Maybe it’s the oldest sister in me, but I think this you-tube is just fantastic. I love it!
Maybe it’s the oldest sister in me, but I think this you-tube is just fantastic. I love it!
Recently I have been repeatedly overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of human beings. It’s not an intellectual thing. It’s just a speechless delight.
Sometimes it’s when I’m watching a game of soccer and I see the beauty and energy of a young man running across the field. I felt it when I read about the courage and skill and determination of the three Americans who attacked the terrorist on the train in France last week. Sometimes I watch a child in the supermarket and feel it. Today I was introduced to Josh Goban – whom I’d never heard of. But as I watched the video, it came over me again.
If somebody tried to tell me perhaps ten years ago they felt this way, I suspect I would have felt an impatient irritation at such sentimentality. And I can’t explain it myself. Even now, I doubt if I were actually talking to anyone reading this post, I would dare to try to express what would probably sound like claptrap. Maybe it’s a gift that only comes to super-rational people like me with getting old.
But despite everything, despite the terrible horrors we are inflicting on each other and on this amazing world in which we live, despite the fact that we are all going to die and move into we know not what, I think the privilege of being part of this amazing incredible mysterious beauty makes living my life a treasure beyond measure.
I can no other answer make
but thanks, and thanks,
and ever thanks.
Shakespeare – Twelfth Night
In a recent birthday party given for him in the town where he lives, Billy Graham told a story about Albert Einstein.
Einstein was on a train when the conductor came around for the passengers’ tickets. Einstein began looking in his wallet and then in each of his pockets but couldn’t find his ticket. The conductor assured him that it was all right – that he knew who Einstein was and that he knew he didn’t try to sneak onto trains.
But when the conductor had moved on to the next car, he looked back and saw Einstein on his knees searching under the seat. The conductor returned to Einstein’s car and assured him that he did not have to find his ticket. “I know who you are,” he said.
“Yes,” replied Einstein, “I know you know who I am. And so do I.
“But I don’t know where I’m going.”
I’ve often reflected when there is news of an accident, terrorist attack, or natural catastrophe that once in a while death is only seconds away and yet one has no premonition of it whatsoever. Some of those killed by the bomb in Thailand two days ago must have experienced something like that.
Last night so did I.
Peter and I were having our evening meal, and I suddenly began to choke on a piece of lamb. I began to gag almost immediately and knew that I was not going to be able to cough it up myself. I signalled to Peter that I needed him to do the Heimlich maneuver, which he did, but my gagging got worse. It went on for several desperate minutes. Between gagging, and Peter shouting “Terry!” I could feel the air in my lungs depleting and I knew that if I couldn’t start breathing I had literally seconds of consciousness and then of life left.
My first thought was that Peter knew where our wills were. Then I thought what a waste of money the replacement lumber I’d ordered earlier in the day to repair our property fence would be. Gag! “Terry, breathe!” Gag!
And then, although I was still gagging, I knew I was getting air into my lungs. If I concentrated I could breathe and wasn’t going to die.
Eventually I sat down, my heart pounding and my blood pressure probably reaching 200/150.
“Can I get you anything?” Peter finally asked.
Yes, I said, a large glass of sherry.
I’d already had a glass of wine before dinner, and I rarely – never, in fact – have more than a single drink. I am too sensitive to alcohol and quickly feel sick.
But I sat there and drank the sherry. My heart rate and blood pressure gradually returned to normal, and even when I’d finished a very large glass of sherry, I was still stone cold sober. But I’m afraid I couldn’t eat another bite of food.
Peter made my promise never to do something like that again.
I’ll do my very best. At least I’ll get the property fence repaired before I try that trick again. Anyway, I don’t feel afraid of being dead. But chocking to death isn’t my preferred method of departure. Especially on a stupid little piece of lamb. It’s definitely not worth it.
The phone engineer called to give us the good news that our internet and phone connections are working again. His version is that “an underground connection was cut,” trying, I think, to give us the impression that some wire had been cut by some passing machinery. I think, myself, that the engineer accidentally disconnected our wire in the box when they were working there last Saturday.
In any case, to my surprise, four days of cyber-silence was actually quite refreshing. I spent my extra time reading Jared Diamond’s latest book The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? and have been totally fascinated. I’ve thought for years that Guns, Germs & Steel was one of the best books I’ve ever read, but this one is possibly even better.
Just as the world today is re-discovering that other living species (probably all living species) have intelligence that in the situations in which they are surviving often outstrips human intelligence, we’re learning the same thing about those humans who live in a “primitive world” so different from ours. We’d be as lost in their worlds as they are in ours. The irony is that when the world changes, we not only gain knowledge and skills, but we also lose. I read the other day that many young people in the modern world today don’t know how to tie knots. Or their home telephone numbers — because it’s stored for them in their i-phones.
And I’ve also discovered that I overwhelmingly prefer to read a book in hard copy than to read an e-book on my Kindle. I find it physically much less tiring and I can concentrate more easily. I have no theory to explain this. Is it simply a question of the world of books in which I was originally socialized? Or do the two different mediums filter through the brain differently?
When we lived in Spain, it felt as if we had returned to about the 1920’s. Among other things, we were unable to get a telephone into the house and had to walk fifteen minutes to the public telephone boxes on the beach. We were thrilled when after several years we were able to get a proper land-line phone in the home for a mere $5000 (about £3000).
I was working at my computer this morning about 10:30 when I was interrupted by a message saying that my internet connection was being cut and would be off line for up to a half hour. In the event, it was only about 5 minutes. But to my dismay, I discovered that we had no telephone connection whatsoever. Nada. No dial tone. Nothing.
I went on line to our internet & phone company and followed all their directions. Still total silence. I checked with our neighbour who is not having any problems.
I won’t describe the rest of the process. If you live in the 21st century you can probably make up a version of the story with a fair amount of accurate detail.
The short rendering is that it is an external problem and we will be without a telephone connection of any kind for at least four days. We’ve also been warned to expect our internet connection to be cut as well.
In fact, I have just this minute received a warning to that effect.
Wonder what four days of cloistered silence is going to feel like.
My husband and I were sitting in our sun room yesterday having a pre-dinner drink when a very frightened little bird frantically flew into the room through the open door. It hid underneath one of the unoccupied chairs, while we pondered what to do next. But before we’d closed the door to the rest of the house, the bird suddenly flew into the next room and hid itself in a hanging pot plant.
A little belatedly we closed off the rest of the house, and explored the best way to help. The plant was hanging in front of a window but it was locked and opening it would clearly be more terrifying than reassuring. Should we go away and leave the door open outside? But the bird looked quite comfortable there in the maiden hair fern. What if it didn’t leave before night fall and was frantically flying around the room like the caged animal it was?
I decided to try to grab it. In the process, it became clear it was a baby bird that didn’t yet understand that it couldn’t fly to freedom through glass and kept bashing itself against the window. I kept talking to it in quiet tones, and finally caught it. As my fingers wrapped around it, I felt it go limp. I kept talking to it, reassuring it that everything was going to be okay, and carried it outside. When I released it on the lawn, it flew speedily away across the property fence.
We returned to our drinks with a feeling of quiet pleasure that the bird had flown in when we were there and that we’d been able to help rather than discovering a battered bird on the floor the next morning.
Like that little bird, I would like to say thank you for the comments following my post of despair yesterday. What you reminded me is that none of us can reconstruct the world to eliminate all suffering and injustice. Yes, systems matter. And there are good systems and bad systems. But no systems can work if the individuals living in them don’t take care of each other in the small and sometimes big ways that fly through the door unannounced.
Your comments really did help me remember that.
I don’t remember ever having this thought in my life. But I was sitting at my desk today and felt a huge desire to stop worrying about the world. I even want to stop knowing about it and understanding it. What good, I wonder, does it do me or anybody else for me to understand the problem of the Greek bailout and the faulty foundation of the euro? or the problem of the Kurds in Turkey and Syria? or the Ukraine conflict? or the economic problems for Scotland if it became independent? or racism, or religious intolerance, or the problem to democracy of the U.S. Supreme Court giving corporations the right to pour unlimited money into political lobbying? And then there’s Africa, and the entire middle east, and Latin America, and China, and Russia, and climate change, and the rate at which humans are responsible for the extinction of other species.
I will stop. Probably half the readers of this post have given up reading already.
It seems obvious that the first step to solving any of these problems is to know about them. But as I look around, I’m not sure that’s happening. So many of the solutions being offered by both the left and the right seem ill-thought out but at the same time cursed with the kind of righteous certainty that only ignorance can support.
When our problems become too overwhelming, do we as a species resort to this kind of simplistic reasoning we see so often disguised as religious and/or political principles? or barring that, the temptation with which I am struggling, a self-imposed indifference, a refusal to worry or get involved?
I have always felt at home with globalization made possible by the digital world. Terrifyingly so, perhaps.
Because I’m beginning to feel overwhelmed by it.
Parents of young children know the syndrome. It starts with the first arrival. It might be the middle of the night but the new baby wants to be fed and will not let you sleep until her needs have been met. Then there are the unscheduled needs for diaper changes, which gradually emerge into tending to the tears of scratched knees and lost toys. Then it’s help with homework, parents meetings, walks, bedtime stories, birthday parties, sports events, to name but a few.
Me First demands like these are gradually replaced by “I can do it myself!” demands which, paradoxically, merely change the kind of responses expected of parents. But Me First demands of work also begin to muscle in at this point too. Whatever the weather, however tired one may feel, work pressures are real and continuous.
And then comes retirement. You might think, as I did, that the retired can at last make Me First demands for themselves.
That is emphatically not been my experience.
The last three days are an example. Thursday night I was awakened shortly after falling asleep about midnight by a ferocious thunderstorm accompanied by torrential rain. I got out of bed to check that our skylights were securely closed, and fell asleep again. About an hour later, as the storm continued to rage, my husband and were both awakened by toilets gurgling. The outside water was not running through the outside drains quickly enough, and was noisily backing up. When I’d contemplated the possibility of flooding in our house in the past, it did not include black water rushing out the toilets as the first sign of trouble. The good news is that the toilets did not eventually over-run, for which I was grateful.
The next morning, though, there was two inches of water in our sun room, soaking the rya carpet, and miscellaneous pools of water in our kitchen, bathroom, hall, and entrance lobby. Outside was a mess.
Fortunately the day was sunny and we spent the next two days cleaning up, drying out, and clearing moss from the roof which had interfered with water running efficiently into the gutters. We even felt rather fortunate when we discovered that many places had suffered really serious damage. The accident and emergency department of our local hospital is closed for another two days as a result of flooding, for instance.
But last night as I was preparing for bed, I switched on a light, and every plug in the house blew. I got dressed, went out to the meter room and tried to switch the wonky circuit breaker back on. It didn’t work, and I went to bed.
So this morning I woke up with a brand new Me First demand muscling out my normal Sunday plans.
You see what I mean? Some thing is always lurking in the background ready to demand attention – whatever you’d been planning on doing.
PS: I did get the circuit breaker fixed this morning. If I hadn’t, I couldn’t be writing this. I wouldn’t even have had my morning cup of coffee. Not a bad day so far. Even if it wasn’t what I’d been planning on.
We’ve known for a long time that young children learn a second language much more easily than adults. They can even speak it without a telltale accent imposed by their first language.
And most of us in the developed world, at least, whether we are young or old, have discovered that the young who were introduced to digital languages almost as soon as they could press a button on the tv remote control, are more fluent in computer languages than their elders.
In that context, the very best example of this generational divide was confessed to me by a mother who asked her son in exasperation: But which one is the “any key”?
When you look at a the globe and see that Great Britain shares a latitude with Siberia, one can appreciate just how hot that was. The temperature hit 37.4 Centigrade or 99.3 3 Fahrenheit.
I lived for many years in New York City, and also in Spain. So it wasn’t the hottest day I have ever experienced. Although after living for 12 years here in England, it felt like the hottest day, and I was utterly exhausted and occasionally nauseous.
It felt like a glimpse of the future. Environmental change is happening, and that change includes the seemingly contradictory changes reflected in exceptional heat as well as exceptionally cold winters for some, record-breaking droughts along with deadly floods and acidfying oceans.
But personally, the loss of energy I experienced felt like a it could be a glimpse of my own future as well. If my getting to be seriously old-old is going to feel on a daily basis as tired as I felt during this heat wave, I’m not so sure I’m interested in lasting that long.
Or, I would suggest, with crime.
Poverty, however one defines it, is too complex for such simplicity.
A friend just sent me the link to an eulogy in the Huffington Post, The Atheist and the Nun. She sent it to me with the note “Thought of you … your kind of nun!” It is a tribute to a nun whom the columnist, Alice McManus, had known as a student in high school.
Alice was routinely expelled from classrooms and clubs for defending gay rights in the Catholic schools where her parents hoped she would get a good education. But Sister Pat was different from all the other teachers. She did not teach me to love God, says Alice. She taught me to love people.
“I’m still an atheist,” she writes. “But Sister Pat wouldn’t have minded. … Ironically, she also taught me to have faith. Not in God, but in people. Because there are people out there who are just amazing through and through. Who do good everyday for all the right reasons. And for me, that’s even more impressive than an all-powerful being. Sister Pat herself was a beacon of light and hope — but one that you could touch and hug. She will be missed.”
I am deeply moved that someone sees Sister Pat as the kind of person I admire, whom I would like to be like.
I do not call myself an atheist. I do totally dismiss the popular demagogue of a supposedly all-loving, all-forgiving God who can somehow be placated by the tortuous crucifixion of his son, but whose forgiveness nonetheless includes sending people to eternal hell fire for eating meat on a Friday. But atheists too often in my experience are just as intolerant of believers as some believers are of those who disagree with them. I prefer to live in the amazing mystery of the universe with the knowledge that understanding it fully is beyond the bounds of human capacities — even those of the great genius.
What I do find astonishing is that praise of people like Sister Pat is so rare. How did Christianity ever become so distorted as to assign to itself the right to judge which sinners are not “one of us,” to cast them out, to refuse to break bread with them? How did doctrine ever become more important than loving one’s fellow human beings?
Today, becoming a saint isn’t nearly as popular an ideal as it used to be. The achievement of sainthood, marked by inexplicable miracles seemingly beyond natural causes, is broadly seen as superstitious unscientific ignorance. It is being replaced by a desire for celebrity, to be very beautiful, acquire great wealth, or possibly die as a martyr (also known as freedom-fighter or terrorist, depending on your point of view).
But in some deep and terrifying ways, aren’t they are all self-seeking goals for self-aggrandizement?
The older I get, the greater becomes my appreciate for those who love others. Period. They don’t need praise or recognition. Love of those around them is what their lives, ultimately, are for. I cannot think of any other achievement that I value or admire, however significant, if it is not at the same time imbued with this love of neighbour.
Success in educational exams is based almost exclusively on giving the right answers. The ten-year-old who says the answer to 2+2 is “5” or that “surprise” is spelled “serprize” or that Columbus landed in the new world “in 1940” almost certainly needs additional tutoring rather than a promotion.
But I wish I were in the classroom again. Because we educators rarely appreciate the value of intelligent questions. And yet, the more we know about any subject, the more penetrating and numerous our questions become. I would love to construct a test in which I asked students to pose as many questions as they could about a specific subject. My guess is that one would be able to evaluate who knew as much by the questions alone as one could by the answers.
For instance, suppose one is asked to pose questions about quantum mechanics. How do questions like: Is it about machines? Isn’t it part of Einstein’s theory of relativity? Is it a theory about space travel? compare with questions like: In what way is the Standard Theory related to Quantum Mechanics? Why did Einstein reject the Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle? How does the Higgs Boson explain mass?
Or in relation to cooking, a field with which many of us may be more familiar, how do questions like: Why is this pastry so tough? How long does it take to cook dried kidney beans? How do you cook a fish? compare with What other ingredients besides eggs can be used as thickeners? Are there other ingredients besides yeast one can use to make bread rise? Why will some meats become tough if they are over-cooked, while others are tough if they are under-cooked?
I’ve learned not to trust either myself or other people in areas where they have more answers than questions. That includes everything from religion, philosophy, physics, math, computers, and psychology to sewing, cleaning, building construction, finances, and lawn-mowing.
You have to know what you’re talking about to ask really intelligent questions.
But now I have to go out and mow the lawn.
Whether I know what I’m doing or not.
I have been terribly busy these last two weeks figuring out the universe. I’ve been struggling, for instance, with the question of Plato, and whether his perfect world of ideal forms has been perhaps the single most alienating influence in the Western world, an influence which is alive and well and has convinced millions of people that we really don’t belong here on earth at all.
Alternatively, I’ve been speculating that the “not one of us” mandates supported by so many religions is the most destructive and evil influence in the world today, out-ranking greed, the desire for revenge, weapons of mass destruction, even vast swathes of environmental destruction.
Then something a little less esoteric appeared in our back yard. At first we thought it was one of the many wood pigeons that make this patch their home. It seemed unable to fly and we wondered if it had been attacked by a local cat. Then we realized it wasn’t a wood pigeon at all. It’s feathers were a different color, and it bore a band on each of its legs. It didn’t belong in our yard: it belonged to somebody. But it walked- literally – up to our sun-room door clearly asking for help.
I went to Google and confirmed that it was a racing pigeon, possibly worth several thousand pounds. The professional advice was to hope that our pigeon was not lost but merely exhausted and we were a potential pit stop. If so, putting out water and grain for 48 hours would be sufficient and then “Fred” (the name given by said expert) would be reinvigorated sufficiently to continue his journey home. A friend put me in contact with a neighbour who said a racing pigeon had been blown off course during a storm several years ago onto their property, and offered her help. Her daughter, she said, was an expert. Well, not exactly an expert, she later clarified. Her daughter was eleven years old. But she’d bonded with their pigeon, and would love to be able to help.
I gathered some uncooked grains and seeds together from our kitchen and took a tray and a bowl of water out to Fred, who greeted me with a whoop of enthusiasm. This went on for 36 hours, and we could see the pigeon was gaining strength, flying onto the high roofs of nearby houses, and returning regularly for sustenance. But after 48 hours it was time to suggest to Fred that he should now go home. I bravely went out and withdrew the grain and seeds. Fred was nowhere in sight and I was relieved.
But at 5:00 he came for his evening repast. Seeing that there was nothing there, he came up to the sun-room door and pointed out that it was time for dinner. No, I said, you need to go home. You are strong enough and competent enough — you do not need me any more to baby you. But I felt like a wicked witch.
The next morning he was perched on the low edge of the roof looking forlornly down at the empty spot where the food had been.
All right, I said, if you are still here tomorrow morning, I will borrow the unused cat cage I’ve been offered, and put the food in there. That way I can read the numbers on your leg band and contact your owner. You might even have his name and telephone tucked under your wing. But I had to walk away. I could hardly bear my own cruelty – even if my head was telling me that what I was doing wasn’t best for me – it was best for Fred.
By early afternoon, he was gone. I spent the next day hugely relieved that I’d been strong enough to send him on his way when it was time.
Oh, but that’s not the end of the story!
Two days later he was back at our door.
I went immediately and put some grain in a bowl, but by the time I returned just minutes later he was gone.
We haven’t seen him since. I’ve decided that he found his way home.
But you know, somehow I think it was a lot more important that I worried about Fred, than that I worried about Plato.
Almost two months ago I started my annual task of taking off the excess three pounds weight I’d put on during the Christmas & New Year holidays.
So far I’ve lost two pounds – that’s an average of one pound a month. Our weather has finally turned the corner, and despite occasional cold and rainy days, we are clearly headed toward spring and working in the garden has increased my opportunity for faster calorie burn. So I expect to reach my goal by the end of the month.
My arguments with my two-year-old self, however, hit a barrier two days ago with the publication of research here in the UK showing that obese people are less subject to dementia as they age than groups with lower BMI’s.
“YOU SEE!”, said my two-year-old self. “That chocolate cookie would really be good for me. And you won’t let me have it!”
So I looked at the research a little more carefully. Sure enough, obesity – defined as a BMI greater than 26.5 – that begins in middle age, seems to provide some kind of protective factor against dementia, even when factors like alcohol and smoking are taken into account. Being significantly under-weight in younger years is an even bigger factor predicting dementia, but I’ve never had a BMI approaching 20, which was the dangerous bench mark. So my two-year-old is eyeing up that chocolate bar.
But there is also significant research suggesting that obesity is associated with increased risk of cancer.
And I do notice that nobody is recommending that people gain weight throughout middle age in order to stave off dementia. (Although, of course, researchers do think it’s worth finding out what the protective factors are in obesity that seem to reduce dementia risk.)
So right now, I think I’ll stick with my BMI where it is – minus a pound that is.
And No, two-year-old, you can’t have that bar of chocolate until you lose another pound! And I don’t want to hear from you again that chocolate is good for you.
In order to illustrate my brilliant insight, I must first confess to downloading a game of Klondike Solitaire, my preferred time-waster that had to be replaced after my recent computer crash. I’ve been playing it on and off now for close to a month, and I find it so irritating I might have to give it up.
My irritation is that whenever I win a game, the screen shouts “Congratulations! You won!”
Fine. But when I lose, the screen says “You have run out of moves. Good Game!”
And that’s what I find so irritating. It reminds me of an enabling teacher or parent who tries to build self-confidence in their child or student by praising them even when they fail.
That is not how mature self-confidence is built.
Because self-confidence doesn’t come from others’ opinions of our accomplishments. It doesn’t even come from always succeeding. It comes from confidence in our own ability to assess what we have done. We need to be able to say “Yes, I did my best,” or “I did as well as I wanted to,” or “I didn’t get this right; can I do it better? Do I want to do better? If so, how?” At that point, we might ask for advice. But that is quite different from encouragement based on false praise.
Yes, we need to know that we are loved. That is not the same thing as needing indiscriminate praise. We need to learn to be proud – or not – of ourselves. What parents and teachers need to help children do is to evaluate themselves. “What do you think about that work you just did?” is potentially a more helpful response than offering our own assessments as if our opinions were what really matter.
If we can’t judge our own accomplishments (or failures), we remain dependent psychologically. We can’t stand on our own two feet. And as human beings, we need to be able to stand up for what we believe in, for what we decide is important, even when it seems that everybody else disagrees with us. We decide, for instance, that we have to be thinner, more beautiful, smarter, richer, more popular, more famous because that’s what everybody says.
But it’s not the recipe for happiness.
So was this a good post? can I play another game of Solitaire now?
In Scotland, deep-fat fried Mars bars are almost as familiar as french fries and battered fish.
But today, every item on the menu for the day at the restaurant Fry Hard is fried. They fry roast, yorkshire puddings, roast potatoes, pickles, parsnips, carrots, turnips, all sorts of greens. They even apparently experimented deep-fat frying gravy, but that didn’t work. The menu does include all the old favourites, however – battered deep-fat fried Mars bars, Snickers and Creme Eggs.
Which, as the Guardian newspaper put it, might be “a case of batter the devil you know.”
When I was a teenager, I had a friend who was genetically Black, but whose skin was light enough for her to pass as white. I remember her trying to decide as she was preparing to go to university whether she should pass as a white person. In those days in America there was even more overt prejudice against Blacks than today. Blacks were forbidden – by law – to eat in the same restaurants, use the same rest rooms, or stay in the same hotels as whites. They were not allowed to sit in the front seats of the bus, and were expected to give up even their seats in the back if a white person would otherwise be forced to stand.
My friend decided, nonetheless, not to pass as a white. I’m Black, she said. Whatever the challenges that come with that, I’m not going to try to pretend my way out of that.
Ten days ago I celebrated by 75th birthday. To my delight and surprise, so did many friends and family. They really made me feel like it was a big deal.
But as a 75-year-old I am now subject to some of the considerable prejudice that is often felt toward the elderly in this modern world. Especially as the baby boom is reaching old age, the younger generation often expresses the view that the old should get out of the way. These feelings seem to me to be greater here in England than in America, but they exist in both countries and no doubt beyond.
I still don’t look my full age (at least on good days) and I now have the choice of pretending to be younger than I am –or at least pretending to myself that I’m fooling other people about my true age.
I’ve decided I’m not going to pretend. Being 75, like every other year in my life, comes with both its unique challenges and unique joys. I suspect much of the prejudice against the elderly is a result of our rapidly changing world. Three-year-olds these days can sometimes explain computer games and devices to their grandparents. 8-year-olds can write code to create apps for the internet browser. 15-year-olds are often taller and stronger than anybody in the family’s older generation. And often, neither the younger nor the older generation appreciates the well of wisdom and knowledge and even intelligence that this apparently simple grandparent possesses.
There are some things, though, that one can only learn with time. It takes decades to learn that what other people think about you isn’t the final arbiter of worth. It usually takes just as long to learn that physical beauty or celebrity or money do not automatically generate peace or happiness. It takes long and hard work to discover that a successful life partnership requires more than sexual passion. But once one has learned these things, they are a source of great contentment and leave room for much greater joy in things that do indeed make life worthwhile.
Admittedly, I am not suffering from the ill-health, loneliness, mental deterioration, or worries about money that plague many of the elderly. As for the future, I know no more than anyone else when and how my life will proceed, or how many years I still have to live.
But that does not that mean I cannot embrace the intense joy I so often feel now just because I am alive today.
I’m 75 years old! And I love it!
From the best I can tell, this is a true story. It was sent to me by a friend in honour of Friendship Week.
Fleming was a poor Scottish farmer. One day, while trying to make a living for his family, he heard a cry for help coming from a nearby bog. He dropped his tools and ran to the bog. There, mired to his waist in black muck, was a terrified boy, screaming and struggling to free himself. Farmer Fleming saved the lad from what could have been a slow and terrifying death.
The next day, a fancy carriage pulled up to the Scotsman’s sparse surroundings. An elegantly dressed nobleman stepped out and introduced himself as the father of the boy Farmer Fleming had saved.
‘I want to repay you,’ said the nobleman. ‘You saved my son’s life.’
‘No, I can’t accept payment for what I did,’ Fleming said.
At that moment, the farmer’s son came to the door of the family hovel. ‘Is that your son?’ the nobleman asked. ‘Yes,’ the farmer replied proudly. ‘I’ll make you a deal. Let me provide him with the level of education my own son will enjoy. If the lad is anything like his father, he’ll grow to be a man we both will be proud of.’
And so Farmer Fleming’s son attended the very best schools and in time, graduated from St Mary’s Hospital Medical School in London, and went on to become known throughout the world as the noted Sir Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of Penicillin.
