Message Received

I’d like to broach a subject,
About something we all do.
While we might be social creatures,
Some folks make us mad or blue.

So what are the things you do,
To avoid having a conversation?
Have you ducked into a restroom,
Feigning troubling constipation?

Have you ever silenced your phone,
Or just tossed it in your trunk?
Claimed a received message was errant?
Then said, “Boy technology is junk!”

Have you minimized a window,
Or changed the size of the page,
Just to not even see the name,
Of someone who causes you fits of rage?

Have you said you’re off to bed,
Even when you stay up late,
Just to binge on your favorite show,
Or get rid of that annoying date?

Have you just replied “LOL”
Just to get the parlay to end?
Or said, “Aw, I meant to reply,
But I forgot to hit ‘SEND’”?

Have you ever received an e-mail,
But just didn’t give a damn?
And replied in the second one,
That their first one went to spam.

Sometimes you’ve missed a message,
And don’t want anyone to know,
Thankfully software has no feelings,
Or carries grudges to let go.

I am not saying that it’s right,
To act with so little grace,
But in this communication age,
We all need a bit of space.

And truly, people can be annoying,
I’m no exception to the rule,
And we often escalate the drama,
As our response just adds more fuel.

Go too far and you may risk,
Being without and job and all alone,
We need goodwill and interaction,
No human is a stone.

But there is no shame in practicing,
Some insanity prevention,
By not sinking in a morass of time,
From some acquaintance’s dissension.

Find your peace and your balance,
With your tricks and your white lies,
You’re going to feel a little guilt,
But it also might be wise.

If I don’t have time to reply
To your comments about this verse,
I promise that the excuses I give,
Are all very well rehearsed.

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Life on the Line

In a recent Facebook discussion, we talked about the value of occupations where people put their life on the line.  This of course arose out of a conversation about the currently chaotic situation involving the police and the Black Lives Matter movement.  A friend of mind said he leaned towards siding with police because they lay their lives on the line every day.  Many people feel this way and it is oft used to not only build respect towards police officers, but also people in the military.

On one hand there is certainly courage getting up each day, knowing this could be a day you die…or rather a higher than normal percentage for the average citizen.  Of course the average cop may have as good of odds as the average person who grows up in inner city areas that have a high crime and murder rate.  That aside I agree that it still takes courage, but the stress of such a situation is likely not healthy without a good deal of treatment to deal with the stress.  That kind of stress is likely to make you more likely to take less chances in any given interaction with the citizenry to protect your own life.  Particularly in areas where there is a lot of crime, and for a job which doesn’t pay that well given the cost of your life.

On the other hand, one wonders what compels someone to choose that line of work?  Do people say…”I really want to put my life on the line every day and be a cop or join the military, protecting people?”  I am sure some of them do.  Such nobility does exist.  But I am sure there are plenty of reasons that come into play as well.  Some may join because they can’t afford or don’t want to go to college.  For the military, some may join for the opportunity to go to college, or the job opportunities that will be more plentiful upon graduation.  Many join the military simply as a way to get out of poverty.  Other factors may come into play, like trying to escape an abusive or dysfunctional household, doing it because your father and/or brother(s) did it.  Other less noble reasons could also exist like just wanting the respect that comes with the uniform, picturing yourself as some action hero not even thinking about the consequences of you doing or wanting that instant authority over people.  This has always been the trouble I have had with simply thinking of all cops or military personnel as noble heroes for being willing to lay down their life for others, because it’s unclear to me how much of this courage really factors into their decision to do the job.

wash-ham_memeBut they do, do the job.  At the end of the day isn’t that all that matters?  Perhaps, but if laying down your life, whatever your initial intentions were make you a person with courage then such courage should also be bestowed on all people who have dangerous jobs.  And there are such jobs even though they in no way are protecting other people.  People who are loggers, fishers, and roofers come in the top 3.  Here is a list of the top 20 most dangerous professions per capita (Police come in at 15).  We also must then laud all those who lay their life down for a cause.  This then includes your rebels, your gangs, your suicide bombers.  This people also risk their life, sometimes end their lives for a cause they believe in.  I think we can agree that this is not the type of person we want to elevate to nobility.  Of course it is the values they hold, the values they fight for, the goodness that they protect.  So if we can’t guarantee the motivations of all people who don the uniform, if there are more dangerous professions, and if what makes someone is a hero is the values they represent, it seems to me like “laying down one’s life” isn’t an overly relevant reason to elevate one to a position of automatic respect.

But you may say, “Big talk person with blog, but would you be willing to do the same?”.  And I think it’s a fair question to ask and it’s also an important question I think to ask one’s self.  “Is there a cause for which I’m willing to die for?”  I certainly think I have the courage for it, but I know for me the death part isn’t what would hold me back.  If there was truly no other way besides carrying a gun to solve the problem, then it is my passion that would override my fear of death, at least initially.  It would simply feel like the right thing to do regardless of the consequences.  What I will say is that I am definitely capable of making a mistake, and possibly a deadly one.  Dying to me is quite honestly less scary than taking the life of someone who did feel I deserve it.  Had I shot Tamir Rice.  I would be wishing myself dead, and if they didn’t lock me up, I’d quickly turn in my badge.  Because, how are you going to live with that?

Cop buys mother he caught stealing, $200 dollars in groceries for her kids.  Values to die and live for.
Cop buys mother he caught stealing, $200 dollars in groceries for her kids. Values to die and live for.

When it comes the situation between cops and blacks in the U.S., all I can say is that there is definitely racism in the justice system, and most cops are simply doing their best.  They see the worst of society and the see it every day.  There is no question this wears on them, and there is no question in changes the brain.  But so does poverty and racism.  The key is I think is to reach out to all those who need help.  You don’t have to lay down your life to support the police and black people.  Things have to change or a lot more people are going to die and those are the lives we all need to work together to save.

