Category Archives: Risk taking

Epilogue to my Kenya Trip

For two days now I’ve been back in Europe after my two weeks in Ahero, Kenya. I still haven’t heard anything about my suitcase that Finnair misplaced in Paris, but other than that I am very pleased with the way everything about the trip worked out. I met many wonderful, warm people. I got some amazing photographs. I managed to stay healthy under somewhat risky circumstances. I was received with kindness and respect everywhere I went, and many people seemed to be touched and encouraged by what I had to say for myself.072

I also noticed many things that were uniquely valuable about the culture of the people I spent those weeks living among there. I am really not tempted to try and make Finns or Americans out of them, even if that would be possible. They have their own rich and beautiful way of life that, for all its problems, deserves our sincere respect.

Those qualifications in place, however, especially now after the fact of my trip it must be acknowledged that the most important reason for my trip was that there are thousands if not millions of people there who in many ways desperately need whatever sort of help I can arrange for them, because some things there are tragically dysfunctional. Thus the task I have set for myself now is to, on the balance, evaluate what I consider to be wrong with the situation there, what can be done about it, and what lessons there are to be learned from it. This entry, therefore, is my way of “thinking aloud” about those factors for myself. Your feedback on this process, regardless of your cultural and ideological perspectives, is more than welcome.

036The clearest way I know of to do this is to lay things out for myself in terms of a list of lists, and then to see if I have any profound conclusions to draw afterwards. My lists themselves are basically: a) the things I see as wrong with the current state of affairs in Kenya, b) the forms of constructive help that I would like to see those in the West offering to Kenyans, and c) the Kenyan mistakes that Westerners –– Americans in particular –– should be careful to learn from and not repeat. So here we go.

Kenya’s major problems

1. If there is one thing this country does not need it is more competing brands of Christianity. I might go as far as to say that in all my travels around the world I have never seen such a thoroughly over-evangelized and over-churched people anywhere. When it comes awareness of Jesus’ death for their sins and living up to the ideal of child-like faith in the Bible there is no nation on earth which is in any position to instruct the Kenyan people. If this were the key to solving the country’s problems it would clearly have no problems. This is not of course to say that all of Kenya’s churches are preaching “the pure gospel of Jesus” (however you care to define that) in a way that truly helps the people sitting in the stackable Chinese plastic chairs and shouting “Amen!” but that does not mean that introducing further new brands will be of any help. This in fact is a particularly complex problem to be addressed.013

2. Most people in Kenya seem to have entirely lost faith in the political process, and the rules and laws that result from it. There are of course many good reasons for them not to trust their politicians: nearly all of them are in one way or another preserving an oligarchy of insiders, working for their own selfish benefit rather than for the benefit of their people. To the extent that they are reaching out to the common people of the country it is frequently a matter of rewarding members of their own party and their own tribe for supporting their particular branch of the oligarchy over other ones. Thus laws are seen as politicians’ means of manipulating and further enslaving and impoverishing the people; things to be circumvented wherever possible. Paying a bribe or two along the way is frequently taken for granted as part of the status quo. But as long as people don’t believe that they really can make a difference in terms of holding their leaders accountable for their actions, the failure of government to genuinely help people and protect the human rights of its citizens will remain pretty much inevitable.

3. As with official laws, many basic health and safety rules are routinely ignored in Kenya. Nowhere is this more obvious than in traffic. Vehicle safety seems to be left entirely up to the discretion of the driver. Load limits and passenger protection considerations are a joke. Traffic patterns, especially during rush hours, tend to resemble a rugby scrum more than anything else. The same logic applies to pretty much every other form of communal activity as well: People do whatever they feel they can get away with, pay off anyone who might have the power to try to shut them down, and pray that their practices of cutting corners won’t come back to bite them. Many times they do, resulting in some fairly serious health problems and tragic accident rates.

Seeing these guys attempt to fix their car on the street in front of the hotel where I was staying, I couldn't help but recall the end of the quote from Jesus in the back window there: "...for they know not what they do."

Seeing these guys attempt to fix their car on the street in front of the hotel where I was staying, I couldn’t help but recall the end of the quote from Jesus in the back window there: “…for they know not what they do.”

4. There remains a tragic lack of self-reliance in Kenyan society. Part of this has to do with a conditioned habit as seeing white people as sources of support, empowerment and guidance. As one white businessman I met in Kisumu put it, “They think that if the put a misungu [white person] in charge, everything will work from there, but it really doesn’t.” And of course this is a bit strange and ironic for me to say something about, since I am one of the white people who has gone in hoping to offer support, empowerment and guidance… potentially leading to something resembling the classic scene in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian where he tells his followers to think for themselves. I was thankful, of course, not to confront major incidents of post-colonial hostility in my travels there, and I believe that looking for opportunities to work together across ethnic and cultural lines is a far more productive approach than demonizing the other colonial other and blaming all of the country’s problems on them, but… ultimately Kenya’s deepest problems can only be resolved by Kenyans themselves. That in turn requires breaking out of a mentality of seeing how many little forms of cheating they can get away with.

5. Many problems in Kenyan life are further compounded by a traditional lower status for women. Perhaps the clearest example of this is the anecdote told to me by one of my Kenyan friends that his grandmother considered it to be somewhat improper for a woman to eat chicken at all: not only are the choicest bits of meat generally reserved for the men at the table, but it is improper for women to indulge themselves in nicer foods even if the men aren’t eating them. This pattern of keeping women in a state of subservience is seen in many little routines ranging from norms of kitchen work to continued acceptance of polygamy. This makes the status of AIDS widows with large numbers of children all the more tragic for the victims involved.

Of course when you give women freedom from their traditional roles it often leads to them deciding to do things like leaving their husbands. It is hard to deny that greater freedom for women is the most significant factor in the catastrophic divorce rates in much of the developed world. We haven’t got the whole thing figured out yet, clearly. But I’m convinced that the problems for societies stemming from a culture of keeping women down are greater than the problems entailed in men losing control over women. Not all Kenyan men share my perspective on that matter.

One of the peasant women employed as a "human scarecrow" in the rice fields.

One of the peasant women employed as a “human scarecrow” in the rice fields.

6. There are a significant number of dysfunctional aspects in Kenya’s education system. In addition to the lack of material resources for schools stemming from official corruption, the high percentage of orphans and malnourished children in Kenya’s rural schools, the lack of qualified teachers (and secure salaries for those who are so as to keep them teaching), and the problem of school accessibility for children especially during rainy seasons, Kenyan schools that I visited all tend to rely most heavily on a pedagogy of rote memorization. Part of the challenge is that national examinations and higher education opportunities strongly stress the use of English as a language of learning. This eliminates a certain amount of tribal infighting by putting all Kenyan children –– Luo, Kikuyu, Maasai, Kamba or Kisii –– at equal disadvantage in terms of being able to write fluent exam essays. It also prevents the vast majority from thoroughly assimilating the lesson material in the way one is able to take in what one hears in one’s native language. Combine this with a lack of technical capacity to provide an interactive learning environment of any sort and you end up with a teacher copying materials from a standardized textbook onto a chalk board, students repeating this back to the teacher as they copy it down in their notebooks and evaluation being based almost exclusively on how well they can remember this material after the fact. In spite of this emphasis on English in education, and in the media for that matter, the level of spoken English in the population at large is significantly lower than in any country in central Europe where I have visited. So it is small wonder that the life skills acquired through the formal education process in Kenya are frequently not proving adequate for the challenges of the modern world.

The social studies lesson that was left on the chalk board of a primary school that I visited.

The social studies lesson that was left on the chalk board of a primary school that I visited.

7. Finally, as I commented in the last blog I wrote during my time on the ground there in Kenya, there is a problem of many churches offering magical solutions to practical problems rather than strength of character to confront these problems and deal with them constructively. This may come across as a liberal critique of those who are more theologically conservative than myself, or as a mainstream critique of more charismatic or Pentecostal forms of worship, but that is not my intent here. I see great value in people coming together and having a profound emotional experience of “the spirit moving” among them, especially for those whose lives are otherwise so often difficult and joyless. My problem is with those whose motivation for coming to church is to magically gain material advantage over non-believing neighbors, and with pastors who market their various competing brands of Christianity on such a basis. The border between ignorance and willful (self-)deception in this matter is hard to draw, but one clear thing is what I said at the beginning of this list: if strength of faith was the solution to social problems Kenya would have no social problems.

This brings me to the matter of the next list to be considered…

Constructive forms of help that the developed world can/should provide for Kenya:

Nyangoto 1941. Engagement with teacher education. It is quite likely impossible to have a positive impact on the dysfunctions of Kenya’s education system through a top-down strategy, especially given the sorry state of trust between political leaders and education providers throughout the country. The best hope for improving the state of education in Kenya is to instill in young teachers a vision for improving their country through equipping young people to become better citizens, neighbors and workers. When teachers genuinely care about those they are teaching and when they genuinely believe that they can make a difference, good things can happen. There are many levels on which this engagement can take place, ranging from exchange programs for students of education, to providing professional development seminars for teachers in service, to stipends for student teachers, to sponsorship for projects making some basic learning materials available in students’ native languages. Kenyans are by no means stupid or lazy people, and the structure of the education system needs to be changed from the bottom up so as to prevent them from appearing to be that way.

b0232. Pastoral training programs. Among the extensive number and vast variety of churches throughout Kenya, with their profound impact on the day-to-day lives of over three quarters of the population, from what I could tell those with leaders who have received more than six months’ worth of formal theological or divinity studies are a small minority. These pastors want to learn more about the Bible, about history, about how to discuss their faith with those outside of it, about how to council those in traumatic circumstances or with mental disabilities –– training which is a prerequisite for work in pretty much any sort of church in the developed world. The thing preventing them from getting such training is the time and money it would require, which their poor parishioners are in no position to sponsor. These pastors would also greatly benefit from sitting together for training seminars on a regular basis, to learn not only from an expert instructor but from each other, to fellowship and discuss their prayers and goals for their churches and their society. It is far more difficult for them to attack and demonize each other when they have been engaged in constructive dialog with each other about what it means to them to be working towards the realization of God’s will in their region. Such seminars need to be as denominationally and ideologically neutral as possible, geared not towards reinforcing particular dogmas but providing practical understanding in some very basic areas of human interaction. By training those pastors who wish to be trained in such skills, and by giving them more confidence in their capacity to have a positive influence on their communities there is a potential for bringing about many profound improvements in people’s everyday lives.

3. Emergency aid for those most in need.Setting aside all of the tired old “give a man a fish vs. teaching him to fish” analogies, there are many people who won’t live long enough to learn to fish for themselves without some immediate practical help. Of course the risk of creating a culture of dependence on outside help is to be taken seriously, as is the risk of feeding a culture of corruption whereby middle men are enriched using donors’ empathy with the poor as their cash crop. But there are many ways of making quite direct contact with those in the greatest need and ensuring that their hope is increased and their suffering is reduced. Programs can be instituted and supported for providing basic nutrition to malnourished orphans at specific Kenyan schools without enriching any middle men or reinforcing any particular church’s market position in the process. Specific children can be sponsored and interacted with by specific Western “God-parents” with very little being lost in the transfer of resources these days. There are countless other ways of making significant positive impacts on people’s lives in that part of the world without putting their long-term self-sufficiency at further risk. If this is not something you consider to be part of your basic humanitarian responsibility it is certainly part of your moral responsibility if you wish to call yourself a Christian; refusing to do so is something that fundamentally disqualifies a person from having any legitimate claim to be a follower of Jesus.

c0094. Building solidarity networks in the distribution of assistance. When in the process of receiving support from abroad local people are encouraged to work together with each other across clan, tribal, political and ideological boundaries, good things can happen. When people start to recognize each other as partners more than as competitors the potential for improvement in the society as a whole increases exponentially. This sort of approach goes beyond worrying about damaging recipients’ self-reliance with our generosity; it equips them to become part of a broader mutually supportive local community which might not have otherwise taken shape.

These are by no means particularly original concepts, nor are my friends in the newly formed NGO Bondoaid –– on the basis of whose work I went to visit Kenya to begin with –– the only ones doing valuable work in these sorts of regards. There are plenty of ways in which real good can be done for those in real need in such circumstances, and among the con artists there are plenty of honest organizations working to help those with the greatest needs. I claim no monopoly on any unique sort of opportunity here. If, however, you are lacking in some way to place yourself on the right side of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 25:31-46 send me a message and I’ll put you in touch with some of “the least of these” that he was talking about.

Meanwhile I’ve got one more list to go here…

Kenyan mistakes for other countries to avoid:

If you’ve been reading this far I probably don’t have to spell these out in any great detail, but hopefully my American friends in particular will take these matters to heart.

1. Allowing negative expectations regarding the role of government in people’s lives to become a self-fulfilling prophesy: If you expect the government to be the problem and not the solution, you can cause the government to be the problem and not the solution. If you consider government to ideally be an institution by the people, for the people and ultimately responsible to the people to preserve liberties and to protect basic rights, you can cause it to move in the direction of conformity with those ideals.

2. Letting tribal rivalries stand in the way of working together for the common good. When defeating and/or demonizing the other guy becomes more important than working together to meet the needs of the most vulnerable and to protect the well-being of our “neighbors” (however widely we define that term) we have become self-destructive in ways in which Kenyan politics provide a strong negative example.

3. Letting public education atrophy into an irrelevant and bothersome experience for young people rather than a means of equipping them to build a better future for themselves and their country. When you cut corners on how much you invest in the minds of future generations, and when you make school into a ritualized status determinant rather than a means of personal empowerment, you condemn your society to a future as bleak as much of Kenya’s present.

4. Cutting corners on personal and public safety. There’s a lot to be said for limiting bureaucracy which exists merely for its own sake and to limit the possibilities of people succeeding through their own original thought and hard work, but there’s even more to be said for the enforcing of standards that protect people from dangerous business practices. Kenya’s roads and rural construction practices are not the sort of model that fiscal conservatives should be aspiring to in the Western world, but that is very much the direction they are going.

5. Looking for magical help from above rather than working on a system of caring for each other. Let me say it again in a different way: In my first few days in Kenya one profoundly sincere woman commented that God had blessed the nation I come from greatly, and asked what I believed Kenya needed to do in order to reap similar sorts of blessings. I don’t know how to make it clear to them, or to those in US “prosperity gospel” churches, without scaring them away, that they’re probably asking the wrong questions. Believing that following the right sort of ceremonial rules and exclusive standards of purity in faith will ensure material prosperity has little if anything to do with the message of Jesus, and even less to do with practical planning to creating a stable and prosperous society. If that is your basic method what Kenya now has is what you can more or less expect to get in the future.

The filing system in the vice-principal's office of a secondary school that I visited

The filing system in the vice-principal’s office of a secondary school that I visited

So those are my basic thoughts at this point as I unwind and digest my recent exotic experiences. Forgive me for getting a bit preachy in places. I fully realize that there are some things I am too close to still to see clearly, so if anyone can offer clarification on some of these issues from further away I welcome your input. Meanwhile thank you for taking the time to share in my process of sorting through these thoughts and my sincere wish for each reader here is that you also have the experience of being able to make your world a bit better by daring to care about others.

 

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Filed under Change, Economics, Education, Empathy, Ethics, Human Rights, Purpose, Religion, Risk taking, Social identity, Travel

“Misungu, How are You?”

Yes, for those who haven’t heard, this week I’m writing this from the town of Ahero, Kenya, where I’m spending a couple of weeks investigating the field of potential charitable cooperation with schools and orphanages and the like. When setting off on this adventure to “real Africa” (not just some enclave of Western culture on the African continent like Cape Town) I knew sort of what was in store for me, and that I was as prepared as I was going to get, but probably not sufficiently. So far that seems true enough in all senses. This is a basic report on my impressions from my first few days in Kenya –– how it has touched me and what hopes I am starting to develop so far.

c036The passengers on the Kenya Airways flight I took from Amsterdam to Nairobi were a good mix of cultures and skin types; perhaps a slight majority of white folk. The flight itself went without a hitch, other than that (typically for me, some might say) my assigned seat had the one broken entertainment console on the entire 777. But as there were a few passengers who missed their connection to be on the flight there were other places for me to sit where I could be as properly entertained as I wished. We arrived on time to Nairobi just at sunrise, with the temperature surprisingly cool at just under 15 Celsius. The sun and temperature rose quickly, however, burning off the fog before it even had time to give an emotional atmospheric impression.

One of the flight attendants started to give basic instructions for disembarkation, by telling us that those passengers who were transferring to other flights must take the ramp attached to the exit on the right side of the aircraft, and those for whom Nairobi was their final flight destination must take the stairs down from the left… except she forgot to specify the left and right bit, and she couldn’t remember the word for stairs in English. Her colleague where I was standing in the mid-section sort of rolled her eyes and smiled at that.

Getting to the stairs seemed to take a while, and when I got to them the situation was partially explained by the fact of the wheelchair waiting at the bottom, with special assistance staff on hand to wheel this white woman with conspicuously swollen legs through the airport… once she had managed to climb down the stairs on her own. This was my first impression of Kenyans perhaps being a bit lacking in certain aspects of logistical understanding this trip.

Customs clearance was also an exercise in mild communications difficulties making the otherwise friendly service a bit less efficient, but nothing to complain about too seriously. Before the last of my fellow passengers had their business sorted out I had all my luggage and was free to go. I was just starting to phone to my contact, Pastor Dan, when I spotted his face in the crowd.

He proceeded to make some inquiries about the best means of getting to the bus station in town from which we could get the coach to Kisumu. That turned out to be the basic “City Hoppa” service, which seemed to wind its way through most of the various outlying districts of Nairobi where service staff might live before working its way closer to the city center. There were some price guidelines of sorts from last year on the inside wall behind the driver, but near as I could tell ticket prices were subject to barter (which I left to Dan to negotiate). Traffic was hectic, of course, and not all of the roads the shuttle negotiated were paved. There was a pair of conductors who, in a fairly well practiced system of teamwork, took turns taking money from passengers, hanging out the window looking for new passengers on the sides of the roads, directing traffic in aggressive ways to get the bus in and out of informal stopping places and around ruts in the road of over a foot deep, and manually operating the passenger door latch, which consisted of a make-shift peg and loop system had been welded to the door frame where the original hydraulic door operating system once was. They communicated with the driver through a code of sorts which they hammered on the side of the bus as it drove. This daredevil form of transit thus successfully got us within 5 blocks of the coach station without serious incident. I’m really not sure how long each of these stages took but there were 5 hours between my flight’s landing and the coach’s departure from Nairobi for Kisumu, and that turned out to be just enough for the logistics of buying coach tickets and having brunch at a nice little local café that Dan picked out.

The view from the front window of the coach while waiting for departure

The view from the front window of the coach while waiting for departure

The coach itself was, by Kenyan standards, a fairly luxurious form of transport. There was no A/C, onboard toilet or video systems, but it still showed signs of being one of the better services on offer. On impressive feature was the broad reclining seats, which seemed to have been recycled from the business class section of an airliner from the 70s or something. It also had a strong smell of having been freshly disinfected as we boarded. I was the only white person on board, but among the Africans there none seemed to be anywhere close to the poverty line at least.

Once clear of the suburbs of Nairobi, the coach struggled up and down the hilly terrain across the country. Following what seemed to be the only paved road for a significant distance in any direction. Parts of the road were being reconstructed of course, with extended sections of semi-prepared gravel road bed to drive across and rather informal systems of for directing traffic as to which “lanes” to take in either direction. At various intervals there were also police checkpoints equipped with chicanes of spike mats to discourage anyone from trying to bypass them.

Then along the way there were also a number of “shopping centers” of sorts, constructed in what South Africans would call a “township style” of temporary architecture. Mud looked pretty deep surrounding most of them, and life there gave the illusion at least of being pretty relaxed. All of the advertising and direction-giving signs along the way appeared to be in English, but no one actually seemed to be speaking English. Some of these more populated wide spots in the road had some pretty draconian speed bumps installed on the main road to protect the lighter traffic going in and out of them from any momentum that passing trucks and busses might otherwise have built up.

066Another conspicuous factor was that each of these little shopping center villages, other than those set up for foreign tourists at “scenic view” locations, seemed to have 2 or 3 churches and/or church run schools of various brands conspicuously present in them. In fact while driving through the countryside on this main road I counted roughly a church of some sort every two minutes on average. If there is one thing Kenyans doing seem to be lacking then, it’s faith in Jesus. What they seem to be less secure in is how that faith is supposed to relate to building a safer and more secure life for themselves and their children, but I’ll come back to that.

Roughly 7 hours on this coach brought us to the town of Ahero, in the suburbs of Kisumu, where Dan’s wife and a few helpers were waiting for us. My conspicuously pale skin immediately began to draw attention from children on the sides of the dirt roads there. At that point Dan told me that the Swahili word for a white man is “misungu,” and that I would be hearing it a lot from children in particular. True enough. It also seems as though for many Kenyan children, especially at a preschool and early elementary level, the only active English vocabulary they have is “how are you,” together with one or two formulaic responses to such a greeting. Thus I have been more or less continuously confronted with the question, “Misungu, how are you?”

A group of children gathered to stare at the "misungu"

A group of children gathered to stare at the “misungu”

The only difficulty I have in responding to this inquiry from children is that not all of my responses fit within the social formulas they have been taught and memorized; so if I say in response, “I am very happy today,” I mostly get puzzled looks from the young children who are asking. Even so, I started to experience tiredness in some of my facial muscles from sharing smiles with so many little dark faces –– a very satisfying form of tiredness to experience.

On a deeper level though it is of course a more complex question to address: How am I really? I mean, what is this crazy white man doing here to begin with?

I got vaccinated up to the eyeballs for everything relevant to this part of Africa in the months before my trip, and the only health challenge I’ve experienced since I’ve been here thus far has been a few nose bleeds of the sort I am prone to when I get especially tired in travelling. In my first morning here, however, I had to join my host in a stop at the local health clinic, where he was helping a family deal with money transfer issues to pay for the treatment of an elderly aunt for acute malaria. Later in the afternoon I found out that my host himself had been experiencing malaria symptoms, and while we were visiting schools together he left me with an assistant and took off for a doctor’s office to get a prescription for drugs to help fight the disease. Now he is just hoping that the drugs he received will not turn out to be counterfeits, as so many of the drugs available in Kenyan village pharmacies turn out to be.

I was a little bit disappointed to discover that my accommodations had been arranged in a local hotel rather than in the home of some church member as I had expected, but Dan perhaps correctly surmised that it would be necessary to put a “misungu” someplace with running water, a private porcelain throne for his bowel relief needs, coffee service of sorts, and a bed with secure mosquito netting rigged around it. These things would be bit much for any of his very poor parishioners to provide. In this hotel room where I am then the television in the room doesn’t work, there is mold on the ceiling, I got a bit of a jolt from the electric shower system while adjusting the water flow, the toilet lacks a seat, and there are a number of other little details that don’t quite live up to western tourist standards, but overall it works, and I don’t think it will bankrupt me.

The street in front of the hotel where I am staying

The street in front of the hotel where I am staying

But it was Joseph, the headmaster at the first medium sized elementary school I went to visit here in Ahero, that really put the whole matter of “how I am” here in perspective for me. My first impression of Joseph was that he bore striking physical resemblance to my Palestinian colleague, “Mudi”, only slightly darker and older looking –– so I was slightly surprised to discover that he is actually close to a year younger than I am! But in many ways Joseph already thinks of himself as an older man for his community: most of the fathers of his school’s pupils end up dying long before they reach his age.

Of the 360 students in Joseph’s school, 27 are currently HIV positive from birth. So far this school year they’ve had one pupil suddenly die of AIDS. Over three quarters of his pupils’ families live below the poverty line, and many of them are mal-nourished to one extent or another. Illness is frequent and long lasting among these pupils, in part because their parents can’t afford medication, in part because medications are frequently counterfeit anyway, and in part because lack of proper food leaves their little bodies without sufficient energy to fight off even basic illnesses.

Joseph was more than happy to call all of the pupils in his school together in the school yard for a spontaneous assembly to greet this foreign visitor. As he explained it, for his pupils seeing a misungu is a significant source of hope in their lives: For some it raises their hope that some help might come to leave them just a little less physically hungry. For others it is symbolic of a wider world of possibilities, further away from their current challenges, but nevertheless possibly open to them some day. Representatives of the full spectrum of Christian churches are thus welcome, including those who focus on testimonies of having been delivered from lives of sin and crime, because it gave these little minds the message that people can really change, and that one’s early experiences and impossible background challenges don’t have to set the limits of one’s potential. The only sort of misungus he had any serious reservations about where those which came to promote new cults which are especially critical of Christian traditions.

b045It was thus rather humbling to stand in front of this crowd of hopeful children and try to find something spontaneously hopeful to say to them. My message was not that I could promise major material resources for their acute needs –– though I would try to spread the word about their needs –– but that the greatest and most reliable source of human happiness is the feeling that we humans can be important to each other and somehow part of each other in a deeply personal sense. I was there for selfish reasons in the sense that I wanted the sort of fulfilment that I know comes from living according to what we call the Twin Commandment of Love: loving God with my whole heart in terms of being fully committed to what I believe in, and loving my neighbor as myself in terms of coming to recognize even distant others as important elements in what makes me me. All I could offer them for certain under the circumstances was the advice to remember the importance of caring for and caring about each other, and the possibility of having one (more) crazy old friend from way up north to further expand the circle of people to whom they are important.

