Discussion: Is your life a story?

The importance of stories to humans cannot be overstated.  Well perhaps it can, but I’ve yet to see anybody succeed yet. 🙂  I’ve written about the importance of stories before.  My interest in the subject began when reading the novels Name of the Wind and A Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss.  It is clear that we learn from stories.  In fact it is often suggested that as a method of pedagogy that we try to create narratives, try to use storytelling to teach.  I’ve yet to find a way to do this with fluid dynamics, but when I think about how I retain knowledge best, it is certainly the ability to think in terms of stories, rather than a lose collection of facts.  When teaching, even if you don’t have a story to tell, trying to create a common thread through your lessons does help.

A former student, and now friend, would often start a conversation with people she was just meeting and getting to know with the question “Tell me the story of your life.”  I think it’s pretty easy to see our lives as a story.  I am not sure though that this is something we do when we are adolescents.  Perhaps we haven’t lived long enough, and it is unclear when this process begins, but at some point you will look at the past and forecast into the future and there will seem to be this story you are playing out.

But is this a good way of thinking about our lives?  Sometimes I think we do this because it seems more interesting, and even though I still think there is a lot of values to stories, perhaps we shouldn’t be seeing our own life as a story.

Some philosophical meat to think about here is are you the same person in the past as you are in the future?  Stories tend to follow a particular character who may change, but rarely as much as actual humans do.  Is your 20 year old self the same as your 60 year old self?  Maybe at best we are a series of shorter stories instead of one long story.  Our desire for continuity and cause and effect perhaps extends the narrative for longer than it perhaps should.

More importantly when we think our life in terms of a story do we then sometimes predict the ending?  Do we limit ourselves by having expectations based on this narrative we have about our lives?  In a recent podcast I listened too, they profiled a family who had a story of their life.  They were beekeepers, and when tragedy struck and it all came to an end, they could see themselves any other way.  What they had been doing for 40 years was who they were.  Their house decorated with bees.  How do you change the story when life takes an unexpected turn?  It can be very difficult to find happiness or contentedness when expectations do not match the reality of your situation.  This podcast also did another episode where they talked about changing your story and how doing that can help us move on.  We might find inspiration in others who have changed the story of their lives, we may also become limited by others who assume that we can’t change our story.  Perhaps we have no choice but to see our lives as a story, and if we are going to do that, perhaps we just need to learn how to better hijack that process to write those new chapters that can take the story into a different direction.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject?  Do you think of your life as a story?  Do you think it’s good or bad that you do?  Have you had to change your story unexpectedly?  Was it difficult?

There is a nice discussion on the topic on another podcast I listen to if you are interested in thinking about this subject more.

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Discussion: Re-framing Rape

In observance of Sexual Assault Awareness month, I wanted to shareA friend of mine sent me a link to a very interesting talk by Susan Brison.  She is a Philosophy Professor for the Study of Ethics and Human Values at Dartmouth College.  I encourage to watch the talk for the full breadth of her argument (and also to hear her excellent singing voice) but if you are short on time I will summarize her main points.

Her principle argument is that rape, while important in a legal sense, is perhaps an unhelpful way of addressing the problem in general.  Dr. Brison suggests that rape be re-framed as gender-based violence.  She argues that outside of the prison system, rape is a crime that is almost entirely committed by men.  She makes an excellent analogy to racism at one point.  Which is a word that we talk about bigotry against people of certain races at a societal level.  She argues that we have no similar word for sexual violence perpetrated by men, even though it is just as prevalent (if not more prevalent) than racism.

In relation to this she also talks about how we define rape, which is “sex without consent” and that this is a harmful definition. While again she admits the value of consent especially from a legal point of view, she also argues that this might not be the best way of addressing rape as a gender-based societal problem.  She makes a number of compelling arguments, but there were 3 that really caught me:

1.  We don’t view consent as relevant when it comes to murder.
2. Having sex in the definition of rape individualizes the act and implies a connection.  And the act of rape isn’t just an individual harm, but instills fears among women or males that might be victims of rape.
3. In surveys of middle school and high school women, they sometimes report that they will consent to sex because they are afraid of being raped.

