. I am constantly demanding that she do something to keep it alive. Brimming with optimism she tells me about implants and ointments and assures me that I only need a little more personal discipline to solve my own problem. She charges me a handsome sum for this advice and the landscaping services she provides. From a studio attached to her upscale residence, she caters mostly to upper class clientele. I am a rare exception who happened upon her in a time when there was still hope for the garden. She came highly recommended, and I yielded to extravagance in this one all-important area.
Kim once told me that she could not understand how anyone is unable to succeed in America. She noted how easy it is. Her parents fronted her money for her studio and, in a fit of entrepreneurial courage, she abandoned her career in finance, put out her shingle and the rest is history. When I was impoverished and hopeless, I remember well that I did not know how to cut hair, nor was a career in finance an option for me, nor do I remember having any other marketable skills to substitute for these. I also don’t remember believing that I could become marketable if I just applied myself. It is easy, if you are Kim. She cuts hair and collects an exorbitant fee. See? How hard is that? I would like to explain this to her: I do not now, nor have I ever known, how to cut hair; but I doubt that I could make her understand. I fear she would pick up a pair of scissors and say: Like this, as she sliced away a lock I cannot risk sacrificing at the alter of her demonstration.
What Kim fails to realize is that all people are not created equal. Individuals: That is what we are. We are not all Kim. She is blessed with virtues that scatter invisible seeds of serendipity and opportunity all around her. There are other individuals, the lower class, as we call them. These outcasts may lack any of the following tools for success that Kim takes for granted:
  1. Kim has faith that with hard work and dedication, she can make a difference.
  2. Kim comprehends that what happens in four years or more matters today (if your life is easy, it is easy to see, but if you struggle, future relief seems less real).
  3. Kim was socialized to honor education and thirst for knowledge and to assume success.
  4. Kim believes that others see her as useful.
  5. Kim has confidence that she can excel in whatever she undertakes: college, seeking a job, carving out a suitable place in this world for her to exist.
Problems Kim never had to overcome that Cain takes for granted:
  1. Cain is extremely bored by things that could lead to success, such as academics.
  2. Cain intimately knows of the relationship between how daunting a task is, and how confront-able it is. If Kim sees a task as doable, she will confront it. If Cain thinks a task is virtually impossible for him, then mustering the energy to commit to it is equally impossible.  
  3. Cain has faith that he is not intelligent enough to become truly educated.
  4. Cain’s belief that change is not possible denies him enough motivation to act.
“Life is just what you make it,” my mom used to say; and then follow up with “blaaaaaa.” There was bitterness in that “blaaaaaa.” It was guttural and angry and really said it all. One does not make life. We call this container in which our spirit lives, our life. As we bounce around inside it, we are both cause and effect. We create it, reshape it. It is doing the same thing to us. Some people are fortunate and frequently visited by serendipity; others are graced with strong facilities of intelligence, social acumen, and talent. These attributes are not present in all of us, and certainly are not distributed evenly to any of us. They are the tools we use to shape our container, and to defend against it, as it tries to reshape us. Kim certainly had more tools that I did and I did not even know about the ones I had. We see those with fewer mental and physical resources all around us and we can hardly contain our disdain for them. We blame them for their lacking. They choose dearth.
I grew up without a father. Though I am sure he knew me at some early time in my life, I have never met the man. My mom was an extraordinarily hard worker who always went beyond the call of motherhood to tend to my needs and the needs of the rest of her family. She was mother and father and best friend. Forfeiting any joy she could have conjured up, she gave every waking moment to the cause. Still, she could not rise above who she was. All her diligence sought to maintain, to survive, never to grow. In her mind, this was the contribution she could make and anything beyond it was not real. She did not believe change was possible. The necessary ingredients were not there and being an American citizen with the American dream dangling above her was not enough.
I am often more capable than Cain. It’s wrong to judge him by the same standards used to judge me. From his depressed state, he does not have the same tools for success.
  1. Cain does not study well.
  2. Cain does communicate well.
  3. Cain does not understand what he reads the way I do. He finds most things too boring to follow.
  4. Cain does not believe his efforts will ever result in a relevant difference in his life.
  5. Cain cannot imagine a way to even start trying to fix things.
  6. Cain is not analytical.
  7. Cain is depressed.
  8. Cain is despondent.
Do I pity Cain? Do I merely sympathize with him from a safe emotional distance?
I regard Cain loathingly: “Get off the streets and go to school.” It is easy to say, with my attributes and my talents and the roots of my education behind me. It was not always easy, though, back before I was homeless, when I was made of the same fabric as he is; before our fates were sealed, when fortune dispatched me in one direction and him in another. It’s natural to feel scorn for those in need. They want what is ours and they don’t seem to want to work for it, the way we did. That is how I see Cain. I strive for excellence and he covets it in grossly explicit ways. I am not inclined to share the fruits of my labor. I would rather it rot on the vine than reach his decaying lips. He threatens me with his wanting, his needs, his destitution, his desperation. He not only wants what is mine, but he reminds me that if you were to take away the serendipitous virtues and happenstance that separated the two of us, what would be left: One homeless man’s contempt for another.


