33rd Birthday

If I had to characterize my last year in a few words, it would be "struggle and perspective." From about August to April, I was either applying for jobs or worrying about jobs, and I've already written about how that led me to feel a whole host of negative emotions. The summer months provided me some respite, but now that the job market is starting again, I'm already feeling the anxiety. I imagine that there will be struggle again, though less severe this time around.

My last year has also been characterized by perspective, mainly because of my brief, but direct, exposure to suffering. Since my encounters with the two men in wheelchairs, I've shadowed various doctors at the hospital, including an internist, psychiatrist, palliative doctor, and pediatrician.

On Wednesday (my birthday), I saw two dying patients: an old lady with a brain tumor, and a middle-aged man who had failing lungs. The old lady was somewhat alert; I could tell from her facial expression that she was suffering. It actually reminded me of the expression that my grandma made when she became hospitalized. The middle-aged man was alert and talked about how he wanted to keep living so that he could spend time with his family. He asked about an organ transplant that he needed, but the doctor told him that he wasn't a candidate because of the state of his lungs. He begged the doctor to promise him that he wouldn't let him die. The doctor said he couldn't promise him that but that he would do whatever he could. There was a bible on the desk.

Yesterday I went to the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) and saw a lot of sick babies. There was one specific baby who, for some reason, suffered massive brain damage. The doctors said that he will never walk, stand, or sit, and that his condition will probably kill him. It's a tragedy that so many babies won't have the chance to experience the good things in life. They won't develop their potential, fall in love, see a sunset, laugh with friends, appreciate music, eat ice cream, dance, travel the world, cuddle with animals, exchange smiles with a stranger, and hear the waves of the ocean. Due to nothing more than an unlucky draw of the natural lottery, they have been condemned to spend their days in a room of a hospital, and to exist mainly in the memories of their families.

Encountering suffering gives you perspective. That one project that you think you have to complete, that one appointment that you think you have to make, you probably don't.

Judgment and People with Mental Illness

I was walking to the hospital the other day to observe a psychiatrist when I noticed a man in a wheelchair sitting on the corner of the intersection. He was wearing the hospital gown and had a number of medical gear attached to his body. I immediately thought that this man had some sort of mental illness and that he had escaped from the hospital. So I walked to the front desk and told the receptionist about the man. He made a phone call and gestured that it was going to be taken care of.

I decided to walk back toward the man to make sure he was going to be alright. But I kept my distance. In fact, I crossed the street so I could see him while being quite far away. The reason why I didn't approach him was because I didn't want to talk to someone with a mental illness.

After a minute or two, I started thinking about how I wanted to avoid him, even though I didn't really consider him to be a threat. This man seemed to be about my age, but he was in a wheelchair, and he had a cast on his foot.

Since I didn't want to treat him like he had a stigma, I decided to talk to him. It turns out that this man hadn't escaped from the hospital but rather that the nurses had let him out, because he wanted to get some fresh air and he wanted to beg. He told me that he had to have one of his toes removed, which is why he was wearing the cast, and that prior to the surgery, he had been bedridden for months.

We talked about a number of things in the 10 minutes we spoke. I asked him about a tattoo he had on his neck. He said it was his nephew's name. He then pointed to another one of his niece's name.

I asked him if he had anyone to come pick him up. He said no.

Then he asked me for money, so I gave him 5 bucks. (I've noticed that it's much easier to give someone money after you connect with them, probably because connecting with someone humanizes them.)

He was very grateful and offered to buy me lunch in the future. I said it was generous of him but that it was unnecessary.

What this experience shows is that I don't want to talk to people with mental illness, and that I'm quick to judge someone as having such a condition, if I observe that they behave oddly. This suggests that I need to withhold my judgment.

Old Man in a Wheelchair

A couple of weeks ago, I was waiting at a traffic light when I noticed this old man in a wheelchair having trouble getting off a bus. It was the end of my day and I had no further obligations, so I decided to see if he needed some help.

I pulled my car over to the side, walked up to him, and asked him if he wanted me to help him get home. He said, “Yes.” I asked him if he knew where he lived. He said, “Yes.” He lived only a few blocks away from me.

So I pushed him across the main street and bid him farewell, because we were only a couple of blocks away from his apartment. He thanked me and offered to say a Catholic prayer.

After I drove back and parked my car, I decided to return to where I had left him, because I wasn't sure if he was going to get home safely. I offered to push him all the way to his apartment, and he accepted.

