Daily Meditation

I was reading Mak’s recent post this morning questioning how Adam and Eve could fear a punishment of death without having known death and it reminded of this interesting passage from Roger Zelazny’s Hugo Award winning book Lord of Light (I strongly recommend it).  Also just as a bit of trivia, this book was the source for the fake movie they said they were making to rescue the hostages from Iran in 1979.  Anyway these are some words to contemplate.

“Names are not important,” he said. “To speak is to name names, but to speak is not important. A thing happens once that has never happened before. Seeing it, a man looks upon reality. He cannot tell others what he has seen. Others wish to know, however, so they question him saying, ‘What is it like, this thing you have seen?’ So he tries to tell them. Perhaps he has seen the very first fire in the world. He tells them, ‘It is red, like a poppy, but through it dance other colors. It has no form, like water, flowing everywhere. It is warm, like the sun of summer, only warmer. It exists for a time upon a piece of wood, and then the wood is gone, as though it were eaten, leaving behind that which is black and can be sifted like sand. When the wood is gone, it too is gone.’ Therefore, the hearers must think reality is like a poppy, like water, like the sun, like that which eats and excretes. They think it is like to anything that they are told it is like by the man who has known it. But they have not looked upon fire. They cannot really know it. They can only know of it. But fire comes again into the world, many times. More men look upon fire. After a time, fire is as common as grass and clouds and the air they breathe. They see that, while it is like a poppy, it is not a poppy, while it is like water, it is not water, while it is like the sun, it is not the sun, and while it is like that which eats and passes wastes, it is not that which eats and passes wastes, but something different from each of these apart or all of these together. So they look upon this new thing and they make a new word to call it. They call it ‘fire.’

“If they come upon one who still has not seen it and they speak to him of fire, he does not know what they mean. So they, in turn, fall back upon telling him what fire is like. As they do so, they know from their own experience that what they are telling him is not the truth, but only a part of it. They know that this man will never know reality from their words, though all the words in the world are theirs to use. He must look upon the fire, smell of it, warm his hands by it, stare into its heart, or remain forever ignorant. Therefore, ‘fire’ does not matter, ‘earth’ and ‘air’ and ‘water’ do not matter. ‘I’ do not matter. No word matters. But man forgets reality and remembers words. The more words he remembers, the cleverer do his fellows esteem him. He looks upon the great transformations of the world, but he does not see them as they were seen when man looked upon reality for the first time. Their names come to his lips and he smiles as he tastes them, thinking he knows them in the naming. The thing that has never happened before is still happening. It is still a miracle. The great burning blossom squats, flowing, upon the limb of the world, excreting the ash of the world, and being none of these things I have named and at the same time all of them, and this is reality, the Nameless.”

Ask an Expert

Currently I am in Austin, TX attending the national American Meteorological Society meeting.  The conference continues to grow in size as the field becomes more interdisciplinary and attracts professionals from both the private and government sectors.  You meet researchers, educators, broadcasters.  Of course one of the big topics here remains climate change.  You won’t see many speakers spending time proving that it’s happening.  There are a few, but a bulk of the people will be talking about how to we get more people on board to take action?  How do we get government to listen?  How do we communicate more effectively to the public?  What are the kinds of policies we need to mollify people who are worried about jobs and livelihood as we switch to more and more renewable energy?  But climate change itself isn’t what I wanted to talk about although it is part of the inspiration for this post.  That and a podcast I listened to with Tom Nichols who wrote a book called The Death of Expertise.

As someone who writes a blog, uses social media, and is a professor, I am fairly outspoken about climate change and have had my expertise challenged many times.  I consider myself an expert of sorts, but as I sit here surrounded by greats in our field and even lesser known ones, I also know that I am a light expert when it comes to climate change.  And I know a lot.  But there are people who know more.  There are people who have a great depth of expertise.  I spent 11 years in university becoming what I am.  There are people who have spent the same amount of time and then on top of that spend year after year researching problems and testing hypotheses and collecting and analyzing data.  Why do they do such things?  We live in a time where much information is available instantly.  Have people like myself and others here simply wasted all our time and just should have waited for the internet to be in its current state so that we could gain the same level of expertise through a few days (hours?) of googling?