  1. Excellently done, say I, having satisfied myself from internal evidence that the piece isn’t plagiarized wholesale from Mark Twain.

  2. Vincent,

    Well played, my friend.

    For those of you who don’t know, Vincent just learned of Mark Twain’s excellence yesterday. He is my favorite American writer. Not Vincent, Mark Twain. Vincent is also a very good writer, but he is British, and come on, would you rather read Tin House or Granta? I am actually reading part of Vincent’s book tonight, so I guess it is technically possible that he could rise above Mr. Twain.

    The Mark Twain discussion is a continuation of a conversation from another site in a land faraway.

    When people read this, I hope everyone realizes that I am on Cain’s side that the guy in the opening and the closing is someone whose opinion in this matter appalls me.

  3. This is immensely thoughtful and raises a number of questions I’ve pondered and sidestepped over the last few years. One of these is sermonizing and self-help, as in “self-help books”. Of course the two are virtually the same thing. Your barber Kim is a walking sermon, a living embodiment of the American dream, as you have pointed out. But the sower’s seed may fall on good or stony ground. For the do-gooding saint, it’s a problem. And since “nothing is impossible” (the optimist’s motto), a solution must always be at hand: a new solution obviously, because all the previous solutions have failed.

    Your piece wittily surveys the problem, and leaves it unsolved. Which will disturb the do-gooder, and drive the well-meaning non-do-gooder into a previously-constructed entrenched position, such as “These people ought to pull themselves together”.

    Without the heavy baggage of a personal credo, whether it be God, Marx or Capital, one can live with the world as it is and not feel affronted by its imperfection, and act according to conscience in any particular situation. Which is not perfect, but one can live with that too.

  4. I think I need to read this post again. It is so rich, it really reminded me how little literary work I read these days. Being a political junkie has it's pitfalls.

  5. Nicely done, John. Classic American literature tone; I bow to you :)

  6. Point of correction Mr Myste. you said above “For those of you who don’t know, Vincent just learned of Mark Twain’s excellence yesterday.” I didn’t know that either, because I read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn as a boy (and the latter again more recently). But I am ignorant of most of his other works. Can you please recommend what you consider his best, with particular reference to his non-fiction?

  7. It is, of course, a matter of opinion, but ...

    His best work of non-fiction is fiction. It is called Letters From the Earth. It is allegorical fiction (and parts of it are not very good, but the good parts are some of his best work).

    His non-fiction is usually published in collections (Essays of Mark Twain, etc). He published many essays on man (a la Pope, only without all the pesky rhyming). One his main soap boxes was the notion that the earth would have been created for mankind.

    He published lots of travel and political commentary, which is good. However, I prefer his religious and social essays. He was an atheist, but a very funny one.

    So, his best non-fiction is usually published as collections of essays. Just recently, his 100 year in the making autobiography was released. It is more for die-hard fans. Some of it is excellent, some very dry. It is very large and it will take me a while to get through it. I am not sure which one of collections is the best. If you like more social / man type commentary, I would choose one that contains a lot of that. If you prefer more political / historical commentary, I would choose a collection with lots of that. If you prefer a combination, I would try to find something that contained a lot of commentary on each of his soap boxes.

    Also, much of his fiction was allegorical and is sometimes found in the same collection as non-fiction. To me his short stories are often not that different from his non-fiction. It is all philosophical / political / social / religious / historical commentary. He also wrote a lot about travel and current events, but is less known for these essays. Mark Twain, the traveler, is the Mark Twain with whom I am least familiar.

  8. John,
    Thoughtful and compelling.

    Try "Letters from the Earth", if I may be so intrusive.

