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.

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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.

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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.

Striving for a better world where you can keep your guns

An article I read recently has helped me admit the truth in regards to gun control.  There is truly no tragedy bad enough for us to reform our gun laws.  So be it.  It is a tiresome debate to be sure, and so I wanted to approach it from a different perspective.   In fact accepting the fact that people want their guns in this country has helped me ask questions that I might never have asked.  So let’s begin.

Let us accept as fact that guns are the best way to ensure safety in the U.S. today, which is full of criminals and people who want to hurt you.  Or in other words there are bad guys with guns; you need to be a good guy with a gun.  I don’t deny that there are far more good guys with guns than bad.   Okay, so you need this gun, whether it is to protect the people you love at home, or you might have to stop a bad guy with a gun in a public place.  I hope that it is not too much of an assumption to say that neither side of the gun control debate wants to have crazy people invading their homes or pointing guns in public places wanting to cause harm to others.  If you feel you need a gun in the world we live in now, that’s fine, but wouldn’t you like the world to get better?  Wouldn’t it be nice to be in a world where you didn’t need that gun?  Because let’s face it, a crazy person with a gun wanting to harm people is a stressful situation.  Somebody is likely to get hurt anyway before that person can be stopped, and the fright of a crazy person with a gun breaking into your home and being shot in your living room is an ugly sight to all who live there and can be traumatic, even if you were to just scare the intruder away with your gun.   So would it be safe to say that all would like to live in a safer world in which a gun wasn’t necessary?  It seems reasonable.  Again nobody physically wants to take your gun away.  I personally have no problems with guns staying in boxes in the corner of your basement, collecting dust because there is never an occasion to use it.  Even soldiers at war look forward to a time when they can lay down their weapons and not have to use them again.

Let us also accept the fact that there will always be criminals.  This is probably true also.  But is it true that crime levels are the same everywhere?  Of course it isn’t.  There are places with less crime, less homicides, and in some cases a stunningly low amount of guns. Now if we removed the U.S., which is a statistical outlier in terms of gun ownership, we might find that some of the countries with higher gun ownership (still less than half of the U.S. average gun ownership) have low crime.  If such societies exist then it seems that we would want to learn about what that society has done to lower crime, especially violent crime, so much.   Perhaps it is non-restrictive gun laws, but if gun ownership is 20-30 per 100 people, there are still a large number of people unarmed who could be taken advantage of by a bad guy with a gun, so the answer to their lower crime can’t be entirely gun ownership.   And this is aligned with what gun rights activists say, which is that gun control is not a means to make society safe.  So given that there are other countries that are safer, shouldn’t we be trying to achieve this type of society and trying to understand why they are safe?

What we’d probably find is that such societies have low economic inequality, good health care, emphasize education and have a high degree of education equality in all of its schools and universities.  Non-

From whenchemistsattack.com
From http://www.dailyyonder.com

restrictive gun ownership laws are likely to be only a partial answer to the solution.  The NRA lobbies to make sure gun ownership laws remain unrestricted.  They see it as sensible to make sure society is safe.  That being said, why isn’t the NRA also one of the biggest lobbies for quality education? Why are they not helping schools in low income areas getting better equipment and teachers to help people in those communities raise themselves out of their poverty?  Why aren’t they pushing for more funding to universities to lower tuition and public debt?  Why aren’t they using their vast wealth from supporters to create research grants for more research into mental illness?  Why aren’t they pushing for educational programs in schools that might help people recognize the signs early of mentally and emotionally unwell children, who when these problems go unaddressed, grow up into teens or adults who have the potential for violent behavior?  Why aren’t they pushing for better education about drug use and alcohol while decriminalizing, at the very least, marijuana which gives so much of the population a criminal record impacting their chance for future economic stability?  Don’t we want to live in a country where guns are not necessary?   Do we want our Generals in the military to be busy, or would we rather live in times of peace?

What seems strange to me is that it is mostly us naïve liberals who are constantly pushing for more money to education, health care, decriminalization of drugs (particularly marijuana), increased money to social services which help at risk youth, etc.  So I would like to formally say that I am willing to never speak of gun control again, if those who most vehemently support the 2nd amendment also take up the cause to live in a safer society.  You can still have your guns for when the government turns on you to attack you.  But just because society is unsafe, doesn’t mean we can’t strive for something better.  And there is better out there so let’s fight for that, instead of fighting over gun control.  Sound fair?

 

 

 

Isolation in a crowded world

I have been reading a lot of Isaac Asimov lately.  I am not sure if all lovers of science fiction would love Isaac Asimov, but if you are interested in the human condition I think Asimov would be your thing.  His understanding of human nature is phenomenal and his writing of the future seems to me more of a commentary on who we are as a people and what we are capable of then attempt to be some sort of prognosticator of the future.  To me that

From http://www.media.tumblr.com

is the best part of good science fiction and I am sure it is to many as well.

