Don’t “Other” Other People

Most people aren’t familiar with the idea of “othering,” but they are familiar with what it is. They’ve seen it. They’ve done it to other people, and they’ve had it done to them.

To “other” a group of people is to devalue their lives, welfare, and concerns. It’s not new, nor is it done only by humans. In their own way, lower animals do it too.

The reason it’s so common is that it’s hard-wired into our biology by evolution. Animals tend to help their genetic relatives, and they tend to fight or flee non-relatives. They use group membership as one way to identify their genetic relatives.

As a result, animals tend to help members of their group and to fight or flee non-members. Whether the animals are beetles, bats, chimps, or humans, it works the same.

The difference of humans is that we can recognize and understand what we’re doing. Unlike lower animals, we can choose not to do it.

You might think that bias applies only to groups like race or political party, but it can apply to any kind of group. As Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson observed in The Social Conquest of Earth:

“Experiments conducted over many years by social psychologists have revealed how swiftly and decisively people divide into groups, then discriminate in favor of the one to which they belong. Even when experimenters created the groups arbitrarily … participants always ranked the out-group below the in-group. They judged their ‘opponents’ to be less likable, less fair, less trustworthy, less competent.”

Now do a thought-experiment: Think of a group you dislike. It can be a political party, another race, another nation, or another religion. How do you feel about them?

Do you rate them as “less likable, less fair, less trustworthy, and less competent”? That’s your group bias talking: you have “othered” them. It prevents you from seeing them as they really are and from taking their concerns seriously. Even worse, it prevents members of different groups from cooperating for mutual benefit. Instead, they vilify and fight each other when rational people could make peace and work together.

Yes, some people actually are unfair, untrustworthy, and incompetent. But if you’ve othered all the members of their group, you won’t be able to distinguish the good from the bad. You will see only “the other.”

Othering people is especially dangerous when minds are clouded by misinformation and anger. It can lead to violence and can destroy good societies. We face that situation right now.

I don’t care which “side” you think you’re on. Don’t let your emotions overwhelm your reason. Stop and think.

Do you really believe that members of opposing group X are all homicidal maniacs who must be destroyed before they destroy you? That there’s no way to live in peace — or even better, to cooperate for mutual benefit?

That kind of grim situation doesn’t happen nearly as often as people lead themselves to believe — right before they embark on their own sprees of mindless destruction.

Stop and think. Please. You’re a human being. Don’t act like you’re just a stupid animal that can only hate and fight because that’s what its instincts tell it to do.

Don’t “other” other people.

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Be a Winner in 2021

Life is like a game of chess.

I was going to say “life is like a box of chocolates,” but apparently someone else has used that already.

In high school and college, I played a lot of chess. A chess game can end in two ways:

  • One player wins and the other loses. The winner gets 1 point. The loser gets none.
  • Nobody wins or loses, called a “draw.” Both players get one-half of a point. Draws occur when neither player can force checkmate, and in a few other situations.

Over the years, I discovered that there were two kinds of chess players.

The first kind of player wants to win. The late Bobby Fischer (1943-2008) was like that. He was fiercely aggressive on the chessboard. He once said “I like the moment when I break a man’s ego.” As you might guess, he was not a very nice guy. But he was one of the greatest chess players who ever lived.

The second kind of player hates to lose. That player takes a more passive approach to avoid losing. If it looks risky to try for a win, he won’t take the risk. He’ll try for a stalemate or some other way to get a draw.

Neither approach is right or wrong. Aggressive players like Fischer get most of the attention because they’re more interesting. Their moves are sometimes brilliant and unexpected. But many grandmasters have played passively and still won tournaments. They’re called “drawing masters” because they draw so many games.

Each player’s style reflects his or her own personality and values. One element of chess strategy is to force your opponent to play in ways with which he’s uncomfortable. You try to make an aggressive player defend, and you try to make a passive player attack.

And chess is like life. Some people want to win. Others hate to lose. Most are probably in the middle. It affects how they live.

My view of life matches my view of chess: “Not losing” doesn’t equal “winning.” Likewise, not dying isn’t the same thing as living.

But I can’t tell you the right approach for your life, any more than I can tell you the right approach for you to play chess. That depends on what you think and how you feel. How I feel only applies to me.

In 2021, you should live in the way that your heart tells you is right.

If you do that, then you’ll be a winner.

Note: Chess grandmaster Reuben Fine (1914-1993), who was also a psychoanalyst, wrote a good book on The Psychology of the Chess Player. It’s still in print.

Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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The Christmas Conundrum

(The photo shows the Japanese pop music group E-girls, which disbanded in 2020 but reunited for a Christmas farewell video.)