I spoke in English with some limited translation of key points being offered by Joseph when I paused to take questions. I guess it worked, because my host here who had arranged the visit to begin with said that the school had called him back and saying that they would really like to have me there for a full week of guest lectures. So in that sense, yes, this misungu is feeling quite fine this week.

If there are any other misungus out there (or people of any other skin color for that matter) who want to increase their own happiness by connecting with and supporting an orphan or two in this part of the world that none of the established NGOs have reached yet, or if they want to support a local school teacher or two here who currently live in poverty and work without a salary, or even if they would like to provide basic support for children’s education here in the form of one-time sponsorship of an infrastructure project like pouring concrete over the dirt floors in a primitive school building here to keep it from getting shut down for violations of the local health and safety codes (such as they are),  get in touch with me here and I can hook you up.

c026This is not a means of spreading a message or making converts to some particular brand of Christianity; this is a matter of living up to the ideals that Jesus taught as a means of experiencing the richer sort of life that Jesus talked about in John 10:10. It can be something as simple as brightening the lives of a group of five-year-olds for a moment by showing them the basic theory of how to throw, catch and kick a little American football. It can be something as profound as saving children’s lives through feeding them when they are dangerously hungry. In the end it’s all about love, in the many different non-erotic senses of the word, at least as much for our sake as for theirs. We’re not going to fix all of this country’s problems right away, but we can save some very important lives here, and help some very important people to reach their full potential as people. Seriously, what could be more important than that?

Meanwhile, for any of you for whom this report leads you to pray over what sort of contributions you might consider making to this cause, a few extra words to God on behalf of my own continued health and safety while you’re at it wouldn’t go amiss.

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Filed under Disaster relief, Education, Empathy, Ethics, Happiness, Purpose, Religion, Risk taking, Travel

The Balance of Solidarity

This weekend’s entry is sort of a stream of consciousness follow-up on one of the afternoon sessions I attended at the university this week regarding a phrase that carries a very positive connotation in Finnish, but translated into English, especially in with reference to the US political scene, it comes off more as something of a curse these days: “The Welfare State”.

The afternoon in question featured a PR event for a research project jointly sponsored by an insurance company and the university itself, basically looking at the theme of how the societal values that are of deep cultural importance to the Finns can be protected from the draconian “invisible hand of the market” which, taken from an Americanized perspective, would seem to point to the law of the economic jungle inevitably leading to the ever greater polarization of developed societies into a “financial class” and a separate “service class”. Ironically perhaps, the name of the research initiative is “Masterclass”.

I won’t go into the details of the theories that were being tossed about this week by the business interests, Green Party politicians, left-of-center social theory researchers and professors representing the “ivory tower” academic establishment. Suffice to say, the main topics of discussion related to theories regarding how the private, public and tertiary sectors of the economy should ideally relate to each other. For me this simply led to my mind wandering in a number of interesting directions. Interesting to me at least; it remains to be seen whether anyone else finds the paths my mind started to wander down interesting or not.

The core thought that struck my mind that afternoon was that I would agree with one point that Pope John Paul II kept coming back to throughout his papacy, even though he drifted further and further from it the older he got. It was the motto he chose for himself: “Opus solidaritatis pax, peace as the fruit of solidarity” (from his encyclical, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 39). I’m firmly convinced that he was right about this: the only way for us to have peace is if we find ways to build solidarity with those around us.

Solidarity4The essence of the hope that Finns have in the welfare state is in the idea of the state serving as a mechanism by means of which all citizens come together, in solidarity, to confront the challenges faced by vulnerable individuals or smaller groups within society –– whether it be in terms of the harsh climate and likelihood of famine when dependent on Finnish domestic agriculture for the nation’s basic food supply, or the risks posed by having a long border with a massive country historically governed by unstable megalomaniacs to the east, or the human tragedies of personal and family breakdowns caused by people self-medicating in various ways in reaction to the stresses of day-to-day life. With all these factors taken into consideration, if life is going to work at all in this country it has to work on the basis of people coming together in a sense of solidarity –– no one gets left behind; everyone counts. Nor is this strictly a Finnish dilemma or solution; more and more the same lesson is being seen in other parts of the world as well, even those where life is not as naturally stressful as it is in this little corner of Europe: we either build solidarity or we build internal conflicts that will inevitably destroy us.

Building this kind of solidarity, however, is no simple matter. It involves a number of forms of delicate balance in order to function. The key to a viable society, which is not on its way to becoming a failed state, is for the people to sense that they have a stake in the system of government, which in turn is able to bring people together, in spite of their differences, with the conviction that they have greater enemies to face than each other. This doesn’t mean that all of the people of the country need to feel like one big happy family together, but it does mean that they have a sense of mutual respect in their interactions, and an awareness of their dependence on each other.

I would define requirement this as finding a workable balance between dynamics of competition and cooperation. If people lose all of their competitive drive in the process of performing traditional tasks and coming up with valuable new ideas, their societies will inevitably drift down through mediocrity into irrelevance. But if the competition becomes so cut-throat that they are no longer able to work together to achieve important shared goals, the competitive instinct starts to do far more harm than good. Thus, as I have written earlier here, I’m inclined to consider competitive comparison, when it serves as an end unto itself, to be the lowest basic form of human motivation. Throw it away entirely though and you’re also in very deep trouble. Like I said, balance.

bmp_republicans_support_corporate_greed_bumper_sticker-rf99478b65c83442898c1641ecfe6dab2_v9wht_8byvr_324Related to this is the process of establishing a healthy level of ambition within the society as a whole. To state the matter in negative terms, when it comes to ambition there are two extremes that can destroy the potential for solidarity within a society: greed and laziness. Those who are driven to get every possible form of reward for themselves, hell-bent on domination of all human and material obstacles in their path, cannot learn to treat other people as anything else than stepping stones on their path to ultimate domination. Solidarity will never be possible with such people. Likewise those who cannot be bothered to do make any effort beyond the minimum needed to avoid acute personal pain, who have no interest in improving life for themselves and those they care about in the long run, lazy-democratscan never be trusted or respected as valuable partners within a communal spirit of solidarity. Thus when others are seen as either too greedy or too lazy, solidarity inevitably begins to break down. So in order for solidarity to function, we need to have some sort of limits on the amount of greed and the amount of laziness that we consider to be socially acceptable, and we need to have means by which we limit extreme behavior on either end of the spectrum.

More importantly in this regard though, we need to avoid falling prey to hate-mongering regarding others who wish to demonize those at a different point than they are on the continuum from least ambitious to most ambitious. The extreme of laziness at which a person becomes useless to society is actually quite rare. Likewise the prevalence of abusive psychopaths among the most greedily ambitious leaders in the worlds of politics and business management is probably quite exaggerated. When we find excuses to think of other people as less than human, and either toss them aside by blaming all of their misfortunes on their inherent laziness or demonize all good fortune as a sign of psychopathic greed, solidarity ceases to function no matter how hard those at the bottom and those at the top try to work together with those in the middle. In order to build solidarity we need to resist the temptation to demonize each other in such ways.

This leads to yet another balance factor that needs to be considered in the process of building solidarity: the balance between trust and incentivizing. Solidarity cannot function in a police state where the only form of personal motivation people experience is the fear of getting caught doing less good or more harm than what they are officially allowed. There needs to be a certain level of trust between people for anything resembling solidarity to function. Yet at the same time there need to be some sort of mechanisms in place by which appreciation is regularly shown to those who make significant efforts to accomplish things for the good of all, and sanctions are regularly given to those whose behavior damages the sense of solidarity within the group. Neither complete absence of official control nor dependence on absolute authoritarian control is functional in this regard. There are, however, countless variables regarding cultural norms, individual emotional maturity factors, social adjustment processes, etc. which play roles in determining how much trust and how much incentivizing is needed to enable solidarity to grow within any given society. There are many cases where we just need to take chances on other people, hoping for the best in terms of future solidarity.

expl no smThat leads to one final balance factor required for the solidary society: risk management. For any society to grow and flourish there need to be chances taken with new and different ways of doing things, many of which “break the rules” of traditional ways of doing things; yet at the same time we as a society have strong vested interests in preventing people from taking particular types of risks such as drunk driving, smoking in places where explosives are stored, and (sorry Second Amendment fundamentalists) carrying loaded firearms in crowded public places. Thus, while we need to both allow and encourage some risk taking, we also need to restrict and penalize other risk taking. The best guide we have to go on in terms of which risks should be encouraged and which risks should be prevented is our collective historical experience, but that will never provide us with a completely reliable guideline as to which risks are worth taking and which risks are unjustifiable. And beyond all the risks that are taken on purpose, some of the most fortuitous new discoveries in human history have happened because of risks people never intended to take. What else can we say about such things beyond reciting back to ourselves Alexander Graham Bell’s famous panicked words, “Mr. Watson, come here! I want to see you!”

In calling attention to all of these balance factors I am quite aware that all I am really doing is offering a contemporary application of the principle of the “Golden Mean” that Aristotle articulated in his Nicomachean Ethic. His primary examples, for individual life, were that in order to flourish as a person, every man needs the proper amount of three things in particular: food, wine and sex. Too much or too little of any of those could prevent him from properly flourishing as a satisfied and virtuous person, but the precise optimal amount of any of them is rather impossible to determine by some basic generalized formula. The same balance principle, writ larger, is then in many ways the best starting point for enabling solidarity within a healthy society.

If we are able to work out these factors of solidarity in practice we really have relatively little else to worry about in life these days. When it comes down to it, the greatest risks that each of us face on a day-to-day basis are not those of natural disaster, attack by wild animals or a complete unavailability of the material resources needed to maintain human life. The greatest risks we face are those brought about by conflicts with other human beings and the long-term effects on our environment being caused by other human beings. If we find ways to work those things out, the rest is a piece of cake. But saying that this is our only serious concern is, as an old classmate of mine once said, “like saying that the Titanic’s only problem was ‘too much ice.’” People’s instinctive drive towards solidarity is rather limited at best. Finding ways of building solidarity as a means of enabling peace and sustainability is indeed far easier said than done.

One thing that needs to be remembered in this process, however, is that “laws of economics” are not to be taken overly seriously in this process. Such laws are not “God-given precepts” regarding how human labor and cooperation need to function; they are human inventions and evolving social conventions that we as humans are entirely free to change if and when we find more functional means of incentivizing solidarity on all different levels. If economic structures do more harm than good in terms of enabling solidarity, there is no transcendent natural law out there to prevent us from changing things. The problem is merely that the people who currently have the most power within the system would of course have a vested interest in preventing change, even if it would be massively better for humanity as a whole.

Thus the excuse that “we don’t have enough money” as an excuse not to build greater solidarity within our societies is actually rather abstract at best. Money is nothing more than a means of keeping score of who is willing to do what for whom. Wealth, in concrete terms, is ultimately not based on such value calculating games, but on people’s willingness to work together and contribute to each other’s well-being through their various constructive and cooperative efforts. (While in most matters I strongly disagree with the philosophies of Karl Marx and Joseph Ratzinger, and while they too have very limited areas of ideological agreement, on this point they entirely agree with each other and I agree with both of them.) So when we so that so-and-so has this much money, and that this-and-that is this far in debt, what that actually means is that according to the current mechanisms for enabling cooperation between people, the wealth holder is in the position of justifiably expecting more to be done for her by others in the future and the debtor is in the position of being expected to do more for others in the future in exchange for favors he has already received. That’s really all there is to it. As long as such understandings provide the most reliable means of maintaining and improving human solidarity, we should accept their continuation. When it is clear that they are doing more harm than good, we should start some sort of revolution to change them… before those currently holding the reins of power destroy the possibility of peaceful and sustainable human life on this planet entirely.

There are many other theological, philosophical, psychological, sociological and political arguments I could try to toss out in favor of the points made above, but it’s probably best to leave my rambling thoughts at that for now. As a means of summarizing all of this and tying it all together though, let me just say that in order to protect all that is dear to us we really need to improve out means of building solidarity with each other, and to do that we need to achieve a sense of balance in four basic areas: integration, ambition, trust and risk-taking. Perhaps someday I can arrange those into a catchy acronym that will help people remember them and build on those principle in order to help us save the world from ourselves. For now I’ll just keep doing the best I can to build on the solidarity I’m already experiencing in life.

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Filed under Change, Control, Economics, Ethics, History, Philosophy, Politics, Priorities, Risk taking, Social identity, Sustainability

Reconstructing Hillbilly Values

NBC peacockI grew up during what might be called the second half of the first television generation. My parents came from lower middle class farm families that never had televisions at home during their elementary school years at least but they became aware of that side of American culture by way of their richer friends with more liberal parents, and by the time I came along living rooms were being designed around these ubiquitous devices. Broadcasting in color was an innovation that occurred in the United States during my childhood, so these days my personal antiquity is well established.

From its earliest years though, television has had seriously nostalgic elements to it. It has always promoted an ideal of simpler times. Sometimes this was a matter of providing a secondary market for B-movies of the 30s and 40s, but besides the actually old stuff they broadcasted, there has seemingly always been a market for comic depictions of the world as it was in one’s parents’ times and earlier. In some ways this would explain how the “cowboys and Indians” genre became established in film in 20s and 30s, about one generation after such lifestyles had faded into the mythical past.

In any case, in my earliest memories of television the golden age of half-hour sitcoms was blooming, including some that looked back nostalgically at “simpler times” a generation earlier, when the US was particularly pumped up about their glorious role in World War 2 and the subsequent reconstruction, such as McHale’s Navy and Hogan’s Heroes. Then as we shifted into the 70s, the nostalgia wave began to target the 50s, most memorably with Happy Days and its spin-offs, but also with MASH and Grease in their various televised incarnations.

bevhillBut there was also, from the start, another common variation on the theme: looking at various Rip Van Winkle-like characters who had somehow managed to culturally sleep through all of the changes that had been occurring in society, thus interacting with “normal people” from a comically antiquated and out of touch perspective that was somehow nevertheless refreshing to watch. It could be said that this accounted for much of the appeal of Green Acres and The Andy Griffith Show (later known as Mayberry R.F.D.). But the archetype for this sort of comic nostalgia format was really The Beverly Hillbillies. This show has been on my mind for the past few weeks, in part because it explains something of the recent Duck Dynasty debacle, and in part because of how it relates to the problems of PISA ratings as such.

0412_jed-clampett_280x340This show basically focused on six main characters: each with their own interestingly mal-adapted forms of intelligence. The Clampetts of Beverly Hills consisted of the patriarch Jed, who had become a millionaire through the accidental discovery of oil on the property he owned back somewhere in the rural Appalachians or Ozarks, his daughter Elly May, his late wife’s mother “Granny,” and his second cousin and foster-son Jethro Bodine. From the time of their arrival in Los Angeles’ Beverly Hills, this quartet in was effectively being kept in a comfortable semi-reality by their banker and neighbor, Milburn Drysdale, and his indispensable secretary and the all-around brains of the operation, Miss Jane Hathaway.

Granny-Beverly-HillbilliesJed and his family are all super-human strong, with outsized appetites for food to fuel this energy level. Granny, the feisty matriarch of the clan, keeps them stocked with enough home-style “vittles” to maintain this energy level as well as keeping the mansion clean and brewing up various forms of back-woods magic to help in difficult situations. Jed in turn spends much of his time sitting around whittling, though within his own limits he is always ready to dive in and sort out various problems that fall to the head of an old-fashioned household to take care of. Jethro is the primary “project” for the family. He is apparently the most literate member of the family, the holder of a driver’s license to operate their family car (a vintage truck from the 20s, held together with a fair amount of bailing wire it seems), and in spite of his overall cluelessness, he is the one they are expecting to someday find a wife and establish a brilliant career for himself to do the family proud. Elly May, meanwhile, occupies herself with caring for a Snow White-like menagerie of semi-tame animals while struggling part-time with the dilemma of why she as a girl is not given the same amount of investment that Jethro receives as a boy. Then we have the “plain Jane” Miss Hathaway continuously struggling to be subtle about her major crush on Jethro and trying to maintain a certain level of “this world” reality into her boss’s crazier efforts to make the Clampetts feel at home in Beverly Hills rather than withdrawing their eight-digit fortune from his bank and crawling back into the wilderness from whence they came. It was an interesting enough dynamic to keep the show running for nine production seasons, remaining immensely popular through its entire run.

The best explanation I have heard of for the logic behind the reality TV show Duck Dynasty is that it attempts to recapturing some of the marketing magic of these hillbillies of the sixties, combining that with a bit of the “real family business” appeal of shows like American Chopper, Pawn Stars and the rest: a “poor white trash” rural southern family which is comically out of touch with the modern world, yet through a fluke of their own good fortune they have become rich enough where the modern world sort of has to take them seriously in spite of their on-going cluelessness.

That makes sense actually. Not enough sense where I’d personally be motivated to try and find the means by which to watch the show (as far off the grid of American cable television as I am) but still, sense. The problem is that while CBS could entirely manage every word that came out of Jed Clampett’s mouth, and not really have to worry about the ignorance that made Jed entertaining on TV coming out of actor Buddy Ebsen’s mouth in his private life, A&E have nothing like that sort of control over the Robertson family in general and patriarch Phil in particular.

They say that a big part of what makes the show so interesting and entertaining (I’ve never watched it myself, and I have no plans of ever watching it, unless I need to do so as part of my academic research into American theocratic impulses, so I sort of have to go with what “they” say in this case) is that it showcases a sub-culture as far from the mainstream of modern society as that of any bounty hunter, biker gang veteran, Vegas pawn broker or obese junior showgirl showcased elsewhere in the genre. So… if the exotic culture they’re setting out to exploit in this way just happens to spill out as homophobic, naively racist and almost comically narrow-minded… what are they supposed to do about it? Isn’t that part of the point of reality TV in general –– to add the excitement of an unscripted, unpredictable “authenticity” into the mix? Weren’t they aware of the fact that racism and homophobia are as much part of the “white trash” sub-culture in the southern US as substance abuse is part of so many of the other sub-cultures exploited in this medium?

duck-dynasty-walmart-display4So when it blows up in their faces what are they supposed to do about it? They’re too addicted to the money they’re making off of this franchise, and enthralled with the merchandizing honeymoon this has sent them on with Walmart, to seriously consider quitting now. So one way or another they just have to find a way to stay on that ‘gater and ride it to the end of… whatever.

It has to be said though that this sort of show is put on the air primarily to communicate a message that is important enough to its creators where they are willing to take chances with what they see as trivial matters regarding like the Robertsons’ religious obsessions. The primary message they want to get out is that in America anyone has a chance to become a millionaire, so everyone should keep taking their chances and no one should start taking privileges away from those who have been able to realize their dreams in order to deal with trivial matters like childhood nutrition, health care and education. It effectively reinforces the truth of quote somewhat questionably attributed to John Steinbeck: “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” 

By feeding this fantasy self-image via the Duck Dynasty dudes, A&E and their programming competitors have successfully campaigned to maintain public support for “anti-socialist” policies that continue to handicap over 99% of their supporters –– turning turkeys into the world’s most dedicated fans of Thanksgiving as it were. As long as they can keep doing that they’re willing to take their chances with what people think of the Robertsons firmly believing that the universe is less than ten thousand years old, or that blacks were happier in the “good old days” before Martin Luther King and company screwed things up, or that public acceptance of homosexuality is a slippery slope towards all sorts of other unspeakable forms of immoral perversion. In terms of getting Phil and his boys to tone down their message, the network’s “suspension” efforts in December may have entirely backfired, but like, so what? It boosted their ratings and reinforced their own primary message that any idiot can become rich and famous someday all the more. The rest is details as far as the bosses are concerned.

BevH886But I was actually thinking of The Beverly Hillbillies well before this quacker-maker scandal story broke last month. As I said, the show also relates quite effectively in its own way to the problem of PISA testing which I wrote about here a month ago. You see, part of the alternative reality world that dear old Mr. Drysdale was trying to construct for the Clampetts to keep them in California was that it was a land of opportunity for them, particularly in terms of Jethro’s educational possibilities, leading to advances in his career potential. The episode where this message peaked was the finale of season 4: “Jethro goes to college”.

Through paying sufficient private school tuition fees to get schools to overlook his serious lack of academic ability, Jed had managed to enable Jethro to academically make it as far as graduating from sixth grade. As far as Granny was concerned that was about as far as any young person should expect to go in education, but Jed had heard that not only was college the key to career success but perhaps the key to getting Jethro’s love life started. So they went to talk to Mr. Drysdale about it, looking for advice about how to get Jethro into some sort of college. He and Miss Hathaway proceeded to try to talk them out of this scheme, until Jed turned to Jethro and said, “Maybe we can get ye into one of those schools back home.”

bev hills bankAt the mention of his major client possibly leaving town Mr. Drysdale instantly panics and suddenly becomes far more optimistic about the idea of finding some local college for “the boy”. When the hillbillies leave the office he starts to discuss with Miss Hathaway the possibility of paying some college enough to take Jethro in in spite of his short-comings. She sums up the dilemma by asking rhetorically, “What college in the entire country would corrupt its standards to that extent for mere financial gain?” In the mid-sixties that was still a laugh line. These days it would merely sound naïve, with such institutions obviously being more common than those who would refuse to do so.

It doesn’t take too long, however, before Jethro, driving around the streets of Los Angeles, comes across a second floor window advertising a “business college” on the premises. This basically amounts to a small institute where girls were taught basic secretarial skills of typing, taking shorthand dictation, business telephone answering formalities and the like, intended to turn them into somewhat useful little secretaries. A dialog there just before Jethro walks in is scripted to tell that this school is in desperate need of money to keep from going under. So when, for all his obvious cluelessness, Jethro pleads with them to take him as a student, and in the process starts physically throwing the tuition money Jed had given him at them in the process, they relent and allow him to enroll.

Jethro later speaks of it taking two hours to pick up some of the basic skills they taught him, but in the compressed world of half-hour sitcom time it takes precisely 2½ minutes from the moment Jethro walks into his first class until the dean of the school realizes he is a hopeless case and instructs her assistant to “prepare a diploma” because “Mr. Bodine is going to graduate.” The diploma he receives is actually just a blank sheet of paper, but it is fine enough quality parchment so that it’s enough to make Jethro happy. It’s enough to make the family feel that now that Jethro is a “college graduate” he is qualified to work as an investment manager at Mr. Drysdale’s bank.

BevH330Elly May, meanwhile, is left with a very bitter taste in her mouth concerning her own college adventure. Even though Jed cautions her that she “ain’t got whatcha call the ‘educational background’ Jethro does,” he gives her permission to try to find a college that will take her. She immediately rushes out to dig through the yellow pages, and finds a place for herself at “The College of Judo and Karate”. She too “graduates” on her first day, but not with the same sort of satisfaction as her second cousin. As she relates the experience to Granny,

“I went in this big room with this real thick rug on the floor and the teacher come out wearing his pajamas! And when I told him I wanted to enroll he got madder than a rattle snake with a sore tooth… He commenced shouting and chopping away at me. He even tried to trip me! …so I gave him what fer! Bounced him around that rug like a basketball. I didn’t stop throwing him until he offered to grajiate me. But he didn’t give me no cap and gown. All I got was this skinny old black belt!”

And for some reason this seriously reminds me of how many things about our processes of academic evaluation continue to work nearly 50 years later.

Some kids we pass through the system with minimal effort from both teachers and student –– to match their minimal interests and learning capacities –– just to be rid of them; still giving them enough recognition in the process to keep their powerful parents satisfied, grudgingly admitting to ourselves that we make the education we offer that much less meaningful and more abstract as we do so, but… it keeps us fed. In other students we see incredible signs of natural talent and promise, and we do our best to encourage them at it, but as often as not this ends up being in ways that don’t quite match up with the ideas of prestige that their parents have had in mind, so we just back off and leave it at that. What else can we do at times?

