Philosophy, Spotlight

Rebecca Roache Discusses Futuristic Torture

Art by Angela Su

One month ago I wrote a particularly sarcastic, critical review of philosopher Rebecca Roache’s ideas on futuristic torture and how it might affect our treatment of prisoners. Like a true philosopher Dr. Roache replied with a level head and agreed to do a followup interview.

From her previous work I was convinced Dr. Roache believes criminals must suffer, and I asked her seven of the toughest questions I could think of to call that into question. Her answers (and my response) are below.

André: You’ve clarified that you don’t condone these futuristic punishments. But almost all responses read you as supporting strong, unpleasant punishments—at least in general, if not these specific punishments. Do you think your interview and blog post come across as pro-punishment? Why do you think people read it that way?

Rebecca Roache: I suspect that part of it is because the distinction between philosophically analysing an idea and endorsing it gets lost when provocative philosophical research is reported in the media.

Something similar happened in relation to another paper I worked on (about engineering humans to mitigate climate change—there’s an interview about it here), although the lead author on that paper, Matthew Liao, bore the brunt of that attention. Another point is that, as I wrote in the blog post clarifying my views on this, I think the most interesting philosophical issues about punishment and technology relate to retribution, so we’re focusing on those issues. By ‘focusing on those issues’ I mean that in most (but not all) cases, we’re trying to see the issues from a retributivist’s point of view, and considering what the attitude of such a person should be towards certain interesting interactions between punishment and technology. If anyone takes that point of view to be my own, then that’s going to make me look like a strong retributivist.

A: When discussing a hypothetical unethical scenario, should a philosopher need to disclaim that they’re not in favor of it? Does disclaiming that add anything of value?

RR: For the author, disclaiming that they don’t endorse ethically objectionable views is valuable assuming that they don’t enjoy being taken personally to endorse those views, and assuming that they don’t want to encourage others to adopt those objectionable views by appearing to support them. Perhaps doing so is also valuable in that it might help prevent people viewing philosophy as a dangerous or amoral pursuit. As to whether philosophers should prudentially disclaim that they’re not in favour of these things, I think it would be useful to draw a distinction between clearly setting out the motivation for considering an idea, and adding some sort of explicit disclaimer to their work. Doing the latter would be overkill, I think: anyone who is misinterpreted having done the former has cause to complain if they’re misinterpreted by those who don’t read their work properly.

A: While some commentators read you as specifically endorsing futuristic torture, the main objection I raised was more basic: in considering each future technology, you seem to take it as a given that criminals should suffer. You repeatedly consider the limits on how much they should suffer, or the appropriate way to make them suffer—but for all the detail devoted to those questions, you spend very little time asking whether they must suffer at all. Do you believe justice requires suffering?

RR: Part of this question, I take it, is answered by my previous point about being interested in retributive issues. Retributivists believe that criminals should suffer some sort of deprivation, and that this deprivation should be proportional to the crime committed. Whether and when that deprivation must involve suffering is an interesting and difficult question, and is not one that we ignore. The answer, in part, depends on your definition of ‘suffering’. Is a vandal made to suffer when she is punished by being made to clean up her mess? Do people suffer when they are made to pay fines as punishment for parking violations? Or when they are placed under curfew, or simply asked to apologise? If they do, then we’re using a very broad understanding of ‘suffering’; one that roughly equates to ‘being made to do something that you’d rather not do’, or perhaps, ‘having one’s freedom or choice restricted’. Pure consequentialists about punishment will have no problem answering this sort of question: inflicting suffering is justifiable only to the extent that it is effective in bringing about the desired consequences of punishment. The question is more difficult (and hence more interesting) for retributivists. How can retributivists be humane while also issuing proportional punishments, especially in the case of criminals who have caused enormous physical and/or mental suffering to their victims? I’m still thinking about this.