I have tried different methods of engaging people on the subject of climate change publicly (some I’ll admit I knew weren’t helpful to anybody but myself), but nothing really seems to make much of a difference.  In the end, someone who might be a line chef at a restaurant will adamantly disagree with you.  And of course I have had far more educated people disagree with me as well, but they have not been educated in meteorology or a related field. And it shows.  I’ll be honest if you want to be critical of climate change with me, I can tell the moment you start speaking, how much you actually know about the science.  Now that’s not to say that you couldn’t have a lively debate should you talk about policy, law, or the pros and cons of renewable energy.  These are all things I am not an expert at, and don’t pretend to be.  So why do so many people pretend they can be an expert on the topic of climate change?

You might say that skepticism is healthy, and this is true.  But that skepticism needs to also come from other experts.  Within the scientific community disagreement and skepticism are everywhere, and scientists within a discipline are constantly challenging each other to do better.  Yes there are times when science fails, but more often than not the expertise of people makes a positive difference.  It seems that it’s our penchant for noticing the failures that perhaps skews our perceptions.  But the amount of expertise it takes just for a plane to successfully take off and land is immense, and there are over 100,000 commercial flights per day.  Many people of course falsely see planes as unsafe modes of travel, but most of us know there is no safer way to travel.  Assuming people in aviation don’t know what they are doing because of the rare plane crash would be an obviously false perception.  For people who deny the validity of climate science I often ask them why the scientific findings are inherently different than the science that was used to make the computer they are using to argue with me?  One of the more intelligent people (non-expert however) I’ve argued with about climate change plainly stated that he trusted a prediction 2 years out of an asteroid collision with Earth, but still maintained that any climate model that tried to predict climate was no better than flipping a coin.

It’s clear that climate science is much more about politics than the science, but since the truth of the results lies outside of the purview of political leanings, the science gets attacked, weakly but loudly.  What other choice is there for such people?  With instant access to information, the perception that one can be knowledgeable enough over a number of hours to speak authoritatively on issues gives them the confidence to do so.  This simply isn’t true.  This post might seem boastful to some or elitist.  In some ways I suppose the latter is true.  I do feel that I represent a very small portion of the population that understands the atmosphere well.  But as I’ve said I’m also smart enough to know how much more there is to know.  And while I am generally smart enough to slog my way through scholarly articles in most field, never would I assume that this makes me an expert.  Put me in the presence of an expert and you’ll find me asking more questions than being argumentative.  And there is expertise to be found in many walks of life.  I don’t go in telling mechanics what their job is about, or spend a lot of time second guessing how accountants do their job, or tell a carpenter he’s hammering a nail all wrong.  I feel I am humble enough about the things for which I know little, but appropriately confident about the things in which I have expertise.  Too often that expertise is challenged by people with none and too often I feel like I should almost apologize for knowing a lot about something.  Personally, I am glad there are experts out there.  I am glad there are people who devote their lives to the understanding something well, to perform tasks everyday knowledgeably and skillfully.  And I am also glad that there are enough experts to challenge other people with similar expertise, who are there to spot mistakes and make improvements over each other’s works.

It seems that we have drifted in this country away from the appreciation of expertise.  And I don’t think one side of the political spectrum is immune to it.  As I watch the numerous cheers for Oprah Winfrey to be our next president, I get deeply concern that the value we place on expertise has waned to dangerous levels.  It is a great age, because there are so many places where we need people with expertise.  Everybody has the ability to be an expert in something.  But this takes time, study, and experience, and this fact should never be forgotten.  Take some time to think about how your day is made better by the experts in your world.

Boundaries

We had some guests over on the weekend for dinner.  My wife likes a few decorous things when setting the table for guests, especially when it’s someone we are just meeting or don’t have often. Nothing overly elaborate, but my wife has certain tastes and a style I like.  One of these things are napkin holders that are also in the shape of a bull’s head.  They are dark and wooden.  My son, who likes anything animal picks this up and is confused to its purpose.  My wife tries to explain that it’s for decoration and for holding napkins, but doesn’t really understand why napkins need to be held.  His only response was “Well where is its legs?  If you are going to have something that looks like a bull’s head, it should have the rest of the bull.

As I watched the puzzlement I began to think about how simply children see the world and just sort of see beyond the messy social fabric that binds us all together.  A mass of rituals and customs and rules that we share with others that keep life from seemingly falling apart at the seams.  A construct so you know who is like you and who isn’t like you.  It helps you sort and categorize.  And then as if you hadn’t spent enough time breaking up the fluidity of nature, you actually been to rank all that sorted information.  Things that are good, things that are bad, things that are tolerable, surprising, beautiful, sexy, evil, disgusting, creepy, not trustworthy, frightening.  Ideally having as few categories as possible, and trying to fit as much into a category as we can.  And the diabolical thing about all these rituals, customs, and rules is we both need them to make sense out of an ever changing and persistently uncertain world, and…well…we just made it all up.

