'The Happiness of Your Life Depends on the Quality of Your Thoughts' (Marcus Aurelius) -- And Actions

02/15/2016 04:38 pm ET Updated Feb 14, 2017

The New York Times told the story of Heba Macksoud, a woman in hijab, at whom a frightening derogatory remark was directed in her neighborhood grocery store. When, Macksoud shared her experience, she heard stories from other American Muslim women of being called names and told to "go home."

Shootings, in Chattanooga, San Bernardino, and an Arizona high school show us gunmen taking out their fears and disaffection on co-workers, fellow students, and perceived enemies. Police shootings and shooting of police seem to happen daily, creating tension and fear.

Daryush Valizadeh (Roosh V), in his Return of Kings blog wrote -- not meaning it literally, he claims -- that it should be legal to rape women "when done off public grounds." He called for an "International Meet-up Day" for his supporters. These "pro-rape" meetings were protested and cancelled -- one when a Toronto women's boxing club organized a counter-protest. The image on the Return of Kings website is an armed knight on horseback. This image aligns with those of the Ku Klux Klan, a group validating violence to police society according to its values.

All this frightens me as a person and challenges me as an intellectual. How can we analyze this violence towards women, particularly, and any "other" we hate or fear? Let me offer two ideas.

First, women: The liberation of women is the most recent and, perhaps, the most powerful global social change, unsettling traditional ideas about femininity and masculinity, family, and gender roles, and, on a deep level, binary Western thinking. One only has to look to Greek tragedy to see masculinity characterized as "superior," aligned with reason and power and femininity aligned with irrationality and weakness to understand that "women's lib" challenges the Western thought and structures made global in the Enlightenment, through colonialism and slavery. None of this can be negotiated quickly. A woman in hijab, unfairly, provokes layers, centuries, of unconscious cultural conditioning in our post 9/11 America.

Roosh V's promotion of rape is a reassertion of power, a symbol of reclaiming culture. Rape is a weapon of war. Now, its threat is a weapon in the American "culture wars."

Second, these violent reactions suggest failing cultural communication and crumbling social space. "Political correctness" is the target, for example, of more conservative voices who see it as control and as an outcome of moral relativism. Isaac Chotiner, in an article about the Boston Marathon bombings, suggests, however, that we can see it as a "reasoned reaction to a society that is still full of racism and bigotry" -- as, I will suggest, prudence.

Prudence is "the charioteer" of the Cardinal Virtues -- prudence, temperance, justice, and courage. These values, a positive inheritance of the classical past, were articulated by the Greeks and traveled, via the Romans, into Christianity. To be overly simple, justice is fairness; temperance is moderation; and, courage is fortitude. Prudence is discerning appropriate speech and action in a situation. We all remember President George Bush, senior, warning us that some actions "wouldn't be prudent." To the Cardinal Virtues, Christianity added the Theological Virtues of faith, hope, and charity. Thomas Aquinas argues that the Cardinal Virtues unite reason with will and emotion, while the Theological Virtues direct us to God. The practice of virtue makes one happy, an American self-evident truth, and wise, putting one in right, just, relationship to the self, the neighbor, and, if we so believe, the divine.

All world religions define virtue. Buddhism's Ten Paramitas include integrity, wisdom, and equanimity. Eugene Borowitz and Frances Schwartz examine loving-kindness, charity, and humility among the Jewish Moral Virtues (1999). Islam emphasizes righteousness and mercy. These diverse religious communities strive towards the good, together, in the American "melting pot." Ordinary people, religious or not, struggling to lead ethical lives, enact these virtues daily.

For Aristotle, the virtues are means between extremes. Extremists do not seek middle paths. They fixate on one idea, and as Milan Kundera writes, this necessitates a gulag outside of paradise for those who do not conform to the Idea.

They are not prudent.

Prudence is the mean between impulsiveness and over-cautiousness. Prudence has a present usefulness -- discerning the good using correct knowledge -- and a future orientation -- weighing the consequences. Prudence is a valuable public virtue, too, when exercised in civic space. What is missing, in current civic space, is agreement on what right means make concrete the good. Insult, rape, and threat are not right means.

What are? I will use one example from American Buddhist monk, Claude Anshin Thomas' autobiography, At Hell's Gate: A Soldier's Journey from War to Peace. It is a lesson in "how." Thomas grew up in a violent home; then, the Vietnam War taught him how to refine violence. But, he changed: Anshin means being at ease, of peaceful mind--happy.

Thomas tells a story of a train trip. A young fellow passenger, ignoring the rules, began to smoke. He did it desiring to be irritating. Violence was Thomas' first possible response, as his military self rose up in him. But, Thomas writes, "I stopped." Recognizing that his anger emerged from his own pain and conditioning, he stopped, opening the possibility, later, for a conversation with the young man.

Stopping is prudent, creating a pause in which to think, to see what is really before us, and, thereby, to choose the right response, for the good for all and for the future. Prudence is linked with decency, which we, in this historical moment, badly need -- whether we are political candidates, shoppers, or angry loners. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. warned, "Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." Since there is, King said, "some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best," each one is called to stop -- to examine and root out personal and social violence, then, to speak and to negotiate -- together. Doing this, the ordinary person becomes extraordinary, for as May Sarton recognized, in our time, one needs to think "like a hero to behave like a merely decent human being."