Years afterward, the same nobleman’s son who was saved from the bog was stricken with pneumonia. What saved his life this time?
The name of the nobleman was Lord Randolph Churchill.
His son’s name was Sir Winston Churchill
Before I was rudely interrupted by a crashing computer, I was preparing a post exploring how we know what we think we know. Many people in the modern world think that the only way we can know anything is through reason and some form of what today we call science. I have a huge respect for science. I am a scientist. Science has been an incalculable contribution to my understanding of the world, and has, at times, willed me with awe.
But valuable as science is, I am under no illusion that it is a potential source of infallible truth or certainty. Scientific “facts” are not absolute, and are changing far more often than most people realize. Facts must constantly be verified with evidence. And then re-verified and re-verified in an unending process. When we learn something new or take a different perspective, we often change our minds. Things which we assumed to be absolutely beyond question are no longer accepted. Science, in other words, is our best guess based on the evidence we have before us at any given time. But its conclusions are never beyond the possibility of doubt.
If logical reasoning or science can’t give us certainty even about this world here and now, can we answer questions which are beyond the scope of science with any certainty at all? questions like what happens after we die? what is the purpose of life? is warfare ever morally justifiable? does my husband love me? what career should I choose? is there a God? does prayer ever change what happens? should I have a child? should I get a divorce?
Again, for some people the answer to these questions lies in religious faith. Within this perspective, answers to these and many other questions are revealed to us by God. These answers cannot be verified by proof, and are therefore beyond question. Doubt therefore, for many believers, is a form of sin, because it is seen to be questioning God’s revelation. In this sense, faith can give us absolute certainty.
When the same faith is adopted by the whole culture we live it, it is often highly convincing and supportive. But the problem with faith becomes apparent when we come in contact with others whose faith leads them to different conclusions about what God has revealed. Our globalized world today is awash with violence justified by millions of people who believe that their faith is the only valid revelation from God, and that anyone who disagrees with them is wrong. Some of these people believe they have a God-given mandate to wipe the earth clean of anyone who disagrees with them. Given such disagreements, it is obvious that somebody’s faith must be wrong however certain the individual may be that they are right.
So what about intuition? Can we intuit some realities by some other method, through some other medium than scientific reasoning or blind faith? Can I learn something from Beethoven’s Fifth? Or the expression on the face of a child? Can a poem teach me something I could never learn in church? or from a scientific study? Is that inexplicable sense of awe one achieves after hiking to the mountain top a valid insight into a reality that cannot be expressed adequately in mathematical equations or religious dogma? Can I learn something holding my newborn child in my arms that I could not learn in any other way?
I am willing to live by – and even die for – some of the insights I have learned through intuition. I would stake my life on the certainty that my husband loves me. I live every day with the conviction that existence is good, that all life is worthy of respect, that although I do not understand it, “the universe is unfolding as it should”. But like acts of faith, these intuitive certainties are not necessarily universal. I might be willing to live by them, but other people have reached intuitive conclusions, sometimes in the context of deeply profound experiences, with which I do not agree. So on some level, I know I might be wrong. My knowledge at the very least is seriously incomplete.
So is uncertainly the inescapable human condition? Can we never know anything for certain?
My own guess is that the answer is both yes and no.
Personally, I deeply distrust absolute certainty. I prefer to live in mystery. But I have come to appreciate that for some people, certainty is a source of strength. I am not as dismissive of religious faith, for instance, as I used to be. Religious belief is not always stunting, it does not always constrict the world, or limit concern to those one might consider “one of us.” Even those who interpret the metaphors of revelation literally sometimes gain great strength and wisdom from them. I remember my own mother facing her death at the age of 48 and leaving behind 10 children, the youngest of whom was 6 years old. Expecting to be standing before the gates of heaven and telling St. Peter that she had accepted and loved all the children God sent to her gave her the strength and peace she needed to accept her death with great generosity.
To this day, I am not confidant I could do what she did.
I don’t know what’s wrong, but my computer isn’t working, and my mouse is missing
Image from Seaspray-itsawonderfullife.blogspot.co.uk/
Just as I finished my last post two weeks ago, my computer began to stutter. Within a day it had crashed, pushing me back into what rapidly began to feel like the pre-industrial age.
Although I grew up with electricity and telephone and radio, we didn’t have television, and I didn’t start using even the most primitive personal computers until I was in my 30’s. My first computer boasted a phenomenal 640K RAM and a DOS manual, leading my colleagues to remark that I was “seriously into computers.” But I have always preferred to get information from the printed word rather than from tv or video documentaries and walls of our house are lined with book cases stuffed full of books.
So although I always knew I valued my computer as a thinking tool, I had no idea I would be so completely disoriented without it. And it got worse. I managed to get through the first week while I waited for our computer doctor to arrive and replace the start-up motor, which I was convinced was the cause of my problem. Unfortunately, after two hours of diagnostics, he decided I needed a new computer.
Oh eek: it wasn’t the cost. It was the fact that I would have to upgrade from Windows 7, with which I was totally comfortable, to Windows 8.1, which sounded way too much like a screenful of Apple-inspired icons replacing the word-menus which Microsoft has used for half a century. I decided, however, that I might have enough years left in me to out-live Windows 7, and if I was going to have to learn a whole new system, I’d be better off doing it sooner rather than later.
All right, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected. I expected to have to work at learning it, which paradoxically made it easier. It didn’t look at all like MS 7 or Vista or XP, so I faced it as a whole new challenge and didn’t get irritated when I had to figure out how to shut the computer down. Or find the desk top instead of the Start page, or sign into my Microsoft account to boot up Windows. Or to figure out how to delete the screen full of icons each more or less shouting that I could not live without them, and with which I was equally sure I could not live with. I am now comfortable with Windows 8. In fact, I rather like it.
So I feel I have left the pre-industrial age and entered the 21st century. I wasn’t thrilled, though, to see that Windows 10 is already being moved to the launch pad.
I do hope to start blogging again though. I’ve missed talking to you.
Bee on a rose by lalylaura
Shakespeare may have believed that a rose by any other name would still smell just as sweet, but the rose as it is seen or smelled by a bee gathering pollen is very different from the Valentine rose I received .
This example of Immanuel Kant’s epistemology has had a very big influence on my understanding of the world. Kant said was that what we perceive is always a result not just of the object we are perceiving, but also of the organism which is perceiving it. There is no way, he argued, to get around that. We will always be limited to perspectives we are capable of taking. So a color-blind person can’t see the difference between red and green. He might believe other people when he is told there is a difference. But he cannot himself perceive it. When I hear a foreign language, I don’t hear the meaning that someone who speaks that language can hear.
I am not a philosopher, however, and I was shocked to learn that Kant had also argued that music could never be anything more than entertainment, because it did not deal with ideas. I am sure that any well-read philosopher knows this, but I had no idea Kant was such an intellectualizer.
This matters to me because I often intellectualize. If I can’t think something through intellectually, I haven’t been convinced I know it. I often haven’t, in other words, trusted my feelings or my intuition.
I love music, but it is only in my very adult years that I have come to appreciate that I learn something through music that I can’t learn by logic or by applying the scientific method. The same can be said for all sorts of other kinds of experience which are not strictly-speaking rational or logically arrived at, or which I don’t have the opportunity to examine scientifically. Being open to my intuitions has almost been like discovering a brand new universe.
I’m not suggesting that intuition is somehow better than scientific reasoning or logical conclusions. But it is different. We can understand differently depending on how we arrive there.
And both approaches are subject to error. Our religious, ethical, or moral convictions may be based on intuition or reasoning. Either way, we can be wrong. Obviously sometimes we are, because not only do we personally sometimes change our minds, but the world even today is rife with examples of people defending with their very lives opposing beliefs and principles. We know that sometimes, somebody is horribly wrong somewhere.
I am not a believer in any religion. But I am beginning to wonder if we do not need what many people may call their religious convictions, and which I might, these days, call my intuitions. This whole question of intuition and thinking seems to me to be related to the issue of science and religion.
A subject on which I suspect I am going to risk embarrassing myself by blogging in upcoming days.
The following is an interview with Hattie Mae MacDonald of Feague, Kentucky, in the United States. Hattie is 101 years old.
Reporter: Can you give us some health tips for reaching the age of 101?
Hattie: For better digestion I drink beer. In the case of appetite loss I drink white wine. For low blood pressure I drink Red Wine. In the case of high blood pressure I drink scotch. And when I have a cold I drink Schnapps.
Reporter: When do you drink water?
Hattie: I’ve never been that sick.
We celebrated Valentine’s Day when I was growing up. Except we called it St. Valentine’s Day. We were taught that the day began in the 3rd century with the martyrdom of St. Valentine by the Romans who tied him to a stake and shot him through with arrows. Actually, that story is somewhat apocryphal. The latest version is that Valentine was a priest who performed marriage ceremonies for soldiers serving in Emperor Claudius’ army who were forbidden to be married because Claudius believed marriage interfered with their being effective soldiers. And Valentine was probably beheaded, not shot through with arrows.
But my understanding of the meaning of Valentine’s Day was more deeply erroneous than these historical details. I was taught that love was important to living the life of a true Christian. I was even taught, as St. Paul wrote, that there is faith, hope, and love, and that the greatest of these is love.
But I was a mature adult before I discovered that “faith” is more accurately translated from the original Hebrew as “faithfulness” than as “belief.” And so I grew up being taught that this God of Love sent people to eternal damnation not only for failures to love, but in some ways more critically, for a failure to believe. Abandoning the beliefs of Catholicism was, in practice, far more damning than a failure to love.
Today, I celebrate Valentine’s Day with great joy. It is the day, 42 years ago, that the man who is now my husband and I first moved in together in a 5th-floor walk-up apartment in Manhattan.
During these years I have come to the conclusion that love is not only the “greatest of these.” In some ways, it is the only thing that matters.
Love is what makes us feel worthwhile. It is what makes it possible to forgive others. And to forgive ourselves sometimes. It is what we appreciate and often remember most in others, what makes the biggest difference to our happiness. Small acts of kindness are sometimes amazingly important.
Love is far more important than money or celebrity or good looks or creativity. It’s more important than health or intelligence or living a long life or being recognized as a great leader. I do not mean that doing a good job in many different ways is not important. But if it is not done in the context of love, I do not trust its value to humanity.
As Chris Lawrence said many years ago in his blog thinking makes it so,
I have noticed as I’ve gotten older that the kind of errors I make when I’m typing have changed. I don’t think, even with the help of the spell-checker, that they are reduced in number. But they are different. Instead of mistakes like writing “teh” instead of “the”, or “winder” instead of “winter,” my fingers seem to tell my brain that they already know what I want to say. So instead of typing “arrived,” my fingers make up their own words and type “arround” — with 2 r’s yet. If you are a regular reader of this blog, you may have seen some examples of similar don’t-tell-me-what-to-do wilfulness that escaped my notice and so did not get scrubbed out.
Today, though, I got an email from a friend describing the record-breaking weather in America that I would be proud to say I had authored. Apparently, NYC has had two accumulations of 5-8 inches of “know.”
But then, may it really was “know.” She’s settled down in her apartment with a book.
And maybe a glass of
Every year I say it won’t happen again, but every year during the December/January holidays I manage to put on three pounds of weight. So every February I go on a diet to lose it. Last year I landed on a strategy that, unlike every other dieting strategy I have ever tried, actually worked.
It’s my Just-a-minute strategy.
I discovered that telling myself NO doesn’t work. “No, you can’t have that cookie now”, “No, you can’t have that piece of chocolate now”, “No, you can’t have another piece of pie” inevitably started a dialogue with my two-year-old self. It went something like “Why? just this once. Then I’ll be good, I promise. Just one won’t hurt. Besides I’m so hungry…” And the embarrassing thing is that I inevitably lost that juvenile argument.
I finally realized that for me, saying “No” doesn’t work because I inevitably keep thinking about that forbidden fruit, and my two-year-old self keeps nagging with arguments about why she should have it.
So I decided to treat myself like the two-year-old who kept winning the argument. Last year instead of saying “No” to myself, I say something like “yes, you can have it, but read this article first.” Or “yes, but first get the laundry ready.” Or “after you’ve finished doing your budget for this month.” Or “take the trash out first.” And I respond just like a two-year old: out of sight is out of mind. It’s amazing but it breaks that compulsive obsession and I rarely come back after that initial ten or fifteen minutes saying “But you promised! Can I have it now?”
So this year I have three pounds to lose once again. I’m using my “Just-a-minute” strategy. Next month I will make a report on how it’s worked this year. I suspect part of me is still two years old.
When I was a Maryknoll nun and also when I was a graduate student at university, I took many courses learning about other cultures. I read the work of many anthropologists who had spent years studying and writing about them. Understanding another culture is not so easy as those demanding “political correctness” sometimes seem to suggest. It is not simply a matter of observing the protocols of mere politeness we may have been taught as children. Nor is it a matter of merely learning the languge.
I received a substantial number of private emails after my last post asking for reactions to the letter to British imams from the community secretary after the Charlie Hebdo massacres. Most felt that it was not an inappropriate letter, but there was some concern that the assurance that Muslims shared British values might have sounded pretentious. It’s probably not possible to get it right all the time for everybody.
It may be an increased awareness of the challenge, or only a coincidence, but the media seems to reporting an unusual number of these apparent cultural “misunderstandings.”
After an interview with President Obama by an Asian journalist recently, she gave him a gift “for your first wife.” Obama rolled his eyes and said to her “Do you know something I don’t?” Obviously, the term the journalist meant to use was “first lady.”
Then a member of the British foreign office visiting Taiwan brought a gift for the prime minister – a very very expensive watch. But when the prime minister opened it, he was dumbfounded. In the Chinese culture, giving someone a watch is a suggestion that their “time is up.” The prime minister’s office later said the watch had been “disposed of.”
And I wonder whether Pope Francis really meant to convey the insult suggested to some large families that earth does not need Catholics “to breed like rabbits.”
Benedict Cumberbatch has expressed acute embarrassment for his reference to “coloured people.” He says he was devastated to have caused offense, and is an idiot.
Sometime ago we ran into a friend in our local supermarket who was excruciatingly embarrassed because he had just asked a Black supermarket worker where the “black treacle” was. (For Americans not familiar with the word, we call it blackstrap molasses.) We assured him that we doubted it was considered a racial slur. But he was really worried.
Just yesterday when I was waiting at the supermarket checkout, the woman before me made a derogatory remark to the checkout clerk about America. The clerk knows I’m American, and he was greatly concerned that I might be insulted. I told him I had enough criticisms of my own of America not to take personally everything that is said about the U.S.
But I will admit that I have often both misunderstood and been misunderstood. It’s sometimes embarrassing, sometimes irritating, inevitably fascinating. Sometimes we just get it wrong out of ignorance. I think in our increasingly globalized world, we need to be very very careful about being insulted.
Though I will confess that I do wish Charlie Hebdo was a little more restrained. Just because one can legally lob insults doesn’t mean one should.
During most of the time I taught in university, texting was not yet a known form of communication. But what I called bad spelling was common, and I deducted points for papers that contained uncorrected spelling and typographical errors. In one classic example, I remember identifying 122 errors. (I did give the student a chance to re-write the paper.)
But I’m not so black-and-white anymore about spelling. First of all, there now is texting, which involves quite a clever way of communicating with a reduced number of letters. And there are also increasing numbers of people, educated and non-so-educated, for whom English is a second language, and for whom the arcane and often inconsistent spelling rules in English are a mine-field. And yet it is perfectly possible to know what the person is trying to say.
A much bigger communication problem than mis-spellings is the inter-cultural communication problem I touched on in my post yesterday. We can usually identify the words a person is using; it’s the meaning of the message that we so often misconstrue.
And so if I were still teaching, I would suggest to my students that what we have traditionally called “correct spelling” is one of the languages we need to learn. If you want to submit a job application or research paper, or a letter of complaint, using this language is apt to be more effective than more original, phonetically-correct spellings that are less traditional. In less formal situations, let’s delight in creativity.
So their! or they’re! or there! My version is thair!
But you can spell is ther! if you want.
I know what you
After the Paris bombings earlier this month, the British Community Secretary wrote a letter to all the imams practicing here in the UK asking for the imams’ help in relation to Muslim extremists in the UK, some of whom have left Britain to fight with Isis and other terror groups, some of whom have returned to Britain, trained to carry out terrorist attacks here. The response to the letter has been mixed. Some people thought the letter was patronizing and made Muslims feel like outsiders even if they are UK citizens. Others thought it recognized the importance of imams in Muslim communities, and reached out with respect and appreciation
I have lived in four different countries in my life and at least twice that many sub-cultures. Besides that I am married to a man from a different cultural background than the one I grew up in. During that time, I have realized repeatedly that understanding another culture demands an understanding far more subtle than speaking the language. I have sometimes put my foot in my mouth, and used it to trip up others more often than I meant to. The only thing I am sure I have learned so far is that I have a lot more to learn.
I have read the letter to the imams with a deep appreciation of cultural subtleties. But I wonder what the readers of this blog make of it. People who follow this blog come from all over the world and have hugely diverse cultural backgrounds. I’d love to know what you think. Does a Catholic or Jew living in New York read it differently than a Muslim in Delhi? than an American immigrant in Mexico or Peru, a nurse in Cambodia, an aid worker in Africa, a mother in Scotland, a Korean or American philosopher?
Here’s the letter. If you have any thoughts, please do consider commenting on this post. What do you think might have been said differently? or not at all? what might have been added? I’d love to hear from you. And, I suspect, you could teach me something. Thank you. Most seriously – thank you.
We have recently seen terrible atrocities committed in Paris. Finding the right response to these events is a challenge for everyone. The hijacking of a great faith to justify such heinous crimes sickens us all. As Muslims around the world have made clear, such actions are an affront to Islam. And yet, amid the carnage, came a sign of hope – over three million people of all backgrounds, marching to defeat the gunmen and to protect our values: free speech, the rule of law, and democracy.
We are proud of the reaction of British communities to this attack. Muslims from across the country have spoken out to say: not in our name.
But there is more work to do. We must show our young people, who may be targeted, that extremists have nothing to offer them. We must show them that there are other ways to express disagreement: that their right to do so is dependent on the very freedoms that extremists seek to destroy. We must show them the multitude of statements of condemnation from British Muslims; show them these men of hate have no place in our mosques or any place of worship, and that they do not speak for Muslims in Britain or anywhere in the world.
Three ways you can help:
1) Email us about the work you are doing to promote the positive image of British Islam
2) Visit the LawWorks website. If you need legal advice to tackle extremists, they may be able to help
3) Report Anti-Muslim Hatred to the police online at http://www.report-it.org.uk
Let us assure you that the Government will do all we can to defeat the voices of division, but ultimately the challenges of integration and radicalisation cannot be solved from Whitehall alone. Strong community-based leadership at a local level is needed.
You, as faith leaders, are in a unique position in our society. You have a precious opportunity, and an important responsibility: in explaining and demonstrating how faith in Islam can be part of British identity. We believe together we have an opportunity to demonstrate the true nature of British Islam today. There is a need to lay out more clearly than ever before what being a British Muslim means today: proud of your faith and proud of your country. We know that acts of extremism are not representative of Islam; but we need to show what is.
British values are Muslim values. Like all faiths, Islam and its message of peace and unity makes our country a better and stronger place, and Britain would be diminished without its strong Muslim communities. Every day, mosques and other faith institutions across the country are providing help for those in need, and acting as a centre for our communities. It is these positive contributions that are the true messages of faith and it is these contributions that need to be promoted.
We would also like to reassure you that in recent days we have met with police chiefs to make sure they are providing the support that mosques need, a concern that some of you have expressed in our recent discussions. We have also met with the Anti-Muslim Hatred Working Group to hear their concerns about responses to the recent attacks and what more can be done.
Anyone experiencing violence should report it to the police online on the True Vision website or to TELL MAMA, a service to provide support specifically to Muslim victims of hatred. The vitriol espoused by the thugs of the English Defence League and Britain First is just as much an affront to British values as the teachings of preachers of hate. For organisations experiencing problems with such preachers, information about free legal advice is available from LawWorks at http://www.lawworks.org.uk/community-groups or the Bar Pro Bono Unit at http://www.barprobono.org.uk, and the Charity Commission has published a toolkit for charity leaders to help protect their organisations from abuse by extremists. This toolkit is available at http://bit.ly/1xTTH2W. We welcome your thoughts, ideas and initiatives on how to ensure that Islam’s true message of peace triumphs over those who seek to divide our communities. Thank you for all the positive work you are doing, and we look forward to working with you further. We continue to appreciate all your insights. Please feel free to contact our team at firstname.lastname@example.org. We look forward to hearing from you.
THE RT HON ERIC PICKLES MP
LORD TARIQ AHMAD OF WIMBLEDON
I have long been suspicious of politicians who talk about equality. With increasing irritability, I find myself inevitably asking what kind of equality they are talking about. As I become increasingly aware of my own gifts and limitations, it is obvious that I need other people with different gifts and limitations in order to so much as survive. And our need for diversity applies to all living organisms.
On a slightly more limited level, I am highly suspicious of political and economic policies that seem to suggest that we should all have more or less equal wealth and opportunities. We don’t all have the same hopes, the same things don’t make us happy, our abilities benefit from different kinds of opportunities and challenges. We don’t want a society in which everybody is the same, and we can’t create a “fair society” in which nobody has a need to strive or struggle or compete. Nor can we create a society where corruption or greed or self-serving laziness are eliminated.
But today I hit the limit of my inequality tolerance.
Oxfam has just released figures preceding the annual meeting of the world’s financial leaders in Davos, Switzerland that even I find unconscionable. In 2014, 48% of the world’s wealth was help by a mere 1% of the world’s population. By 2016, it is set to exceed more than 50%.
Not only is it unconscionable. This huge disparity is extremely dangerous. Perhaps even more dangerous to the survival of humanity than extreme climate change.
Why? Because it is this kind of inequality that leads to the kind of vicious, often religiously based, intolerance we see sweeping across the world’s continents today. It isn’t being poor that makes people angry. It’s being trapped. It’s having no way out of seeing one’s children die of starvation, of living in hovels surrounded by sewage ditch streets, of having no access to education, or facing job opportunities that consist of scrounging through garbage dumps or working the streets through prostitution.
Today the hot spots of Islamic militants are where the poverty is. In countries where the wealth disparity is not so immovable, Islamism tends to be far more tolerant. Even in America, the land of opportunity, the land where the boy born in a log cabin can become president, the dream is beginning to lose its potential. It’s beginning to look as if hard work does not necessarily dig oneself and one’s children out of poverty. The top 1% are taking all the cream, even protected from higher taxes, while the working man and woman remain stuck in a rut that hard work, ambition, and even talent often cannot conquer. And we see the lines of intolerance hardening. Immigrants are no longer welcome by many, even those qualified to be of great benefit to America. The tax system is based on a “top-down” system that says the rich should be allowed to keep the money they earn because it will “trickle down” to the masses. Except it doesn’t.
What is the solution?
One’s first impulse, as even Pope Francis illustrated, is to punch back, not merely with a punch in the face but with economic sanctions, as well as drones, guns and bombs. I can’t claim to be a complete pacifist – I suspect that some physical force is often called for. But if the underlying economic strangle holds are not addressed, military might will eventually fail.
There are changes that can – must – be made in the economic systems which govern. Obviously, fairer tax systems world-wide, less corruption, more job opportunities and education. There are changes that must occur in some religious teachings, and cultural values as well. But no system is fool-proof. We will always have people who game the system. There are others who manage to make disproportionate amounts of money through creativity and good luck even when that has not been their original motivation. We don’t want to revert to those systems that pursue a fairer system at the cost of repressing creativity and originality.
In our global and rapidly changing world, our economic and social systems need constant adjustments.
I think it is only a sense of justice and community, that basic altruism and love of neighbor that can ultimately insure an economic and social system in which all of us can thrive and benefit from our mutual gifts.
Should we be unable to generate a list of our own, one of Britain’s major newspapers has just helpfully published a list of the most important things we humans might worry about for the next ten years.
Climate change: The world has made literally no progress on reducing greenhouse gas emissions since the first Kyoto agreement, and scientists are warning us of increasing deadly droughts, floods, water and food shortages, acidic oceans, air pollution, uncontrolled fires, and mega extinctions of up to 25% of all mammal species possibly within the next 50 years. Oh, and 2014 has been the hottest year on record.
The global spread of a viral epidemic like SARS or Ebola: The Black Plague swept over the world, reducing populations by 50 -75% of the population when it struck. It is not inconceivable that a virus could jump on the back of our global communications systems today and outpace the ability of scientists to develop a cure or immunization to outwit it.
An implosion of failed states and states being taken over by religious fanatics. Theoretically religion is supposed to make us better, more loving, more caring. Again and again, though, it is the reason for torture and killing. Western countries today look with horror at the terror being visited on peoples in Africa, Europe, America, and Asia by Islamists. But Christians have more than a thousand-year history of doing exactly the same thing. In fact, ethnic cleansing and rampant racism in our own back grounds suggest that we are even now not immune to persecuting those who are different from us.
Economic collapse: An economic collapse similar to the one that shook the world in 2008, only bigger and longer and more universal worries some economists the way climate change worries climatologists. Governments are still facing the problem of what to do about banks and other financial institutions that are too big to fail, and big corporations spent vast amounts of money lobbying state officials to make sure that legislation will not damage them. Meanwhile, the gap between the richest and poorest is growing, not closing, and recently economists have produced research suggesting that this might be an endemic tendency of many modern capitalist societies, including America. Historically, situations like these fester and simmer, until one day blowing up into outright rebellion and warfare. Endings are not necessarily happy ones.
I think these are worries worthy of concern. Great concern that singly or together they could even lead to the extinction of the Homo sapiens. My problem with worries, though, especially when the worries are big and serious and global as these, is that they tend to turn people off. We look at them and quite realistically realize that not one of us as a single person can solve any of them. So we either deny they are happening at all, sink into despair or anger, or hope that God will do something about it rather than leaving it to us.
But the whole point of democracy, of community, or responsibility is not to say a single voice doesn’t count. It says that lots of single voices is what change the world. To give into the temptation of helplessness is the very thing that will contribute to our worst worries coming true.
What can I do? Lots of little things that will change the world if a lot of us do them. In relation to the environment, I can use my vote to make sure that I don’t help elect a climate-change denier or someone so indebted to big business that they won’t support reductions of fossil fuels and support renewables; I can sign petitions supporting policies that I think will support work toward a creating economies that don’t destroy the environment; I can do my best not to waste energy, turn off lights I’m not using, install solar panels, buy an energy-efficient car. Ride a bicycle.
