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Thursday, May 30, 2013

"to connect our science to our humanity, and in doing so to raise the sights of both".

Philosophy isn't dead yet

Far from having replaced metaphysics, science is in a mess and needs help. Einstein saw it coming
philosophy and metaphysics
‘The attempt to fit consciousness into the material world, usually by identifying it with activity in the brain, has failed dismally.' Photograph: Victor de Schwanberg/Alamy
In 2010 Stephen Hawking, in The Grand Design, announced that philosophy was "dead" because it had "not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics". He was not referring to ethics, political theory or aesthetics. He meant metaphysics, the branch of philosophy that aspires to the most general understanding of nature – of space and time, the fundamental stuff of the world. If philosophers really wanted to make progress, they should abandon their armchairs and their subtle arguments, wise up to maths and listen to the physicists.
This view has significant support among philosophers in the English-speaking world. Bristol philosopher James Ladyman, who argues that metaphysics should be naturalised, and who describes the accusation of "scientism" as "badge of honour", is by no means an isolated case.
But there could not be a worse time for philosophers to surrender the baton of metaphysical inquiry to physicists. Fundamental physics is in a metaphysical mess and needs help. The attempt to reconcile its two big theories, general relativity and quantum mechanics, has stalled for nearly 40 years. Endeavours to unite them, such as string theory, are mathematically ingenious but incomprehensible even to many who work with them. This is well known. A better-kept secret is that at the heart ofquantum mechanics is a disturbing paradox – the so-called measurement problem, arising ultimately out of the Uncertainty Principle – which apparently demonstrates that the very measurements that have established and confirmed quantum theory should be impossible. Oxford philosopher of physics David Wallace has argued that this threatens to make quantum mechanics incoherent which can be remedied only by vastly multiplying worlds.
Beyond these domestic problems there is the failure of physics to accommodate conscious beings. The attempt to fit consciousness into the material world, usually by identifying it with activity in the brain, has failed dismally, if only because there is no way of accounting for the fact that certain nerve impulses are supposed to be conscious (of themselves or of the world) while the overwhelming majority (physically essentially the same) are not. In short, physics does not allow for the strange fact that matter reveals itself to material objects (such as physicists).
And then there is the mishandling of time. The physicist Lee Smolin's recent book, Time Reborn, links the crisis in physics with its failure to acknowledge the fundamental reality of time. Physics is predisposed to lose time because its mathematical gaze freezes change. Tensed time, the difference between a remembered or regretted past and an anticipated or feared future, is particularly elusive. This worried Einstein: in a famous conversation, he mourned the fact that the present tense, "now", lay "just outside of the realm of science".
Recent attempts to explain how the universe came out of nothing, which rely on questionable notions such as spontaneous fluctuations in a quantum vacuum, the notion of gravity as negative energy, and the inexplicable free gift of the laws of nature waiting in the wings for the moment of creation, reveal conceptual confusion beneath mathematical sophistication. They demonstrate the urgent need for a radical re-examination of the invisible frameworks within which scientific investigations are conducted. We need to step back from the mathematics to see how we got to where we are now. In short, to un-take much that is taken for granted.
Perhaps even more important, we should reflect on how a scientific image of the world that relies on up to 10 dimensions of space and rests on ideas, such as fundamental particles, that have neither identity nor location, connects with our everyday experience. This should open up larger questions, such as the extent to which mathematical portraits capture the reality of our world – and what we mean by "reality". The dismissive "Just shut up and calculate!" to those who are dissatisfied with the incomprehensibility of the physicists' picture of the universe is simply inadequate. "It is time" physicist Neil Turok has said, "to connect our science to our humanity, and in doing so to raise the sights of both". This sounds like a job for a philosophy not yet dead.

Monday, May 20, 2013

“The present education system is the trampling of the herd,” legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright lamented in 1956.

