What Makes A Good Human?: Faith

Well, if you know me, you might be surprised at this quality.  And to be honest this is one that I wasn’t sure I was going to include but could not really make it fit as part of any of the other ones and so have put it here. This one is 6th in the series and so if you were keeping count there will still be two more to come for a total of 8 (as opposed to the 7 I thought I was going to blog about in my intro to this series).  Hey I did say that this list was not set in stone, and my final quality justifies this change quite well so stay tuned. 🙂

So let me be clear here that when I say faith, I do not mean religious faith, nor do I mean blind faith.  The first definition of faith is “complete trust or confidence in someone or something”, and this is the faith I am talking about. Perhaps I place too much importance on stress and too much importance on living in the present moment, but one of my reason for including faith is borne out of the fact that we are exceptionally good future thinkers. It might be somewhat natural to think about the past, and of course we live in the present, but what value is thinking about the future, when the future is uncertain. Of course we can see the value in thinking about the future from simple mechanical movements like anticipating the trajectory of a ball as we reach out to catch it, to having grand visions of the future that we work to make a reality. Our imaginations and our ability to envision a path to turn what is in our minds into a reality is a great strength, and it’s safe to say our ability to think about the future is greater than any other creature. There is a double edge to this sword and that is worry. We worry about that uncertain future at times, and we worry that what we want to happen will not come to pass. Much of the grief we often feel when we lose somebody important (whether from death or breaking up our relationships) comes from a loss of a future that will now no longer exist with that person. Our ability to imagine the future is so strong that it can feel as real as any present moment. In a previous post in this series I talked about the value of play for helping us be in the moment, so too does faith. Whereas play helps us become lost in the moment, faith can help us focus on the present by making us feel like “everything will be alright”. Faith can give us hope and keep us steady.

One of the reasons that the future is so uncertain is that we can’t account for all the variables in any particular problem. And even if we could, there would be several that are simply not in our control. Wanting to fix things that are beyond our control is one big source of worry and stress whether it is a personal situation or the larger sadness we might feel over big problems like world hunger, gender inequality, or racism as individuals most of us can only do so much. The weight and burden of the future can drag us down and we need something to ease the mind and focus on the present. It is not surprising that faith is always used in the context of something that we feel is good. Whether it is a supernatural being who we believe is watching out for us, loves us, and protects us, to more tangible things like faith that a good friend will come through for us, a general optimism about the improvement of society, and perhaps most importantly a faith in ourselves that we can overcome challenges in our way. In reality none of these things are sure things despite what past experience might tell you. You may actually fail at what you are attempting, even if you’ve handled similar or even the same situations before. Society may get worse. Your friend may not come through despite how often they might have come through for you before.  The world is dynamic and constantly changing. Your friend is changing, you are changing, and society is changing and so there will always be some unknown variables. We can also be wrong that we understood a past experience properly to ensure similar results in the future. Humans are prone to Type I errors (seeing patterns or connections where none exist) and quite often we don’t understand our experiences fully. However, without some faith we’d always be questioning and doubting and while there may be a time for questions and doubt, to dwell on such things constantly can also be equally wasteful. Doubting your friend all the time may actually strain your relationship. Doubting yourself all the time may make you actually more prone to making mistakes. Being pessimistic about the world may actually make you less happy and less able to make a positive impact, which is the only way the world is going to get better, if we do something about it.

Richard Dawkins and others are often quoted as saying that faith and science are not compatible because science makes conclusions based on evidence, where as faith makes conclusions despite evidence. I tend to disagree with this notion, because I feel that to develop faith it cannot be built on nothing. In my experience what people disagree on is what people consider evidence. I wrote about this previously here and here. A large of the aim of religious institutions in keeping members of their faith is to discredit contrary evidence. If the evidence against what you have faith in seems faulty you are less likely to let it change your mind. But we’ve all had changes of faith as evidence is presented to us. What happens if that friend lets us down a few times? Chances are, our faith in them will be lessened. What happens if we start getting inundated with all the evil that happens in the world? We start to lose our faith and optimism in humanity. What can happen when let ourself down? We start to lose faith in ourself, which is often a scary place emotionally to be at. I think faith is born honestly in most cases, and I think if left unhindered we would adjust the things we have faith in over time as we continue to question, experience and learn. The important part is that faith should be changeable and it should be personal. When we indoctrinate children about what they should have faith in this is from a developmental context abusive, because the stronger our faith becomes in something, the less likely we are able to adjust it over time because of how beliefs work in our brain. The inability to change what we have faith in as we experience and learn new things leads to an unhealthy conflict: the struggle to remain static in a dynamic world. I think some people might wonder, what is the point of having faith if it may change some time in the future? Because the world may seem chaotic, painful and beyond comprehension at times, it makes some sense to have faith in an order, an intention, or a purpose that is forever and unchangeable. However, it’s only a convenient illusion that will become harder and harder to maintain with time without willfully ignoring contrary evidence.