We can’t solve any of these problems by ourselves. Just as we couldn’t create any of them by ourselves. We are just single human beings. But for better or worse, what each of us does adds up.
Several months ago, the first group of nurses from the UK National Health Service volunteered to go to Africa to care for Ebola patients there, who are in dire need. It seemed an immensely heroic thing to do, given the lethal nature of Ebola and the ease with which it can be contracted from patients suffering overt symptoms.
Just before Christmas, a Scottish nurse, Pauline Cafferkey, returned from her stint in Sierra Leone, West Africa. She was checked repeatedly at airports on her return and was deemed to be healthy. But she had not been home for more than a few days when she developed a fever and tested positive for the Ebola virus. She was transferred to an isolation unit in a London hospital, where she was given treatment but she slipped into a critical condition. The most optimistic assessment was that she had a 50/50 chance of survival.
Yesterday the hospital announced that she was no longer on the critical list. The chances of her surviving have sky-rocketed.
It sounds like it could be the kind of happy ending that appears more often in a Hollywood-produced fantasy than on the front pages of our real-life media.
I’m taking this opportunity to dance a little.
Paul Graham’s Hierarchy of Disagreement-en.svg
I am old enough to have discovered rather more often than I’d like to admit that I’m wrong. But given our fallible natures, I’m not often upset when people disagree with me.
Except when people make pronouncements that are simply contradicted by the facts. You know, the “don’t distract me with the facts, I’ve already made up my mind” approach. If people don’t believe climate change is occurring, they don’t know the facts. Or if they don’t think it’s at least partly caused by human actions, given what we know today, it takes a lot of explaining.
But climate-change deniers are amateurs compared to Steven Emerson. How could someone who calls himself an expert on terrorism say on Fox News that only Muslims live in Birmingham, and that non-Muslims never go into the city? Or that in London Muslim religious police patrol the streets and beat “anyone who doesn’t dress according to religious Muslim attire”?
Okay, so Emerson apologized for his error. That’s not good enough.
I’ve never had a whole lot of respect for Fox News. But what kind of responsible network ever identified this man as an expert on terrorism in the first place? I think the blame doesn’t stop with Emerson. And I don’t think an apology is enough. I think Fox News needs to investigate its principles of journalism.
Still, the avalanche of ridicule from Twitter after Emerson’s comment is satisfying. As ju suis charlie says, ridicule can be a powerful force.
The Guardian Newspaper
Perhaps as many as a million people today are marching in silent solidarity in France today. It is a testimony to the 17 people murdered by terrorists during three terrifying days last week, and a determination not to let them destroy the freedom that is a hallmark of France.
What I am hoping is that the western world will also be able to overcome the tendency to blame Muslims because they are Muslims for these acts of terrorism.
They are terrible, and there is no way I can condone defending one’s perceived rights using the barbarism we saw on 9/11,or have seen on the Parisian streets this week or in the agonizing viciousness taking place in Africa or the Middle East, or perhaps in disguised forms, in our own countries which separate church and state.
If Christians are in the slightest way tempted to blame the Muslim religion itself for these acts, perhaps we had better look at ourselves. Look at the burnings at the stake, at the stretchings on the rack, at the beheadings, at the mass destruction of cities and peoples orchestrated by institutionalized Christianity that went on for centuries. The Crusades were barbarous. Raping and murder were justified on religious grounds. Then look at how Rome evaluated thinkers like Galileo with whom they disagreed solely on scientific grounds. And then let us remember the religious wars which ripped through Europe and beyond as people used the battle cry of Christianity to slaughter other Christians who disagreed with some article of supposedly unquestionable faith.
No, it isn’t being a religious Muslim that turns people into terrorists.
As Kathleen Armstrong points out in her recent book, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence, all wars have not been fought on religious grounds. In an exceptionally well-researched study, the author shows that for thousands of years, religion has been used to justify and support violence, but has also often shown people how to choose a different alternative to conflict. Religion, like politics, is used to defend whichever path we choose to tread. Sometimes it is violent. But sometimes it is a path of negotiation, of compromise, of peace.
I was dumbfounded to learn earlier today that the U.S budget bill passed by the U.S. Congress several weeks ago managed to sneak in a provision that would once again bail out banks that are “too-big-to-fail” if they get into trouble. But this time, if Citi or Chase or any of the other big investment banks face insolvency, they will be permitted to take their depositors’ cash in savings accounts and CDs and replace with them a bank stock certificate — which may, of course, be of dubious value. This applies even to deposits that are FDIC insured.
That’s bad enough. But I also learned that banks may once again be on the edge of the same kind of disaster that floored them in 2008.
Deutsche Bank thinks that the falling oil price could trigger a huge wave of defaults because banks have lent so much money – more than a trillion dollars – to fracking companies which are now in deep water way over their heads. To make a profit, shale gas and oil needs oil to sell on the world market for a minimum of $85/barrel.
It is now selling for under $50.
It’s nice to be able to fill one’s car with gas for so much less than it cost six months ago, or keep the house warm this winter. And one can’t help but feel that Putin deserves to be in as much trouble as he is. And it may encourage Iran to reach a compromise concerning its nuclear capacities.
But I wouldn’t leave any substantial savings with a big U.S. investment bank. For the record, the ten biggest are Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, HSBC, Deutsche Bank, Citigroup, Credit Suisse, and Barclays.
We are at last moving out of the frantic Christmas season celebrations most of us enjoy – or endure – with the coming of the new light. Theoretically at least, it has been a celebration of new life, of hope in the future.
But what of those of us who no longer believe in the literal interpretation of the Bible, who possibly no longer believe in a transcendent God who created this world with some final goal of perfection in mind? What, for us, is the meaning of life, what are we doing here, what drives us, on what principles do we make moral choices?
A frequent answer given by those immersed in science is that survival is our over-arching principle. Some philosophers argue that survival is the essential driving force of the entire universe. Here on planet earth, sociobiology says that the preservation of our genes is what ultimately drives us. Sex, with the goal of instigating successful procreation as broadly as possible is our driving force. Paradoxically, this is in agreement with both Freud’s theory of the id and the teaching of Catholicism that it is sinful ever to interfere with the act of sexual intercourse with the goal of preventing conception.
I’ve got a problem with survival, though, as the ultimate driving force. In terms of the universe as a whole, physicists simply don’t know what is going to happen. Some theories suggest that the universe will keep expanding into an infinity of space. Others think it will return into the singularity of energy out of which the Big Bang first burst. Or perhaps our universe will be swallowed up by a bigger universe. But we have no evidence. We just don’t know. So survival on a universal scale impresses me as pretty theoretical and not very exciting. Not the way being alive is exciting.
On the other hand, if we are talking about survival on a personal level, we are all doomed to failure. Total failure, and even for the very-longed lived, failure in what is actually a very short-term. Secondly, survival of the individual as a driving force does not explain altruistic behavior, something which we see throughout the living world. Why, if my personal survival is the ultimate value, would I willingly give up my life to save another? Why would I share my last piece of bread with a stranger? Why would I dive into the water to save a drowning swimmer? Why would I dedicate my whole life to serving others? Why would a doctor volunteer to serve Ebola patients, putting his or her own life in profound danger? Nor does this kind of behavior occur just among religiously dedicated humans. It occurs among animals. So personal survival does not work for me as an over-arching principle. I’m doomed to fail by that standard, and it doesn’t explain the evidence anyway.
What, then, about survival of the human species as a whole as a driving force and over-arching principle? or of the survival of life in general? This has more potential for me, with the value it places on life. But we know that extinction of all life on planet earth is inevitable when the sun has burned out in perhaps another 5 billion years.
Rather than focus on survival, I prefer embracing the fullness of the amazing, incredible reality as we can see it in the lights given to us in this 21st century. Where we are going eventually is a mystery beyond our capacity to know. In fact, what we think we understand reasonably well is matter, which consists of a mere 4% of the universe. We have some glimmer of what another 23% consists of, called “dark matter,” but no idea at all of what 73% of the universe which consists of “dark matter” is. There is, though, sound scientific reason to conclude that energy is eternal. And we know from Einstein that matter and energy are convertible. So the matter and energy out of which each of us is made is eternal. What happens to “me” when I die is a mystery. But the matter and energy of which I am made will continue on forever.
So each of us is participating in a potentially infinite and eternal process. The glimmers of it we get today are fantastic. I find this process utterly overwhelmingly wondrous and amazing. To actively participate in it is a huge privilege.
To be faithful to this process to the best of our understanding seems to me to be a glorious challenge. It’s my understanding of the biblical metaphor of God’s command to Adam and Eve to be stewards over all creation. It’s why destroying the environment is such a denial of what we are. It’s why caring for others, even at the cost sometimes of our individual benefit or even survival, can still drive us, and why we value that selfless love so highly. It’s why figuring out problems – little ones and big ones – is so rewarding. It’s why daily jobs like cooking and cleaning and washing the clothes aren’t menial jobs to be denigrated but essential to the whole process of an ongoing universe.
And when I die, I will continue to be part of that glorious challenge. Even if I don’t know how that may evolve, and I don’t know what “I” becomes.
When the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union disunited, many people thought that the system of democracy and capitalism, particularly as it was exemplified in America, had proven to be a superior system for everyone. Today, though, many people are looking at the huge disparities of wealth in America and at the number of people struggling with profound poverty, and are looking for another system.
I think there are significant changes for the better that could be made in the American system, and I plan to write about them in upcoming posts. But this is a prelude to any thoughts I might express about systems.
The answers do not lie first and foremost in the system. The total answer does not lie in any system, no matter how noble, how intelligent, how meant to serve humanity, how righteous. The Roman Catholic church tried it for centuries through the Middle Ages; Muslims and Communists have not succeeded in re-creating a Garden of Eden, nor have societies guided by Buddhism or indeed the myriad of societies and communities which have appeared, sometimes prospered, and then disappeared over the 200 milleniums humans have walked this earth.
Why? Two reasons, I think. First, the needs of any society are vastly diverse. What works depends on culture, on religious values, on the natural resources, on populations, on educational levels and on technological resources which have been invented and implemented. Not only that, but all of these variables are constantly changing with immigration, communication systems, environmental changes and disasters, sometimes disease.
But the second reason is even more fundamental. All systems operate for but also by individuals. Groups are always made of separate people, and we are immensely diverse. We want different things, we have different talents, different needs, different ideas and values, life deals each of us a different hand. And so there will always be individuals whom the system does not serve well. And there will always be individuals who can subvert the system to their advantage or invent ways to improve it. It might or might not be ethical or even legal, but for better or worse, no system has ever succeeded in totally suppressing individual creativity and innovation. Some systems will slow diversity and creativity down, will divert it, will punish it. But if they stop it altogether, history shows us that the system will ultimately destroy itself.
Each of us as individuals often feel very small and helpless. But that is not exactly the case. There isn’t and, despite our adulation of heroes of the past, there never has been a person who has changed the world alone. It is often possible for relatively small numbers to change societies, sometimes for better, sometime for worse. But the changing organisms are always individuals and remain individuals. There is no substitute for the individual, either to make the whole work, or to bring it down.
I sometimes find myself feeling almost hopeless about the insignificant part I can possibly play in making the world a better place. And then I ask if I would rather find myself in a place like Nazi Germany with someone who is willing to try to help me escape being sent to a concentration camp. Or would I rather be a Black teenager facing a racist policeman with a gun in a country that says it guarantees equal rights for all. In other words, would I rather be in a bad system surrounded by good people, or in a supposedly good system faced with a person bent on destroying me. The deciding factor for me is not the system but the individual whom I am facing.
It might take thousands of worms to make silk for a purse. But a pig is never going to produce anything but a sow’s ear, however insignificant worms might look in comparison.
I have never thought of myself as wealthy. I’m comfortable but I have never been able to spend money without regard for the bottom line. Still, although I’ve often been careful, I’ve never had to choose between eating and heating, which is sort of my short-hand definition of poverty. And I have been given the almost priceless gift of an extremely good education.
I am not a die-hard socialist, but I have a deep concern about the kind of poverty people cannot escape, no matter how hard they work, how careful and disciplined or clever they may be. Systems in which there are extremes of extraordinary wealth and inescapable poverty seem to me to be one of the greatest moral outrages our economic systems can sustain.
And so I have been rather piously outraged when I read statistics that in 2013:
Then I found where I belong. Sort of slipped into the statistics is the information that only 393 million people in the world have a net worth of $100,000 or more – including property and financial assets. That’s in the global top 10%. 10% of us own 86% of all the wealth in the world.
I’ve always known that life isn’t fair. And I’ve always known that I’ve been given more than my equal share of good fortune.
I don’t feel guilty that I’ve been so lucky. And although I think there is obviously a place for charitable giving, living on state or charitable hand outs simply because one doesn’t like work is as immoral as outright theft. We need to pay our way, we need to be needed, we need to make a contribution.
But how to create systems which support human dignity and opportunities for work for everyone with our huge diversity of abilities and preferences has challenged far greater minds than mine. The answers are not simple, however morally outraged I and many others might feel about the existence of so much profound poverty in the world.
I do think that it’s one of those problems – like the problem of human-created environmental destruction – that is worth struggling with though.
The statistics for the United States in a way are more disturbing than the global statistics although possibly more hopeful if we want to do something about it. But enough for today. I will tackle the subject of inequality in my own country in the next post.
My musician sister sent me the Colbert farewell YouTube video. It was removed from the internet by Viacom who owns the copyright, so attached here in Vera Lynn’s rendition that gave hope to so many during WWII.
I have heard the Vera Lynn version many times and understood why it meant so much to so many. But this post is about my unexpected response to the Colbert version.
First of all, let me assure any doubters that I personally do not believe in heaven as most people understand the term. And if I did, I would not be motivated to try to get there. Sitting around in a perfect world, with no problems ever to solve, with no one in need of an extra act of thoughtfulness, with no creativity because everything is already perfect sounds excruciatingly boring.
But as I watched the Colbert video, I suspended my unknowing, and began to wonder if, in some mysterious way that I cannot fathom, we will, indeed “meet again” in a next life. What would that be like?
I imagined sitting around a fire, when our two dogs burst into the room, barking in wild enthusiasm as they recognized us. And then Mom and Dad and my sister Mary who died almost twenty years ago joined us. We each had a glass of wine and began to exchange stories. And I asked them all the questions about what they thought about this and that, questions I couldn’t ask after they’d died. And then four more dear friends came, and we continued to talk late into the night.
Of course, I would want them all eventually to leave. Except the dogs. I mean, sitting around the fire with a glass of wine forever would get to be pretty boring too. I need sleep. And besides, I don’t have a very high tolerance for alcohol.
So I don’t think I’ve figured out the great mystery of life and the universe in which it is evolving after all. The scenarios offered by various religions are inadequate metaphors at best. Some super-mathematical scientists suggest that there are an infinite number of universes in which life repeats itself in every possible version. And another scientist has just seriously suggested that when the Big Bang happened, Time began to run both forward and backward in two different parallel universes. Maybe we are in the universe where time is running backward and will eventually run into the universe where time is running forward. I confess it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.
The best I can hope for is that when we die we become part of some kind of transcendent consciousness. And I say that only because I haven’t the faintest idea of what that means either.
I think I’ll just listen to the Vera Lynn YouTube again and be grateful for the mystery of life that has been given to me right now.
Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and ignorant; they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be critical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be careful. Strive to be happy.
© Max Ehrmann 1927
A short time after my husband and I started to live together, I got a phone call from him at the university where I was teaching, saying that he was stuck in the apartment because he couldn’t find his keys, and had I accidentally taken them with me. No, I said, and suggested several places where he might look
I was teaching late that night and by the time I got home about 9:30, the keys had not been found, and Peter was climbing up the walls in a near panic of claustrophobia. “I’ll help you look,” I said and started to go through the pockets of his jacket. “Don’t look there,” he said; “I already did and they aren’t there.”
Well, I looked there anyway, and found them.
Now it was just a plain pocket. Not a fancy one with velcro or buttons or a zipper or a hidden compartment. It was just a plain pocket, with nothing else in it, and I couldn’t imagine how anybody could actually look in it and not find something as substantial as a set of keys. You may understand why I thought I could find things better than he could.
That was before we began to go into grocery stores together. Over the years, we have been in grocery stores, big and small, on four different continents, and in more countries than I can count. Peter’s parents ran a grocery story when he was growing up and he spent a lot of time stacking shelves and making deliveries. To this day he not only sees things on shelves I miss completely. He stands at the store entrance of a completely strange store and has a sense of where to go to get whatever it is we want.
It happened again yesterday. I was looking for unsalted French butter and couldn’t find it. Peter didn’t even have to try. He just walked over to the shelf and put the butter in our cart.
But just in case I still harboured the illusion that I can always find things better than he can, he found the key fob to my car that I’d lost more than a year ago and that had cost me $200 to replace.
At least it wasn’t in my pocket.
But it was under the car seat.
I was reading a blog post recently exploring the question of whether people who discourse extensively on questions of morality are necessarily more moral when it comes to practice rather than merely preaching or teaching. This would be a difficult question to explore in terms of solid scientific research: are men and women the same? are there cultural or religious differences? does age have an influence? what, specifically, would one measure, especially in terms of practice?
Nonetheless, the post did remind me of something which I know from personal experience: the clothes I am wearing can effect not only what other people think of me, but possibly more significantly, what I think about myself.
I was a nun for nine years, most of which time I wore a full habit from head to toe. I would have said that it represented my commitment to a life of love and service. When I left the convent, however, and was negotiating New York City dressed like everybody else, I noticed two things. People weren’t always as considerate as I had thought they were when I walked the same streets wearing a habit. That might not be too surprising.
But what I also discovered was that I wasn’t nearly as morally superior as I had thought I was when I was wearing a habit. I began to see that apparently quite ordinary people were often un-ostentatiously living lives of huge generosity and love and sacrifice. I hadn’t seen that so clearly when I had thought that I was the one who had chosen to live a life of superior virtue. I suspect religious garments can be a particularly powerful influence on this kind of self-perception. Or self-deception.
The appearances we choose for ourselves have deep evolutionary roots. The appearance of animals and even plants has profound survival purpose. It might say “look at me, I’m sexually very attractive.” “Or look at me, I’m very strong,” or “very dangerous,” or “very cute and cuddly.” For us humans, the clothes and ornaments with which we adorn ourselves can send these and many other messages about social status and how one expects, or wishes, to be treated.
As I say, I don’t know in every case how far it is that “the clothes maketh the man.” I know even less whether preaching might fool the preacher him/herself.
But now that I’ve written this post on morality, perhaps I’ve earned a pre-dinner gin & tonic? I’ll dress for it, of course.
Almost at the top of the Christmas music charts this year here in Britain is a coral rendition of Dulcissima virgo Maria (Most Sweet Virgin Mary) http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-29693410 .
From the British Library
It was given by the Bavarian composer, Almire, to Henry VIII, along with the choir book, a manuscript that was highly valued then and is still one of the great treasures of the British library.
It sounds like a beautiful work of peace and love and salvation, haunted with the hopes of a new-born Saviour.
One small difficulty is that it is shot through with perfidy. Almire was a spy. No, worse. He was a double agent, trusted by the courts of Henry VIII and by his Yorkist rival bent on taking the English throne on which Henry VIII sat. No doubt Almire thought he would win no matter who the king was.
Perhaps he was right. He does not seem to have been identified during his life time. Richard de la Pole died in 1525 before he could invade England in partnership with the king of France, Francis I.
It’s beautiful music, though.
PS: I have just read a blog post describing Rothstein’s research on the disenfranchisement of Blacks from the property market from which so many of us middle class whites have profited so richly, which I mentioned in my previous post. The blog’s author, like me, didn’t know it was happening, but on looking back, now sees events in quite a different perspective. It’s an easy read – and worth it. Hands up! Why We All Can’t Breathe
I am feeling today rather like a woman who after 50 years of marriage, has just discovered that her husband has never been faithful to her. She might have known that he was a womanizer, even occasionally had a one-night stand or passing affair. But now she finds out that he has a family in three different ports. Or is wanted for extortion and murder or war crimes in another country.
I have just read as much of the report on the CIA torture of terrorist suspects as I can bear. And I am almost vomiting.
My America! have you ever been what I thought you were? The very foundations of this country began with the ethnic cleansing of 80-90% of the American Indians who had been here for hundreds of years. Today, the treaty violations continue. How many of us have ever equated this with the ethnic cleansing in other places in the world which we hold in such abhorrence? Or ever thought that perhaps, we like other countries, have re-written our history to eliminate this shameful guilt?
And then there were the African slaves, brought in like cattle on the ships. They might have been technically freed by Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation, but even the Christian churches continued to assure the white man that they were inferior to us white folk. So they still could not drink at the same water fountains, use the same rest rooms, sit in the front of the bus, eat in “white” restaurants or stay in the same hotels.
Two days ago I listened to a newscast and read a report which has just been published that shocked me to the core. The ghettos in which, even today, Blacks are crowded, is a result of federal law requiring that housing be segregated. Ghettos then were not and are not today the result of White prejudice or of Black poverty. Initially, it was the law of the country that appropriated land for Whites Only which was highly preferable. It was not zoned, as Black residential areas were, for polluting factories and where houses of prostitution were tolerated. Nor were mortgages granted to Blacks by the banks. This law was not found to be unconstitutional by the Supreme Court until 1955. By that time, Whites had amassed significant wealth in the real estate they owned. That pattern has continued, and today, the great difference between average Black & White wealth in America is a result of the value of the homes they own. Generations of Blacks have been disenfranchised because of these discriminatory laws. I think we need a new kind of affirmative action to right this injustice.
And now we have George W Bush, a former president of these United States, and Dick Cheney, his defense secretary, saying that the CIA torture of terrorist suspects was justified and that those torturers are true patriots. What Cheney objects to is the publication of the reports. “The transparency and honesty found in this report represent a gross violation of our nation’s values,” he says. “As long as I have air to breathe, I will do everything in my power to wipe out the scourge of torture reports from the face of the Earth.” As far as I have seen, he has not objected to the torture. It’s that it is being published. The sheer hypocrisy of it.
I know that we are a country that loves guns. I know we are a country that thinks we are the best because we have the biggest bombs. I knew we went to war in Iraq over oil, not over the weapons of mass destruction that some politicians knew were not there even before the war began.
But I didn’t realize how often and deeply we really really don’t mean what we say. Do we really believe in the rule of law? Are we really committed to freedom for all?
Oh America, my America. Who are we after all? Are we going to say NO! WE WON’T HAVE IT? When we reach the tipping point, which way will we tip in the end?
PS: I have just read a blog post covering the Rothstein’s research on the disenfranchisement of Blacks from the property market from which so many of us middle class whites have profited so richly. The author, like me, didn’t know it was happening, but on looking back, now sees events in quite a different perspective. It’s an easy read – and worth it. Hands up! Why We All Can’t Breathe
Here in England, for obvious historical reasons, Thanksgiving is not a national holiday. But surprisingly, 1 out of 6 families do celebrate Thanksgiving. We are one of the 1/6th.
This year we had no visiting relatives or friends, and we decided to forego the traditional turkey. Canadian waters have produced a surfeit of lobster that are now flooding our supermarkets, and we thought instead of the turkey, we’d indulge in lobster. We prepared a festive dinner, and after a few pre-dinner drinks, finished preparing the dinner by putting the lobsters into boiling water for the prescribed number of minutes. The table was set, but we decided to crack open the lobsters and remove any inedible bits before taking them to the dining room.
Unfortunately, when we opened them, the lobsters contained very little meat. I learned today from a friend that in America, lobsters weighing less than a pound are called “chicken lobsters.” They look like adults but are not yet mature and have little meat.
Well, they might be called chicken lobsters in the States. But ours were real turkeys.
We still celebrated Thanksgiving. I reached into the freezer and took out a couple of pizzas we’d made earlier in the month. The champagne helped the thanksgivings along.
This year a German supermarket, Lidl, whose chain has been undercutting the big British supermarkets is featuring reindeer steak imported from Lapland. The protests outside its stores are considerable.
I know that Britain is becoming an increasingly secular society.
But I doubt it would be a good move for Lidl to market discount pet rabbits for Easter dinner next April.
For more than the first quarter of a century of my life, I was a practicing Roman Catholic. That means that I was a committed member of a church that required us to believe, under penalty of excommunication and potentially an eternity in hell, that certain teachings were infallible. That is, they were beyond question. They were absolutely true. For nine years, I was a Maryknoll sister, a member of an American missionary society dedicated to working with the poor primarily in underdeveloped countries.
But even in those days, there were many of us – perhaps in the order of which I was a member, most of us – whose mission was not to convert but to serve. To us, setting up schools and medical facilities were ends in themselves, not bribes to get people through the church door. Our goal wasn’t to convince people that our beliefs were right and theirs were wrong
By the time I was thirty, I was no longer a nun nor either a practicing or believing Catholic. But somewhat to my surprise, I discovered that a refusal to tolerate questioning certain beliefs or assumptions spreads far beyond Roman Catholicism.
Even more surprising was the discovery that this insistence is by no means limited to religious belief. Almost paradoxically, I found it just as active among scientists and even atheists. I saw, for instance, faculty not given tenure because they did not toe the party line, did not hold the assumptions of the particular professors holding decision-making powers at the time. The issues were not religious, but were just as contentious. “Is human behavior best studied and explained as a result of environment or genetics?” was a frequent disputed question at the time among psychologists, dividing faculty into divisive factions. Scientism or reductionism is another such issue in all branches of science.
Today, now that atheism is not socially quite as disreputable as it used to be in Western society and many more people admit to having no belief in God, I see a similar pattern. Many atheists, like many scientists and many religious believers, are highly tolerant of those who do not agree with them. But some are as vicious in their attacks on religious belief as any religious fanatic. Russian communism is no longer as vibrant as it used to be, but Chinese communism and communism in North Korea still offer serious opposition to religious belief. And there are Western individuals of some prominence and education whose writing suggests a disdain for those religious believers presumably naive or frightened enough to continue to believe in God.
So I find myself still wondering what the fundamental difference is between conviction and intolerance. It’s not content. Nor is intolerance simply disagreement. It isn’t even being convinced that I am right and you are wrong. It’s an insistence that you have no right to hold the beliefs that you do if you disagree with me. Conviction, on the other hand, reflects a willingness to live by certain principles, even to die for them. But it does not necessarily insist that everybody agree with those convictions.
