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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A Letter to Bernie Sanders

Dear Bernie,

First, I hope you don’t mind me calling you Bernie.  You have from the start of your campaign felt like one of us.  Something no other candidate has been able to pull off.  So many presidential candidates seem so out of touch with the large majority of the population, and so the first thing I want to thank you for is being is so accessible to so many of us.  Hell, you even flew coach.  At the age of 42 I find that exhausting and I’m not doing the intense amount of traveling and campaigning that you were. This is just one of the many things I have to thank you for in this letter.

I want to thank you for running a brilliant campaign.  You used social media in a way that no other candidate has done before. To communicate with young people and get them excited about politics (as they should be) is important.  I also know it was a way to get attention that the corporate media wasn’t going to give you.  I imagine the excitement you could have generated in this nation if you had been given similar exposure as your democratic running mate and the progress that could have been made if you were elected.  You certainly deserved it and exposed the fact that the media isn’t trying to respond to the will of the people, but trying to bend the will of the people towards their narrative.

I want to thank you for running a clean campaign.  You made it clear right from the beginning that you had a message and that you wanted to talk about the issues.  You didn’t attack your opponents with meaningless minutia, but gave fair and substantive criticism of their political positions, policies and plans. It’s easy to get disappointed by the election process when it seems like slinging mud at each other is something that has to be done if you want to get elected.  When it seems like pandering has to be part of the process.  You generated so much support by being an honest politician and simply talking about the problems that you would have to face for the job you hoped to be elected for.  I hope that you will be an inspiration for politicians in the future, because we quite simply need more who run their campaign the way you have.

I want to thank you for not using a SuperPAC.  The marriage between big business and government has to end and you lived that message during your campaign.  You depended on support from the people, the unions fighting for the people, and you did amazingly well.  The fact that you gained so much support and won so many hearts without playing by the rules that so many politicians today feel they have to play by gives me some hope for the future of this nation.  You are the only candidate who took the term “public servant” to heart, instead of being the “corporate pawn.”

By not being bought, I want to thank you for always having the courage of your convictions.  You have a long history of political consistency.  This is rare in of itself, and I am sure you had many advisers suggesting that you waver from that in order to get elected.  Even close friends might have suggested that, just knowing the good you could do if elected, but you took the high road and trusted that if being true to yourself got you this far, it might even get you to the highest office of the nation.  Whether we like or dislike a candidate we deserve a group of people to vote for who are exactly who they appear to be.  Gandhi famously said “Be the change you want to see in the world.”  You seem to have always lived by that creed.  I am so grateful for that, because I simply thought that candidates like you didn’t exist anymore.

That face. The kind he’d give to the media when they were asking pointless questions. 🙂

Finally, I want to thank you for changing the conversation.  You were substantive and intelligent when talking about the issues.   It may be that there are different or even better solutions to our problems but you never backed down from an honest conversation about them.  You changed the conversation from one that was divisive to one that was inclusive.  You talked in red states.  You talked at Liberty University.  You avoided talking about religion, which has no business being in our political system, but more importantly, because you knew that regardless of one’s individual beliefs we must focus on our common aims than our differences.  We must realize that there is more that binds us than separates us.  You showed political courage even when you didn’t have to for the simple reason that you wanted to suture the tear that seems to be worsening and threatens to move the people of this nation further apart.  You genuinely want to help all citizens of this country, you care about the oppressed, the marginalized, and the unlucky.  You demonstrated so much compassion and integrity.  We sink or swim together and you seem to be the only one who really gets that.

My heart is broken that you didn’t win.  However, my heart is lightened by what you accomplished in this primary.  When a virtuous and honest man comes to the fore it forces a lot of people to ask questions about their own character and so I hope that even if you can’t be president, the greater thing you accomplished was that you created a better political climate going forward.  We need that combination of empathy and courage from the men and woman who want to be political leaders in our country going forward.  Thank you for being an example for those who follow you.

Sincerely,
Swarn Gill

Tolerance

One of the common words that we hippie-type people like to use is the word tolerance.  We need to be more tolerant.  I said it myself in my last post, but based on a discussion on that post I decided that it was worth investigating this concept of tolerance.  While I think many people derived a theme of being more tolerant towards Muslims, what I really meant to look at is what are better and worse ways of dealing with a difficult situation.  I’ve come to realize that often when I use the word tolerance, the meaning I hold to it is different than others.  And so maybe what I am suggesting is not tolerance at all, but something else.