There are no guarantees in life and it’s okay to be wrong about what you put your faith in. Everybody has been wrong about things before. Being wrong is one of the greatest shared human experiences. I do understand, however, that it can be distressing to admit when we are wrong about things, even more so when we invest a lot of time into having faith about someone or something. Faith as a result is perhaps the trickiest of all the qualities I’ve discussed so far because it can cause us to double down even when the odds are against us. In my opinion the thing to keep in mind is to let your faith work for you, and to not let your faith gain mastery over you. And don’t expect others to share your faith. That’s simply not realistic. But if I were to pick some basic things to have faith in, it would be this:

  1. Change is inevitable
  2. You have it in you to deal with that change
  3. Everything will be alright because changing what you have faith in is not a loss, it’s a gain – for you must have learned something new in order to get to where you are now.

What Makes A Good Human?: An Introduction

If you read the title you are probably wondering, who am I to write prologues, or preludes, or introductions?  What’s all this about?  Your blogs are only marginally interesting to begin with, why should I read anything doesn’t really tell me anything?  All fair questions, and the best answer I can come up with is that, good things come to those who wait.  Of course it’s also true that sometimes good things come to people in an instant, but this is not one of those occasions.

A fellow blogger I met when I first started my blog asked me what I was my goal in having a blog, because clearly it’s not all for yourself or you wouldn’t be putting your writing on the internet.  I knew the answer at the time, but was modest about saying it aloud, and I guess I still am, but ultimately I do want to inspire people.  Inspiration is an interesting topic in itself, something worth having a blog post about someday, but the truth is I don’t know that anybody could say how to inspire others.  It’s something you can’t really predict.  Sure there are ways you can communicate more effectively, more enthusiastically.  Inspiring someone through written word I think is more difficult than face to face, and I am not sure that my writing is that good yet.  But I believe inspiration comes also through expressing ideas and asking questions and that is the route I have taken.  Given the number of followers I have that read my blog I can tell that my writing is limited in how it has impacted others, and that’s okay.  Ultimately some of the blogs I enjoy following the most are ones that have a nice sense of community, and it would be nice to get to that point and just have a handful of people that regularly comment and read my blogs who have interesting things to say and interesting and well thought out points of view.  I think I’m moving closer to that as I have met some wonderfully intelligent and thoughtful bloggers over the past couple of years.  But that doesn’t mean that the blog  isn’t also for me.  It is also where I can explore, where I can get my thoughts out and help me sort out things in my own mind.  So while I hope the things I write mean something to others, I am also happy in the way that it helps me grow and learn.

My next series of blogs, which this is an introduction for, are what I consider to be the essential qualities of a good human.  These qualities that I am going to write about represent a culmination of years of thought on the matter.  So while it might seem overly bold, and though there may be disagreements, these are not qualities I have arrived at quickly or arbitrarily.  I make no claims that such a list may not change as I continue to learn and grow, and I have also, through careful thought, tried to condense it to as small a list as possible.  Not because that is necessarily important, but because over the course of my life I have come to see connections between certain qualities and realized that perhaps such qualities might exist under a much larger umbrella.  These qualities have been alluded to in my writing before and blogging thus far has helped crystallize ideas in my mind.   I also don’t make the claim either that these are overly original either, but I hope to make people think about these qualities in a slightly different way, specifically to try to broaden one’s views of this quality as very often people have a very narrow definition.

I like to have pictures in my blog posts, but really couldn’t think of any. I’m Canadian though and there will be 7 qualities. Boom.

One of my first posts when I started my blog discussed the dangers of categorization.  We are species who constantly makes poor correlations as a result of our tendency to make Type I errors, which is to find patterns and connections where none exist.  As I have also written before I grew up in two cultures being biracial and this helped me see from an early age that the innate goodness of a human being had little to do with religion or culture and yet these are characteristics that we seem to tie to goodness or badness most often.  And of course as I grew older I have seen even more judgments of character based on gender, class, job, education, etc.  It might be natural that we make these poor assumptions simply because we are bound to make determinations about a person’s quality based on the people we know throughout our lifetimes.  I have often observed that most prejudice of any kind comes from a lack of exposure to diversity, not because of it.   If I were to say something positive about myself, it’s that I do always try to look for the goodness in all people. As a result I have never shied away from getting to know somebody from a different walk of life because it seems the more people I get to know, the more I am convinced that they way we separate ourselves from others is false and ultimately harmful.  In that vein I have thought a lot about what are the qualities that good people have in all those different walks of life I have encountered.  This, in addition to what I’ve learned through my education has led to me to conclude that there are 7 things that we must all have.  The fact that 7 became the number has me already a little worried that I’m not right, because the number 7 is full of romance, but try as I might I couldn’t think of any more or any less, so I’m just going to go with it.