To say that the standards by which we evaluate young people in our schools are somewhat abstract –– not necessarily either a fair assessment of their natural abilities and effort nor the most suitable from of preparation for the life challenges that lie ahead of them –– would be a polite understatement of immense proportions at times. Efforts to fix this problem with a greater emphasis on standardized testing have, obviously to those within the profession, made things considerably worse. We can only hope that it will all come out in the wash; that our investment and encouragement in some will bring them that much closer to realizing the potential we see in them, and that the difficult cases that we end up just whisking through will end up doing relatively little damage to themselves and those around them at subsequent stages in their life before they take it upon themselves to backtrack and learn the necessary thinking skills and working habits which we were not able to teach them, or they find a role for themselves in society where such skills are not necessary. We can only hope that the theoretical dynamics of cultural evolution will eventually take place in our educational institutions: dysfunctional aspects, however nominally prestigious they happen to be, will be seen for what they are and eliminated, and genuinely student empowering and enabling programs are set up in their place. The question is really how bad things have to get and how many types of trial and error the systems have to go through in the meantime. Sadly there’s also the undeniable factor that many of the powers that be really don’t want people to be educated enough to seriously question their authority, or to question the importance of continuing to buy so much of the useless crap they keep trying to sell us. But still we can hope…

I’m not holding my breath though. I’ve seen how absurd ideas and practices have a way of going on for generation after generation. One significant part of the whole Beverly Hillbillies background legend was the way Granny would never admit that the south had lost the “War between the States”, and she had all sorts of alternative historical interpretations in place to support the theory that her side had won. I know plenty of fundamentalists of all different sorts (theistic and atheistic) who are still doing equivalent mental gymnastics to this day. I don’t think any form of education reform will succeed in solving that problem any time soon. How long cultures and sub-cultures built on self-deception can last is not something we can predict with a particularly great level of accuracy. We can only hope that they destroy as few lives as possible while they continue.

But that’s not the worst of it. Not only are some hillbilly values and world views slow to die out; there are a surprising number of anti-intellectual folk in the US that consider such perspectives to be worthy of revival; and those who shamelessly speak out in favor of such absurdities, heroes. It’s sad really, though sort of understandable.  As I was saying though, the best we can hope for is that our education systems, dysfunctional as they are, will progressively improve young people’s capacities to critically evaluate the various antiquated and “radical alternative” value systems they continue to be presented with.

Meanwhile then we can still enjoy the comic value of these alternative perspectives on life, bearing in mind that, as with any joke, when a significant part of the audience takes the comically absurd seriously it ceases to be funny. So get what laughs you can as Rome burns.

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Filed under Education, Freedom, Materialism, Politics, Pop culture, Purpose, Racism, Religion, Risk taking, Social identity

Hallelujahs

A passing thought in as the second or third day of Christmas (depending on how you count) draws to a close here: I have to wonder how Leonard Cohen feels about the Cloverton cover of his classic, “Hallelujah”.  I mean on the one hand I imagine that the increase in his royalty check from this version of his song going viral will be many times more than my annual salary, so I can’t imagine him complaining about it too loudly, but on the other hand it is an out and out rape of the original meaning of the song in question. Cloverton effectively offers those who are incapable of appreciating the poignant and sublime message of the original lyrics an opportunity to sing along with the beautiful melody of the chorus without having any farting idea of what it was meant to be about. How does that really make an artist feel?

cohen hat offOther than the one-word chorus, the only part of the cover that quotes directly from the original lyrics at any length the is the middle of the first verse: “It goes like this: the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift…” but the follow-through from there loses all poignancy. Rather than noting King David’s confused and desperate pursuit of the transcendent (“the baffled king composing Hallelujah”) it becomes an evangelical cliché (“with every breath I’m singing Hallelujah”). It almost completely fulfills the prophecy of the second line of the original version’s first verse: “but you don’t really care for music, do ya?”

The core message of Cohen’s original lyrics is found in the song’s third verse: “It’s not some pilgrim who claims to have seen the light. No, it’s a cold and it’s a very broken Hallelujah.” The Cloverton version, by contrast, is all about a group of young “pilgrims who claim to have seen the light.”

The cover version goes through all the essential core elements of the western Christmas hymn tradition: the failed search for the inn, the shepherds hearing from the angels, the “wise men three” and finally a summary of the passion of the Christ, which contains the most historically and theologically problematic lyric of all: “That rugged cross was my cross too. Still every breath you drew was Hallelujah.” Forgetting about the rife pronoun confusion throughout this verse (you really can’t tell from one second to the next whether “you” is being used to refer to Jesus or fellow believers), the one thing believers really shouldn’t be claiming is to have shared in the process of making Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross. This is the essential meaning of “Pelagian” as a label for a particular heresy. Beyond that, in the tale of his very real suffering, Jesus’ words on the cross were not “Hallelujahs” but rather “why have you forsaken me?” and “it is finished.” But the cover version is crafted carefully enough to keep too many people from actually listening to the lyrics in anything like a rational or critical manner it would seem.

It’s not just the complete castration of the song’s original message and the details of the new lyrics that I find mildly disturbing about this cover version; there’s also the video setting, made to look like a pseudo-Irish pub, just stripped of all offensive references to alcohol. You have a crowd of adults of roughly pub-going age sitting around chatting calmly in a sparsely furnished wood paneled room with steamy windows and wall-to-wall shelves that look as though they were meant to hold bottles, but completely empty. On careful examination of the audience shots you discover some people drinking from cans that could contain pretty much anything, and others drinking from ceramic vessels that fall somewhere between coffee mugs and beer steins. But if you take this investigation to the next level you notice that there’s a donut box that intermittently appears on one of the front tables, and in a couple shots they accidentally capture the name “Varsity Donuts” on the windows and pub-style etched mirrors.

This in turn reveals something fascinating about the band in question. Running a web search for “Varsity Donuts” got me nowhere, so I went to the band’s home page to see where in the US they were from, so as to get to the bottom of this mystery. It says there that they are “Manhattan based”. Fine, so what kind of place is Manhattan’s Varsity Donuts? Plug that into a search engine and you find this. Pictures of the shop there leave little doubt that this is where the band shot their video, and that in turn leads to one obvious conclusion: the “Manhattan” that these boys come from is not the most densely commercialized part of New York City, but a little town west of Topeka, Kansas! Not that you’d ever realize this from their poses in generic hipster outfits in front of generic urban concrete walls, but…

Photo by "William H." of Manhattan's Varsity Donuts

Photo by “William H.” of Manhattan’s Varsity Donuts

So rather than normally being a setting for getting people drunk, the video was shot in a place where people go to get an intense junk food sugar buzzes. And rather than being part of some major city’s music scene, we’re talking about about a band from the wind-swept prairie that Dorothy left to go to Oz. From there it’s no big surprise then that the “pub crowd” consists of mostly over-weight and exclusively white people. It seems we have a number of factors pointing towards rather pretentious image building. No out-and-out lies, just images being projected that have little to do what is actually happening. All this focused on marketing a sanitized, white bread version of a song that they clearly “don’t get”. This doesn’t speak very highly of the critical faculties of those who have been writing rave reviews for the video.

But perhaps I’m being a bit too cruel. Musically the cover is actually quite tastefully done. A somewhat imaginative quartet arrangement, going for a predominantly acoustic sound (though the guitarist still needs his wa-wa pedals), featuring a cello in place of bass and a variety of classical percussion instruments in place of a standard drum kit, really works quite nicely with Cohen’s sweet melody, perhaps better than Cohen’s tour band arrangement even. The technique of building musical complexity as the song progresses, from a lone vocalist on an old upright piano at the beginning to an impressively orchestral sounding quartet with everyone in the “pub” singing along at the end, achieves the overall effect they’re aiming for quite resoundingly. Setting aside the inconsistencies between audio and video in building this mini-narrative, it is clear that these young men are talented musicians who are quite capable of drawing in an audience. The lead singer sounds for all the world like a young Cat Stevens, and the band jells behind that vocal style magnificently. All that’s missing is integrity.

The “about” section of Cloverton’s web site starts out trying to build an image of stylistic independence and solid integrity –– a radically indy and radically Christian band fighting to make it without major label support. All I can say is that if such values are important to them, as opposed to being nothing more than cheap, cliché advertising copy, based on this single it would seem they are going at it pretty seriously bass ackwards.

Not that there is anything particularly new or unique about this case in some regards. It actually brings me back to parts of my childhood among “Jesus freaks” who routinely “borrowed” songs like Carol King’s You’ve Got a Friend and Paul Simon’s Bridge over Troubled Water, with the lyrics ever so slightly modified to slip Jesus’ name in every now and again. I remember, on such a basis, being able to relate quite thoroughly to an article I read in some Christian youth magazine in the early 80s complaining about the widespread phenomenon of “Jesus is my girlfriend” songs. Modifying generic love songs so as to speak about “loving God” really isn’t that much of a stretch; in many cases it’s just a matter of trading one disposable cliché for another quite similar one. In American English in particular it’s real easy, in so many ways, to go from singing, “I’m yours, Lord,” to “I’m yours, love,” and back again without terribly many evangelicals noticing the difference.

To break free of such clichés and to build integrity into the Christian/Christmas message in music, you have to start with ceasing to pretend to be something you’re not –– in this case pub-going urban hipsters who are really into what Leonard Cohen has to say with his music –– and it can’t end there. As the pope has pointed out so powerfully in his various messages this year, and as evangelicals should broadly be able to agree, the point of Jesus’ message is to go beyond religious clichés and dig into the messy business of relating to the non-utopian lived experiences of “the poor in spirit” –– those who need to know they’re loved in spite of their misfortunes and failures, and those who cry out for justice in a world where sometimes justice is hard to find. A good second step for Cloverton in finding such integrity then, after dropping the pretenses, would be to actually listen to what Leonard Cohen has to say in his original version of “Hallelujah”.

The first verse there tells of the composer’s struggle to touch something transcendent in his music, much like what we see with Kind David in the psalms. From there the second verse comes to consider the transcendent quality that King David, and many since, have found in erotic connection. For those whose religion is based more or less exclusively on a message of erotic restraint, Cohen’s message here may be rather hard to listen to, but there is still truth to it. Painting the scene of David’s first tryst with Bathsheba, Cohen brilliantly mixes biblical and contemporary motifs to explain the effect this had on the king: “She tied you to her kitchen chair, she broke your throne and she cut your hair, and from your lips she drew the ‘Hallelujah’.” If you want to break out of the standard mold of gospel music, guys, dare to talk about the spirituality inherent in sex, even the sort of sex that the religious establishment fails to properly control. I dare you!

The third verse, as I said above, comes to the central point of the song. After confessing to religious agnosticism and to love having become an area of violent conflict for him (“…all I ever learned from love is how to shoot at someone who out-drew you”), Cohen tells of the “hallelujah” being a cry of anguished searching. And folks, if you can’t honestly accept to the experience of such anguish, and relate without condescension to those who are stuck in it, you have no business trying to present any form of spiritual message to the world, especially the Christian message!

The fourth verse further reinforces this honest message, talking about his familiarity with loneliness and reminding us that the “Hallelujah” experience is not about arches of triumph or victory marches, but rather a very cold and lonely place at times. The fifth verse goes from there into a prayer of sorts: looking back on spiritual experiences of the writer’s youth, crying over the loss of the epiphanies he used to have, but in prayer fondly remembering “how I moved in you, and the holy dove, she was moving too, and every breath we drew was Hallelujah!” (the source of a the problematic lyrical adaptation in the Cloverton version which I pointed out above). From there, in the sixth verse, comes Cohen’s plea for divine mercy of sorts. He stresses that he has given his best efforts, though mostly without success, and that there’s no point in pretending otherwise. This leads to the song’s final sentence, leading into the concluding chorus, of, “even though it all went wrong I’ll stand before the Lord of Song with nothing on my tongue but ‘Hallelujah!’”

Yes, amen, hallelujah! Let us come to the Lord ––  in whatever form we are able to relate to his lordship –– confessing our weaknesses in understanding both God and each other, and in the brokenness to which this brings us let us cry out asking for the connection with what lies beyond us that we haven’t been able to earn. Let’s ditch the kitsch and dare to move towards the heart of the broken human experience in this matter, for it’s only in relating honestly to that that we can find the salvation we long for –– that Jesus came to bring us.

Pussy willows coming out at a grey and rainy Christmas time this year...

Pussy willows coming out at a grey and rainy Christmas time this year…

I write this in the middle of the night after finishing the last of the Christmas celebrating I had scheduled for this year, with nothing resembling the generally dependable “white Christmas” in this part of the world, no presents properly exchanged and overall a very broken Hallelujah to be sung. Yet a “Hallelujah” I still sing, because in spite of my failures, and circumstances the sort I would not normally choose for myself, I still have a sense of being connected with people and things well beyond myself. That is ultimately what I want and need to keep building on in my own broken way in the year to come.

Here’s hoping that this post-Christmas message touches your hearts, and brings you to an honest place of looking at your own world not as you would like to fantasize it to be but how it really is; yet with the hope of not being stuck within the limits of your own skin but being able to be lovingly part of something far greater than yourself. In spite of my limits as a saint and/or a poet I selfishly wish to share that with you. Please pass this general message forward then, for the greater joy of all of us.

057So as part of the same wish, for what remains of them, Happy Holidays.

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Filed under Love, Music, Pop culture, Religion, Risk taking, Sexuality, Spirituality

In Search of the Sweetest Sorrow

E. H. Sothern &  Julia Marlowe in Romeo & Juliet-The Balcony Scene-Photo-B&W-Resized“Sweet sorrow” –– the random comment Shakespeare gave to Romeo about his feelings at leaving Juliet once they had established direct communication about their mutual crush (sorry, it’s hard for me to take their “epic love” more seriously than that, despite the tragic extent they took things to) –– is often taken to be the epitome of an oxymoron –– the basic archetype for such later linguistic absurdities as “business ethics,” “military intelligence” and “Microsoft Works”. On further contemplation, however, to me it makes perfect sense for sorrow to be sweet. Let me unpack that a bit for you.

As I begin this essay the subject for the day in the photo project I am playing along with this month is “sweetest”. I’m trying to avoid the cliché of submitting some cheesy would-be advertising photo of something sugary, so I’ve been thinking about how I might approach the theme in a way that can visually communicate something deeper than that. What is the true essence of all of the different things we take for sweetness? What makes a baby’s smile sweet? What makes the smell of a fresh spring meadow sweet? What makes a lover’s embrace sweet? What do we really mean by this word? I don’t subscribe to my summer school professor’s school of thought in saying that when a word has so many and such varied meanings we should take that as evidence that it has no meaning at all. But can we really get down to the very essence of the concept of sweetness in a way that we can identify some superlative for the category?

StrawberriesLet’s go back to the literal meaning of the term: sweetness is the pleasurable sensation sent to the brain by a certain collection of sensors on the tongue which are designed to detect the presence of sugars in our food. Sensing sweetness is a matter of simple evolutionary advantage: being able to guess with reasonable accuracy, without necessarily even being conscious of the process, which foods have the greatest likelihood of providing our bodies with readily burnable fuel. The positive sensation of tasting something sweet is nature’s way of telling us, for instance, that strawberries are likely to be more useful to our bodies than rowanberries as a source of energy. There are plenty of less sweet foods that our bodies can convert into sugars (and then fats) quite readily, but in evolutionary terms the instant-burn capacity of sugars is very useful for our bodies to be able to identify, and for us to be attracted to.

summer school 218Figuratively speaking then, sweetness might be said to be that which stimulates a positive emotional sensation that we can associate with being energized: something which increases our capacity to go forward, to face challenges, to overcome obstacles, to thrive in life. The “sweet” is that which fuels our passion for life and keeps us from giving up.

The analogy also seems to work in the sense that many things we experience as sweet don’t necessarily “work” in terms of actually providing us with emotional energy to get stuff done; they just give us a good feeling like they might have increased our energy levels, even if they haven’t. The world of media marketing contains many forms of “artificial sweetener” in our day-to-day experience. Or we could say that much of the “sweet” emotional stimuli we experience do not translate into a healthy capacity for action. Without going too far into psychological theory on the matter, this involves the media in question hyper-stimulating our immediate emotional responses purely for the sake of having these emotional responses immediately hyper-stimulated. In other words some films, video games and concert experiences do to our emotional response centers in the brain what triple chocolate fudge cake does to the taste buds on the tongue: blasting them with more stimulation than the rational mind knows what to do with as an end unto itself, entailing a certain number of health risks in the process. Just as that intense chocolate cake experience doesn’t improve one’s capacity for athletic performance, the “sweet” experiences of media events don’t really make us more productive workers, better friends to those around us or more loving family members; they just give us a sort of abstract thrill for its own sake.

In the commercialized society that we live in the “sweetest” of manufactured consumer experiences are given to the rich and dangled like a carrot in front of the poor: a positive incentive to keep them plodding onward. Or in many cases it’s more sinister than that: These addictive hyper-stimulating experiences are given to whoever wants to try them, who might someday have something to offer in return, in exchange for surrendering their freedom and entering into a cycle of debt. The poor are not encouraged to wait for gratification, just surrender their freedom in order to get it. In fact poverty these days can be defined in three essential ways. In ascending order of severity:
–          Lack of “normal” access to the “sweet things” in life,
–          Lack freedom due to debt,
–          Survival risks due to a lack of means to pay for health care and other basic needs, frequently blamed on their addiction to “sweet things” beyond their means.

In some ways this brings to mind the paraphrased version of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism that I’ve been teaching to 13-year-olds (as part of the world religions section of Finland’s national religious education curriculum) this month: 1) Life is a process of suffering. 2) You suffer in life because of your desires. 3) By overcoming desires and attachments in life you can overcome suffering. 4) Following the rest of the teachings of the Buddha can enable you to overcome desires and attachments. In some ways I deeply respect their ethic of escaping from the addictive behaviors we all tend to drift into and the pain we cause ourselves in the process. I would also agree with their assessment that when you open the door to life’s sweetness you also open the door to all of life’s sorrows. But I would flip the moral of that connection the other way around: Rather than rejecting life because it hurts too much, I recommend finding the sorts of sweetness in life that make the sorrows of life truly worthwhile.

buddhaThe best word we have for that process of embracing life in all of its messiness and painfulness, because in spite of those things there is something truly magnificent about life as such, is thriving. In this regard the reason I have for remaining a Christian rather than converting to Buddhism is because, in spite of all the sorrow I’ve experienced in life, I still would rather thrive with all my sorrows than attempt to escape from the thriving that causes them. In fact one of the messiest and most painful parts of life as we know it is one of the things that Buddhism, in spite of its escapist emphasis, still strongly recommends embracing: compassion. This word is usually used to designate the (theoretically) less self-interested end of the spectrum of emotional experiences we designate as love. All of them make life painful and uncontrollable; all of them play an important role in making life worthwhile.

Thus the sorrows associated with love –– embracing the pains and lack of control that go with forming connections with others, in spite of all of the others’ problems –– are the sweetest, most energizing thing we can find in life. Feeling shared sorrow somehow helps us know (or at least believe) that there’s something real in the connection, strengthening us in turn to work for the good of others, and producing the most important possible sense of happiness that we can experience within ourselves in the process. In short, there is nothing sweeter than the right kind of sorrow. If you don’t know what I’m talking about you really need to try it more.

This is not to say that all sorrow should be seen as sweet. Some sorrow is caused by our own stupidity, or by attempting to connect with people who are not capable of such connection; of loving us in return. This is not to say that feeling compassion for those who themselves have no capacity for compassion is necessarily a waste; it just means that hurting ourselves through building up expectations that by loving we can make people and things different from what they are can be a wasteful sort of suffering to put ourselves through. It is the same as many mundane forms of suffering that we go through due to our own stupidity at times: the suffering of food poisoning from eating improperly stored or preserved food, the suffering caused by car accidents when people don’t pay sufficient attention to basic safety precautions, the suffering that goes with frostbite or pneumonia from not dressing warmly enough on Arctic winter days, etc., are all fundamentally wasted forms of suffering. The only use they have, besides potentially eliminating you from the gene pool, is to teach you not to do the sort of things which caused you to suffer in such cases. Sometimes, however, it’s difficult to draw the line between learning from our mistakes and daring to love in spite of knowing that it will cause you pain, and just being stupid.

Highway Car WreckSo fully recognizing the risks involved, but knowing that without love life becomes largely meaningless, I continue my quest in search of life’s sweetest sorrows. Some particularly sweet sorrows that I’ve experienced thus far in life –– besides the romantic sort and those having to do with parenting –– have been the ones I’ve experienced as a teacher in helping young people adjust to the challenging process of becoming adults; or those I’ve experienced in various aspects of interfaith dialog, helping those of differing religious backgrounds recognize that people who don’t share their convictions are still worth befriending and caring about. Then there are the sorrows that I have shared with millions of others throughout the world regarding victims of nature’s or humanity’s cruelties, ranging from the Haitian earthquake victims to child soldier of sub-Saharan Africa to girls in Pakistan who wish to get an education beyond what religious extremists there feel is proper for them. I really don’t want to avoid susceptibility to these sorrows, as they draw out and bring together all that is sweetest and most noble about us as humans in general.

Malala - the iconic girl whose suffering the world in now particularly anxious to share and end.

Malala – the iconic girl whose suffering the world in now particularly anxious to share and end.

Obviously we each have personal limits as to how many such sweet sorrows we can imbibe in how deeply at any given time. Just as obviously, part of the point in consuming such sweet sorrows is to work on overcoming the causes for them. Romeo’s “sweet sorrow,” for instance, was a matter of motivating him to overcome the obstacles to him and Juliet being able to remain together. The sweetness of my sorrow regarding girls in Pakistan who bravely desire an education involves a hope that through a global focus on the problem we might be able to overcome it. Both hopes might be equally tragically naïve.

We are also prone to hunger for the sort of sorrows which, ironically, don’t draw us too far out of our comfort zone –– sorrows that help us feel we are part of a virtuous effort to overcome evils that we actually had no part in. It is easier to embrace the sorrows of those who suffer from natural disasters than it is to embrace the suffering of those whose poverty is compounded by our own greed and/or carelessness. It is easier for Americans to embrace the sorrow of children being denied access to clean water, healthy food and education in Pakistan due to tensions caused by religious extremism than it is for them to embrace the sorrow of children being denied access to clean water, healthy food and education in Detroit due to the collapse of the industrialist economic infrastructure there. It is easier for Europeans to embrace the plight of child soldiers in Africa than to embrace the plight of suicidal teenagers in their own countries. Confronting the causes of others’ suffering within ourselves is far more difficult than confronting causes of suffering for which we cannot hold ourselves responsible. In terms of the basic analogy here though, the latter form of sorrow may be sweeter, but the former is probably more nutritious for us.

Detroit public schools: a form of suffering Americans find more difficult to connect with for some reason.

Detroit public schools: a form of suffering Americans find more difficult to connect with for some reason.

I cannot claim to have mastered the art of selecting the sweetest forms of suffering yet. I’m actually not entirely sure that such mastery is possible. I am sure, however, that suffering is part of the sweetness of life, and struggling to avoid suffering entirely cuts off all possibility for human thriving as well. I would encourage each of you to fully embrace the sufferings that enable us to thrive as humans, and I would ask any of you who has especially profound insights as to how to find the best forms of suffering for each of us to please share them with me. Let’s keep doing the best we can from there.

 

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Filed under Aesthetics, Education, Empathy, Epistemology, Freedom, Happiness, Love, Philosophy, Pop culture, Purpose, Risk taking, Sexuality, Spirituality

Old Heights

As I type this I am listening to the comforting sound of my fermentation tank bubbling away in the corner of the room. I skipped a few years at this hobby, primarily out of sensitivity to the feelings of particular people about the whole subject of alcohol use in general, but I’m over that again. Even so, given all of the complexities there are regarding questions of alcohol use and intoxication in general, I think the subject is worth deliberating on a bit here.

My wine making equipment when I (thankfully) unsuccessfully tried to sell it off a couple years ago.

My wine making equipment when I (thankfully) unsuccessfully tried to sell it off a couple years ago.

It all goes back to my childhood. I was raised as a teetotaler in the sixties and seventies. Many if not most of my friends were regular drinkers and casual smokers of marijuana, but I always kept my distance from both habits as a matter of principle. There were a few aspects to this choice, all having to do with my rather religious up-bringing.  First of all this was before the term “pro-life” had been invented. If anyone had talked about being “pro-life” in those years it would have meant that they were anti-war and opposed to young men getting sent to kill and be killed in Viet Nam. Homosexuality, meanwhile, was seen mostly as a bad joke in Mel Brooks movies, not a major threat to family life. For lack of any other distinctively Christian political issue, opposition to alcohol use in any form was one of primary ways in which conservative Christians “stood up for what they believed” still the late sixties/early seventies. Billy Graham was seen by many as a too much of a compromiser; what was needed was preachers who had the same sort of fire as Billy Sunday: someone who dared to scream out against alcohol “for the demonic force that it is.” Good kids in our church didn’t question this.

Second, perhaps somewhat more relevantly, many of those I hung out with and was friends with in my early teens were former hippies, 5 -10 years older than me: “Jesus Freaks” by any measure you care to use to define such a phenomenon. Many of these guys had experimented with booze and drugs during the height of Timothy O’Leary’s popularity as a chemical recreation guru, enough to know that there was more harm than good to come from such things. A few still were rumored to sneak the occasional joint on the side, but they were pretty intensively ostracized from the rest of the group. Overall they found the absolutely sober lifestyle to just be more interesting and fulfilling, and I was quite ready to take their word on the subject. This perception was all the further reinforced by my observations of my peers “partying” when I got into my late teens and early twenties. I knew some chronic drunk drivers and some people with other fairly serious problems when it came to addictions and chemical escapism.

