Of Babies and Bathwater

The recent stream of women standing up against sexual harassment and sexual criminal activity has once again brought to the fore the idea of heroes and perfection.  Something I said I was done talking about, but the subject I guess is just an intriguing one to me and thought I’d share a few more thoughts.  I’d like to extend this discussion beyond those accused of sexual harassment or other sex crimes in general, but to a discussion of flaws and the severity of those flaws.

I’ve been listening and reading discussions about where do we draw the line and forgive someone’s acts?  I’ve wrote a piece about Bill Cosby some time ago, and I think most people agree that given he is a serial rapist it’s hard to ever watch him again.  But some feel differently about Louis CK or Al Franken.  Now some might say this is because politics are playing a role, like in the case of Franken, or because you are just such a big fan of their comedy in the case Louis CK.  It’s hard to say that’s not the case, but I do think it’s more than that.

As I try to learn about human behavior there are two things that seem clear to me.  We are all morally inconsistent to varying degrees, and we all draw lines that cannot be crossed and those lines are different for different people.  As I’ve written before, I think we have this ability to elevate celebrities, leaders, and historical figures to unrealistic expectations of perfection.  With historical figures of course we might be applying today’s moral standards to those people and unfairly judge them, but I don’t always think that doesn’t have value.  We don’t have to judge, but I think there is value in looking at the flaws and inconsistencies in their thinking so that we can avoid those same pitfalls of character today.  Gandhi was someone I idolized, and still do to a certain extent, but more reading into his character has revealed his racism against black people, and his misogyny. Should I throw away Gandhi as someone who is a waste of my time to even try to appreciate now that I know?  I don’t think so, but I certainly see how he could have been more than he was, and can take those good parts, acknowledge (without judgment) the bad parts and move forward.

But what of those people who we find to be less than perfect today?  People who we deem should know better.  It’s a tricky business.  There might be an average moral perspective, and that perspective might even be backed by empirical data that shows it is a more moral behavior, but culture varies widely, and even when we see the overwhelming benefits of something like gender equality it seems very hard to get everybody on board.  If we investigate the most common set of moral values of people in a white evangelical community in the South, we’d find many differences between them and a community in Boulder, Colorado.  And the difference may even deviate greater as we go beyond the borders of our country.  What seems to be the prevailing moral view of our times is heavily biased by the culture we are currently in.  It could be we are in the minority.  And even if we are right about what is a more moral actions, and we are right to push those views on to society, it may be difficult for others to agree with our perspective.  Of course it’s also true that any one moral perspective is not all that we care about in this world.  We all have sets of moral values, and while it would be nice to think that anybody who is a feminist must automatically be also pro-environment, pro marriage equality, or against racism, the dots don’t always connect, nor do I think we should expect them to.  If we can have a head of the human genome project also be an evangelical Christian, I think that we should expect that any human is able to hold as true, two widely disparate views on how the universe works.

But where does that leave the rest of us.  It seems that it’s human nature to be constantly looking for people that we can look up to, that we can celebrate and that we can strive to be like.  It maybe isn’t surprising that we should do this.  Seeing something we value, embodied by another human being makes us feel like it’s possible for us to be that way to.  Such people can also make us care about things we didn’t before, or care about things in a deep way we never thought possible.  And when we find out their flaws there is a feeling of betrayal that feels personal even if we didn’t know them personally.  But I think that on a deeper level what we really worry about is what it says about us.  “This person I admired is not who I thought, so am I not who I thought as well?”  I certainly had these thoughts growing up with an alcoholic father.  My dad went from superhero to an extremely flawed individual, and I wondered how I might be flawed and how I would even recognize it?  And to be honest I still do sometimes.

I’ve tried to incorporate the best of my dad into who I am, because there is no changing the past.  I was born with dad I had, and there is no getting around that.  I can be a better dad myself going forward and that’s all I can do.  I’m not for burning people to the ground because of their flaws.  Even with Bill Cosby I can acknowledge the skill in which he told jokes and stories, and his passion for education and I can say that these are good things and are meaningful.  Maybe I can’t watch him anymore, but there was at least some goodness in him.  I feel similarly for Scott Orson Card who wrote an incredibly beautiful science fiction story and won a well-deserved Hugo award.  He is now a strong anti-gay activist in the Mormon community.  But the ideas and themes in his story are worth preserving and even celebrating.  I don’t want to turn those ideas to dust just because there is now a side of him I fundamentally disagree with.  When I think of heroes in my personal life right now, there are 3 ladies that are supervisors for the program I do volunteer work for helping neglected and abused children.  They work long hours, train volunteers, do fundraisers, and deeply care about the welfare of the most vulnerable members of our society.  What if I found out that one of them donated money to a pro-life organization, or was racist?  Does this invalidate all that they are?  Have they still not made the lives better for 100s if not 1000s of children?  At what point does the line get crossed?  Perhaps if I found out they have abuse their own children.  I in no way imagine that’s possible, but maybe given that we are walking paradoxes I should accept that such things are possible.