Finally I just want to emphasize that all these qualities I will blog about over the coming months are equally important.  So much so that missing even one of these qualities can be problematic.  While the degree to which each of us has these qualities may depend on the individual I believe that all are qualities we must demonstrate and develop every day.  There were times that I thought there was a ranking to these qualities, but now I am not so sure.   Anyway, enough of this introductory business.  I shall end this by thanking you for reading this and my blog and hope to hear your thoughts in the coming months as I complete this series of posts.

Headlong

Well between being a dad and a professor, blogging has taken a backseat.  This of course doesn’t stop the ideas from flowing, so I just thought I’d get at least one of them out even though I’m having to wake up at 5:30 am to do it!

My blog post is once again inspired by my son.  One of the things my son likes to do is drink, whatever we might be drinking, from our glasses.  I find myself enjoying this quite a bit, because it’s clear that he wants to do things like we do.  At times he will often try picking up our glasses and try to drink from them, with of course disastrous results, but his drive to be like us is clearly strong.  The reason why I enjoy this so much though is because there is something wonderful just being around someone who is clear is striving each day to be more than they are.  You might say, well of course babies/children strive to be more than they are, because they have to grow and develop those basic cognitive and locomotive skills.  So I know I’m not saying anything groundbreaking, but it made me reflect on a number of things that I think have meaning at any age, and gave me some important reminders as I move forward in life both as an individual and parent.

As I was reflecting on this last night it occurred to me the importance of failure.  While, as parents we marvel at our child’s successes I wonder how often we think of their failures.  If I really start to think about it I know that every achievement of my

From http://www.wholeheartedleaders.com

son is built on the back of many more failures.  Whether it was a failure sit up, stand up, walk, or clutch an object in his hands, these activities failed numerous times before he was able to master them in any meaningful way.  And it occurred to me that if you are not failing at anything right now, you quite simply are not growing.  In these early stages of life the failure to success ratio is high.  My son is constantly reaching in ways that exceed his grasp, but is undeterred by failure and this is something I find wonderful and inspiring.  While he still needs help sipping from a drinking glass because he cannot lift it up to his lips in a controlled way on his own, I know that he will get it.   Sometimes I wonder if I slow his progress by helping him though.  He’d probably learn a lot faster if I let him fail more often, but of course the amount of spills I’d have to clean would be a drain on my time and resources.  It takes away from other things that I could be doing which would be important for parenting or important for myself.  And of course in some cases these failures might be detrimental to him as well.  We need fluids, and if we are constantly spilling ours then we aren’t getting the sustenance we need.  This is, of course, one of the things we must balance in life.  Doing an activity that we’ll fail at is an energy cost, and thus we must have energy in excess to afford to fail.  Growth implies risk, and risks can be costly.  That doesn’t change the fact that without taking risks we tend to stagnate.

Dhyan_box
Sometimes my son even enjoys falling. 🙂

So what deters us from this completely necessary quality of risk?  Since risk involves the uses of resources and energy, there are environmental factors that simply put limits on the risks we can take.  The beautiful thing about children (and often scary at times) is that they think nothing of the risks they take.  No matter how many times he fell trying to walk, or get down from the sofa or bed, he still did it.  As we grow and become aware of more things we learn restraint.  If I lived in one of many places in Africa where clean drinking water is scarce, one of the things I would make dead sure of is that I didn’t leave a glass of drinking water within in reach of my son, because drinking water is precious and we could ill afford to have any spilled.  So the risks we are willing to take or let others take are governed by the energy and resources (or the perceived energy and resources) we have available to us.  I think this is something we forget.  It is very common in the world to denigrate the poor and criticize them for not lifting themselves out of their poverty.  Since risk leads to growth, and risk is at least partly a function of the security of energy and resources in our lives, those that have limited resources simply cannot achieve as much as those of us with privilege can achieve.  While there are always remarkable stories of people crossing that boundary, on average a person who starts off with more will always have the potential of achieving more.  Therefore we’d be well served to stop judging those in poverty and that they require our compassion to help raise them up.  Should I wish to let my son fail at drinking water from a drinking glass I have the resources to supply him with endless amounts of water.  It seems that the path to a better society comes from those of us who have an excess in resources finding a way to create an environment for those in need to have some minimum level of security so that they feel safe to take risks.

