One Thing Leads to Another

Have you ever done the following?

“If in the 6th grade there was a section in our science class about clouds, and then a section on it in the 8th grade that taught me more about meteorology I might never have picked the field to study.  And then if they hadn’t shown that video about radar in my undergraduate from the University of Oklahoma I might never have decided that I want to specialize in that and go to the University of Oklahoma.  That interest in radar in clouds led me to the University of Wyoming.  And then if I hadn’t met that girl Diane studying in the geology department who shared a love of games with me, leading to us taking turns hosting games nights.  And then at one of those games nights if I hadn’t cooked chicken curry for some of her acquaintances from the geology department who were invited and who didn’t announce they were vegetarians beforehand and couldn’t eat what I cooked, causing my friend to be so insulted on my behalf that she refused to invite them again, thus causing her to invite two new people to replace them, one of them being my future wife.  I would never have the wonderful life I have now.”

I am quite sure you have done this before.  Maybe it’s about a special relationship, maybe it’s a great job, maybe it’s even a tragedy or negative situation.  You could even go back further to how your parents met, grandparents, etc.  But let’s take a closer look at this journey through our life.  We look back at this chain of events and we see all the amazing decisions along the way that brought us through a path in life and it is somewhat mind-blowing. What we’re really doing is amazing ourselves about how large events in our life might never have happened if not for an amazing set of circumstances.  And of course it is true that this chain of events lead you to where you are.   Is it fate? Should we be blown away by all these amazing set of circumstances?

To answer this question we must ask ourselves another one.  What is the alternative?  There is none.  Events happen in time in a chronological order in

From http://www.photo-dictionary.com

which one event always leads to another.  And every person has their own timeline.  Every bit of life has a time line.  And even some things that aren’t alive have a timeline like hurricanes, avalanches, earthquakes etc.  All these events are happening and as each of us follows our path in time and space it is natural that we will intersect with the paths of other things in their timeline.  There is no choice to this.  If you met your future spouse in a convenient store as you were both reaching for the same bottle of coke we say this is remarkable how you were both thirsty that day and arrived at the same convenience store that was out of your neighborhood and decided to get yourself a beverage.  One of you feeling like Pepsi that day would have changed the course of your entire life, but there would like be another major event as you met somebody else instead later, not knowing what you missed, with a different chain of events that you deem important.  In fact what’s really interesting here is that, in a way, the fact that you chose Pepsi and not Coke that day allowed you to have the path you enjoy now but you would never even know the significance of that choice.

It seems also that part of the reason we are blown away by such a recounting of events, is that ultimately we are the ones who choose whether an event is even significant at all.  Meeting a lover, a best friend, or getting that perfect job might be all things that we find extraordinary and thus the events that led up to them seem almost banal leading to such momentous events.  But what if we were just to look at everything that happens in our lives as events?  For that is what they are, with each one only have the significance that we ascribe to it.  This walking into the convenience store before you met the love of your life and reached for that bottle of coke, is the same chain of events minus one link.  The moment when you realized you were thirsty and wanted a coke two less links in the chain of events in your life.  I think you get the picture.

So what should really blow our minds is that every event in our lives is the result of a complex chain of events, and that the littlest decision such as whether

From http://www.the-exponent.com

you want a Pepsi or Coke can be equally as life changing.  In one hand you realize it (choosing Coke) on the other hand you don’t (choosing Pepsi).  Now if thinking that every one of the littlest decisions of your life might be the most important you ever made stresses you out, don’t let it.  You are bound to make decisions, and even deciding not to anything about a situation is a decision and those decisions will lead to outcomes.  It is unavoidable.   I just think it’s a nice thought to think that every event might be as important as the next, and that any event might be one that is extremely significant even if we don’t know it at the time.

I am going to publish this post now instead of 5 minutes ago because I decided to heat up my chai because it got cold.  And who knows, maybe that will be change the course of my life.

Helpless

From http://deviantart.net

My baby is not much of a crier.  So when he does cry it feels a bit worrying.  Of course a baby will have different cries.  Sometimes those differences are subtle and they change a bit as they grow day by day.  There is one for wanting a dry diaper, one for hungriness, one for loneliness and just wanting to be held, and there is a whiny one for a toy they can’t reach (so you give it to them and they become bored 30 seconds later but then want another one!).  But there is one cry that seems very different to me.  This is the one in which they are in pain or misery: maybe teething, gastric discomfort, sleep deprived and tired, perhaps an ear infection.  Whatever it is as a parent you will know this cry.  They wail at the top of their lungs.  They are inconsolable.  There is no reasoning with them because there is no way you can communicate with them except to simply hold them and hope your warmth and love eventually calms the down.