For me, the last point really muddied the waters of consent for me.

I can’t do her entire argument justice here, but I will transcribe a bit of what she said which I think is really important:

“If we lived in a world without pervasive sexism, where women and men were genuinely held to be of equal worth a victim would be able to perceive a gender-based crime against her as an anomaly…something truly random.  But in the actual world, in which because of pervasive sexism, victims of gender-based violence are often viewed as lacking credibility and perpetrators are rarely brought to justice, a sex crime, for a victim can be a brutal confirmation of an already unjust status quo.” 
-Susan Brison

Thoughts?

Discussion: Shaming and making amends

In a time before social media, if, in your life, you did something you weren’t proud of.  Say perhaps over several years.  Maybe you were a bully in school, maybe you made some bad mistakes in how you treated women or men and you came to realize at some point how wrong your behavior was.  You might simply just move forward, never making those same mistakes again, perhaps even making sure you advocated to others the harms of certain behaviors because you once practiced them yourself.

What do we think about such a person?  Is it enough to say lesson learned, they are now a force for good in the world and sharing their wisdom with others in hopes that patterns aren’t repeated?

We live now in a time where getting away from your past is not as easy as it once was.  What if you had changed, became even enlightened, but somebody from your past decides that you are a charlatan because of a behavior you once espoused.  What if you were an outspoken feminist, but suddenly someone mentioned that back in school you weren’t the feminist you are now, and that you are a fraud.  You may have moved on, but the harm that you caused someone has left them hurt for years, and a number of other people are hurting to, because of who your past self was?

It feels like this call out culture we have on social media can be a vicious force.  Socially isolating people from communities they are making positive impacts in, and in some cases losing credibility for their entire life as a result of it.  And yet I also can’t help but feel some sympathy for victims of someone’s behavior.  Seeing that they are becoming loved and admired for views they now espouse, but never having made amends to the people they hurt in their past. Thirty years ago this was hardly an issue, but now it is so easy to find people from your past and hold them accountable no matter how much they may have changed?  Should the fact they have changed be enough to sate us, or should we bring them down as hard and fast as possible?

Maybe as we become enlightened as to the error of our ways, we should always be trying to make amends before we embark on a new crusade to enlighten others.  Maybe that’s the better path if we want to make a more meaningful crusade for a better world?  Maybe just trying to bury the past in the past is just being cowardly without facing up to it first and making amends with those we’ve hurt.  Perhaps people shouldn’t be just allowed to move on without any consequences.  Or this just us interested in hurting back instead of moving forward?  Is it realistic to expect true apologies from those who have hurt us, or do we just have to find a way to move forward to and let be, what is?

Thoughts?

Discussion: Moral Outrage and Social Media

Since I have left Facebook, I want to do more to create conversation that is productive and civil, so I’m hoping to have more discussion posts like this where I post a little bit of info that I hope leads to more expansive dialogue.

Part of the reason that I left Facebook was how angry I was often getting.  One could argue that I wasn’t strong enough to resist the trappings of Facebook but it should be noted that this is part of the design of social media – to manufacture outrage.  I strongly recommend reading this article on the topic, and I think reading the link to Dr. Molly Crockett’s Nature article on the topic is also an excellent read.  From the CSM article:

“Moral outrage plays an essential role in human society. It drives people to expose and rise against injustice. At its best, social media can channel moral outrage into action, as seen in the success of petition drives, boycott campaigns, and protest planning.

But under the attention-driven model that underpins social media, there is little incentive to steer users toward action offscreen. Instead, it is in the interest of the social media companies to encourage sharing of moral outrage in a way that fosters amplification rather than action. Decoupling user attention from profit could break that cycle, say observers.”