But besides all that, among those I knew whose drinking and other chemical hobbies seemed to be pretty well under control, I occasionally received the complement of sorts that “David’s the sort of guy that you can be standing around talking with him stoned drunk, and you can forget that he’s entirely sober.” Sitting around after the shop closed on Friday evening, the other guys who were not driving anywhere would sometimes have 3 or 4 beers while chatting about the events of the week before heading home, and I with my ice tea or fruit juice could be just as loose and animated and talkative as any of them, without needing anything to loosen me up. I really didn’t see the need. I never drank for the same reasons I have never, to this day, smoked tobacco or anything else: I knew the basic dangers and I just never felt like it was something I had to do.

My habits in this matter gradually changed as I got into the restaurant business. I was selling wine to go with fine food, and I thought it was important to know what the various sorts tasted like. I didn’t need the buzz, but I wasn’t afraid of the slight experience of it. It was my own variation on the Buddhist principle of detachment: being preoccupied with avoiding something can be as emotionally harmful as addiction to the vice in question.

The juice of approximately 7 kg of aronia berries, sweetened and diluted to make 25 liters, still has this much inky color to it.

The juice of approximately 7 kg of aronia berries, sweetened and diluted to make 25 liters, still has this much inky color to it.

Since then I’ve adopted habits of very moderate social drinking, that I can easily live without for months or even years at a time, but which doesn’t bother me in terms of my conscience, my health or my lifestyle stability to have a glass or a pint every now and again. I’ve never had any serious worries about slipping down the slope into alcoholism. I can still count on my fingers the number of times in my life that I’ve been drunk enough for the hangover to cause me to throw up afterwards. If anything, for purposes of optimizing the health of my circulatory and digestive systems I don’t drink quite enough alcohol. Even so, of all the regrets I have from my teenage years and early twenties, spending them entirely sober isn’t one of them.

There are two activities for which I make a point of having no alcohol whatsoever in my system: teaching and driving. I’ve never even toyed with the idea of doing either under the influence. Even if this wasn’t a matter of strict regulation, I can’t imagine the risks involved in either being worthwhile. I have, I confess, done both at times under conditions of fairly extreme tiredness, where I knew my brain was functioning at a level equivalent to if I had had a few glasses of wine. I did not run into any crisis situations because of this, but I’ve learned to carefully avoid such risks regardless.

Overall alcohol is not a major factor in my life, but it is a significant matter, pro and con, for many people close to me. Some find a certain amount of alcohol particularly useful as a form of self-medication under certain circumstances, and as an aid to social interaction. Some have had bitter personal experiences of their own alcohol use, or that of someone close to them, getting seriously out of control. It can be noted that in all countries bordering on the Arctic Circle the risks of alcohol abuse run pretty high. Under those circumstances I’m entirely ready to go without alcohol if I’m with someone who, for personal reasons, has a problem with it.

For me this clearly corresponds with the New Testament debate over neat which was leftover from butchering that was done as part of pagan rituals (1 Corinthians 8). Paul’s basic perspective is that the gods which were worshiped in these rituals were nothing but figments of the worshipers’ imaginations, and that isn’t any reason not to eat the meat. But if there are those who have a serious crisis of conscience about it, there’s no point in trying to prove that you’re stronger and that you know more than they do. Just don’t harass them by doing what they’re bothered by in front of them.

At the University of Helsinki's botanical gardens. The variations in the explanatory text in the three different languages have their own comic value.

At the University of Helsinki’s botanical gardens. The variations in the explanatory text in the three different languages have their own comic value.

But these days this leads to the question, “If you’re cool with alcohol, is smoking pot also cool with you?” My short answer: I do not have enough experience on the matter to take an expert opinion either for or against. I’m prone to believe that significant self-medication is more common with marijuana than with alcohol, and that attempting to deal with stress and depression in this sort of a way has its own significant dangers no matter what chemical you use. I know more people who’ve done significant damage to themselves with alcohol than with marijuana, but I’ve seen enough to know that the latter isn’t as harmless as some of its missionaries would have us believe. Speaking strictly for myself, I’m certainly not in strong enough need of the experience to break the law to get it; and even if it were legalized, I’d probably continue to think of it the way I do tobacco: I don’t think much the less of my friends who do use it, but I don’t see much sense in starting myself. For the problems it causes there’s no particular reason for me to bother. There’s probably not much more for me to say about that matter.

So why do I bother making wine? Honestly, part of the reason for taking up this hobby again is just the creative challenge of it. I enjoy working on producing flavors that I can enjoy and that my more seriously culinary friends find particularly nice. I had a fair amount of beginner’s luck in this regard, and I’ve learned to duplicate my successes and somewhat to build on them.

The raw ingredient

Aronia berries: the primary raw ingredient for my brew

Beyond that I believe that consumed in small amounts, as I tend to do, this stuff might actually improve my health somewhat. My primary ingredient is aronia berries (aronia melanocarpa in Latin), which are supposed to qualify as a “super food” for their health effects these days. According to the current Wikipedia entry on then, these berries, with their record-breaking richness in flavonoids, are currently being given to test animals to test theories that they can cure or prevent everything from heart disease to colon cancer to arthritis to eye irritations. Fermenting their juice certainly doesn’t appear to pose any serious health risks. They are currently grown as landscaping plants all over my home town of Espoo, and it seems like I’m about the only one doing anything with them. Given my Dutch heritage (as good an excuse as any in such matters) I hate to see such a resource go to waste.

When it comes to my social life, the overall effect of this endeavor is probably going to be quite minimal, but while there are some minor risks involved, there are also potential rewards. I suspect that overall the effect will again be positive. If I had pubescent children around who would be at risk of getting into my stash, I would probably think more cautiously about the matter. Likewise if I were to have friends with problems with alcohol one way or the other visiting on a regular basis, I would make more of a point of not bothering them in this sort of way. I do remember a few people in particular to whom I shouldn’t offer this year’s product as Thanksgiving table contributions or Christmas presents. But overall my friends find this a pleasing hobby to passively participate in, and for those few casual acquaintances I have whose world view is so narrow that they will think less of me for my wine production, I can easily live with that loss of prestige in their eyes.

So anyone here in southern Finland who wants to stop by and share the experience at the end of the month, or try my recipe for themselves, be in touch. I’m sure we can work something out. And regardless of how you think about such matters, I wish all of you a pleasant start to the autumn season.

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Filed under Ethics, Freedom, Happiness, Religion, Risk taking, Social identity

Ben Carson for Mayor of Detroit!

The other morning I woke up with this ingenious thought that I thought I should develop and share with the world. That is what I’ve placed in the title here. Frankly I see it as the solution to a whole pile of problems at the same time. I really think this idea needs to be spread around thoroughly, ideally going viral and becoming a mass movement. As an idealistic statement it’s far more realistic than Michael Moore’s “Oprah for President” idea anyway.

I will try to avoid polarizing and polemic language here, because, honestly, I believe that this is an idea where constructive thinkers of good will among both Democrats and Republicans could come on board, and I don’t want to mess that up by presenting the idea either as some flaming liberal or some calloused out-of-touch white guy (even if I might be a bit of both).

The basic idea is relatively simple: We have a formerly major US city that is currently way up “Poop Creek” without a paddle, and we have a world famous brain surgeon (literally) who happens to have been born as a poor black child (literally) within the city in question, who is getting on towards an age where he could comfortably retire from the stressful business of getting rich by cutting open white people’s heads and dealing with their brain problems for them (literally), instead focus the rest of his life on giving something back to “his people” in the broadest sense (literally). Why not bring these two situations together as the best hope for both?

headshot_scrubsBen Carson is already being touted by some political pundits as the next great hope for the Republican Party. A regular performer on the Washington public speaker circuit these days, he gave what some consider to be a particularly inspiring talk at a Washington prayer breakfast last winter, where in front of President Obama and the rest of America’s most important leaders (literally) proposed a set of values and solutions to address Americas “spiritual concerns” which were music to Republican ears. The problem was that he also clearly demonstrated that he had no concept of how political administrations need to work to get things done.

I’d say Detroit would be the perfect training ground for him in this respect. If he were to dive into that project this year or next, at age 62, and if he would succeed in turning that city around, then even at 69 years old I would consider him to be a strong contender for the Republican presidential nomination for 2020. But more importantly this year I believe Detroit needs him and he needs Detroit. And let me stress again, even though he more strongly identifies with Baltimore these days, the city in which he built his reputation as a great surgeon, he originally comes from the ghettos of Detroit.

Dr. Carson began his breakthrough prayer breakfast speech quoting from a few verses in Proverbs 11, followed by 2 Chronicles 7:14: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” His great hope is that through prayer, moral discipline and a restored sense of self-belief, American society can be turned around. I believe that if he wants to pursue that vision he should begin by doing so on what might be called a “Gideon scale”: winning a truly miraculous victory on a very local level, and there is no better place for Carson to start than in the city of his birth.

Among the most conspicuous and least tenable ideas that Dr. Carson tossed out in his prayer breakfast speech was that of a flat tax system. His rationale on this was as simple and elegant, and probably as ultimately unworkable, as his tax proposal itself: “When I pick up my Bible, you know what I see? I see the fairest individual in the universe, God, and he’s given us a system. […] So there must be something inherently fair about proportionality. […] Now some people say, ‘Well that’s not fair, because it doesn’t hurt the guy who made ten billion dollars as much as the guy who made ten.’ Where does it say that you have to hurt the guy?”

On a national scale the unintended consequences of assuming that the Old Testament is the ultimate standard for fair and just government could ultimately be disastrous. I won’t even begin to argue that point here. But in Detroit operating on the basis of that sort of standard could be a very good thing! What Dr. Carson’s native city needs is a restored sense of fairness and compassion and belief in its future, based on significant transcendent values. If that city sees its leaders as holding themselves accountable to a higher standard, rather than pursuing whatever personal advantages they can get away with as long as the loopholes of American law allow for them and joining the Romneys in stashing their loot in the Cayman Islands, that could inspire its residents to come together and work to realize these same higher principles.

Heck, let him try to restructure the finances of that city on a flat tax basis. Let him work with the neighborhoods there on a basis of everyone chipping in proportionately. It’s not like he’d end up making their situation any worse, and he could learn some valuable lessons about practical public management in the process.

But more than his conservative fiscal policy theories, Carson has a true zeal for something close to my own heart; something I believe is key to turning around US culture in general and for salvaging Detroit in particular: education. Again from his prayer breakfast speech: “Our system of government was designed for a well-informed and educated populace, and when they become less informed they become vulnerable. Think about that.”

I have thought about that, and I quite entirely agree. I also fully agree with the aims of Dr. Carson’s own personal charitable organization, The Carson Scholars Fund,  which was initiated in the 1990s to address the problems in American education that studies like PISA (which make those of us in Finland’s education system look so good) have pointed out. His goal has been to give “intellectual superstars” the same sort of social status within schools that sports heroes have –– a Quixotic quest if there ever was one, but an incredibly noble one all the same. The basic idea is to pass on to the most vulnerable in society the same sort of hope and vision that Ben Carson himself found as a very vulnerable young man between covers of books that the tax payers provided for him in the Detroit public library!

The ideal of Carson’s scholarship program is not only to build self-reliance, but community involvement among its beneficiaries: “Unless you cared about other people it didn’t matter how smart you were. We got plenty of people like that. We don’t need those. We need smart people who care about other people.” Those they set out to help are “kids who come from homes with no books and they go to schools with no libraries. Those are the ones who drop out, and we need to truncate that process early on because we can’t afford to waste any of those young people. For every one of those people that we keep from going down that path of self-destruction and mediocrity, that’s one less person you have to protect yourself and your family from; one less person you have to pay for in the penal or the welfare system; one more tax-paying productive member of society, who may invent a new energy source or come up with a cure for cancer. They’re all important to us and we need every single one of them.”

Beyond that, Carson sees education as the key to preventing the US from “going down the same pathway as so many pinnacle nations who have preceded us” to self-destruction from within, in spite of their massive military dominance. This has obviously started to happen in America already, but as Carson says, “We can fix it. Why can we fix it? Because we’re smart.”

Dr. Carson’s appeal to Republicans is not only based on his religious ideals and his message of “not accepting helplessness,” but that he is a front line expert in medical matters and health care. The intense and ongoing efforts to block and repeal “Obamacare,” they feel, need a (preferably black) compassionate yet firm and unquestionably well informed human face. This was one of the main issues that Fox (or Faux) News’s Sean Hannity put to Carson in an interview following up on his prayer breakfast performance. To his credit, Dr. Carson replied in terms that largely ignored the bile built into Hannity’s question, with the constructive suggestion that rather than focusing on destroying what they hate, Republicans need to focus on building better alternatives, which shouldn’t be that hard to do. Public health care needs to be arranged in a way that places the emphasis back on local community needs, and on the doctor/patient relationship. He’s probably quite right about that, and Detroit would be the ideal place to start building, from scratch really, a health-care infrastructure based on those principles. While he’s at it he can rebuild the rest of the city’s social service infrastructure in this sort of a way that “puts power back in the hands of the people”.

Republicans have blamed Detroit’s problems on generations of labor union centered Democratic administration. Whether or not that’s a cheap and unfair charge (and I believe it probably is) at this point there’s not much left in terms of entrenched power structures there. The city is ripe for starting over, and rebuilding based on fresh ideas. If there is an idealistic, intelligent and successful black man with a track record of public speaking out about such ideas, who would like to show the world how they would work in practice, Detroit would be just the place for him to do it. In the same Hannity interview he said, ”Part of the problem we’re having right now is that there are a lot of people who lack courage, who always want people to adore them and that just are not willing to take stands based on real convictions.”

Amen! So let’s give him a practical laboratory for putting these educational and economic principles into practice, to show the rest of the country and the world what a difference pride in education and community involvement can make. With the bankruptcy proceedings currently underway in Detroit, let’s insists on emergency replacement of the city’s managers, with an expedited election of a replacement mayor under the supervision of state and federal emergency managers. Let’s come together behind Dr. Ben Carson as the man for this job, not as another political lawyer but as a man focused on fixing things, to give kids very much like him 50 years ago a chance to develop an awareness of their own potential greatness. Let’s let him put his money where his mouth is, not only in helping individual children with promise, but in terms of administrating substantial reform and renewal.

Carson claims to want to follow his mother’s spiritual leadership model. After ignorantly getting married at just 13 years old to a man of very limited integrity, his mother went on to divorce this shyster and raise two sons as a single mother in a ghetto in the troubled times of the fifties and sixties the best way she knew how: by setting very strict rules and high standards, and not accepting excuses for any form of poor performance. This included strict limitations on television and requirements for regular reading and writing outside of school. During his childhood Carson never actually realized that his mother herself was illiterate.

On this basis Carson really has no excuse for distancing himself from Detroit’s problems. Everything he is, and every value he promotes, finds its starting point and its future relevance in what used to be Motown. The fact that it seems unlikely that he could succeed in of solving Detroit’s problems is all the more reason that he should focus on trying to do so! With so much of his rhetoric focused on not accepting excuses for defeat and not being the prisoner of preconceptions, to be consistent about things he really has to apply these ideals to the city of his birth. He might not be able to get away with bluffing as much as his mother did in insisting on high performance from those under his leadership, but that is no excuse for not believing in himself and his city and not trying. Not to try would be worst form of failure in this case. Carson should know this on the basis of being a doctor rather than a lawyer. Back to his prayer breakfast speech, “What do lawyers learn in law school? To win! By hook or by crook, you gotta win. So you’ve got all of these Democrat lawyers and all these republican lawyers and all their side wants is to win. We need to get rid of that. What we need to start thinking about is how do we solve problems.”

I really can see where Detroit doesn’t need more well-meaning white liberals telling it what to do. Detroit needs one of its own –– a kid who grew up poor but somehow made it anyway –– to return and restore a sense of vision, combined with a conviction that none of the little black kids in decaying neighborhoods can be treated as disposable.

So seriously, let’s get a movement started to draft Ben Carson for the job. I know that some of you actually know him. Put this idea to him. Light a fire under him to get him moving on this. Detroit needs him, and the world needs the hope of seeing Detroit rise out of its ashes.

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Filed under Economics, Empathy, Politics, Religion, Risk taking

The Problem with Death

This week’s post-grad seminar session began with our professor recommending that we be a little more disciplined in our discussions than last time… when I was rattling on about my viewpoints on things until a professor from another department knocked on the door and said it was her turn to use the room. I wasn’t singled out for discipline in any sense, but there was clearly a hint for me to take: new students in particular need to avoid the temptation to say everything they think they know about whatever subject comes up. This is one of the advantages of having a blog though: when I feel like I have something to say about a subject, and I’m not sure if anyone is actually interested or not, I can put my ideas up here for the perusal of those who are interested, and those who don’t really care can easily ignore my comments.

As it happens, I’ve given a fair amount of thought to the question that was up for discussion this week’s seminar gathering: the moral acceptability of suicide. To me the most important aspect of the question is to prevent kids from doing it, or even getting to the point of seriously considering it even if we can prevent that. The question is, can we find a philosophical justification for preventing suicide, especially in an across-the-board sort of manner?teen_suicide_in_black_and_white_tollie_international (1)

By way of background perspective, I had some friends who, in the 1980s, got to do a trans-Atlantic crossing together on a rather small ship. In fact one of them “accidentally” took my camera tripod along on that adventure to film the motion of the ship at “calmer moments” from the bridge and the deck. They all had plenty of stories to tell about the joys of extreme motion sickness under such circumstances. A common turn of the phrase for them was, “First you get to the point that you’re afraid that you might die. Then you get to the point where you’re afraid that you might not die!”

Émile_DurkheimI’ve known many people who have come to feel that way –– fearing that they might not die –– for many reasons other than sea sickness as well. Taken to the extreme where someone feels that all life has to offer is suffering, and the only way to escape from that suffering is to die as soon as possible, this leads to what Durkheim called fatalistic suicide. I find this particularly tragic especially in the case of young people, where there are so many possibilities beyond the horizon of pain that they are not able to see beyond, which lack of perspective robs them of. I would go as far as to say that adolescent suicide is, in my honest opinion, the greatest of all human tragedies, bar none.

From extensive first-hand and second-hand experience I can say that tragically painful situations, when (like seasickness) they don’t end up resolving themselves and going away entirely on their own, are things you end up getting used to. The human mind automatically starts to block out useless information about on-going states of affairs. As I sit writing this, for instance, no matter how hard I listen I can’t hear my own heart beating. I rationally know that the vibrations that my heart is sending to my ear drums are stronger than those coming from my refrigerator about 5 meters away, which in the quiet of my apartment I can actually hear. But since I can take for granted that if I am conscious my heart is actually beating, there is no real benefit to be had from hearing this organ’s function; so my mind blocks it out, enabling me to pick up smaller, less continuous stimuli that the sound of my own heart might otherwise cover up. My mind does the same with many other continuous physical and emotional stimuli as well. If it isn’t changing we can’t help but learn to ignore it. Or to put it in the terms that one friend said to me as I was struggling with the pain of my first divorce, “’You can get used to anything,’ said the man on his third day swinging from the gallows.” The sad part is to see how many people give up on life before they reach the point of peace with automatic acceptance of new sorts of limitations in life.

Two significant Hollywood films have tackled this question from the perspective of the tragically injured quadriplegics: Whose Life is it Anyway? and Million Dollar Baby. The question that such films and stories raise is, what is actually morally wrong with suicide in such cases? If the source of my basic joy in life is permanently gone, without the slightest hope of it returning, and I have nothing to look forward to in life but on-going, useless suffering, why should I be required to continue on with such an existence? Who has the right to place such a requirement on me? What gives them such a right?

The standard answer given in such cases is that if people would be allowed to give up whenever they cannot see beyond the horizon of pain they are faced with, society would suffer from too serious a series of deaths as a result. The suicide epidemic would be worse in this respect than the African AIDS crisis. And since we can’t just let everyone who feels that way go ahead and die, we need to set legal and moral standards which prohibit anyone from committing fatalistic suicide. The problem with this approach is that it frames the question as being one of a power struggle between the interests of the individual and those of the society, with an assumption that the good of the society has to take priority over the good of the individual. The same essential weakness is present in any argument that requires people to continue living just because it is “against God’s will” for them to die until “He takes them”: it assumes that individuals have the moral duty to suffer for some “greater good” regardless of what it does to their personal possibilities for satisfaction or thriving.

This is inherently related to questions of what makes human life as such valuable, who has the right and duty to defend particular human lives, when is it “natural” to allow lives to end, and on what authority can anyone be kept alive against their will. All of these questions have a long tradition of finding answers in the theological realm, and the process of attempting to answer them on purely non-theistic bases –– as a matter of principle for those who wish to avoid any morality based on theism –– has caused at least as many problems as it has solved thus far.

I could open up the question of whether or not we actually need to assume that humanity has any inherent value. Finland’s pioneering mass school shooter, Auvinen, posted on-line pictures of himself in a t-shirt which read, “Humanity is overrated.” Is that a philosophically and morally defensible position? My guess is that in the current age finding “serious moral philosophers” to defend such a position would be more difficult than it would have been for Anselm in his age to find the sort of “fool” who doubted the existence of God enough for him to test out his arguments properly. The postulate that human life has inherent value is the one thing that all ethical thought in our age seems to hold in common. Treating people as valuable only when they serve some purpose for those in positions of power is an age old problem, and many would say that such an attitude is the basis of the fundamental evils that any system of thought calling itself “ethics” has a duty to fight against.

Treating people as mere means of achieving some “greater good” rather than considering them (us) as inherently valuable entities unto themselves is what the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted to prevent; this being, from the UN founders’ perspective, the most obvious means of preventing the evils of Nazism from freely reoccurring. It is fair to say that both religious and strictly secular authorities have had their own ideas of what sort of people are less valuable and more disposable than others, and these ideologies should be seen as equally evil. What we all theoretically agree on is that people should be considered important and valuable, and entitled to certain rights, just because they are people.

The question remains, however, as to how we are to conceptualize the basic human value that our ethical systems must be sworn to defend. Should it be on the basis of sentience, or intelligence, or capacity for empathy, or shared evolutionary interests, or some more “spiritual” factor? On this we have no consensus, and on this basis I continue to believe that religious approaches to the question deserve to be taken seriously. The only paradigmatic alternative is to postulate that evolutionary competition is the basis for all morality, and the risk of eugenic approaches following from such a paradigm cannot be readily dismissed. Suffice to say, I accept the proposal that we agree that human life is valuable in and of itself, and for the time being (for purposes of considering the moral status of suicide) the issue of its metaphysical reasons for being so can be set aside.

A related question that I believe can also be set aside as unresolved here is that of the complete extent of authentic volitional choice available to the individual with suicidal tendencies. Choice is never absolute, yet choice exists, else this whole debate is nonsense. It must be accepted as a basic given that nothing we do as human beings is the result of some abstract “free will” operating within a metaphysical vacuum. Everything we do has causes involved, including hormonal, environmental, genetic and behaviorally conditioned factors. Likewise it must be accepted that conscious choice as we experience it, to the extent that it is not demonstrably an illusion, should be accepted as a reality of the human condition. There are some things that we decide for ourselves, and were this not to be the case then to accuse any person of acting immorally would be as absurd of accusing the Atlantic Ocean of acting immorally in flooding New Jersey last October. We must postulate then that there is some extent to which people intentionally choose their actions, and some extent to which we can justifiably attempt to limit the extent which others can choose actions that we find particularly risky or offensive in some sense. And while it is theoretically possible that this choice factor is key to what makes human life valuable, we are not going to reach the point of basing or conditioning our defense of human life on such a factor.

Sea-sick-while-fishingAll that being said, when it comes to dealing with the issue of fatalistic suicide –– a person wishing to end her life because she sees no alternative path that it could take beyond continuous and meaningless suffering –– I’d like to come back to the question of my seasick friends. One of them actually did fall overboard and was rescued on that voyage, but none of them actually died, and some 30 years later the vast majority of those trans-Atlantic adventurers are happy to still be alive. Fearing that they might not die in their deepest moments of suffering was a passing phenomenon. Most of them were intelligent enough to realize this at the time, and for those who weren’t, their friends took responsibility for keeping them alive even if was against their will at the time.

The logic of preventing suicide in these cases is obvious. These friends were able to return to life very much as they knew it before their painful experiences. But what about those who lose some significant part of their physical and intellectual joys in life? What if they can no longer walk, or drive, or use their hands, or see, or hear, or have sex? What if their brains become damaged to the point where they can’t they can’t any longer appreciate great literature, or recognize their loved ones, or control their emotions in a dignified manner? At what point are they allowed to say, “Enough is enough”? And how can we find a way to draw the line between these cases and those in the above paragraph?

Obviously there are no black and white moral answers here, especially in cases where medical science keeps bodies functioning long after their diminished capacities would “naturally” have shut them down. But we also need to remember that human life as we know it is a terminal disease. All of us are getting older all the time, and all of us are continuously, progressively losing particular important abilities. Eventually this process kills us –– every one of us. The real moral question here is, how far we can justifiably intentionally slow down or speed up the actual dying process under given circumstances? What is lost when death comes sooner than it “rightfully should”? What is gained by “getting it over with” in certain sorts of particularly hopeless cases?

