ZIRAN MUSE: MY DAD, TIMOTHY SHANAHAN
I am a product of TWO philosophers. Both my parents chose this path. While my mom specializes in Chinese philosophy, my Dad’s expertise is in Philosophy of Science. He's published books on terrorism and the Blade Runner films as well. He rides a motorcycle, is a black belt in Kung Fu, and exercises every day. He’s intimidating, badass, and a brilliant scholar and writer.
But at the same time he’s silly, loves to explore the world, play the harmonica, and is definitely the most self-disciplined and conscious person I know. He thinks before he speaks. He has a rhythm and a routine, and all of his actions fall in line. I admire his dedication to the things he loves: teaching, writing, exercising, traveling, and exploring. These are all verbs because he’s a DO-er. I got that from him.
We’re similar in some ways, but different, too. He parents by example and has shown me the importance of working hard, the power of thought, and to always ask questions. From the moment I could speak we’ve had deep and thought-provoking conversations. I’ve always known I can ask him anything and he will answer me honestly and to the best of his ability. He never told us (me and my sister) there was a Santa Claus because, in his words, “I didn’t want to lie to you guys.”
In honor of Father’s Day 2020, I sat down with my old man, Dr. Timothy Shanahan, in his gym in Los Angeles and asked him some questions about Fatherhood.
You are a philosophy professor with a Ph.D. and have written 6 books and published over 30 articles. How did you get into philosophy?
Watching television seems about as unlikely a path to Philosophy as one could imagine, so it's ironic that I was led to Philosophy by a TV show. When I was 11 years old, a television show premiered, starring David Carradine. It was called "Kung Fu." It involved a half-Chinese/half-American man who was growing up in China in the mid-1800s, where he underwent training at the Shaolin Temple. After accidentally killing the Emperor's nephew, he flees to the American west in search of his half-brother. In every episode, he'd encounter some problem, and in flashbacks to his time in China he'd remember some philosophical lesson he'd been taught in the Shaolin Temple that could be applied to the problem at hand. I didn’t know it at the time, but the show was imparting Daoist wisdom along with some kick-ass kung fu fight scenes. I found that combination of ancient wisdom and physical action applied to solve some practical problem utterly compelling. Thanks to that TV show, Philosophy and martial arts have been at the center of my life ever since.
Growing up in suburbia with hardworking Irish Catholic parents, what made you want to go and think deeper? What made you want to dive into thought?
There was certainly nothing in my immediate environment to encourage that. That's why that TV show proved so impactful. Even though I was intrigued by the idea of "wisdom," I didn't really understand what Philosophy was or how one could participate in it. After setting aside my plan to go into the military (because I realized that meant that if I was given orders, I'd have to follow them, right or wrong), I went to college with the intention of going for two years, taking Math and Science courses, and then transferring to a Chiropractic college. That seemed like a good idea at the time. But once I got to college, I realized how much I loved the science classes I was taking and I was finally able to take a Philosophy course. It blew my mind. Although I kept studying science, eventually I had to acknowledge that what I really wanted was to spend all my time doing Philosophy.
You are a black belt in Kung Fu. What are the main lessons this practice has taught you? Maybe something you learned that you’ve carried on in your life?
Years ago I read a magazine article that explained that "you never get good at martial arts." It wasn't intended to be discouraging, or to claim that one never progresses. It was making the point that as one progresses in martial arts (or in anything, really), one's standards change as well. As one progresses, one is better able to notice one's imperfections. The horizon just keeps receding as one advances. I found that was true. It's not that "the journey is more important than the destination," as in the cliché, but rather that the journey IS the destination. That distinction is crucial. The continual striving for self-mastery, feeling successes and failures in training, and in the case of martial arts occasionally finding that you are moving exactly as you want without conscious thought – that's just very satisfying even if one never has to apply it in actual fighting.