Our inability to take risks can also be impacted by our memories of failures.  There comes a point where feelings of failure can be somewhat traumatic.  It can make us not want to try something again.  I have postulated, not sure if it’s true, that one of the reasons why babies don’t form a lot of memories is because if they did they might be scared to take risks.  This is something that a young child absolutely has to do just to be able to master basic movement and communication skills.  My son has fallen hard at times, and after a few minutes he is back trying the same thing again.  This short term memory seems a blessing at this age but it won’t last forever.  Of course if we reflect on failure we would see that it is teaching us something, and that we probably should worry about failure a lot less than we do.  If you’ve tried something a number of times and still failed, well maybe the lesson to be learned is to not do that activity anymore.  That in of itself can be a success.  Learning about what you can’t do, moves you in a different direction to try things that you have a better chance of succeeding.  If energy and resources are finite then there is wisdom in not continuing in an activity once we realize that it is beyond us.  This means the only truly detrimental failure is the failure to never try.

dhyan_cutlery
My son, failing to use cutlery in any meaningful way. 🙂

 

It’s easy once you get to the age of 40 to play it safe.  Likely your life is already full of failure and it’s simple to say “enough is enough” and just survive.  I was joking yesterday with my wife, given the extremely fast rate my son is figuring out how to use an iPad (and believe me we don’t give him a lot of access) that maybe that’s why kids always have to figure out technology for their parents, because once you have kids it’s easier to stop learning and let them (who learn things much faster and easier than you) do it for you.  Ultimately this is not the type of person I want to be.  I want to continue to grow, and over the last couple of months I’ve realized there are numerous areas of personal growth that I want to achieve and while I may like myself, to rest on my laurels would also be a mistake.  I watch my son attempt tasks that are beyond his abilities and must remind myself that I must never stop trying to push my limits, and to take chances doing things that have a high chance of failure.  It’s surprising how cautious we become as we age.  It seems that perhaps the real secret to staying young is to maintain at least a shred of fearlessness and at least an ounce of self-confidence that defies what we think we know of ourselves.   I must also remember to turn my parental instincts in a way that supports experiences of failure for my son.  I’m not saying that I would intentionally cause him to fail, but only to remember that loving my son is not about preventing him from ever failing, but rather allowing him to fail, and stepping in at the right time to help him learn the most from his failures.  So smile at your failures.  They got you this far, and here’s to hoping you have many more.

To Dhyan: Year 1

Dear Dhyan,

I write this letter to you because I know that time changes our memories and feelings about events, and I wanted you to know what I was feeling in the first year of your life.  I also wanted to let you know who I am now, and maybe what I’ve become as a result of you being in my life.

I will begin with the day you were born.  We were at the hospital already.  One of many trips we had taken in the Dhyan_4weeklast couple weeks as your mother’s blood was racing in excitement for you being born.  Well that’s a nicer way of saying she had abnormally high blood pressure and we need to check her health and yours.  We knew that day, which was 3 weeks before your due date, there was a possibility they would want to take you out to make sure she was safe, and that is exactly what ended up happening.  I’ll proudly admit that I was rather calm.  Perhaps because I had to do none of the hard work, but I also have a lot of faith in statistics. Problems with deliveries in our part of the world are rare, and we were at one of the best hospitals in the area with excellent doctors and nurses.  I just knew everything was going to be alright, and I just wanted to make sure that your mother and you were fine and be calm and as in control for her as I could be.  Since all the hard work was your mothers, my panicking would have served little purpose anyways.  As they induced labor on your mother she got contractions quickly, and they started to impact your heart rate and so they decided that a cesarean section was necessary.  They wheeled your mother away and got me suited up so that I was sanitary and when they let me into the operating room they told me to not touch anything covered in blue.  The whole room seemed to be covered in blue and it was frightening obstacle course to get to the small stool next to your mother.  I held her hand and she smiled at me.  There was a large curtain separating the bottom half of your mother from our eyes so I couldn’t tell what they were doing.  Apparently they were making a big slice into your mother and taking you out.  The nurse handed you to me, all swaddled in apparently the same towel design they use in every hospital in the United States.  You were born at 9:59 pm on Dec. 27th, 2014 at 5 pounds 5 ounces, 19 inches long. You were so light and I looked at you and said to myself “So that’s it then?”  But your mom was tearing and she was too drugged up to really hold you.  You were so light and I brought your face close to hers and she smiled and cried at how beautiful you were.  I think it was a different experience for her.  She carried you around for almost 9 months and could feel her body change and feel you grow.  I would say at first I was more like a curious scientist, observing the whole process.  It did not feel like you were my son yet.  I hope that this doesn’t make you sad if you read this someday.  I was emotional because your mom was, but I have to say I didn’t feel like a father yet.