I believe there need to be two operative rules of thumb here: First, with time the transitional pains that go with the onset of illness, injury or personal trauma of any sort have a tendency to pass or to become easier to live with, and we need to allow time to “do its work” in this regard before making room for rash decisions. Of course certain things may never be the same, and certain opportunities and capacities can never be restored, but life has a way of offering us surprising new forms of satisfaction when we let it. Getting those who are depressed due to acute pain and sense of personal loss past their immediate crisis is thus the first moral priority. Second, though there may be some cases where things have become irreparable and new joys in life are entirely out of the question –– where continuous entropy is entirely inevitable and justifiable to avoid –– it is still far better to ere on the side of preserving life too long than on the side of ending it too quickly.

But all this this really only covers one of four aspects of suicide that Durkheim’s seminal work on the subject identified. At the other extreme from the fatalistic we have the case of anomic suicide, where the individual feels that his or her life is too far out of control to be enjoyed any further; where rather than certainty of pain, the person feels lost in a sense of uncertainty about all that she considers to be existentially important. In such cases the act of ending one’s own life can be the last ditch effort necessary to prove to oneself that there is something I’m still in control of. For these people I believe that it is important to put them into the sort of therapy where they come to realize that there are more important things in life than a sense of control. The fact that many people never realize this is tragic enough, but it doesn’t have to be something worth dying for. Then again, when dying becomes the symbolic object of a power struggle against others and the world, there are limits to how much you can help a person with therapy.

That covers the suicides caused, in Durkheim’s analysis, by too much or too little predictability in life. That leaves those which are caused by too much or too little personal connection with those around us. Those who feel detached from society –– who give up on life because no one seems to care, or who decide to end their lives as a form of revenge against those who “should have cared more” –– commit what Durkheim’s translators called “egoistic suicide”. The opposite extreme to this is those who risk or sacrifice their own lives “for the good of others,” thus committing “altruistic suicide.” In both of these cases our moral priority seems to be to avoid these suicides being based on mistaken premises and, ironically in both cases, to encourage all the greater level of social connection.

When an egoistic suicide attempt is viewed as a “cry for help,” we are actually prone to actually give the suicidal person what they want in some form; that is unless we consider them to be unreasonably demanding and incapable of recognizing the importance of others in turn. But rather than a moral issue or an individual mental health issue, we tend to take egoistic suicide attempts as a sign that we have some repairs to do on our social structures. Thus the prevalence of teen suicide in Finland and Japan is one of the strongest signs we have of a need to fix some aspects of the school systems in these countries. Some blame goes to the individuals in question, but more goes to the system.

spocks death scene

The classic scene of Spock’s self-sacrifice is something that no one would dare to moralize against.

When it comes to altruistic suicides, unless they are suffering from a tragically delusional messiah complex we tend to treat them as heroes: the soldier who falls on a grenade to save his comrades, the firemen who rush into the burning World Trade Center on 9/11, the nuclear power engineer who goes into the highly contaminated reactor area to shut down the reaction and save the local village, the mother who is killed in defending her daughter against brutal rape by invading soldiers… all heroes. As long as they are doing something authentically important in sacrificing their lives, we tend to praise them for doing so. That may be a matter of society callously encouraging people to consider their own lives less important than the society’s shared objectives, or it might be a matter of recognizing some things to be more important than the prolonging of the physical processes of human life for their own sake.

In the latter sense these altruistic suicides can be compared with recreational drug users and extreme sports enthusiasts. In both cases it could be argued that the risk of death, or the extreme likelihood of death, is not the primary objective of the action, but it is considered a valid risk to take / price to pay for the benefit potentially gained by the action. So the question is whether or not the audience offering the moral evaluation agrees with the pro-and-con assessment implicit in the risk-taker’s actions. To save other people’s lives, sure, we’ll morally accept that choice. To experience an ever increasing heroin high, no, we’re not likely to accept that as a valid trade-off. To get the adrenalin rush of pushing out the envelope with your stunt performances, reviews are likely to be mixed. In any case, whether your actions are accepted by others or not there’s some truth to the adage that there’s no point in prolonging your survival if you never really live; and if this process of really living shortens your period of survival in some cases, you can be at peace with that –– even if, strictly speaking, you might not be able to “live with that”.

Life is short; there’s no getting around that fact. Eventually, inevitably, death has to become part of life for all of us. But if we can keep ourselves and those around us from making life even shorter than it has to be, that has to be a step in the right direction. I still agree with Kierkegaard though, that the point of life is to find something worth living and dying for, and no amount of longevity can replace that sort of purpose in life. A death that reflects a deeper purpose is far to be preferred to an extended life without such. But some sort of life has to keep going for that purpose to be revealed and realized, and the longer that extended life can be my own, the more successful I will consider myself to be at the art of living. I wish that as many others as possible would have the same sort of success, and that as few as possible would end up getting short-changed in this regard –– especially by their own hand. Your mileage may vary.

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Filed under Death, Ethics, Human Rights, Philosophy, Purpose, Risk taking, Spirituality

Facing my Fears

I’ve been writing this over the weekend between Halloween and the American presidential election, following a major hurricane essentially closing down the northeastern United States for two days, once again drawing attention to the question of human caused global climate change; when both news and entertainment media have reached some sort of crescendo in giving people things to be afraid of.  Meanwhile I’m sitting here in a state of low-grade stress over the state of paperwork that actually makes relatively little difference in the big picture of things, wondering what, if anything I should really be afraid of in life.

Stereotypical horror movies and thrillers have to do with people facing the threat of something important being taken away from them: their lives, their families, their homes, their basic freedoms, their social respectability, their chances of being loved, etc. Other’s play off of deep-seated fight or flight reflexes when faced with certain stimuli: blood, corpses, snakes, spiders, storms… whatever. Rationally or irrationally, people get the impression that they stand to lose their life or something else very important to them, and they freak out with a massive adrenalin rush.

I have to confess a certain ambivalence towards all of these. At this age I’m largely numb to such artificial stimulations of fear reflexes, and to one extent or another, at various points along the way, I’ve already lost most of the things (other than my life and health) that thrillers and politicians try to play off of threats to. The thing I’d be most unquestionably willing to stand up and fight for, at the expense of my own life if necessary, would be the safety and well-being of my sons; but they are adults already, more capable of protecting and taking care of themselves than I am of taking care of either of them. As a divorced father and a foreigner in Finland every part of my closeness to them as children that could be stolen from me was stolen from me. Threats to what I have left in terms of home, respectability and opportunities for love are not particularly worth worrying about at this point.

Over the past year and some, with my African experiences and all, I’ve faced the possibility of my own death many times: I clobbered myself in the head with an axe, I locked myself into a confined space with an alpha-male baboon, I was involved in a traffic incident where a pickup slammed into me as I was riding a bicycle, I got lost by bicycle in one of South Africa’s most dangerous slums, I faced a cobra in the wild at a distance of less than two meters, and then last month I had a car burst into flames while I was driving it. All of these are true stories which, in retrospect, were matters of my own carelessness and probably weren’t that big a deal. Yes, in theory any one of those incidents could have got me killed, but they are now stories I just tell for laughs. When I die it is likely to be from something predictable and boring, probably related to long-term effects of diet and lifestyle. I’m trying to make adjustments so as to not rush that process, but fear for my life is not a major part of my everyday existence.

I also had encounters with large cockroaches, large spiders and once with a scorpion in my apartment in Africa last year. The scorpion would have objectively been the most dangerous of these, but those who know tell me that its sting wouldn’t have killed me; it would have just made me wish I was dead. Yes, I must admit, the idea of extreme pain of many sorts makes me very uncomfortable. I’m not at all sure that I would hold up well to waterboarding, fingernail removal or dentistry without Novocain, to say nothing of kidney stones or scorpion stings. On that level there are plenty of things capable of frightening me in terms of the threat of physical pain, but in the cinema or the media these things are actually rather unlikely to have much of an effect on my adrenalin levels.

As I age I’ve noticed that my luxuriant hair and unusually sharp eyes have been getting noticeably thinner and weaker in recent years. Nor can I run as fast as I used to or work as hard as I once could without getting tired. So far that too is more of a joke than a serious threat for me, but I wonder sometimes of the aging process is something I should be more afraid of. I actually don’t see the point though; it’s happening to me at the same rate as to pretty much anyone else of my generation. The real question is, have I got enough done with my various physical capacities before progressively losing them? I hope there is still time to deal with my various forms of laziness in that regard before I lose my faculties entirely though.

What about the world at large? Should I be afraid of what will be happening to the environment, the economy, personal freedoms, etc.? On one level I hope to do my part in enabling my own sons and those young people in whose lives I’ve personally invested as a teacher to be able to grow up, have children of their own, and raise them in a safe, secure and enjoyable environment –– not in a continuous state of war or the leftover destruction therefrom –– but I’m not going to waste too much energy getting paranoid about such things. It is extremely unlikely that any of these in whom I have this sort of personal investment will ever have life as difficult or dangerous in physical terms as does my black friend George in Cape Town; to say nothing of their security and well-being ever dropping to the level of that of residents of Gugulethu –– the slum I got lost in that time –– or of the refugees moving back and forth between Syria and Iraq these days.

My ancestors 150 years ago in the Netherlands actually lived through a rather brutal struggle for existence on the heath land outside of the small villages there, comparable in many ways to what I witnessed in Africa. Food, shelter and medical care could never be taken for granted.  They lost as many children on average as they saw through to adulthood. I want to work to insure that the risk of returning to that state of affairs is as small as possible for those close to me. I also want to help get as many people as possible who are still in such a state of affairs out of it. But this is less a matter of fear for me than it is a matter of sorrow at current ongoing suffering and hope for improvements in the future.

When it comes to politics, on one level I am afraid that those who have no concept of human suffering and the difficulties of the world’s poor will make matters worse for them. This has been going on for most of human history already, so I don’t see it as a new and horrible threat. I just hope that we can limit the callous disregard for the poor of our own generation slightly better than our ancestors did. Alas, worldwide since the 1980s, with the exception of the ending of Apartheid, things seem to have been going in the wrong direction in this regard pretty much across the board. Things are not hopeless, but things are not getting better as they should be.

Beyond this there is the question of the impact we are having on our environment(s).  On a smaller scale there is absolutely nothing new about this. Since mankind discovered fire people have been dying of carbon-monoxide poisoning and other effects of pollution caused by each other’s lifestyles. The early residents of the Easter Islands managed to deforest the whole territory, thus making life as they knew it there impossible to continue. It doesn’t seem at all likely that we will drive our entire species extinct with this sort of short-sighted behavior, but we are almost certain to kill millions of people through greedy struggles for resources or accidental carelessness a few more times before the end of human history. The only real question as far as the environment is concerned is how far the radical changes we are causing will effect which parts of the world are inhabitable for humans and which aren’t , and how many billions of poor people will end up dying because of this?  In the case of the Dust Bowl and many other  environmental disasters over the years –– including the various extinctions or near extinctions plants and animals vital to the economies of the times –– people have shown a remarkable ability to ignore warnings and believe that they can continue on with their ultimately self-destructive lifestyles  until long after the problem becomes too obvious to ignore. Do I want to try to prevent such problems? Of course. Do they seriously scare me personally? Not so much.

Other stereotypical aspects of fear or terror to be addressed are those of the supernatural sort: witches, demons, werewolves, ghosts and various sorts of reanimated dead people.  It would be fair to say that even the most superstitious among us would be willing to admit that these fears are more a matter of getting an adrenalin rush out of old wives tales than anything else.  Are there historical precedents for some of these story types? Sure. Is there any reason for me to be afraid of them? I seriously doubt it.

The most plausible threat among these would be demon possession, which, regardless of your supernatural beliefs, in the vast majority of cases at least can be explained quite well as some form of mental illness or another.  That doesn’t make such people any less creepily destructive to themselves and those around them, but it puts the actual powers they have into perspective. Perhaps more frightening to me than the risk of demons taking over people’s bodies though is the fact that more American Republicans believe in this than believe in human caused global warming. The one is supernatural explanation of an extremely limited phenomenon at best, and an overly dramatized old wives’ tale at worst; the other is a scientific hypothesis to explain strong globally observable trends that increasingly effect everyday life. If increased tornados and rising sea levels are explained as unavoidable acts of God, or as signs of God’s wrath on sinful regions, rather than as the effects of ways in which we are screwing up the planet we live on, that could lead to a lot of very bad things both socially and environmentally in the coming generations.

And that actually ties into an entirely different area of fear: evangelical Christians’ fear of the coming of the Antichrist. This is a rather bizarre phenomenon that I discussed in a blog 1½ years ago, but in essence the idea is that inevitably history as we know it will end with a powerful leader coming on the scene and convincing everyone that he will do the sort of things that for the past 2500 years the Jews have been expecting their Messiah to do when he comes: establishing world peace, providing justice for the poor, ushering in a new age of prosperity, etc. According to Bible prophesy though, this presumed hero consequently turns out to be the ultimate villain, eventually using the personal power he amasses to prevent the free worship of God and to establish absolute control over the national and global economy.  This sort of reading of the book of Revelation is the mother of all dystopias. Basically every particularly strong American or world leader since Abraham Lincoln –– anyone presenting viable promises of unity, peace and prosperity without sucking up to the evangelical Christian community in the process –– has been labeled as a potential Antichrist.

There are of course many ways of interpreting such Biblical teachings, ranging from the various “reinterpretations through fresh revelation” that happened in mid-nineteenth century America to the complete dismissal of Revelation as gnostic nonsense that the fourth century church was mistaken to include in the cannon of scripture. My own current take on such matters is rather ambivalent, but there are a few things I know for sure:
– The writers of the Bible were somewhat surprised and disappointed not to see Jesus’ return in glory and the final battle of the apocalypse within their own lifetimes. That in itself should tell us something.
– The theme of power corrupting otherwise good and effective leaders is an eternally relevant theme unto itself, which isn’t necessarily any more relevant to one strong leader than another.
– Persecutions of Christians and other groups for their religious identities have been happening on a more or less regular basis since long before the book of Revelation was written. It’s hard to imagine how any final fulfillment of tale told there could still be unique or especially fear-worthy in that regard.
– In the end of the story in Revelation, after an intense war much shorter than the current Iraq War, “good” wins and remains triumphant for 1000 years (roughly half the amount of time that has passed since its writing), so believers who are actually expecting such things to happen really shouldn’t be all that scared to begin with.

Yet in spite of all that, labeling someone as an Antichrist remains an effective fear-mongering tool among certain Christian groups. Under these circumstances I actually find assertions that some politician or another is the Anti-Christ to be far more embarrassing than frightening.

But taking things from a Biblical perspective, one of the most psychologically profound verses in the Bible, which was actually written by the same fellow who wrote the Revelation, is 1 John 4:18: There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

As I see it that can be taken in at least two ways:  First of all love implies trust and good will towards each other.  Torturing the loved one and getting into power struggles just to prove who’s in charge are imperfections in love. If we can believe that there’s an all-powerful God out there who loves us too perfectly to allow our lives to randomly become hell, we really have nothing to be afraid of.  Having this sort of confidence can enable us to live in a fearless way that can enable us to be far more productive in life. But then there is the Bible’s book of Job which contemplates the fact that sometimes we do end up going through hell in ways that don’t figure with our understanding of a just and loving God being out there taking care of us. There are many interpretations on this one, but the only thing that is clear is that bad things do happen to good people and we all have our limits. So the blind trust that nothing will ever go wrong with God watching out for us can lead to all sorts of problems and disappointments in life. All things in moderation on that one I say, and on to other aspects of the verse.

Beyond providing a sort of imaginary safety net for other forms of happiness though, I believe that love provides a form of happiness unto itself that trumps all others. This is what I was talking about in terms of happiness by way of connection. The more perfect the love, the less risk there is that it will break down and leave one feeling isolated and abandoned. Beyond that, love gives one a sense that something significant about me that will go on after my physical life is over. Thus love is in many respects more important than life itself. If you know that you are loved –– that you are somehow deeply and personally connected with other people and/or things/principles beyond yourself –– that makes it a lot easier not to be afraid of various forms of crap that life brings your way. Perfect love enables you to know that what is ultimately most important to you in life can never be taken away from you.

Have I ever experienced truly perfect love? Of course not, but I have had some pretty satisfying and lasting personal connections, and I hope to have still more of them and better ones before my life is over. Building such connection, and in this way “looking for love” is in many respects the purpose of my life. Reading, writing, on-line interactions, teaching and trying to promote various forms of humanitarian work are all part of this for me. If these connections are real no one can take them away from me.  The better they are, the less I have to be afraid of in all other aspects of life.

In the worst case scenario of Romney getting elected, or of a new US civil war breaking out because of redneck hatred for Obama, thousands if not millions of people around the world will die unnecessarily because of generalized American stupidity.  There is nothing unprecedented about this though; people have been dying because of the callous greed and stupidity of others since the beginning of time. And among those who are at greater risk of dying because of American political policies clearly for many of them their own stupidity also figures into the question. So we’re not talking about a terror dystopia here; we’re talking about forms of gross injustice that we’ve always had continuing and intensifying. Of course I want to do everything I can to prevent that from happening, but am I afraid of it? Not in the strictest sense of the word.

The apocalyptic visions of those on the religious and economic far right probably serve as far better tools for fear-mongering than what anyone left of center has to offer, and sadly fear is often a far more effective motivational tool than hope when it comes to politics. I would like to believe that most of my countrymen are not so dumb as to fall for that, but there is a reasonably good chance that they might be.

That leaves me with the moral question: if the only way to save lives is to try to artificially scare the crap out of people, does that make fear-mongering the morally right thing to do? Perhaps in some cases it could be, but at this point I’m not inclined to believe that such an end would justify such a means. Increasing people’s sense of fear has a way of getting out of control, not to mention all of the intangible satisfactions in life that living in fear steals from everyone. If I’m going to complain about American Republicans putting their party interest ahead of the good of the country and the world, it would be hypocritical to start harming people’s sense of well-being for the sake of political advantage for the other side.

So even if hope to save millions of lives is not as effective a political tool as an artificial apocalypse or a self-fulfilling prophesy of mass destruction, I’m sticking with the former. If the worst happens because of this, I can face my fears and believe that my life has hope, value and purpose regardless. I hope the rest of you can too.

 

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Filed under Death, Love, Politics, Religion, Risk taking, Sustainability

Integrity

Once again I’m approaching a major transition in life: my academic year spent on leave here in South Africa is sadly coming to a close. Somewhat to my surprise I have not been able to secure the sort of employment here which would enable me to extend my visa and subsist here as a teacher, writer or businessman. Thus I might then be returning with my tail between my legs to my old life in Finland, in somewhat reduced form, or I might be moving on to some entirely new for of adventure in my life; that still remains to be seen.

It’s too early to put this particular adventure into retrospect of course. Some years from now I should be able to say whether this was a colossal mistake or an outstanding opportunity that I can thankfully look back on. At this point I don’t really know. I’m only aware that things haven’t worked out as I had anticipated, but somehow life will go on. But it is important now to stop and consider how this has affected my fundamental sense of who I am.

One of my new perspectives: looking north from the hills above Simon’s Town

Philosophers and religion teachers like myself tend to have more problems with this sort of question than most other people do, even in the most stable and predictable of times. And in times of major stress like this –– largely flying solo and not even knowing what country I’ll be living in three months from now –– I doubt that any profession could provide me with a more secure sense of identity than what I have. But even though I’m really not into this sort of angst for its own sake, perhaps I don’t even want my identity to be all that fixed and predictable.

The essence of the question in philosophical terms is first to determine what essentially makes me me. Am I essentially just a body, or a non-material conscious entity (soul) functioning within this body, or the sum total of my memories, or just a wave on the vast ocean of consciousness and material cause and effect, or something else entirely? And then once I’ve figured out what I am, the next question is what to do about it. On this mater suffice to say I remain a metaphysical dualist of the monotheistic tradition that does not believe in reincarnation. Other aspects of the afterlife and the effect it can have on our current life remain open to speculation in my mind: as with my adventure in South Africa, I recognize that there could be many things in the afterlife that differ from my expectations, and thus I don’t intend to base my actions on the possibility of earning extra points there. My purpose remains to find value in life before death, and to do so with integrity.

This all comes to mind by way of a discussion I was having with a small circle of on-line friends regarding the question of racism. Much to my surprise, I was recently accused, by someone who I thought knew me fairly well, of having racist attitudes and views; this in spite of the fact that tolerance building and anti-bigotry campaigning have been a core element of my personal and professional identity for many years now. I was able to take this accusation in stride, but it surprised me none the less, and I must admit it caused me to bristle a bit. So in discussing this among virtual friends the first question was whether or not my views really were in fact at core racist, and after that –– at the suggestion of a trusted virtual friend –– why such an accusation would cause me to bristle.

It is a well established principle in psychology that when one becomes irritated or angry at some accusation –– or when a joke or a critique touches a nerve –– there is usually an element of truth to it. If it is obviously false it is unlikely to have any emotional effect on its object. So for instance if someone were to accuse me of having homosexual tendencies the jab would miss entirely; not only because I don’t consider gays to be inferior people, but because I am thoroughly and exclusively enough drawn to women where such a claim would really just show the ignorance of the person making it. To be a true homophobe, and to truly resent such accusations, you have to have a certain fear of your own attraction to those of your own gender; I just don’t. The same principle would apply if someone were to accuse me of being emotionally irrational, blindly ethnocentric, uncaring towards children or a dog hater. Whatever else can be said against me, those things are just patently untrue. Anyone who would say such things about me clearly doesn’t know me well enough to pick their insults carefully. (If anything I’m guilty of going a bit overboard to the opposite extreme on all of those issues.) I would thus be far more amused than disturbed at such accusations.

So if I am disturbed at being accused of racism, does that mean that I am at heart more of a racist than I care to admit? I’m willing to accept that as a possibility worthy of self-critical observation, but overall I still believe that not to be the case. What I am defensive about is not my latent tendencies in this regard, but my overall effectiveness in fighting against such things. As combating racism is one of the core elements of my personal and professional identity, any claim that I come across as a racist is not something I worry about in terms of defending what I am like at heart, but in terms of demonstrating my effectiveness at what I do. If I had built my career around animal rights campaigning and someone were to then accuse me of being a closet abuser of animals I might bristle in the same sort of way, not because it would threaten my core identity, but because it would call my professional integrity into question. That in turn is only hurtful to the extent that I am susceptible to self-doubt in those sorts of professional terms; and given that I don’t know what sort of job I will have three months from now, there are good reasons for me to have some uncertainty about my professional identity just now.

Another day, looking back at the vantage point of my previous perspective

But what does “integrity” actually mean to me? What does it mean by and large in English for that matter? Off to dictionary.com:

Noun

1. adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty.

2. the state of being whole, entire, or undiminished: to preserve the integrity of the empire.

3. a sound, unimpaired, or perfect condition: the integrity of a ship’s hull.

Other sources itemize the same three basic meanings. Two other related words come to mind: integral and integrate. “Integral” is an adjective which describes the sort of elements necessary to achieve integrity: belonging as a part of the wholenecessary to the completeness of the whole, or consisting or composed of parts that together constitute a whole. “Integrate” then is a verb used for the action of making things integral: to bring together or incorporate (parts) into a whole; to make up, combine, or complete to produce a whole or a larger unit. And of course “integrate,” particularly in its noun form of “integration” is commonly used to refer to bringing together people of different races, ethnicities, religions or classes; overcoming segregation. All of these relate to the sense of integrity I am hoping to develop.

Skimming through a book by Tariq Ramadan yesterday, I was struck by his thought (that I have also seen elsewhere in other variations) that there is something profoundly abstract and ultimately dishonest about tolerance and anti-bigotry campaigns which take place within the safety of an ethnically and religiously homogeneous social setting. If you don’t dare to genuinely encounter the “other” on a regular, respectful and equal basis –– without thinking of him/her primarily as a potential convert –– your exercise in overcoming prejudice is self-deceptive. In order to have integrity I need to be ready to integrate “other” elements into my insular little world. I need to confront any fears of difference and assumptions of inherent superiority that I have accidentally built into my sense of self.

But there’s a balance to that necessary as well: I also need to have a sense of self-respect, believing that what I stand for and my own perspectives on what is important in life are just as valid and valuable as those of the groups that would like to convert me to their own ways of thinking. Beyond that I need to recognize some sort of limit in my capacity to integrate. There is such a thing as opposition; as self-destructive tendencies; as evil. I need to be careful not to internalize too many elements that are out to destroy the value that is already within me. And among the elements that are already within me that don’t necessarily agree with each other I need to find ways of prioritizing and rationalizing them so that my identity does not become fractured and unstable as the result of internal conflict. Integrity demands that I become aware of what is most integral to my core identity and what is ultimately superfluous to “the real me.”

