What Makes A Good Human?: Vigilance

I start out my journey with something I have specifically blogged about: Vigilance. I sort of attempted this project about a year and half ago, but at that time I hadn’t really formed a list clearly in my mind.  So if some of this looks familiar you may have read some of it before, but I wanted to arrange my argument a little differently and have also added some other things here that I think are relevant.  I also want to note here that I have decided to highlight text where qualities are mentioned that I also think are important but fall under the umbrella of vigilance

One of my favorite quotes from a person of history is this quote by Gandhi, “Nearly everything you do is of no importance, but it is important that you do it.”  At first such a quote might seem kind of depressing, but I do not think Gandhi intended it that way.  Instead I think the quote refers to the importance of vigilance.  For most of us life is full of mundane tasks that must be done, not all of them are joyful, nor are they painful, they are just chores that need to be done, often daily; things like brushing your teeth, washing dishes, taking out the garbage, etc.  And it’s not to say that these things might not be joyful for some people too.  There is something nice about the feeling of clean teeth, or a clean kitchen, but even if there isn’t, it is important that these things be done.  Stop doing them for a length of time and you will see how difficult and/or unhealthy.  So I think Gandhi recognized this aspect of our lives and that by practicing vigilance we are learning that not everything we do has an immediate impact and that we are learning that life takes perseverance. Gandhi himself spent most of his adult life trying to free Britain from independent rule and uniting his people.  Affecting change, even small change, is usually a slow process that takes a lot of work.  The importance of perseverance also turns out to be a central tenet of many religions although it is often ignored for the more magical aspects of the religion that concern the divine and the supernatural.  But you can find passages in most religious texts that speak to the importance of doing good deeds over the entire course of one’s lifetime as the best way to get closer to God and ensure yourself the best possible future after you die.  Whether that be in some heavenly plane or through a positive reincarnation.  And while I don’t subscribe to these ideas of divine rewards, the fact remains that no religion claims that it easy to get to paradise.  It’s hard work and it takes time.

Vigilance also speaks to consistency.  Children for instance need consistency in behavior from their parents.  Relationships require trust and that demands a certain constancy of character so that you feel you can trust and rely on each other.  Good health and long life requires a lifetime of good choices about hygiene, nutrition, and exercise.  I have often told people that getting a Ph.D. is not as much about how smart you are, but your ability to persevere through a lot of work, hoops, and bureaucracy (I don’t necessarily mean this disparagingly, because for me it was worth it, for others I know it was not).  I think it is true that sometimes we even seek this constancy in things that we don’t like.  The saying “Sometimes the enemy you know, is better than the enemy you don’t”, speaks to situations where people are willing to put up with something or somebody that is unpleasant simply because they have become used to it and at least know how to deal with it.

I think it is easy for vigilance to get caught up in the idea of routine, and maybe it sometimes is, but even that is not necessarily a bad thing.  Those with autism depend on routine as a way of making sense of their world, and I don’t think we are all that different.  Most of us need some sense of routine, because our lives are always in conflict between change which brings uncertainty and those things that we can count on which makes us feel safe.  Routine can sometimes be very helpful when facing adverse moments in life.  Having something to focus on, something that you feel you need to do, however mundane the task, can help us from falling into depression and give us purpose.   I can’t speak for all people, but I have observed this being helpful for others and certainly for me when I was facing adversity.

Western Rim of the Grand Canyon

Recently I was in New Orleans for a conference and the keynote speaker for the conference was talking about how her spirituality has helped her and that she feels like God works through her because when she looks at the things she has done, she doesn’t know how she has been able to do it.  She feels like she herself is not capable.  I think it is easy to understand why many people feel that way.  For most things we do, we are used to seeing the immediate result of a particular action, but the quality of being vigilant is one that accumulates those experiences and over time builds wisdom.  In science, the field of geology teaches us excellent lessons about vigilance.  I liken the speaker’s revelation about what she accomplished to a river that erodes to make a canyon.  If you could talk to the river at any one moment in its life, if it was aware at all of the difference it was making each day, it would tell you only that it was eroding  miniscule fragments of mud and rock.  However, if we could then ask this river a couple hundred thousand years later to look around and see what it has made, I think the river would be surprised at the deep canyon it was in, since each day it had perceived little to no change.  The speaker dedicated her life to social change.  Should she really be surprised at all she has accomplished?  And this is an important point about life is that we often focus on the end result instead of paying attention to the journey.  We might idolize celebrities for their achievements and want to be like them, but few of us ever think about the enormous amount of work that goes into those accomplishments.  We see a star sports player but do not see all the training, practice and exercise they do.  We revere an excellent actor but do not see all the rehearsing and studying that goes into what they do.  No matter how naturally talented that person may be their achievements are the result of vigilance.  Thus vigilance also helps remind us about the process by which something happens and not just the end result.  There is no Grand Canyon without the daily process of erosion.