While pushing him, I noticed that his wheelchair didn’t have footrests. I asked him why and he said that someone had stolen them.

I learned some things about the man while we talked. I learned that he was 71, that he recently had cataract surgery, and that he recently needed to be resuscitated. By connecting this information with the information I gathered through observation, I concluded that he had just returned from the hospital.

After pushing him into the lobby of his apartment building, I again bid farewell and he again offered to say a Catholic prayer.

This experience left an impression on me for a few reasons.

First, I was extremely disappointed and disheartened to hear that people steal parts of wheelchairs.

Second, this man reminded me of my dad. My dad is almost 71 and also recently had cataract surgery. It made me think that if my dad were to have an accident, he could easily end up like this man, who seemed at least 10 years older than what he really was.

And third, it was depressing to know that nobody picked him up from the hospital. I can only assume that he was also there by himself. How lonely of an existence it must be to have no one by your side in what may be your last moments of life.

A Confession

A number of years ago, I was walking at the beach with a couple of friends of mine. The weather was perfect, as it frequently is in southern California. The sun was shining, the temperature was about 75 degrees, and the air was dry. Everyone around me seemed to be living a relaxed life. People were chatting, eating ice cream, and doing beach activities. I suspect when people imagine life in Los Angeles, that’s what they picture.

Unfortunately, like every big city, there are many of those who live in poverty. Homeless people are everywhere, including the beach. So I wasn’t at all surprised when I noticed, to my left, a homeless person sleeping on the grass with a blanket over their head and torso. It was a common scene, for sure—a poor person ignored and avoided by the rich, their proximity to the ground reflecting their social status. I’m so used to seeing homeless people that I would’ve entirely forgotten about this person, if it hadn’t been for the fact that their feet were absolutely disgusting. I mean they looked rotten. For a brief moment, I thought to myself that this person might have been dead.

But I didn't do anything.

By the time the thought had cemented into my mind, I might have been half a block away. So I could’ve easily gone back to check up on this person.

But I didn’t.

I just kept walking and chatting with my friends.

Sometimes I watch these social experiment videos on YouTube, where they have hidden cameras to record how people react to certain situations. One experiment featured two actors, one dressed as a nonhomeless person and the other as a homeless person. And the goal was to see if people would check up on them after they pretended to collapse on the sidewalk near an intersection. The results were what you would've expected.

When I watch experiments like that, I like to tell myself that if I’d been a civilian in that video, I would’ve done the right thing, that I wouldn’t have been like almost everyone else, that I wouldn’t have ignored suffering right in front of my face.

But I am like almost everyone else.

When I think back on that day at the beach, I wonder if that was one of those social experiments. I wonder if somewhere on the internet, there is a video of me walking by what I thought could have been a corpse.

The Value of Watching Cat Videos

I recall a disagreement I had with one of the philosophers in the department over the value of watching cat videos. She insisted that it was a waste of time whereas I believed (and continue to believe) the opposite. Though it wasn't the best argument I could have given, I said that watching cat videos builds empathy. To be clear, I still think this is true, but a better argument would have been in terms of beauty.

It doesn't seem implausible to argue that cuteness is a species of beauty, and so by watching cat videos, we are appreciating beauty. This may be comparable to looking at a natural landscape, which may embody yet another species. I'm assuming here that appreciating beauty is not a waste of time.

I don't do work on aesthetics, so my argument should be taken with a grain of salt, but a quick look at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy suggests that my claim is consistent with multiple conceptions of beauty.

One idealist conception of beauty states that beauty is "a primary bridge...between the material and the spiritual" (Sartwell, 2017). I'm not a spiritual person so this account doesn't resonate with me that much, but I have encountered religious people who sense the divine when looking at animals.

A second account of beauty argues that beauty is that which causes love or longing. This conception of beauty is reflective of the subjective experience sparked by watching cat videos.

A third conception accounts for beauty in terms of pleasure. Again, this is also consistent with my claim that cuteness is a species of beauty.

In response, one could argue that though it may not be a waste of time, cuteness may be an inferior species of beauty. According to the article, Hegel thinks the beauty of art is superior to the beauty of nature because the former is born twice: first from God and then again from the artist. If true, listening to music would be superior to watching cat videos.

According to the other accounts, however, one species would only be superior to another if it creates more experiences of love and longing, or pleasure. And since cuteness could create such experiences equal to that created by other species, it follows that watching cat videos could be comparable in value to engagements with other species beauty. So I think it's reasonable to claim that watching cat videos is valuable, because it's consistent with major theories of beauty.