For the rest of that evening I continued to play the scientist as I watched them put you in a little warmer since you were so tiny, and found it humorous that you were under a heat lamp like a burger at a restaurant.  My feeling of being a father wouldn’t come until the next day when you didn’t have to be in the warmer anymore and we had be moved to our post delivery room and you were being fussy and unhappy and I picked you up and you quieted right down and became peaceful in my arms.  It was at that moment that my eyes begin to water.  I felt like you knew you were safe.   And I felt like you knew you were with your daddy and I knew you were my son.  And I knew that once someone feels safe with you, that you must be responsible so that they always feel that way.  I began to feel this surge within me out of nowhere, wanting you to be healthy and strong, wanting to make sure that I safely guided you to be someone that could handle this world that can be both terrifying and wondrous at the same time.  My head began to fill with dreams of what you would look like walking and talking, and questions you might ask, advice that I would give you, nursing tears and sharing joys.  That’s when you know you are in love, and that’s when I knew I was in love with you.

Dhyan_6monthBut time teaches you patience.  Perhaps that’s one advantage of having a 40 year old father.  As I process this past year I think about all the amazing moments I’ve been able to see.  These moments are small in comparison to what any human is capable of, but they remind me that in the process of growth even the most insignificant things can be great triumph because they happen along the way of great journeys.  And you have a great journey ahead of you.  I remember your first smile, the first time you opened your hands, your eyes following an object around the room for the first time, your first steps, your first crawl.  However, if I were to pick a favorite moment, when I think of your first year, is the first time you made vocalizations.  It happened one evening in between the age of 2 and 3 months.  It was like for the first time you wanted to greet the world.  It’s like you suddenly realized that you were no longer an extension of your mother, but you realized you were a separate individual entity and you wanted to announce your presence.  Or perhaps it was that for the first time you realized that the world wasn’t just happening to you, you could happen to the world and you were just glad to be alive. You made the cutest gurgling noises, and were smiling and waving your little arms about.  Your mother and I laid at your side on the bed and we just watched you.  It was the most entertaining and amazing thing I’ve ever seen and your mother and I were incurably happy next to you.  We would look at each other and just knew that as tiring as this might be some times it was also going to be incredibly rewarding and full of joy.  We knew what family meant, and we felt an incredible amount of love for you and each other.

Tomorrow you will be a year old.  You are now eagerly walking around and getting into all sorts of trouble.  You are curious and exploring and it reminds me how important the process of movement is to discovery.  In human history, the building of boats, cars, rockets, they all have allowed us to discover and learn more.  Now that you can move the rate in which you will discover grows exponentially and I find myself continually blown away at how quickly your strength, dexterity, and intelligence grows.  As I look back on the day I first fell in love with you I realize that my love was a beautiful house that is empty on the inside, and each day you fill that house with amazing memories.  That love is now a home, and we are happy there, and excited for all the new memories that will fill that home.  Sometimes I get really scared that something might happen to you, and that being in that home alone without you, with only those memories to look at, would be the saddest thing imaginable.  But I would not dishonor your joy by getting lost in those fears.  I keep in the back to keep you as safe as possible without taking away from your desire for self-determination and knowing that ultimately what we learn from risk and failure is as important as any other way there is to learn.

Dhyan_me_1year

My heart is full of love and excitement because as your development continues I can show my love for you in so many new ways and I am anxious for you to experience it.  I am also anxious to experience your love in new ways also.  Though my appearance may change little, make no mistake that we are growing together.  And as I sit here and write this I know one thing for certain.  There are no words to express how much of a gift you truly are to my soul.  It will take a lifetime together as father and son for those words to manifest and even then it will be in no language that can be spoken, but I guarantee that you will know it.

Love,

Your Father

Why are you here?

There are many things I don’t understand about my college students.  In my 13th year of teaching as a professor I think I can at least make some solid observations.  Much of what I observed leaves me with more questions than answers.