Don’t Go Back to School: How to Fuel the Internal Engine of Learning

“When you step away from the prepackaged structure of traditional education, you’ll discover that there are many more ways to learn outside school than within.”
“The present education system is the trampling of the herd,” legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright lamented in 1956. Half a century later, I started Brain Pickings in large part out of frustration and disappointment with my trampling experience of our culturally fetishized “Ivy League education.” I found myself intellectually and creatively unstimulated by the industrialized model of the large lecture hall, the PowerPoint presentations, the standardized tests assessing my rote memorization of facts rather than my ability to transmute that factual knowledge into a pattern-recognition mechanism that connects different disciplines to cultivate wisdom about how the world works and a moral lens on how it shouldwork. So Brain Pickings became the record of my alternative learning, of that cross-disciplinary curiosity that took me from art to psychology to history to science, by way of the myriad pieces of knowledge I discovered — and connected — on my own. I didn’t live up to the entrepreneurial ideal of the college drop-out and begrudgingly graduated “with honors,” but refused to go to my own graduation and decided never to go back to school. Years later, I’ve learned more in the course of writing and researching the thousands of articles to date than in all the years of my formal education combined.
So, in 2012, when I found out that writer Kio Stark was crowdfunding a book that would serve as a manifesto for learning outside formal education, I eagerly chipped in. Now, Don’t Go Back to School: A Handbook for Learning Anything is out and is everything I could’ve wished for when I was in college, an essential piece of cultural literacy, at once tantalizing and practically grounded assurance that success doesn’t lie at the end of a single highway but is sprinkled along a thousand alternative paths. Stark describes it as “a radical project, the opposite of reform … not about fixing school [but] about transforming learning — and making traditional school one among many options rather than the only option.” Through a series of interviews with independent learners who have reached success and happiness in fields as diverse as journalism, illustration, and molecular biology, Stark — who herself dropped out of a graduate program at Yale, despite being offered a prestigious fellowship — cracks open the secret to defining your own success and finding your purpose outside the factory model of formal education. She notes the patterns that emerge:
People who forgo school build their own infrastructures. They create and borrow and reinvent the best that formal schooling has to offer, and they leave the worst behind. That buys them the freedom to learn on their own terms.
From their stories, you’ll see that when you step away from the prepackaged structure of traditional education, you’ll discover that there are many more ways to learn outside school than within.
Reflecting on her own exit from academia, Stark articulates a much more broadly applicable insight:
A gracefully executed quit is a beautiful thing, opening up more doors than it closes.
But despite discovering in dismay that “liberal arts graduate school is professional school for professors,” which she had no interest in becoming, Stark did learn something immensely valuable from her third year of independent study, during which she read about 200 books of her own choosing:
I learned how to teach myself. I had to make my own reading lists for the exams, which meant I learned how to take a subject I was interested in and make myself a map for learning it.
The interviews revealed four key common tangents: learning is collaborative rather than done alone; the importance of academic credentials in many professions is declining; the most fulfilling learning tends to take place outside of school; and those happiest about learning are those who learn out of intrinsic motivation rather than in pursuit of extrinsic rewards. The first of these insights, of course, appears on the surface to contradict the very notion of “independent learning,” but Stark offers an eloquent semantic caveat:
Independent learning suggests ideas such as “self-taught,” or “autodidact.” These imply that independence means working solo. But that’s just not how it happens. People don’t learn in isolation. When I talk about independent learners, I don’t mean people learning alone. I’m talking about learning that happens independent of schools.
Anyone who really wants to learn without school has to find other people to learn with and from. That’s the open secret of learning outside of school. It’s a social act. Learning is something we do together.
Independent learners are interdependent learners.
She critiques the present boom of massive open online classes, or MOOCs, for their tendency to attempt replicating the offline experience online rather than building a new model for learning from the ground up:
Simply put, MOOCs are designed to put teaching online, and that is their mistake. Instead they should start putting learning online. The innovation of MOOCs is to detach the act of teaching from physical classrooms and tuition-based enrollment. But what they should be working toward is much more radical — detaching learning from the linear processes of school.
But that, Stark found, is missing the point. When she interviewed people who did go to school and asked what they most liked about the experience, they “unanimously cited ‘other people’ as the most useful and meaningful part of their school experience.” So, then:
Given the primacy of community in the experience of learning, the question of how to take the auto out of autodidactic is the first and most central question for learners.
Much of the argument for formal education rests on statistics indicating that people with college and graduate degrees earn more. But those statistics, Stark notes, suffer an important and rarely heeded bias:
The problem is that this statistic is based on long-term data, gathered from a period of moderate loan debt, easy employability, and annual increases in the value of a college degree. These conditions have been the case for college grads for decades. Given the dramatically changed circumstances grads today face, we already know that the trends for debt, employability, and the value of a degree have all degraded, and we cannot assume the trend toward greater lifetime earnings will hold true for the current generation. This is a critical omission from media coverage. The fact is we do not know. There’s absolutely no guarantee it will hold true.