And in some sense we all know that much of this social construct is to give us a post to lean against, a chair to sit down in, or a good night’s rest when we need it, but there is so much absurdity that even we don’t really want to follow the rules, perform the rituals, do what is customary.  And sometimes we can even laugh about it.  Many a standup comedian has made a living from such observations about society.  And as we explain to my child what this napkin holder is for, we normalize it and it becomes not a strange thing; something to accept and move on to the more pressing issues in our lives.  Of course the use of napkin holders is not the worst of things to normalize.  Rather small really.  You hope to simply teach the lesson that we all have such decorous things in our lives to add some color, some aesthetic pleasure to the world.  But what about those bigger prescribed rules and customs?  Like, what is masculine and feminine, a woman’s place is in the home, atheists have no morals, black people are not to be trusted, or a definition of what it means to be patriotic.  Past and present is full these human social constructs, meant to make things fit.  Like a shirt we’ve outgrown it doesn’t fit well, and even if we do squeeze into it, it feels uncomfortable and the aesthetics are lost even if it was ever actually there.

All of us in our lives have taken a stand against something.  We said, I am not going to play by that particular set of rules.  It doesn’t make sense.  As I age, I feel that part of me slipping away.  Is it that I have truly observed carefully enough to know what all the harmful rules are, and thus which ones not to follow? I suspect I’ve missed a few. Or does the fight simply start to leave us when we feel like we’ve come and fought far enough?  The same wisdom that protects me from being tossed and blown around, also seems to prevent from wanting to toss and blow others?  I feel like I question less, even if I ask better questions.  Perhaps there is value to both parts, but as I watched my son, I couldn’t help but feeling that life is for the young to lead the way at making things better.  I hate when older people get down on younger people.  As a society the young are our children and grandchildren, we need to encourage, because they certainly don’t have it easy.  Is it easier than we had it?  Perhaps. But these things tend to be subjective.  The key is, I don’t think we should be having children if our hope was to keep the world just as hard and as uncertain as we had it.  And as I watched my 3-year-old look at something in the world and basically say, “This makes no sense. Why do we do it?”, it made me happy.  It is a simple question we seem to ask less as we grow older and that needs to always be asked.  This is how we move across this category-laden world we’ve created.  The social constructs that our evolved minds create are both essential, and perilous if we adhere to it too strongly.   Our species spans across numerous ages, and that is one of our evolutionary advantages.  Each age group providing something unique, another way in which we cooperate.  Maybe in the end it’s just the young breaking barriers as fast as they can, while the old are just there to wag their finger and say “not too fast, you don’t want to fall and hurt yourself. “

“I understand now that boundaries between noise and sound are conventions. All boundaries are conventions, waiting to be transcended. One may transcend any convention if only one can first conceive of doing so. Moments like this, I can feel your heart beating as clearly as I feel my own, and I know that separation is an illusion. My life extends far beyond the limitations of me. ” – Spoken by Robert Frobisher in the movie Cloud Atlas

 

What Makes A Good Human?: Courage

The posts in this series so far have all been about valuable qualities for a human to have. I have tried to stress the importance of each quality, that none should be forgotten, and that we should work to exemplify them in our daily lives. As a passive reader, perhaps you have taken it all in, perhaps you have thought to yourself, this blogger has some good things to say and I agree with him. While it is great to keep wise thoughts and words in your head, as long as they remain just in your head they are useless. They must be actionable. This is the importance of courage. Courage is all about “doing”. Nobody goes around saying “I’m courageous”. You would simply be seen as a boaster and probably a liar if you went around saying this everywhere. People expect you to show it. It is something that cannot be proven by words alone.  As a result courage is as important as any other quality in a good human, and because it is about doing some might consider it to be the most important.