The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes something he calls “Flow.” It's a state in which you are exercising your abilities right at the edge of your capabilities. It's not too easy, but it's not so hard that it defeats you. The original meaning of "kung fu" is "discipline or skill achieved through hard work and practice." So it's incredibly effortful, but at times it's also like when you’re on a motorcycle and it's revving at just the right number of rpms and you're just cruising along. Or when you're running at the fastest pace you can sustain for a certain distance. Any faster and you couldn't sustain it. Any slower, and you know you could do better. It's that feeling.
I remember growing up you had a printed piece of paper on the wall that said, “A man who dares to waste one hour of time has not discovered the value of life.” – Charles Darwin (1837). What’s up with that?
Darwin (one of my heroes) said that in a letter to his sister he wrote while traveling around the world as a young man. That quotation is easily misunderstood. It might seem that he's saying that you need to be working all the time. Don't ever relax and just have fun. But that’s not at all what it means, or at least not what it means to me. What does it mean to waste an hour of time? If you spend an hour doing something, and at the end of that hour you say, “OMG, that was a total waste of time!” then it probably was. An hour wasted is an hour you'll never get back. It’s gone forever. But if you spent it doing something you truly enjoy, even if nothing tangible results from it, then it wasn’t a waste of time. It was probably time well spent.
So the idea is to live your life hour by hour in such a way that you don’t have regrets, or at least very few. Use the finite time you have intelligently. It's not unlike Socrates' remark that, "The unexamined life is not worth living." Live life deliberately, intelligently, because it's finite, and precious – that's the basic idea.
Given COVID-19 and the fact you are an expert in Darwin.... if Darwin were alive today, how would he view what’s going on?
I think he'd be fascinated by viruses (about which he knew nothing). Viruses are single-minded, mindless replicators. Darwin said that natural selection is always operating, albeit usually too slowly for us to notice. Because viruses are so simple, and they evolve so rapidly, they're like a snapshot of natural selection in action. The current thinking is that COVID-19 is a product of zoonotic transfer, where a disease is transmitted from an animal (in this case, probably a bat) to humans, and changes in the process as the virus that causes the disease adapts to its new host. Of course, humans with their evolved big brains (our primary adaptation) will fight back. Then something else will come along. It's like an arms race that neither side can decisively win.
What complicates the COVID-19 situation is that it isn't just about the biology. It's also about social and political factors, like who does and does not have access to health care, and who stands to benefit politically implementing policies, that determine our collective response to it. So it's actually incredibly complicated, with lots of layers that require their own analysis.
Let’s talk about your father, what was he like? By the time I met him he was already older, had a stroke, and I was so young.
You were born in ‘88, he died in ‘96. I'm glad that you met him, even if you were so young and don't remember much about that. He was a product of his times, as are we all. His father died before he was born; he was raised by his mother and stepfather. He grew up during the Great Depression so he knew what real scarcity was like. He understood how to make do with what little you have and to make things last. My brother and I were expected to "take care" of our things. Like baseball gloves – before we put them away for the winter, we had to rub saddle soap into them to make them pliable and soft so when we took them out in the spring they were good to go. Same thing with the leather seats on our bicycles. It was important to my father that we learn how to care for the things we had and that we kept them in good shape. It was the exact opposite of a "disposable" mindset. If something is good, you make it last.
Until he had a stroke, he always worked. As a kid I remember being amazed at how many different jobs he'd had – until I got quite a bit older and realized that by that point I'd had just as many! As a father he was pretty strict. I think in many ways he was like a 1950s father, in that he saw his role as the breadwinner and to provide for the family. I think he had a soft spot but didn’t often show it. I don’t remember him disciplining me and my brother very much, probably because just the prospect of disappointing him motivated us. "Keep your nose clean" was his way of saying "behave yourself."
Because he grew up in a time period of scarcity and the possibility of no work he was like, “Ok I have to work really hard? So I can put food on the table.” That was his fear?