I’m a psychologist, so I suppose my own hypothesis reflects that background. I think intolerance arises from a deep personal insecurity. It’s a defense against a black terrorizing fear that if I am wrong I am without worth, without respect, without any value.
I suspect it is the grip of a similar mesmerizing fear I sometimes feel in the pit of my stomach when I think I’ve just made a terrible mistake that is going to have some serious consequence. Or when I wonder if I’m suffering from some terminal, un-treatable disease like cancer. Or when I remember something stupid or insensitive that I’ve said or done and writhe in embarrassment or regret.
What if those fears were multiplied to the depth of my being? what if I could not look to anything I’ve ever done that seems successful or rewarding or worthwhile or truly loving? Would I feel quite as liberated as I do looking out at the mystery of life and of the entire universe, knowing that I do not understand?
Would I feel driven to grab onto some religious, scientific, or philosophical positions as if my life depended on it? Yes, I’m pretty sure I would.
Of course, even if my insecurity hypothesis is right, that still only answers half the question. It might indicate the source of intolerance. But it doesn’t really identify the bedrock of conviction that is life-sustaining without an accompanying intolerance.
I think it probably goes without saying that all of us, whatever our culture, value compliments from some sources more than others.
Living here in Britain, I’ve come to appreciate that by the same token, some compliments reflect social class. They may be delivered kindly but they clearly suggest that the person bestowing the compliment considers themselves somewhat superior. When we were living in the Lake District, a woman whose accent resembled that of Prince Charles complimented me on the quality of the insulation she saw I was installing on one of our outside walls, and encouraged me to continue with “the good work.”
I can tell you without a doubt that I knew far more about insulation than she did. But she fancied herself as one of the Great and the Good. She probably handed out turkeys for Christmas dinner to the peasants working on the fields of her estate. Personally I found her patronizing and pretentious.
This morning, however, after I bought our Sunday paper from our local newsstand, I had a horrible thought. The newsboy is new, from Sri Lanka, I think, and is simply lovely. When I make a purchase, I generally thank him and wish him a good day. This morning I also asked him how much longer he had to work, and when he said he’d almost finished for this Sunday, I mentioned that he had a lovely sunny day in front of him, and said I hoped he’d enjoy it.
Pretty innocuous, you might think. And it was. But I had the terrible thought, that with my American accent here in England, and speaking to a young immigrant just making his way, I sounded exactly like one of those pretentious, patronizing superior types I so despise. By and large, the English do not give out compliments the way Americans do, and I’ve been aware recently that I have embarrassed several people simply expressing my appreciation for a job exceptionally well done.
Who know how many times I’ve put my foot in my mouth?.
Today is Thanksgiving in America. It is one of the most beloved holidays in the country, unburdened by the stresses of gift-giving, religious belief and cultural practices that so often permeate the Christmas period. Mostly it is a day when Americans, and increasingly those who aren’t Americans, simply give thanks for the gifts life has bestowed on us – gifts of love and family and friends, of the joys and challenges of work, sometimes even of illness or other limitations that, paradoxically, have also opened us up to something deeper and more valuable in ourselves and others that we had not known before.
But today I’m also thinking about the very first Thanksgivings in which the Pilgrims gave thanks for the new land, and for the welcome given to them by the American Indians already living here that enabled them to survive those first harsh winters.
We celebrate Thanksgiving for the best of what America wants to stand for: a welcome to those who want a chance to live, to work, to breathe free. What we rarely remember on Thanksgiving, or on any other day, is that as a result of the arrival of the white man, 80 to 90% of those American Indians who had welcomed the first settlers had died. They died because we killed them with our guns, because we drove them off their hunting grounds and off the lands where they had lived for hundreds of years, they died of the small pox we brought with us, from the alcohol to which we introduced them. The terrible truth which few of us admit to ourselves is that America is built on an ethnic cleansing as ruthless as any 20th century Holocaust.
Science has now discredited the entire concept of “race,” but the terrible, agonizing truth is that this arrogant belief in our racial supremacy has continued. Whether the police officer in Ferguson, Missouri should have been indicted for shooting an unarmed Black teenager to death last summer, I do not know for certain. But what I do know for certain is that there remains a deep river of prejudice against Blacks in America. Black Africans were brought to America unwillingly as slaves. There are Whites who still believe that they should be their masters.
We could concentrate on trying to change these attitudes. But I suspect there are more immediate viable steps we can take. If neighbourhood police wore cameras, for instance, experiments in California and in other countries show that complaints against police brutality drop significantly. This is because false claims are now often disprovable. But it’s also because police, who are now held accountable for their actions, engage in far less bullying and unnecessary force.
There are other practical steps we can take. We do not need simply to ring our hands in frustrated anger and helplessness.
But enough for now. Wherever you live, and whoever you are, I would like to wish you and those you love a Thanksgiving in which you are overwhelmed with gratitude for so much that we each have been given.
I’ve never been particularly taken with Gothic monsters like Frankenstein or vampires like Dracula, nor did I understand why mature men and women wrote or enjoyed reading these kind of fantastical stories.
But I’m beginning to understand. The Gothic revival that produced these Gothic fantasies emerged during the Industrial Revolution when it was glaringly apparent that the old ways were disappearing. People were moving off the farms and into often wretched hovels in the city to work in factories in which lives were at risk, hours long and for which there were few safeguards. If your arm was cut off in a spinning wheel, or your legs smashed in a mining accident, there was no recompense. There wasn’t even anything resembling disability payments or unemployment compensation.
Technology and science were drastically changing the world, and for huge numbers, it seemed to be producing a machine that was grinding inexorably to destroy human society as we know it.
And that’s what Dracula was – a metaphor of an economic system run amok, draining the life blood of the very people who fed it. That is what Frankenstein was – a terrible invention of science stalking the lives of ordinary people without consideration of any kind.
The interesting thing is that these Gothic monsters still stalk us. In metaphorical terms they appear, most blatantly, in science fiction novels and movies. They are terrible creatures of evil from another universe totally without kindness, seeking only power.
What are these modern Gothic monsters really for those of us living in the 21st century?
For some it is climate change and the destruction of our home planet Earth. For some it is capitalism, or immigration, terrorism, or the horrifying tools of modern militaries. For some it is materialism, or sexual liberation, or the unstoppable spread of a deadly virus sweeping around the globe. For some it is an Apocalypse sent forth by an angry God.
Perhaps our Gothic metaphors are a way of trying to deal with these very real fears. Perhaps they are a way of disguising them to ourselves, or ways of convincing ourselves that our fears, like the metaphors, are fantastical.
However we deal with them, I now see that they arise from deep within the human psyche. And I can see why they grow so strong in times of turmoil and uncertainty.
Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel Prize for his work on human decision-making. Now he has just published a book, Don’t Even Think About It, exploring the psychology of climate change deniers compared to those who believe that climate change caused by human behavior could be lethal. His basic conclusion is that all of us have pretty much already made up our minds and that we aren’t likely to be persuaded by evidence or experience. What matters, he says, is the ideological group with which we identify. Tea Party members, for instance, tend to have an ideology that automatically takes a position in opposition to environmentalists. And vice versa. For this reason, Kahneman is quite pessimistic about the likelihood of our avoiding what might be the worst Great Extinction ever to hit our planet.
The potential catastrophe is terrifying. (Obviously, I am not a convinced Tea Party member.) Several reports in the last six months have been published by leading scientists who in the past thought we had as long as a century to avoid drastic climate change. That has now changed. A very large number of scientists now think that we have as little as ten years to drastically reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and at most twenty years. If we do not act within that time frame, within sixty years, we may have an 8 degree Fahrenheit increase in temperatures. That is a temperature not seen on Earth for the last 5 million years. 40% of plant and animal life cannot live in these conditions. 1/3 of the Asian rain forests would be at risk, and most of the Amazon rain forest would probably be destroyed by fire. Crops would collapse in Africa by a third, in the US, crops like corn and soy, would fall by more than 3/4th. 2/3rds of the world’s major cities – like New York and London – would be underwater. That’s in 60 years from now! And that does not even factor in the conflicts and deaths in increased warfare created by starvation and disease.
Why aren’t we doing something about this!?
Because scare stories don’t work, however realistic or scientifically-founded they may be.
Because when we read about the importance of reducing greenhouse gases, even if we take it seriously, there seems to be little we as individuals can do. Will it matter in the great scheme of things if I walk or use a bike instead of drive? if I turn down my heating so that all I do is prevent pipes from freezing, even if I myself am shivering? if I change all the lights in my house to low-energy LED bulbs? if I don’t turn on the lights at all? if I don’t use the wash machine or dishwasher or microwave or oven? The personal inconvenience could be huge, in some cases life-threatening, and it wouldn’t make a stick of difference unless there is mass cooperation in such a project.
I think we have got to think about this problem in a completely different way if we are to have any hope of cooperating sufficiently to solve it.
In September, 4 former presidents or prime ministers, 2 Nobel economic laureates, and financial experts from the World Bank, IMF and the Asian Development Bank published a detailed study entitled “Better Growth, Better Climate.” They offer a list of costed changes that would both improve economic growth and at the same time reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
It would require governments world-wide to act on structural reforms of urban infra-structure, farmland, forests, and energy markets. And it would not be a total solution to the climate change problem. But it would be a huge start. And it might make it possible for people of vastly different ideologies to cooperate.
Even the Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Congress might agree.
I’ve often wondered why we humans seem to have the most uncompromising convictions about things for which the evidence is the least resilient. There’s nothing, of course, about which we might not be wrong. We could even discover one day that the world is flat after all and that we have been interpreting what we think we observe in the wrong way. I don’t, actually, expect to live to see that day. There is way too much evidence, too many experiences by too many scientists and non-scientists to seriously consider that a flat world is just as likely as a round one.
But the things about which we seem to be most often intolerant are those convictions that are not broadly shared and for which the evidence is not universally convincing. People who disagree with us in relation to religious and political convictions seem to be the two areas where there is the most fire without light. I doubt there is a person reading this post (or writing, it for that matter) who cannot identify people — sometimes even family members — with whom we cannot have open discussion and disagreement on a question of religion or politics without at least half the people in the conversation feeling furiously frustrated and angry.
Last night I turned this seemingly distressing fact on its head. I was watching a BBC documentary on the history of dance. In England, a mere 400 years ago, dancing was seen by some Christians as the work of the devil. Even dancing that did not involve touching one’s partner was seen as the first step on the road to hell. Books were written venting on this terrible sin, assuring anyone who even contemplated dancing and did not repent was damned for eternity.
Today, there are very few people in the Western world who hold views like this. But there are people who hold views which I personally think are just as outrageous. Today we have deep divisions about sex, about God, about capitalism, about the limits of freedom. In some cultures, women cannot show their face in public, cannot drive cars, are not permitted to learn to read and write. Many of these views, in my own and other cultures, seem to my mind, to be preposterous.
But I find myself wondering what beliefs I have that may seem just as preposterous to future generations? I worry about climate change, about our species’ continued attempts to solve our conflicts through use of physical force, about the world running out of resources to sustain our galloping population growth, which has just surpassed 7 billion. More egocentrically, I also worry about some of the stupid, selfish, ignorant, immature things I have said and done sometimes many decades ago, and cringe in humiliation.
But all of these worries, both great and embarrassingly egocentric, are based on my convictions that are by no means indisputable. I doubt anybody shares anything like the depths of my personal concern for my own virtue. Not a single person, I am sure, cringes with the regret and mortification I sometimes feel at the fool I think I have on occasion made of myself. Certainly I am wrong to think I am that important.
Or rather, I would say, I am wrong to think I am important in the way I sometimes think I am.
I’m a human being. That is fantastic! How lucky I am! For all the limitations of being human, each one of us is a unique, astonishing, beautiful creature. We all make mistakes. We’re all incomplete. We all make fools of ourselves in one way or other on occasion. That doesn’t change the reality. We are each simply incredible. We are each simply wonderful.
Now if I can only convince myself that climate change, or our tendency to kill those who threaten us, are not going to lead to our self-extinction as a species, I have managed to make a virtue out of convincing myself that I might occasionally be wrong. Even about those very important things about which I am absolutely positive.
This Sunday’s paper carried a story today about Muriel Spark (the author probably best known for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie). As a teenager, she wrote letters to herself from imaginary admirers and pushed them between the pillows of the couch for her nosy mother to find. One such letter included a pseudo reply from Muriel which read “Dear Colin, You were wonderful last night!”
Ah, what a good little girl I was by comparison. I completely lacked the creativity to even think up such naughtiness, but even if I had, I was a rigid rule-follower. I didn’t even break the “no-talking-after-lights-out” rule at the boarding school I attended as a teenager. I can only hope I’ve grown up a little in that regard. One thing I do know is that I no longer have all the right answers I had then.
The second item that struck me from the papers today is an advertisement from Harrod’s department store for a Gingerbread House. It’s quite a fabulous house, and resembles the houses we used to make at my German grandmother’s house every Christmas Eve.
Harrod’s is selling their Gingerbread House of £150 (about $250). We children might not have eaten our houses so readily if we thought we could make so much money from our efforts.
We get a lot of unsolicited calls at our door in this little village. If it’s not a delivery of something we have ordered, it is inevitably a request for money or a workman offering to give us a price to pressure-wash our drive or roof, or do work on our garden.
Yesterday, when my husband answered the doorbell he was met by a well-dressed woman, probably in her mid-sixties, who spoke with a mid-west American accent. She was carrying several bibles. I was on my way out to the garden and so by chance was standing in the entrance hall. The conversation went something like “Good morning, Sir. It is a lovely morning, isn’t it? I was wondering: have you ever thought about what makes you happy?”
I let out a noise which can probably best be described as something between a cough and a snort. My husband paused, and then said in a not-unlikely but firm voice “Go away. Just go away.” She smiled, replied “”All right. Have a good day” and left.
I have been wondering what I would have said had I been the prime
combatant – err, I mean conversationalist – at the door. I would have been tempted to ask how anyone can sell happiness as a payment for Christian belief in a crucified Saviour. Or I might have mentioned the quote from Aristotle taught to us as children by my father who said that happiness is a by-product, not something that can be acquired by going after it directly. Or if I was really going to take her on, I might have mentioned that I was a psychologist, and thinking about what makes people happy is something I have done all my professional life.
Come to think of it, I think it was a good thing I wasn’t the one who answered the door.
What do you think? What would you have said: Have you ever thought about what makes you happy?
In the supermarket this morning, I watched a little girl, probably about five, showing her little sister, about age three, how to push a shopping trolley for groceries. The youngest was clearly immensely pleased and very proud to be given instructions for carrying out such a grown-up activity. The older sister was very kind and patient. And definitely in charge. It was like watching myself in a time-lapse episode.
Photo from Kid Costs || Child Support Budgets
By the time I was a year and a half old, I had a younger sibling. By the time I was thirteen, I had four younger sisters, four younger brothers, and a great deal of authority countenanced by my parents. By the time I was a teenager, “Terry said I could do it” held as much justification for my younger sibs as permission received directly from Mom or Dad. I took them swimming. I took them shopping. I helped them with their homework. They sat on the kitchen cupboard and “helped me” make cookies, which meant they got to lick the spoon and anything left in the bowl.
I’ve often thought of the effect this subtle but constant socialization as the oldest sister has had on my psyche. I was the oldest. Whether I was intrinsically the smartest might be questionable, but I was always the most experienced, always the biggest. I didn’t ask my sibs for advice. I figured things out for myself. I always knew better. And I didn’t just know it. All my brothers and sisters knew it. They would no more say to me “Don’t tell me what to do” than they would have said it to either of our parents.
I have, as we all moved into adulthood, relinquished my absolute sense that I always know best. I sometimes do ask various brothers and sisters for their opinions and advice in areas where their expertise greatly out-ranks mine and take them seriously. I’ve learned a lot from them.
But I realized some time ago just how much of an oldest sister I still am. I got caught in the middle of a conversation with two men squabbling with each other, and I spontaneously more or less scolded them and told them to stop. The wife of one of the men looked at me and said “You sound just like Father Patrick!”
I have since been reflecting on how much like a Catholic priest I am capable of being. I assume an authority based on years of living in a world where my word was never questioned, was always accepted as right, where my authority was never resented but rather accepted as a sign of my concern. And like most Catholic priests I have known, however kind and wise many of them have been, I don’t expect to be told what to do or what to think. Discussion, yes. Dictation, no.
Rather like the girl in the supermarket who by the age of five was already “the oldest.”
I have often been mystified by some of the world’s greatest scientists who believe that the world of numbers has a real existence. It’s a kind of modern version of Plato’s world of perfect forms, which exist in what most of us think of as “the real world” only in degraded form corrupted by matter. As a cognitive psychologist, I have been pondering for years how a modern thinker in the world today could reach a conclusion that to me sounds so preposterous.
I don’t have the answer, of course, but I’ve been also thinking about a similar problem of my own, and I do have an idea. My personal version of the numbers problem is with music. When I listen to some of my favourite classical or folk musicians, I often seem to go into another world, to experience a different reality, to become convinced of things that are mere ideas in my every day state in which I generally view the world using scientific principles. I listen to music, for instance, and the conviction that the mere act of existence is valuable, becomes overwhelming. Faithfulness to existence seems to me to be the greatest good. In everyday life, that more or less takes the form of respect, of kindness, of love for everyone and everything. It’s a principle I can more or less defend intellectually using scientific principles, but it is one empowered with profound emotion and a certainty comparable to what some people seem to experience in relation to their religious beliefs. I don’t have any convincing scientific proof. And yet I feel I know it through direct experience.
Can this certainty nevertheless be wrong? absolutely yes. Just as scientific conclusions can also be wrong: time and space are not unchanging absolutes as Newton thought they were. Just as our sensory experiences can be wrong: I might mistake a stick for a rifle, a bird for superman, the roar of an overhead plane for thunder. Just as our memories can be wrong: almost everyone has asked if some “memory” actually happened or was only a dream; conversely many of us have a seemingly clear memory of something that could not possibly have happened.
My insights gained through music might be equally erroneous or incomplete. They could be catastrophically wrong. I might, for instance conclude that God is commanding me to behead anyone who disagrees with my religious beliefs. Just as the conclusions of those geniuses who describe the world in terms of numbers may be wrong, or at least incomplete.
My hypothesis is that we are each like those blind men in the Indian story standing around an elephant. They each experience a different aspect of the elephant, and are convinced by their own experience that they are right. The challenge is to recognize that what we see is incomplete. So that even people who fundamentally disagree with us might be right too.
I don’t think there are separate words we call heaven or hell. I don’t think the world of music or numbers or science or the arts have a separate existence from the “real world” we live in either. But they are different perspectives, each of which tells us something different about the elephant around which we blind men are standing.
So I’m going to stop thinking that the “insights” I gain through listening to music, or that other people gain through the arts, or by walking in the mountains, or even through meditation, are somehow inferior to the conclusions I can buttress with scientific data. Those insights derived from non-scientific sources deserve to be taken seriously. I don’t think they are infallible, at least in terms that any individual human being can express them. But they are valuable.
Okay, I’ll stop. Just let me say that I do appreciate that Einstein said that if an idea is not at first absurd, there is no hope for it. He didn’t say that all absurd ideas were brilliant.
For the uninitiated, senior moments are when you can’t remember something you know perfectly well, but which you convince yourself happens to everybody over the age of 50, and is nothing to worry about.
Except at 2 o’clock in the morning, when all the rules change.
Yesterday I transferred a substantial payment on-line to what was supposed to be the account of our roofer who is replacing our aging and rotting fascias, soffits, and gables. When I asked for the transfer to be made immediately, the bank noted, along with the question “Are you sure you want to make this transfer?” that it could not be reversed. Yes, I said, I’m sure, and authorized the transfer of about $3500.
At 2 o’clock this morning I woke up. OMG, I thought. Are you sure you typed in the right bank account? What if you accidentally sent it to the wrong person? Did you even bother to double-check? And you haven’t received an acknowledgement from the roofer.
Well, you did send it on a Sunday, said my rational self. The office was almost certainly closed.
Not to be put off by something as flimsy as reasonable logic, my righteous panic was undeterred. I finally fell back into a fitful sleep with nightmares about small claims court interspersed with wondering how I was going to confess this financial conflagration I had engineered to my husband.
Nonetheless, I wisely decided the next morning not to mention this dreadful possibility to him over morning coffee but to wait until I had the chance to call the roofer’s office.
The transfer has been made to the right account, and the work is still on schedule to be done next week.
Well, as I’ve said before – getting old is interesting.
When I was a growing up, we all routinely made Lenten resolutions covering those six weeks from Ash Wednesday to Easter. My childhood resolutions usually took the form of giving up candy or cookies or even desserts altogether, and as I recall, I rarely broke the resolutions.
As an adult, I have often wondered why I haven’t been able to go for as long as two days to keep a resolution to stay away from sugar, when I did so with so little fanfare as a child.
I’m now into the third week of a no-refined sugar regime, and there are a few things that have surprised me.
First of all, as Sanstorm in her comment predicted, it has not been nearly as hard as I have expected. When I have felt a sugar-craving, I’ve usually reached for a small handful of raisins and nuts, and moved on. What I have not done is to continue to discuss the issue with myself. I have not gone down the increasingly self-serving reasons about why, despite my resolutions, I simply should have a sugar-kick. It’s rather like the Lenten resolutions of my childhood. The decision is not up for discussion.
The second thing that has surprised me is that, although my joints are not absolutely pain-free — especially after I’ve spent a couple of hours scraping moss off the roof — I seem to have a lot more energy. I absolutely never expected that. But it seems to be true.
And of course, having more energy, especially at my age when I am aware of its decreasing supply, is absolutely fantastic.
I had no intention of giving up refined sugar forever. But under the circumstances, I think I might.
Earlier this week, a neighbour knocked on our door and asked me to submit something from our garden to the village horticultural competition being held next Saturday.
I gagged. Almost literally. The thought of entering a competition using the fruit and vegetables we are growing repelled me with an intensity that surprised me. The thought of actually winning the competition is even more appalling.
I offered to give him something if he would submit it in his name and keep me out of it, but he said he couldn’t do that. I offered to donate something to the horticulture committee outside the competition if the produce was going ultimately to a charity or soup kitchen. He was unimpressed.
So I’ve been analyzing my response.
First of all, I’m not against all competition. But I do know that generally women do better in cooperative situations while men will often thrive in competition. This has always been true for me. I freeze in the face of competition, but love working together.
In our capitalist societies, there is a place for competition: There is a place to try to make a better, more efficient, or cheaper product. There is a place for competition to solve all kinds of problems, whether it be to find a cure for cancer, less-polluting energy sources, or more and better ways to feed the hungry.
Just as importantly, we can benefit from knowing how our gifts compare with those of our peers if we want to make a contribution, and in that sense, competition can be a source of valuable self-insight. When I was teaching courses in educational psychology, I often required my students to generate their own grades, assessing how well they thought they did in the course relative to their own gifts. In other words, to assess whether they thought that they had done their A-level best, or not, and why. This was the grade in which they evaluated themselves. I also gave them a grade, which reflected an individual’s achievement as I saw it relative to everybody else in the class.
I think both of these assessments are valuable for different reasons and in different ways. The first is rooted in oneself. It teaches us to make our own judgements, to take responsibility for our own actions, and makes us less dependent on others’ approval. The second gives us some idea of how our particular gifts compare with others. The thing that is often not realized is that we need to know which of our gifts may be outstanding every bit as much as we need to know which of our talents may be pretty mediocre. It’s not a question of hubris on the one hand, or lack of self-confidence on the other. We all have gifts and we all are incomplete. We need to know that.
Okay, what does this have to do with our village fruit and vegetable competition?
Well, I don’t grow vegetables to impress other people. I grow them to eat. And sometimes to share. But not to do a one-upmanship. Not to gain status. Not to be better than somebody else. The whole idea seems so ghastly, to rob the entire experience of growing things of it intense intrinsic reward.
Anyway, I don’t think the neighbour understood.
I don’t know if I’ll be able to explain it or not. If I try, I will make sure his wife is there too. I think she might understand. She’s a woman, after all.
According to the papers, ISIS – or ISIL or the Islamic State – has released another gruesome video, this one a full 55 minutes long showing various torture scenes and hostages being forced to dig their own graves.
What is ISIS trying to accomplish?
I suppose they might argue that they are carrying out the wrath of God against those who defile His commands. But the campaigns are too slick, too cruel, too obviously being directed by a master-mind with some specific goal in mind.
Are they trying to terrify local inhabitants into submission? I think that, although that is one of their goals, the videos would not feature the torture and beheadings of foreigners if they were targeted specifically at the local population.
So are they trying to use the anti-American feeling and resentment built up as a result of the U.S. invasion and occupation? The U.S. certainly did not know what they were doing in Iraq, and often made things worse for millions of people than they were under Saddam Hussein. Nor did the U.S. manage to reduce the ethnic tensions that had built up between the various religious groups.
I think they are trying to accomplish something more than that. I suspect ISIS trying to goad the US and UK into sending military to join the ground fight – that are they reasoning that the presence of American and other Western troops will so alienate the people in Iran and Syria and other neighbouring countries that they will support ISIS instead.
I absolutely support President Obama’s attempt with John Kerry to bring together a real coalition of middle-eastern countries to join the fight against ISIS. Because if the people there are not determined to overthrow ISIS, in the long run, ISIS will win. For the same reason, I think it would be a dreadful mistake to send our own ground troops in. We are using air power to support those indigenous fighters already there. It’s got to be their fight this time, not that of the West. We can help. We can give support.
But we will only make things worse if we make it our war.
We were in the grocery story this morning, and I saw a “dragon fruit” for sale on the shelf. I’ve never seen anything like it before in my life, and since it was £2 (less than $4), I bought it, and we had it for our evening dessert. It’s a popular Asian fruit, quite sweet, and supposed to be one of those super-foods full of anti-oxidants and vitamins and all those things with complicated names that they try to jam into vitamin tablets.
But I also discovered something else today that scientists are presenting as the newest forbidden fruit of our age.
I’ve known most of my life that processed sugar doesn’t really have any substantial nutritional value.
But what I learned today is that it is the sole (the sole!) cause of tooth decay. There are villages still in this world where not a single person has any tooth decay whatsoever, because they have no access to processed sugars. In this country, more children end up in the hospital to have a mouthful of rotten teeth extracted as a result of a sugary diet than for any other single cause.