On Facebook I would often see people expressing the same level of vitriol for those who might commit minor offenses against societal norms, to those who were truly monsters causing great levels of harm against other humans.  As an example the amount of outrage towards comments from Matt Damon in regards to the #MeToo movement at times seemed indistinguishable from things said about Harvey Weinstein.  Some questions come to mind and you can feel to address some or all of them:

Are there times when you have felt yourself feeling equal levels of anger for different levels of offensive behavior?  Or do you think that equal levels of moral outrage are justified even for the full gamut of what might be considered microaggressions to serious offenses against societal norms.  This seems very much like the “broken windows” approach to moral outrage.  Is this valid?

Is social media causing us to lose our way in really addressing the big problems by diminishing our ability to detect nuance among the “bad actors” in our society?  And as a byproduct of this do we risk pushing those who might just be slightly on the wrong side of some reasonable set of moral behaviors, further away from where we would like them to be?  It seems like we so easily ostracize and shame even small offenses on social media.

Perhaps the net effect of social media is still positive, but even so how can we use social  media to be more positive, given that the current model, as it stands, is designed to exacerbate outrage, and not promote productive conversation?

Thoughts?

The Magic Eye

I wear an Eye of Horus around my neck.  While not uncommon it may seem strange to those who know me as a fairly outspoken atheist.  Unfortunately my reason for wearing it is not what most people would think.  It is only because I am a big Alan Parsons Project fan and the symbol appears on their most well known album Eye in the Sky.  lol

But in searching for that symbol, which I had no idea what it is called I came across the story of it.  Recently in reading one of a fellow blogger’s post, spouting some theist rhetoric equating faith as being a plausible substitute where uncertainty exists, it reminded of the story of the Eye of Horus.

Long story short, the myth involves Horus and Set (in some accounts are brothers, in some  nephew and uncle respectively).  Set kills Osiris (Horus’ father) and in revenge Horus kills Set, but in that battle Horus is injured.  Set struck at the eye of Horus shattering it.  As luck would have it the eye is broken into a fun set of mathematically progressive pieces.  The symbol of the Eye of Horus is drawn with 6 strokes, each stroke represents what they believed were the 6 senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell, and thought.  This shattered eye is broken into 6 pieces in specific proportions: 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/16, 1/32, 1/64.  Horus took the pieces of his eye to a local magician to reassemble the eye, but if you do the math, you will of course discover that you are 1/64th short of a whole eye.  This magician had to use ‘magic’ to fill in what was missing.  This was the left eye of Horus, which represents the moon, and is why the moon is supposedly more mysterious (because part of the eye was reconstructed with magic).  The right eye of Horus represents the sun, and this became the more common eye used later in Egyptian culture as a symbol of protection.

Anyway, where I am going with all this is that it seems to me that our human uncomfortability with uncertainty is what drives us to put faith into the missing picture.  You have something that is a whole, you only understand a part of it, and the other part you fill in with faith, instead of remaining uncertain.  This seems hardly surprising to me.  What it does feel like to me is that as we learn more about any particular thing the proportion of what we don’t know gets smaller and smaller.  The God of the Gaps has less of a Gap to cover, and yet we want to give that magic the same level of  importance.  We can go from no idea of our origin, to a very substantial set of empirical evidence about evolution, but no matter  how little uncertainty remains it seems magic must still prevail as long as any proportion still remains.

I think there could be beauty in the things we come up with to explain the unexplainable, but it’s perhaps the dogmatism that concerns me the most.  The inability to be cognizant of the fact that in that space of uncertainty there are many types of magic we could conjure up to fill in that gap, none being more valid than the other.  And yet different religions will try to tell you their magic is better than yours.  In the end, being comfortable with uncertainty seems the more important goal, because it in no way prevents you from enjoying a good story.  I rather like the story of the Eye of Horus. 🙂

Why I Am Leaving Facebook

Dear Friends,

This decision does not come lightly or easily, but I think that I need to leave Facebook.  Actually I am 100% sure of it.  I am not 100% sure for how long, or if it will be for good, but the latter is certainly a possibility.  Before I explain to you my personal reasons for doing so, I want to say that my reasons are no judgment on anybody else.  Maybe you’ll connect with some of what I feel, maybe you won’t.  I know there are many of you who seem to be able to use Facebook in a way that I wish I can do.  Some of my reasons are broad and for what I feel are based on reasoning, others are simply based on personal reflections and knowing myself and my own weaknesses.