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.

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?: Play

In talking about what makes a good human, I wanted to clarify that this series isn’t trying to focus on solely qualities that are only virtuous in the eyes of others but also on qualities that are good personally.  I believe that the goodness we display outward and our energy and drive to become better are fostered also by the good things we do for ourselves.  I also want to highlight qualities that I think we would be well served to promote in society in general.

Stress is a killer.  Even if it hasn’t killed you yet, it’s likely making you tired, irritable, and is causing you to develop less than healthy eating habits and/or overusing drugs.  The volume of literature on health problems associated with stress is large.  As a result I can’t “stress” the importance of play enough.  The dictionary defines play as “engagement in an activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose.” Now I have a bit of a problem with this definition, because it depends on what is meant by practical. Reduced stress, happiness, and better health seem fairly practical to me. That being said I do understand the spirit of the dictionary definition since these tend not to be the reasons we play. We play because we want to have fun, so let’s look at what play is all about.

Now certainly when it comes to health there are many things we can do to improve our health, but not all of them qualify as play.  Exercise directly for the purpose of getting healthier, may be important, but often feels like work and doesn’t always reduce stress.  Although an overall sense of well-being can make the exercise feel worth it, but I would argue that it’s still not play.  Now one of the ways I like to exercise is by playing racquetball, because I find racquetball fun.  As a side product I also do get healthier, but if I had to jog to get healthy, it would feel like work and not play.  So as the definition states, play does have to be something you enjoy doing and that you find fun.  For most of us, our careers don’t count either.  Not that a career can’t be rewarding, fulfilling and bring happiness, but most jobs have at least some unpleasant parts, and a good deal of stress too, even if it is something you enjoy as a whole.

Leisure is a big part of play and I am sure some of my colleagues who teach recreation and leisure in my department could give me a more academic breakdown of the different types of leisure, but I don’t want to focus too much on that, but instead look at what makes leisure enjoyable. There is a difference in what one might call a leisurely activity and feelings of leisure.  There are plenty of people who take vacations, and probably spend half their time checking work e-mails etc, or sit there and worry about all the things they have to do when they get back.  I have been guilty of this myself, and in general it is not healthy.  One of the most important aspects of play, and therefore leisure, is that it must be an activity that absorbs you and allows you to live in the moment.

Life is, however, full of troubles and worries and these are often important and must be dealt with.  They often require a great deal of thought, planning, and energy.  And although hedonistic people tend to be the happiest, we can’t always afford to be that way.  So play is our escape; a way to lose ourselves in fun, joy, and pleasure.  No doubt the importance of play in life has been enhanced by having a child.  Play, for children, has been demonstrated to be extremely important.  More worrisome is that play for children has been declining.  As standardized testing continues to occupy more and more of a child’s time in the classroom and some school districts in the U.S. are not letting children play outside at temperature below 55 F (almost no kid in Canada would ever have recess), free play time is being eliminated or replaced with directed play, which is a developmentally important difference for children.  I remember recess play times where me and my friends would usually act out various cartoons, comics, TV shows, all taking different roles and of course those roles would get modified pretty significantly over the course of the recess break.  Every day was something different and for 15-30 minutes we were completely lost in what we are doing.  As the article I linked suggests play develops important social skills, and also children learn through play even if they don’t realize they are doing it.  Again this goes back to the spirit of the definition of play, it may seem like it is not serving a practical purpose but it is.  In playing with my child I find that I am laughing and losing track of time as well (at least until my toddler’s inexhaustible energy surpasses my own) and so playing with your child is not only important for them but also important for you.

As adults, play time is just as important.  This NPR article does a good job at looking at the different aspects of adult play and why it is important.  My favorite quotes from the article are:

“Play is something done for its own sake,” he explains. “It’s voluntary, it’s pleasurable, it offers a sense of engagement, it takes you out of time. And the act itself is more important than the outcome.”

And:

“I think it’s important for adults to be silly.”

I have long been a believer in the importance of silliness; like making silly faces, making silly motions or other slapstick-like comedy periods of complete nonsense, and giggling uncontrollably. Making others laugh and doing things that make us laugh is an extremely healthy activity.   Having people in your life that can make you laugh, or who have similar senses of humor can make life much richer and happier.  Playing games can also help keep adults sharp into old age, improving memory, coordination, and movement.  Adult play, as the article points out, can also involve sex.  You didn’t think I was going to leave sex out of this series did you?  While society tends to focus on the “love” aspect of sex (which is a limiting focus for sex, since sex and love are different biological drives) we also tend to forget that sex is fun.  You are in the moment and probably pretty happy during and after.

If there is a darker side of play, like any quality, it is letting it dominate your life.  We can’t play all the time, and as I mentioned there is time for being serious, feeling a little stress, and dealing with difficult situations.  But we can approach these situations fresher, more energetic and more skillfully when we do make time for play.  In the U.S. where leisure time is rapidly decreasing as we pursue the dollar over happiness it is ever more important that we make sure to make an effort to work play into our day.  I think inherently we all know this important but we let ourselves get swept away by the stresses of life and convince ourselves that we don’t have time.  Chances are you do and if you don’t think you do, start by literally trying to put “play” into your schedule.  I love playing racquetball and if I don’t block off that time for racquetball I will much more easily miss playing in favor of work.  By valuing play we not only help ourselves but we can also work to promote play in other areas of society, by giving children adequate playgrounds, by promoting play in school, and by making sure we do our best to help our friends and family play and have fun.