  9. Dave, I recommended that also! Great minds think alike.

  10. From Choosing Dearth, we advance to Choosing Letters from the Earth. Thanks both.

  11. Powerful post. I know quite a few Cains who prowl our neighborhood looking for an odd job here or there, or in tougher times, a handout. I've started hiring one of them to do yardwork when needed. He does an excellent job. But apparently he can't stick to a schedule well enough to work for a landscaping company. Thanks for the explanation of how people like him come to be that way. I'm glad I am able to give him some business to keep him going. I think he rents a room in someone's house down the street.

  12. Mauigirl, I know this is a bit of a subject change, but I rented a room in someone else's house for a couple of years, and I made a good living. I think single people not renting rooms in the homes of others is a bit of a waste of resources.

    I am glad to hear that Cain has some understanding in his life. We are all too quick to judge and we so easily forget or deny that "there but for the grace of God, go I."

  13. Hi John, You have me on your bloglist along with alot of my friends, yet I have never been here nor heard your name before, imagine that! But I'm flattered and happy to meet you. Yes for you I will open the comments on the post you requested and will add you to my list. Thanks for coming by and I will be back here to read your posts too!


  14. John,
    What an incredible bit of thought put into words.It was in and of itself a good read, but some parts of it really hit me. I don't know if it was your intent, or because this has so much depth that certain levels affect different people in different ways.

    Not all immigrants are equal,Kim illustrates this.Americans welcome Asian immigrants, think of them as hard working industrious people who value education.All of which are true.

    Mexicans are also hard working industrious people who value education, yet somehow they don't receive the welcome as well as the cheap loans Asians get.

    Why? Probably money.Usually it's the wealthy who can get out of a country, the poor or working class can't.Often Asians pool their $, either to get out or once arrived to make certain their children get all the benefits.Kim would be the beneficiary of all of this, and would regard non-Asian immigrants with contempt and Americans as lazy.

    If you've ever been to Chinatown in SF - you see streets and businesses and public transportation filled with 4' tall people who speak not a word of English, with no fear of ICE - who are too busy hauling away Mexicans to bother them.

    I was also raised by a single mother whose only concern in life was providing for her family, who also did not understand the things well off people seemed to know.I didn't know them either.Things like SAT's and college stuff.

    You really,really made me identify with you in this one man, intended or not.Again, really nice piece.

  15. By the way, Dave Dubya, I now have a copy of Mark Twain’s Letters from the Earth, at your recommendation. What a wickedly sharp tongue! That is to say, he mocks my own conservative tendencies - from the grave! I want to laugh but sometimes it’s difficult. Such as when he belittles our very own Prince Albert, consort of Queen Victoria. Of course it was the late Queen who commemorated him with the Albert Memorial, the Albert Hall, the Victoria & Albert Museum and many more beloved memorials. And it hurts a little when Twain satirizes the British Museum, St Paul’s Cathedral and every iron railing In London. It hurts because I know he has a point.

    And Dave, I apologize for pulling a comment on one of your posts after you courteously acknowledged it. It didn’t seem to belong, in the middle of the rants and counter-rants from left and right.

  16. What a marvellous post - well crafted, beautifully constructed!

    It strikes me that the most untrue part of our western mythology myths is that of the "level playing fields." Even before the new-born baby lines up for the start the odds are already stacked in all kinds of ways. In real life, when Forrest Gump runs he gets caught and has the shit kicked out of him again and again ... until he becomes resigned, sullen and brutalised.

  17. John, this was a lovely post. Thought provoking and lovely.

    I got a strange look the other day when a co-worker mentioned the "career homeless" that tag-team on the corners outside our work. She mentioned "he looks like he could still work."

    I said "Would you hire him?" That's when I got the strange look. There but for the grace...

  18. Bee,

    It is a very good question, "would you hire him?" Moreover, "if you were him, are you absolutely certain you would be seeking work?" Belief that you may be able to rise out of your circumstance, no matter what your circumstance is, is usually a pre-requisite to doing it.

    I identify with the homeless and the grossly underemployed, who I sometime consider have some of the same barriers, more than most people.

    I am blessed with a decent income and mediocre talents that are good enough to keep it. I was grossly underemployed, and I would not say I earned my way out of my situation. It was not my hard work and determination that saved me. It was just being luckier than the next guy.

    Yet, the same people who despise the next guy for who he is, respects me for who I am not. The person he respects and the person he does not respect are the same guy, with different details filled in by someone else.

    I agree that I am worthy of some respect. I must, therefore, admit that the other guy is also worthy.

  19. Francis,

    "In real life, when Forrest Gump runs he gets caught and has the shit kicked out of him again and again ... until he becomes resigned, sullen and brutalised."