I will start with some broader ethical concerns that make me feel it is the right thing to do.  All of that can be best summed up by this TED talk.  We live in an attention economy and companies are working to grab hold of my attention, and they’ve succeeded.  There are people out there who are starting to think about ethics in this realm, but as it stands I don’t think I want to be part of this game where possible. I probably can’t get away from Google or Amazon, but I can do something.  There are entities out there who want to learn about us and dictate how we want to live, and I want to at least take back some control and make more decisions about how I want to live.  I don’t think that Zuckerberg or any of his crew are evil or anything, but I don’t think they put a lot of thought into what they are actually doing and wondering how they might change society for the better with this powerful tool.

But really it boils down to personal reasons.  I don’t believe social media is inherently bad.  When I see how useful it is for mobilizing something like March for our Lives, I think social media is a tool we need.  Through Facebook I have met some incredible people.  People I know will be friends for life.  I have many friends who have helped expose me to insightful articles that help me learn and have meaningful discussions.  But there is another side to all of it.  There is seeing friends all posting the same horror stories on their news feeds.  It’s not that they shouldn’t, they care about these things, but when you see the same headline over and over again it gets to you.  Then there are the idiotic and poorly reasoned comments and this is where I fall into the trap over and over again of getting into these conversations.  They get me angry, and I find myself unable to calm my mind.  Sometimes these thought linger with me while I’m trying to sleep, trying to meditate, or when I get up in the morning.  I’m getting angry at people I don’t even know and will never meet, even when I try to remain civil in the conversation.  And then as comments and status mount, I’m seeing who replied, who reacted to my comment or status, and it all adds up.  And I wonder, what am I really counting, and is there a point to it.  If I make a comment that a lot of people like does that mean anything?  Is this how I should be deriving a sense of value?  I ask this question a lot.   Facebook feels noisy to me now.  The best analogy I can think of (and this dates me) is that it’s like a radio station with a lot of static and interference.  There is definitely a signal I want from social media, but I can disentangle it from the noise.  I fight to just focus on the part I want to hear, but I can’t tune out the static.   I see other people do this and I know it’s possible.  It just doesn’t seem possible for me right now.  It just seems like the best idea to turn the radio off and read a book instead.  It doesn’t feel like it’s increasing my happiness, contentedness or peace in life.

The weight of the world has been heavy on me these recent years.  Even before Trump (Trump certainly hasn’t helped).  I know this has been true for many friends my age.  As you become more aware of what’s going on, there is a price to pay for that, you want to do something, you want to make a difference.  In that vein I decided do some volunteer work in my local community to help neglected and abused children.  With a second kid arriving, the responsibilities of now being a department chair, I am more acutely aware of my own limitations in both time and energy.  I contemplated giving up my volunteer work with the second kid coming, but given the amount of time I spend on Facebook it just became crazy to me to give up the volunteer work.  Don’t get me wrong, it means a lot that I mean something to people who might feel sad that I’m leaving, and there is obviously value in maintaining a relationship between people you value and admire, but as of right now, while I’m unable to shut out all the noise I have to truly ask myself, “Is the time and energy I’m putting into Facebook the most effective way I can use my time and energy?”  I have to ask myself “Am I inspiring, teaching, helping by being on Facebook?”  Now maybe I am, but it doesn’t feel that way.  It often feels like I’ve just used Facebook as a way to ‘feel’ like I’m doing something; to ‘feel’ like I’m helping.   I feel like I can’t know the answer to these questions until I break away from Facebook for awhile; to sort of de-clutter, and see what paths lay out before me.   I was very inspired by this TED talk recently about how we can affect change in the world and I believe that sometimes I on Facebook when there is value I could be adding to the lives of family and friends just a few feet away from me.