Some heartening evidence suggests the blind reliance on degrees might be beginning to change. Stark cites Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh:
I haven’t looked at a résumé in years. I hire people based on their skills and whether or not they are going to fit our culture.
Another common argument for formal education extols the alleged advantages of its structure, proposing that homework assignments, reading schedules, and regular standardized testing would motivate you to learn with greater rigor. But, as Daniel Pink has written about the psychology of motivation, in school, as in work, intrinsic drives far outweigh extrinsic, carrots-and-sticks paradigms of reward and punishment, rendering this argument unsound. Stark writes:
Learning outside school is necessarily driven by an internal engine. … [I]ndependent learners stick with the reading, thinking, making, and experimenting by which they learn because they do it for love, to scratch an itch, to satisfy curiosity, following the compass of passion and wonder about the world.
So how can you best fuel that internal engine of learning outside the depot of formal education? Stark offers an essential insight, which places self-discovery at the heart of acquiring external knowledge:
Learning your own way means finding the methods that work best for you and creating conditions that support sustained motivation. Perseverance, pleasure, and the ability to retain what you learn are among the wonderful byproducts of getting to learn using methods that suit you best and in contexts that keep you going. Figuring out your personal approach to each of these takes trial and error.
For independent learners, it’s essential to find the process and methods that match your instinctual tendencies as a learner. Everyone I talked to went through a period of experimenting and sorting out what works for them, and they’ve become highly aware of their own preferences. They’re clear that learning by methods that don’t suit them shuts down their drive and diminishes their enjoyment of learning. Independent learners also find that their preferred methods are different for different areas. So one of the keys to success and enjoyment as an independent learner is to discover how you learn.
School isn’t very good at dealing with the multiplicity of individual learning preferences, and it’s not very good at helping you figure out what works for you.
Echoing Neil deGrasse Tyson, who has argued that “every child is a scientist”since curiosity is coded into our DNA, and Sir Ken Robinson, who has lamented that the industrial model of education schools us out of our inborn curiosity, Stark observes:
Any young child you observe displays these traits. But passion and curiosity can be easily lost. School itself can be a primary cause; arbitrary motivators such as grades leave little room for variation in students’ abilities and interests, and fail to reward curiosity itself. There are also significant social factors working against children’s natural curiosity and capacity for learning, such as family support or the lack of it, or a degree of poverty that puts families in survival mode with little room to nurture curiosity.
Stark returns to the question of motivators that do work, once again calling to mind Pink’s advocacy of autonomy, mastery, and purpose as the trifecta of success. She writes:
[T]hree broadly defined elements of the learning experience support internal motivation and the persistence it enables. Internal motivation relies on learners having autonomy in their learning, a progressing sense of competence in their skills and knowledge, and the ability to learn in a concrete or “real world” context rather than in the abstract. These are mostly absent from classroom learning. Autonomy is rare, useful context is absent, and school’s means for affirming competence often feel so arbitrary as to be almost without use — and are sometimes actively demotivating. . . . [A]utonomy means that you follow your own path. You learn what you want to learn, when and how you want to learn it, for your own reasons. Your impetus to learn comes from within because you control the conditions of your learning rather than working within a structure that’s pre-made and inflexible.
The second thing you need to stick with learning independently is to set your own goals toward an increasing sense of competence. You need to create a feedback loop that confirms your work is worth it and keeps you moving forward. In school this is provided by advancing through the steps of the linear path within an individual class or a set curriculum, as well as from feedback from grades and praise.
But Stark found that outside of school, those most successful at learning sought their sense of competence through alternative sources. Many, like James Mangan advised in his 1936 blueprint to acquiring knowledge, solidified their learning by teaching it to other people, increasing their own sense of mastery and deepening their understanding. Others centered their learning around specific projects, which enabled them to make progress more modular and thus more attainable. Another cohort cited failure as an essential part of the road to mastery. Stark continues:
The third thing [that] can make or break your ability to sustain internal motivation … is to situate what you’re learning in a context that matters to you. In some cases, the context is a specific project you want to accomplish, which … also functions to support your sense of progress.
She sums up the failings of the establishment:
School is not designed to offer these three conditions; autonomy and context are sorely lacking in classrooms. School can provide a sense of increasing mastery, via grades and moving from introductory classes to harder ones. But a sense of true competence is harder to come by in a school environment. Fortunately, there are professors in higher education who are working to change the motivational structures that underlie their curricula.
Stark prefaces the interviews with a clear mission statement:
For those of you who have experience with learning outside of school, this book is a celebration of what you do. For those of you who haven’t, it’s a warm invitation to give it a try.