    As a bit of a Gump myself, I especially appreciate this humorous truth.

    You have added to my list of quotables, sir. Excellent.

  20. Oy,just thought to pop up here. noticed you on Vincent's blog (don't blame him; am my own thought person. have really only skimmed this post and comments - but what caught my eye was "grew up without father". Yer, well, join the club.

    Mine sort of died in 1945, but don't hold that against me.

    Perhaps, as males, we have a unique perspective on how society operates?

  21. Mmm, having squizzed most of this; will bugger orf and never return. yer a wanker.

  22. After I consult a dictionary, I suspect I will be highly offended, sir.

    I suspect you misunderstood the article, and for your sake, I will assume it on faith. I am defending the homeless fellow and the last paragraph is representative of how I see his critics. If it is the last paragraph that offended you, then you and I are like-minded. Otherwise, you made the right decision; unfortunately, you will probably never see this comment, as you have buggered orf.

  23. You have a great blog here John. I have marked it in my favorites to return to it at peace.

  24. Beautifuly expressed piece of literature that displays a deep insight into the human condition.

    The bit about college - to me it seems that you have enough literary talent to have recieived a doctorate in English Literature and then gone on to be a philosophical writer and Professor of English at at well known University. ( This is assessment from a former university prof. - me)

    I am gald I found your blog and hope to return to it from time to time.

  25. Many of us are quick to judge others and the human condition is really complex. It is difficult to say what makes the man on the street a man of the street and a successful businessman a successful businessman. In my experience sometimes the person in the lowest job in an organisation is a finer human being than the one in the highest.

    Perhaps a human needs to experience all sides and that is possible if he or she goes through many life times of human birth.

  26. There are far too many positive comments on this blog, not one heckler or dispondent?

    Unfortunitly I find myself having to clap with the crowd, it was a good post.

    It reminds me how the American dream does really exist for some people who have the right situation, while for others it is a mystisism that keeps slapping them in the fact, making there stuggle incomprehensible.

  27. um, have you read the life story of Jack London?
    Cut the waffle.

  28. Getting my dictionary back out. I think this must mean malarkey or pancake, in which case I cannot oblige.

  29. try "Call of the wild" .. dimwit.

  30. Oh, definition of "waffle" .. yep, chose it carefully. But how do wombats exist?

    PS, am becoming paranoid about these "word verification" thingo's -clownlyx.

    heh, heh , heh.

  31. AND YES .. methinks the "dictionary" you are operating from may well be some sort of "limited" erudition.

  32. Well, Mr. Davo, you know we Americans are not known for our Australian levels of scholarship. As a very great Australian once said:

  33. John I'm crying here!

  34. Buried in this success story about Kim and other "success stories" I often find a common thread: "...Her parents fronted her money for her studio".

    It is rare that rags-to-riches stories truly involve "rags", dig deeper and you will often find someone got a little boost or a door held open for them. Often it can be attributable to luck, though people are quick to ascribe their success to talent. And true, without some talent, opportunities may not bear fruit.

    As a former Welfare Worker for the State, I try to remind people that in order for people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, they have to HAVE boots in the first place.

  35. Huh. Well this IS interesting over here. I am more of a Kim than a Cain and have a hard time relating to people who aren't always trying to find workable solutions to their problems.

    Also, I like Aussie cursing.

  36. I like Aussie cursing also. Aussie = entertainment, no matter its use.

    I am neither a Kim, nor a Cain. I have an easy time relating to be people who cannot imagine workable solutions to their problems. I have been there and yet I have none of the problems Cain has.

    I do not need to relate to someone to sympathize with their position. You have talents Cain does not. He is, however, the same species as you are, and if you lacked the talents that save you, you would be just like Cain.

  37. I did not say I was unsympathetic, just that I have a hard time understanding how someone lives an unsatisfying life without trying to do something about it.

    I am not particularly talented, just determined. Is determination a talent? I don't know.

    However, I can't accept that we are all merely at the mercy of whatever gifts we are born with; our fates sealed, and fortune dispatching us in whatever direction it fancies. The quality of my life is not the result of serendipitous virtues and happenstance.

    And stop arguing with the new girl!

  38. You had me at "Stop arguing with the new girl." Too bad you put in last.

    I concede that the quality of our lives are partially controlled by the very things you mentioned.

    I admire your determination and talent, both fine virtues.