I started this blog as outline to express myself intellectually and creatively.  Whether people have enjoyed my blog posts are not, I have found it immensely helpful to me as an individual and this is also something I don’t want to give up as my time grows shorter with a new family member on the way.  I don’t plan on leaving Facebook until the end of April.  In that time I hope that those of you who read this, and who want to keep in touch will talk to me so we can find out a way to do that.  But certainly following this blog is a good way to do that.  There is a way to follow this blog by e-mail, and am happy to have discussions with you on here.  There are other messenger services (like gchat) where we can still have conversations, and there is e-mail (sgill1974@gmail.com), twitter (@profswarn) for quick shout outs, and you can message me for my number for texting.  I realize though that there is going to be losses with this.  And while this decision might seem sudden, please know, that with all life decisions I have put in a great deal of thought into it, and this is something that has been growing in my mind for the last 3 years as I have tried, unsuccessfully, to have mastery over Facebook.  I hope that maybe after a good break I can come back to it with better control and use it in a way that compliments my life.  Right now I just feel like I’m in a mire and I just need to get out for awhile.  At the very least it will make me a more present father, and that alone has value.  I hope you can support me in this decision.  And for all the people that enjoy my company on Facebook and who might not interact as much once I leave, just remember that my doors are always open if ever you are in the Pittsburgh area.  Just give me a heads up even if a lot of time has passed.  The memory in my brain might not be reliable but the memory in my heart always looks forward to interacting with a friend.

Thank you for traveling with me along my journey in life, I hope that many of you will continue.

Be good to each other and do good in this world in the way that serves you best.

With Love,
Swarn

I Have My Reasons

I had this idea in my early 20s that there was an equation that could define what it mean to live a fulfilling life.  I had reasoned this based on what I had observed that seemed common to the well being of all people.  People would generally laugh at me when I’d say something like this just as you may be doing now.  To be sure when I said equation I was describing nothing so trite as x+y=3, or anything like that.  This equation was look and full of many variables.  Some of those variables might be simple, like having oxygen and water.  Other variables could not be settled so easily and they would not have the exact same value for each person.  In fact the same could be true of oxygen and water, but there were certainly variables in that equation which might be more broad and whose details might on the surface look quite different for different people.  An example might be something like art.  Art is important.  For some it’s the doing of art, for others it’s the appreciation and enjoyment of it, for some it’s both.  For some people it’s painting, for some it’s writing, for some it could be making floral arrangements.  I think it’s true to say that I didn’t even have the equation worked out myself and I still don’t but it seems obvious to me that there is common ground when it comes to these variables that can be used for this equation to come up with a solution for a productive and meaningful life.

I was listening to a podcast recently where writer Andrew Sullivan was arguing with Sam Harris that reason could not form a basis for happiness.  This idea was reinforced in another podcast where Russell Brand was trying to make the point on his podcast that this secular world that is edging out religion is also edging out spirituality and thus making our world bereft of meaning in some way.  I would first say that I am not altogether sure that this is even true in that there is a lot of evidence to demonstrate that our world has a lot less suffering (as a percentage of the population) than we had even a 100 years ago.  But let’s say that Russell Brand’s assertion is true in his more deist outlook, and I know many other theists who share similar concerns.  As I look at the person I am now, I am someone who leans strongly in the direction and importance of reason.  More specifically scientific reasoning.  And I reflected on this claim by Sullivan.  Are things like love and spirituality eroded by reason?  If I hold reason, logic, empiricism, and all that stuff as guiding principles in my quest for truth, am I going to miss out on important meaning that could be present in my life?  The anecdote I started with here came to my mind, an idea that came to me from beauty I saw in mathematics, but also the reasoning I had done in observance of the human condition.  So I decided to write a post why I think reason is wonderful, in my humble opinion.