Despite its name and appearance, it is not Dragon Fruit that grows on the new forbidden tree of our age.
There are several things I’ve known for many years, but have cleverly managed not to put together. I’ve known, for instance that:
I’ve also known that those of us not physically prone to alcohol addition often instead are apt to be vulnerable to sweets, in other words, to develop a sugar addition.
I realized in my early forties that my evening pre-dinner glass of wine was making my joints sore. I never became a teetotaler, but I rarely now have more than a single drink in a week, and when I do, I immediately pay the price in pain and sleepless nights. I’d rather be able to drink a little more, but in truth, my restraint has been more than worth paying for the price of remaining pain-free.
But about three months ago I developed a pain in my left shoulder and arm that has made it impossible for me to engage in several yoga stretches I’ve been doing for more than four decades. I thought I must have strained a muscle, possibly carrying a bag of garden soil, and expected the pain to disappear quite quickly. Well, it hasn’t disappeared, and its high time for it to be gone.
And that is when the terrible possibility crossed my mind: am I developing arthritis as a result of sugar intake? In other words, can sugar in one’s diet cause arthritic pain?
If you don’t want to know the answer, don’t ask Google. The unfortunate answer is yes. People with osteoporosis are particularly vulnerable.
The standard medical advice is to eliminate a potential culprit for about four weeks. If joint pain has disappeared or even significantly decreased, one may have found the culprit. If the pain returns after a return to normal habits, that may be the trigger that has to be kept under control
WHAT!?? my two-year-old self is screaming. No cookies with lunch? no desserts with any sugar? no apple pie? no ice cream? no chocolate?
I have watched myself occasionally play the same games that alcoholics and drug addicts play, that narrowing of consciousness that eventually reduces all reason to a total focus on the forbidden object, ultimately coming up with any reason whatsoever that results in surrender. But I don’t have a weight problem, and I have never had to make a serious long-term effort to reduce my sugar intake. I’ve never tried to go without processed sugar for as long as four weeks.
I don’t know if I can do it.
The avoidance of arthritic pain as I lope through my 70’s is a big enticement if it works. But even to carry out the experiment to see if it does might be a challenge greater than I can win.
At the moment, I have 27 more days to go before I have the evidence one way or other. If I never bring the subject up again, you’ll know it’s because I’m eating a chocolate bar.
Richard Rohr is a Catholic theologian who posts a daily blog of spiritual thoughts. I find his thinking a little too pious to suit me, but a friend recently sent me one of his meditations that on first reading I thought was terrific. It’s Rohr’s understanding of the tree of knowledge of good and evil described in the book of Genesis, and the eating of which resulted in Adam and Eve being evicted from the Garden of Eden.
Rohr suggests that what Adam and Eve did was to take unto themselves the right to judge good and evil — not only in themselves, but in everybody else as well. This is what destroyed Paradise, and it is the great sin still practiced by some of the great religions of the world. We have been doing it for thousands of years. Christians for centuries throughout Europe stretched heretics on the rack, burned them at the stake or beheaded them if they failed to submit. They even set out in heroic crusades against the infidel, murdering, stealing and raping in religious zeal, Today, Muslims are continuing this righteous slaughter.
It is easy for me to sit here today in horror over these and thousands of other similar events: the settlers in America who engaged in a pogrom of ethnic cleansing for centuries against the American Indians, Spanish explorers throughout the Americas who even wrote to the Pope to determine whether the natives were actually human, slavery which continues in many parts of the world today. It’s easy for us in what we call the “free world” to condemn the absence of religious freedom and the coercion of non-believers on the grounds that those in power are enforcing God’s will.
Unfortunately, it is also easy for us not to see ourselves doing the same thing. Positions on birth control, abortion, homosexuality, divorce, extra- and pre-marital sex, assisted suicide and capital punishment, among others, are being fought almost solely on religious grounds in our own countries practicing what we believe is “religious freedom.” It is not only ISIS Muslims beheading anyone who disagrees with them who argue that they have the absolute truth, and therefore the God-given duty to impose that truth on the world. The Roman Catholic Church has declared itself to be infallible, to be not only a true church, but the one and only true church. Many fundamentalists of various persuasions are convinced that anyone who does not accept their doctrines is living with falsehood. It is a stance different not in principle, but only in content, from the absolutism of many Muslim believers. Most Christian churches no longer have the secular authority they once had to carry out beheadings and burning at the stake. But many have not given up the belief that they have a unique unchallengeable insight into God’s Truth.
“The Fall of Man” by Lucas Cranach the Elder
And so this is my problem with Rohr’s interpretation of Genesis: it is incomplete. If we are going to say that we cannot judge others in terms of good and evil, that this is the great sin that destroyed Paradise, then we must face the reality that our own grasp of the Truth, of good and evil, is at best incomplete, and sometimes even positively wrong.
Why do so many of us seem to need this absolute certainty? this conviction that God is on our side? Are we afraid of uncertainty? Is it a search for power? Is it what so often holds our community together, that gives us a personal identity or sense of belonging ?
Global communications seem particular laden right now with earth-shattering crisis. Just the front page today includes bombings and rocket attacks in Israel and Palestine, beheadings and live burials in Iraq and Syria, the military confrontations in Ukraine, the militarization of police “protection” in Ferguson in the United States, the Ebola virus in Africa. The temptation is to despair at being so helpless in the face of it all, when one’s whole impulse is to STOP IT!
But I myself live in a small world – not in the Middle East or Africa and I am now retired. Perhaps I did some small good as a university professor, perhaps sometimes as a friend, and in the partnership with my husband. But now there are no students to spend energy trying to help, no fellow faculty, no ongoing research or books to be written. I’m not overwhelmingly useful except to my husband, who is equally important to me. In terms of achieving something significant for mankind, I am definitely no longer making the grade.
What then is the value of my life now?
Somehow life itself seems intrinsically valuable to me. I don’t mean my life. I mean life. It’s amazing. Incredible is life. I can’t think that there is a way that this great gift can be earned or even paid for. The only thing worth doing with it is grabbing it with both hands in gratitude and joy and respect for the capacities, as well as the limitations of what it is to be human.
Admittedly, now I come to the tricky part. I have the great gift of life. And yet it is a mystery. In what is the fulfillment of a human life? Some of the ideals I was given during my Catholic socialization now sound bizarre. Martyrdom, for example. I thought I would like to be a martyr when I was a child. I’ve been remembering that now with some trepidation as martyrdom is once again held up in the Muslim world as a great act, and as we have been commemorating the beginning of World War I when more than 6 million military laid down their lives for their countries.
I’ve been playing with a thought that I think also comes from somewhere in the bowels of my Catholic upbringing: that if we truly love just one other person, we have reached the pinnacle of human achievement. The version I was no doubt first socialized to probably was something more like “reached true sainthood,” or some such, but the point is potentially relevant.
Loving is something that as a human I need to do as much as I need to eat and sleep.
I do not know if the human race is going to survive, or if war or disease or climate change, or a meteor strike, or some other calamity will bring our species to an end in the near future. Whatever the dangers, there is not much I can do to influence the course of events.
But I can honor life by refusing to let it be diminished by anger or despair or hopelessness. Wherever my life in particular, and life in general is going, whenever and however it ends, it is worth living now. I don’t have to earn it. I can’t earn it.
Life is simply a great great gift.
So we all know what I’m talking about, let me begin by saying that what are called courgettes here in England are called zucchini and summer squash in America. Having sworn off farming in the U.S. at the early age of about six, I do not know if these vegetables are as dependent on the weather as they are here, but over here they are fussy prima donnas. Last summer was not a productive year. So this year, Peter sewed twice as many.
Being a Yorkshireman, he’s been announcing for months that they were a failure once again this summer.
Maybe. But at last count, 10 plants have produced at least 50 courgettes, and they are still madly producing. At the moment, there is no end in sight. I think they are even beginning to multiply in our refrigerator drawer.
So what do you do with what feels like a steady supply of about 3 courgettes coming into your kitchen on a daily basis for maybe as long as 8 weeks? They’re not easy to freeze because of their high water content, so the solution isn’t to throw them into a freezer bag for mid-winter use. At the very least, they have to be cooked first.
So far we’ve had courgettes baked, curried, stuffed, battered and au-provincial. We’ve had courgette fritters, courgettes grated with cream and pancetta, courgette tart, courgette cake, courgette soup, courgette in salad, in a stir-fry, and used them as pasta substitutes with spaghetti. And oh, I forget to mention: courgette flowers are supposed to be a superb delicacy. We haven’t tried that yet.
And to think I used to think they were a boring old vegetable.
It was 100 years yesterday that World War I began. There were remembrance ceremonies in Britain, Belgium, and France that I found moved me almost to tears. It was the first war in which weapons – tanks, aircraft, submarines, machine guns and mustard gas – produced en masse by the industrial revolution were used to kill an average of 10,000 fellow human beings every single day for four continuous years. By the end of the war, 8 million troops and 6.5 million civilians were dead.
Yesterday government representatives, military, and relatives of the dead gathered together in ceremonies of reconciliation. “We will remember” was promised again and again.
Perhaps it is because of the current massacres in Gaza right now, but somehow, to me, “we will remember” isn’t enough. We will remember those who died for our liberty. We will remember those who died so young that we might live in security. We will remember the brave. We will remember the wives who lost their husbands, the children who grew up without their fathers, or brothers.
But I only heard one person say “we must learn.” It’s not enough to be grateful for those who sacrificed their lives. Those deaths were too terrible and too many. We desperately need to learn better ways of resolving our differences, even of finding justice, than by killing on the mass scale that modern warfare makes possible. The determination to negotiate must be our goal. We must honor those who can find peace for their peoples through listening and giving and compromise. Today we need them even more than we need those willing to lay down their lives.
We will remember. We will feel sorrow. We will honor those who were lost. We will be appalled by the tens of thousands of graves spread throughout Europe.
But will we learn?
As readers of this blog know, I have understood for many years that violence only breeds more violence. And I have been disturbed by Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians for a very long time, and have reflected that even the Israeil’s who suffered the awful brutality of Hitler’s ethnic cleansing did not seem to fully understand that peace will never be established in the Middle East through military means.
But I was not prepared for the shock and almost physical revulsion I have felt since I read the details of a Face Book posting by an Israeli MP saying that “Mothers of all Palestinians should be killed.” All the Palestinian people are our enemy, she wrote, and even the mothers ” have to die and their houses should be demolished so that they cannot bear any more terrorists.”
A two-state solution is the only possible resolution of this conflict which – let us not forget – displaced tens of thousands of Palestinians in the first place from the lands in which they had lived for hundreds of years in order to create an Israeli state.
How can the United States and Britain simply maintain the position reiterated by President Obama that the Israelis have a right to defend themselves? As of today, the Israelis have killed 333 Palestinians. Palestinians rockets have killed one Israeli.
I have lived, even by the most optimistic projections, at least three-quarters of my life. So whether people think I look my age or not, whether I am more agile than some, or have on occasion a modicum more energy, I am elderly.
And I must say that I am finding it one of the happiest, and fascinating periods of my life. Admittedly, I am not suffering from overwhelming physical pain, financial anxiety, or dementia. How well I would (or will) stand up to any of these possibilities in the future I do not know. What I do know is that there is a beauty in old age that I find almost breath-taking. It can bring with it a kind of joy and peace and even wisdom that I didn’t so much as imagine in my youth.
Several days ago I stumbled on this you-tube from a group whose music has for many years delighted me. They are a group of Cornwall fishermen who have been singing together now for more than two decades, and I have watched them age. Their latest release demonstrates for me just what I mean about getting old. Although I am sure their average age is well below mine, I can see that joy and letting go of conflict that old age can offer.
Just watch this video. There is the physical beauty of the landscape, and the hypnotic rhythm of the tune they are performing. But for me, the most beautiful part lies in the faces of the singers. They are simply having a wonderful time. One of them is even collapsing with laughter.
There’s a beauty there that all the make-up products and hair salons in the world cannot produce. All those signs of aging don’t have to be rubbed out for someone to be beautiful.
My hair hasn’t turned grey yet. But when it does, there’s no way I’m going to try to hide it.
A friend sent me a reference to a series of books by Ilia Delio, which he said seemed to echo some of my ideas and which he thought I might like to read. So I checked Delio out on Amazon and saw that the introductory quote in one of her books was Einstein’s “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.”
No. I am among that group of scientists, including Stephen Hawking who believes that we will never reduce the universe to the totally comprehensible – that there is an infinity which we will never exhaust.
I find a deep and profound peace in that acceptance. I don’t have all the answers; I never will. I live surrounded by mystery. Somehow I am immensely comfortable here. That knowledge and that peace is probably the single most important contribution to my coming to terms with my childhood socialization as a Roman Catholic. There were several other significant steps as well.
One was the realization that the concept of matter as totally inert had been exploded with Einstein’s equation e=mc2 – the equation that demonstrated that energy and matter are two forms of the same thing. We know now that matter is not a passive blob sitting there until something else pushes it along. Matter is a seething mass of movement and energy at its very core.
Why is this so exciting? Well, for me, it brought the problem of the emergence of consciousness into the scientific world. Even today, in my opinion, the single most important unresolved question for science is the fact that we have no idea how the brain produces something as seemingly immaterial as consciousness. Consciousness in all of life is totally dependent on a functioning body. Today through MRI scans, we are even learning some of the minute pathways in the brain that are activated by various kinds of consciousness. But we do not have a theory about how this conversion takes place. It is a parallel problem to the one we had when we used to think, less than two centuries ago, that matter and energy were two completely different things. I do not have the answer to what many philosophers call “the mind-body problem” but I am convinced now that the answer lies in the natural world.
In other words, we do not have to have recourse to Plato’s “spiritual” world which Christianity eventually adopted as “heaven” and “hell,” populated by spiritual beings including God, the angels, and the souls of those who have died before us. I remember the almost ecstatic feeling I had when I realized that I was already home in this universe. I am not living in exile. For all its pain and trouble and difficulties, I am already where I belong. And whatever happens after death, I will not be spirited away into some another plain, to some ethereal heaven or fire of hell. However it will happen, what I am will continue to evolve as part of this natural universe.
Another giant step in my coming to terms with Roman Catholicism was the discovery that the original meaning of “faith” as understood by the Hebrews and the early Christians did not reflect adherence to a strict set of doctrines, but is more accurately translated as “faithfulness.” “Faithfulness” does not require that every one in the community always agree, or always accept the same doctrines. This switch to belonging to the community based on faith as unquestioning acceptance of universal dogmas did not occur in the Christian church until the 4th century. Until then, the essence of the Christian message was that “the greatest of these is love,” that “we are no longer Jew nor Gentile, slave or free, male or female; we are all one.” In other words, we are all — all — in this together. All of us in the human family.
I learned something new yesterday. I was looking for some clever way to keep our strawberries from being spoiled while they were ripening lying on the earth around the plant. “The old-fashioned method,” my husband told me, was to put straw around the plant. “It’s why they are called strawberries,” he said.
My goodness: this has opened a whole new world of berry-naming to me. Without any help at all, I figured out all by myself why the berries on another bush are called “blueberries.” And perhaps raspberries are named after their raspy surface? I doubt elderberries were named after the village elders, though, or that barberries are named after the barbarians, and if currants are supposed to be contemporary, the name isn’t even spelled right.
Maybe, though, gooseberries are named after geese. I had to climb down on my hands and knees yesterday to pick them from underneath the pickly gooseberry branches. Would have been much easier for a goose than it was for me.
The most frequently read post on this blog by far is the post Why do abused children become abusers? Why, I asked, are a disproportionate number of abusers people who have themselves been abused? Would you not think that they, above all, would know how painful and destructive it is? The key explanation seems to be that we don’t learn kindness and love through negative example. We need to learn how to love from positive experience – at least from one other person in our lives for however short a time.
I have reflected on this fact again several times this week but especially this morning when I read that Israeli pathologists have announced that the Palestinian teenager kidnapped and murdered in an apparent revenge attack following the kidnapping and murder of 3 Israeli boys last week, was burned alive. Not just murdered. Murdered in what must have been excruciating agony.
Would you not think that every Jew in the land, above all, would shudder at the horror of this act? This is a people living in a land returned to them after the Holocaust, in which up to 8 million Jews were put into gas chambers for no other reason than that they were Jews. This is a people whose by-word is “Never Again!”
This is not to suggest that the majority of the Israelis support this ghastly revenge. I strongly suspect that the majority are as appalled as I am.
But how could there be a single Israeli who feels that this act is not abhorrent?
I think it is because kindness and love are not learned simply because one sees how terrible hatred and abuse can be. Unfortunately, there is in all of us an instinctive desire for what we blindly call “justice,” a “tooth for a tooth, an eye for an eye.”
But history shows us it doesn’t work. The legacy is bitterness and anger and an unending cycle of revenge.
It will not bring peace.
I’ve been pondering the fact that the number of posts I have been writing in recent months are getting fewer and fewer.
Why, I wonder.
It’s not that I don’t have anything to blog about. I find it impossible to read about what is going on in the world and not find myself mentally blogging. It might be about economics, climate change, war, religion, even the possibilities of humans managing to wipe ourselves off the face of the earth. Or it might be more light-hearted things – like Dolly Parton being the most popular act at the Glastonbury music festival last week.
So why aren’t I writing more? it’s something I have been doing since I was ten years old. What’s happening?
I don’t know. I am finding myself driven out doors to be more physically active than I can ever remember. Since I tire more easily, I often sit here in front of my computer screen too exhausted to string three coherent sentences together. But I don’t know why I’m choosing to work outside rather than write more.
One of the things that is fascinating me is how hard it is to plan reasonably about how to get old. When we’re young, barring the unexpected, we have some idea of how our capacities will develop over the years. We have some idea ahead of time what it’s going to be like to be 20 or 30, or even 60. But the energy and health levels get more and more unpredictable as we move into our 70’s and beyond. Will we be able to handle this garden in ten years? even in five years? will I reach a point when I can’t handle my own bank accounts, or do my own tax returns? What about cleaning? and cooking? in fifteen years? twenty?
I’m beginning to understand how life overtakes people in their old age. I have no desire to move into a care home at this point. But when or if I need to, will I be too old to engineer it?
I’m not afraid of dying, although I can’t say I’m looking forward to leaving this fascinating place we call life on earth. I’m just not 100% sure how not to let my last precious years drizzle away in an unfocused haze.
Getting old is a different kind of challenge than I thought it was going to be.
I have been introducing myself to a field of study called neurotheology. It’s a relatively new field, made possible by our developing ability to study the brain. Using magnetic resonance imaging or MRI scans, it is possible to see which parts of the brain are operating in relation to different actions. Different parts of the brain are activated, for instance, for analytical thought than are activated for strong emotions. Nor do we use the same parts of the brain to see, to hear, to position ourselves in time and space.
Neurotheology is interested in how the brain is activated when a person meditates or thinks about God or other religious subjects.
This, as I have said, is a relatively new field, and the findings thus far, fascinating as they are, are still tentative, and should not be taken as “gospel truth.” What does look pretty clear is that there is a relationship between the part of the brain that is active and a person’s concept or experience of some transcendent reality, whether it is called “nothingness”, or “god” or “the universe.” This is accompanied by a loss of a sense of self, but a strong sense of interconnectedness of all existence. During experiences like this, there is an increased activity of the limbic system which is connected with the experience of emotion, and a decreased activity in that part of the brain that we use to orient ourselves in time and space.
Interestingly, people who do not believe in any concept of God tend to have brains with highly active analytical areas, while at the other extreme, when people having what they describe as a religious experience and are speaking in tongues, analytical activity is almost completely replaced by an active limbic or emotional activity.
In addition, those who believe that God or other supernatural agents influence what happens in the time and space in which we live tend to use brain pathways often associated with fear. Those who emphasize doctrinal believes use pathways primarily associated with language, while atheists favor visual pathways.
Similarly, the practice of religion often seems to be a healthy activity, leading to better mental, and physical health, better social relationships and a sense of well-being. Paradoxically, those who are “born again” religious converts often show signs of hippocampal atrophy leading to memory, dementia, depressions, and Alzheimer’s.
How strong any of these trends are is not clear.
In any case, our brains, formed by both genetics and the environment, are ultimately unique to each one of us. Our experiences are highly individual — whether it be in relation to music or math, art or nature, hot or cold, men or women, colors or tastes. It is no surprise, then, that individual experiences of transcendence, or concepts of divinity should be so varied.
There is a common mistake, however, made by both committed believers and non-believers. That is the conclusion that if we can identify the parts of the brain that are associated with an experience of God, we can prove that “God” is no more than an illusion. This isn’t so. We don’t conclude that what we see is an illusion just because we know the part of the brain that is responsible for our experience of sight. It is possible that God created humans with a brain that is capable of experiencing transcendent reality.
Each of us probably has a fairly strong opinion about this. I know I do. But I do know that if I want to prove my point, science, even neurotheology, can’t give me the indisputable evidence, whichever side I’m on.
We’ve just returned from a week in Scotland. Peter spent much of his professional life there, so he knows it well. We’ve also spent many holidays there, but every time we go back, I seem to learn something more. This time seeing Scotland up close as they grapple with the question of independence was particularly stimulating.
The referendum in which Scots will vote on whether to separate from Great Britain and become a totally independent country on its own is taking place in almost exactly three months, and the debate is becoming heated. I was a little surprised at some of the name-calling and accusations that those who don’t want to vote yes to independence are unpatriotic. Some of the debates within families are also becoming quite strained. I hadn’t realized how psychologically complex the issue is for some. It seems to resemble some of the religious debates among various believers all of whom are convinced that only they possess the Truth.
Scotland is an incredibly beautiful country, even when it’s raining, which is often, with a unique, rich, old culture of its own which I enjoy immensely. That is one of the arguments I heard for independence, but not one which I found convincing. Other areas in Great Britain can make similar claims. Yorkshire is as different from London as Scotland is. Or Cornwall, or Wales. It’s the same in the U.S. where the north-east coast has a different culture and different history than Texas, for instance. (Interesting, though, that we did fight the Civil War which was basically over states’ rights before some compromise between the authority of Washington and that of the individual states was finally agreed. Scotland and London have agreed to settle it with a vote.)
My own hope is that Scotland votes to remain within the United Kingdom, and that this results in greater devolution, so that more decisions are the responsibility of local people and not dictated from London.
It’s the kind of challenge that is facing many parts of the world, including the European Union: how to benefit from cooperation without over-riding individual cultures and the great benefits of our diversity.
I wasn’t terribly surprised when President Obama said he hoped Scotland would not become independent. But to my astonishment, I read yesterday that Pope Francis also has expressed his view that Scotland should not vote for independence. If I understood, he thinks it is a world-wide challenge for us all to learn to cooperate and to live together, and to break up a partnership that has worked for centuries is a step backward. The Yes campaign in Scotland apparently took a hit as a result. But whether they become a separate country or not, they are independent in themselves, and the Scottish people will make up their own minds.
My father was the son of first and third generation German immigrants. In America they made their living as lawyers, musicians, farmers, and engineers. The inheritance is evident among my 5 brothers and 4 sisters.
Two days ago, my lawyer-brother sent the family an engineer test, with the question: “Does anyone recognize anyone in our family?” The gasp of recognition was heard throughout cyberspace.
Since then we have been exchanging stories all suggesting that the incipient characteristics of the engineer were evident from an early age.
I remember – I’m probably the only living person who does — that when I was about three years old, my oldest brother, who was four at the time, decided I needed a cross on my doll house. He didn’t discuss it with me, but I went out one day and there was this big ugly thing nailed onto the roof of my lovely little house. We all had crucifixes over our beds, and there was Tom deciding that my dolls needed one too. Actually, I doubt he was making an attempt to rescue my dolls from the clutches of paganism. He just decided to try out his incipient skills as a construction engineer. It was terrible and I remember asking Mom for her scissors so I could cut it down. The adults in my life thought that was hilarious. My sister – who wasn’t around at the time – says she is sure it wasn’t supposed to be a cross at all but a lightning rod.
I have another engineering brother who at about the age of six thought that taking off one’s clothes to go to bed at night was a total waste of time, when you simply had to put them all back on again in the morning. So he developed a masterful time-saving plan: put one’s pajamas on over one’s clothes. When Dad found out, he called him to “come here immediately” in a scary authoritative voice of judgement he could use, so there wasn’t time to do anything but appear in full regalia. What those of us who witnessed the confrontation knew was that Dad was laughing so hard he could barely hold it together. Personally, I think that brother showed the ingenuity of a budding engineer.
Even my husband Peter (who grew up in a coal-mining village during WWII in England) could not believe the outfit Dad put on to “work on the farm.” It was the outfit his second wife forbid him to wear above the basement level.
Which demonstrates why we are all unanimous in our gratitude to the partners of the engineers in our family for supplementing the lacunae in their undoubted skills.
If you know any engineers, I’d love to know if you recognize any of the hall marks too. Double click on the test for engineers for the full authentic list.
It might not be all that surprising to hear bankers castigated for greed one more time. But when the head of the Bank of England says it, I’m surprised.
Mark Carney is the Canadian brought in last year as the best possible head to direct the Bank of England. So far he’s been doing a good job in a position that takes economic as well as political skill. But I never expected to hear him say that modern capitalism will fail if banks continue to be too big to fail, if they are not run ethically as a service to their clients rather than as a way to make huge personal fortunes.
He also said that the huge discrepancies that exist globally between the small minority of the very rich and the huge numbers of very poor is destabilizing. I would not have been surprised to hear Pope Francis say something like that, or even a socialist leader, but not the head of the Bank of England.
If you are interested in reading or hearing more, take your pick:
It gives me hope.
My father made his living and supported his large family as an attorney. But influenced by Dorothy Day, he bought 70 acres of virgin land in northern Ohio, where he set out to provide his children with a life close to the natural goodness of growing things. He transformed a swamp into a lake where we went swimming and ice skating, and fishing. The fields were planted with wheat which fed the cows and chickens and pigs, quonsut huts left over after the war were converted into barns for the hay, the orchard gave us apples and pears, the garden gave us berries and vegetables.
But at heart, my father was not really a farmer. He went to his law office 5 1/2 days a week, and on Saturday afternoons and after church on Sundays, when he put on a pair of grungy overalls and boots to go into the fields, it was as much recreation as farming. One of my recurring memories of childhood was our herd of cows escaping from the fields in which they were feeding. Occasionally they made in onto a neighbouring field, but most often they escaped onto the public road. My mother would look out the kitchen window, and inevitably make the phone call to my dad at the office: “Claude, the cows are out again.”