At Christmas, it’s natural to think of Jesus, whose life and example inspired the Christian faith. Christians believe that in addition to being a great man and moral teacher, Jesus was also God in human form.

That’s the most obvious disagreement between Christianity and Judaism. Personally, I think it’s much ado about a metaphor, since both faiths say that God is beyond human understanding. Would the “Sermon on the Mount” be any less true if its preacher were merely a great man with a noble vision? Hardly.

But there’s another difference that has more practical impact. It’s a difference in emphasis: What, exactly, does “the Golden Rule” tell us to do?

The version that most people know comes from the Christian Gospel of Matthew 7:12. Phrased in modern English, it’s “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

It refers to “others,” that is, to everyone. And it tells us to do good things.

Most people, including Jews, don’t know that Judaism has a slightly different version. It comes from the Talmud, in which the ancient Rabbi Hillel was challenged to define Judaism concisely. He replied, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary.”

Hillel’s version refers not to “others” in general, but to our neighbors. And it tells us to refrain from doing bad things.

It’s obvious that each faith has one half of the complete answer.

Christianity is universalistic. It emerged in an ancient world of competing religions and needed to attract members. It believes that everyone can be Christian and everyone should be Christian. It affirms our moral duties to all people, no matter what their religion, group, or nation.

Judaism is particularistic. It evolved in a small nation that was constantly in danger of annihilation by more powerful countries such as Babylonia and Rome. It does not seek converts. Like Christianity, it affirms our moral duties to all people. But it adds a proviso: We have a greater duty to “our neighbors” — family, community, and country — than we have to strangers on the other side of the planet.

Similarly, it’s not enough to do good things: we must avoid doing bad things. And it’s not enough to avoid doing bad things: duty often requires us to do good things.

So if you put it all together, you get the full answer:

  • Everyone’s welfare counts. Other things being equal, we should do good things for people and avoid doing bad things to them.
  • When people are connected to us by family, community, or in some other way, then other things are not equal. We might have a greater duty to them than to people in general — though we still owe the same basic respect and consideration to everyone.

Yes, everyone’s welfare counts: But if the welfare of your family doesn’t matter more to you than the welfare of total strangers, then I think there’s something wrong with you.

The Japanese do a pretty good job with both sides. They are welcoming to strangers, but fiercely loyal to their own people. And though few Japanese are Christian, they celebrate Christmas as a universalistic holiday. So did the E-girls. So do I.

Merry Christmas!

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Minding Our Own Business

I’m pretty sure that the Dalai Lama quote is fake, but it’s still true.

“Not my effing problem” can be a path not only to inner peace, but also to social peace.

Think for a moment about what it means to see everything in the world as “our problem.”

First, it’s incredibly conceited. It implies that we know better than everyone else what’s good for them and their societies. We are the smart ones and they are the dummies. In fact, we are so much smarter than they are that we have a right to force them to live as we think they should.

It also implies that we’re immensely powerful and have unlimited resources. If there’s a problem anywhere in the world, we not only know how to fix it, but we have the ability to fix it. The people whose lives and societies we “fix” should just shut up and do what we tell them. Then everything will be just fine.

It starts to sound like we think we’re God, since we’re responsible for the entire world and we have authority over it.

But we’re not God. We are people with limited knowledge, limited resources, and imperfect morality. We can’t fix every problem, nor do we have the right to do it.

And that leads to point two: it’s impractical for us to think we can fix everything. Finite creatures like us simply cannot do it. We can’t spend our lives running around the country or the world trying to “solve” what we think are problems by forcing our beliefs on people who don’t consider them problems.

If we do try to fix everything and force everyone else to obey, then only two things are guaranteed:

  • We ourselves will be unhappy. We’ve assigned ourselves an impossible task. We will be frustrated and angry at the people we’re trying to “help.” We will blame them, but we’ll also blame ourselves.
  • We’ll cause needless social conflict because people who have self-respect don’t like to be pushed around. They will be unhappy like we are, and they’ll be angry at us for our arrogance in assuming we are their masters.

In the words of British author C.S. Lewis:

“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive … those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

Let’s not torment each other. Some things that other people do are none of our business, even if we think they’re wrong.

Obviously, there are exceptions. But the default should be for us to leave other people alone to live their lives as they see fit. The result will be imperfect, but we and other people will be happier, while society and the world will be more peaceful and livable.

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Hope and History

A review of Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story, by Wilfred M. McClay

Originally published on May 25, 2019 here.

What is the purpose of history? Is it merely a record of facts—of dates and kings, wars and voyages? Or is it something more?