  39. To admit what you have here is to reject such myths as Homo economicus, to acknowledge that we are physical creatures with physical limitations and shortcomings. Our bodies and brains are not perfect machines, our beliefs not as simple as choices. Neither freedom nor resources are limitless. And science confirms it all, in case there was any doubt.

    I would be very troubled by all of this if I were a Christian conservative or a conservative unknowingly rooted in Christian ideals. It sounds like a slippery slope to a world where no one can be justly held responsible, where criminals go free and accomplishments are accidents because only circumstances are to blame. In this nightmare, natural equality is gone because we split ourselves into two groups: the fortunates and the unfortunates. It is, of course, the duty of the former to support the latter. We may as well abandon ourselves to relativism of every sort and embrace the chaos that follows!

    This may sound like hyperbole, but the sentiment is commonly expressed. We enjoy our tradition of self-deification too much to not be bothered by the truth. Besides, it makes for a good story about how liberals are destroying civilization, hastening the return of the Lord.

    On the other hand, the conservative's concerns are not baseless. We must be careful about when we choose to blame circumstances instead of the individual, lest we indulge vice to the point of encouragement. (In this respect, I believe liberals have dropped the ball, though I'm not convinced that conservatives have really picked it back up.) And even if our ideals clash with reality, we still need them. As you point out, we are both cause and effect, not one or the other.

    I appreciate your post. This is a subject worth more frequent mainstream discussion, especially in regard to how we can curb the influence of mere circumstance on our thoughts and choices. That should bridge the political divide, though both sides first have to acknowledge that the problem exists and that our current "solution", the self-esteem movement, is not effective, at least not in its current form.

  40. I would be very troubled by all of this if I were a Christian conservative or a conservative unknowingly rooted in Christian ideals. It sounds like a slippery slope to a world where no one can be justly held responsible, where criminals go free and accomplishments are accidents because only circumstances are to blame.

    These are legitimate conservative protests. I would answer them thus:

    To acknowledge that some people cannot raise themselves up by their own bootstraps is not wrong unless it is false. The belief that if we acknowledge a fact as true, our belief creates a problem is a false belief. The problem either exists or it does not.

    One could argue that for utilitarian purposes we must treat the world as if everyone were capable enough to solve the basic problems of human survival. I do not argue this. I consider it uncivilized. I do not advocate making anyone wealthy who is not wealthy, or even making anyone well off. I love capitalism. I love the American Dream. I do not like the thought of capped potential becoming an American concept.

    At a very personal level, I have never met a harder worker than my own mother. I remember the last slice of bread in the house. I do not argue that either my mother, or the boy I was, should suffer for utilitarian purposes. I believe that capitalism and basic subsistence of all, are not mutually exclusive and the choice of one or the other is a false dichotomy.

    My conservative friends see this theoretical utilitarian problem and so deny the reality of the other problem, as if one problem must be an American problem. They offer no proof that either problem ultimately must exist. They do offer strong evidence that entitlements are sometimes abused. As this is a real problem, we should review and attempt to address it. However, you cannot easily get there, when one side wants to abolish the programs and other wants to fix them. Both sides will have to be on the same page first.

    I want to reiterate one fact, because in my view, it is our legitimate starting point:

    To acknowledge that some people cannot raise themselves up by their own bootstraps is not wrong unless it is false. The belief that if we acknowledge a fact as true, our belief creates a problem is a false belief. The problem either exists or it does not.

  41. What you reiterated is exactly right. It is part of what I mean when I say that we must not let our principles sabotage their own purpose. We cannot make a better world with our principles unless we acknowledge reality and the ways it falls short of our ideals. This goes hand in hand with the need to work forward from information to conclusions instead of backward from conclusions to supporting information.

  42. This goes hand in hand with the need to work forward from information to conclusions instead of backward from conclusions to supporting information.

    This is very well-said. No one does this!!! It does not come naturally. Even I don’t do it, but I try.

    I have been a programmer for much of my life. For many years very complex bugs eluded me in a way that made me feel hopeless. I would reason and try to figure out what was happening. I would step through code and try to see the variables that came together to allow the bug to happen. Those are good things, but not good enough.

    That approach works with most software bugs. However, if we are dealing with tens of thousands of lines of code buried in hundreds of different object is dozens of libraries, it is often unworkable. Late in my career, I learned a very important lesson:

    If the problem is utterly complex, and if it has hundreds of variables that come together to create it, you may not be able to discover it by trying to figure it out. That is not good enough. What should you do? Feel overwhelmed? Feel like even feeding on the elephant one bite at a time will never be good enough, so give up? Wrong in both cases.

