Thoughts for today Jan. 20th, 2017

Many of my friends have had great things to say today. I have felt fairly empty lately.  Empty of creativity, or anything wise to say.  A lot of intellectual energy has been focused on keeping down a background of feeling of worry and dread for what’s to come in this country I have made my home.

Watching this video gave me pause for thought. They are old words, which have relevance today. But what it made me think of is that there is much in this universe that is bigger than I am. The events that led to Trump being elected, and the events that follow…may well beyond my control. There are maybe only a handful of causes that I can be active in, and I will fight and stand up for those who may fall under oppression and to those who people in power are denying them their humanity. I will always try to be more than I am, but I’ve realized that what I am today is also important.

I am a scientist.  The scientific method is simply the best tool we have for knowing, and well humans utilizing it may make mistakes, it is more reliable than anything I know.  I will continue to re-evaluate my views, and defend my views through the vehicle of science.  Introspection and advocating effecting methods for discovering our universe is a way out of the darkness.

I am an educator.  The reason I became one is because I love learning, and I love thinking about things.  I need to make sure to continue to pass that on through my job.  Curiosity and learning are wonderful and fundamental human qualities.  It is a way out of the darkness.

I am a husband.  I have this amazing wife who is strong, capable, and compassionate.  She doesn’t let herself be guided by convention or rules placed on her by society.  I am simply better because of her.  She reminds me that whether we are different by gender, or by race, we are better together.  Humans survive through cooperation.  It is a way out of the darkness.

I am a father.  As I watch my son grow, I know exactly what humanity is.  We are affectionate, we are kind, we play, we learn, and we love.  As a species we have propagated over countless generations.  Everybody is part of a family.  And we are all the same species, thus we all share so much and spend too much time focusing on the differences.  Children are the future, and if I falter as a father, I am also not doing what I can to make the world a better place.   The beauty and innocence of children is a way out of the darkness.

The history of humanity is long.  The Earth much longer.  I live in a small point in time and space, and even in the context of human history there is only so much I can do.  And most important is that I do it well.  Throughout history there has been great suffering, there has been great inequality and those places of suffering and joys have moved around to different parts of the globe and it’s still happening.  It could simply be our turn.  But there have always been good people in the worst of places, because most people are good.  It is their nature to be so.  If a social species evolved any other way, we simply would not be here today.

Alone I would not be the person I am today.  If I am proud of who I am, and if I am considered a good person, it is the people along the way that have made me so, and I am grateful to you all.  Stay vigilant and strong and I shall do the same.

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My Ode to Winter

In silence you approach, slowly darkening days,
Autumn arrays of color fade to deathly brown,
Precious skies of blue are replaced by grays,
Sharp winds blow across frozen ground.

And then one day you bring all to standing still,
I watch as my breath, eager to show it’s alive,
Disappears hopelessly into air it can’t fill,
Icy touch on the shoulder of all that thrived.

And what more can we do who wait?
Where night comes early, but feels so late.
Hope for snow to settle on barren limbs?
A touch of white when all seems grim.
Snowy blanket covers the harvest’s reaping,
Lets us pretend the Earth is happily sleeping.

Each slippery step on landscape so bleak,
As we drudge through our lives week after week,
You take no pleasure as you tally the score,
We see what you’ve taken and you hunger for more,
And just when you drain our heat to burn our skin,
Though you love your endings, in the end you won’t win.

For when the sun hides for its longest hours,
We gather with friend and kin to warm with love,
With charitable hearts gloomy Death does cower,
Mocked by hopeful songs of the mourning dove.

New Year’s rejoicing as the sun climbs higher,
Dreams of future gains and not what we lack,
You snap and bite at us, even as you tire,
As snow melts into thawing soil, life bites back.

Fractured

So is this the beginning of our descent into madness,
When we forget about goodness, pay more attention to badness?
Is society beyond repair, no fix, eternally broken,
As words of rage and hate are the only ones spoken?
The technology that was supposed to connect us,
Serve only as tool for leaders and corporations to dissect us,
The politicians we elect that someone else selects,
Sit in their suits and mansions immune to the effects
When it comes to true courage most haven’t the nerve,
Why don’t politicians also protect and serve,
In the hands of a few is unprecedented power,
But their indifference to us grows hour by hour,
I don’t want a world where my only hope,
Comes from focusing the lens on my telescope.

And yet it seems so obvious the answer is kindness,
Why can’t we all find a way to get behind this?
I know such a statement is just idealistic,
To reduce the problem like this is unrealistic,
I know there are hurts that people hold onto,
But I also know that hurting back is wrong too,
At some crucial point we’re going to have to say,
We need to come together, the other side isn’t going away,
And the notion of an “other side” seems irrational,
We’re all the same species local or international,
Raise people up in accordance to your means,
It’s not a matter of which way your politics leans,
Life is not defined by our categories and labels,
Simply move beyond the self whenever you’re able.