Evaluating a history textbook must begin with knowing what history is.

A nation’s history is more than just a list of facts to memorize. It weaves the facts into an intellectual and emotional tapestry that tells us who we are, what our lives are about, and what kind of people we should aspire to be. It should be:

  • Informative: Helping us understand the past by telling us what happened, when, and why.
  • Enlightening: Helping us understand the present by comparing it to the past.
  • Inspiring: Helping us develop moral character by learning stories of past heroism and villainy.
  • Supportive: Helping our countries flourish by legitimizing the social order.

In his History of Rome, the ancient Roman writer Livy explained those four goals in a way that eerily foreshadowed America’s current predicament:

My wish is that each reader will pay closest attention to how men lived, what their moral principles were, under what leaders and by what measures our empire was won; then how, as discipline broke down bit by bit, morality at first foundered, subsided in ever-greater collapse and toppled headlong in ruin—until the advent of our own age, in which we can endure neither our vices nor the remedies needed to cure them.

An honest account of the facts is essential, but it’s not enough. To survive, any country must believe that it is good (even if imperfect) and that it deserves to survive. Truthful and inspiring historical stories about the country’s origin, leaders, and ideals provide that foundation. Conversely, stories that are biased and negative tend to undermine the foundation.

Any history book must balance those goals against each other. Some books are unabashedly patriotic, such as Our Island Story in Great Britain and A Patriot’s History of the United States in America. Others are very negatively biased, such as Howard Zinn’s bestselling and influential People’s History of the United States, which depicts the United States from an enemy’s viewpoint, as an unrelenting criminal enterprise of genocide, racism, and exploitation.

McClay’s new textbook Land of Hope, on the other hand, strikes the right balance. It is optimistic without being jingoistic, acknowledging America’s mistakes without reading like a brief for the prosecution. It celebrates America’s achievements, but not uncritically: “celebration and criticism are not necessarily enemies.” And its goals are explicit:

To help us learn . . . the things we must know to become informed, self-aware, and dedicated citizens of the United States of America, capable of understanding and appreciating the nation in which we find ourselves, of carrying out our duties as citizens, including protecting and defending what is best in its institutions and ideals.

The most popular competing textbooks are Jill Lepore’s These Truths and James Fraser’s By the People. McClay’s book eschews Lepore’s globalist glibness and Fraser’s array of textbook-y features. But how does Land of Hope fare by the criteria of good history?

It Is Informative

Land of Hope gives an accurate account of America’s history that is undistorted by the selective emphasis and omission found in other textbooks. One key piece of evidence comes in McClay’s description of the U.S. Constitution, which:

… is not, for the most part, a document filled with soaring rhetoric and high-sounding principles. Instead, it is a somewhat dry and functional document laying out a complex system of boundaries, markers, and rules of engagement, careful divisions of function and power that provide the means by which conflicts that are endemic and inevitable to us, and to all human societies, can be both expressed and contained; tamed; rendered harmless, even beneficial. Unlike the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution’s spirit is undeclared, unspoken; it would be revealed not through words but through actions.

Implicit in McClay’s description is that the United States was influenced but not formed by Enlightenment rationalism. The Founders had studied the history of failed republics to learn what worked and what didn’t. And they were the heirs of a British legal and social tradition from which they learned that well-informed pragmatism was wiser than well-intentioned rhetoric.

Napoleon Bonaparte had dismissed England as “a nation of shopkeepers,” preoccupied with the practical issues of life instead of lofty ideals. Napoleon was wrong, and the British defeated him. The lofty ideals that led to the horror of the French Revolution had mostly been avoided in America by a Constitution designed for practical issues. McClay highlights that fact.

It Is Enlightening

Learning about our history reveals that many current quandaries are neither new nor unique. President Trump’s alternating use of provocation and conciliation seems strange until we learn that earlier presidents (like many world leaders) used the same strategy. McClay describes how Abraham Lincoln followed a similar path:

His initial thinking began to emerge more clearly in his eloquent First Inaugural Address on March 4, 1861. Its tone was, in the main, highly conciliatory. The South, he insisted, had nothing to fear from him . . . But secession was another matter. Lincoln was crystal clear about that: it would not be tolerated.

Compare that to President Trump’s inaugural address on January 20, 2017:

We, the citizens of America, are now joined in a great national effort to rebuild our country . . . Every four years, we gather on these steps to carry out the orderly and peaceful transfer of power, and we are grateful to President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama for their gracious aid throughout this transition. They have been magnificent.