There is a helplessness to babies, especially before they can understand language well and before they can move on their own that draws us towards them, that pierces our heart so deeply that we move almost unconsciously to try and take care of them.  But that cry of pain is a helpless cry for which there is no immediate solution.  You must simply bear it and simply wish each and every moment that such cries will stop.  Hopefully it is just a matter of the pain passing, the medicine working,  sleep arriving, or whatever it is (because sometimes you just don’t know) stopping so that that helpless and desperate cry will stop.  And I have to admit that the first time I experienced this cry when I was alone and I didn’t want to bother my wife who was getting some much needed time out with a friend, I despaired and felt helpless myself.  Not knowing what to do.  Of course this is part of what all babies go through and it’s not traumatizing for them, it’s just life.  Nevertheless it brought tears to my eyes and feeling like a terrible father for not being able to take my son’s pain away.  In that moment I felt utterly helpless as he wailed and wailed in my arms.

As I was able to let my mind catch up to my emotions it occurred to me how fortunate I was to have medicine, how fortunate I was to have a 911 to call, or a pediatrician that has a 24 hour answering service, or just people in my life in general to turn to.  Sometimes it just takes the reminder even that all of this is just normal and that everything will be fine.  Then I started thinking about all the mothers out there in the world who must listen to that cry for which there is no help.  There is no medicine.  There is no spouse.  Maybe they are just desperately tired after a long day of work and could use their child’s smile to life their spirits, but instead the baby is sick and wails into the night.  I started thinking about all the babies whose cries go unheard.  Helpless as they are and even through their tears there are no arms to hold them.  I have to admit I cried again, but it’s probably worth all our time to take a moment to remember this.

From http://images.fineartamerica.com

It is a sad reality though that “helpless” is not only something we all feel, but is sometimes the actual state of things.  How many times have you felt helpless in your life?  I’m sure there have been plenty.  We might have felt helpless against a bully at school, a loved one dying from a terminal disease, helpless against the abuse of a parent or guardian, helpless because there is nobody to go to when we are in trouble, or helpless against a traumatic event, accident or natural disaster through no fault of our own.  Maybe you have a loved one with an addiction.  Whether a child, sibling, parent, or friend.  In such cases no amount of help will do much good unless they want it, and the feeling of helplessness mounts.

There are certain realities that are hard to face.  Perhaps even harder than facing death.  As we grow we feel more powerful, we feel like there is more we can do to affect change, help ourselves and help others, but in the end we are always subject to forces outside our realm of influence.  Life is a mixture of experiences both in and out of our control.  Recognizing the difference between the two seems, to me, a lifelong struggle.  All we can do I guess is to continue to love and care – about ourselves and others, and hope that feelings of helplessness will pass quickly for all who walk on this earth.

Valuing Life: Death Part II

One of the unexpected things that happened when I realized that I was an atheist was that I began to have a greater respect for life.  I know the existence of an afterlife cannot be disproven, but neither can it be proven and so if this is the only existence we have, and death means non-existence, then appreciating this existence is paramount.  I know that being atheist isn’t a pre-requisite for an appreciation for existence, but that’s just how it happened for me (not that I was ever in support of violence).   I realize also that I am in an economic position in life to enjoy it much more than others but it is often surprising to me how often poor people are happier and more generous than those with wealth.  There is something to the old adage “Take joy in the simple things in life”.  Nevertheless there are those beyond just being poor.  Countless millions who do not get their daily need for food and water met.  If one values life then it should be our first and foremost goal to lift all those up to enjoy the marvels of existence.