A: On a related note, you said many rebuttals distorted your views by framing you as pro-futuristic-torture (which you aren’t). But as I review the responses to your work, many don’t seem to make that mistake at all. Rather, they seem shocked by how casually you (seem to) assume we must make criminals suffer. To many of these commentators, it doesn’t matter whether you prefer futuristic methods or current ones, more severe suffering or lesser suffering—they believe that our current justice systems are already too punitive, and that the ethical move is to focus on rehabilitation. 

Since your work does not focus heavily on rehabilitation, are they really then distorting your view? Do you feel that this is a valid objection to your approach to these technologies?

RR: As I’ve said, a lot of this work involves considering a retributive view. That involves starting from the premise that the aim of punishment is to impose a deprivation. I am less interested philosophically in rehabilitation than in retribution. I don’t mean that I think rehabilitation is unimportant, just that it doesn’t raise the most interesting philosophical issues. One rehabilitation-related issue that I do raise in the paper is the question of whether radically extended lifespans might improve rehabilitation rates: it might be possible, over the course of a centuries-long prison sentence, to reform and rehabilitate the sort of criminals who are currently thought to be impossible to reform and rehabilitate (say, 80-year-old psychopathic serial killers). But, even here, it’s the retribution-related questions that are most interesting, such as: Would it be fair to keep a criminal in prison for hundreds of years on the off-chance that we could reform him? Might that result in a disproportionately severe punishment, especially given (at least initial) empirical uncertainty about whether such reformation attempts would be successful?

As for whether I casually assume we should make criminals suffer, this is far from being the case. This is probably the aspect of the paper that I find myself constantly returning to and thinking hardest about, so there is nothing casual about my views here. I’m not a strong retributivist, in that I don’t believe that retributive aims are the only relevant aims of punishment, and I’m not in favour of ‘sinking to the level of the criminals’ by inflicting ‘eye for an eye’ type punishments—but neither am I dismissive of retribution. I have the intuition that a punishment system that focused purely on rehabilitation or other desired consequences would be naïve, unsatisfactory, unjust, and likely to backfire. (More on this in my answer to your final question, below.) What counts as an appropriate level of deprivation for criminals, and why, is something I’m still considering.

A: Long before this interview you wrote a more speculative blog post about these technologies. That blog post got a similar negative reaction. You later said you wrote it as an emotional response after reading about a terrible child murder, and that it wasn’t balanced philosophical work. But now that you’ve done extensive work on the subject, the recent interview seems to be an expansion of the same basic ideas—and received almost identical criticism.

Does your Aeon interview then reflect a balanced philosophic evaluation? Why does it arouse the same basic anti-retribution reactions as the earlier, less developed piece?

I think that the problem with that first blog post is that I didn’t make adequately clear the issue I was interested in exploring. Part of the reason I didn’t make it clear is that it wasn’t clear in my own mind—although it is, I think, revealed in some of my remarks on the blog and in the comments that follow it.

That issue is as follows. An important retributive idea is that punishment should be proportional: it should fit the crime. There are some crimes, such as torturing and then murdering a child, to which it is difficult to respond with a truly proportional punishment, given laws about what punishments can be inflicted on criminals. In our current UK justice system, the most severe punishment available is a very long prison sentence. There is, I think, a very obvious sense in which being subjected to a prison sentence of thirty years is less of a deprivation than being subjected, as a four-year-old, to prolonged torture, denial of basic needs, and eventual murder by the people who owe you protection and tenderness (as was Daniel Pelka in the case I considered in the blog).

This ‘very obvious sense’ has to do with my hunch that, if offered a choice between the two, nobody would choose the latter. The sheer length of the prison sentence inflicted in such cases is perhaps partly due to an attempt to translate a shorter period of intense suffering into a longer period of lesser suffering in order to make the punishment fit the crime—but I think this case, given that nobody would choose Daniel’s fate over that of his murderers, illustrates that it’s not always possible to perform such a translation. If it were, we should expect people to be ambivalent about which options to choose, or perhaps to have a roughly 50:50 split between those who would choose Daniel’s fate and those who would choose his murderers’ punishment.