Another important balance element in integrity is the degree of flexibility or plasticity it entails. Like the ship’s hull or the empire mentioned in the later definitions quoted above, one’s honesty and moral character cannot be so rigid that it either shatters on impact or destroys all else in its path. It has to be able to flex and absorb a certain amount of opposing force; and in some regards the greater its ability to do so, the greater its overall integrity. Yet at the same time it cannot be so flexible as to consist of formless jelly. Integrity requires a specific form and shape to which its object returns after flexing to its limit, which is capable of withstanding pressure and bearing weight when necessary.

In order to maintain its political integrity a nation needs to be able to allow for emigration and immigration, for legislative and even constitutional reform, for the annexation and liberation of territories, and for major economic transitions from generation to generation. Any nation which lacks these capacities has a fundamental lack of integrity. Likewise any individual person who cannot recognize his own continuous processes of growing and dying, learning and forgetting, loving and letting go, cannot have integrity in relation to others either. One must maintain some sense of identifying form, but one must allow that form to follow its inevitable temporal progressions. If we deceive ourselves into believing that we can become eternal by denying the changes taking place within us and around us, we do ourselves no favors.

Whatever else can be said about my South African adventure then, it has given me an interesting collection of new experiences by way of which to re-evaluate and hopefully strengthen my personal integrity. It has given me a stronger awareness of what new possibilities there may be for integration, and a fresh perspective on what is and isn’t integral for me. As President Obama said after the 2010 elections, I would hope that others could learn the same sorts of lessons I have without having to take the same sort of “shellacking,” but that is not mine to determine. And in fact, even though the best laid plans of mice and men have once again gone the way they generally do in my case, objectively speaking I really haven’t suffered all that big a loss here. Above all, as Popeye would say, I still “yam what I yam.”

Like the shirt says…

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Filed under Change, Freedom, Individualism, Love, Philosophy, Purpose, Racism, Risk taking, Spirituality, Travel

Random Thoughts on God and Country

Let me see if I can do something I haven’t done in a long time: finish one of these essays in one sitting so that I have time tomorrow to go out and celebrate Valentine’s Day properly. For that purpose I’ll just open up the mental taps and let it flow. I’ve been thinking a bit about Valentine’s Day itself, about Whitney Houston’s death over the weekend, about the various problems of missionary identity and about the US innovation of keeping religion and politics separate. Let’s see what comes of such a stew here.

Valentine… now there’s a mysterious character. Who was he, where did he come from, and why did Chaucer apparently decide that he was one who’s celebration would help usher in the spring mating rights for Christians? I tried looking it up to tie together the snippets of legend I’d heard over the years and discovered that historians know less than I thought I knew about the subject. For starters Valentine was as common a name back in the third and fourth centuries of our calendar as David is today, and it seems that the pre-Constantinian Romans creatively dispatched a diaper-load of Valentines (as in men of that name). There are a few guesses as to which it would have been that later was considered worthy of mention of February 14th; the most common being that it was one of the two guys of that name who were buried north of Rome along the road to Rimini. A couple hundred years ago one of the popes had what were believed to be the bones of one of these guys dug up and given as a gift to a church in Dublin so that the Irish could experiment with their magical powers.

The strongest legend seems to be that “the” Valentine was an underground priest in Rome and the surrounding area during the reign of Emperor Claudius the Second, predecessor to Diocletian, who really got Christian-killing going in earnest. Whereas Diocletian found Christians politically useful as all-purpose enemies of the state to get everyone together in hating –– sort of like Hitler used Jews, like McCarthyites used Communists and like “Tea Partiers” use Muslims –– it seems that before his time the Caesars didn’t take Christians all that seriously. From the famous correspondence between Trajan and Pliny the Younger (on line at http://community.middlebury.edu/~harris/Classics/plinytrajan.html) we can gather that Roman authorities thought of Christians sort of the way I think of Cape Town’s cockroaches: sort of gross in a mildly amusing sort of way, worth killing if they make a nuisance of themselves, but mostly harmless and not worth going on a big hunt for. So somehow this Valentine didn’t manage to stay below the radar and the emperor personally became aware of him and had him imprisoned. According to one part of the legend one of Valentine’s crimes was to secretly perform marriage ceremonies for young couples according to the Christian liturgical practice that was taking shape at the time. In any case, it is said that Claudius found this priest to be rather interesting and amusing, and might have kept him in a cage as part of a menagerie of strange specimens, but Valentine kept trying to convince the emperor himself to become a Christian and so finally Claudius just decided to have him killed.

None of the Valentines promised us a rose garden...

But legends of the story of Valentine are as diverse and as difficult to authenticate as the legends of the Flying Dutchman here on the east side of the Cape Peninsula. All of the stories tell of a ship captained by a cranky old Dutchman who for his sins is caught in a storm and cursed never to have a home on land ever again. Sightings of this legendary ghost ship then apparently continued throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, right up to the time of World War 2 even. Yet nobody seems to know for sure who the original Dutch seaman in question was, or what year his ship was lost, or even what exactly he did to bring the curse upon himself. The variety we find within such legends is part of what makes them interesting.

Getting back to Valentine though, whoever he was, I can’t imagine him being anything other than amused at the marketing of greeting cards and chocolates and flowers in his name more than 1700 years later. His primary concern would most likely have been one of Christians being allowed to have their own socially accepted rituals to worship together and start families without being hunted down for it. He was hoping for the state not to bother the church so much. That was not to come about for a very long time. As I said, the emperor after the one who had him killed made a big number out of hunting down Christians and making as dramatic a show as possible out of killing them. The emperor after that in turn flipped the whole system on its head and made Christianity the religion of power within the Roman Empire. Another 50 years after him came a fellow who said that to be a Roman you have to be a Christian, and no form of “pagan” education should be allowed in Rome any longer. This officially began what came to be known as the Dark Ages. A crass but not entirely inaccurate way of putting it would be that the teachings of Christianity were raped by the power structures of the empire, and as a result gave birth to the medieval Roman Catholic Church.

Fast forward 800 years: a new religion called Islam has arisen in the Middle East and north Africa, and they are claiming that God has given them the right to be in charge of the area where Christianity and Judaism first began. That sucks because doing pilgrimages down there is a big thing for some of the richer Christians. So eventually the Popes proclaim that God wants them to put together a Christian fighting force to regain dominance of Jerusalem and the surrounding area. Thus begins the farce known as the Crusades. But out of that experience Europeans come to discover some of the learning that had been happening on their continent before the Dark Ages, because the North African Muslims had hung onto quite a bit of it and even built further on it. Eventually this “new” knowledge convinced a guy named Thomas from a little Italian town called Aquino to convince the Catholic Church to let people start thinking more freely for themselves again, and to start universities teaching more than just church doctrines. From there it only took about 200 years before the church started to lose its controlling grip on European culture. This was known as the Renaissance.

After the Renaissance the Catholic Church progressively lost the vast majority of its political power. It remains true today that a third of the world’s population call themselves Christians, and over half of those call themselves Catholics, but within that group those who are afraid that the pope could cut off their access to the sacraments and send them all to hell if their rulers don’t behave themselves, or even who hold to the “every sperm is sacred” teaching, are a very small minority.

It really started with their failure to execute Luther like they had all of the previous dissenters. Soon after that there were two major European kings –– Henry in England and Gustav in Sweden –– who made excuses to “nationalize” there countries’ churches so as to be able to sell off church property to pay for the little wars of expansion that they had going at the time. And before you knew it, even the papal territories within Italy were being reduced to the size of a minor suburb. But all of these moves towards “secularization” didn’t take the final step that we might imagine Valentine would have wanted: allowing the church and state to operate entirely separately from each other. Within each country it was assumed that there would be a particular religious organization that would teach people that God wanted them to obey their rulers, and which would in turn receive the endorsement and support of the rulers as the “true church” for that country. The first country to definitively break with that principle was the United States.

It’s surprising how many people today still don’t understand the essence of this basic principle of what separation of church and state is supposed to mean in the US, and how freedom of religion has come to operate in places where there are still remains of the medieval ecclesiastical power structure still in place, such as Finland, or Turkey. In these countries where well over ¾ of the population identify themselves rather passively with one particular religious brand, and where that brand has had a hand in legitimizing governments for hundreds of years, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the government still takes what the clergy says seriously in terms of shaping state policy. Nor does it mean that those who believe differently from the mainstream religious structure are likely to meet Valentine’s fate. (In Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia they might, but those are separate problems unto themselves.) It basically means that official state church –– or whatever this majority supported religious organization chooses to call itself –– tries to hold onto whatever power it can by claiming to represent the spiritual conscience of the people. This is effectively the same as what most of the last round of Republican presidential candidates in the US have been claiming for themselves, and what Bush the younger was trying to implement by degrees in US law. This sort of movement hasn’t been seen in US history since former presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan –– darling of the rural religious voters, and a Democrat from before the time when the major parties swapped roles (with FDR) –– humiliated himself at the Scopes trial. But ever since Ronald Reagan told evangelicals, “You cannot endorse me but I endorse you,” America’s religious right has been salivating over the possibility of ever greater government endorsement, regardless of what their beloved constitution has to say about the subject.

The opposite perspective is that which John Kennedy stated as a Catholic running for president: I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.

This subject has come up again this past week because President Obama, in his on-going efforts to bring the US into the twenty-first century with regards to health care as a basic right for all citizens, has run into trouble with the Catholic Church; and the religious right, looking for any possible excuse to ridicule this president, has chosen to attack the requirements the president’s commission wants to put on Catholic organizations as employers. Basically it comes down to this: even if the church continues to teach that every sperm is sacred, every employer will still be required to provide medical coverage for its female employees that provides them with means of not making babies with those sacred sperm if they chose not to. The president’s struggle has been to provide that basic legal and medical protection for women without forcing Catholic organizations to actively commit spermicide. And for this the southern Baptist farm boys and their political allies are up in arms about the president going too far in telling churches what to do. Some have gone as far as to opine that the president is getting “all Henry VIII” on the churches. Go figure.

This debate also relates to whether a cultural outsider can ever be seen as having a legitimate role in attempting to shape a country’s values. I mean, I don’t think its coincidence that the same fringe elements who are complaining about Obama’s power struggles with Catholic employers are the ones who were working long and hard to cast doubt on his status as a native born American. Is there a difference between “indigenous ideas” and “invasive species of thought”? Should each country or culture have its own “natural” values and spiritual identity, protected from foreign influences that would corrupt the natural balance of things? This is an underlying assumption of many conservatives: that they need to protect the ideas they have grown used to from too much outside influence. At the same time they want to provide missionary aid of various sorts to other cultures, to enable those others to reach their own superior level of spirituality. Nor is this approach by any means limited to just particular types of Christians. This is why “missionary” has become a curse word in so many places. So if someone wants to come in from a different culture to spread new ideas that they believe could help in the new context, fierce opposition is more the rule than the exception, whether or not there is an official state church system to deal with. There are always those with a vested interest in only letting “insiders” spread values within their territory. Yet on the other side of the coin we have Jesus’ astute observation that no prophet finds domestic acceptance either. Maybe the point is just to prevent anyone from trying to change anything…

So then what does all of this have to do with Whitney Houston? Admittedly not much, other than the fact that she happened to die at a time when all of this was up in the air (between my ears). But Whitney, like her godmother Aretha Franklin, had a rare and powerful voice that could bring chills to anyone, regardless of their normal taste in music. Yet still there are those who can’t appreciate the tragedy of losing such an immense talent without looking for torrid details to judge her by. It’s as though they need a handy moral excuse to shield themselves from the tragedy that we inevitably face in life at times. Is that part and parcel of the system of trying to maintain control over what is particularly valued, and over how our values work? I don’t know. Probably a bit of a stretch. In any case I am saddened to see the loss of such beauty in the world this month. I hope her soul is at peace. I hope the same for all of the other fascinating celebrities who have died over the past year with questions of self-destructive behavior hanging over their heads, from Amy Winehouse to Christopher Hitchens, but I especially hope this for Whitney. I hope that somehow what she has left the world with gives more people the courage to open up their hearts and dare to love, regardless of its inherent dangers.

So now, in spite of all of these troubled and skeptical ideas running through my mind, I’m off to get myself ready to spend tomorrow (and the rest of the week) chasing after the rainbow of romance in a way that lives up to the abstract expectations for the holiday. I leave it to the reader to sift through these musings and see if you find any points that help you to better consider your own social adjustments and deeper values. But regardless of whether you found anything above to agree with or not, remember and believe this: hugs make you healthier, so whatever else you do this Valentine’s week remember to go out and get yourself some extra hugs. So what are you waiting for? Get up and go hug somebody!

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Death, Love, Politics, Religion, Risk taking, Social identity

My Green Christmas

The closest thing to a white Christmas I might experience this year is that one of Cape Town’s shopping malls has built a giant ice slide that rich people can pay to go down for the exotic experience of it. I could afford it actually, but I’d prefer to get a steak dinner for the same price. And while I admit that my credentials as an eco-warrior are rather shaky, I really don’t see much ecological sense in my patronizing such a project.

This month began with South Africa hosting a climate change conference that was supposed to, yet again, find a way of continuing on with the Kyoto process. I take the fact that I haven’t heard much about the outcomes there to be a sign that a) I haven’t been tracking on the news so much this month, and b) they didn’t accomplish much worthy of international attention there in Durban. Both are rather sad in their own way, but neither case is hopeless: my landlord has reconnected the BBC/CNN service on the little TV in my apartment now, and there is still a chance that the environmental awareness education initiatives now in play will yield fruit before we entirely fry this planet.

For now my biggest contribution to limiting the environmental damage I do at Christmas time is just personally not consuming that much. I haven’t taken part in any of the shopping orgies or the mortal combat that goes with them these days, mostly because I don’t have that much to spend (though that obviously doesn’t stop some people). But also, I must admit, I’m too lazy to attempt to prove my love for those I care about in that particular sort of way.

What money I have comes primarily from a process of selling knowledge and ideas. I am a teacher, and what I have been paid to teach, in a nutshell, is a general idea of how our minds work, what our cultures expect from us, what various cultures consider to be important, how we can decide what is true and how we can be “good people.” I’ve established a reasonably sound professional reputation regarding the quality of my knowledge in such areas — enough where members of Finland’s upper middle class have trusted me to impart such knowledge to their children. In exchange for that I was given enough to nearly get by with a lower middle class lifestyle there. I don’t feel sorry for myself about such matters in the slightest: teaching those things to children has been the most personally fulfilling work I ever could have asked for. It just goes with the territory, however, that at Christmas time in particular I’ve never been in a position to express my love to family and friends in flamboyantly materialist terms.

Now in the olden days the way things worked is that Christmas presents were things people made for each other in whatever spare time they could take from their basic struggle for survival, out of whatever they happened to have on hand. Handcrafts were quite common gifts, but they were never cliché because every such toy or decoration reflected the idiosyncrasies and personal affection of its maker. Tradesmen, meanwhile, could offer some extra of whatever they specialized in making as gifts: Bakers would give pies, cakes and cookies to those they cared about. Carpenters would give chests, cabinets, tables and chairs. Butchers would give fine pieces of meat. Musicians would give private performances, and so on.

rag bunny

A crazy handmade gift I gave to my godson a few years ago.

Over the years I have tried to use a bit of both of these old-time systems. I don’t think that many of the handcrafts I’ve made for people have survived, but hopefully one or two are still in someone’s attic somewhere. More importantly though, I hope that those who received such thing from me recognize the amount of sincere care for them that went into such projects.

As to my attempts to give products of my trade to those I love, it has been a more inadvertent process: over celebrations and in a state of good cheer I have regularly slipped into lecturing or debating mode. Occasionally other guests have enjoyed this, but more often it has merely been tolerated. Very rarely has it been taken as a gift.

Regardless of that fact, in talking with friends lately I’ve been tossing out an idea that some consider to be potentially quite valuable, and not only that but particularly healthy for our environment. I certainly hope it might be, but I’m still rather pessimistic about my chances of selling it, so as my Christmas present to whomever can benefit from this I give it freely in the spirit of the season:

A couple of months ago my very special friend and I took a trip up the northwest coast of South Africa, and against the recommendations of the tourist information services we went to see a little town called Kleinzee. This town is on the southern end of the African Atlantic diamond mining and prospecting range, but it is no longer much of a jewel. In fact the De Beers Corporation –– which owns the town, lock, stock and barrel –– has concluded that the expense of extracting diamonds and keeping them from getting stolen on the way to market, even while paying miners’ wages far lower than what I have made as a school teacher, is no longer profitable. Kleinzee has thus become a high security, wind-swept ghost town.

The Kleinzee mine shop

In the old days, as Ernie Ford used to sing, miners would have "sold their souls to the company store." These days the company store isn't buying.

Prior to its industrialization as a diamond town, the Kleinzee area was populated primarily by nomadic herding people, grazing their small flocks on the scrub grasses growing in the area. The lack of fresh water and the vicious winds blowing up and down the coast kept it from being useful for much else. So with the diamonds mostly gone, what the area has left is a lot of sun and wind and surf, plenty of recently abandoned housing and residential and industrial infrastructure, and not much else. To my mind, however, this presents an outstanding opportunity.

The first thing to be built in Kleinzee would be a wind power generating site. Power cables supplying vast amounts of electricity from the coal fired national electric grid to the diamond mines are still in place. There is no one around to complain about the aesthetics of windmills, and the exposed bedrock of the abandoned mining facilities could provide the most solid anchoring points for tall masts that anyone could hope for. As for the strength of the wind itself there, the amount of power available is legendary.

A very wind swept beach from which they used to send men out to dredge for diamonds.

But that would just be an immediate starting point. With wind power construction finished and turning a quick profit for the town, human energies could then be turned to constructing facilities to utilize the other resources available in the region: continuous intense sun, sea water and arid scrub land. One of the simplest ways to generate electricity from solar power is by setting up a large field of parabolic mirrors to direct the sun’s heat to some sort of large cauldron in which you boil water, thus creating steam pressure with which to turn a turbine. The inevitable by-product of such a process is either steam released into the atmosphere, or more sensibly, distilled water. Besides meeting the fresh water needs of the local population, this solar distilled/desalinated water could be used to efficiently irrigate the land on the banks of the dried river bed that “flows” through Kleinzee. At a minimum this land could then be used to grow large quantities of indigenous grasses with outstanding carbon capturing properties. On a more ambitious level it would be possible to initiate an agricultural operation there which could provide for the nutritional needs of the local power station population with a bit left over for export.

And with that sort of infrastructure in place, the town could then turn to developing its own tourism industry. With sun, sand and surf aplenty; with people coming to see the exemplary use of relatively simple technologies in reviving a dead, one-company town; and with the potential added bonus of De Beers allowing amateur diamond prospectors into the old mining areas to try their hand at finding genuine diamonds in the rough; this could be a major business unto itself.

On that last item, it would basically be taking a page out of the playbook of old gold and silver mining areas. With most of the big fortunes to be made having already come and gone, rather than attempting to capitalize on industrial profits from these resources such towns can still turn a tidy profit off of tourists who come to play prospector. The last such place I visited was Finland’s Ivalojoki region, where my sons, then in elementary school, asked me to take them on our summer vacation, with dreams of finding a gold nugget that would make us rich. It plays off of the same psychological drives as a casino: everyone coming with a dream of getting rich against the odds, even though they know that in the end the house always wins.

In this case the house can no longer turn a profit at mining the area, but they can clean up the mine area enough to make it impeccably safe for tourists and then sell tickets down into it which would include hard hats, pickaxes, specimen bags and instructions in mineral identification. A certain number of tourists could then spend the day chipping away at the cavern walls to their hearts’ content, and when they would come up from their adventures they could then sit down with an expert who could go through their finds with them, helping them identify and certify any genuinely valuable stones they may have discovered. The company could then offer to buy any merely industrial grade diamonds they might come out with, encouraging them to hang onto their more beautiful gems. Meanwhile, in addition to collecting fees for the actual certification of any diamonds tourists happen to find;  De Beers could also have jewelers on hand to cut the stones and make the rings, earrings, necklaces and whatever that the finders would want; and eventually they could even set up genuine casinos there to win back a portion of the quick riches found by the fortunate few. High security would still be needed to keep explosives, firearms and organized crime out of the area, but these things could be readily paid for by the new sources of revenue the town would start generating. One or two such tourists might actually get a small fortune in the process, but most would be simply paying for the sense of adventure, and doing so gladly.

Then the final kicker for this idea would be that Kleinzee is far from the only site in the world with a plenty of sun and wind and sea water, but with a shortage of fresh water and employment opportunities. By bringing these elements together in a profitable manner this town — and the company that owns it — can pioneer a new era of sustainable development for warm coastal desert regions of the world. From Spain to Australia to Mexico, the market for such technology could be vast, especially after it has been proven in practice by someone bold enough to use it to rebuild a ghost town.

The major drawback of this whole scheme that friends have presented me with is that the ones who stand to profit from it most extensively are the robber barons of the De Beers empire. Why would anyone want to toss out ideas that will help make them richer? For that I have two answers. First of all any company which would have the resources and the initiative to set up the sort of environmentally friendly, carbon reducing and employment providing scheme I am talking about in my honest opinion morally deserve to profit from it, regardless of how checkered the history of their fortune might be. Secondly, I believe that even within companies with the most sinister business reputations there are men of conscience who want to protect our planet for the use of their own grandchildren, and who might even care about reducing unnecessary human suffering to for their neighbors, regardless of their skin color. Under such circumstances Assisting them in finding the means to “do good by doing well” is not at all against my principles.

So there it is –– my utopian idea of how a significant number of challenges on the local and global levels could be simultaneously addressed here to the benefit of all. Please feel free to point out the logistical limitations of such a plan if you can think of any. Please pass this on into any significant debate forums you happen to know of on environmental issues to drum up support for such common sense initiatives. Please pass this on to anyone you happen to know who is close to a decision making capacity on such matters. And above all, please join me in continuing to wish “peace on earth, good will towards man” in line with the ideal essence of this holiday season.

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Filed under Ethics, Holidays, Risk taking, Sustainability

On Baboons, Empathy, Prejudices and Human Value

Thinking about questions of people’s capacity for empathy, respect for life and the meaning of life as a whole lately, I’ve been sort of struck by the way people relate to the baboon population here on the southeast side of Cape Town. I wonder how much of the way people relate to these animals reflects the way they relate to other people.

The foundational premise of monotheistic ethics –– and of humanistic ethics that intentionally or unintentionally borrow there-from –– is that humans owe each other a certain amount of solidarity as the beings closest to God of all of his creations (known in Latin as the “Imagio Dei” principle). In ethical terms there is something close to a consensus that relative to the value of human life everything else is instrumental, or of secondary importance at best. Assuming that some human beings are of lesser moral value than the rest of us, and that we can use them as we like and then throw them away when we’re done with them, is considered fundamentally immoral these days by anyone who has spent even the briefest time contemplating morality. Since the fall of South Africa’s Apartheid system no mainstream public figure has dared to directly belittle the general concept of human rights for all people, regardless of color, gender or religion. The American broadcaster Fox News has been coming closer and closer to directly advocating treating certain people as a menace and others as disposable, but even they don’t dare to state this too directly. Many people –– Americans in particular –– are painfully ignorant about human rights, even while supporting the invasion of oil producing countries in the name of defending them; but no one will publicly deny that they are important, even while acting in blatant disregard for them.

But it seems that some people can more freely express the emotional reactions they have towards other people by projecting them towards other animals; and the more human-like the animals in question, the more useful they become as means of expressing attitudes towards other people. These attitudes can run from brutal hostility to careless disregard to fascination with the exotic to using them as a means of self-justification by way of excessive identification. And frankly I’m not sure which of these projections is most noble or which is most harmful.

For those of you who don’t follow my Facebook statuses on a regular basis, I had a pretty good thrill some weeks ago when I nearly locked myself into a confined space with an alpha-male baboon. I’d seen the baboon troop through the windows of the car and the house a few times, and I’d heard that they’d even been inside on a couple of occasions. But on the afternoon in question I happened to come down the hallway and see the front door open, and a relatively young baboon staring me straight in the face. My immediate reaction was to rush down the hall and lock the security gate across the doorway. As I was doing so I gave a quick shout, “The baboon troop is in the neighborhood!”

“Are any of them in the house?” came the reply from the other room. I hadn’t thought to check, and just then I heard a rustle in the kitchen. I quickly unlocked the gate again and came down the hall just in time to get out of the way of the troop’s big boss, ambling along on three legs as he cupped a large bag of marshmallows under his left arm. He turned to look at me to see if I was going to challenge him on the matter, and then nonchalantly walked out the door and perched himself with his prize on the front steps. I re-locked the gate and stood there and watched and took a few pictures as he calmly stuffed about 300 grams of marshmallows into his face before deciding to go looking for something to drink. At that point a few of the younger ones tried to sneak in for a few marshmallows themselves, only to get a very forceful rebuke from the boss.