My undergraduate experience was perhaps not typical in any way.  My parents paid my tuition, which was heavily subsidized by the Canadian government.  It is still a decent $3.500 for the year, which was a decent sum of money was back in the early 90’s.  I lived at home though, the university was about a 50 minute transit ride.  I am sure the fact that my mom got me a part time job at the university signing student loans was important in realizing how fortunate I was to not have to go in debt to pay for tuition.  My parents instilled in me that education was important and that doing well was also important.  That being said, despite the work I put in, I still ended up with only a B+ average in my undergraduate.  It was a lot of math and physics, and it was hard.  I wasn’t the perfect student either.  I cut a number of classes, but I was always aware when things were due and when were really important days to be there.   I never missed a deadline or a test.  If poor attendance led me to a less than perfect grade, there really was no one to blame but myself.  Sometimes you did get a bad teacher that discouraged you from wanting to attend that class.  But sometimes there are bad teachers.  You can complain, but it’s probably not going to make them a whole lot better.  Everyone was in the same boat and you did your best.  I never drank alcohol as an undergraduate; neither did most of my friends actually.  Which is perhaps a bit odd considering the legal drinking age in my province is 18.  I still have lots of fond memories of those days, and think it was a rather fun period of my life.

I held that dedication throughout my time in graduate school and it was that view of university and college life that I held as I became a professor at a small university in Pennsylvania.   I have found that my views about what college is about vary vastly from most of the students that are here.   Look, there are a lot of societal problems at work here too.  Perhaps the fact that guidance counselors try to convince every kid they should go to college when in fact they would be much better off in a trade school, or just taking some time off and working a low paying job to really understand what it takes to be successful in life and manage your time and money better is part of the problem.  Perhaps the fact that student loans are given out with alarming ease, with little time taken to really explain to the 18 year old how it will affect their life is the problem.  Nevertheless I have just seen a lot of baffling behavior among students since I have been a professor and it just makes me want to ask the question:

 “Why are you here?”

I have seen students spend the whole class text messaging, reading a novel in class, doing makeup, showing up 20 minutes late to a 50 minute class, or show up to class drunk, high, coked up.  And then there are the ones who don’t

From http://images.collegemagazine.com

show up.  The class is too early, too late, they are too hung over, it’s too cold, too nice, raining, etc all serve as excuses not to make it to class.  I have seen students make it to only half the classes in the semester.  I have seen students who seemingly only realized they missed an exam 3 weeks after the exam was given.  I have had students complain that I made a test for the day after their birthday, the day after St. Patrick’s day, the day after homecoming weekend, or worse yet Fridays.  Apparently Thursday nights are just party nights in general so having an exam on a Friday, especially in the morning is seen as a cruel thing for a professor to do.  All this is considered part of the “college experience”. Yet none of the people who are hired to teach or work at staff are hired to support this experience at a college, because the institution is designed to help young people further their education for the purposes of a career. Once again:

“Why are you here?”

So many students enter university undecided.  Spend an extra semester or 4 getting a 4 year degree because they switched majors and dropped classes so many times or had GPA’s so low they had to repeat courses.    The cost of

From http://www.studentloannetwork.com

tuition, even at this modestly priced public institution that I teach at, with housing, costs about $10,000 a year.  After 4 years you will start out $40,000 dollars in debt if you complete your degree in the standard time.  While it is sad that the government doesn’t emphasize education more and subsidize the cost more, from a practical point of view it is difficult to justify attending college without at least some clearer picture of what you want to do, and to simply do it as quickly as possible.  The student loan system in this country is terrible and sometimes it’s your only choice to getting an education and a career that you want.  That being said, it IS money you will have to pay back, and if you are going to be in that much debt it behooves you to also choose a career path that will allow you to pay back that money as efficiently as possible.  If you aren’t think of the financial reality before entering college then I have to ask:

“Why are you here?”

Please don’t get me wrong as I have met many mature students.  I would easily say that half of the students that I see, even ones that might not be doing particularly well in my classes will graduate and hit the ground running.  I hesitate to say too many numbers as my observations are only anecdotal, but I would say after teaching over 200 students a semester in 12 years that there are, conservatively, 20% who really don’t care and really would prefer to not be in college (or rather not be in college for the purposes of education).  Given how competitive it is to get a job, given how expensive it is to get an education, and given how salaries haven’t kept pace with inflation, why spend $50,000 on an education, to get a mediocre to poor GPA (especially when you’re field of choice has a low amount of jobs available)?  Isn’t there a better way to spend your time, money and resources?  For some people it is loan money, for some it is their parent’s money.  Interestingly I have never met a student who was paying for their own tuition who didn’t understand the importance of doing well and make the most of the money they were spending.