Ahirhsa refers to non-violence

What I think we can agree on, is that tolerance is definitely not something we should always be doing.  We live in a very PC culture where we are being told constantly to be tolerant, but tolerance can lead to passiveness, and there are some things we should not tolerate or be passive about.  One could say that being intolerant has led to many important social changes.  When laws are unjust being tolerant of them isn’t getting you very far.  Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr are good examples of historical figures who were not very tolerant and accomplished great things for their people in the march towards equality and self-determination.  But then I also thought about the importance of context.  If laws are unjust, if there is oppression, then it is these practices that are intolerant.  And shouldn’t we be intolerant to practices that are intolerant.  For instance, if black people are not allowed to sit in certain restaurants this would be an example of a system which is not tolerant towards different races.  White people would not tolerate a black person sitting next to them while eating.  Did black people owe it to white people to be tolerant of their practices so as to not make them feel uncomfortable?  Of course not.  On the other side we could point to Kim Davis.  She doesn’t agree with a law that allows gay people marry.  The law is just because it gives equal rights to people of different sexual orientation, and doesn’t infringe on anybody’s ability to practice their own religion.  Thus we would ask Kim Davis to be tolerant.  Of course, whether it is people not wanting blacks in their restaurant, or gay people to marry, what we are really saying to those people is “you’re wrong, get used to it”.  We’re saying, your “intolerance, will no longer be tolerated”.  And I believe this is fair and this is right, but there is a little bit of a subtext there that says “You really should change your mind and agree with us, because other ways life is going to be pretty annoying for you”.  And again, I’m not saying this isn’t fair, but to the other person they would easily say that we are the intolerant ones of their views and why do they have to show tolerance and we don’t?  The word “tolerance”, at least to me, is sort of a confusing word when you think about it.

So going back to the issue of “banning the burka”, if I say tolerance is prudent, what does that mean?  First I think it’s important to note that tolerance of an action and condoning that action are different.  But if you are really against something, being tolerant and thus passive can be seen as equal as condoning it.  I think there is some truth to that, but it’s important to remember that not all people would fight a battle in the same way. Some methods of fighting are more effective and/or cause less overall harm. Kim Davis’ beliefs may make her decide that she should not tolerate what she’s sees as an unjust law and she is welcome to fight it.  However there are better and worse ways to do such a thing, and the choice she has made is ultimately ineffective, and denies legal rights to fellow citizens.  The burka or niqab is a troubling practice.  Women have become so oppressed in some countries that many of them are even complicit with that oppression and would feel real spiritual pain by not following what they believe to be true regarding their value compared to men.  Should we tolerate such gender equality?  The answer once again is, of course not.  However should we be tolerant towards women wearing the burka?  Then I would say yes, but I would say that doesn’t mean we can’t do anything about it.  So maybe when we ask for tolerance, what we really mean is patience and careful thought.  Let’s not have knee-jerk reactions that are governed by our fears, but let’s take actions that are based on our love and compassion.  The fight for gender equality is really one about love and compassion.  Telling women that they have equal freedom and value as men in society is just that.  Freedom of religion is also one of love and compassion because it says to people that you are allowed to keep your beliefs and that the law will not dictate what you must believe.   No one else wants their beliefs infringed on so why should we pass laws that infringe on others? Of course that doesn’t mean that you can come into a country and expect that a belief structure that by design causes harm to another group will be easily tolerated, especially when that country has fought long and hard to try and erode the traditions you still hold on to.   At the same time, you may also expect that new laws shouldn’t be passed that specifically target you for doing what you were raised culturally to accept as normal.   I think it’s also important that when we oppose certain cultural practices that we consider immoral, that we don’t reject an entire a culture.  Cultural practices are not homogeneous and thus are not all bad or all good.  At the very least some practices may cause no harm at all and thus we should be tolerant of those.