Sartwell, C. (2017). Beauty. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2017/entries/beauty/ 

On the Mend

Since I was unsuccessful in last year's job market, I've been processing negative emotions for the past 6 months. I don't think I've ever felt anger, frustration, hopelessness, and jealousy all at the same time before. The good news is that I'm on the mend, and I attribute that to two things. First, I allowed myself to feel negative emotions. And second, I've changed my plans for the future.

Regarding the first, I allowed myself to be human, to feel all the negative emotions sparked by a terrible job market where most applicants find nothing. I told myself that it was okay to be jealous of my friends who found jobs, even though I felt guilty that I couldn't be happy for them.

Acknowledging one's human limits is simultaneously disheartening and liberating. It's disheartening because I don't want to suck as a person. I want to be able to be happy for my friends, you know? But it's also liberating because it makes me feel more okay with feeling negative emotions. To be clear, I still feel guilty; I'm just dealing with it better.

Regarding the second, I've decided to go into clinical ethics. A clinical ethicist is a person who offers guidance to clinicians on ethically complicated medical decisions. I'll be doing a clinical ethics practicum in the Fall, where I shadow various people in the hospital. And I'll be taking a clinical ethics class in the Spring.

This decision to enter clinical ethics has help me recover from my depressive state, because it has given me something new to look forward to, and because it will help me on the job market. I've been told that for clinical ethics, there are 30 applicants per job (compared to 300 applicants per job in professional philosophy). So this coming Fall, I'll apply for both academic jobs and clinical ethics jobs.

I get excited over the thought of being an applied ethicist. I never thought I would, to be honest. I always thought of myself as a person who would work on the theory side of things. The only worry I have is that I'll be constantly surrounded by death. I'm not sure how that will affect me psychologically.

On Fearing Death

Many of my philosophical interests stem from my fear of death. For instance, I’ve thought a lot about the philosophy of religion, because there’s a central part of me that wants God to exist. I want God to exist because I want heaven to exist. And I want heaven to exist because I want to go there. I don’t want there to be nothing after I die. Nothingness scares the heck out of me.

Philosophers have talked a lot of death. Lucretius, for example, argued that it’s irrational to fear death because post-mortem nonexistence is analogous to pre-birth nonexistence, and since we don’t fear the latter, we shouldn’t fear the former. This is referred to as The Symmetry Argument.

I have found this to be unconvincing, because fear is a forward-directional emotion. I fear death because it’s in the future. I don’t fear things in the past.

Let's take going to the dentist as an example. Now I fear going to the dentist. In fact, I’d even say that I have a phobia. So if I have a dentist appointment next month, it's a certainty that I’m going to be afraid of it. But this doesn't mean that I’d be afraid of the last time I went. Of course I wouldn't be. It already happened! So even if post-mortem nonexistence is the same state as pre-birth nonexistence, the fact that death is in the future makes the difference.

Assuming that Lucretius’ argument fails, it means that it’s not irrational to fear death. But from that it doesn’t follow that fearing death is rational. So is it? I think so.

Fearing death is rational because it’s rational to fear things that are bad for you. And death is bad for you. (There’s a technical distinction between death as a state and as a transition, but I’m going to leave that out.) The reason why I think death is bad for you is because it robs us of future goods. If I die today, it means that I won’t continue doing philosophy and experiencing all the other things that I think are good.

However, I do think that death could be good for someone. Like if you’re a captured spy and you’re going to be slowly tortured to death, then killing yourself may be good for you. What determines if death is good for you or not is how it would affect your total amount of well-being. Your total amount of well-being is determined by your total positives minus your total negatives. What a positive and negative looks like depends on what theory of well-being you adhere to. Anyway, if dying at a particular time lowers your total amount of well-being compared to what it would be if you were not to die, then death is bad for you. Likewise, if dying at a particular time raises your total amount of well-being compared to what it would be if you were not to die, then death is good for you.

In my case, since my life is going well, death would be bad for me. Thus, I don’t want to die today or tomorrow. I don’t want to die for a really long time. That said, I may live till the day when continuing living would lower my total amount of well-being. If that day comes, then death would be good for me. And perhaps on that day, I’ll stop fearing it.