So ask yourself the question “Why are you here?”  And think about whether you might not be better off somewhere else.  Somewhere that was better suited to wear you are in life.  Somewhere better suited to what you want to do.  Somewhere that will give you a chance to figure out what it is you really want so that when you do enter college you are ready to get the most out of that environment.  College is an immense challenge in terms of your time and energy.  You will expand your mind and your heart.  You will meet great people from different walks of life. But, like it or not, university is about learning and education.  You can party anywhere like a rock star any where.  But think about the fact that your country needs you.  Young people are the ones with the energy, the ability to learn at a faster rate and think outside of the box.  Young people are the ones who are most needed in a democracy to be educated about issues.  Issues that they will face in the many years ahead of them.  There is a surprising amount of time to still have fun, but also start being a positive part of society and perhaps not getting wasted every night.  I love my job because of all the great young people I’ve met over the years, I just want to see young people also think critically about their decision to go to university.

Destiny’s Child

 

One facet of human nature that fascinates me is the idea of destiny.  Now when I say destiny here I don’t mean like some blockbuster movie in which I am destined to save the princess, fulfill the prophecy and become the most benevolent leader of mankind.  I am talking about something more fundamental than that.  What some people might refer to as “a calling”.  And maybe not even in the sense of a career only, but rather one’s passions, one’s nature.  It is not too surprising that I am reflecting on that, because as I watch my son, I wonder what he’s going to be like.  What will his interests be?  How will he want to live his life and how different will that be from me or his mother?

The nurturing influence of parents cannot be overlooked, but we’ve all known people who were vastly different from their parents in some very fundamental ways.  Two parents might be very messy and their child is neat.  Two parents might be teachers, and their child wants to run his own business.  Of course trying to determine why somebody ends up the way they do is a fool’s errand in a lot of ways, because nurture is not just a function of parents, but of teachers, friends, relatives, society, etc.  It could be that one day a kid sees a fancy car that he just loves and says to himself, alright how do I get a job that allows me to drive around with that.  Perhaps not the most noble of callings, but he we like shiny things that enhance our status and so these kinds of things certainly happen.

For most of my life I thought I had a calling to be a meteorologist.  I’ve loved storms since I was a small child.  I would get up in the middle of the night to watch the lightning.  In grade 6 we learned about different clouds and how they could tell us about the weather that was coming our way.  I was fascinated by this and remember feeling hooked by it.  I wanted to learn more about clouds and forecasting.  In grade 8 our science class was a full year and broken up into 3 parts:

From http://www.noaanews.noaa.gov

astronomy, meteorology, and geology.  I loved all 3 of those and at the time they had us thinking about careers, but I was already hooked on meteorology and I decided then that I was going to be a meteorologist.  During my undergraduate I decided that being a forecaster wasn’t for me and wanted to teach it so I went to grad school and I loved it and don’t regret a second of it.  At the end of my undergraduate I took a linguistics course and I loved it.  At that time I questioned my career decision a little, but it was my last year of undergrad and it seemed too late to do anything else, and what did it matter, I still loved the weather.  I do think that I would be just as happy if I had chosen linguistics as a career had I been introduced to it earlier in life.  Now my interests lie in cognitive science and neuroscience.  I could definitely see myself being a researcher, or even a clinical psychologist because I am deeply interested in understanding others and our nature, and feel I have some aptitude in understanding the motivations of others.

Despite these ponderings on alternative careers, I still don’t have any regrets.  I enjoy my job, and perhaps being a professor is the reason I have had time to pursue these other passions.  But it has led me to some questions about this idea that I was somehow “destined” to be in the atmospheric sciences.   Would I still have become what I became had I not lived in a climate that did not have thunderstorms?  What if our curriculum in grade 6 did not include learning about clouds?  What if the grade 8 science curriculum didn’t have meteorology which helped me appreciate the subject at a greater depth and attract me to it even more?  What if I had a mother who was afraid of storms and that made me afraid of storms?  Yet my choice to go into meteorology seems beyond these things.  We had lots of subjects in school and with some good teachers.  Why didn’t any of those subjects arouse a passion in me?  My parents were not scientists, teachers, historians, writers, etc. and it seems that they didn’t influence me in any particular academic field so I could have chosen anything.  In terms of time, we spent more time learning about many other subjects than meteorology.  There are rocks everywhere and I had been to the Rockies, so why didn’t I go into geology?  I loved watching nature shows so why didn’t I become a biologist?  Why did I feel I had a “calling” when I meet so many students who aren’t even sure what they want to do?  Is this a rare feeling? Or do other people feel it and just ignore it?