For my part, I’d decided by the age of six that I was not a farm girl and hatched a plan which I eventually achieved to live in New York. After I was married, my husband and I agreed that the final decisions about the inside of our property would be mine, while the decisions about outside were his. It’s worked out well. The closest I got to gardening was to water our decorative house plants.
Several years ago, however, a friend introduced me to square-foot gardening, a process by which one grows plants in planters rather than fields or allotments, and which I thought sufficiently urban to try. I’ve rather enjoyed being introduced to various plants which ultimately land on our dinner table. Handling them seems to me rather like managing a kindergarten of energetic two-year olds all of whom have a personal opinion about what they want to do. Since our opinions don’t always agree, we have learned to compromise.
I ran into a problem with the strawberries, though. Last February, I meticulously prepared a planter raised several feet above the ground with a mixture of vermiculite, compost, and a peat-substitute, and planted two dozen plugs, I ran a watering system to feed each plant and constructed a frame and netting to protect the berries from our endemic flock of wood pigeons. It was a lot of work, but I was chuffed, and the strawberry plants looked just as happy.
Two weeks ago, the bottom of the planter fell out, spilling its contents all over the ground. It took me three days to rebuild and replant it, but in the end it looked as good as new. The strawberries brushed themselves off and adapted to their shake-up as well. It was worth the effort to have made the repairs.
Thursday, at the end of a long working day outside together when we were just about ready to sit down for a well-earned gin and tonic, my husband came into the kitchen and said “Come here. I’m afraid you aren’t going to like this. You aren’t going to like this at all.” We went outside to see the strawberry planter had collapsed again. I started to laugh. My husband looked at me quizzically.
“Tell Claude the cows are out again,” was all I could say.
I’ve put the planter together again, this time with better screws and stronger support bars. And I apologized to the neighbour’s cat. I’m sure it wasn’t his fault after all.
Despite my silence, I have been giving some hard thought to just what it is that makes us all equal, and what inalienable rights and responsibilities flow from that fundamental equality. I said in my last post that this equality obviously cannot be defined in monetary terms. And of course it can’t.
But on further thought, it doesn’t seem that simple. Almost the world over, we need money to meet some of our most basic needs – food, shelter, clothing. Without a financial base, we cannot get an education, hope to do many of the jobs that are essential to a functioning society, even to raise a family.
Seeing this, many people concerned with fairness and justice support the concept of a minimum wage – the belief that people should, by law, be paid enough for the work they do to live responsibly in dignity, to develop their individuality and skills, and to contribute to the common good sufficiently to help care for those who cannot work at a paying job.
So far so good. In theory this should allow us to use our talents to contribute to the diversity that is so essential to the human community. So we will ultimately be quite different in our contributions, our levels of education, our social and financial status, our popularity, our physical abilities.
But we’re human beings. We often try to game the system. Or turn it around in a complete reversal of values. So on the one hand, there are those who will try to get social and financial support without working, even when they can. Or we somehow conclude not that we pretty much all need some basic financial base in order to develop and flourish, but that if we have more money we must, by that fact, be more important, more valuable, even more virtuous than those who don’t.
Today, for instance, we have the far right who think that social security or health care should be earned, and if you don’t earn it, that’s your lazy fault and you should get along without it.
And we have those on the far left who will strike for unconscionable wages, whatever it costs the community. Similarly, there are many who think that no other criteria should be required except that one has at least one child, and that the more children one has, the more funding should be given, no questions asked.
I can’t buy either of these conclusions. I think the far right are wrong in failing to appreciate how much we each need to be given what we have not earned. We need to be loved, we need opportunities, we need encouragement, and forgiveness and even to be given the chance to overcome failure and mistakes – sometimes big mistakes. Personally, I am revolted by the idea of the Great and the Good. I’m revolted by the idea that “success” is defined in terms of money. I’m revolted by the idea that more elevated human beings must help “the poor”. Whatever our finances, we need to help each other just as much as we need to be helped — all of us.
But I think the far left too often do not appreciate that we each need to feel that we are needed, that we need to make a contribution. And just as having greater wealth does not necessarily make us more or less virtuous, neither does being poor. The poor are not intrinsically either more virtuous or more criminal.
All of which gets me, rather tiresomely I fear, back to the conclusion that we are all part of an incredible universe. We are all incomplete by ourselves, and we need each other every bit as much as we need to be individuals. We’ll make mistakes. Some of will make big, destructive mistakes. Even when we are trying to be heroic, to make a significant contribution. But that’s the way we were made.
So after this little sermon to myself, I will continue to do my hum-drum best.
And be grateful beyond words for a chance to share in this great incredible mystery of life.
Equality is one of those soft fuzzy words, like love, that almost everybody says is a good idea. Politicians, philosophers, theologians, and most people in everyday life think it’s a great idea, even an important principle.
Pope Francis in recent weeks has said that building equality is quite possibly the biggest challenge of the modern world. Thomas Piketty, an economist at the Paris School of Economics has just published a book on capitalism in the 21st century, presenting powerful data that the growing disparities between the rich and the poor in countries from America and Britain to emerging economies risks fueling significant social unrest, democratic deficits and even revolution.
But if we look beneath the surface, what different people mean by equality is so different that they sometimes seem to be completely opposite concepts masquerading behind the same word. Is it based, as the U.S. Constitution suggests, on “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”? or the Golden Rule in which everyone deserves to be treated as we ourselves would wish to be treated? or the religious exhortation to “love one another”? These are principles which many of us support. But our universal agreement about what they mean breaks down almost immediately after we try to apply them.
The difficulty, as I see it, is that equality tends to become reduced solely to economic issues, which in turn become inextricably mixed with our human diversity. It would be great if we could just give everybody the same amount of money, period. But apart from the fact that nobody would put up with it, at the end of the day, some people would still manage to have more money at the end of the week than others. So the essence of our equality cannot be economic.
Just as important as equality to our happiness and survival is our diversity, our vastly different abilities and talents. We are all different. And we need to be different. We need others who are different from us to be complete ourselves. We can’t each grow our own food, make our own clothes, build our own shelter. We can’t even have offspring without the cooperation of a member of our opposite sex. Our great diversity is one of the greatest attributes of the human species, and why we have been able to accomplish so much. Some people are great athletes, some are skilled mathematicians, others musicians. Some people have great social sensitivity and a capacity for insight and kindness, others are unusually creative, have exceptional language abilities, or engineering or spatial abilities. Some people have a dogged determination that keeps them going in the face of great adversity, others have acute sensory abilities. There are great leaders, great facilitators, great doctors, great financial analysts, great teachers. The list is endless, and we each can benefit from almost every one of them.
The problem is that diversity gets confused with equality. In thousands of very important ways we are not equal, and instead of rejoicing in our combined strengths and gifts, we often are resentful. Diversity in relation to religious beliefs and cultural practices and in relation to material wealth seem to me to be the areas where we have the most trouble accepting diversity. If you are “one of us,” it might be more tolerable for you to have more than I do.
But if you speak a different language, practice a different religion, or have a different colour skin, resentments often swell to a determination to stamp out your gift. Besides war, there are many social practices and laws which work quietly to eliminate diversity on the grounds that it’s “not fair.” Or that acknowledging one kind of gift will make others feel inferior. We ignore or even denigrate many great contributions in place of superficial accomplishments like “celebrity.”
Clearly we can’t reduce equality to economics. And yet there is a bottom line. There are basic things which every individual in any society needs to flourish, and we can’t assure that basic equality with monetary handouts. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what those basic needs are. And also asking to what extent society has an obligation to do everything possible to give every individual a chance to fulfill their potential.
I’m not so naive as to think I can come up with the definitive answers. I’d be competing with Socrates, Buddha, Jesus, Marx, and the founding fathers of more than one country, and too many others to name. But it’s what I’m thinking about these days, so it’s what I plan to blog about for the next couple of posts.
A friend has just sent me a You-tube arguing that Americans should stop buying imported goods and instead “Buy American.” It presents what initially might sound like a rather convincing argument: if we stopped paying foreigners for making things for us, and instead put our workers back into our own factories, America would completely eliminate unemployment.
It sounds well-informed with all sorts of statistics to back up its argument. But I think it is economically and perhaps even morally quite naive. Inward investment – ie: investments from companies setting up businesses in poorer countries – has been the single most effective means of reducing poverty in the emerging economies in the last 20 years. So now America brings all those jobs back “home”? What happens to the families of those workers who have been working to support their own families in other countries? young women who are supporting their families are driven back onto the streets, children no longer have any chance of an education, medical help is harder to get, starvation increases.
For Roman Catholics, gaining forgiveness for one’s sins is fairly easy. One pops into a dark confessional, tells the priest who is sitting behind a screen and is bound by life-long secrecy, what one has done, and forgiveness is granted, usually for a small penance, such as saying several short prayers.
In theory, this recognition in confession that we are all sinners should be the motivation for forgiving others. In one of the great prayers of Christianity, the Our Father, the petitioner asks God “to forgive us our sins as we forgive others.” But learning to forgive others, especially for real injustice and injury, is rarely so simple as getting forgiveness for oneself.
Last week, something that happened at a scheduled hanging in Iran is one of the most incredible stories of forgiveness I have ever heard.
Seven years ago a 17-year-old boy was killed with a kitchen knife in a street fight in Iran. Four days ago, the young man who had killed him was scheduled to be hanged. There was a crowd gathered to witness the public execution, including the mother of the young man about to be hanged, and the parents of the murder victim. The prisoner was brought out blind-folded, and the noose placed around his neck. The mother of the victim then asked for a stool on which she could stand to reach the prisoner. She reached over, slapped him hard, and said “Forgiven!” She and the victim’s father then took the noose from around the neck of the prisoner and he was released.
There are photographs of the mothers of the released prisoner and of the victim embracing.
This story seems to have been in all the international news media. But I’ve not written about it because it has left me speechless. As far back as the Greeks, we have myths teaching us that the poison of unforgiven acts can last for centuries, even for millennium. Today in trouble spots around the world we see this tearing nations apart. I thought I had long understood that the only way to grow beyond injustice and betrayal was to forgive, to let go of the bitterness and anger. And I have seen people learn to let go of the desire for revenge and recompense, to forgive.
But I have never known anyone who has achieved it moments before one might arguably say she was about to achieve what some might have called ” justice” for the murder of her son.
I will not pretend that I’m sure I could do it.
But I do know that if humanity is going to survive, we must learn the lesson from this mother.
With eight younger brothers and sisters, I didn’t need to say “I don’t know” very often when I was growing up. I was in my middle age before my sisters started to tease me, suggesting that perhaps I didn’t always still know better than they did about any conceivable subject we might talk about.
Ah, I thought, I might be able to stand up in the classroom and deliver lectures like I’m more knowledgeable than anybody else in the room. But in social relations I needed to make a small adjustment.
Being a master at rationalizing, I began to notice how often people who are experts in their field were able to say “I don’t know,” and make it sound like a really really intelligent insight. First of all, I often didn’t even understand the question, let alone be in a position to acknowledge that I didn’t know the answer. But I also began to realize that if we can’t say “I don’t know,” I’m not going to learn anything more than I already know. So actually, the ability to say “I don’t know” is a very big step forward from ignorance.
I’m thinking about this today because I have just had a conversation with someone who doesn’t believe in evolution. “God didn’t make me from a monkey,” he stated firmly. “What about the science?” I asked. “Oh, I don’t know the science”, he replied. “I just know that evolution is just a theory.”
I didn’t dare ask about global warming.
I have often been surprised in recent years by the number of friends and family who have told me that they don’t believe anymore a lot of what the Roman Catholic church teaches, nor do they feel an obligation to abide by many of the church’s moral dictates. The surprise is not that so many people find the church’s teaching unbelievable. The surprise is how many of these same people still consider themselves Catholics.
I have asked myself a hundred times how this is possible. How can someone reject fundamental doctrines, many of which are even supposed to be infallible, and still consider oneself a Catholic? The Catholic Church itself tries to convince us that “once a Catholic, always a Catholic. Catholics cannot become “non-Catholics.” They are lapsed Catholics, or perhaps even more accurately “fallen-away Catholics.”
But this doesn’t match up with my own sense of myself. Although I am still discovering ways in which my early socialization as a Catholic influences my thinking, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, I feel no desire to interact with the institution of Roman Catholicism today, and I would not describe myself to anyone else as “Catholic.”
In pondering this conundrum for myself, I have come to understand that doctrine is not as important to many people as I was taught. For many people it is as Harvey Cox put it, “if you feel you belong, then you belong.”
Why then, raised as I was as a Catholic with friends even today going back to my Catholic days, do I not feel as if I am a Catholic? It’s not that I don’t feel welcome. It’s that I absolutely do not want to belong to a Church that seems to me to be so rigid, so frightened, to sexually neurotic, so authoritarian. But above all, I feel no sense of identification with an institution that itself cuts people off. Even if one agreed (which I don’t) that gays and the divorced or those who have an abortion are by definition sinners, how can a church that argues that we are all sinners — all of us — cut some sinners off from communion with those who presumably consider themselves saved?
It’s almost as if there were a group of Catholics getting ready to stone the woman caught in adultery. And then when Jesus said that he who was not guilty of any sin should throw the first stone, the entire Catholic congregation started throwing.
This seems to me to deny the single valid core message of Christianity: that we are all one. We are all in this together. Two thousand years ago, St. Paul told the Galatians that “here is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Paul did not say that here we are the saved rather than sinners. He did not say we are Catholics rather than ex-Catholics or non-Catholics. I think today he would probably say that here we are neither Catholic or Protestant, Black or White, Muslim or Christians, Buddhists or Communists. We are all of these things. Because the essential command of Christianity is to love our fellow human beings. All human beings.
This does strip Christianity of any claim to being the one and only true religion. Many other religions also are based on a fundamental respect for all humankind, even for all of life. Yes, of course, we belong to our own communities, our own cultures. We belong to different ethnic groups, different nations, different sexes, with different talents, interests, skills, and opinions. But that is potentially a great strength for humanity, not a weakness. We have incalculable benefit to gain from embracing our differences.
So if I’m going to feel a kinship with a community, it has got to be one that respects our differences. It must be a community that recognizes that we are all of us incomplete in different ways and that we all need each other. Above all, it is a community that doesn’t cut off anybody who might disagree with the high command.
Am I, I wonder, a minority?
The origins of April Fools day are not clear. Some people say it began with the Roman festival of Hilaria held at the end of March. Others say it began in the 1500’s with the switch to the Gregorian calendar that reduced the year from 13 equal lunar months to 12, and moved the celebration of the new year from April 1 to January 1. Others point to beginnings in India and Iran. Some Biblical-based claims have even been made that it was Noah with the animals on his ark who began it all.
But really, it’s a wonderful day, isn’t it? when we can laugh at ourselves and each other for being either clever or naive.
My favourite April Fools’ story is still the BBC’s documentary on the failure of the spaghetti crop in Italy.
But I do rather like the story about the business student who replaced the filling in chocolate Oreo cookies with toothpaste and served them to a friend.
Tesla is an electric car company that has recently announced plans to build a “gigafactory” possibly in Arizona. The goal is to double the world’s production of lithium-ion batteries while reducing the cost by 50% by 2020 for batteries that charge faster with a higher storage capacity than anything on the market today.
It’s potentially a serious game-changer. If Tesla succeeds, we are much closer to affordable storage batteries for individual homes which charge up when the sun shines or the wind blows and then give us heat, light, and power when the sun goes down.
Ultimately, this could do a great deal to reduce environmental pollution and climate change.
But it will be highly disruptive. The role of traditional energy companies will change radically. Energy companies in Germany are already facing huge losses as a result of renewables there. (One company posted a loss of $2.76 billion last year.) Traditionally, energy companies have smoothed out the delivery of electricity to our homes and businesses, so that we mostly experience a steady steam of electricity whether the sun is shining or not, or however much electricity is being pulled out of the grid at any given peak time.
Of course, there aren’t any simple answers for problems as huge and complex as our increasing global use of energy.
But part of the solution lies in human ingenuity.
This might be a big one.
In 1957 I was a teenager when I caught the Asian flu. I was very sick, but the doctors said it was a new strain and those of us who got it would probably have immunity to the flu for many years. It was 30 years before I had the flu again, and another 15 before I got it a second time. I was sick enough that time to think I might die, but also sick enough to go back to sleep and promise to worry about it if I woke up.
Two weeks ago I came down with the 2014 version of the flu. I haven’t been sick enough to think I was dying, but I do understand why it kills people, especially the elderly. The worst of it, after the incessant hacking cough, is that I can’t get rid of it. Every time I think I’ve finally vanquished it, I start coughing again, or fatigue sweeps over me and even the most mundane daily jobs seem gargantuan. Which is why my last post was March 15. I’m missing my cyber-conversations, though, so hope to return without too much delay.
But I am thinking perhaps I’ve used up my last flu-protection voucher issued in 1957.
There is a great delight in watching a two- or three-year old stubbornly insist on buttoning his own shirt. It might be crooked, but he did it. Or insisting on tying his own shoe laces – whatever the outcome. Similarly, I remember a student once saying to me about some advice she’d been given by her well-meaning adviser: ” I might be wrong. But I’d rather take responsibility for making my own mistakes than to let her tell me what mistakes to make.”
After my post yesterday, it occurred to me that victimhood and smoldering anger are quite similar. Because they both rob the person of the belief that metaphorically they can “tie their own shoe laces.” They both place the total blame on what has happened to them on someone else, and in the process convince themselves that they are powerless. Certainly, for better and worse, what happens to us is in part a result of what others do. But victimhood and long-term anger give away that critical self-determination that is evident in that two-year old with the crookedly buttoned shirt or knotted shoe lace.
I have long thought that anger is one of the most destructive emotions we humans generate. I’m not talking about that short burst of adrenalin-fired anger that gives us the wherewith-all to fight off danger, but the bitterness and anger that burns relentlessly for years, for a lifetime, even for generations. What seems to me so destructive about it is that, like victimhood, it too focuses the blame on what someone else did, rather than on what we might be able to do about it. That then degenerates into the pursuit of revenge, the determination to get even.
But ultimately what enduring anger and being a victim do is to rob the life of the angry person. They come believe they are powerless to do something positive, something life-enhancing, because some opportunity has been robbed from them by somebody else who had no right to take it.
It is true that they may truly have been hit, even are still being hit, by terrible misfortune caused by someone else. But that does not make one powerless. It does not mean there is nothing that I can do that is meaningful and which can give me joy or a sense of accomplishment. My misfortune might even give me insights into how to help others that I would not otherwise have had.
Anything I might say, however, cannot possibly compete with Maysoon Zayid. She may be handicapped because a doctor in New Jersey was drunk on the job when she was born. But a victim she is not
But one leading politician praised him for “defending the powerless.” I found myself bristling.
From my limited perspective, Benn did not degrade members of the working class whom he represented by calling them powerless. He did not suggest that people with less money, less education, or with other social or economic disadvantages were merely helpless victims who had to be helped by the more fortunate.
Yes, he fought for justice. Yes, he fought tenaciously for human rights, for democracy, for education. But I never heard him suggest that anybody is without choice, that anybody must submit to being a victim because they are powerless.
Do we need help sometimes? Absolutely! But the first step in not being a victim is to refuse to be one. One of the things counselors for rape victims sometimes find is that some women insist on identifying some behaviors in which they engaged which may have been interpreted – however wrongly – as a come-on. What the women are saying is that they can take some responsibility for what happens to them in the future, that they are not powerless, that they refuse to be nothing more than victims to explain what happens to them.
We might not always like our choices. But as long as we are conscious, we can choose.
It is amazing sometimes how ordinary extraordinary people look. Sometimes they even look like outstanding failures. Churchill was a miserable student, Einstein’s teachers thought he was lazy, sloppy, and insubordinate. Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard, Thomas Edison’s teacher told him he was “too stupid to learn anything.” Walt Disney was once fired from a job because he had no imagination. Beethoven’s music teacher said that as a composer, he was hopeless.
Here in Cambridge, England, a hot-house of geniuses, one learns not to presume. That man in the wheel chair making his way across the greens might be Stephen Hawking. But many other extraordinary men are not so easily recognized. In fact, they might even be women. But the ordinariness of greatness is not just true in Cambridge or Silicon Valley or other places where known geniuses gather.
I have just read what may be my all-time favourite story of the sheer doggedness that I think explains why genius so often looks like failure to us ordinary folk. There is a self-determination that comes from within and that refuses to be daunted by society’s prosaic standards of success.
Arunachalam Muruganantham was a school dropout from a poor family in southern India. He did not develop the vaccine that eliminated small pox, or that can prevent polio or aids or malaria. He developed a machine that women can use to make cheap sanitary pads. Since poor menstrual hygiene causes some 70% of all reproductive diseases in India and an unknown number of maternal deaths, it matters to a lot of families.
But not only was Muruganantham a school dropout. He risked his family, his money, and his reputation in the process. They thought he was crazy, that he himself was suffering from some bizarre sexual disease, and should be ostracized. Nobody, but nobody, believed in the truth or value of what he was doing.
Shortly after he was married in 1998, he discovered the filthy rags his wife used during menstruation. When he asked her why, she said she wouldn’t be able to afford to buy milk or run the household if she bought sanitary pads. Later he learned that along with rags that they were too embarrassed to disinfect by drying in the sun, women also used other substances like sand, sawdust, and leaves.
So Muruganantham decided to buy his wife some sanitary pads. That’s when he found out that pads themselves cost 40 times more than the 1/2 oz of cotton out of which they were made cost. He decided he could make the pads cheaper himself. The problem — well, one problem anyway – was that he could not get women to test out his pads. So he decided he would have to test the pads on himself . He created a source of bleeding by punching holes in a football bladder and filling it with goat’s blood. Then he went about the daily activities of life constantly pumping blood to test his pad’s absorption.
Villagers believed he was a pervert, or possessed by evil spirits. He avoided being chained upside down to a tree by agreeing to leave the village. His wife and mother had already left him.
It took four and a half years before he finally discovered the process required to make sufficiently absorbent pads. The machines cost thousands of dollars. So he set about designing his own.
And that is the gift he is giving to India. The machine is simple and affordable, and not only provides hygienic sanitary pads for India’s women. It also provides a source of income for thousands of women who can now make and sell them to others.
A year after he had made the first machine, someone entered it into a national innovation competition. It came out first among 943 entries. The award he received from India’s president put him in the limelight, and is helping to sell the machines. It also redeemed him in the eyes of his wife, his mother, and the village which had ostracized him.
The machine could make Muruganantham a rich man. But that’s not what he wants. People don’t die of poverty, he says. They die of ignorance. That’s what he wants to change.
Last month I began an exploration of World War I, because that was when wars became industrialized, using tanks, germ warfare and mustard gas, bombs and submarines and the hell-holes of the trenches. I thought that if I could understand that war that I would be able to decide for myself whether I thought the horrors of war were ever justified.
I have now read two books about World War I, read reviews of four more, and thus far watched three BBC documentaries debating whether it was a futile war which Britain and America should have stayed out of, or whether, terrible as it was, the Allied victory saved the world from even greater enslavement, brutality, and bloodshed. I know a great deal more about the events leading up to that war and the reasoning of politicians as they grappled with it. I now have a great deal of information but rather than producing answers, it has left me with many more questions.
The first thing that seems apparent to me is that at the beginning, it is rarely clear what a war is really about. Even those who start it seem to find themselves fighting for different reasons and goals than they first had in mind. History generally begins WWI the Sunday morning in June 1914 when a student drop-out assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as he was on his way to church in Sarajevo. This took place in the context of an empire threatened by calls for independence in the Balkans. Germany immediately sent word that it would support the Empire should it attack what is now called Bosnia. It looked as if it could be a short sharp war that nobody would notice and would quell the unrest which the Empire was facing. But Russia, worried that the attack could spread to Serbia, lined up against Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Then France, responding to its alliance with Russia allied herself with Russia. Germany at this point thought it could take over France before Russia had time to get there, and invaded Belgium because militarily that was the best way to invade France.
It almost worked. There was one last battle to be won, in which Germany had overwhelming force, and they had already drawn up their demands for any peace settlement. It included parts of France and Russia. But they lost the battle and had to retreat.
That is what changed Britain’s mind about getting involved. First of all, Germany had invaded Belgium, a sovereign country uninvolved in the dispute, for no other reason than that it was militarily advantageous to them. This violated an international agreement, a violation which made Britain feel highly vulnerable should a triumphant Germany be installed across the Channel. Germany was also building huge ships, which ultimately would threaten Britain’s control of the high seas and so the entire British colonial empire. Finally, Germany’s goals, as revealed in the demands for the peace settlement which they had thought was imminent, showed a Germany bent on vastly expanding the lands it controlled. Almost overnight the British public backed a war which up until then they had resisted.
America got involved in the war on similar grounds of self-preservation. For several years, President Woodrow Wilson kept American out of a European war which most Americans felt had nothing to do with them. Wilson also saw his own position as a peace-maker. But a German diplomat stationed in Washington rather stupidly – from Germany’s point of view anyway – admitted that intercepted messages from Germany to Japan and Mexico were indeed valid. Germany was encouraging Japan and Mexico to invade the U.S., promising Mexico that it would support its attempt to regain Texas, and plotting with Japan to take control of Latin America. As in Britain, the American public swung behind a war effort against Germany almost immediately after they felt personally threatened.
World War I killed an average of ten thousand people a day for four years, including eight million troops and almost as many civilians.
The news today is about Ukraine. It has some worrisome similarities to the situation in 1914. Is it all right for the EU and US to effectively say to Russia that they can take over the Crimea simply cutting it off from Ukraine? Should we say that the Russian helicopters flying over that part of the country is not an unacceptable invasion? should we pretend that we don’t think the troops who have taken over the sea and air ports aren’t Russian? Should we say it’s not worth the fight? – after all half the people in the Crimea speak Russian and would prefer to be part of Russia. Crimea is only that bottom bit sticking out into the Black Sea. And Russia only gave the Crimea to Ukraine in 1954.
Is it comparable to Germany’s invading Belgium in WWI? And if so, was it worth fighting then? Would millions fewer have died if Britain and America had stayed out of the war altogether? Could the Crimea become another Belgium? Should it?
I don’t know. Ukraine does not have a functioning government. It has been corrupt almost since the Orange Revolution. The people in the west of the country want to become part of the European Union some day. Can we help and support the creation of a free, truly democratic government and functioning economy there without stumbling into an escalating war? Can we find a compromise with Russia that protects the strategic interests of all the parties?