One of his books that really got me thinking was The Naked Sun which is part of his Robot Series.  In it he paints a picture of a planet called Solaria that has been colonized by Earth and is similar in size to Earth but has only 20,000 people.  The people are very spread out having vast estates that are similar in size to something like Delaware.  In this future people have robots and especially on Solaria where the ratio is around 10,000 to 1 for every human.  Robots do everything.  Build all the houses, maintain the grounds, cook the food, and basically tend to every human need.  It is a world without human contact, where even sex becomes mechanical and only for the purposes of breeding.  And that breeding is only selective because they always maintain the population at exactly 20,000.

Earth on the other hand is crowded with everybody living in cities and all cities at populations of 10 million or more.  While human touch is still a part of everyday life, there are many social conventions that act to keep people’s privacy intact.  Not overly different from today’s city life really.

Both societies seemed very plausible in the way they developed and I started to think of how we might be trending in a direction of isolation whether it is an isolation in which we are surrounded by others or a physical isolation in which human contact in unnecessary or unwanted.  We know from studies of anthropology that we started off in hunter-gatherer groups; a society in which we were dependent on each other for survival.  Survival was a result of the coordination of each member’s skill set applied with extreme vigilance.   As we have developed civilization, larger populations, and new technologies, life has essentially become easier for some of us, and quite a bit harder for a lot of other people.  The disparity in standard of living makes the culture of the “haves” admirable to the “have nots”. It seems, at least in this country, that many spend a lot of time reducing the value of the poor, on whose backs our comfort is maintained.  It seems to me though that the culture of the “haves” is not necessarily one to admire, and is perhaps not beneficial for our health.

In the house I grew up in, my parents knew most of the people on our street.  Perhaps not well, but knew their names, and a few of our neighbors they did know well.  I know there are some neighborhoods where people remain very close, but think there is a lot more distrust towards neighbors today than there was in the past.  I know the names of two people on my block and that’s it.  As I write this article to post it on my blog I am reminded that while it may touch the lives of others, perhaps many of them I will not meet.  I will not shake their hands, not see their smile, not hear their laughter, not embrace in warmth and friendship.  Like the people of Solaria a large percentage of my interactions are not face to face.  Is it simply because these types of interactions are not part of the mental grammar in which I was raised or are we moving towards a world in which physical interaction is less and less necessary?

And the truth is that if I wanted I really don’t need to rely on anyone if I so chose to except for in very impersonal and indirect ways.  I can still conduct

my business, get groceries, get a car fixed etc, but don’t really need to get to “know” any of them and certainly no need to touch them or for them to touch me.  You can do most of your shopping on-line and have things brought to your door.  Banking and paying bills can be done on-line.  As a professor I could even be a solely on-line teacher.  And while I would still be reliant on society, my need to actively engage in it is not necessary.  Of course, that is not to say I couldn’t be a good person and give money to charities, I’d still be paying taxes, I may even be a fantastic teacher who can write well enough and give interesting exercises that will expand the minds of others.  The question is, is that the kind of future we want to be.  Clearly what I’ve outlined is a lot of personal choice, but it seems that this is a trend amongst those who are as privileged as me and worse yet it seems that this type of lifestyle is almost admired.

For those who do know me, you know I’m not a technophobe and I don’t think technology is evil, but I do think it is worth stopping and thinking about the lives we lead and whether we are going in a direction we want to be going, not only as an individual but as a species.  Is it simply not part of our

From http://www.stupidman.com

mental grammar to be surrounded by millions, making cities a place of almost fighting against the idea of community due to sensory overload in comparison to smaller and more rural communities?  Do we have specific social traits that come from millions of years of evolution such that we do ourselves harm as we become less and less reliant on the close proximity of our fellow man?  Or do we simply adjust easily to the times and simply find happiness where we find it?  What seems clear is that many of our prejudices and distrust comes from a lack of familiarity and empathy with struggles and hardships of others.  In some ways the power of the internet and new technologies bring us so much closer in an informational way, but less so in a physical way.  Does learning about someone’s struggle from a distance build the level of compassion necessary to help them in any meaningful way?  Or is it something that I can just say I care about, disseminate the information to others and then move on to the next interesting tidbit of information.

If I had something important to say, I should be glad that it could so easily reach a million people or even more.  But is it better to reach a million people without my smile, a friendly tone of voice and warm embrace?  Or do I change the world more through the interaction with a few hundred people that I meet while volunteering at a soup kitchen?  I guess Isaac Asimov’s writing made me worry that despite global warming the world might be getting colder.  It made me pause and wonder whether we may be trending towards more separation and isolation and thus towards less empathy and more apathy.

For me I will keep working on it, try to find the right balance.  I have now spent too much time in the digital world and I will now go spend time with the family. 🙂

Crime and Punishment

On Dec. 17th, Ethan Couch, age 16, was sentenced to 10 years of rehabilitation after admitted to driving drunk and killing four people.  The reason for his light sentence according to the judge was that the defense successfully proved that he suffered from affluenza.