Image result for reason quotes

I will start by saying reasoning can be flawed, but not all reasoning.  Saying reason has no value because reasoning can be flawed is flawed reasoning.

Reason tells us that spirituality is important to humans.  Reason has shown us that you don’t need to believe in the divine to have spiritual experiences.  It’s reasonable to seek spiritual experiences.  When I reflect on why a certain experience was spiritual for me this helps me understand what factors might lead to more of these experiences.

Reason tells us that love is important to humans.  Feelings of intense love can be spiritual, and like spiritual experiences enjoying the emotion and not thinking to much about it the moments is a good idea.  Reason tells us that love is a lot like a drug, and makes act irrationally.  I don’t mind this fact actually.  Being aware of that though can help us think twice making a decision based solely on love, which also isn’t a bad thing.  Just as one might claim that life is more than just reason, life is also more than just love.  And even if love often defies reasons, we know there are reasons why humans love.  When I reflect on the reasons why I love, I understand myself better and this can lead to me having more experiences where I get to have those wonderful feelings of love run through me.

Reason informs me that humans must have meaning or purpose – things that drive us to more, to live another day just for the possibility of fulfilling that purpose or experiencing that meaning.  These things vary wildly among people as there are many ways to find meaning.  Too many perhaps because some seem to not know what direction to go in.  When I use my reasoning skills to evaluate meaning and purpose I feel like I understand how to make life more fulfilling.

Reason tells us that sometimes you have to do things for no reason at all.  Perhaps a better way of putting this is that it’s reasonable to do something that you’ve never done before, even if it makes you feel uncomfortable.  It means taking a risk.  Fail or succeed you grow, and spending a lot of time reasoning about the possible outcomes can ruin the value you might get from taking the risk.  Without risk we don’t grow.  Reason tells us that when we stagnate we become apathetic and life loses meaning and purpose.  Time seems to fly by as it becomes routine and this precious existence is over before we know it.  So I’ve reasoned that I need to keep challenging myself, and sometimes it’s made life harder, but never dull.

Reason informs me that we all reason and by being clearer about our own reasons we can better communicate them.  Conversation can help expose us to different lines of reasoning, and help evaluate what lines or reasoning are better, worse, or just different.  Reason tells us that there is no right answer to the best flavor of ice cream, but there is a right answer to how to jump the battery in your car.  And this may be the reason why you have to sit and have an ice cream while you wait for AAA to come and tow your car to the mechanic.

Reason informs me that there are better and worse ways of thinking about problems and that there are rules to reasoning.  Reason has shown how prone to cognitive biases and delusion we are.  Reason tells me that it is hard to overcome these problems and it takes being conscious of it, and takes perseverance to continue to learn and to be reflective.   When we aren’t aware of how our reasoning can be flawed that’s when conversation can breakdown.  And once we can no longer have conversations through shared norms of sound reasoning, when conversation fails to resolve our differences, reason tells us that violence becomes a much more likely option in resolving differences.

Reason tells me that even though emotion can often guide my reasoning, I serve my compassion better when I detach emotion from reasoning because life also isn’t all about how I feel about it.  Reason tells me sometimes I have to step outside of myself so I can be more sure that reasoning isn’t flawed by my emotions.

Reason tells me that ignorance might be more blissful, but that there is nothing about life that says it is supposed to be one happy moment after another.  Sometimes reasoning will make us sad, anxious or scared.  But we can use that to drive us to make the world a better place and not let ourselves be paralyzed by it.  If more people used this type of reasoning, reasoning would lead to less experiences of sadness, anxiety and fear.

It’s reasonable to assume that you might not agree with my reasoning, but it was important for me to demonstrate that reason doesn’t have to be the antithesis to meaning and that it can actually enhance it.  It also may be that my reasoning is flawed.  There is a reason why I write a blog to have conversations.  There is also a reason that I keep trying to learn more, because good reasoning sometimes just requires more information.  There is a reason why I love reason, and hopefully you love it a little more after reading this.