We all are in great need of wisdom and skill and knowledge. And good fortune.
Below are 19 complaints received by Thomas Cook, a British travel agency, from dissatisfied customers. You will notice that they all blame somebody else — it’s never the fault of the complainer. I’m inclined to think that in part this failure to take responsibility for what happens to oneself is a result of a government that believes it is the government’s responsibility to provide the basics of food, housing, and education to everyone under all circumstances.
On the other hand, the litigious “I’ll sue you” response so rampant in America is not nearly as pervasive here in Britain.
Yesterday I sent a link to a newspaper article to a friend originally from Norway. The story is about a ten-year-old boy near Oslo who, very early one snowy morning this week, put his little sister in the back of the car, and began a 68-mile drive to visit his grandparents. Unfortunately – or otherwise – he drove into a snow bank 6 miles down the road, and was eventually found stuck but unhurt by a snowplow driver. When the police arrived, the ten-year-old told them he was a dwarf and that he’d left his license at home.
Having grown up on a farm where several of my brothers were driving tractors and even cars around the property by the age of ten, my first thoughts as I read the story was about recent research suggesting that creativity tended to be associated with a relaxed attitude toward rules. My friend who lives in New York city took a slightly more concerned view and wondered if something of concern was going on in the family home from which the boy was trying to escape.
She also sent me, at the same time, another story from life on the street subject to more than one interpretation:
Next September, Scotland is going to have a referendum to decide whether they want to be an independent country again and no longer part of Great Britain (also known as the United Kingdom) which today is composed of England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland. The wording of the referendum has been agreed by the current governments in London and Edinburgh, and whatever the outcome, nobody foresees the issue degenerating into outright war.
But the situation is becoming tetchy. Last week all the main parties in the UK agreed that if Scotland chose independence, Britain would not agree to their using the pound sterling as a common currency. Scotland could continue to use the pound, if she wished, but her debts would no longer be secured by the Bank of England in London. The reasoning, which seems obvious to me, is that the euro has already demonstrated that a common currency used by a number of independent countries each responsible for their own budgets is unsustainable in the long run. The Scottish National Party which is Scotland’s independence party is accusing the English of being bullies. And when David Cameron, the Prime Minister, encouraged the English to ask their Scottish friends to vote against independence, many Scots asked who the English thought they were to tell them how to vote. Etc., etc.
I strongly suspect the exchanges are going to become more heated, if not more enlightened. My hope is that by the time September arrives, the trading of accusations will not have become so bad as to make it impossible for the British and the Scots to work together, whether Scotland is or isn’t independent.
All of which has set me wondering again if we human beings are capable of getting along in our increasingly globalized world. Can we stand being this relentlessly close to each other and still maintain our individual identities?
It seems to me, war inevitably requires a sense that “Us”, and “Them” are incompatible. Whether the conflicts are between Catholics and Protestants, Black and White, Shias and Sunnis, Allied and Axis powers, the Tutsi and Hutu tribes, or one of the hundreds of other warring sides, it happens when we find it impossible to share our essential identities with others. Christianity still preaches that we are all God’s children, but that has not stopped us from killing each other as intolerable heretics. Whites for centuries enslaved Blacks on the grounds that Blacks are inferior. Tribes in Africa and Asia are also unable to find common ground, and would rather die than live together.
I don’t know if we can do it in this stage of our evolutionary development. Maybe we are too aggressive and insufficiently cooperative, unable to recognize our common humanity whatever our differences. The European Union was founded as a result of World War II, in the belief that if Europe were sufficiently united economically, countries would avoid the destructiveness of war. But more than a functioning economy is required. Sometimes people don’t understand how much cooperation a global economy requires. Sometimes they’d rather take the chance of going it alone rather than take orders from Brussels or London or Washington or Moscow or Beijing.
It is highly unlikely that a Scottish vote for independence would utterly destroy their economy. I strongly suspect independence would come at an economic cost, however, to both Scotland and to a lesser extent to the rest of Great Britain. But that’s not the only issue. Many Scots don’t like the feeling that they are being ruled by London, just as many states in the U.S. resent federal laws and taxes, or the way many in England resent the rules coming from Brussels and the European Union.
As anybody in any long-term relationship has discovered, making it last requires both compromise and cooperation. If both feel that the independence one gives up is worth what one receives in its stead, the relationship is experienced as a success. But if I’m losing more than I’m giving, I want out.
I suppose it’s the same way with countries. Right now it’s the Scots who are asking the question. But there are many other places too that are asking if they wouldn’t be better off on their own. Scotland, I am glad, is not resorting to bombs and guns to find the answer.
Still, I hope things don’t get too nasty before the issue is resolved.
Some years ago, I read a weather forecaster who said that the effects of global warming were unlikely to be what people were expecting – even looking forward to. Familiar weather patterns would not disappear, he said, but become instead more extreme. Droughts would occur more often and last longer. So would floods, snow storms, and deadly heat waves.
For Britain, the forecaster said, the chances were that colder winter temperatures would sweep down from the arctic. They might dump snow on America, but as the weather systems crossed the Atlantic, they would turn to rain, bringing more rain, gale-force winds, and potentially disastrous floods to Ireland and Britain.
Well, this might not be global warming. One can’t say with certainty until a clear pattern has set in over many years, by which time it may be far more difficult if not impossible to reverse forces that have been triggered by greenhouse gases.
But the weather we are experiencing now in Ireland and Britain sounds like it could be a brutal introduction to environmental change, and is breaking centuries of records. Storms have been arriving on a conveyor belt from America since December. Some people have been flooded out of their homes since before Christmas, and many will never be able to go back. Tens of thousands of acres of farmland are under water, and herds of farm animals are in grave trouble. Tonight more than a quarter of a million homes in Ireland are without electricity and half that many again in England. A thousand people were evacuated from their homes just last night. Sewage water is backing up into the streets and into people’s houses. Some homes have been told not to flush their toilets but to use porto-toilets. Gale winds have washed rail lines into the sea and blocked access to much of England’s south-west coast.
The army and navy are both out, supporting thousands of volunteers who have been working for weeks to try to hold the sea at bay, and politicians have been buying boots in order to wade about in the waters to make it look like they are doing something.
What is most worrying is that it is getting worse and there is no end in sight. These weekly – even tri-weekly – storms could last into the end of March, bringing more rain and floods, uprooting more trees whose roots have been loosened by the water, pushing more people out of their homes. When I hear weather forecasters telling Americans in the north that more snow is coming to be added to their already 15-foot snow banks, I tremble. I know what that kind of snow is like. But when it arrives as unrelenting rain, it’s devastation can be even worse.
We here in Cambridge are not getting the worst of it. Roads are closed and fields are flooded. Yesterday when we returned from shopping, we had to take four separate detours to get through.
But we’re not flooded out – yet anyway.
I won’t say it’s easy, but there is a spirit of determination among the English right now. I won’t say they aren’t angry. And they certainly aren’t enjoying it. But they are pulling up their boots.
If the only expected result of global warming were the potential for flooding, I wouldn’t worry about Britain. They’re going to solve this problem one way or another.
In the meantime, it’s wet. And depressing.
I think I’ll make a cup of tea
I have just this minute finished reading Barbara Tuchman’s The Zimmermann Telegram, the volume in her trilogy that explores how America finally entered WWI. It is one of the most fascinating books I have ever read, and makes me realize how uninformed I have been. It has convinced me that it is not enough to take a principled stance against war. We need more.
President Wilson adamantly stayed out of the war for two years on the grounds that America had to remain uninvolved militarily in order to negotiate a peace between Germany and Britain. He believed that America’s entering the war would simply harden the implacable lines of disagreement. He did this despite the fact that by 1916 German troops bestrode Europe from the English Channel to the frontiers of Russia, and from the Baltic to the Black Seas, occupying Poland, Romania, Belgium, Alsace-Lorraine, and industrial France as far west as Reims. In addition, German allies, the Austria-Hungary empire, and Turkey held the Balkans from Italy to Greece, and from Baghdad to Jerusalem. German u-boats had sunk the Lusitania which was not a military ship with huge loss of life. Even when Germany announced that any ship, even of a neutral country, would be attacked by German u-boats,Wilson remained determined to keep America out of the war.
It was only when German u-boats sank three US military ships with massive loss of life, and shortly after that, when Wilson got incontrovertible evidence that Germany was negotiating with Mexico to join forces with Japan to invade the U.S. and take back Texas and Arizona that he – and the American public – decided that war was unavoidable. It was, Wilson said, democracy or dictatorship. It was a cause more important than peace.
I have no doubt that had I been alive then, I would have supported the war. I think that the evidence still supports the evaluation that Germany was set on world domination and the destruction of democratic governments in Britain and America.
But today I ask Wilson’s own anguished question: “For God’s sake, is there no other alternative!?”
I am convinced that a stance of pacifism is not enough. It might be moral. It is undoubtedly often courageous. Yes, we need to stop glorifying war. Yes, we need to stop using it as our weapon of choice when we feel threatened or outraged, even legitimately so. But pacifism by itself is not enough. It is not enough to say “never again.” By itself, it will not stop the almost unimaginable carnage wrought by modern warfare.
It is a hundred years since World War I began. It is even more imperative, for our sakes, not for God’s, that we commit ourselves to find and implement alternative solutions to our differences.
Far greater minds and hearts than mine have struggled with this question, and have paid a far higher price in the search for answers. The world is not going to be revolutionized by my search. But it is a small step. It is replacing a cozy innocence that belongs to childhood.
Since I was old enough to think about it at all, the question I have always asked about a war was whether it was morally justified. Were the wars being fought because of injustice so grave that it merited killing and dying for? If all other alternatives had been exhausted, if negotiations or economic forces failed, genocide obviously seemed a cause worth opposing to the death. Mass starvation, slavery, unjustified invasion for the purpose of taking over a land to which one has no right or need also seemed justifiable reasons to go to war.
But I am now reading Barbara Tuchman’s superb trilogy examining the events preceding and during World War I – The Proud Tower, The Zimmermann Telegram, The Guns of August – and I am realizing how very much more complicated the question of war is beyond questions of morality. In the stories we tell ourselves afterwards, we inevitably make the victors of war into heroes, even saints provided we are the victors, and into villains if we are the losers. But it’s much much more complicated than that.
It’s not just about good guys and bad guys, right and wrong.
As I look at this question, I feel much the way I felt when 15 years ago I decided to grasp the events of time since the Big Bang, and ultimately wrote The Big Bang to Now. My ignorance to begin with was vast. But I was fascinated, and bit by bit I got a hold of time and the major events of the last 14 billion years – at least those we know about.
I am now staring at the abyss of my ignorance about war. I doubt I will achieve sufficient wisdom to write a book on the subject, but this blog has always been primarily my platform for thinking out loud. So I am going to think out loud as I continue to read. Any comments or suggestions will be accepted with appreciation. Not, perhaps, always with agreement. But I am emphatically in a learning mode right now and am seriously listening.
Yvettte Cooper, a leading Labour Party member of Parliament, told the annual Labour party conference today about her parental limitations.
“I have to be realistic,” she admitted. “I have to ask my kids how to use the parental controls. “
I’ve been struggling with the question of war once again in response to The Game of War, a recent post on the Writer’s Treehut blog. Then this morning I found Ain’t Gonna Study War No More in my email, sent by a friend in memory of Pete Seeger who died two days ago. I’ve been listening to folk songs from the 60’s and 70’s all day.
I was not prepared for the depth of feeling aroused by a return to this time in my life. I remembered again how strongly I felt about war, about racial discrimination, about the poor. And I thought again that we were right.
Oh yes, we were naive, and innocent, and simple. But we were right about war. We were right about loving each other. We were right that we needed to care about each other. And we were willing to go out there and fight for what we thought was right. We were not all just sitting around in communes smoking pot and passing flowers to each other in a land of complete sexual liberty. People literally died in the firing lines of the fight.
But we had no idea then just how unclear and how long the road for peace, for civil rights, for justice, and against poverty was. I think we thought that the world could be turned around in a generation — our generation, in fact. Now I look at the continued and increasing horrors of war and floods of refugees, at the environmental degradation, at the increasing difference between the rich and poor, and I never dreamed in those days that it could possibly become so bad.
We had no idea the problems we thought we could solve were so complex. I think we still don’t. Actually, we don’t need to “study war no more,” but to study war and poverty and the environment and our impulse to kill each other a lot more. We need to understand ourselves, our motivations, the conditions which bring out the best and the worst much better than we do.
Is there something about war, for instance, that we do truly find glorious and heroic? The BBC is showing a surprisingly good documentary on World War I right now. I learned last night that the prime minister, and at different times, members of the cabinet broke down in tears, several men even resigned their posts, as they contemplated the oncoming war. What they saw was Germany set on control of the entire European continent. So they saw no alternative to war. Was there? Were there alternatives that would have been better than those four ghastly years that killed 8 million troops and almost as many civilians? Was there an alternative to what was basically a continuation of this war in World War II during which 66 million people died?
This very day, negotiators are gathered in Geneva struggle to find an alternative to the continuing civil war in Syria. Northern Ireland has still not fully resolved its conflict, and Africa today is seeing the daily carnage of war.
I’m old now, and there is little I can see that I might contribute to the solutions we humans have created for ourselves.
But the truth is, young or old, none of us can do it alone. In fact, each of us can do so little by ourselves that the great temptation is to despair. We can touch the lives of only a very small number of people. Our kindness can reach only a very small circle. Our individual problem-solving must be focused or we won’t answer any questions at all. We each must be satisfied to do our small bit, and hope that others do too.
We’re all in this together. Even the most powerful, the most gifted, the most sainted need others.
“A cognitive psychologist friend of mine sent on a piece of trivia: research has shown that intelligent people have more zinc and copper in their hair. i am now wearing my copper pot as a hat. hope it works. on the street today as i took my daily walk, folks seemed to be treating me with more respect… “
We had a strange fishy smell in our refrigerator yesterday. I couldn’t see any cause for the offending order, so I gave it a deep clean this morning. This is not my usual procedure, which may be why, as I was trying to make the 20-year-fridge look like new, I was remembering that it was nuns who set my much-abused standard for “really clean.”
“Cleanliness is next to godliness” was the motto of the nun who directed my scrubbing the convent pantry floor every afternoon for several years. The unambiguous implication of Sister Teresita’s daily repetition of her motto was that I was unfortunately lacking in sufficient godliness.
By that standard I’m still not going to make it to the top celestial tiers.
But these days I’m more inclined to think that kindness is closer to godliness than cleanliness.
Unfortunately, compared to some of the acts of kindness I’ve seen in others, I doubt I’m going to make it to the top tiers on that score either.
My New Year’s resolution just over three weeks ago was to read at least one hour every day. I’ve now tweaked it a little. Because I can’t read a full straight hour anymore without starting to nod. So the second half hour of my “reading” was pretty much wasted.
My first alternatives to reading were to play another computer game, or to grab something surgary, preferably something sugary with chocolate. That, the snake in the tree said to me, would give me a boost of energy and then I could return to reading with a more lively mind.
All right, I knew the snake was leaving out half the consequences of this latter solution. My fatigue would return quite quickly, and it would not take long for that sugary chocolate to transform itself into a little bit more stored fat than I needed. More sensibly, I thought about introducing a daily nap in to my schedule. But I found I wasn’t tired enough.
So I’m now onto an adjusted resolution. I’m reading for two half-hour bits every day.
In the process, I’ve discovered something else. It might be the German in me, but I like living on a schedule. I am now scheduling my day much more definitively in 30-60 minute slots, and I’m getting much more done. Or at least, I think I am, and I feel much less unpegged and potentially anxious. I haven’t got much time to play computer games, which I didn’t enjoy anyway, even as I compulsively pressed the icon for one more game of mahjong.
Of course, life has a way of interfering with schedules. So I have to be a little bit flexible when we wake up to find the kitchen floor flooded with last night’s rain. Or I break another molar, requiring three previously unscheduled visits to the dentist. Or the electricity shuts off and it takes the entire afternoon of experimentation to discover that the immersion heater in the hot water tank is what keeps shorting the system.
Whatever else though, 2014 has not been boring. Though I do have a few suggestions to the gods of fate for future diversions. Winning the lottery would be interesting, for instance.
Shortly after leaving the convent and before I met my husband, someone gave me a piece of advice that still looks brilliant to me. “If you want to know whether your perspective husband will see you as an equal, don’t look to his father; find out what he thinks about his mother.”
It worked for me. My husband’s mother wanted to be a teacher, but she had to leave school at the age of twelve to support her family. Nonetheless, Peter thought she was extremely intelligent, with equal amounts of determination and energy. When I met her I agreed. At the time, I was wondering whether I was wasting my life as an educator. She never expressed regret about the opportunities life had not offered her. But just knowing her convinced me that giving an education to a young person is one of the most wonderful gifts we can bestow.
I was reminded of that advice recently. I am now in my 70’s and sometimes subject to the kind of prejudice against the elderly that unfortunately I see quite often here in Britain. It may be compounded for women compared to men, and in addition I rarely tell people that I have a Ph.D. So if young people, particularly young men seriously listen to what I have to say, I notice.
I have a new dentist who I bet has a mother whom he respects. He’s young, and on my first visit told me that I hadn’t just lost the filling on the tooth I was concerned about, but needed a root canal. So I grilled him. I told him I’d already had one root canal done by someone who didn’t know what they were doing, and that I did not approach another procedure with automatic trust. I asked him about his background and experience, and he was completely unthreatened. I couldn’t look up his record the way I could in the U.S., but I decided that someone who was able to answer my questions without being aggressive or defensive felt confident in his abilities. So I decided to stay with him. Yesterday he put the crown on the finished job. It looks and feels terrific.
I didn’t think that I had the right to ask him what he thinks about his mother. But I bet he has a high opinion of her. Or if not his mother, a grandmother, aunt, older sister, or teacher.
I’d love to know.
I think it is my German DNA, but I am, above all else, organized. Not obsessively clean — a layer of dust or a stray spider web in the corner don’t bother me much. But I am an obsessive organizer.
Yesterday I realized this extends even to my “senior moments,” which occur most often in terms of names. You’d think that if one can’t remember something that by definition it can’t be organized. My insight to the contrary came as I was trying to remember the name of a plant in our garden given to us by a friend several years ago. I spend five frustrating minutes using the usual trick of describing the object I’m trying to remember, which often leads to success, but still came up with that irritating tip-of-the-tongue blank. Except that I was pretty sure the plant’s name began with an “A.”
So I went to Google, typed in “perennial plants in the UK,” in the search line and went to a gardening site which listed their offerings in alphabetical order.
Sure enough, there it was – Acanthus!
So I listened to it.
I listened to it carefully and attentively.
And I was reminded again about a musical blind spot that I’ve never read any research about, but which I know is real.
I have perfect pitch, and my music teacher in high school told me my musical abilities were way above average – that my understanding of the nuances of rhythm and chords was excellent. What she didn’t know, and what I didn’t discover until years later is that there is a “blind spot” in my musical memory. When I hear a piece of music, I know whether I have heard it before. I recognize it, and know how it is going to develop. But I am almost completely unable to identify it. If the melody has words, I might be able to figure it out. But that’s cheating anyway. Even worse, if I hear the same melody in different contexts, I don’t recognize that they are the same.
I didn’t know this in my youth, because the record or CD or musical page I was playing always included the composer. So I had no idea that if I weren’t told, I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a familiar Beethoven or Mozart. I can tell the difference between Stravinsky and Bach, or between Vivaldi and the Beetles because the structures of their music are so different. (or at least they are to me). But I would have to guess between Vivaldi’s Spring and Summer. And hundreds of other classical and popular pieces of music.
So in some very profound way I’m an idiot when it comes to music. In relation to music, I’m rather like a color-blind painter.
And yet, I understand music in some profound way. It has taught me things that I do not understand through any other medium. Only poetry comes close.
I wonder if there’s a partial disconnect between the two halves of my brain. Perhaps it keeps my analyzing right brain from jumping in and “explaining” before the other half of my brain has a chance to simply absorb the experience itself.
Whatever the reason, the paradox is that my problem might just be the reason why music call tell me things I don’t know in any other way.
In my earlier post about New Year’s resolutions I described The “5-minute trick” I use to keep my craving for sugar under control. I have found that if I can delay my urge to have “just one more” for 5 minutes, and if during that five minutes I concentrate on something else besides that blessed temptation shouting out at me, the chances are greatly increased that the craving will greatly diminish or even disappear.
Since then, I was reading an research article about exercise as an aid to dieting, which reportedly found that one of the most effective techniques for dealing with food cravings is to engage in ten minutes or so of aerobics. But another piece of research found that engaging in as little as 3 sessions of 45 second intense aerobic exercise at 3 minute intervals has an even greater effect for some individuals. The theory is that it works because aerobic exercise stimulates that part of the brain where rational thought predominates, and so reduces the influence of the part of the brain that is responsible for irrational and often destructive cravings. Short bouts of intense exercise can also, for some people, actually increase overall energy.
So I’m going to try it. It might be another one of those crazy ideas like cabbage-soup diets or those other fads that eventually return to the oblivion which they deserve.
But I can’t see that I have anything to lose. And those five minutes with a couple of aerobic bouts might work. In which case, it’s a 2-for-1 gain: less sugar, more energy, better brain. At least I might be able to tell myself it’s making a difference…
I’ll report back in the spring with my assessment.
I grew up thinking that to describe someone as “blue-blooded” was a compliment to their genuineness, their gracious generosity, their unselfish nobility of spirit. I guess it did. But that claim to unselfish nobility came from a rotten core of arrogant self-elevation.
I had no idea until today where the term originated, and it certainly never occurred to me it was racist.
But according to Thomas Cahill’s Heretics and Heroes, it began in Spain in the 15th century with European colonial aggressions into north and south America. Throughout the Middle Ages, vicious discrimination existed between “Us” and “Them” but it was based primarily not on genetic or even cultural identity but on religious affiliation. Jews and Muslims could agree to be baptized, and if their conversions were deemed to be sincere, they would be spared persecution.
But with the discoveries of the “New World,” it seemed that these creatures living there might not be humans like us at all. Some of them didn’t wear any clothes whatsoever, and their skin seemed to be of a different hue. They were a different breed. You could tell, because you could see the blue blood running through the veins on the back of the hands of the white man, indicating that his superiority was not religious, but more fundamental than that. They were of a different race.
In this sense, modern racism was invented by Europeans – and the first European immigrants brought it with them not only to Central and South America but also to North America. Fully 95% of the North American Indian population died as a result of either the diseases imported from Europe and to which the Indian population had no immunity, or as the result of the harsh working conditions of what was essentially serfdom imposed by the newcomers who laid claim to the land in the names of their originating country.
And so I profoundly hope I am not blue-blooded in the original sense of the term. I know for sure my blood runs runs red just like everybody else’s.
Whether it’s alcohol, cigarettes, gambling, drugs, calories, temper tantrums or finger-nail biting, I suspect that resolutions about addictions are the single most frequent source of New Year’s resolutions.
The addiction to which I am prone is sugar, especially if it is cuddled up with chocolate and nuts. I don’t have a weight problem as such, but the only reason I still wear the same size jeans today as when I was 18 is that Lands End size 8 is a good deal more generous than it was 4 decades ago. And every Christmas I demonstrate to myself just how easily I could slip on another ten pounds a year. I know my potential to lose control of my sugar intake is very much like that of the alcoholic in relation to alcohol.
The challenge for the addict or potential addict is that additions have the power to overcome almost any resolution by narrowing our consciousness to that single obsession. I think sometimes that the reasons an addict can find for indulging “just this once” are among the most creative and ingenious known to man. I knew a man once who actually chained himself to his sofa to make it impossible for him to leave the house to buy cigarettes. George Best dressed up in his wife’s clothes and posed as a woman in order to get the barman to serve him a drink — or two — or ten. If you or anyone you love is struggling with an uncontrolled addition, you know the routine.
A long time ago, though, I learned a small trick from a monk who finally managed to lose weight. The only rule he had was that when he was going to break his diet, he would brush his teeth first.
I never tried that particular distraction, but I have found what works for me is my “five-minute delay.” You can have that second cookie/candy/piece of cake, I say to myself, if you still want it in five minutes. In the meantime, get on with what you were doing.
I am still amazed at how often this works for me. That mad irresistible irrational impulse needs the breath of attention to survive. And five-minutes is its starvation point for me. On the rare occasion when it doesn’t work, I give myself the promised forbidden fruit. But then I apply the 5-minute delay rule to the inevitable impulse to grab a third bite of that tree of the Knowledge of Failure.
I am sure my need to control my sugar intake will remain with me for the rest of my conscious life. So just to add a little diversification to my annual resolutions, I am also resolving this year to set aside an hour each day for concentrated reading. Reading is so intrinsically rewarding that you’d think no intelligent person would need to resolve to read. But I’ve been watching myself develop an eerie preference for playing Free Cell or Solitaire. It doesn’t give me any satisfaction whatsoever – it’s just a compulsive excuse to waste time.
So I’m simply going to try to crowd it out by doing something I enjoy more.
Whether additional concentrated reading will be evident in a display of brilliant posts is in doubt. But I rather think it will be one of my more enjoyable resolutions.
For those of you who may not yet be acquainted with this courtesy, wishing friends and acquaintances in the United States a “Merry Christmas” risks being seriously politically incorrect. The correct form is a neutral “Happy Holidays.”
I am happy to say that this is one Americanism which has not crossed the pond to England. Quite possibly because no one has found an economic advantage in eliminating a merry Christmas. But I was startled to realize several times this week how much I missed that simple greeting. The owner of our local store, and even my dentist wished me a hearty Merry Christmas, and I realized how wonderful it sounded.
Strange, too, because I really don’t like Christmas, and most of the Christian myths do nothing to lift my spirits.
But Christmas was not originally a Christian holy day. It was hijacked by the Roman Church from the pagans who were celebrating the winter solstice. The Christmas tree itself came from Celtic tribes in Germany, where the evergreen tree remained green even in the midst of deep winter, and candlelight helped conquer the darkness.
And so I can’t see that wishing someone a Merry Christmas really should be politically incorrect, even if one is speaking to a Jew, a Hindu, a Muslim, or atheist.
(And a Happy New Year, too — though perhaps that could become a little more religiously complicated, given the various new years we celebrate around the globe.)