The interviews, to be sure, offer a remarkably diverse array of callings, underpinned by a number of shared values and common characteristics. Computational biologist Florian Wagner, for instance, echoes Steve Jobs’s famous words on the secret of life in articulating a sentiment shared by many of the other interviewees:
There is something really special about when you first realize you can figure out really cool things completely on your own. That alone is a valuable lesson in life.
Investigative journalist Quinn Norton subscribes to Mangan’s prescription for learning by teaching:
I ended up teaching [my] knowledge to others at the school. That’s one of my most effective ways to learn, by teaching; you just have to stay a week ahead of your students. … Everything I learned, I immediately turned around and taught to others.
She also used the gift of ignorance to proactively drive her knowledge forward:
When I wanted to learn something new as a professional writer, I’d pitch a story on it. I was interested in neurology, and I figured, why don’t I start interviewing neurologists? The great thing about being a journalist is that you can pick up the phone and talk to anybody. It was just like what I found out about learning from experts on mailing lists. People like to talk about what they know.
Norton speaks to the usefulness of useless knowledge, not only in one’s own intellectual development but also as social currency:
I’m stuffed with trivial, useless knowledge, on a panoply of bizarre topics, so I can find something that they’re interested in that I know something about. Being able to do that is tremendously socially valuable. The exchange of knowledge is a very human way to learn. I try never to walk into a room where I want to get information without knowing what I’m bringing to the other person.
I think part of the problem with the usual mindset of the student is that it’s like being a sponge. It’s passive. It’s not about having something to bring to the interaction. People who are experts in things are experts because they like learning.
The wonderful Rita J. King, whose diverse and prolific career spans investigative journalism in the nuclear industry, a position as Futurist at NASA, and an executive role in Manhattan’s Science House, recalls boldly defying the cult of credentials:
After I graduated, I wondered if I’d be perceived as less capable or desirable because I didn’t have an Ivy League degree. So I tried an experiment. When I looked for work, I didn’t talk about my education at all. I approached my career like an adventure, accepting work that led to other work and built on itself. I could have been a PhD from Harvard, or a high school dropout, nobody knew either way. It was a fun experiment to see the assumptions people made about my level of education, and also to see how much other people rely on having been educated at a prestigious university for social capital. There has never been a situation in which I needed to prove that I have a degree to get work. People never ask. I was a journalist.
She makes a case for context over mere content:
When you’re learning something, it’s really important not only to understand the system and context in which that thing functions, but also to look ahead and imagine what the world would be like with or without this thing.
Ultimately, she sees learning as a continuum rather than a finite progression with a defined beginning and end, something Susan Sontag touched on when she proposed her radical model for remixing education. King observes:
My career now centers completely on science, art, imagination, and business. I’ve learned about these fields through years of immersion. I continue to live and work that way. Life changes constantly, and flexibility is the best path to keeping your skills and perspectives current. Formal education is valuable in the right context but it tends to be rigid, which can put students at a serious disadvantage when they graduate from academia and enter the world. Each person is at a different stage in the learning process. We need to all take a step back and see ourselves on a continuum of the learning experience.
Scientific researcher and Singularity Institute director Luke Muehlhauserprefaces his advice with an important disclaimer:
Skipping school or dropping out of school is obviously a decision that should be made on a case-by-case basis. You want to come out of your education with certain types of competencies and not a lot of debt. But it has never been easier to learn without school. There are so many resources to become a generally capable and smart person and there is no trouble doing it outside of the school system at all. Your education should amplify your curiosity by giving you the opportunity to pursue things that you actually care about, and learning outside of school is ideal for that. Try to learn as many things as possible and not be afraid to fail quickly and keep trying, or switch tracks. You’ll get experience and valuable lessons in a variety of fields, and you’ll occasionally stumble across things that you thought you were going to be bad at, and it turns out you’re pretty good at.
Most people assume you need a PhD to publish in peer-reviewed books and journals, but it’s not true—I’ve published in peer-reviewed venues without even a bachelor’s degree, because I learned the material well enough on my own to engage at the cutting edge of human knowledge.
Software engineer, artist, and University of Texas molecular biologist Zack Booth Simpson speaks to the value of cultivating what William Gibson has called“a personal micro-culture” and learning from the people with whom you surround yourself:
In a way, the best education you can get is just talking with people who are really smart and interested in things, and you can get that for the cost of lunch.
Artist Molly Crabapple, who inked this beautiful illustration of Salvador Dalí’s creative credo and live-sketched Susan Cain’s talk on the power of introverts, recalls how self-initiated reading shaped her life:
I was … a constant reader. At home, I lived next to this thrift store that sold paperbacks for 10¢ apiece so I would go and buy massive stacks of paperback books on everything. Everything from trashy 1970s romance novels to Plato. When I went to Europe, I brought with me every single book that I didn’t think I would read voluntarily, because I figured if I was on a bus ride, I would read them. So I read Plato and Dante’s Inferno, and all types of literature. I got my education on the bus.
Don’t Go Back to School is a stimulating read in its entirety and a fine addition to these essential books on education.
Public domain images via Flickr Commons