These reflections suggest that Daniel Pelka’s murderers are not receiving a proportional punishment for their crime: their deprivation is less than his. Once, there existed options of more severe punishment methods, such as the death penalty or the infliction of physical pain, but such methods are outlawed in the UK because they are viewed as inhumane. A long prison sentence is the severest available punishment that is currently deemed humane (and hence permitted) in the UK justice system, and so retributivists must just accept that some very serious crimes are not punished proportionately. But, what if technology could offer means to increase punishment severity without immediately entering the domain of inhumane punishment? Would pure retributivists—and, again, I’m not one—be committed to endorsing such punishments? My initial sense is that they would. And deciding that they would is about as far as I got with that initial blog post.

Since writing that blog post, however, I have realised that things are less simple than they might initially appear. Using technology to tinker with current punishment methods might certainly change them, but it is not obvious how these changes affect the severity of those punishments, or at what point we cross the line (if there is one, and if we have not already crossed it with our current methods) between what is humane and what is not. I suspect that much of what we mean by ‘humane’ is ‘familiar’: consider that one common definition of ‘inhumane’ takes it to involve ‘unusual’ punishment. This makes it appropriate to question the humanity of our existing methods as well as novel ones, since it’s surely possible for a punishment method to be both inhumane and familiar, and for inhumane methods to become familiar over time without thereby growing more humane.

It’s actually quite horrifying that our current system allows people to be locked up when they are very young and never allowed out of prison alive. If it were possible to use technology to achieve the aims of punishment (whatever they are) humanely (whatever that is) and within a short period of time, so that criminals did not spend decades behind bars, then doing that would be better (for the individuals and for society) than locking people up for significant portions of their lives.

Whether it is possible—and what such a punishment would even look like—is a difficult question to answer. But, as a first shot, imagine the possibility of a drug that could induce in criminals an intense experience of empathy for the victim and remorse for the crime, such that these experiences were both morally appropriate responses to the crime committed, and sufficiently unpleasant for the criminal that retributivists would be satisfied that the experience of using such a drug constituted a deprivation comparable to a prison sentence. Perhaps—and I’m not certain of the answer here—giving such a drug to criminals would be more humane than sending them to prison. Perhaps criminals could be given the choice between going to prison for a long period of time or taking such a drug. Perhaps their victims, or the relatives of their victims, could have some say in what punishment method is used.

A: You’ve said that you are not a strong retributivist, but you add, “but I think the idea of desert is important.” Can you explain the basis for the retributive concept of deserved suffering? Clearly desert can be a source of consolation to victims (although some victims even of violent crimes speak against desert). But do criminals truly “deserve” punishment, or is that just the conceit of emotions running high after a crime?

RR: Desert is important not only in the context of punishment, but in the context of our interactions with each other more generally.

Let’s start by considering its relevance to punishment. Suppose that we’re all consequentialists about punishment, and that we’re not concerned about desert at all: our sole intention in inflicting punishment is to bring about certain consequences, such as deterrence, rehabilitation, etc. It might be that the most effective way to bring about those consequences would involve doing things like framing innocent people for crimes they didn’t commit, in order to make a public show of ‘punishing’ them and deterring others. Or sending serial parking violators to prison for many years so that we can be absolutely sure of reforming them.

If such a system were widely implemented, I’m not sure it could properly be called a punishment system at all. In fact, if we don’t care about desert and if all we’re concerned about are consequences—specifically, preventing criminal behaviour—why wait until people actually commit crimes before interfering with them? Why not, instead, take steps to prevent people from committing crimes before they offend, if we have reason to think it likely that they will do so?

Consider that a famous study links maltreatment of children who have a certain genotype to an increased risk of anti-social behaviour in adulthood. If we’re concerned about preventing crime, why not proactively incarcerate maltreated children with the relevant genotype in order to ensure that they don’t go on to commit crimes? Social workers could take maltreated, traumatised children straight out of their abusive homes, give them a genetic test, and immediately imprison them for life if they turned out to have the relevant genotype. This could be an easy, effective way to reduce crime.

Even so, I hope you’d agree that this idea is abhorrent, and the reason it is abhorrent has to do with desert.