So what is courage? For many courage is about physical courage. They apply it to soldiers, police, firefighters, etc. These are people who still do their duty or job at great physical risk to themselves. And I have no doubt that many of the men and woman exemplify courage that do these jobs, but there are other moments when many other people may show physical courage. Trying to finish a marathon when your body feels like it can’t move another muscle could be considered courageous. Courage is not only defined by overcoming physical threats, there is also moral courage; a courage to act rightly, do as your principles guide you, and being true to who you are, despite what opposition, shame, or discouragement you may face. In either case we can see that courage is about overcoming the fear that prevents us from acting on what we think is right. Whether we value doing our job and duty putting out a dangerous fire and trying to save lives, or whether it is fighting unfair laws, coming out to your family and friends as gay, coming out to your family and friends as atheist, making yourself vulnerable to someone you love deeply, forgiving someone who has hurt you, or ending a relationship that you know isn’t right for you. And in many cases displaying moral courage can incur physical harm also, as I am sure many LGBT people can tell you once they came out of the closet.  It is important to remember also that while courage is a matter of degrees it is often difficult to judge how much courage one has for any particular action.  Someone who is afraid of the water may exhibit just as much courage taking that first step into the pool as a soldier takes taking his or her first step on to the battlefield.

For most of us, including myself, there are many things that we think are important and yet we’ve done very little to show they are important.  I think we’ve all had times where we knew something was important and right, but didn’t act on it.  This is a surefire way to build regrets in your life.  So it’s one thing to agree and say “yes play is important, I need to incorporate more of that into my life”, but if you aren’t putting that idea into something actionable it isn’t going to be much help to you or anybody else. Gandhi famously said “Be the change you wish to see in the world”.  If you can’t exemplify the things you think are important, this, in my opinion, is due to a lack of courage. I know this sounds critical, but I am probably far more critical of my own lack of courage than anyone else. While I think I am a decent person, I want to always grow and become better, and I know that part of the reason why I wrote this series and put it out there is because I want to make sure I hold myself to the standard I am setting. I also understand fear, and how paralyzing it can be. There are very real reasons to be afraid of the consequences of our actions even if they are the right ones. What if a good friend of yours committed a crime? Would you report them knowing that what they did is wrong? Would it depend on the severity of the crime? Would it depend on how much history you have with that person? How much you loved them? What about the repercussions of other friends or family in the circle? It may also be your principle to protect the people you love no matter what, and for you keeping them out of jail might be what you consider protection. Therefore doesn’t it also require some courageous to fight that inner conflict and stick by your decision though it may be hard to forgive that person for the crime they committed? Our morality is often fraught with conflict and so doing what is right is often difficult.  Courage isn’t always about doing the right thing in an absolute sense, but may also be just doing what you think is right. Of course at times we can be not just wrong, but very wrong.

Here…a Reagan quote for all the Reagan lovers out there. He was a little more liberal than most people make him out to be today.

But even if we do have it wrong, acting on what we think is right is in most cases not a bad thing, because courage also implies taking a risk. As I’ve blogged about before taking risks whether a success or failure, teaches us something about ourselves. It gives us new information which we can build on moving forward. If you never left your country and were nervous about doing so it takes courage to overcome that hesitation and have that brand new experience of travel and being somewhere totally foreign. You may find that you love it and find something new and exciting to add to your life. Or you might have gotten robbed and had a horrible experience and decide that maybe travel isn’t for you. Either way you’ve learned and you can focus what new experiences you seek elsewhere. Courage asks us to put aside our instinct to simply stay safe. At times staying safe is sensible, but dwell there for too long and we let fears rule our lives, we fail to grow, learn and become stagnant.

Just like it takes courage to act on the qualities I’ve discussed in this series, so do those qualities help our courage.  Since we often fear what we don’t understand curiosity can help us make acts of courage not so daunting.  But no amount of knowledge can ever really erase our fears.  Even if what we learn is 100% correct it is human nature to experience something to really overcome our fears.  I am sure the person who is hydrophobic would gain little from reading books about the safety of water.  Our curious nature can also help us learn so that when we would do show courage we are acting not just what is right for us, but is also right for others and causes the least amount of harm.  Courage, by itself, is largely a matter of perspective.  Those who are more nationalistic put the courage of soldiers above all others.  Terrorists in Al Qaeda probably think that those who died crashing their planes into their targets during 9/11 were also courageous.   I am sure those who are strongly racist think that Roof was courageous for striking a blow against African-Americans.  Except in an extreme crisis it important to think before we act.  Courage being an action word implies that we must also think deeply about our principles.  But without courage just thinking is not enough either.  If this post or any other in this series so far has made you think then you are ready for the 8th and final quality to be posted in the not to distant future.