I think it’s important to remember that cause and effect occur over various timescales.  Rewards of our labors and actions may often take years to come to fruition.  The most important lesson from vigilance is that it gives us a better sense of time.  Thus vigilance also teaches us about patience.  Even waiting is a form of vigilance. Keeping this in mind helps me find more value in the mundane, and gives me the courage to push through when life seems difficult.

If there is a dark side to vigilance it is the quality of stubbornness.  Our energy in this life is finite and we have to also recognize those moments that what we are doing isn’t working at all and make adjustments.  Sometimes to achieve a certain goal we have to rethink the process.  How to avoid the pitfalls of stubbornness and refusing to change will hopefully become clearer as move down my list of important qualities.  Those qualities also require vigilance which is why I felt that vigilance was the best place to start.

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What Makes A Good Human?: An Introduction

If you read the title you are probably wondering, who am I to write prologues, or preludes, or introductions?  What’s all this about?  Your blogs are only marginally interesting to begin with, why should I read anything doesn’t really tell me anything?  All fair questions, and the best answer I can come up with is that, good things come to those who wait.  Of course it’s also true that sometimes good things come to people in an instant, but this is not one of those occasions.

A fellow blogger I met when I first started my blog asked me what I was my goal in having a blog, because clearly it’s not all for yourself or you wouldn’t be putting your writing on the internet.  I knew the answer at the time, but was modest about saying it aloud, and I guess I still am, but ultimately I do want to inspire people.  Inspiration is an interesting topic in itself, something worth having a blog post about someday, but the truth is I don’t know that anybody could say how to inspire others.  It’s something you can’t really predict.  Sure there are ways you can communicate more effectively, more enthusiastically.  Inspiring someone through written word I think is more difficult than face to face, and I am not sure that my writing is that good yet.  But I believe inspiration comes also through expressing ideas and asking questions and that is the route I have taken.  Given the number of followers I have that read my blog I can tell that my writing is limited in how it has impacted others, and that’s okay.  Ultimately some of the blogs I enjoy following the most are ones that have a nice sense of community, and it would be nice to get to that point and just have a handful of people that regularly comment and read my blogs who have interesting things to say and interesting and well thought out points of view.  I think I’m moving closer to that as I have met some wonderfully intelligent and thoughtful bloggers over the past couple of years.  But that doesn’t mean that the blog  isn’t also for me.  It is also where I can explore, where I can get my thoughts out and help me sort out things in my own mind.  So while I hope the things I write mean something to others, I am also happy in the way that it helps me grow and learn.

My next series of blogs, which this is an introduction for, are what I consider to be the essential qualities of a good human.  These qualities that I am going to write about represent a culmination of years of thought on the matter.  So while it might seem overly bold, and though there may be disagreements, these are not qualities I have arrived at quickly or arbitrarily.  I make no claims that such a list may not change as I continue to learn and grow, and I have also, through careful thought, tried to condense it to as small a list as possible.  Not because that is necessarily important, but because over the course of my life I have come to see connections between certain qualities and realized that perhaps such qualities might exist under a much larger umbrella.  These qualities have been alluded to in my writing before and blogging thus far has helped crystallize ideas in my mind.   I also don’t make the claim either that these are overly original either, but I hope to make people think about these qualities in a slightly different way, specifically to try to broaden one’s views of this quality as very often people have a very narrow definition.

I like to have pictures in my blog posts, but really couldn’t think of any. I’m Canadian though and there will be 7 qualities. Boom.