And maybe just maybe, unplug yourself,
Put your phone or remote upon the shelf,
Give a hug, hold a hand, make someone smile,
And see what in this world is really worthwhile.

Under Pressure

I’ve been away from blogging for a little while as work became quite busy and stressful as I was given a project that normally would take several months to prepare for and was given two and half weeks.  I’m not complaining though, I am still very fortunate to have the job that I do, and in the end it was a very rewarding outcome.  I had to organize a Science Olympiad tournament for 40 regional high schools and middle schools and it ended up going very well.  I didn’t actually have to do this task, but if I didn’t a lot of kids would have been hurt, and a lot of teachers very angry and so it really wasn’t something that I took any time to consider, I just knew it had to be done, and I did it because it was the right thing to do.

It got me thinking a lot about stress on how much it affects our behavior.  It cost me my spring break and I was bitter about that.  In that time I was also certainly less attentive to others in my life.  I was more moody, snapped a little more than I probably should have at people that I care about and had a lot of trouble sleeping.  The guilt of snapping at people at being less attentive to others, and lack of sleep are positive feedbacks which worsen your condition.  I am fortunate that it was only a rough few weeks.  I am fortunate to even have a spring break. I am fortunate that even though the semester still has lots of work left in it, there will be summer holidays starting in early May.  There are people who face what I face, every single day of the year, with additional stresses associated with finances that I do not face.  When I reflect on how irrational I might be in times of stress I think about the cumulative effect such things must have some people.  How hard they might struggle to find a way out, who they might time to blame their stress on, and wonder what things they might rely on to find peace.  It makes a lot of irrationality in the world understandable.

At the same time it makes you really question why it has to be that way.  We have the resources to feed everybody, we have the knowledge and ability to give good health care to everyone.  We know a lot about the universe and how to give people quality education, and we know the things that make people truly fulfilled and happy.  We know a lot about our own imperfections and biases so that we can avoid the pitfalls of our flaws.  We know better ways to correct deviant behavior, we know better ways to reduce the possibility of criminal and violent behavior, and we know better ways to raise.  We may not know everything, but we know better.  “Civilized” society seems so counter to how we operate as humans that somedays I really question whether or not it is all worth it.  Even though we might live longer on average than our hunter gatherer predecessors, and can avoid many of the deaths from natural disasters that our predecessors could not, sometimes I do wonder whether or not it was all worth it, and whether or not we shouldn’t all still be climbing trees to pick fruit.  And yeah maybe it would be sad to lose a few people to drought, or malaria, but so much death nowadays seems to be preventable and avoidable.  The destruction in Belgium and Turkey recently really makes one question whether all this is worth it.  Has any of this civilization experiment increased happiness?  Benefitted the home we call Earth?  Given our evolution as a species perhaps this trajectory was unavoidable, but it feels so much easier to accept deaths caused by the pitfalls of living in the wild over seeing death occur from senseless acts of violence that will never lead to any gain, or seeing children die from hunger while not very far away somebody sits on a fortune of money and resources they do not even need.

Alright, I know this is not very cheery and I am not helping much to increase human happiness either, but I think many people share these thoughts.  I of course do believe that this trajectory of civilization was to avoid human suffering and nobody really imagined the consequences we are facing now.  Maybe these are the growing pains we must go through.  I hope that our intelligence is great enough to get us out in the end.  Perhaps the real shame is that our lifetimes are still too short to be able to see the end result of all this suffering.  I wonder if a 13th century scholar who watched people die from plague after plague, and endless crusades and wars, could visit us now if he would actually be impressed with our moral progress.  Maybe what we have now is further than he or she ever dreamed.  Maybe they would remind me to consider myself lucky that I live in such times and that now that they have seen the change possible over the long march of time that there was every reason to continue to have hope and strive for more.  And if there is one thing that I know for sure is that nothing has ever been made better by despair.  And if I want a world in which people do not live in despair and have reason to be hopeful then I must lead by example, even if I only touch a handful of people in my world.  Who knows how far the ripples of our impact will travel through time.