That was the conciliation. “We” are joined in a national effort. The Obamas “have been magnificent.” And then comes the crystal clear:

Today’s ceremony, however, has very special meaning. Because today . . . we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the American people.

Apart from the tweeting, almost any of that could have been said in 1861 just as easily as it was now. By 2017, Washington had virtually seceded from the United States, and it was time for it to come back into the fold.

It Is Inspiring

Land of Hope is short on emotionally stirring tales, but the reason is obvious: it’s a textbook, not The Children’s Book of American Heroes. It says nothing about George Washington chopping down a cherry tree, Paul Bunyan creating the Grand Canyon, or Davy Crockett catching a bullet in his teeth (that was only done by actor Fess Parker in the movie version).

Instead, it tells factual stories about people who achieved great things. Quietly, humbly, and often without fanfare, they shaped our national character. Land of Hope portrays them not as saints or fanciful superheroes, but as prudent and courageous Americans trying to do their best.

One of the first would have been approved by the Greek philosopher Plato, who wrote that the only people who could be trusted with power were those who didn’t want it. George Washington, who led the American colonies to vanquish the mighty British army, became America’s first president. But he didn’t want the job:

Nearing the age of sixty, after enduring two grinding decades of war and politics in which he always found himself thrust into a central role in determining the direction of the country, he wanted nothing so much as to be free of those burdens . . . [but] if the task before the country was a great experiment on behalf of all humanity . . . how could he refuse to do his duty?

The only omission with which I disagreed was the story of Nathan Hale, an American soldier captured in 1776 by the British and executed as a spy. His final words, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country,” were echoed almost 200 years later when newly-inaugurated President John F. Kennedy called on Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

It Is Supportive

The final criterion of good national history is that it help our country flourish by legitimizing the social order. We don’t usually think of history as doing that, but its importance is evident when we consider books that do the opposite.

Take, for example, how Jill Lepore’s book portrays the United States and its origin. After noting correctly that “a nation is a people who share a common ancestry,” she claims “the fiction that [America’s] people shared a common ancestry was absurd on its face; they came from all over” — a statement that is technically true but highly misleading, since the vast majority were British. Then comes the indictment:

The nation’s founding truths were forged in a crucible of violence, the products of staggering cruelty, conquest and slaughter, the assassination of worlds . . . Against conquest, slaughter, and slavery came the urgent and abiding question, by what right?

That’s how Lepore sees America. If she didn’t, she wouldn’t have an endowed chair as a history professor at Harvard. But her view leads only to the question of whether America should be destroyed now or later.

Land of Hope presents our country’s history in an affirmative way that is more than just “technically true.” Founding Father Alexander Hamilton identified the stakes in Federalist 1. America is a great experiment to decide:

. . . whether societies of men are really capable of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.

Amid the tumult and hysteria of 2019, it’s tempting to say that the decision has yet to be made. But the American record, checkered like that of all great nations, shows the answer to Hamilton’s question is a qualified “yes, we can.”

Perfection exists only in Heaven. If the United States has sometimes fallen short of its heritage and its ideals, it has more often shown itself as a worthy heir and sturdy practitioner of both.

Land of Hope stands squarely in that American tradition.

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What To Do If Someone Dislikes You

What should you do if someone dislikes you?

The first step is simple and obvious:

Get over it.

People sometimes dislike us for all kinds of reasons that have nothing to do with us. Maybe we remind them of a bully in high school, or a woman who rejected them. Maybe they don’t like how we dress. Or maybe their personalities and ours simply don’t “click” with each other.

So we shouldn’t feel bad merely because someone dislikes us. If we know that we’re good people, and that we try to treat others decently, then it’s their loss if they don’t like us.

The second step is more difficult, and we shouldn’t become obsessed with it. But when people react to us positively or negatively, that’s feedback. Sometimes the feedback is meaningless, as when people dislike us for no particular reason. But sometimes it’s a clue that we’re doing something unhelpful to us.

Notice that I didn’t say “something wrong.” Our behavior can be unhelpful without being wrong. Maybe we interrupt people too much. Maybe we ignore them when we should pay attention. Maybe we annoy them in other ways of which we’re unaware.

For example, it annoys me a lot when sales clerks and other strangers call me by my first name. It feels rude to me. But I realize they mean no disrespect, and that they have no idea their behavior annoys me unless I tell them. If I grimace when they do it, they might ask about it. I’ve given them feedback. Then they can either change their behavior or not, but at least they’ve become aware of the issue.

We can do the same when we get feedback. In some cases, the feedback is meaningless. In other cases, it can draw our attention to some behavior that we might decide to change.