In the end maybe we all at least share some of the blame for the expectations we place on people, who can never be perfect.  Perhaps the reason I think about “heroes” so much is because with an alcoholic father these are questions I’ve been asking all my life.  What I’ve tried to do is to understand human behavior and accept the imperfections we all have.  I’ve also tried to place value on growth.  Knowing we all do things or have done things that are bad, what’s most important is that we accept responsibility, have true remorse and try to do better.  I think the exposure of these imperfections is helpful to all of us in this respect, and even when it is sometimes hard to hear (or read) I am thankful to see the cracks in perfection.  I actually prefer such a world, because it simply feels truer.  It feels like there is somewhere to go.  And it is a reminder to be humble, for we all have our cracks and flaws.  It’s easy to push the famous people and the historical figures away, because they really aren’t part of our everyday life, but that line we draw can become real hard to draw when it’s someone who is actually close to us.  So I think it’s always important to recognize that complexity, the dynamic nature, and the shades of gray in humans.  Maybe it’s significant that the devil was only made by being cast down to the very depths of hell.  Maybe we can make our stands and still find ways to love.

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Imitation and Approval

When I was 12 years old I went to Bible Camp.  It was my first time going to camp, going away for a week without having any parents, grandparents, aunts or uncles.  Luckily my second cousin went so I would know someone and that was probably the only reason I wasn’t too scared to go.  I am not sure why my mom chose to send me to a bible camp, but as a Christian I am sure she hoped that I was receive some good education about religion, the bible, etc.  When I was there I was eager to impress the counselors and leaders.  They had a bible verse a day and a contest at the end to give a free camp hat to anyone who could memorize all the verses.  I was the only who could do it.  I used to have a good memory.  Maybe I still do, I just can’t remember.  At camp they also talked a lot about prayer and how praying could help you get the things you wanted in life, as long as you were good and you really believed.  For me the idea of prayer was exciting because I thought maybe it could work to stop my dad’s drinking.  So I opened my heart and let Jesus Christ in.  The counselors were so happy.  All of them congratulated me.  They were so kind and so pleased with my decision.  After camp was over, I was so excited I had made the decision because I knew it was going to make others in my life so happy.  My mother, my grandmother, aunts and uncles.  And on top of that I was told that if I was good and really believed that my prayers would be answered.  I had many tangible reasons to be very happy about it all.  It had very little to do with heaven or hell, or some events on alternate planes of existence, but the way it made others in my life happy, and the way it might help my dad to stop drinking was very exciting.  Of course none of my praying made any difference to my dad drinking and in the end the excitement of my decision to let Jesus into my heart faded and it became clear how the entire belief system had any relevance to life if one of the things they touted the most didn’t work.  I believed as much as a 12 year old could.  But the fact that prayer doesn’t work is not really the subject on my mind, but rather that as I reflect I see how much of a child I really was.  I completely didn’t understand the complexities of the religion or the Bible.  I was clearly caught up more in the joy that the adults in my life felt by my decision rather than really grasping the importance of what a religion means to someone’s life.

Dhyan_forkandknife

It takes very little time with an infant/toddler to see how much they want to imitate others.  And while I am sure there is an evolutionary aspect to this, because obviously if we have survived as long as we have, it makes sense to copy our parents, but what is also clear is our reaction to that imitation.  Because when he successfully uses a fork, or successfully gets up on a chair by himself, climbs the stairs etc, there is much applause.  There is much excitement and happiness.  All in the house are happy and pleased at this ability to accomplish these tasks that move them closer and closer to adulthood.  Every child can’t wait to do things older people can do. They can’t wait to grow up.  As children we are always looking for the approval of our adults.  We may rebel when we don’t get it, but initially, we want to be noticed by those we look up to.  As children we are somewhat helpless and getting adults to like you and notice you, is a way to make sure that they take care of you, teach you, spend time with you.  If you can impress an adult then this is a bonding experience.  Something we all seek.

dhyan_laptopFor all my dad’s faults he was fairly adamant about choosing a religion as being a choice to make as an adult.  That children didn’t have the capacity to understand the decision and thus did not want my mother to influence as children.  This was not something my mother or Mennonite grandmother could really help doing, but it was certainly tempered compared to many other children and I am quite thankful for my dad in that, because it’s clear to me that he was right.  Even at the age of 12 I could not understand a religious belief system.  From my mother I may not have adopted her belief system, but I learned about her charity, her kindness, her compassion, her perseverance, and the fact that she is someone who likes to ask questions and research the answers.  As I watch my child grow I can see that it’s less important what I believe, but rather how I act.  These are the things that will shape him.  Brainwashing him into a certain set of beliefs seems pointless over my actions being moral.  My child was born an atheist and if he decides that he wants to pursue a belief system as a guide to live his life then it will be his own choice, not because I’ve prescribed a doctrine for him to follow.

With the idea of God being “our Father”, I sometimes wonder if God isn’t the ultimate helicopter parent.  A way for people to still constantly seek approval from a parent-like figure.  It seems somewhat unnatural to me now to maintain such an attitude into adulthood.  As children it makes sense to have this attitude, but as adults we are supposed to no longer be seeking approval and be the role models for our young.  I guess as social animals it’s easy for such hierarchies to remain.  The only problem is, if there is no God then all we’re really doing is trying to make a non-existent entity happy and a lot of difficult to interpret texts written by men on what God actually wants to be made happy.  That seems like a wholly unhealthy way to live life.

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