Desert is not just about inflicting punishment on those who have done wrong, but also about not interfering with those who have done nothing wrong. Maltreated children do not deserve to be imprisoned when they have done nothing wrong, even if there are good reasons to believe that they will commit crimes in the future.

The point I am making here is that a society of people who cared about preventing crime but who did not care about desert would be terribly dystopic. Those who emphasise the consequentialist aspects of punishment generally also care about desert, at least implicitly: where achieving a desired consequence (deterrence, reform, etc.) must involve inflicting a deprivation (such as a prison sentence or a fine) on someone, consequentialists generally hold that society should restrict itself to inflicting deprivations only on those who have committed crimes. That is, the deprivations necessary to ensure deterrence and so on should be inflicted on those who deserve to suffer such deprivations; those who have not acted wrongly deserve to be left in peace. Desert, then, is important to consequentialists as well as to retributivists.

When I say that I think desert is important, I mean that I think desert must play a central role in any system of punishment. More generally, it plays a central role in our interactions with each other that have nothing to do with punishment. We apologise to those who deserve our apologies. We reward those who deserve reward. We thank those who deserve our thanks. Apology, reward, and gratitude are—like punishment—built around the concept of desert. Life would be very different if we rejected the notion of desert.

Philosopher Rebecca Roache. Photo via Oxford.

Commentary

Has Dr. Roache answered all the objections to her work? I don’t think so, but it is clear that her interest in the topic is far more thoughtful than the original interview made it seem.

There are questions I’d like to see her engage more deeply: for instance, when she credits criticism to her audience not understanding philosophical analysis, she seems to neglect that the audience in question was that of Aeon Magazine, a philosophy-heavy outlet with an intellectual readership. Many of that site’s commenters made very thoughtful, careful points that deserve to be treated seriously. Likewise, I find it dubious whether we can force criminals to experience “deprivation,” as Dr. Roache says, without acknowledging that we are making them suffer. It seems hard to imagine any form of mandatory deprivation that does not entail suffering.

But the main cause of outrage—that Dr. Roache was apparently advocating high-tech torture of prisoners—seems misplaced. She’s clearly interested in these issues from the abstract perspective of what they tell us about our views on justice.

Personally I’m most interested in her take on just desert. “Deserving” punishment means, to me, the somewhat icky idea that bad people must suffer. Roache points out that desert also means innocent people must not. That’s an excellent and oft-forgotten point; but I also think the two ideas can be treated separately. If you believe the innocent deserve to be left to live their lives in peace—as everyone other than dictators does—you are not automatically committed to the idea that criminals must pay a price in pain. We can have fairness without revenge.

The reality is that not all crimes can be made up for in eye-for-eye fashion, so imagining more complex revenges is not fruitful. Adding more years to a prison sentence—even centuries—is not a way to even it out with a particularly horrific crime. In the Middle Ages we tried to even out such crimes with superbly horrific punishments, like being doused alive in boiling water, being burned at the stake or being drawn and quartered. But these gruesome fines, which give a guttural sense of satisfaction, are not permitted under our prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment. That alone ought to tell us that “getting even” shouldn’t be permitted in general.

This followup interview has given me a much clearer idea of Dr. Roache’s intentions in her research, but no clear idea of her personal views on her subject matter. It’s obvious she doesn’t advocate torture, but not obvious what she does advocate. She’s very careful to pull back questions of justice, punishment and desert to the level of their philosophic interest, and not to comment on what she personally feels is the right course. That’s understandable for an academic discussing a sensitive topic, but I find myself wanting more from our ethicists. If someone’s discussing torture, I want to know where they stand. I’d hope that any serious depiction of futuristic sci-fi torture is meant purely to condemn our worst impulses, but Dr. Roache refuses to go that far.

I originally labelled Dr. Roache as a “bad philosopher” dealing with a bad question. Do I still think that? Our interactions since my original piece have made it clear that Rebecca Roache is a thoughtful person and a committed academic—everything one could ask of a philosopher. But her answers to all my questions also give me the sense that she essentially believes punishment, in some form, is a necessary part of justice. I understand that she sincerely wrestles with that idea, and she’s carefully avoided committing to it; but that only makes me feel that she’s had her gut instinct challenged, and is now uncertain of her moral compass.