There are information signs around the neighborhood warning against feeding these baboons, saying that these baboons are actually stronger than the average human, even though they weigh less than half as much as someone like me. The fact that the large males have teeth longer than a lion’s and that they have experience in violently eliminating competition is more than a little bit intimidating. But above all I realized that I really don’t know what I’m supposed to do in such a situation, what I’m actually allowed to do, and what tips might actually reduce my risk of coming to serious harm. So when I saw signs on the street light poles announcing that there would be a community information and feedback evening regarding the baboon situation of course I felt like we just had to go.

The event was very enlightening on a number of levels. Sitting on the stage at the front of the room was a political representative of the area, trying to show how in touch he was with his constituency. Standing in front of him below the stage was a lady hired to be a professional “facilitator”: a theoretically neutral master of ceremonies who was supposed to be keeping the whole meeting in order. Sitting in the front row were the semi-official representatives of the company that is getting literally millions in tax payer money to keep these apes under control in the region. It would be fair to say than none of the above were doing their job in a completely satisfactory manner. The rest of the room was filled with an audience of predominantly angry white men, with a few darker skinned folk who had also experienced some baboon vandalism of their homes.

Virtually the only agreement reached was over the matter that ideally humans and baboons should live separated from each other for the benefit of both. That in itself had a certain ugly echo of Apartheid to it, but since we are talking about separate species in this case it shouldn’t raise a moral problem. Even so I found the echo rather disturbing when one red faced white man yelled out, “I don’t care if they were here first. This is OUR land now and I refuse to live like a prisoner in my own home!”

On the other end of the spectrum, not present at the meeting but spoken of with distain by many present, were the volunteer ecological rangers –– one aggressive older lady in particular –– whose mission in life is to speak on behalf of the baboons and enforce their rights by keeping threatening to sue people who chase them away with sticks and stones, and by keeping people from getting back into their homes when baboons had broken in and were having a party there while the humans were out. That too has an uncomfortable echo of the past politics of this country, with certain white people assuming that they were qualified to speak on behalf of the indigenous population, as though they could perfectly identify with their experience…

Part of the basic information given by the officials at this gathering was to say what solutions were not in the cards. Those included killing off the troop of baboons in question, since the Chacma baboon is important to the overall ecosystem of the area and they have already been thinned out considerably. Nor is the idea of relocating them to a game reserve in another part of the country feasible, since the local troops are carriers of too many human diseases to be safe companions for others of their species. Thus if we want to live in what has historically been their territory we have to do so in a way that allows for a certain amount of live and let live.

Part of the question then is whether we have left enough space for them to live a dignified life after the fashion of their ancestors. This was a question that the white colonials here and the Apartheid government fundamentally ignored when it came to the indigenous human population. But in the case of the baboons, yes, they do have plenty of space to live naturally and flourish. The main problem seems to be that their fascination with the human element within their environment seems to have corrupted their traditional lifestyle. They like to pick through trash bins. They like the various human foods that are not found in nature. Sometimes they find young humans cute and interesting. (Kidnapping of young in both directions between our species is not unheard of.) They like climbing in the sort of non-indigenous trees that humans have planted around their homes. They like the types of fruits and vegetables that humans grow on their farms and in their gardens and vineyards. So the challenge is to discourage this interest on their part, because unlike Africa’s indigenous human population, there is no way for the baboons to become safely integrated into human environments on equal, respectful terms.

But then there is the problem of some humans actively trying to draw the baboons in for the novelty of interacting with them. There was talk of one photographer/film maker in particular using various treats to lure baboons into human habitats. That is in some ways the moral equivalent of white colonists intentionally getting indigenous peoples drunk as a means of taking advantage of them. It is a matter of using their attraction to experiences they haven’t naturally been exposed to in order to get what he wanted from them without any consideration for the dangers being caused for the ones being so indulged.

So making efforts not to attract the baboons into human areas by keeping them from gaining access to our food is a clear starting point. That includes taking better security precautions than we had to keep them out of houses and garden patches, and keeping garbage bins locked properly. That last matter also has its logistical challenges though, one of which is human garbage pickers. Here again, attitudes towards the baboons and attitudes towards indigenous peoples who have been kept in poverty start to get dangerously mixed together. In the name of keeping baboons away there was the largely unspoken intention of keeping undesirable people away.

There were a number of other interesting political undercurrents to the gathering. All of the various sorts of political posturing and animosities between interest groups were fascinating to watch, even though I knew most of it was going straight over my head. I don’t have any moral conclusions to draw from all of this, other than that people are strange, and they don’t always honestly consider their own attitudes carefully enough.

Knowing what we have to agree on with each other in order to have some chance of living at peace is quite a different matter from confronting our prejudices and anxieties concerning other creatures and other people. Distinguishing between those we consider to be above us and worthy of extra respect, those we take to be our equals, those we take to be our “pets” or “servants”, and those we take to be dangerous and inferior others is always going to be a complicated process; especially when our rational dispositions, our social contracts and our emotional reactions all contradict each other in making such distinctions. My hope, however, is that in relation to both animals and other humans we can encourage both empathy and rational, pragmatic thinking. We should genuinely care about others, and do so intelligently in terms of sometimes doing the sensible thing rather than whatever gives us warm and fuzzy feelings.

From there I would hope and believe that if we let those principles guide our behavior, and such behavior becomes a social norm, our contradictory emotional reactions will eventually fall in line. That won’t be a particularly immediate process, but we can still hope that it will work eventually.

And as always, other perspectives and clearer conclusions are most welcome here.

 

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Filed under Empathy, Ethics, Human Rights, Politics, Risk taking, Sustainability, Tolerance

Ups and Downs

In case you’ve been wondering what has happened to the past three weeks’ entries here, I’ve just returned to Finland from 2 weeks and change in the US: Attending a conference on the teaching of philosophy in American schools,PLATO conference opener exploring the haunts of my childhood with my new “significant other”, making contact with each of my parents (and their spouses) with to personally congratulate them on turning 70 this year, Mom's employer from the mid 70sand exploring what has changed and what has remained the same in the land of my citizenship and early socialization. Dad and Fadia as seen enjoying Gordon's Mustang convertibleI’ll write an entry here on each of those aspects of the trip in the coming days, but for now I just wanted to let everyone here who might care about such things know that I’ve made it back to Finland for now in one piece and I’ve found things here on the east side of the pond at least roughly as I expected.

In the past 5 days I have taken off and landed in commercial airliners a total of seven times. Since waking up at 6:00 a.m. EDT in Gun Lake, Michigan yesterday morning I believe I have slept approximately three to four hours. The time from checking in my suitcase in Grand Rapids to checking it back out in Helsinki was approximately 26 hours. The time from walking out the door of the house I was visiting until walking in the door of my own apartment was approximately 31 hours, including fetching the car and the dog and attending to the needs of each.

There was a slight delay in takeoff yesterday morning on account of an electrical storm blowing through which kept the plane from refueling on schedule. It was a fairly impressive little storm to watch at that.Clouds, from both sides... Coincidentally, when we came into Helsinki-Vantaa there were some impressive sized thunderheads drifting around, and when I finally got out of the terminal there was the edge of a very localized shower passing over the bus stop area, and the distinct smell of ozone in the air. Then as I drove out into the Finnish countryside to pick up the dog I passed through an area where rain was coming down in sheets, followed by the most spectacular rainbow I’ve seen this year.Mac's rainbow

Needless to say, all of this dramatic weather made for some rather bouncy flying conditions in places –– even more ups and downs. At no point was I seriously close to tossing my cookies from motion sickness, but there were plenty of times in which reading was out of the question. A couple times the normal coffee service in flight was either postponed or cancelled for safety reasons as well. But none of the connections were missed due to these weather challenges.

I had to leave my dear Fadia in a part of New York that was less than ideal, but I’m not worried about her in the slightest. Growing up on the “wrong side” of Apartheid as she did, and having run a successful business since, she knows how to handle herself in challenging urban settings. Nor is the ethnic mix in Queens Village anything for her to be afraid of. Even so, some of the signs of the cheapness in the neighborhood were rather disturbing.Cheap hotel But that being said, there was a certain Dutch satisfaction at least, after paying over $10 each to get to her hotel by mass transit, in figuring out how to get back to the airport for only $2.25 each.

We also had a chance to get a nice fried seafood combo plate from a local fish market, and then to take turns freshening up a bit in her room before I continued my journey. That turned out to be fairly significant: twice while being frisked by security agents after that I had occasion to say, “Good thing I had a chance to put of fresh underwear.”

And of course none of this has jack to do with philosophy, per se. If you think of some ways it might be relevant to the subject areas, do please tell me. But like I said, if you’ve been wondering what’s been keeping me from writing lately… now you sort of know.

More coming soon.

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Shall We Dance?

I’ve always professed a certain moral gratitude to Phil Collins for two things: 1) making it respectable for a man to walk around with 3 or 4 days of unshaved growth on his face and 2) writing a hit song about an inability to dance. The former has done quite a lot to save my face in a literal sense; the latter has done me immense good in terms of saving face more figuratively.

My father has sometimes commented that if he were to have his childhood to do over again, the one thing that he would make a point of doing differently is that he would learn to dance. Among Dutch Calvinist farm boys in western Michigan in the 1950s dancing just wasn’t considered to be an important or respectable thing to do, and he feels sort of sorry to have missed out now that he understands it better. By the time I came along the family culture had changed and loosened up quite a bit, but I too was raised in an environment that considered anything that encouraged “youthful lusts” to be inherently dangerous, and nothing encourages youthful lusts like certain forms of dancing. Thus, somewhat by design, I never really had a chance to learn to dance so well.

Frankly though, I can’t really blame my upbringing entirely; maybe not even primarily. My sense of rhythm has always been a bit shaky at best, and in terms of Howard Gardiner’s multiple intelligence theory, the kinesthetic has always been my weakest point. One of my mother’s moral priorities for her children was to make sure we all learned to swim properly, so I had more swimming lessons than I ever wanted, and I still suck at swimming. Dance probably would have gone the same direction for me. So when it comes to basic physical fitness routines, exercises in charm and attempts to develop romantic attractions, I’ve just had to use other means.

This hasn’t kept me from “messing around” with dance every once in a while though. There are certain forms of dance where, as in karaoke when it comes to singing, it is somewhat taken for granted that those taking part don’t really know what they are doing; where I can thus feel entirely at home. This has included the odd square dance parties I’ve been invited to, school discos, employee Christmas parties and live band performances at restaurants for the middle-aged set. Places where I’ve felt less at home are those where people take their dancing quite seriously. In Finland this would potentially include the “lavatanssi” pavilions scattered around the country. Spilling over from there, some of the dance floors on cruise ships to Sweden or Estonia can be a bit too intimidating for someone of my caliber. Other times, however, these same places too can be strictly for clumsy amateurs, enabling me to fit right in.

One of the places where the serious and clumsy elements of dance get most thoroughly mixed is in the continuously evolving tradition of the “elders’ dance” in Finnish high schools. The idea of this event, held every February, is that it marks the point at which the high school seniors in practice finish taking lessons and focus purely on their national final exams, leaving the juniors effectively as the eldest students in the school. The tradition is thus designed to make these juniors feel accomplished and mature, by giving them the opportunity to do a very grown-up set of formal dances together. In the past couple decades this has become THE event for Finnish young people to prove that they have reached their full potential for physical beauty and coordination. Their families often spend thousands to buy or rent the most glamorous possible outfits, cars, grooming services and follow-up party locations for that weekend. They spend months in advance learning and practicing the waltzes, tangos, boogies, line dances and structured partner swap dances that they end up giving a series of two-hour performances of. Yet another part of the tradition involves an audience participation round, where parents, younger siblings, aunt and uncles, younger class members, etc. are invited out onto the dance floor to pretend to know how to do some of the simpler dances that the “elders” have so elegantly performed. The secret there, as in many forms of dance, is to have no fear of making an idiot of yourself; and the structure of the event provides a fair amount of safety in that respect.

For me, however, this year’s school elders’ dance, which my younger son was involved in, took on a rather different aspect for me, because I invited a date along: my partner in a budding long-distance, on-line romance. I sent her some links to Youtube video clips of previous years’ dances, which seem to have caused here to take the event far more seriously than I had intended. She too had grown up with a fair amount of religious and cultural prohibition against learning to dance “properly,” and she too, in adult life, has had some fun just playing with dance. So on seeing the polonaises and cicapos and the like that these young people were doing so well, she became inspired to start taking intensive dance lessons, which she has subsequently kept going with over the course of the spring. This in turn has become an important new hobby for a person who is becoming increasingly important in my life… so guess what I have to do.

Last week I was introduced to the famous dance instructor, Tony. I had prepped myself slightly on line on the most basic theories involved, but I had not taken the effort to pull the blinds and clear the floor in my office or living room to do any physically practice. So as I began the basic moves with my partner I managed to avoid giving either of us any serious bruises, but I never advanced to the point where Tony could stop calling out the cadence: “Left… right… left-right… left…” Then once in a while, “Slow… slow… fast-fast… slow…” until I’d lead with my right instead of my left, bringing the chant back to, “left… right…”

All the time in the back of my head I could hear my father’s voice: “It’s to your left. No, your OTHER left!”

These are the sorts of things that one does not do without very deep personal motivation. Contemplating the matter, however, I’ve found that it actually provides a very useful metaphor for many other aspects of life: questions of individuality vs. conformity, the need for personal discipline as a structural foundation for all of our later improvisations, and choices concerning where we want to focus our energies.

Dancing is one of many areas of life where the basic purpose is to learn to do things the same as everyone else, only different. Dance actually helps clarify this paradox. Once one has found the 4/4 groove, locked into a few basic routine moves and established a basic line of physical communication with one’s partner, there are all sorts of twirls, dips, spins and other variations to be tossed in to enable a couple to stand out from the crowd. That does not mean you can use such improvisations as a substitute for knowing what you’re doing; but then again, sometimes only a trained eye can tell the difference, and if such a trained eye becomes a thing of the past, or a sign of pure snobbery, who is to say what the value of the “proper” system is?

But it’s not really that simple either. In order to find satisfying and interesting moves to make to the music, and to make these moves in a way that partners are able to fall into sync with each other, and where these moves can be repeated at will, there really needs to be some form of standardized movement involved. One needs to have a clear idea of what is generally expected and accepted as the norm before random variations really work. The same actually applies in writing, in expressionistic painting, in home decorating and in teaching: Breaking the rules is what makes any given example of greatness great, but that only works when the writer/artist/stylist/instructor has a clear grasp of the rules she/he is breaking. Ultimately greatness in most human endeavors has little to do with how closely one follows the rules; but everything to do with understanding what the rules are, why they became rules in the first place and what sort of purpose the rules serve, before setting out bend and break them.

Sunday school teachers love to give examples of classical musicians, whose solos appear to be so free, soaring, flowing and uplifting, but who must spend hour after hour practicing basic routine scales and mind-numbingly repetitive finger exercises to get to that point. Behind the seeming freedom is always a tremendous level of restraint and pressure. The moral of the story is always to encourage young people to forego playfulness and immediate gratification in favor of long-term development. In some ways that makes sense; in others it doesn’t. As I’ve said, there is a certain understanding of underlying order and structure required for creativity to function, yet on the other hand the whole point of that structure is to enable and enrich playful creativity. Those who are stuck in a fixation on order and discipline quite frequently cannot see the forest for the trees. In stressing the means necessary to accomplish wonderful things, they often forget what it is that is worth accomplishing in life. Structure and discipline are never ends unto themselves; they are means of getting to where we want to be in terms of realizing the unique potential and value that lies within each of us. And a lot of that has to do with wild and crazy playfulness.

So how do we find a proper balance between these factors of disciplined striving for technical mastery and wild and crazy playfulness? For advice on that one might want to turn to someone more “successful” than myself. Near as I can tell though, the best guideline to go by is passion. The great musician playing those mind numbingly repetitive scales isn’t doing so out of fear of discipline from some authority figure, or out of a need to impress his mother or something. He does so because he has a deep internal drive to pursue excellence at his craft. Rather than discipline for its own sake, I believe what we each need to find is some purpose to relate our efforts to… passionately. Going back to the dance analogy, we need to have some sort of music that moves us, and from there we can develop more skillful, sensual and syncopated ways of moving to that music. But without the passion for the music and the motion, the mastery of the discipline can be fundamentally useless, or worse.

At various points in my life I have developed passions for 35mm photography, bicycling, religious thought, cross-cultural interaction, making foods of various sorts and pleasing members of the opposite sex. I cannot begin to count the number of hours I’ve put into each of those hobbies/passions, but in each of those cases I did what I did because of a deep sense of connection that I felt with the endeavor itself, as though it was something that I could be uniquely good at, or that would provide a certain sense of purpose and direction for my life. Obviously in some of those areas I’ve since discovered that my talents are not so formidable or unique, and the efforts I was putting into them were unlikely to yield much in return, but that gave me no sense of regret for the efforts I had already put into them. In other senses I’ve been left with a feeling of longing –– wishing that I could have had the luxury of focusing my life’s on things I could feel passionate about, rather than routine things like writing reports and cleaning up after myself. Sometimes I wish I would have had just a little more discipline, so maybe I could have hit that threshold of greatness. And then sometimes I just settle into a reasonable level of contentment with life as I’ve known it, recognizing that in some respects I’ve been damned lucky to experience the variety of passions that I have.

Shifting to another analogy, one game that I never became much of a master at is Monopoly. It has been pointed out to me by those more skilled at this particular game than myself that I had a tendency to spread my assets around the board too broadly, not focusing enough on particular areas of earning potential. I always told myself that the purpose of my strategy was to allow for variations in luck, where if no one happened to hit the properties where I had my largest resource concentrations, I could still get them on the lesser properties. But if I didn’t have enough on those alternative properties to do much damage and improve my position, my diversification strategy really didn’t do me much good. I suppose the same should be said for my life’s passions. On the one hand I haven’t wanted to risk everything on just one or two endeavors that may or may not succeed; on the other hand I’ve probably put too little of my personal energies into any particular passion to have significant chances of success.

So along comes the possibility of learning to dance. On one level it seems to be something that my personal aptitudes are still not ideally suited for, and which is unlikely to pay for itself in terms of personal benefits that justify the efforts I put into it. On an entirely different level dancing could be as good a later middle age physical hobby for me as any: taking me beyond my old set of limitations and opening up new worlds of experience to be passionate about. In fact, however, the only real motivation for me here is caring personally about someone who, partially because of my own inadvertent actions, has started caring about dancing. So that being the case, I’m planning to make some effort to learn to do it “right,” even if I do cling to my own ridiculous levels of playfulness in the process. So… wish me luck.

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Filed under Happiness, Individualism, Love, Philosophy, Priorities, Purpose, Respectability, Risk taking

Abrahamic Certainty

I’m going to make this week’s blog a double. In part this has happened by accident, in that I was inspired to bite off a bigger theoretical piece than usual here, and by the time I’d finished chewing my way through it I had about twice as many words as I usually allot myself for one of these things. But in part that is a happy accident because I was planning to allow myself to set my writing aside next weekend anyway, as I celebrate Easter in my own radically untraditional way this year. I could have broken this up into two chunks to keep readers coming back more regularly, but why bother? If you find this to be too heavy an intellectual snack for one weekend, read half of it now and save the other half for sometime next week.

Let me also warn you that this entry is written from the perspective of a sincere but questioning faith in God. If you are the sort of person who finds a presupposition of the existence of God offensive, you might want to skip this essay. I have elsewhere explained at some length why I believe in God and what sort of role that faith plays in my life, and this piece is more than long enough without adding in a repetition of those arguments. On the other end of the spectrum, if you are the sort of religious person who finds it offensive to have the authority of your own tradition seriously questioned, you too might want to skip this particular essay. I operate here on the assumption that even the most sincere prophets and saints have made serious mistakes, and that when it comes to seeking for direct spiritual guidance, a certain amount of uncertainty goes with the territory. You are fully entitled to disagree about these matters, but accommodating all of the various authoritative dogmas that might take offense at my approach is another thing I don’t really have time for this weekend.

All of this starts with a personal re-evaluation of Kierkegaard. For many years if people would ask me to list my favorite philosophers I’d have to stop and think, and a different list might come out each time, but Kierkegaard would always come out within the top 5. Kierkegaard prioritized finding meaning in the absurdities of everyday life as the essential task of both philosophy and Christian faith. He drew on both the Bible and on classical Greek and Latin materials to demonstrate how the respectable Lutheran status quo of his time had a fair percentage of BS involved. On those merits I still believe that he was probably the most outstanding and influential genius that the Scandinavian countries have ever produced. At the same time, however, Kierkegaard was rather open about his own human limitations and fallibility. He never claimed to be a prophet, which as I see it is quite a good thing; especially as lately I’ve noticed areas in his thinking where, as a product of his own time and culture, he seems to be quite seriously mistaken.

Kierkegaard is at his best as the cynical humorist and critical analyst. Where has been seen as intellectually weaker is in terms of giving his own final answers to life’s persistent questions. After recognizing that life can only be analyzed by looking backwards, but it can be only lived by looking forwards, and that the analytical
process itself inevitably includes more than a little bit of paradox; for everyday decision making Kierkegaard turned to a form of faith that was riddled with paradox and thin on proofs, which was precisely what he loved about it. For many, however, this involves unjustified and unjustifiable risks: diving into things that you can’t be totally rationally sure of, but where “something in your heart” tells you that it’s right.  (Quotation marks there refer to the term being borrowed from pop culture, not Kierkegaard’s writings.) For some the question follows from there, “Can’t we do better than that?” leading to the answer “Maybe not.”

Recently, as I’ve been contemplating some major decisions in my own life and talking with some close friends about these matters, one of these confidants raised the issue of Abraham’s faith, as considered by Kierkegaard. For those unfamiliar with the story it goes something like this:

Like any rich nomadic herdsman of his time, Abraham had dreams of raising a huge family… but it just wasn’t happening for him. He was on the north side of middle age already, as was his beloved and hot looking wife, and as hard as they worked on making babies, they just weren’t coming. At one point then Sarah, his wife, told Abraham to try to deal with the situation by seeing if he could get her slave girl pregnant. That worked pretty well, and Sarah sort of adjusted to the idea of her new step-son, Ishmael, taking over the family fortune. But then, after they had given up on trying to make babies, and got back to intercourse for the fun of it, as sometimes happens in such cases, Sarah managed to get pregnant and have a son, Isaac. That’s where things started to get complicated. Abraham really loved both of his sons, but his wife clearly came first in his life, and she loved her surprise biological son to the total exclusion of her step-son; and Ishmael, it seems, was not adjusting to this very well himself. Finally Abraham, on Sarah’s orders, sent Ishmael and his mother packing, to go live further south, where they wouldn’t be the subject of so many arguments.

In the next chapter then (Genesis 22) comes the real climax of the story. It says that “God tested Abraham” by telling him to kill and roast his dear son Isaac. Abraham was pretty secretive about this, but he set out to take care of what he believed God had commanded. He took a couple helpers and his son, along with some wood and butchering utensils, and snuck out one morning before his wife woke up. They rode for a good three days “to the place God had shown him,” and then he left the servants behind so he could go do a secret ritual with his son using the wood and a butcher’s knife. The kid was smart enough to notice that something strange was going on, in that there was a conspicuous lack of a sacrifice animal with them, but Abraham just cryptically told him, “God will provide one.”

The happy ending then comes when at the last second God stops Abraham from killing Isaac, and says, “I was just testing. You passed. Don’t hurt the kid!” Then Abraham sees a ram with its horns stuck in a bush (not the smartest animal in the pack, it would seem) so he kills and roasts that creature instead. Ever since then, however, there has been burning speculation about what was going on there. To start with, how did God give these messages to Abraham, and how could Abraham be sure that it was God talking to him? And after that, what lessons does this story really hold for the rest of us? It is one of the major turning points in the patriarchal narratives in Genesis, so it can’t really be ignored; yet it seems to have nothing to do with principles of kindness, trust, cooperation and understanding that religion “should be promoting.”

Kierkegaard latched onto this tale just because it makes so little sense in terms basic humanistic ethical principles being manifest in religion. His take on it was that sometimes you just have to trust God for no other reason than that he’s God. He gets to give the orders because that’s part of what he gets to do, being God and all. So if you try to crunch any religion –– Christianity in particular –– down to a sweet little set of humanistic principles, you’ve rather missed the whole point.

Thus far, in terms of coming to grips with the foundational metaphysical assumptions that monotheistic faiths are based on, I strongly sympathize with what Kierkegaard is saying. My problem with all this comes when I start to look for an answer to the question my friend puts to me: “What would you do in Abraham’s place?” My provisional answer: “I’d make damned sure of my epistemological reasons for believing that it was God talking before I’d do anything.” And that’s the crux of the matter: can any form of personal emotional experience ever be enough to provide absolute certainty that it is God with whom we are dealing?

The alternative of looking for rational certainty of God’s will –– discovering the divine through a series of systematic algorithms –– is something that Kierkegaard has adequately shown to be inconsistent with the core understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition at least. (And as I understand it, Al Ghazali made a similar point from an Islamic perspective 700-some years earlier.) Beyond that it would seem to me to be an implausible proposition on a number of different levels.