Morality and Religion

One of the reasons why I’m not Christian is because I disagree with its sexual ethics. Recently, I’ve been thinking about whether or not my objection to Christian sexual ethics gives me a sufficient reason to reject Christianity. I’m thinking yes, and the argument goes something like this:

  1. Arriving at a moral judgment after good philosophical reasoning provides a person with a sufficiently legitimate reason to believe in that moral judgment.
  2. I have arrived at the following moral judgment after good philosophical reasoning: Sodomy is morally permissible.
  3. Therefore, I have a sufficiently legitimate reason to believe that sodomy is morally permissible. This follows 1 and 2.
  4. It's rational for a person to reject a religion, if the religion advocates for a moral position that opposes the person’s moral judgment that she has a sufficiently legitimate reason to believe in.
  5. Christianity advocates for such an opposing position.
  6. Therefore, it is rational for me to reject Christianity. This follows from 4 and 5. 

Graduate School and Mental Health

I consider myself to be a mentally resilient person. Failures and setbacks don’t really get to me, and when they do, I bounce back reasonably fast. That said, I have to admit that grad school has significantly tested my limits. In the past four and a half years, I’ve gotten so many rejections from journals and conferences that I’ve seriously doubted my worth. It got so bad that I went to see a therapist. And it now seems like I'm not going to find a job this year, even though I applied to over 70.

That’s right. I applied to more than 70 jobs and none of them want me.

That’s a hard reality to accept. Of course I knew the job market was tough before going into the program, but I still feel incapable and hopeless. To be clear, I tried my hardest. I have never tried so hard at anything in my entire life. Moreover, I did everything I was supposed to do and then some. But it still wasn't enough.

One of the worst parts of this whole thing is that you’re competing against your friends, which creates internal emotional conflict. On the one hand, you want them to succeed, so you’re happy when they publish an article or get an interview. But, on the other hand, you want a job, so it’s simultaneously disheartening to hear their successes. It’s come to the point where I don’t want to look at their CVs, because I’m afraid of what I’ll find.

What's unfortunate is that mental health issues are not talked about enough on an official level. Perhaps it’s because people aren’t that open about their mental struggles or perhaps it’s because philosophy departments just don’t know how to deal with it. I don’t know. But I do know that I don't feel like I can discuss this topic with any professor in the department. I feel like it'd be crossing some professional boundary.

Having said all this, I don’t regret going to grad school. Despite all the hardships that I've endured, I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do with my life. I love philosophy, and I really want to be a professor. So I guess I’ll just keep going, hopefully with my head up.

On Death and Dying

I’ve probably thought more about death in the past year than I ever have in any other, and I’m not really sure why. Part of the reason may be because we discussed death in my intro to philosophy class over the summer. Part of it may be because I'm hoping that thinking about it will make it easier for me to accept that one day I will no longer exist. And part of it may be because I’ve been seeing signs of my friends and family getting older. My mom, for instance, has been experiencing pain in her leg and knee, which has been making it difficult for her to take steps.

It's been 3 years since my grandma's death and I think I'm starting to get used to not having her around. The house continues to feel quiet and empty, though. It's hard to believe that there used to be 7 people living here. I remember the TV used to be on often because we would watch different shows that came on at different times. My great-grandma loved watching The Price is Right. She used to get excited for the contestants: "Oh, is she going to win this car?!"

For as long as I can remember, my great-grandma lived in the bedroom downstairs. I assume it was because all the rooms on the 2nd floor were taken and because she couldn't walk very well. Despite her physical weakness, one day when I was in junior high, she slowly walked up to my room to see a picture of me and my date to a dance. I think I still have that photo somewhere.

Thinking about my grandma and my great-grandma makes me think about how a fall can be the beginning of the end. My great-grandma fell and broke her femur, which rendered her bedridden. It also meant that she had to move into a convalescent home, where she spent the last years of her life. I also remember seeing my grandma fall, but I don’t think there was any single fall that was responsible for her moving into a nursing home. Rather, I think it was one of many that together signaled that she was getting really old.

This is where my great-grandma fell, seen from my perspective as I peered down from my room.

This is where my grandma fell, seen from my perspective after I heard her call out for me. What's scary is that I almost didn't hear her because I had earphones in. I still feel guilty about that.

I went to the cemetery yesterday to visit their graves and, honestly, I don't prefer that method of mourning. It seems artificial to me for some reason. I prefer to mourn by thinking about them and writing down memories. Sometimes before I go to sleep, I think about them while making an odd praying gesture. Not really sure why I do it. Just makes me feel better, I guess.