One of my first posts when I started my blog discussed the dangers of categorization.  We are species who constantly makes poor correlations as a result of our tendency to make Type I errors, which is to find patterns and connections where none exist.  As I have also written before I grew up in two cultures being biracial and this helped me see from an early age that the innate goodness of a human being had little to do with religion or culture and yet these are characteristics that we seem to tie to goodness or badness most often.  And of course as I grew older I have seen even more judgments of character based on gender, class, job, education, etc.  It might be natural that we make these poor assumptions simply because we are bound to make determinations about a person’s quality based on the people we know throughout our lifetimes.  I have often observed that most prejudice of any kind comes from a lack of exposure to diversity, not because of it.   If I were to say something positive about myself, it’s that I do always try to look for the goodness in all people. As a result I have never shied away from getting to know somebody from a different walk of life because it seems the more people I get to know, the more I am convinced that they way we separate ourselves from others is false and ultimately harmful.  In that vein I have thought a lot about what are the qualities that good people have in all those different walks of life I have encountered.  This, in addition to what I’ve learned through my education has led to me to conclude that there are 7 things that we must all have.  The fact that 7 became the number has me already a little worried that I’m not right, because the number 7 is full of romance, but try as I might I couldn’t think of any more or any less, so I’m just going to go with it.

Finally I just want to emphasize that all these qualities I will blog about over the coming months are equally important.  So much so that missing even one of these qualities can be problematic.  While the degree to which each of us has these qualities may depend on the individual I believe that all are qualities we must demonstrate and develop every day.  There were times that I thought there was a ranking to these qualities, but now I am not so sure.   Anyway, enough of this introductory business.  I shall end this by thanking you for reading this and my blog and hope to hear your thoughts in the coming months as I complete this series of posts.

It’s All Projection

There are sometimes things that you know, but you don’t spend a lot of time talking about them, and a recent Facebook post gave me a kick in the butt to remind me that sometimes the things that seem passive and harmless may not be the case.  The type of projection I am talking about here is not the psychological one (which I also find fascinating), but still important.  The Facebook post that inspired this blog post was one in which we are shown the true size of Africa.  I knew about this many before as it is the starting part of the only Michael Crichton book I ever read, Congo.  Then someone posted this clip from the show The West Wing and I thought this would be a great discussion starter.  The clip argues that the Mercator projection of the world, which is what we are used to seeing should be replaced in every school room with Peter’s projection world map.  And I think they are absolutely right.  Because the Mercator projection not only messes with our sense of size  of land masses, but also the Earth’s orientation. It impacts what we consider top and bottom, up and down, big and small.  The result being that the way we think the world looks can have and impact on how we treat countries near the center of the map which are vaster than we think, and that have populations greater than we think.

The Mercator projection

For those of you non-clip watching the fact is that the Mercator projection greatly exaggerations land masses near the polar region, and put’s Germany (where Mercator was from) at the map center.  As the clip explains one of the most obvious comparisons is the size of Greenland compared to Africa.  On the Mercator projection they look almost the same, but Africa is actually 14 times bigger in land area.

Peter’s projection

Now what we have above is Peter’s Projection.  It is going to look really strange to you.  Now keep in mind there is still some distortion here and there always will be when you try to map a sphere onto a rectangle, but this one is more accurate.  How you ask?  Well essentially what the Mercator projection does is that it attempts to preserve straight lines for purposes of explorers by sea.  In order to do this the area to which land is projected on must increase as you move towards the polar regions since the map essentially assumes the Earth is a cylinder and of course it is a sphere.  The result is something that is not a true representation of size, but is accurate for purposes of navigation.

Greenland vs. Africa

In reality of course, lines of longitude converge at the pole, the size of 1 degree longitude by a 1 degree latitude grid gets smaller as we approach the polar region.  Peter’s projection takes this into account.  On a spherical Earth grids are not rectangles or squares, but trapezoids (technically curved rectangles and trapezoids since the Earth’s surface is curved), with those trapezoids getting smaller and smaller, and both the Mercator and Peter’s distorts those trapezoids into rectangles.  However, what makes Peter’s projection a more accurate view of the world is that Peter’s projection preserves the geometric area of those progressively smaller trapezoids.  If you’re reading this and looking at Peter’s projection you are thinking to yourself that it’s absolutely wrong, and that this can’t be accurate.  This is because the Mercator projection with north being up is so ingrained in us that it’s hard for us to think of it in a different way.  But it should be noted that Peter’s projection is still a distortion as well.  Particular as it makes the shape of the land area more elongated at the equators and the polar regions.  So even though the relative size is more accurate, it isn’t necessarily the best for learning the true shape of things.  Something that the Mercator projection does allow.