From http://www.zoriah.net

I don’t know that I have an answer to any of these questions, but what I do know is that I was very fortunate.  I’ve seen many students with a passion for meteorology but very weak quantitative skills, having weaknesses in math and physics that forced them to take a different career path even if their interest remains.  I do not have that problem. I am fortunate by circumstances having parents who worked hard for me to give me a chance to pursue my passions.  I wonder how many people feel this “calling” towards science, the arts, humanities, history, education, etc., but simply must take a job as soon as possible to support a family.  Maybe they can’t afford to go to school and don’t want to take out student loans.  Some people might argue that their “calling” is perhaps not that strong to drive them, but there are practical realities that must be adhered to and when basic needs must be met they simply must be taken care of first.  Somewhere there are people who could have been brilliant athletes with enough training and leisure time, but instead had to work in a factory to support their family.  How many geniuses have simply died of starvation?  How many talented artists have died of curable diseases simply because they couldn’t afford a doctor or the vaccine that would have save their life, or a doctor or vaccine simply wasn’t available?

In the end I don’t think I subscribe to this idea of destiny, because whatever natural passions we have, they must be cultivated, and even those passions may fade slightly as new ones take their place.   In the end I can only be thankful for the natural gifts I seem to possess and the family, friends, and society that has allowed me to develop them.

 

 

 

 

 

It’s the End of the World as We Know It and I Feel Fine

There are some topics which completely perplex me, and this is certainly one of them. It seems strange to me for many reasons why people subscribe to the

From http://www.hydramag.com

possibility of the world ending in a sudden almighty purge.  This post has been a long time coming and I am sure I will not blow many people’s minds with anything I say here, but I will try to address the topic a more serious tone rather than the rant I feel like doing.

This post was prompted by an article my colleague quite humorously ranted about on Facebook about the blood moon being an indication of the end of the world. I quote: “People, it’s a freaking rock, orbiting a slightly wetter rock, orbiting a hot mess called the Sun! Shadows happen!” This end of the world prediction is just one in another line of many that have been made in human history. This Wikipedia listing gives a pretty good run down of whom and when end of the world predictions were made and you can see that there are around 150 listed in addition to ones that are supposed to still happen.  I am also sure there have been many more in human history that have not been documented. Most rational people would wonder why anyone would still buy into any more predictions about the end of the world when none of them have come true before. You know the whole “fool me once shame on you, fool me 150 times…” But it’s not enough to say well it’s obvious that these people with apocalyptic imaginations are wrong, the fact that they keep popping up should tell us that there is something in our psychology that causes some people to subscribe to such scenarios.

I read an interesting article in a great journal called Daedalus called Apocalypse and The End of Time by Richard Fenn who tried to analyze a lot of the commonalities between end of the world predictions and what societal influences seem to make them most likely. These are some of the things he came up with:

  • Many apocalyptic predictions come from people who feel society is in moral decay. This can arise from greater secularism in society, or because one culture feels that they are being influenced by an outside culture. Both of these represent cultural shifts in which an old way is being replaced by a new way.
  • Decreased economic conditions and oppression (or perceived oppression as is often the case by more religious zealots).
  • A fear of change in general. The young , people who think for themselves, and in more patriarchal societies, women all can represent a change to a current way of life.

Of course many of these things are interrelated and I think we can easily see how many of these things boil down simply to change and our inability to deal with an increasingly complex world. Thus it is not completely surprising to me that those who are more prone to believing in a fixed set of rules that govern the universe which are immutable and prescribed by the supernatural are also more likely to subscribe to end of the world predictions. As a scientist, to me change seems natural and inevitable and though some change is less pleasant than others I hope that the world will be propelled forward more than it is pulled backward.

For those who know me, you also know how fascinated I am with the subject of time, and, to me, time is also the study of change. Thus it comes as no surprise that Fenn argues that the apocalyptic imagination is an attempt to move away from the passage of time. With this timelessness we also lose change. We also lose individuality. Many of the apocalyptic prophecies involve the destruction of corrupting influences and the preservation of those who fit a prescribed moral code, merging with the one true God. Thus this desire for end times also perhaps plays to our psychological desire to remove complexity from the world to some harmonious state of peace in which nothing is changing and everyone is like everybody else.

And I can understand this desire.

There are plenty of times in which I wish I could freeze a moment and time and make it last longer. There are times in which I wish the world wasn’t so difficult, that there was no pain and suffering, and that I didn’t have to argue and fight.  This of course is fantasy. And fantasy has its place and I believe we need it from time to time to stay sane. Adhering to a fantasy for a prolonged length of time, however, is insanity. More importantly we should not forget that there is real beauty in change. The fact that I am an example of change, from a fertilized cell to a grown 40 year old man, that I have strived to learn and grow wiser and more moral with time, indicates that change can be a good thing. Change is inevitable, so let’s not fight change, let’s keep fighting to make things better. We still have a long way to go.