If you clicked on the Wikipedia link I provided for this condition (a condition which doesn’t even pass my spell check), I think that one could conclude that if someone was suffering from this condition, this could certainly impact their decision process greatly and make them likely to be reckless and careless.

Now I am a strong supporter of psychological treatment and the impacts our parents have on our development and decision-making processes.  We over-incarcerate far too much in this country and I am especially for providing our young with psychological treatment over incarceration because study after study shows how the earlier we recognize a behavior (whether due to a traumatic event or crappy parents) we can correct that behavior.

Ethan is a rich, white kid.  Worst-case scenario his parents are selfish assholes who spent little time with him, who enjoyed the privilege that money has given them.  They probably flouted laws themselves knowing that as an upstanding member of the community they probably wouldn’t get too many speeding tickets if pulled over, and even if they did they could pay any fine.  Remembering, I’m sure, to mention to the cop that they might have a talk with some politician of theirs who is a friend and talk about possibly reducing the budget of the police force after a generous donation to that politician’s re-election campaign. When you have ridiculous sums of cash, the law is always on your side.  After 16 years of seeing such behavior and without your parents giving you the time a day, I would say that your sense of right and wrong would be screwed up.  Your attachment to reality would also be screwed up, because you literally don’t understand how most of the world lives when the only other people you know are also filthy rich.  So I support the idea that it is at least possible that bad, extremely rich parents can screw up their kid so badly that he would do something so terrible.  I mean there was no intent to kill here, but this is always the danger of drinking and driving, and punishments are often quite harsh for most people.  Now most people are outraged by the judge’s verdict of affluenza, and for good reason.  I am among one of those outraged, but perhaps for slightly different reasons.

The case raises numerous philosophical questions for me.  At what age do we become blameless for the mistakes of our parents?  Should parents ever be made responsible for crimes their children commit?  How long does the psychological impacts of things that happen in our childhood last? How long can we use them as an excuse for poor decisions that we make?  A child that is raised to hate African-Americans will probably hate African-Americans, but will he ever commit a hate crime? Who knows, but if he did, would it be an acceptable excuse to use the fact that your parents taught you to hate as a defense?  If the kid committed the crime at 13, is that adult enough?  Would we still all be as outraged at the verdict?  What about traumatic events like sexual abuse or physical abuse?  These things have definitely been shown to do psychological damage for possibly the rest of one’s life.  It seems reasonable that if you reinforced from childhood that a certain behavior is acceptable, you will likely feel that way as an adult.  The condition of affluenza, however, is perhaps not as legitimate as one thinks, at least according to one of the co-producers of the 1997 PBS documentary on the subject.   As John de Graaf points out, that in a capitalistic, consumer based society such as ours, we may all suffer from this to a certain degree.  Furthermore he says it is not a psychological condition, but rather a societal criticism.  Affluenza is not a condition recognized by the American Psychological Association.

But let’s say that even if we accept that bad parenting seriously messed up this kid, a whole host of other questions come to mind.  How often can we use psychological conditions as a defense?  Are such rulings equally applied to all such cases?  If there is a psychological condition that can be contracted by rich kids, what psychological condition does poverty cause and can these not be made for their defense when they commit crimes?

The same judge gave a 14 year old African-American a much harsher sentence for a much lesser crime the previous year.  One only has to look at the amount of minorities and poor people in the prison system, who commited crimes that did not lead to anyone’s death, to be convinced that such defenses as affluenza or any other defense based on psychological damage in their upbringing has not been successful.  The impacts of poverty on children, in fact, is a far greater reason actually for “deviant” behavior as young adults and is actually well researched within the psychological community.  Ultimately this is why I am so enraged.  There is probably no greater slap in the face the legal system could give to the poor than this verdict.   A compassionate sentence is either deserved by all or by none.  Whether you think incarceration helps society or not, there cannot be any true justice when it does not apply equally to all citizens.    If prison isn’t the answer for Ethan Couch then at the very least he should be made to volunteer and live in an inner city neighborhood.  If society truly believed in his correction then he won’t receive the education he sorely needs which is compassion and understanding for how the rest of society lives, especially since he hasn’t been punished in a way that the rest of society is punished for similar crimes.  His parents are paying $450,000/year to go to this swanky facility in California.  I shudder to think how many lives could be made better with that money instead of teaching one kid a lesson that would perhaps be better taught in other ways.  There is nothing inherently more valuable about Ethan Couch than any other youth who has been sent to a juvenile detention center or jail.  As income disparity mounts every branch of our government still continues to help the smallest minority ; the rich.  How long can we live in this illusion that we are the best country when we incarcerate more people than those places we consider our enemy and backwards in thinking?  How long can we live in the illusion of trickledown economics?  How long can we live in the illusion of the American Dream that all you have to do is work hard and that dream will come true?  This case is as much about racism and inequality as the George Zimmerman case and it is even more of a reason to be outraged at where our country is headed.  Don’t confuse the meanings of money and value.  Nobody is better person just because they have money and it’s time the government and the justice system stopped acting like this was true.