What we are really after, therefore, is a way in which we can present a group of people who have morally unsound practices with a better way of living.  In the case of the severe oppression of women in some Islamic countries, a proactive way of doing this is to empower women.  Self-determination goes a much longer way in affecting change than oppressive laws.  And while it would be nice to have men on the same side, many will resist due to the fact that they will be losing a position of privilege in their society, but ultimately just as the fight for equality here in the U.S. has required the support of men, so will it need to be the case in Islam.  One possible way in which we can appeal to the rational in both men and women would be to offer education into the development of children.  This article was shared with me by Victoria over at VictoriaNeuronotes and discusses the important of babies being able to see facial expression in their mother.  From the article:

Teacher Maryam Khan, says: “Working with young children, so much is read just from facial expressions, you don’t have to speak to a child.

“If they can’t see your face, they don’t know what you’re thinking – a glare, a smile.”

Psychologists agree. “It’s particularly true for children under five because their communication is non-verbal, they’re much better at reading it than adults,” says Dr. Lewis. “If they’re denied these signals they become quite confused.”

If, when in public, the mother’s face is always covered, this has an adverse impact on a baby’s mood and reactions to situations.  The YouTube video below demonstrates this impact clearly.  And there may be other things that we can discuss with them such as the importance of sunlight to pregnant mothers and babies for Vitamin D.  Given that a love of children is cross-cultural and people generally want the best for children, this seems like a proactive way to change minds by connecting with men and women emotionally through the love they have their children, while presenting also a rational argument for the value of not covering your face.  What’s best is that is also reveals the best about us.  We aren’t trying to persecute anyone, we are showing another culture, our value of education, our shared love of children and wanting the best for them, and that what we want is a conversation and an exchange of ideas, not forcing a behavior through a punitive law.  It also shows another culture that we have humility.  That we too had practices that were not always beneficial and through the act of investigation and learning we have grown to become more loving and compassionate.

As I ponder more about the word tolerance, the more it seems like a word that isn’t overly descriptive.  Because within the idea of tolerance is an implication that one isn’t happy or supportive of a particular behavior and that in some cases, when a particular behavior is harmful we would rather do something about that behavior.  What it does not imply is a hasty reaction.  We can be patient and thoughtful, and act in away that is inclusive and not exclusive.  We can act in a way that is proactive and not adversarial.  In the end, I believe, such tactics are more successful.

Standing on Higher Ground

 

I was having a discussion the other day with Victoria over at VictoriaNeuronotes about heroes. And how we idolize people and then seem almost shocked when they turn out to be human and with flaws. Sometimes they are deep and serious ones (i.e. Bill Cosby). Maybe it’s not too surprising that we do this since most of us grow up thinking our parents are heroes and only over time become aware of the fact that they too have flaws and so maybe it’s a natural tendency in humans. I’ve wrote about hero worship before, so that’s not what this post is about. But I started to think about what a hero actually is and how odd of a concept it really is.

When we think of heroes we tend to think of someone standing alone, overcoming all odds, a man or woman against the world that is solely focused on tearing them down. But isn’t it odd that we should idolize such a figure, given that it never, ever happens that way. Okay maybe not “never”, certainly every once in awhile you have someone walking along who sees someone calling for help from a burning building and is saved, but these heroes are heroes of circumstance. In the right place and the right time, and maybe not heroes at all, just doing what every creature of conscience would do in the same circumstance. For most people we idolize they never really stand alone. Whether it be military, firefighter or police who benefits from the experience of those who trained them, and the coordination and cooperation of their fellow soldiers, fighters, or cops. Maybe it’s Martin Luther King Jr., Ronald Reagan, or Gandhi? Such men while perhaps great could not have accomplished any of the things they did alone. Maybe we could argue that heroes inspire, but when it comes to actually accomplishing what they wanted in life they needed support. And certainly their ability to inspire may also have been because of those who inspired them.

Liam Neesons!!

I then began to think about our fascination with heroes in movies and in television. Whether it is superheroes with unique powers saving the world, a cop singlehandedly defeating scores of bad guys, shooting the down one bullet a time, or a vigilante seeking revenge on those that wronged him many are drawn to the lone figure who stands above it all. Is it our fascination that has driven the stories, or the stories that drive us? Probably the former, but either way it is a positive feedback which may not be overall all that healthy. Pop culture here in the U.S. idolizes the individual to a very high level.  As I’ve argued before while there is value in individuality, but ultimately we don’t get a sense of self without looking at ourselves in relation to others.   We are also an evolved species who survive best when we cooperate and practice reciprocal altruism.  We are a social species, and one that has depended on others for our survival and roamed this Earth in groups.  The lone person defeating foe after foe is an illusion. Real victories are at the cost and hard work of many, whether they be through physical battle, social change, or intellectual progress. One person may start an avalanche, but it is the avalanche that does that damage.