The preacher pulled a pistol and shot the bell after the rope broke then called a special collection for another rope...

Going Back to Bimble

If I went I'd go through Shepherdtown
and Burning Springs; I'd cross the stream
some people still call Hogskin Branch
and pass through Treadway just before
the Pinhook Chapel, where I heard
the preacher pulled a pistol and shot
the bell after the rope broke
then called a special collection for
another rope and took in twice
the tithes of the last two months
and said, hellfire, he ought to shoot
that bell more often; and then in a mile
or so I'd go through Brightshade
and follow Bad Jack Branch—
so-called for a stubborn ancestor
when he ran rowdy through these parts—
till it crosses Collins Fork and then
in no time I'd be at Bluehole
and that's about halfway to Bimble;
I'd say I'd follow on the Fork
since it's the best stretch of country
God spread out anywhere
and go on up to Cottongin
to see if anyone still resides
in what they called Big Rock House—
a marvel of design for its day—
then circle back through Bonnyglade,
Bee Gum, and Timber Tree,
when at last I'd come through Maupin Gap
and down below I'd see it, Bimble—
the little string of houses strung
along the Redbird bottom,
where Mrs. Jonsee Ponder lived,
who people said knew everything
she had so many books; I'd like
to visit her and ask her why,
after all these years and all the sorrow
that came to Bimble, why she stayed—
if I go, I'll go through Shepherdtown.


Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic

Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic

Could more distance be the key to keeping the passion in long-term relationships?
In Esther Perel's insightful, beautifully written bookMating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic, out in paperback this month, she argues that we have lost sight of the critical balance that makes a relationship great -- intimacy and distance. In her private psychotherapy practice in New York, she's seen too many couples wrapped up in our workaholic, kid-focused culture; the true loss, she argues, is sensuality and pleasure -- vital ingredients to a life well-lived.
Her seemingly paradoxical argument -- that less togetherness can lead to more intimacy -- has been a global hit.Mating in Captivity has been published in the United States, Spain, Italy, Germany, Canada, France, Norway, Sweden, Taiwan, Brazil, Israel, Australia, the United Kingdom, Belgium and the Netherlands, and it will soon be available in Greece, Japan, Poland, Portugal, Romania and Turkey. AlterNet caught up with this global traveler long enough to ask a few questions about her vision for more satisfying partnerships. Her answers are telling, but perhaps even more refreshing is that she embodies her message. Esther is playful, thoughtful, sexy and thoroughly independent. See for yourself ...
Courtney Martin: Tell us about a defining moment that led to the writing of this book.
Esther Perel: At the time of the Clinton affair, I was intrigued at how adultery could become a matter of national political agenda in the U.S. Why was it, I wondered, that this country seemed quite tolerant of divorce, and rather intolerant of infidelity, when the rest of the world had traditionally been more tolerant of infidelity and less so of divorce? Around the same time I was at a national conference on couples therapy and, there too, I was struck by the overemphasis on pathology and the lack of any mention of the words pleasure or eroticism when addressing a couple's sexual life. The claim that sexual problems were always the result of relational problems, and that one should fix the relation and the sex would follow, did not bear true for me. I saw loving, caring couples whose desire was flatlined, not resulting from a breakdown in intimacy. So I began to question a host of assumptions pertaining to sexuality and intimacy in long-term relations that were spoken as truths; they seemed unexamined to me.
Martin: You argue, brilliantly I might add, that the conditions that create intimacy -- closeness, familiarity, constancy -- are actually diametrically opposed to those that create desire -- distance, novelty, spontaneity. Why does such a fundamental point seem like such a shocker to us in the 21st century? Have other theorists argued this, and we've just missed it?
Perel: I think the confusion stems from the tenacious hold that the romantic ideal holds for us. It states that there is one person with whom we can have it all. We will experience a state of completion where we lack nothing. That myth of oneness then leads us into contracting a host of contradictory feelings and human needs into one mold. The ever-so-thoughtful psychoanalyst Steven Mitchell, in his book Can Love Last , argues this point as well. So does Roland Barthes and others.
Martin: What is a peer marriage, and why might it not be as ideal as one might first assume?
Perel: A peer relationship is one where the partners experience an affectionate, companionate coupledom. They are friends. They are the product of the egalitarian model; they are good life partners, but are often less sexual. For many people this alone is quite an achievement, so I would never put it down. But I also think that there is another dimension of life we seek and that goes beyond the management of our everyday life. People want to experience transcendence, mystery, awe, the passionate side of life, the erotic, that which inspires a feeling of aliveness, of vibrancy, of vitality, and that is another dimension of life altogether.
Martin: There is an assumption -- fueled by Dr. Phil and other talk show gurus -- that talking about our problems with our partners is key to healthy relationships. You're arguing for a more nuanced approach to problem solving and communication. Can you elucidate?
Perel: I am a therapist, so I obviously value talk, but what I challenge is our insistence of the verbal as the superior way to communicate. We speak with our bodies, with actions, with a gaze. The body as a matter of fact is our mother tongue; we express so much in the physical language long before we can utter one word. I also challenge the unvarnished directness of language in this country -- get to the point! It is a style that is less equipped to ponder ambiguity and the imponderables. And finally, while I think that talking is important for couples, we are facing a situation where sharing is not a choice but a mandate. If you don't share, talk, etc., you are not close. That is a false assumption and one that put a lot of pressure on men in particular.
Martin: You also write about our tendency to see marriage as work. Explain why this framing of our most intimate relationships may be hazardous to their health.
Perel: I do think that there is a lot of work in a marriage, but there are different kinds of work. Here, when we think of work, it goes with drudge, practicality, planning, duty, obligation.
I see that and then add the creative aspects of work -- work that is uplifting and not a constant struggle, work that inspires a sense of pleasure and fulfillment, not only duty and obligation. These values, while very important in society at large, are no longer what keeps people in a relationship. Connection, satisfaction, mutuality, reciprocity -- these are the values that keep people in relationships.
Martin: What role does porn play in all of this?
Perel: Porn is the amalgamation of key trends in today's world with age-old sexual fantasies; it comprises a potent blend of technology, high intensity, low emotion, consumerism, constant stimulation and sensations, marketing of images, and deep-seeded personal needs, fears, longings and vulnerabilities. Porn can free people by adding a sense of freedom. It can also trample desire in a couple because the effort to relate to a living other with needs and feelings has become more and more difficult and is easily replaced with quick, fast, unencumbered autoerotic sex. It is all a question of balance, as always.
Martin: Do you see the helicopter parenting phenomenon (overinvolved moms and dads) as a cause of bad sex or an activity that distracts from dealing with already subpar sex lives?