I suspect that I’ll take great interest in Rebecca Roache’s continued work on this subject. But when she does finally reveal her conclusions—if she does reveal them—I also suspect I’ll disagree.

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Mexico, Photographs, Religion, Travel

Easter is a Big Deal in Mexico (Photo of the Week)

This week is Holy Week, and yesterday (Holy Thursday) I walked downtown… to find the Central Historic District completely transformed. There’s a small grassy park in front of the Church of St. Francis of Assisi, which is normally an empty, lazy place for teenagers to sit and chat and a few old men to read their newspapers. Instead, I could barely get into the square—food stands lined every pathway and paved area while crowds of people made their way toward church. Standing on a stone block, I managed to get above the crowd and capture this image:

Templo de San Francis de Asisi. Photo by André.

Yes, that is a Nacho stand in front of a church! Which is a brilliant idea that every church should implement. Also Hot Cakes, but who chooses hot cakes over nachos? Anyway, in Catholic doctrine I believe there’s a rule against eating anything just before or after taking the Host at Communion, so I’m not sure how Holy these Holy Thursday vendors are. Sort of the like the meat sellers outside that Thai Buddhist temple. My favorite picture is from behind the Church, in a little walled courtyard. This one officially gets the “Photo of the Week” title:

Families sitting on a fountain. Photo by André.

The alley alongside the church had become a sort of open air bazaar:

There are always some vendors here, but never like this. Photo by André.

I also met a smiling woman selling pan de nata, “cream bread,” a traditional treat for Easter:

Pan de Nata. Photo by André.

Each pan is decorated with candied fruit slices forming either lilies or a cross:

Close up. Photo by André.

The doña opened up a bag so I could smell it. It has a rich, almost fermented smell plus the scent of the sesame seeds. I bought one for 25 pesos, or about US $2 and had some later that night. It’s incredibly sweet, definitely fresh baked and the fruit is the best part. And Mamá, if you’re reading this… Happy Easter!

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The Heroic Life, Travel

How do you practice for a heroic life?

I write often about the idea of pursuing the heroic life: a life lived for high ideals, with a sense of purpose, and ultimately a life that changes the world.

But a number of people have asked me if there’s a practice to the heroic life: if you decide you want to live it, what should you do?

This question always startles me, because to me there has always been one clear answer for how to live heroically: go on a journey.

If you want to lead a heroic life, travel.

This is not the only way. There are many, many ways. But if you’re looking for a simple practice that will lead you to that sense of purpose, the answer is a journey.

Photo by José Cuervo Elorza

Tales of heroism are always tales of journeys, and there’s a reason for this. It’s because inner strength can’t just be given to you; it has to be learned through trials and experience. And a journey is the surest way to get continuous, long term, unpredictable human experiences that will challenge you and change you.

In stories, the hero must always go on a journey to develop the qualities needed to save the day. If they didn’t need that experience, then they could just meet a wise man early in the story who told them everything they need to know. The entire middle part of the story, where they try and fail and learn and grow, could just be deleted. They’d listen to the wise person and go directly to saving everyone. Then on to happily ever after.

But that isn’t how inner strength is discovered in literature or real life. And it’s also why the heroic life cannot be taught in schools, colleges, churches or temples: a lecture cannot replace the hands on experience of a challenging journey. A journey takes you outside of familiar surroundings and becomes instantly more immersive and thus more transformative.

No matter where I go, there’s a certain percentage of people who yearn for a life full of meaning. They’re uncomfortable because they’re stuck in a workaday life that compromises either their ideals or their sense of purpose. Unfortunately, many of them tell me they feel lost and unsure of how to start. In many cases that’s because they’re looking for their life to change without actually striking out toward something new. If you don’t change your surroundings, it’s very difficult to change anything else.