I wonder where this fascination comes from?  Is it deeply psychological, is it only cultural?  Most of us face adversity in which it seems there is nothing that can be done, so perhaps the lone hero satisfies our own desire to overcome the obstacles in our own life.  Is it a function of an over populated world in which we struggle to stand out from the multitudes?  So we love our heroes because of how they stand out from the rest?  And yet this is still an illusion and more often than not, when we raise up a hero we tend to cast other people down.  Such heroes in movies and TV are usually facing less than complex bad guys, and throngs of incompetent henchmen who are nameless and faceless and easily defeated.  Does loving the hero oversimplify their character and cause us to judge people by unrealistic standards, which over time we come to realize that even the hero we’ve elevated cannot meet them?  Does our love of that lone hero breed the Dylann Roofs and James Holmes who believe they alone must triumph over the demons in their lives?

I don’t want to imply that there are no heroes at all in this world.  I am quite certain that there are, but we can certainly change our attitude on how we view them.  Heroes are not perfection.  Nobody is.  I am also quite certain there are those who face incredible adversity on their own without help from anybody.  A single mother who works long hours every day to provide for her children is perhaps just as much a hero as Martin Luther King Jr,, Superman, or any military or police officer.  What seems clear is that in reality none of us do everything completely on our own.  There is no successful company that doesn’t depend on the hard work of all the employees.  There is no rich person who has got to where he or she is all on their own.  While I think it’s perfectly healthy to admire and appreciate the virtues of others when we idealize those people we do them a disservice and ourselves.  The great people of past and present are likely just as flawed as the rest of us.  Maybe all we should be worried about is striving to make the world a better place and maybe that’s all a hero really is.

I’d be interested in hearing others people’s thoughts about heroes.

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.

What Makes A Good Human?: Love

My second quality for what makes a good human comes as no surprise to anyone.  Who doesn’t like love?  Who doesn’t want love?  Is this a quality I really have to try at? Is this something that I have to be vigilant about?  The word love tends to conjure up images romance and being in love.  But anybody who has thought about love for any length of time knows that romantic love is really just one aspect of love.  In fact I would argue that your ability to romantically love someone has little to do (at least in a direct sense) with your ability to be a good human.  We all have the capacity for love and this wonderful human trait gives rise to many of other ideals and qualities that make the world a better place.

If you’ve tried to define love before, most likely you’ve had difficulty.  Music, poetry, art have all had their attempts, and one could argue that through the medium of the arts one might be more successful. Love, like art, is often open to some degree of interpretation and means different things to different people.  While neuroscience has made a lot of headway in look at love and attachment as a biological drive, I want to go back to older Socratic definition of love that separates love into four categories.

  1. Eros – Romantic love
  2. Storge – Familial love
  3. Philia – “Brotherly love”, or the love between friends
  4. Agape – Love of humanity

So in terms of having the quality of love, I assert that every one of these is important to both ourselves and others on a variety of scales.  Think how much happiness all these types of love can bring, both in loving others and feeling that love towards you.  Now from a biological level storge, and philia are shown to both to be important drives in our brain, with eros still up for debate, but at the very least eros is a secondary drive that helps give us the attachment and friendship to a possible mate.  And it is our capacity to love that I believe gives us agape as an emergent property that can extend to all humanity.  It should also be noted that most of us learn first about love from the familial love.  How our parents love each other and love us.  This, perhaps, makes storge the most important in giving us a healthy sense of what loving each other is really about.  And since loving is learned, it should also be noted that there are those who adopt and raise children that are not their own that do wonderful jobs, so the biological connection of family need not be there for familial love to be shown to children.  In fact one of the strongest cross-cultural morals we have is protecting children from harm, so it’s not surprising that love and bonding can occur between adults and children who are not their own.

Love, at least to me, is the best cure we have for suffering, whether it is suffering from sickness, poverty, fear, depression or any other situation that causes harm and pain.  When you love you have a desire to stop another’s suffering.  Thus love leads us to both compassion and empathy.  Ultimately I find that our capacity to love motivates us to do so in the best way we know how.  I would also argue that love without feelings of compassion and empathy is pointless.  It’s insincere and unhealthy and can sometimes be destructive, because then you are just loving for your own sake and not because you truly care about the other person.  Perhaps that really isn’t love at all.