Now, do I believe that global inequality derives solely from our distorted view of the world geographically?  Of course not, but it could be a factor.  But more importantly it is something we can absolutely, and easily get right.  And isn’t it better to see the world for what it is than what is most convenient?  Maybe class rooms of the future will just use holographic globes to teach geography.  In the end a 3-D globe is the only true map of the world.

To blow your mind even more I will leave you with a map of the world that we might be looking at had civilization begin in the southern hemisphere.  The universe is three dimensional and there is no up and down.  It’s all a matter of convention.

A map of Earth could just as arbitrarily be presented in this way. How does it make YOU feel? 🙂

Finding Equilibrium

In a previous blog post I wrote about some of my questions about equality.  Why do some people actively seek it and why don’t others?  Is that they already see the world as equal as it can be?  Do they simply accept a natural order in which things are going to be unequal?  Or are they simply selfish, knowing inside that equality might remove them from a position of privilege?

Whatever the answer to that question is, a recent conversation with a friend, and articles about the inequality that exists in areas of Baltimore, got me thinking a little more about equality.  I started to think about the question:  What does equality even look like?  Is equality a state of perfection that we cannot attain?  Are we caught in idealism and not being practical?  How can equality be achieved, when we are all different?  I think those of us who fight for equality have visions for what that might look like, but have we ever actually seen it?  Does this sense of equality only lie in our hearts and we push in a direction not really thinking about where we end up?  Even though nature often tends towards balanced, it is state rarely reached if ever.  Instead we find most things oscillating about a state of equilibrium.  Many times that oscillation is damped, meaning that while we never quite reach a state of balance, each oscillation is not as wild (or in other words doesn’t take us as far from equilibrium as the preceding oscillation).  Is this perhaps what the fight for equality looks like – swinging back and forth until finally the oscillations about that state of equality or so minute that we can no longer detect the inequality anymore?  In a complex society where one can find many areas in which inequality exists, do we prioritize the most obvious ones first, until other ones seem resolved to the point that new areas of inequality see more important?  Or as a fellow blogger wrote when addressing the issues of vaccines, can we sometimes make the issue worse by continually fighting for something even when the problem doesn’t exist because of the time and energy we have invested into a cause?  A recent Daily Show piece discussed how anti-GMO groups have actually helped large corporations, like Monsanto, to gain more of a stranglehold on the food supply because they are now the only ones with the money to be able to afford all the bureaucracy it takes to get a patent on a genetically modified seed.

It occurred to me that although we might be great at pointing out inequality, how often do we have a conversation about what equality looks like, and does it exist anywhere?  Are there real examples we can use?  Are there any microcosms of the larger society we all want to live in?  It is has only been within the past 30 years or so that a lot of psychological research shifted away from just looking and ailments of the mind and started focusing on the more positive aspects of our humanity, like happiness.  While depression is terrible and it is important to help those with depression out of those states, is learning how not to be depressed that same as knowing how to be happy?  Can we always derive what a good example is, by simply only looking at bad examples?  I believe the answer to that is no.  Growing up with an alcoholic father, I learned about the kind of husband and father I didn’t want to be.  But as I had marriage troubles in my own life it occurred to me I never thought enough about what a good father and husband is supposed to be like.  It required a certain rewiring in my thinking.  When it comes to studying happiness it required asking a set of questions that haven’t been asked before.  What makes people happy?  What kind of behavior to happy people exhibit?  What kinds of societies are happier? These questions are important to ask and science has helped make a lot of progress in the area of happiness.

So while we are all pretty great at point out inequality maybe we should shift our focus to talking about what equality would look like.  Find real world examples.  Analyze how and why those societies work and how they are advantageous to what we already have.  Pointing out inequalities between men and women have value, but let’s have a conversation about what are the positive values we want a human to have, regardless of gender.  Let’s have an idea of where we are going, before we push.  It might even help us get there faster