In brief, if God had wanted to provide absolute certainty about his intentions and desires for mankind, there would have been a number of ways in which he could have made that more clear. That, however, would have entailed an increased risk of various religious groups claiming that their authority is based on enforcing God’s revealed will for everyone else. That would have turned “true religion” into the most impersonal and authoritarian bureaucracy imaginable. Even without true, divinely inspired intellectual certainty we have some pretty serious problems with authoritarian religious bureaucracies. We can only imagine what it would be like if one of these groups really
did have God’s unequivocal stamp of approval!  Thus God, in all his wisdom, in the interest of remaining personal and relational, has chosen to remain somewhat mysterious and non-systematizeable. All this is to say, faith in God does not necessarily entail an assurance of being perfectly aware of what the God wants in every possible situation; somewhat the opposite in fact.

Now of course no authoritarian religious organization which enforces orthodoxy in its standardized teaching can readily accept the idea that they have anything less than a mandate from God himself to maintain such standards. Thus it would be more the rule than the exception for the ideas in the above paragraph to be labeled as the most evil sort of heresy. But the more dogmatically a religious group insists on maintaining absolute control as God’s sole (or primary) representatives, the more damage they do to their own credibility. The ultimate nature of God clearly beyond human understanding, and thus any group which claims to have an exclusive understanding of him is either bluffing or they really don’t get the question.

In any case, this brings us back to the question of a less rational, more mystical or emotional awareness of God’s intentions and desires for us; and how far we can trust such sensations. Is it possible to “just know” what God wants of each of us, and of each other? If so, to what extent?

Some would say that these matters are best left to those who have a legitimate claim to being apostles or prophets. But what gives such individuals the right to claim such authority? Short answer: we don’t really know, but some individuals’ “messages” in this respect just sort of ring true for their followers and for future generations. But on careful consideration that really isn’t such a great epistemological standard. Given the mutually contradictory nature of prophetic messages from different sources, each seen as “obviously divine” by millions of faithful followers, the only obvious thing is that the vast majority of those “prophets” or “apostles”, (to be charitable about it) must have got at least some of their basic details mixed up. On the other end of the spectrum, the standard job description for a prophet or an apostle says that you’ll be rejected in terms of popular opinion, at least in your own time and your own village, because others just won’t “get it.” So external confirmation in terms of reinforcement from other (potential) believers really can’t be taken as firm evidence of whether or not any given apostle, prophet, guru, etc. is the real deal or not.

Yet even if the authority of a prophet’s or apostle’s message can never be fully confirmed in terms of its overall popularity, that still leaves open the possibility of inter-subjectivity: to one extent or another the issue always comes back to a question of a particular prophetic message “resonating” with what “God says to the heart of the believer”. Along these lines each of the Abrahamic religions officially holds that each believer’s status as a believer is ultimately between the “believer” and God –– not something that anyone else can competently judge; and the voice of God within the heart of the believer –– confirming for that believer the message of the Prophet(s) –– is the only thing which ultimately matters. On this Jews, Christians and Muslims theoretically agree: if God is not in fact speaking directly to your heart, all the rest is really just an empty show.

Such a doctrine actually poses a very limited risk to those who have a vested interest in enforcing orthodoxy. For starters this can easily be turned into an “Emperor’s New Clothes” dynamic: everyone inevitably claims to see the beauty of the message, because not to do so is tantamount to proclaiming one’s own moral and spiritual inferiority! Then once you have enough people proclaiming their personal affirmation of the beliefs in question, a sort of Asch social conformity dynamic kicks in (see, e.g., http://changingminds.org/explanations/theories/normative_social_influence.htm), and people start sincerely seeing things “the way they are supposed to” because everyone else claims to see them that way. So when people are told to “judge for themselves” as to whether or not the “divine message” they have been given resonates with them, chances of dissent are pretty limited.

[And for those who do not have the time or patience to read this all in one sitting, this might be as good a place as any for you to take an intermission. See you after the break.]

But if we set aside the question of why others claim to believe what they believe, and if we ignore the risks inherent in believing differently from the mainstream, if we then take these admonitions to judge for ourselves at face value, we find ourselves in a position
where there is really no categorical difference between the prophet and the true believer: personal spiritual intuition of one form or another is the thing that really counts. What makes the prophets’ or apostles’ spiritual intuitions special is that they are intended to serve as benchmarks for improving one’s own spiritual intuitions.

So when it comes to getting messages from God that might instruct us to do things which go against the grain of popular opinion, as Abraham is said to have, we really can’t flog that one off on the prophets –– leaving it to authority figures to make our spiritual decisions for us. Each truly believing Jew, Christian, Muslim, etc. is personally responsible to listen for God’s voice for her- or himself, and to follow that voice to the best of her/his God-given ability.


But this brings me to the point where my good friend Kierkegaard and I part company. I realized this in going through my personal library this week, thinning out the materials that are not worth lugging around or cramming into my limited personal space. In the process I picked up a book of his essays that I hadn’t opened in a while, and had a read through Of the difference between a Genius and an Apostle. His main point there was to say that, contrary to the message being preached in the various churches of Copenhagen at the time, the Apostle Paul was no genius; or even if he was it would be rather irrelevant. The relevant matter is that he spoke with authority, as one having a message from the Almighty. That much I don’t necessarily have a problem with either. Where I disagree is when it comes to his categorical assumption that acceptance of authority and careful epistemological investigation should be treated as separate, unrelated issues.

Part of this has to do with the fact that Kierkegaard was thoroughly adjusted to his role as the subject of a king rather than being a participant in a democracy. He wasn’t comfortable with the idea of having a leader who pandered to the masses; whose authority was based on being likeable or convincing: “There is something disturbing in the idea of a king who is witty or an artist. […] To ask whether a king is a genius –– with the intention, if such were the case, of obeying him, is in reality lèse-majesté; for the question conceals a doubt as to whether one intends to submit to authority. […] To honor one’s father because he is intelligent is impiety.”

Obviously the cultural assumptions which the reader is expected to bring to such a passage have changed a lot in the past 150 years. Does that mean that we have slipped further from God’s intended design for humanity? I rather doubt it. I don’t actually believe that there ever was any true “divine right of kings.” Frederick VII having ruled Denmark in Kierkegaard’s time was no more a manifestation of God’s will than Berlusconi’s presidency of Italy is today. The practical opportunities for citizens to influence matters may be limited in both cases, but that does not mean that anyone who has succeeded in gaining such power has Carte Blanche from God himself to run things as he pleases. Every holy book worth its salt contains passages on what constitutes good governance and what standards rulers should be held accountable to. Rulers which do not live up to their responsibilities are to be peacefully removed from office wherever possible. Unwise rulers are no longer routinely obeyed merely because they are rulers, and overall the world is a better and safer place for it. This clearly goes against the grain of Kierkegaard’s understanding of how authority is supposed to work, but then again he probably faced far worse disillusionments in other matters.

Part of what this entails is that citizens are at least in part responsible for the state of the government they live under. Rather than unquestioning obedience, what we theoretically owe to our rulers is respectful awareness of the issues they are dealing with, and active participation in the process of encouraging wise decisions. Thus respect for authority, rather than being a passive matter entirely distinct from epistemology, becomes an active matter acutely dependent on epistemology. And for reasons outlined above, this also applies quite directly to spiritual authorities as well.

So that brings me back to the question of what I would do if I were Abraham…

Perhaps, like Gideon and so many other holy men who have been faced with counter-intuitive instructions, I would ask for specific signs to prove to me that the instructions were at least coming from something more than my own disturbed emotional state. Perhaps I’d look up my old friend Melchizedek (Genesis 14:18) who comes from an entirely different religious tradition but still worships and gets messages from the same God, to see what sort of wisdom he could impart on the matter. Perhaps I’d just try to decompress for a while; leaving my foreman in charge of the flocks and all and spending some time just traveling, either by myself or with the wife and kid, depending on which would most effectively help me to be sure that I was thinking straight again. I figure if God would want the kid dead he wouldn’t be in such an all-fired hurry about it anyway.

My overall take on old Father Abraham is that he meant well, but he may have seriously got his wires crossed in trying to figure out what God wanted of him. Isaac actually comes across overall in the narrative as sort of retarded, and given how he was born long after his mom should have stopped having children, that’s more than possible. Having just kicked his smarter, stronger son out of the camp on his wife’s demand to improve the chances for this cute little weakling must have been rough on him. The chances of this little mommy’s boy ever amounting to anything seemed pretty slim. Maybe if he sacrificed this kid to his God, the way his neighbors sometimes sacrificed their kids to their gods, that would earn him extra favor from up above to make sure good things came to the kid who seemed to have better prospects anyway.In spite of all of his confusion though, God somehow got the message through to him just in time not to do it! So Isaac was saved, and Abraham was left with a feeling of God telling him, “Don’t worry. Everything’s cool. I know you meant well, but I have plans for this kid.”

Isaac went on to lead a limitedly successful life. He wasn’t really interested in any other women than his mommy until after she died. His dad then arranged for him to marry one of his cousins, who sort of a became substitute mommy for him. After failing at it for quite a while he finally managed to get his wife pregnant… once. And from there the rest of the stories about Isaac have to do with his wife and son taking advantage of his blindness and stupidity. Meanwhile Abraham remarried and had a big bunch of kids with his new wife, but then left the family fortune to Isaac and his family.

So when it comes down to it Abraham’s success is less down to him earning it through his heroic readiness to kill his weaker son, and more a matter of God being merciful to him in spite of his occasional screw ups, of which killing his son could have been by far the worst. Overall, if I would have been in Abraham’s position I believe I would have made an entirely different set of mistakes than he did, but God could have been merciful to me too in spite of myself. As things stand, some 4000 years or so later, Abraham’s legacy lives on, and those of us who follow in the different variations of the spiritual
path which he pioneered keep doing our best to get the message right in our own contexts. That includes me, and every true believer in any faith, who throws him- or herself on God’s mercy and then tries the best he/she can to live worthily of the mercy thus received. And as near as I can tell, that would also include Kierkegaard.

Like Kierkegaard, I make no claims at having prophetic gifts, but I listen for God’s instruction the best I can anyway. Ultimately, in spite of our uncertainties, we all must live our lives looking forward. We seek whatever help we can get from above. We fail on a regular basis, but we keep trying. Not giving up hope can be easier said than done.

Trusting that God will be merciful to those who call out for his mercy, and who are willing to show mercy to others on that basis, is the first order of business. Seeking valid general rules for living wisely and relating to others respectfully comes next. Getting special wisdom and guidance for unique circumstances where the general rules don’t necessarily apply would come after that. None of those are the exclusive territory of prophets or exceptional saints; they are available to all believers. None of them require special genius, but all of them require careful consideration of what information and sensations can be trusted. All of them require a certain humility, but none require blind obedience to those who claim to speak for God.

And with this in mind, may we each experience his mercy then this Easter, this spring, in our own surprising and revitalizing ways.

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Filed under Control, Ethics, Holidays, Individualism, Religion, Respectability, Risk taking

Limited Risks


This weekend, and for the coming week, I’ve succeeded in escaping from my familiar environment to a place which is as far from civilization as what you can drive a car to within Europe. I got lost a bit on the way here, and in the first day in the basic cabin at my disposal here the pipes froze up. But overall the serious risks involved in this adventure are pretty limited. I’m in a place where some little conveniences are a little less convenient, but only to the extent that is necessary to achieve the isolation I’ve been craving.

The “roughness” of the experience is just barely enough to remind me of my limited experience with scouting. Here too it’s about learning about myself and my companion(s) through confronting very controlled risks together. It’s about “being prepared” in some very basic ways, and at the same time being ready to face situations which are entirely different than what one is prepared for. It’s about improvising for the fun of it, but doing so in a relatively safe and dependable sort of way.

It’s sort of strange, actually: there’s electricity, hot and cold running water (most days), and as good a cellular network Internet connection here as there is back in the city. There’s a larger television here than I have at home, more room to play… but then I have to walk a couple of meters through the snow to use the toilet. So does this really count as “primitive conditions”?

Besides basic escapism, part of the point of this trip is to evaluate the risk factors involved in the further major changes in life that I’m contemplating; trying to put a bunch of things into perspective. Part of that involves considering what I have in life which is really of value to me: what if anything I stand to lose in making such major changes. Then part of it involves carefully considering what the chances are of losing everything, and what the chances are of coming out ahead in the whole deal.

Many people forget that it was Kris Kristofferson, not Janis Joplin, who deserves credit for the famous lyrics, “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” Such “nothings,” however, are relative. We all have reputations, relationships, health conditions and physical items that we think of as our own, that somehow come together to set limits on what we are ready to allow ourselves to do. But in the end, the risks of losing those things, and their importance should we actually end up without them, might be just as trivial as the “hardships” I’ve taken on in cabin life for the week.

Perhaps the immigrant experience is the best illustration of relevant considerations here. In the late nineteenth century, when my ancestors left the poverty and limited opportunities they faced in the Netherlands to face the inevitable loss of any established position, and the risk of hardship and disease within the United States, they did so with an awareness that once this trip was started there would be no turning back. They never would (and never did) see their land of birth again. For my great-great-grandfather, these risks were put into perspective by the fact that his parents had died of disease when he was a child, and his sisters had both emigrated ahead of him; but the isolation of living in a country where he would always stick out as a foreigner, and the fact that most of his children died there before reaching adulthood, must have made him wonder about the choice he made.

For me as an immigrant from the US back to Europe, the sufferings and risks were not at all in the same league. My health, and that of my children, was relatively safely cared for on either side. I was somewhat isolated as a foreigner; but mass-media, letters, telephone, and later Internet and e-mail made it possible to maintain contact with my extended family and the land of my birth in almost convenient ways. And the possibility of going back has always been open to me, including the chance to return and visit family every few years or so. My forefathers could never have dreamed of such an easy immigrant experience.

Now of course for many others in the world today immigration, and the life of poverty and degradation they face in the lands of their birth, are still very serious matters; just as serious as what my own ancestors faced. So if I consider my own situation in that light, it feels rather trivial either to feel sorry for myself in present, or to be particularly worried about my chances in the future. All things being relative, in most ways I will continue to have things pretty good regardless.

So then if my basic physical needs and wants aren’t really to be worried about in any case, why should I bother changing anything? Should major changes be something only done out of desperation of one sort or another? That’s part of what I’m sitting up here in “primitive conditions” weighing out for myself.

The important factor really isn’t about the day-to-day aspect of a basic struggle for survival, but about a purpose that goes beyond that. As I was implying somewhat last week, human biological life is rather short, and what lies beyond that really cannot be proven. Many of us hope for heaven afterwards, or something to that effect, without being entirely able to prove that such hopes are justified. Beyond that, we hope that our time in these bodies, on this planet, really does have some value beyond its own basic struggle for self-preservation. And many times, in others at least, we can see that it does –– that their lives have had such extended value. And then each of us asks ourselves, “Will my life have that sort of meaning?”

As troubling as the premise can be, it seems quite clear that the meaning my life can have within this world depends, to a great extent, on the ways in which what I have to offer is received by those around me. Thus in order to be truly “important” in human terms, one needs to find ways of surrounding oneself with people who appreciate what one has to offer. That’s always a risky proposition. For any given individual today, the odds of finding that sort of appreciation are if anything worse than they were for a poor person of my great-great-grandfather’s generation to enable all of his children to reach adulthood.

Having a value that survives my own lifetime would indeed be a rare form of success for me to achieve, but that’s what I’m shooting for. What can I do and where can I go then to best increase my odds of finding such success? As near as I can tell there are three things which could best improve my chances of being remembered for leaving the world better than I find it: First I rather need to stand out from the rest of the crowd. Being just another routine operator, capable of getting certain necessary but easily forgettable tasks done, is unlikely to make me the object of lasting appreciation. Secondly, I need to be involved in a process of mutual respect with other people in general. I cannot be valued by others unless I am capable of seeing their value as well. Thus if I try to stand out in the crowd by shooting down others who might outshine me, as a strategy for importance––for true greatness anyway––this will inevitably end up being counter-productive. This is where I particularly agree with the spirit of the African proverb I was referring to last time. And then lastly, beyond that, I need to find individuals who I can care about enough to have a personal impact on. To have lasting importance my life needs to have an impact not first of all on masses, but on individuals, in their one-at-a-time lives. And for that to happen I need to care about particular individuals as important individuals––as being as important to me as I am to myself even. In short, I need to dare to love.

So what sorts of risks am I willing to take in order to find a place where what I have to offer is somehow uniquely valuable? How can I deal with the challenge of building mutual respect with people in general, many of whom I may naturally find to be obnoxious? And how can I decide who I should dare to love, intensely and selflessly even? Even with all of our material needs being pretty much taken care of, and our basic dignity assured, these can be intimidating questions.

It might or might not be easier to seek personal value in non-human terms: believing that we need not worry about satisfying other people; that we can trust that God recognizes our true goodness, and nothing else matters. On the one hand there’s an element of purer honor and more secure purpose in such thinking. On the other hand, if God has a purpose for each of our lives, it will inevitably involve showing His purpose and compassion to other human beings. So using religion to escape from the vulnerability that dealing with other humans can cause doesn’t really work in the long run––just ask any prophet!

And that brings me back to the troublesome question of deciding (perhaps with God’s help) which people are worth my working with, and how. It is inevitably going to be a risky matter, but then again, in the big scheme of things, maybe those risks aren’t really worth spending too much time worrying about.

Post Script: having thought a few days about whether or not to post this, I’ve decided, why not? I’m really not willing to make any more specific public statements as to the particular personal existential questions I’m wrestling with, and this makes my public ramblings here both rather abstract and perhaps ungeneralizeable. This is thinking aloud again without any particularly clear conclusions, either in personal or general philosophical terms, but perhaps these ideas will give someone a starting point for picking up and figuring out which of his or her own dreams and purposes are worth pursuing. It inevitably involves balancing courage and cautious responsibility in a very individual way. I hope each of us finds that proper balance.

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Filed under Happiness, Purpose, Respectability, Risk taking

Old Clichés and New Beginnings

New Year’s Day. Every time this silly little ball of rock we stand on completes another trip around its star we stop to think of how the last round went and we take stock of what we got done and how close to or far from our hopes and dreams that puts us. Then we consider whether this next round could really bring us any closer, and what we might have to do to get there. Most of the time we make some trivial promises to ourselves to do the sort of things our parents and teachers would have wanted us to do, with some vague sort of hope that God in heaven will see our goodness and reward us for it; or that by behaving ourselves better we increase our chances of having a long and happy life, even if we rationally know better. So we start trying to exercise more, or we try to indulge in certain foods less, or we go for some time without drinking or smoking, or we try to focus on reading things that are “good for us,” or God knows what all else. Then at some point we lose faith either in ourselves or in the usefulness of these self-discipline programs, and we cynically go back into our old patterns of life. And then the next year we come back to the same evaluation point, and we try for the same old new beginning, just in slightly varied form.

How far should we dare to stray from such a pattern? What can or should we do, besides all of these “sensible resolutions” to bring our hopes and dreams closer to the reality we life in? What about really big changes in our lives? What stops us from making them? What should stop us from making them? What tragically keeps us from making them? What is it that enables us to make truly major changes in our lives in spite of ourselves… sometimes?

In discussing such matters one word that comes up very often is commitment. We don’t change things because we have a certain commitment to keeping things the way they are. Sometimes this is a commitment to other people; sometimes a commitment to a particular set of values or cultural norms. Sometimes we assume that this is part of loving, and indeed it can be. Sometimes, however, “commitment” seems to be nothing more than a noble sounding label to place on our fear of change.

We are all a bit loss-averse: we’re prone to take risks in terms of trying to get greater gain from a turn of the card or the like, but we’re not ready to take the same sorts of risks in terms of losing something we already have. There’s a recent study showing how it works the same with monkeys as well: Faced with a choice of taking a payout for what it is or playing double or nothing, monkeys––like people––are prone to play double or nothing a fair amount of the time; but if it’s a matter of losing something, they’re more likely to agree to a readily predictable loss than to gamble on a bigger loss or none at all (http://www.ted.com/talks/laurie_santos.html).

So it is with us in our everyday life situations: we have far less than what we truly want, but we prefer to hold onto what we have, taking minimal losses at it along the way, rather than to risk greater loss in the interest of finding what we’re really most hoping for and dreaming of. It’s not about the odds; it’s about the fear of losing something that we think belongs to us already. Kris Kristofferson wrote, and Janis Joplin made famous, the words, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” In the above sense there’s a certain amount of truth to that. The more we have that we are afraid of losing, the less free we are.

But that being said, we all have things we should not want to lose, the gift of life itself chief among them. We have people we care about, causes we believe in… perhaps even physical treasures we long to preserve for what they may symbolize to us. Are these things worth being committed to? At times, I’m sure they are. Things that make our lives meaningful can’t really do so if we don’t have the emotional strength and maturity to hold onto them. But that’s a whole different matter from not wanting to lose anything (more than necessary) because of some idea that losing is always bad, thus being imprisoned by a fear of loss.

A couple weeks ago I wrote about all of the different forms of harmony that I would hope that religion could help us achieve. In some ways my ideas of what would be worthy things to commit ourselves to would follow the same lines: commitment to live at peace and harmony with nature, as much as we are able; commitment to be true to ourselves, as much as we can discover about who those selves really are; commitment to be loyal to our family, friends, neighbors and others on whom we are directly mutually dependent, as much as we are able to do so without sacrificing important parts of ourselves in the process; commitment to “our own people” in a broader ethnic or national sense, to the extent that this does not lead to the all too common atrocities that ethnocentrism and nationalism are prone to generate; commitment to our brothers and sisters in faith, to the extent that this does not lead to the de-humanizing of those of other faiths and beliefs; and commitment to seeking fellowship with God, to the extent that we can be sure that this is not a means of dogmatizing some system or another of random hatred and prejudice.

But commitment to some status quo, for its own sake… is something I really can’t believe in. I mean there’s something to be said for having a certain flywheel effect for our emotions: sticking with something that we overall feel like doing even when we happen to feel a bit less excited about it, but that only works when the overall sense is that we really do want what we are committed to. Thus those who really want to develop their athletic abilities go to team practices even when they’re tired and stressed about other things. But should we be forcing ourselves to remain part of things that serve no greater purpose than themselves, that make our lives poorer rather than richer in the long run, just as a matter of “building character” or “commitment”? This is something that I tend to see as a personal tragedy for many people. It’s something I’ve seen drilled into children by parents, not as a means of helping them balance a present orientation with a future orientation, nor as a means of increasing their sense of empathy and personal connection with others––both of which I deeply respect––but as a means of stifling their individuality and interest in exploring less traditional options in life. “You’re going to those lessons because I’ve paid for them and I say you’re going: end of discussion!” No guilt trips for parents intended here, but as I see it that’s just not right.

So what of those that do leap out and make major changes in their lives; who dare to rock the proverbial boat with their own wild initiatives? For some we have more respect than for others in the long run. We look at Socrates, Siddhartha and the biblical Jeremiah as heroic champions of ideals over social respectability. We look at Vincent van Gogh, James Morrison and Chris McCandless as tragically impractical and self-destructive romantic dreamers. We look at the Marquis de Sade, Friedrich Nietzsche and Timothy Leary as examples of the absurd and repulsive state to which people can sink when they reject social respectability. As one considers the possibilities of taking a new year, each time one comes, and doing something totally radical with it, all of these heroic and cautionary tales come flooding back to mind. Thus most people stick to making safe resolutions. But the fact that we still keep getting new tales of radical adventure into our cultural mythologies says that not everyone plays it so safe.

The biggest single reason for taking risks and doing radical things with one’s life would have to be the contemplation of death. Life has its limits, and whatever we’re going to do with our lives have to be within those limits. When we stop to realize just how tight those limits can be––when we become aware that we won’t live for ever, and what we’re going to do in this life, we sort of have to get moving on doing––factors of respectability and social commitment become considerably less important.

Not that commitment and respectability are always bad things though. The best life has to offer, and the most important thing we can do with our lives is to genuinely love and be loved for whom we are, and anything that deserves to be called love must involve some level of commitment. I cannot claim to love someone if there isn’t a certain stability to my feelings for them, and a genuine intention to continue caring and wanting the best for that person long-term. So commitment can be a vitally important means of achieving something worth achieving in life. It just isn’t an end unto itself. The same might be said of respectability: in some cases it enables us to accomplish things that enrich our own lives and those of people around us. There’s nothing wrong with having people respect you, and having earned that respect. It’s just not a particularly worthy purpose to live for unto itself.

I’m not a believer in the Mayan calendar apocalypse predictions for next year, nor do I take other end of the world scenarios particularly seriously. The world is changing incredibly fast; that much is obvious. But that doesn’t mean I’m worried about the end of life as I know it right away. But even so, as I start out into this new year, I’m struck with a sense that, for myself and many people around me, this could be a year of more than cliché resolutions, but profound, meaningful changes, risking much of our old bases for security and in the process maybe getting just a little closer to our hopes and dreams. Hopefully you, dear reader, are one of us.

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Filed under Change, Happiness, Holidays, Purpose, Risk taking