When someone says they value life, it is often unclear what they mean.  First of all, what do we define as life?  Some people just seem to mean human life.   Some value other animals as well.  For some it is just certain animals that we think of as pets, but not ones that we use for food.  This tends to vary by culture.  Some value the life of animals, provided that they die without suffering and are treated

From http://www.jigzone.com

humanely in their life.  Some value the life of an animal based on how close to a human it is, and are okay with ending the life of simpler creatures.  Finally some value all animals and only eat vegetables.  Why is plant life less important?  Should feelings, or the fact that they are part of Kingdom Animalia at all be the deciding factor on how valuable life is?  As I have argued before that whenever we put value on life just because of its similarity to us, there is a certain human conceit there that I am not so sure is healthy.

For those that value human life, even that is inconsistent.  It is clear that we humans have a different line of reasoning when it comes to the harming of those that we deem innocent.  People often get much more outraged at a mistreated animal, or the abortion of a fetus, than a mistreated adult.     But we were all children once.  A child who is taught to hate minorities will become an adult who hates minorities.  If that adult commits a hate crime, why do we hate him back, call for his punishment, or even death.   In reality he is simply just an older child who was never taught to see the value in all people and that we are all brothers and sisters on this planet.  It is akin to me being upset at someone for not knowing calculus.  How could they if they were never taught?  It always seems to be assumed that as an adult we have choices to just change the way we think in an instant.  This is clearly not true, and in fact it gets harder as you get older, not easier.

From tardis.wikia.com

The biggest paradox I see for those people who are both “pro-life” in relation to abortion, is that they tend to be conservative in their views on capital punishment, war, and gun control.   Abortion is a tough issue, no question, and one where I truly understand the “pro-life” point of view.  What is clear to me is that no legislation should force a woman to go through something that profoundly effects her body, and for which there is no such equivalent or societal requirement on the father.  And the cold reality of the matter is; mothers ending the lives of their infants are a natural part of our psychology.  It is uncomfortable to accept such a cold fact as this, partially because it almost makes no sense in a modern society.  It is important to remember though that most of our evolution did not take place in civilization, but in the wild.  And in the wild resources are often scarce and raising a child, as anybody even today will admit, takes a lot of resources.  So in our brains when we feel like the child is not going to be able to get the support it needs, women will make the logical choice of abortion.  There is some logic to it.  Yes I said it.  Our brains are not programmed for birth control; our brains are not programmed for a society in which adoption is possible.  In the end, our world is the one right in front of us and in that moment ending an unwanted pregnancy is sensible.  This is why abortion rates are lowest in countries with adequate health care for all citizens, especially mothers, easy access to birth control, and plenty of education about sex and the consequences thereof.   Then of course there is the issue of whether a fetus counts as life, counts as human?  I don’t think that it can be answered anytime soon.  All I know is that it is not my place to decide what happens to an embryo inside a womb in the first 15 weeks of pregnancy.

From talkingpointsmemo.com

But if I weep for an aborted baby, then why do I not weep for all those people killed in war, shot down by gun violence, sent to the electric chair, or for even that matter the 20,000 people who die every day from hunger.  The answer comes down to the fact that killing is serious business and we have to justify it.  Perhaps abortion is just killing that we have justified.  But then it is no less immoral than any other killing that we find acceptable.  If we can justify abortion based on the grounds that it is not a child so early in development, then is it not the same reasoning we use for any other type of killing we support and even call for?  It comes down to dehumanizing people.  Whether it’s Muslims, criminals, poor people, minorities…whenever we say that any human life has less value then our own you will find things like abuse, torture, and killing.  Dehumanizing at a fundamental level involves two things.  First is the stripping away of things like the individuality of a person (i.e.  All Muslims hate Americans).  Secondly it focuses on making out their desires to always be about negative things.  Things that we consider the worst qualities of humanity or just the opposition of the virtues that we value most highly in our species.   So we can say “All Muslims hate freedom”, rather than suggesting that they are more like us than different, and that all Muslims want is to have a livelihood, take care of their families and have self-determination in their lives.  Something we all want.

This same reasoning can be applied to how many people think of the poor, other races, political affiliations, criminals, etc.  It concerns me that in this country that there seems to be a decreasing value placed on life.  The Travyon Martin case exemplifies this all too well.  Not just about his murder (it is at the very least manslaughter) itself but by the “Stand Your Ground” law.  If being threatened is enough to justify killing another human being then I think we need to seriously address this philosophy in our society.  Something must have gone wrong somewhere for such a law to even be proposed. Should someone’s existence end for stealing a television set?  There was a recent story about a woman who shot at a car for turning around near her driveway.  There were 4 children in the car and children could have been shot.  Luckily the bullets only hit the car.  The woman’s explanation was that her driveway was getting ruined because people were turning around on it all the time.  What does it say about our society when something so trivial as a driveway takes precedence over life?