In the era he grew up in, that was considered normal, that’s what a father did. You go to work, you provide for your family. It didn’t drive him, that’s just what he was expected to do and that’s what he did. He passed some of his fears on to me. Many times he'd tell me to finish my dinner because "someday you'll be hungry." Even as a kid that made no sense to me. But later I realized that I had internalized the idea that, sooner or later, I'd be utterly destitute and starving. I just sort of took it for granted that someday I'd be in that situation. I've avoided that – so far!
Do you think you're like him?
In some ways. You probably can list a bunch of different ways. You know perfectly well how many times I said, “leave a room, turn the light off, right? If you're not in the room using the light, turn it off, you go back into the room, flip it back on.” Because otherwise you're just wasting electricity which is money pouring down the drain. Spending money is one thing, but just wasting it is nonsensical. I don't think I was as strict as my father was, although I tried!
You were young, 18, when he had the stroke. So just as you're becoming a man your father suffers from this terrible life-changing event.
He had the stroke on December 17, 1979, right before my 18th birthday. It's the day our family’s life changed forever. When I think about my father, I think of two different versions: pre-stroke and post-stroke. Pre-stroke he was working, father of the family, and so forth. Whatever we had for dinner, my mother made for him, and my brother and I ate it. But it wasn't really for us, it was for him and we sort of participated. But after the stroke it was different. He had the stroke on the left side of his brain which partially paralyzed the right side of his body so he had difficulty walking, using his right hand, speaking. Now my mom was taking care of him in every way.
Whenever I was home, I asked him lots of questions. I often got very short answers. One-word answers. Speaking was a struggle. As a kid I also asked him a lot of questions, mainly about what it was like growing up, his military service, the various jobs he'd had. He was in the Civilian Conservation Corps, a Depression-era work program. He got on a train and they took him to Blackfoot, Idaho where he put up telegraph poles, lived in a hut with other men. Then Pearl Harbor was attacked. He joined the Marines, was promoted to sergeant, and was shipped over to the South Pacific. I don’t think I ever asked him, “How do you feel about those things?” I just wanted to know more about what he DID. What his life had been like. Who he had been.
Grandpa’s father died before he was born, and then he had this stroke when you were 18. Obviously, you got to know your father more than he knew his. I’m 32 now and one generation further along: I know you even more than both of them knew their fathers. So as these generations are going, the next generation knows more. It’s kind of cool, this bloodline just keeps going.
That sounds right. I'm glad that you're asking me all these questions!
How did his father die?
I don’t know. I don’t think I ever asked him that, and he never volunteered that information. I'm not sure he knew.
What does fatherhood mean to you?
One memory I think is quite revealing. Before I became a father, I recalled hearing that often fathers think that their child is literally the most beautiful child in the entire world. I thought that kind of human-all-too-human bias was pretty amusing. Right, YOU just happen to have THE most beautiful child in the world – uh, just like every other father! But then you were born, and I found it impossible not to think exactly the same thing about myself. Logically, it still made no sense. But I still found myself wondering how I actually DID end up with the most beautiful child in the world, and whether other parents were jealous of me for that. Ha. That really drove home to me how primal the relationship can be between parent and child. It's unlike your connection with anyone else, even with anyone else you love. I suspect that there's an evolutionary explanation for that. But that doesn't make it any less significant or amazing.
What has been the most challenging thing about being a father?
Trying to be funny, I might say "You!" But that's not really true. You were difficult at times, but mostly just kept me on my toes. There were maybe three "most" challenging things.
The first was trying to be an enlightened parent by acquiring knowledge of what makes a good parent and then applying that. Not simply relying upon ideas and practices from my own folks. My parents took good care of us, but I don’t recall them spending any time at all trying to share their wisdom with us in the sense of hard-won life lessons. There really wasn’t that type of instruction. I tried to do that with you and your sister, which wasn't always easy.