Now love as a verb can be tricky.  Above I said “the best way we know how” and this can often lead to honest attempts at love that are ineffective.  Sometimes loving someone is staying close, sometimes loving someone means to let them go, sometimes loving someone is being tough and unyielding.  At this point I’d rather not get into a discussion about how best to love, because when we talk about all the other qualities that will be discussed in this series, I believe the answers about how best to love someone reveal themselves. So knowing how best to love someone is another part of what makes love so difficult to define. However, I believe that love is love, it’s just that the ways in which we can experience love, show love and give love are far too numerous to list.

Biologically we are a social species that operates on reciprocal altruism.  Love is therefore the primary way in which we build attachments to each other for our long term survival, both for reproduction and bonding.  Thus the idea that there is no unselfish act is somewhat true as a whole.  However, we are not always so shallow that we expect kindness to be repaid right away, In general if we love, and show kindness and caring to others they will hopefully love us and thus want to do the same for us when we are in need.  In a broader sense, our ability to love tells us that we survive better when we cooperate, and your motivation for cooperation is increased by the love you feel for those in your group.

The downside of reciprocal altruism is that it makes love mostly beneficial for those in your immediate circle.  Loving humanity as a whole becomes a somewhat abstract extension of our ability to love those closest to us.  Showing love to humanity may involve acts of charity, but how do we know that we are helping?  We are used to having love returned when we show it, so how does humanity give back to us?  Trying to better humanity as a whole is also an extremely slow process. The impact you may have may not be felt until beyond your lifetime. The problems of humanity are large and it takes great momentum to affect change that no individual person can do on their own.  Even great people like Gandhi And Martin Luther King, Jr. needed the support of the people.  In this way acts of kindness and charity for the greater good may be the most unselfish acts other than it give you a sense of well-being and happiness.  But just because loving humanity as a whole is more abstract, and can feel like we are just adding a drop to the ocean, it does not excuse us from the fact that it is more moral for us to love humanity.  To move from the abstract to the tangible one has to remember that empathy and compassion also have an intellectual side that must be fed.  I will address this more in another part of the series, but for now remember the following:

  • All humans are of the same species.
  • The biggest factor in why you are what you are has much more to do with where you were born and the circumstances you were born in than any inherent ability you have (or think you have).
  • Any race or gender put into the same set of circumstances will produce similar outcomes.

Therefore when we feel empathy for those suffering that we can see, feel, hear, etc it takes little imagination to determine that even those beyond our senses suffer in the same way and that doing something to alleviate the suffering of others is the moral thing to do.  One of the chief ways to morally justify inflicting pain and suffering on others is to dehumanize them.  Getting people to believe that another group of people are not of the same species lessens our empathy, therefore, logically, dehumanizing is immoral.

If love has a darker side it is only perhaps to let it envelop you to the point of not paying attention to anything else.  The oft portrayed young couple in TV shows or movies who give no thought to other things claiming they can “live off love” are ridiculed for a reason.  We’d like to believe that John Lennon was right and that “love is all you need”, but anybody past about 30 years of age knows that’s a crock.  The world can be a shitty place, and love can be hard to muster at times, and so life has to be full of other things as well that are fulfilling and happy.  Love can also be unhealthy when we direct it towards inanimate objects.  We’ve all met people who love money too much, their car, sports teams, drugs, other material goods, etc.  While love shouldn’t be predicated on whether it can be returned, it should at least have the potential to be returned.  Pouring love into things that cannot feel your love, or return your love might be okay for a light hobby, but should never take a backseat to the suffering of the living. Perhaps the common theme to the darker side of love is obsession.  Obsessions usually don’t serve one well in the long run.

It could easily be argued that love is the most important of any virtue, and given how much of our lives are spent looking for it, maintaining it, and grieving over it, it’s probably true.  Nevertheless I hope to convince you with this series that there is more to life than love and there are many things we can do to be better at love.  I encourage you all to celebrate love and show love as often as you can, and keep striving to diversify the ways in which you add love to the world.

What Makes A Good Human?: Vigilance

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

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

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

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

Western Rim of the Grand Canyon

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

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

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