    You should learn more. Stop trying to solve the problem. Instead figure out little pieces you don’t yet understand that may or may not have anything to do with the problem, but that are not insurmountably large. If you keep learning about things that touch the problem, eventually you run into the cause of the problem without seeking it. If you cannot find the cause by seeking the cause, this is your only recourse. Since I had this epiphany, I have solved may complex issues this way, issues that would have seemed impossible before.

    Philosophical issues are like these most complex of problems. Learning, collecting data, without intention, is by far the best way to eventually arrive at a better answer.

    If you study in order to see if you are right, you will learn that you are right. Cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias and self-justification will ensure that you do. It is amazing to read of studies where psychologists can manipulate the opinions of otherwise intelligent people with nothing other than the application of these principles.

    It is easiest to learn that you are wrong when you don’t hope to prove anything.

    The man who says, I just want to see the data. I have nothing to prove. I am just wanted to see for myself. He undoubtedly knows the answer he will find. There are exceptions, but they are rare and I think random. Regardless of whether his opinion is on the left or the right, he sees for himself, and as predicted, he invariably finds the answer he knew was there all along.

  43. It is helpful to be dispassionate, though that comes with its own set of problems--or so I'm told. Because I am almost constantly aware of the problem we're discussing, I make a strong effort to always be open to information and change, even though, as you say, no one can pull this off all the time. Cognitive bias happens to be arguably my favorite subject.

    But, John, I kid you not: I have been teaching myself programming (first Python, now C++) over the course of the last few months. I pursued English in college and received both a bachelor's and master's degree in it, but I was unable to find the sort of job I wanted. I feel just about as comfortable with programming so far as I did with literary analysis, but I enjoy it much more because I perceive a purpose in it. I hope fellow students of literature will forgive my blasphemy in this regard.

  44. I'm glad this conversation is still alive, and that it has raised the topic of computer programming and debugging in particular. I was/am in the programming business from 1965 till now. One of the best ways I've ever discovered to debug is to explain your work to a colleague who's a good listener. He doesn't have to say anything at all, but as you talk to him, you watch his face. Then suddenly, you have a moment of illumination. You see where you may have gone wrong. I think I also read in a book by Gerry Weinberg & Tom Gilb (two of the best theoreticians on programming from the Seventies onward) that you could conduct what they called a "wigstand review". You get a wigstand of wood or polystyrene that looks like a human head, and present your problem to this "imaginary colleague"---who has all your intelligence but none of the attachment to it. In essence, you are projecting your inner critic out to a point free of your inner ego. Of course you don't physically need the wigstand.

    Ryan, I forgive your blasphemy. I have much of the day to read and write in the realms of pure literature, but nothing gets me more concentrated than when I'm called out of retirement to enhance one of my programs.

    If only I could find a literary agent who would phone me up and give me a writing project. I'd be on it before you could blink.

  45. Vincent,

    I can blink pretty fast. Tiger Woods said "do what you love and the money will come."

    In my personal case, I have found that to be true. It was not that much money, but enough to feed me.

    Produce a manuscript first, then look for an agent. I know it is not simple, but that is the way to go.

    Would you consider a philosophical novel, or is that too far afield of your interest?

  46. Thanks, John, I was not in this instance thinking of money, nor even of writing as a way to reach one's soul or change the world; but rather of writing as a craft like programming.

    I know what you say is true, but that kind of fire is not in me these days. I can't even write a blog post more than once every couple of weeks and that is my literary peak!

  47. Vincent,

    Funny thing: the fire to produce a literary manuscript was in me. I wrote a manuscript for philosophical novel and it was not hard at all. Writing it was easier than reading it would have been. Each day, I could not wait to write more because I could not wait to see what would happen next.

    Oddly enough, it did not conform do the "first novel" standards of the modern publishing industry. I studied the craft of fiction writing in great depth. Afterwards, I studied the publishing industry in some depth. I found that certain things are expected.

    I was not even able to find a publisher or agent that represented the kind of things I produced. I found that no first-time novelist has ever written anything of this nature as a first effort. (Virtually none, but saying none at all is far more powerful, though less accurate).

    After a good deal of research, I really found I had not place to offer my masterpiece and that I would write a second novel, one that did conform to what the industry expects. I decided to this as a method of publishing my first manuscript.

    The problem was this: the fire for producing a conforming manuscript is just not in me.

    In that case, I did what I loved and the money did not come. An enormous supply of gratification did befall me, however, so all was not lost.

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