The Heart of the Matter

I was listening to another episode of the NPR podcast The Hidden Brain this morning and it rekindled something that often comes into my mind when tragic events happen and this the act of forgiveness.  This podcast was extremely interesting because they were talking with a researcher who was studying forgiveness by collecting data and interviewing people in Sierra Leone in the aftermath of their civil war.  It is a unique situation because after they democratically elected a new government people who were on separate sides of a conflict were in the same communities, and even neighbors.  You could be living next to somebody who cut off your hand, raped or killed a family member.  What happened in that country is truly horrific, and no side was necessarily worse than the other. People were allowed to go back to their lives unpunished by the new government (with perhaps the exception of certain leaders).  In the main story that they follow in the podcast the play excerpts of an interview with two men who were friends before the civil war and when one was captured by the rebels he was made to do horrific things. He came across his friend and the rebels wanted him beat his friend, and he would not do it, and so they shot at him injuring him and told them that if he didn’t he would be killed.  Fearing for his life he did as they asked, and then asked him to kill his friend’s father.  He also ended up doing that in fearing for his life.

I am going to stop there before I going into the aftermath.  Right now some of you are judging the friend harshly who killed his friend’s father.  Some of you feel extreme anger towards the adult rebels who would ask a youth to do this and some of you are just lost in sorry for the pain and anguish that both of these boys must have felt.  You are maybe thinking what you would do in the same situation.  You are thinking about it rationally and cooly.  Let me say first that whatever decision you are making right now, may not be the decision you would make in the moment.  And I think the most important thing that you should think about is that you never want to have to face this situation.  Fear, when facing our own depth makes us capable of much more than we think.  Sometimes horrific acts.

Now the question you have to ask yourself is how forgiving do you feel right now?  And if you can forgive, how much should we expect those who were in that particular situation to forgive?  The podcast asks the question, how does one move forward from such atrocities after neighbor has been set against neighbor?

The way Sierra Leone has dealt with this in trying to stitch their society back together is that all over the country they have reconciliation ceremonies in communities where people stand face to face with people who have done harm to them personally or friends or family members.  They confront each without physical violence.  There is confession and ask for forgiveness.  And forgiveness often happens, because those who are willing to take part in the ceremony want to be able to forgive.  When following up on those who had taken part in the ceremony and when forgiveness happened they found those people were more productive in their community.  They made friends easier, they helped others in their community, more participation in politics and ensuring a positive political future and were more conscious of social justice issues.  It all sounds pretty great.  Forgiveness is a powerful part of healing and there is no psychological study that I know of that recommends holding on to anger and exacting revenge.  Many think it will bring peace, but it does not.  But if forgiveness is the better way, why do we have such a hard time doing it?  Already there are a number of you who are thinking that you could not forgive in such situations as described earlier.

It turns out that the downside of these people who participate in these reconciliation ceremonies is that while society at large gains, the individual suffers.  The act of forgiveness requires a great deal of courage because in that confrontation with a person who caused you harm you must also confront your pain.  You must relive the trauma, the memories, and those horrific images.  Individuals report greater depression and other symptoms of PTSD.  The researcher’s recommendation is that the act of forgiveness needs to be followed by individualized mental health treatment.  It makes a lot of sense.  In addition to the obvious reminder about the importance of mental health it revealed to me that ultimately to truly overcome pain that we experience requires a confrontation within ourselves.  As hard as it may be for two people stand face-to-face in these reconciliation ceremonies, it’s even harder to face the pain with in us.  Perhaps this is why people choose not to forgive and seek external solutions so they don’t have to deal with that pain and never find that path to peace.  Anger, addiction, or just disciplined suppression are all hallmarks of those who cannot forgive and this generally leads to more pain for others and cycles of conflict and violence continue.  I say this without judgment, because no matter how rational my thought process is right now, I cannot know how I would react in the face of extreme fear, and extreme pain.  I find it hard to blame others for not being able to forgive, and I don’t blame people for being angry when they experienced trauma and pain.

shaw_trc_moyambaAs I’ve said to others in the past, the most powerful part of the message of Jesus Christ has always been about the power of forgiveness and that if there is something to believe in, it’s redemption.  The good news from the story told in the podcast is that those two men are once again friends.  I am sure there are times when it is not easy.  The one who killed his friend’s father helps the other plant his crops as he was injured during the civil war.  There are no quick solutions I am sure for them but both are clearly on a path to peace and healing and a chance for a new generation to not have to face the horrors they faced.  And maybe that’s the best reason to be courageous and forgive.  Maybe our own wounds will still burst open from time to time and cause us pain, but maybe we can keep that pain out of future generations.  Because when we act outwardly on our pain and harm others the suffering it causes as pain ripples outwards into their loved ones makes your wound everybody’s wound.  And in I’m not saying it’s all easy but as a people we need to get better about supporting paths that lead to peace.  Especially those of us who have been fortunate enough to not have such events happen in our lives. We need to help people confront the pain that tears through their soul and teach them how they can overcome it.  Forgiveness has value in the face of hurt and harm in whatever form it comes in.  We need to give compassion without judgment and replace despair with hope.

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.