From http://www.screen-wallpapers.com

As far as we know it, death is the very end.  Even if it isn’t, this existence must have value or we would not be born into it.   We must therefore question ALL killing.  We must be forgiving and believe in redemption.  We must look at a human as a product of his experiences rather than a creature who always has the power to make conscious choices to do acts of good and evil.  This planet teems with life and we are connected to it all.  Nothing that lives has more right to life than anything else, and yet killing is also natural whether it is for food or for protection.  As a species we have the ability to kill with the strength and power like no other species, but we also have the equal ability to find alternatives to killing.  The latter should always be our goal.  We should be continually striving to find ways to survive that do not deny the right to life of others even if killing happens along the way.

Death Part I

My first experience with death happened when I was 5 years old.  Sadly my cousin who was 2 died in a trailer fire.  It is safe to say that I really didn’t understand what death meant.   Like many children I was a bit selfish, and perhaps somewhat used to a life where for the first 3 years I was the oldest grandchild and was likely doted upon, and I felt resentful of my younger cousin who always seemed to get first helpings of things like watermelon or cake, even though I was also hungry and, in my own opinion, more important.  It’s safe to say I did not care for her.  I remember distinctly my aunts and uncles sitting around looking quite sad obviously.  Then I opened my big mouth and said “Well who cares no one will miss her anyway.”  To this day I don’t know why I didn’t get a severe beating, but I am thankful for the wisdom of my elders for recognizing that I was only a child and didn’t understand.  One of my uncles simply looked at me and said “Well what if you died, and we said ‘Well who cares no one will miss him anyway?’ “  The words made me understand, as is often the case, when we turn the things we say upon ourselves we can sometimes see their true measure.   To this day, I find it hard to forgive myself for uttering those words.  Understanding grief like I do now, even coming from a 5 year old, those words I uttered had to hurt.  I’ve carried those words for a long time, and if there is no sympathy for a foolish child, then at least know that I truly believed it shaped me into a more compassionate adult.

I can safely say that at the time, however, the gravity of death wasn’t something I completely understood.  It’s not easy to really understand when you’re very young and have so much growing yet to do.  The world is full of adults and so it seems impossible that you won’t at least make it to the age of your parents or aunts and uncles.   I’ve always liked the saying “death is an important part of life”.  Because ultimately it’s true as paradoxical as it sounds.  We have a beginning and an end.  And while we are barely conscious at the beginning (which is really a shame to be robbed of remembering that experience of coming out into the world for the first time), death is something we are all too conscious of.

One could argue that life and death are the only true things that we know in this world.  We are alive in this plane of existence and eventually that life will end.  Now many believe in an afterlife and that’s fine, but ultimately that requires faith, but I believe that everyone, somewhere at their core, has a seed of doubt about the afterlife, even if they don’t want to admit it.  Few people can freely give up their life here for the afterlife.  Those that do still believe that their last earthly act will have an impact of value in this existence, and thus are still, at least in some sense, grounded here.  Of course many of those people one could arguably say are crazy (i.e. suicide

From http://www.mediabistro.com

bombers).  Others, while heroes, when they give their life they do so to preserve it for others and I would argue the afterlife is still not their primary goal.  It seems to me that notions of an afterlife regardless of whether they have a punitive or rewarding nature are simply but another to try and cheat the evitable.  Non-existence.

As natural as death is, it is clear that all life fights it.  The will to live and survive is in every creature, and as humans our awareness of death means we are much greater fighters than many other species.  Life is the battle against death.  In any other situation one is unlikely to enter any battle they know they will lose, but this battle is one we never asked to be in, one that we have to fight, and so all we can do is make the best of it.  It does no good to focus on this inevitability, when you do life becomes much more pallid.

I think it’s also interesting though that when you don’t worry so much about death, you start to see that survival really only involves living.  And that if you focus on how to live better, then you start winning that battle against death in a much more meaningful way.  You will still lose in the end, but you are at least fighting with honor and dignity.  The value we place on life (not only our own) has a lot to say, I believe, about how we behave in this world and this will be the subject of a later blog.