From the beginning I’ve written that there are four tenets to the heroic life. They are: to accept that you have a purpose in life, which you yourself must create; to choose your ideals and put them before all else; to pursue your purpose and your art with passion, until you can do amazing things; and to travel.

If you don’t know your purpose, your ideals, or your art: go on a journey. A journey will lead you to discover these truths about yourself, and how to live them, with an incredible rate of success.

There are many benefits to the practice of a journey:

  • You learn to make friends easily.
  • You become self reliant, overcoming obstacles far from your support network of familiar faces.
  • You learn firsthand that there is good in people everywhere you go. You learn to trust intelligently, and to be generous and open to strangers.
  • You develop a better instinct about who to trust and who not to.
  • You overcome prejudices and misconceptions. You start to see what unites all of us.
  • You learn new skills constantly, and you get better at learning.
  • Things that once seemed impossible now start to look merely like a matter of practice.
  • You get good at making quick, smart decisions in challenging circumstances.
  • You learn who you truly are and who you want to be.

A journey can take many forms. It can be a short journey, of 50 or 100 miles. It can be done by car, bus or plane. It can be around the world and last years, or it can be a road trip that lasts weeks. You can go entirely by foot, like Nate Damm; or refuse to fly like Niall Doherty. You might choose a destination or you might just wander.

It doesn’t matter what form your journey takes. Everyone’s journey is as good as everyone else’s. As long as you leave your familiar surroundings and face some element of the unknown, you are on a true journey.

Ultimately that journey will force you to change. Parts of you will dissolve away, and the parts that remain will become stronger. That’s why a journey always reveals your ideals and your purpose: because they are the one part of you that stays constant when everything else is changing.

If you want to journey together, I have 120 miles left in Texas and I welcome companions. We can bicycle together for a few days. It will happen this summer or fall. Leave a comment or email me at andre@roguepriest.net and we’ll start to plan. This is an experience that anyone can have and I’m happy to share it with you.

But it doesn’t matter if you come with me or do it some other way. Just journey. Journey and you will find yourself.

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Mexico, Photographs, Travel

Mi Perro Favorito (Photo of the Week)

This week I have several photos, but the first one is the winner.

Perro! Photo by André.

This dog lives several doors down from our house in San Luis Potosí. He’s always outside. He barks angrily at everyone who goes past, but I made him into a friend and now he’s nice to me. As I approach he hops up so I can pet him through the fence. Sometimes I bring treats.

I don’t know his name, so I just call him mi perro favorito.

Often when I walk past him I’m on my way to Tequis, short for Tequisquiapam, the local park:

Jardín Tequisquiapam. Photo by André.

The park is only 3 blocks from our house and it has some of the best street food in the evening. The monument is of a woman with two niños and the inscription reads, Homage to the Being Most Beloved, so you can guess who it’s of.

I’m not sure why the park is Tequisquiapam and not Tequisquiapan, which is how most Nahuatl place names end. But I’ve seen it spelled the other way in places, so it may simply be regional.

The monument was built by the Lion’s Club. At the edge of the park is the Centro Educativo de Montessori—a Montessori school—and two coffee shops. So to all the people who say “Mexico is dangerous,” I present Exhibit A.

(It’s not so much that we’re in a bougie area, although that’s true; it’s that half of the entire city is about this upscale. San Luis Potosí is a peaceful town, a state capital, with affluent citizens, lots of young professionals and a police force that basically does its job. Not every city in Mexico is like this—but it’s definitely not the only one.)

My favorite part of the park is this sign:

If I could I would! Photo by André.

The sign reads, “If I could do it I would! AND YOU—? Are you gonna do it or what?”

And this is why I don’t have a dog of my own.

Taking these photos has proved to be a challenge; it’s just not my instinct to whip out a camera everywhere I go. And you need to take a lot of pictures to get a few good ones. However, I have learned that the camera allows me to talk to strangers, asking them if I can take their picture and then making small talk. That gives me more Spanish practice, and more photo opportunities, so for now at least I’ll keep it up.

What questions do you have about San Luis Potosí? Let me know and I’ll do my best to answer!