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If You Have Courage

Rudyard Kipling was a Nobel prize-winning British writer. He is best known today for writing The Jungle Book. His poem “If” has been a source of strength and inspiration to many people around the world. I can’t improve on it, so here it is:

If —

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream — and not make dreams your master;
If you can think — and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings — nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And — which is more — you’ll be a Man, my son!

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Read, and Use Common Sense

“Neither a borrower nor a lender be:
For loan oft loses both itself and friend;
And borrowing dulleth the edge of husbandry.”
     — “Hamlet” by William Shakespeare

One of the greatest crimes of contemporary schooling is that it keeps students ignorant of the vast wisdom embodied in their Western heritage. Instead, it indoctrinates them in the political fad of the moment — usually something stupid and destructive.

William Shakespeare‘s plays are not only great literature, but also contain many such nuggets of wisdom.

One such nugget appears in “Hamlet.” The character of Polonius advises his son Laertes that he should “neither a borrower nor a lender be.”

Of course, in business it sometimes does make sense to do one or the other. But for individuals, the burden of proof should be on the decision to borrow or lend money. If it’s truly justified, then we should do it. But we should need to be convinced that it is.

I take Polonius’s advice seriously. After grad school, I spent a number of years in debt, and I didn’t like it at all. It limited my freedom and caused me needless worry. For example, I was offered a job in Switzerland that I really wanted, but I had to turn it down because it didn’t pay enough. So now, I try to stay debt-free.

In addition, I never, ever loan money to family or friends. If they need money and I want to help, I give them the money — stating explicitly that it is a gift and I do not expect to be paid back. I tell them that I will never think about it again. And I never do.

That way, we won’t feel uncomfortable or avoid each other. If at some future time they decide to give me some money, then that’s great but I do not expect it.

So I guess that the morals of this blog post are two:

  • Be wary of borrowing or loaning money, especially with friends or family.
  • Read some Shakespeare and other classic literature of Western civilization.
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Humility and Tolerance Go Together

Name an issue: Immigration. Abortion. Free speech. Lockdowns. Riots. Race relations.

Many people are absolutely sure that they know what the problems and solutions are. If you don’t agree with them, then they think you must be ignorant, stupid, or just plain evil. They know better than you, not only about how to run society but also about how to run your life.

Unlike those super-smart people who are always right, I’ve been wrong a few times in my life. And I know it.

As a result, I’m reluctant to impose my moral views on anyone else. “Live and let live” is my motto.

If I disapprove of what someone is doing, I realize that I might be wrong. Unless it’s crystal clear that they’re causing grievous and unjustified harm, I’ll stay out of it.

That was the attitude of Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), one of America’s Founders. In a 1738 letter to his parents, he wrote:

“… a man must have a good deal of vanity who believes that all the doctrines he holds are true, and that all he rejects are false. And perhaps the same may be justly said of every sect, church and society of men when they claim infallibility …

… all that should be expected from me is to keep my mind open to conviction, to hear patiently and examine attentively whatever is offered me for that end; and if after all I continue in the same errors, I believe your usual charity will induce you rather to pity and excuse than blame me.”

The world would be happier and more peaceful if we could all adopt such a tolerant and rational attitude toward disagreement.

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Virtue Is Just Doing What’s Right

Virtue has kind of a bad reputation these days. People think it means being prudish or acting superior to everyone else.

But real virtue just means behaving in ways that help you, other people, and society. It supports human happiness and well-being.

In the same way as we can practice tennis, we can practice virtue. The more we practice it, the more natural and automatic it becomes for us. We get better at it, and doing the right thing becomes easier.

When he was a young man, American Founding Father Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) made a list of 13 virtues that he wanted to practice. His goal was daunting:

“I wished to live without committing any fault at any time … But I soon found I had undertaken a task of more difficulty than I had imagined.”

Franklin spent the rest of his very busy life to get better at the virtues on his list. The only one he found difficult was humility. He wrote that as soon as he got better at it, he felt proud of himself and therefore lacked humility. He listed the virtues in his Autobiography:

Virtue What It Means
Temperance Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
Silence Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
Order Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
Resolution Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
Frugality Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
Industry Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
Sincerity Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
Justice Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
Moderation Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
Cleanliness Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.
Tranquility Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
Chastity Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or injury of yours or another’s peace or reputation. (“Venery” is an obsolete word for sexual relations.)
Humility Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

It’s a challenge for anyone to try living by Franklin’s list of virtues. Doing it perfectly is impossible. But life isn’t about being perfect, it’s about getting better. Just like Benjamin Franklin, we can work on the areas we need to improve. If we do it, we can be happier and can make the world a better place.

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