Perel: Look, it is ironic that sex makes babies and then children spell erotic disaster for couples. The unprecedented child centrality we see today all over the West has sanctified childhood like never before. We no longer get work out of our kids, today we get meaning. So we have adults who become a round-the-clock child-rearing factory in order to foster the flawless and painless development of their offspring. Interestingly, this generation of kids that is being raised in a way where they never have to feel any frustration, nor boredom, is turning out to be the one with the greatest difficulties with sustaining desire. If you have never wanted something, longed for it, you cannot know desire. Where there is no frustration there is no desire. So, on one hand, we vest our children with sentimental idealization, and not only do we want to be perfect parents, and give our children everything, we also want our marital relations to be happy, fulfilled, sexually exciting and emotionally intimate. In our culture, the survival of the family depends on the happiness of the couple, so we must bring the focus back, at least in part, on the relationship and not imagine it will go on living as if it were a cactus.
Martin: What can parents do to avoid replacing their need for adult intimacy and passion with play dates and car pools?
Perel: When I say "sex" to people with children, they say, "You must be kidding." Then I say, "OK, let's not talk about sex in the narrow sense; let's look at the erotic ingredients."
Playfulness! I see you play with the kids, so imaginative, but with your partner it is the usual routines where you are locked in the same character. With the kids you are constantly looking for new things to do, to discover; with your partner, it is the same old, same old. Comfortable, perhaps, but also predictable.
Your kids are dressed in the latest fashion even to go to bed; you are walking around the house in sweatpants. Your kids are blessed with languorous hugs while you, the adults, are living on a diet of quick pecks. The erotic energy seems to be alive and well, it's just that it is Eros redirected. At some point, some of that erotic energy needs to be brought back to the couple. You need to cordon off an erotic space where you can meet as adults, for the sake of being together, not as responsible citizens who join to go over their to-do lists. It is a space where you can experience pleasure for its own sake and where sex can happen, but it does not have to.
Meet your partner for lunch when you are actually awake and dressed. Close the bedroom door once in awhile. No need to feel guilty. When kids play, they have fun; when they can be slightly naughty on top of it, they are gleeful. Adults, too, experience freedom when they break rules. For example, the rules that mature, marital sex must be serious, that moms and pops don't do these sorts of things. Any small incursion into the illicit and the transgressive with your partner can be really enlivening. That means skipping a soccer game once in a while as well.
Martin: Why, when some studies estimate that over half of marriages have endured infidelity, do we continue to frame cheating as an anomalous crime in popular culture? Why not admit how common it is and talk more about surviving it?
Perel: I think that figure may be inflated. In any event, in your question is the idea that the norm is fidelity and infidelity, the deviance. Yes, that is still the way most people conceive of relationships -- emotional commitment, intimacy, and fidelity as defined by sexual exclusivity are mainstay ideas for today's couples. These ideas are part and parcel of the romantic ideal. If we are everything for each other, there is no need for anyone else.
At this time in the U.S., the main focus in the professional literature is on the trauma of infidelity. The focus is most always on the injured partner, on the betrayal, as if it is the worst offense and breach in the attachment. That is all there, no doubt; infidelity is painful, very much so, but there are other issues at hand too: existential dilemmas, attempts to preserve the marriage through an affair, all kinds of complicated twists and turns that extend far beyond good and evil. I got a flier recently for a workshop addressed for clinicians, and it featured as its title, "Affairs: Weapons of Mass Destruction, and How to Fight Them." That is how far we have gotten.
Martin: Talk about the difference between emotional and physical infidelity? Which do you see as more damaging in your practice?
Perel: The way I see it is that I meet many couples in my practice who may be sexually faithful and are betraying each other in so many other ways. Neglect, indifference, contempt, lack of respect, stonewalling, disqualifying, devaluing, ridiculing, lying, deceit and so on. There are so many ways that people let each other down, betray each other, tear the trust, demean each other, all the while they are sexually faithful. So why is it that we think sexual betrayal is the mother of them all? It is not my place to rank them, but I think things are a bit more complicated.
Martin: Do you believe in soul mates? Why or why not?
Perel: Yes, I think some people share a deep mutual sense of recognition, identification, complicity, partnership, muse, shared vision, shared gaze onto the world, shared humor. All these are features of what I guess one would attribute to a soul mate. It is a word that I don't connect with, however, even though I share many of these features with my life partner. I guess I like to include in a relational description elements that attest to the individuality, the freedom, the separateness, the otherness, and these are usually not included in the image of soul mate, which is more fusional, and thrives on oneness.
Martin: If readers could do one thing today to increase the healthy distance in their relationship, what should it be?
Perel: Bring something to the relationship that is different about yourself; break the static roles you tend to operate from. Ask your partner a question as if you were talking and being inquisitive with a friend. Ask them something about themselves without immediately wondering, "And what does this mean for me?"
Martin: What's next for you?
Perel: First a rest. I have traveled to 16 countries this year. It has been a fantastic experience, but now I need some nesting time at home and with my family. I will also be continuing my practice, because I learn from the people I treat, and doing therapy keeps me grounded in reality. Then perhaps TV?! Or a book on infidelity ...
Courtney E. Martin is the author of Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body . You can read more about her work atwww.courtneyemartin.com.

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