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Adventure, Bicycling, The Great Adventure, The Heroic Life, Travel

This is what I’m doing, here’s why I’m doing it, and I want you to join me

I’ve always believed in heroism. By heroism I mean the idea that a small group of people can have a tremendous effect on the world, that we can do great things and that the world is better when we do them.

More than that, I believe in adventure. I believe that you can go on a real journey and discover, in the process, not only yourself but your calling in life, your highest beliefs, and how you fit meaningfully into the world.

And heroism often comes from an adventure like that.

Everyone has an art, a skill, a purpose in life. But most of us feel like we’re lost and wandering. The irony is that by actually wandering—by leaving behind the familiar and surrounding yourself with new people and places—you put your calling in life into much clearer focus.

All travelers feel this to some degree. It’s impossible to change your surroundings without also changing the way you think. Parts of you fall away as you’re forced to abandon your assumptions. The parts that remain become stronger. You gain a more definite sense of self, one that you’ve forged on your own, on a journey.

Journeying together. Photo by Esteban.

That’s why I started my own journey. For me, it’s a calling to South America. I’m going there slowly, bit by bit, on foot and on bike. For someone else it might be North America, or Europe, or Kamchatka. It might be by train or motorcycle. It’s not that I need South America or a bicycle to discover myself. It’s that the journey, wherever you start and wherever you go, is the great spiritual practice. To travel is to transform—it is meditation without the monastery.

Is this heroism? No. Not on its own. But it prepares you. You become more willing  to be the first to act, to stand up and speak out for your principles. On a journey like this, you are on heroism’s trail. You find its spark, and that spark is generosity, and selflessness, and sacrifice. And most of all it’s the pursuit of your own excellence, of your own potential.

As the journey remakes you, you begin to do great things.

That’s why I accept companions on my adventure. I want other people to feel firsthand how even a small leg of a journey can so powerfully transform you. Not everyone is ready to go a thousand miles or more, but I believe that joining for just a short distance has a very real effect.

So I’m inviting you to join me.

This summer or fall, I pick up where I left off in Texas and head toward the border town of Laredo. That means I’ll have about 120 miles to go by bicycle. This is completely the US side of the border, and it will be delightful. It will be my final leg in the US.

This leg could be done in as little as two days or as long as four. We can set the pace to accommodate everyone who wants to come. You don’t have to be an experienced bicyclist, and the gear you’ll need is very basic.

If you want to spend a few days trying out the heroic life with me, this will be the last chance that doesn’t require travel outside the US. It’s a good way to experience the life of adventure, travel and self-challenge that I write about.

Bicycle adventure. Photo by Esteban.

Are you interested in joining me for this leg? Leave a comment and let’s start dreaming. What do you want this trip to be like?

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My book Lúnasa Days is available in paperback and on Kindle. Get your copy here.

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Lúnasa Days, Writing

Why Won’t There Be a Sequel to Lúnasa Days?

Yesterday I detailed my writing plans for 2014, including announcing a new fiction project (with demons!). Several people have asked me if there will ever be a sequel to Lúnasa Days.

There will not be.

There are a number of reasons for this. The biggest is that Lúnasa Days was always planned as a stand-alone piece. I really don’t believe in taking a one-shot story and tacking on a sequel, even if the story is popular; I think too many bad sequels have been made that way. The finished novella would have looked very different if it was building up to a longer story arc. Instead, it ends on a purposefully open note with no implied next step for any of the characters. That was on purpose.

Another reason why I won’t create  a sequel is the nature of Lúnasa Days itself. I knew I was picking a difficult tale to tell. The main character is a polytheist on a bicycle, so I accepted that readers and critics would assume it was autobiographical no matter what. (It’s really not.) And since it’s a fairly humane, literary work I knew it would be painful to write and require many revisions. That also came true.

The result is that finishing that novella was very much a case of “art from adversity.” The book became personal and difficult to finish. I’d like to think that’s the sign of a good book, but it also means it reflects a moment in time which is now passed. Like all lost relationships, it’s best to move on.