The second thing is that with parenting, you can take a principled approach or you can take a situational, episodic approach – where there’s no real firm principle in place but here’s the situation, so we’ll do this, another situation arises so we’ll do this. It’s a completely episodic approach with no underlying principle. I wanted to take the principled approach so that there would be consistency, but with some degree of sensitivity to context. It wasn’t meant to be a rigid approach but one guided by principles yet was flexible in certain situations. For example, I tried to convey to you and your sister that things you want and get tend to have more meaning when you work for them, rather than if they're just given to you. When you are given something there's enjoyment but that enjoyment fades very quickly. When you get something you've worked hard for, however, the enjoyment is of a different nature, it's deeper and lasts longer. So the principle would be something like learning how to defer immediate gratification for greater long-term enjoyment. That proved to be a very difficult principle to implement!
The third challenging thing that comes to mind is learning to let go of the person your child was so that you can appreciate and support the person they are and are becoming. When you and your sister were kids I could say, “Come on let’s do this” or whatever, and we just did it. When you were teenagers the last thing you wanted to do is hang out with your dad. I wanted to keep doing stuff with you for as long as I could, realizing it would come to an end at some point but not knowing when exactly that point had been reached. Making that determination was tough.
What's been the easiest thing about being a father? What comes most naturally?
Playing with you and your sister, especially when you were little. It was absolute joy. When we lived in Manhattan Beach, after dinner we’d walk down the alley behind our place to the school playground area. You'd chase me, I’d chase you, we'd play these little made-up games. All of that stuff was pure unadulterated joy. As was holding your hands and walking you down the alley to school in the morning. I have very fond memories of the "Evergreen Chinese School" because we got in the car and then would talk the whole time there and back. We’d stop at Taco Bell on the way home. Sometimes Mindy would find money on the ground. Great memories.
What do you hope I will pass down to my kids someday?
You’ve got lots of great qualities! Here's one I'm continually blown away by and admire to no end: how bold you are in pursuing your goals. You've always been this way. When you're interested in something and you want it, you're absolutely passionate about getting it. Almost single-minded. I think about when you were in Dance you were completely into it. You wanted to be the best you could possibly be. That's what I would hope you would pass on to your kids. Be passionate about something. Don't just meander through life. When you are passionate about something, pursue it wholeheartedly and don’t let obstacles stop you from achieving your goals.
Yeah but this trait has gotten me into a lot of trouble. I’m impulsive, a bulldozer, and move really fast sometimes.
You're like a galloping horse that sometimes goes off the trail. That can be dangerous, but it still seems to me to be a better way to live than always carefully picking your way along some well-trodden path. You're a risk-taker, not afraid to swing for the fence. I admire that about you.
The meaning of Ziran means natural, spontaneous and free. To push away outside influence and embrace your own authenticity. Do you apply this in your daily life?
Honestly, I don't feel spontaneous, natural, or free. I think that we simply find ourselves with certain personality traits that we never chose, and then it's up to each of us to make our way as well as we can with what we've been handed. I tend to be methodical by nature. An idea I rely upon a lot is: "It is human nature to overestimate what can be accomplished in a day, and to underestimate what can be accomplished in a year." I tend to think about what I want to achieve down the road, and then build routines into my daily life that I hope will get me there one day at a time. That's more intentional than spontaneous and free. So you didn't get "Ziran" from me!
The bit in your question that I can relate to more directly is the idea of embracing one's own authenticity. I've been incredibly fortunate to be able to follow my own path in life, whether it be training in a very wide range of martial arts, or pursuing my interests in Philosophy, or being able to teach courses on whatever I want to understand better, or traveling to so many countries. Those are all authentic expressions of who I am. Doing those things feel like self-realization to me. Not just doing those things because I want to or they are fun or enjoyable, although they are. But because I'm being me to the fullest extent when I'm doing those things.
Not everyone gets to do that. It's amazing when you can do that. I'm just very fortunate.
Photography: Kelly Wang Shanahan
Words: Kelly Wang Shanahan + Timothy Shanahan
May 2020. Los Angeles.