Of course, I realize that this is little comfort to anyone who wanted more with the same characters. The only complaint I’ve heard about the book is that it leaves you wanting more. As a reader myself I can understand that pain, although for a literary work I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing.

So, as much as I like Bailey and eventually learned to like Emily, any future adventures of theirs—which would surely be separate and not together—must go unchronicled.

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If you haven’t read it yet, Lúnasa Days is available in paperback and on Kindle. Get your copy here.

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Writing

What I’m Writing These Days

Having released Lúnasa Days, a few people have asked me what I’m working on next. The answer is “several things,” but until recently I wasn’t sure which ones were priorities. A big part of my sabbatical in Mexico is focusing on my writing, and over the last few weeks I’ve not only written but assembled a clearer plan. So, while definitely still subject to change, here’s a rough idea of what you can expect next.

Fiction

While I have both fiction and nonfiction projects in the works, fiction is my first priority. I have many ideas I’d love to develop, but I had to choose one to painstakingly outline, storyboard, write and publish.

So I chose the one I’m most excited about.

The book starts with one simple question: How bad would things have to get in Medieval Europe before the Pope authorized demonic magic?

The answer delves into the lives of knights who have lost their faith, friars who renounce their vows, virgin warriors of the Church, damned tomes of ancient spells, and a supernatural enemy devouring whole kingdoms.

The first chapter wipes Portugal completely off the map. Things get worse from there.

This story will be told as a series, with each episode following the arc of one character or group of characters as world-changing events unfold. The first tale follows an underpaid soldier as he’s dropped, by the dark arts, far behind enemy lines—knowing that he’ll go straight to Hell if he’s killed before he can find a priest to confess his sins.

I don’t have a title for this series yet, but I’m wide open to suggestions. I want to finish three whole episodes before I send any to press, which I hope will happen by mid-2014.

Nonfiction

Increasingly I want to take my work in the direction of serious philosophy and the effects of real life adventure. At present that involves two projects.

1. Philosophy of Adventure

Last fall, I released a preview of my long-requested book about adventure. I received extensive reader feedback on that preview version, including dozens of responses to an online survey that closed December 31. Thanks to that robust feedback, I’m reworking and expanding the book.

Originally, the book was titled Heart of Adventure. I was never totally in love with that title. It seemed better than a troped Art of Adventure, but somehow not quite right. Now I’m leaning more toward a plain, simple The Philosophy of Adventure.

Again, I’m open to title suggestions or your votes between those options.

2. My Own Story

The other nonfiction project is autobiographical. It was pointed out to me that just the first leg of my Journey–bicycling the Mississippi River–is a huge adventure by most people’s standards, and that I have dozens of stories from those hazy months. It got me really excited about writing the story of that first leg as a standalone tale, leaving it open to sequels as I reach new milestones. I can’t wait to start outlining.

But I plan to try something new with this one. Instead of indie publishing it, for the first time I’m going to pitch a book proposal to the big names. I’m interested in getting a literary agent—nothing drains me more than handling the business end of writing myself—and I think this would be the ideal project to shop to agents. An agent would then, in turn, pitch it to big publishing houses.

The time frame for the nonfiction projects is less certain than the fiction series. I would expect the tale of my bike ride to come out if and only if someone has interest in publishing it; and the Philosophy of Adventure book to come out around the end of 2014. Both are much lower priorities than the fiction work right now.

Becoming a Professional Writer

I’ve wanted to be a professional writer since I was a kid. Slowly, that dream has been becoming real. But it’s not something I’ve accomplished on my own.

After the initial success of Lúnasa Days I wrote that much of my success was because of my readers. Early on, readers encouraged me that the idea behind Lúnasa Days was a good one. A number of readers stepped up as patrons and helped finance the creation of the book, and stood by me patiently as I dealt with numerous roadblocks. I don’t think the book would have succeeded without all of the reader support.

So, to all of you reading this: thank you.

And if you don’t have it already, feel free to snag Lúnasa Days yourself:

L Days cover_front only_half size

Available on Kindle and in paperback. Get your copy here.

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