Equality has a fuzzy comfortable feeling, especially if you’re an American like me. We have a constitution that says we are all entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and even though it took a century and a half and a civil war to recognize even in law that WE did not mean only white men, and even though racism still rears its nasty head, we nonetheless all cross our hearts to the concept of equality.
But what does it mean? What does equal mean? In hundreds of important ways we are obviously not equal. We differ in sensory sensitivity, in physical strength and coordination, in talent, in looks, in mathematical, musical, spatial, verbal, and social abilities to name just a few. And we can only be grateful that this is true. We would all be indescribably poorer if we were all the same.
And that’s the problem with the word “equality.” Equal does not mean identical. It does not mean we all have the same needs, the same abilities, or the same desires or opportunities.
And so, with all due respect for Pope Francis who in so many ways is a breath of fresh air, I think to talk about the injustice of economic inequality is asking for trouble. Of course it is absurd for Limbaugh to say Francis is advocating Marxism. If nothing else, it shows how little Limbaugh knows about Marxism.
And yes, there are some aspects of economic inequality which are hugely unjust and which we must try to reduce. When people do not have the basic needs of food and clothing and shelter, when they are denied education for which they have the ability, when they are sick and denied medical support, when they cannot live even with basic dignity, how can we justify this if we can prevent it?
And that is part of the problem. How can we prevent the kind of inequality which denies whole groups of society the basic necessities of life, or the right to education? The last century is littered with systems that have tried and failed. The sources of injustice in society are not simple to eliminate. India is dealing with the effects of a caste system, Britain a class system, ethnic and tribal differences in Latin America and Africa are both overlaid by waves of colonialism. American today is dealing with the 2%, whose influence is destroying the hopes of the middle classes that if they work hard enough, they can build a better life and become more prosperous.
But achieving justice does not lie in economic equality. Nor will it bring happiness or fulfillment. To preach that it does is to walk down the road of envy and resentment. Having as much money as everybody else is not the road to happiness.
I think we need two things which are often confused with economic equality. The first is opportunity. Not every job should pay equally. But every adult should be able to do work which enables him or her to survive with dignity and to support those who depend on them. This might sound like a simple principle, but it demands an educational system that enables young people to gain those skills which will benefit society. And it demands a functioning economy which provides jobs for society’s workers. Figuring out how to achieve this is not obvious. In fact, as the political disagreements demonstrate, we really don’t know for sure how to do it. My own sense is that we are in desperate need of gifted economists as much as politicians.
Yes, let us offer a helping hand to those in need. Let us worry about the poor. But in some sense giving is much easier than receiving. When our needs are greatest, it is often humiliating to receive. But it can be gratifying to give, one can feel quite superior as a giver in a way we can’t at the receiving end. So let us worry about giving people the opportunity to work, and not languish on benefits or unemployment insurance, or even to starve and live in degrading penury.
The second thing we need beside opportunity is an appreciation of the vast richness for human society of our diversity. Let us be grateful that people can achieve things we cannot, that others have talents and abilities we do not have. We are all in this together. We need each other. We need those special gifts of others in order for our own lives to be enriched. We need to learn to delight in our differences, not resent them, or try to insist that our own differences somehow make us superior.
The great injustices of life are not inequality across the board. We need inequality.
But we all need love and respect and dignity. That is how we are equal.
We all need to give and we need to receive. We do not need to be all the same.
Pumpkins have not always been available in British supermarkets. They only began to appear in the 1980’s with the return of Halloween, and then only for a few days.
Today British farmers grow fields of this vegetable, and so I was surprised when my neighbour told me she had no idea what to do with her jack-o-lantern now that Halloween celebrations were well and truly buried for the year.
Don’t know what to do with a pumpkin!? I said, running down a long list of possibilities in my head – savory mash, pumpkin soup, baked pumpkin wedges, pumpkin bread, and of course the quintessential pumpkin pie.
“I’ll make a pie for you, if you’d like,” I volunteered. “Oh would you?” she said, clearly relieved of the burden of recycling her great orange visitor on the window ledge.
So I went around two days ago to pick it up. It was a very big pumpkin. In fact, we both agreed that it was too big for me to carry back home, and she agreed to drop it by on her way out later in the day.
By sheer coincidence, that afternoon an American friend emailed me about an old British cooking programme by the Two Fat Ladies she’d been watching. Apparently, Clarissa’s advice was never to let an American near your pumpkin. They will turn it into a pumpkin pie with too much sugar and too much cinnamon, she said. Later in the day, my English husband warned me that pumpkin pie was an acquired taste. He too said that the first time he’d had it – at a Thanksgiving dinner in my family home some forty years ago – he had found it too sweet and the taste of cinnamon over-powering.
So I went to Google and looked at the pumpkin pie recipes being offered by contemporary British cooks. Sure enough, every single one of them call for between a quarter and half the spices I use in my American recipe and half the sugar.
So I adjusted the recipe for the pie I was making for my neighbour. When I took it over to her this morning, I told her I’d reduced the cinnamon and sugar but that it might nonetheless be an acquired taste, and that I would not be insulted if the most complimentary thing she could say about it was that it was “interesting.” “Oh, but I love cinnamon!” she said encouragingly.
I’m not confidant I will ever get the full unvarnished truth about what she thinks about my American pumpkin pie adapted to British tastes. After all, it took me 40 years to find out my husband had to “acquire” an appreciation for my superbly pure American recipe.
In any case, I am turning the rest of the jack-o-lantern into a savoury soup using a recipe from India. It calls for root ginger and chili peppers, and not a grain of cinnamon.
The news is reporting today that Mandela’s funeral is predicted to be the largest funeral the world has ever seen. Hours – no, days – of media coverage have been given to the life of this extraordinary man. Hundreds of people, famous and not, have talked about the ways in which he changed their lives.
Three things that stand out for me.
The first is that this man of peace refused to renounce all forms of violence as a condition for being released from prison. Instead, he chose to spend more than a quarter of a century locked up with no promise of freedom. I have struggled for years with philosophies like Gandhi’s. It is a philosophy which is undoubtedly both heroic and courageous. But I could never quite agree with it 100%. Never respond with violence? Never? under any conditions? Mandela seems to have demanded something of himself which seems to me as heroic and courageous as Gandhi did. But it was not an absolute refusal ever to engage in physical violence in the face of gross injustice and when no other approach seemed to work.
This stand makes the second thing Mandela did so outstanding. He was able to let go of his anger. Was his anger justified in the first place? How can one possibly say it was not? And yet he walked out of that prison in 1990 after 27 years not with a message of vengeance but of reconciliation. And he lived by that for the rest of his life. I’ve seen people learn to let go of anger, even justified anger, but never on such a scale. And yet we need to learn to let it go. It is destroying millions of people, filling us with hate and revenge.
Related to letting go of his anger was Mandela’s exceptional willingness to look at other people’s point of view. Understanding another’s concerns and perspectives doesn’t mean agreeing with them. But understanding what one’s opponent is worried about is a huge part of resolving differences. In Mandela’s case, the last president of South Africa under apartheid was Frederik Willem de Klerk who said of Mandela yesterday that he was one of the greatest men of all time.
South Africa today has many problems to solve. But it did not descend into outright civil war after apartheid was ended.
Could that have happened without Mandela?
And we can still learn from him so much that is critical to our survival.
If you are an American, you will never believe this.
But the British have imported Thanksgiving.
I’m not kidding, they really have. Turkeys and all.
Well, also including Black Friday, as well, so it may have a little consumerist motivation and is not all a deep appreciation for all the gifts of life and family and friends.
On the other hand, perhaps they really are grateful, in retrospect that those rebels left England on three ships and didn’t come back? I haven’t heard anybody say so. But perhaps British politeness…
Thanksgiving is the only holiday in the year that I celebrate without any qualifications. What else can I possibly say but Thank You for so much that has been given to me in abundance?
This year I’ve been thinking particularly about how much my students gave to me during my university teaching years.
They were, first of all, challenging.
I’m sure they had little idea how much reading I did to address the questions they were asking. And how exhilarating I found it.
I also often tried to put them in contact with their own gifts, talents and abilities that many of them did not realize they had. And once in a while one of them would come back and tell me I’d changed their lives. Or that I was the best teacher they’d ever had. Or some other act of appreciation that was way beyond what I deserved.
So getting up at 6:30 am to review my lecture material, or reading hundreds of student papers to give them detailed feedback, was repaid a thousand times over.
I will admit that I always seemed to appreciate the joys of teaching more during the summer break than during the bleak cold winter.
But seriously, being a university professor ranks as one of the greatest joys of my life.
And I don’t think I have ever so much as said a single thank you to those students who gave me so much. I suspect it’s a little too late now. But I do know on this Thanksgiving that I have been given far more than I ever earned.
One of the enduring struggles in human societies for as far back as we can see in history revolves around the inevitable tension between the small and the large. Some times the tensions is between the individual and the family or the small group that constitute our friends, classmates, neighbours, or associates. Sometimes the tensions are between families, between teams, between organizations, between ethnic groups, between nations, or even groups of nations. Inevitably there is always a trade-off in benefits.
We can’t, for instance, work primarily for ourselves or for our own group and still gain all the benefits of cooperating with a larger circle. And we can’t work for the benefit of the larger group without giving up some of the benefits that come with exclusively pursuing our own.
Often these tensions lead to war – the Allies versus the Axis powers, the east versus the west, the Christians versus the Muslims. Sometimes the tensions are manifest in political struggles.
Today the Scottish National Party published its arguments for an independent Scotland, which is going to be the subject of a referendum next September. If they win, Scotland will no longer be part of the United Kingdom, presently consisting of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Scotland and England were united under the same king and parliament in London 400 years ago. But although they speak a common language, they remain different cultures, rather the way the north and south of the United States are different cultures. The Scottish National Party is trying to convince the Scottish voters that the benefits of becoming an independent nation of their own will greatly outweigh the benefits of being united with England.
Right now, those Scots who say they will vote for independence are in a minority. But it is not at all clear how the vote will eventually go. There are great number of undecideds, people who are not sure whether what they will gain with independence would be less than what they would lose. For most people the questions seems to be primarily economic, and the paper arguing for independence promises all sort of goodies. The question being hotly debated is whether these promises are economically realistic in an independent Scotland.
The struggle is not unlike the debate going on in the United Kingdom in general about British membership in the European Union. All sorts of rules and regulations are sent down from Brussels which apply to all 27 member countries. They inevitably sometimes feels high-handed, self-serving, picky, or ill-informed. But they do a great deal to facilitate trade and economic development. It’s a tension that also parallels the question of States’ rights in America.
As an American, I have no say on the question of Scottish independence. As an outsider, it doesn’t look like a good economic move to me. But I have some sympathy with the feeling that London is too far away, too remote. I watch the struggle of the European Union, and particularly the struggle over its common currency, the euro, as Ireland, Spain, Greece, Italy, Portugal, even France, struggle, and I think I understand how the Scots feel. Part of me would like to see the whole EU enterprise fail. Brussels’ nannying is so infuriating.
But would it be worth it to try to go it alone?
My gut feeling is that in both situations, more would be lost by cutting loose than would be gained.
But for once, neither the EU or Scottish independence are my problems.
Thank goodness. I have enough to worry about as an American.
Snopes says it wasn’t written by Schultz, but The Philosophy of Charles Schultz, the creator of the cartoon strip Peanuts feels like it should have been. The fundamental question is who we remember over time, who makes a difference in our lives.
The point is obvious – people who are kind to us, who go out of their way to help us, whom we enjoy, are the people who have made a difference to us. It is not the celebrities or the famous whom we remember. If I’d read this as an adolescent, I would have thought I understood and lived by those values. After all, I was going to be a missionary nun and spend my life serving the poor. I was going to make the world a seriously better place. I didn’t think I was worried about celebrity or wealth or fame.
But with a little rueful self-knowledge that comes with years, I know I didn’t really understand. In fact, I think if I’d been growing up in the world today, I might very well have thought that the number of friends I had on Facebook was an indicator of just how successful and important I was. But I was socialized as a serious Catholic. So my version of celebrity was sainthood. It certainly wasn’t anonymity! I was going to be right up there with St. Theresa of Avila and St. Catherine of Siena, telling popes how to run the world.
In fairness to my parents, I wasn’t named after Therese of Avila but after Therese the Little Flower who was supposed to illustrate that holiness resided in little things. I thought that meant things like picking pieces of paper up off the floor, or drying the dishes so they were really dry all over. I didn’t understand it meant kindness or doing obvious mundane things like cooking for the family every day or doing the laundry, or working hard with one’s students or patients or clients. I thought to be a really great saint one had to be noticed.
In retrospect, I don’t think I was an exceptionally self-centered adolescent focusing only on my own future and fame. I think I was inescapably young. It is part of the human condition.
The great feature about our human species is our incredible capacity to learn. But the other half of this great potential is that we are not born with the variety of instinctive behaviors that include all the essentials we need to survive. We need to learn from experience, from being taught, from watching others. If we don’t have them, it’s a lot harder to learn to love, to work, to think. I’ve had some wonderful people in my life to learn from.
And so if I no longer have the slightest regret about not being a celebrity in any sense of the word, I have a lot of people to thank. Becoming a saint was my adolescent mid-west Catholic version of being famous. No doubt as an adolescent today my version would look rather different. But at the heart of it, it would be the same.
Because I think we have to learn that recognition and adulation isn’t really the mark of ultimate success. In that context, one of the compliments I once received that I treasure almost above all others was the statement from an old friend who said “You were always so kind.” Fifty years ago I suspect I would have disregarded a description of myself as “kind” as wimpish and pretty common. I was aiming for something much greater than mere kindness. Now my greatest regret is those times when I failed to be kind.
A couple of months ago, I read about a woman here in England who has taken a vow to be a hermit. At first, her bishop said there wasn’t such a vow, but a search through canon law proved him wrong.
I was looking for the reference to this modern hermit, and was quite surprised to discover how many hermits seem to living in Britain today. And that’s only the ones Google knows about. I would not be surprised if the number is multiplied by thousands in the U.S.
I remember thinking as I was reading about her life that being a hermit actually sounds quite appealing. Especially the modern version, which does not involve living in a cave and isolation 24/7, seems to include having a computer and an email address, and even occasional visits to family and friends. It also seems to me that living the life of a hermit does not require a religious commitment.
Personally, I think I could be quite a good non-religious hermit. I’ve always had a need for long hours alone, it does not make me feel lonely or unloved. In fact, too many people around for too long drives me a little crazy. I hate cocktail parties and making small talk.
Come to think of it, I bet there are a lot of us. Maybe we’re what might be called “closet hermits.”
A spokesman for Cardinal Dolan, the archbishop of New York, recently said that Pope John Paul II had taught him to be a Catholic, but that Pope Francis was teaching him to be a Christian.
For about two minutes, I had a positive feeling about this comment. Yes, I thought, being a Christian is about love and caring about the welfare of others rather than worrying about judging whether people believe the right dogmas or obeying what the church has insisted on calling “natural law.”
But I was socialized as a Catholic, and this distinction between Catholic and Christian made in this way makes me leery.
It sounds to me as if this particular Catholic who is broadening his perspective to include Christianity still sees the church as having access to truths that non-Christians don’t. I worry that this “one true religion” belief is still alive and well.
Personally, I find Pope Francis a likeable, even admirable, person, and I’m grateful for a greater emphasis on caring about the poor and those in need rather than on sex and all its ramifications. But ultimately, if he is made into a celebrity who simply makes Catholicism more appealing to the masses, deep down things really will not have changed that fundamental belief on the part of the RC hierarchy and many faithful that only they have access to “the one true faith.”
There are many groups in the world who care for the sick and poor. Not all are religious. NGOs like the Red Cross and Oxfam are not tied to any single religion. Even terrorists groups often make themselves popular by their acts of good will among the poor. Loving one’s neighbour is not a uniquely Christian virtue. And bribing people into church with the promise of rewards either now or in eternity offers little appeal to me.
This is not a criticism of Pope Francis, or of the many Christians who care unselfishly about others.
I just want to point out that people all over the world, in big and small ways, give their lives in unselfish care and service of members of their family, their community, or complete strangers. Loving others might be a central value of Christianity. But it is not unique to Catholicism or even Christianity. Being a Christian is one way of framing a philosophy of love of one’s neighbour. It’s just not the only one.
I have just read an absolutely amazing story. It’s the obituary of an Italian World Bank economist who simply would not accept the death verdict of his son from the medical establishment.
Augusto Odone was working for the World Bank in Washington in the 1980’s when his six-year-old son began to stumble, mumble, and was turning deaf. The doctors said he was suffering from a rare and terrible disease called ALD for short, and that there was no cure. Put simply, fatty acids were destroying the myelin sheath that insulates the nervous system. The doctors told him and his wife to go home and wait for their son to die, mute, blind, and paralyzed.
Odone was an economist, not a chemist, a biologist, or medical doctor. But he was a cook, and he began to read voraciously to understand what was happening to his son. A mix of olive and rape seed (canola) oil, he finally reasoned, should counteract the corrosive acid attack. The doctors laughed. The researchers poured scorn on this ridiculous crank.
But Odone was right. His oil halted the further development of ALDs symptoms. Unfortunately, although the oil could stop further corrosion, it could not reverse the terrible damage already done to Lorenzo,who lived immobile and unable to communicate until the age of 30. Yet, although Lorenzo’s Oil could help keep other children from the devastating impact of the disease, the medical profession continued to evaluate the treatment as akin to snake oil.
Odone refused to concede defeat. Scientists wouldn’t listen, but Hollywood did, and in 1992 “Lorenzo’s Oil.” was made into a movie. It did exaggerate the good news, implying that Lorenzo had recovered, which he had not. The oil had merely prevented further deterioration. But researchers at the Kennedy Kreiger Institute of Baltimore decided to take the treatment seriously.
8 years ago, their study showed that Lorenzo’s Oil prevented the ongoing development of ALD symptoms in three-quarters of the cases studied.
I’m going to remember this story for those many days when the future of the human race looks so hopeless. When it looks as if our greed or ignorance or simply inertia will kill us, I’m going to remember this astonishing man.
Adone’s obituary is written by his son-in-law who is the International Editor of the Economist.
R. D. Laing was a Scottish psychiatrist who believed that a great deal of what we call “mental illness” is learned. An example I remember his giving once was the angry correction administered to a child who dared to laugh. “How do you dare to laugh,” he was castigated, “when Jesus died on the cross for you?”
I was thinking about this yesterday when I contemplated writing a rather frivolous post. I didn’t, reflecting that given the death toll and continued catastrophe for millions in the Philippines it might be rather tasteless.
Well, I think that’s ridiculous.
If we can’t laugh, if we can’t be frivolous in the face of suffering, when can we dare to even smile?
In face, people who can laugh and even joke in the middle of tragedy are often beacons of light and strength. They certainly have been for me. One of my favourite blogs is a breath of fresh air – and it is nothing but jokes. (Mostly good ones, which of course makes a difference.)
I’m not sure I have any great talent as a comedian. But I’m pretty accomplished at frivolity.
So from now on, if the only thoughts I have are frivolous, I’m going to write a post anyway.
I hope as the reader you may be able to grin and bear it.
I’ve never had a brilliant memory. I remember discovering in second grade that it was often easier to figure things out than to rely on brute remembering. I did manage to memorize the multiplication tables up to 12, but Peter can still quote long passages from Shakespeare and poets like W.H. Auden and remembers facts that have passed into oblivion for me.
And these days I’ve noticed I am increasingly searching for lost words. Being a compulsive researcher, I even contemplated keeping track of just how many words I found myself searching for in a week. I now sort of wish I had gone through with it, because something interesting has happened.
Lack of vitamin B12 is often a cause of memory loss, particularly as we get older, so a month ago I started to take a vitamin B12 tablet every morning with breakfast.
The question is whether my memory has improved.
I am lacking any hard data on the number of times I am currently searching for lost words. But I do play various computer games like Solitaire and Free Cell, which keep track of my win/loss rate. My Solitaire win rate has gone from 20 to 35%, and I’m winning all 100% of the games on Free Cell.
I know it’s not an intelligence test.
But do you think I might be developing into a genius?
One would think that at least our understanding of space was universal. An inch is the same length wherever you are in the world, a mile isn’t shorter if you are measuring straight up or side ways, or whether the observer speaks Hindi or Chinese or Swahili. But actually, both Einstein’s theory of relativity and quantum physics argue against this. Einstein demonstrated that time and space are relative, and quantum physics says that even concepts like inside and outside, near and far, up and down don’t operate in the quantum world the way we expect. Even here in our world of everyday, our concepts of space are much more culturally influenced than most of us appreciate.
My husband, for instance, has a better sense of direction than I do. But when I ask him what direction we are going in, he often doesn’t know. His sense of direction isn’t based on the fundamentals of north, south, east and west. He understands cardinal directions, of course, but they aren’t always essential to him. For me, if I’m the map reader, and I can’t put us on the map at least mentally, my response is that we need to ask someone for directions. Peter, on the other hand, will keep going. I used to think it was male vanity that didn’t want to ask for help. But he found his way too often for me to continue to hold onto this hypothesis. His sense of direction simply operates differently. And it frustrates the life out of me that I don’t have a clue how he does it!
I read another study recently comparing the sense of direction of an Aboriginal group who do not learn left and right as we do, but only north, south, east, and west. Along with a comparable group of Westerners, they were led through a tangled maze of buildings, repeatedly turning this way and that. At the end, the Aboriginals were much better at orienting themselves than the Westerners, and could identify north accurately, while the Westerners could not.
I can see that for a hunter-gatherer society, the Aboriginal sense of direction would be a much more valuable survival skill than depending on knowing one’s left and right. But I wonder if there are skills in a developed society where being able to identify one’s left and right would be as important. Though knowing to set a table with the fork on the left and the knife on the right doesn’t seem quite significant enough to matter that much, does it?
Either way, it does suggest that the measurement of spatial skills in traditional IQ tests may be culturally biased. So if I’m ever lost in a desert or jungle, I’m going with the Aboriginal.
Unless you have a compass, of course. And even then…
Cultural differences have fascinated me ever since my father told us, when I was about six years old, that some Chinese people ate birds’ nests. Why? I wondered. And did the Chinese use catsup on their nests? Did they cook them first?
Over the years I’ve come to understand that cultures don’t just influence our language and food preferences. They can even shape our most fundamental understandings.
Yesterday I realized it even influences our understanding of space.
I’ve been living with my husband for 40 years, and thought I knew him pretty well. But there is still room for surprises. We were discussing the best route to take to a farm shop we wanted to visit. I suggested that we start by going “down Rt. 603.” Yes, he nodded in agreement, and then “down the A-10.”
Down the A-10!? I asked in startled disagreement. “That’s going in exactly the wrong direction.”
Then I remembered.
Here in England one goes “up” to London, whether one is going north or south. So of course, if one is heading away from London, one goes “down,” even if it means heading north.
I asked Google where this conception of Up and Down came from. The most convincing answer I found was that the words are not directional in the sense of space but in the sense of social status. Since London is the capital of the country, it is always “up.” And if one is expelled from Cambridge or Oxford, one is “sent down,” even if one returns to the north.
Fascinating. It’s enough to get a foreigner going in circles sometimes. But we did make it to the farm shop — going “down” the A-10.
When I was living in Spain, I found that my high school Latin American Spanish skills were often insufficient to understand many of the Spanish dialects spoken in Spain. So I often had to ask the speaker to tell me again more slowly what he or she had said. Males inevitably spoke louder, but not more slowly. Females, on the other hand, seemed to know intuitively how to help me. They spoke more slowly, and often added gestures or examples that gave me an idea of what they were saying.
Intelligent tests from around the world show that females generally have better verbal skills than men, who tend to excel in mathematical and spatial skills. These are averages, and do not always reflect individual differences. And we don’t know how much these differences are due to genetic differences and how much to environmental opportunities. But right now, women are on average better explainers.
In my last post, I said I was seriously challenged by trying to figure out how to get our new tablet to connect to the internet. Well, we’ve finally solved the problem. And it wasn’t all me who was the cause of difficulty. The directions are abysmal!
It fits a pattern that I’ve noticed for years. It’s almost as if the more clever a new object, the more obtuse the directions. This seems to follow whether it’s a bookcase, a washing machine, a vacuum cleaner or computer equipment, I think part of the problem is due to the directions being written or translated by someone for whom English is a second language.
But I strongly suspect part of the problem is that the person who originally invents this clever piece of kit is also the one who first writes the directions. And I bet more often than not they are male, and that their directions are the equivalent to those men in Spain who seemed to think that saying something more loudly makes it clearer.
So I have a suggestion.
I think all directions should be written by women. I think the hours of frustration that this would eliminate world-wide could probably add a percentage to the GDP of every country in the world that implemented this directive.
I read once that Einstein said that the idea of relativity of time first came to him from a child.
I am under no illusion that my current learning from children will lead to an insight comparable with the relativity of time, but I do find myself giving myself the kind of advice I used to give to children when they were learning something new. Things like “yes, you can do it, but you have to be patient.” And “Just take it one step at a time.” Or “Don’t try to do it so fast; you’ll figure it out faster if you go slowly.” “Blaming somebody else won’t solve the problem. Neither will getting mad.”
On a more encouraging level, I keep myself going by self-feedback like “That’s a good idea! Let’s try that and see if it works.” or suggestions like “Take a break. Sometimes you figure things out when you’re doing something else.”
And then there’s the fall back “You can ask for help.”
We got a new tablet today and I have used every one of these strategies to get it to connect to the internet and more.
Unfortunately, it’s still not working. I’m beginning to wonder if there’s something wrong with it.
On the other hand, I’m old enough to suspect that the chances are that the locus of the problem isn’t with the tablet.
But I’m going to take my advice and close down for the night.
It’s practically an article of faith for me that there’s always another way of looking at things. Sometimes “the other way” is threatening, or surprising, or funny.
But sometimes it’s positively hopeful.
I think on my really bad days when I feel despair at the possibility that human stupidity, arrogance, violence, or sheer selfishness is going to mean the end of life for all of us on this planet, I’m going to revisit this u-tube. It was written by a 20-year-old for a contest entitled “u@fifty.” Maybe human creativity and generosity and a sheer love of all of life will win out after all.
Be sure to listen – and read – it all the way back to the beginning. Or you’ll miss it.
We have just returned from a wonderful week in Scotland. I’ve been there many times before, and Peter knows it well from his years on the Edinburgh University faculty.
But I’d never noticed the signs before. As we were driving along, I found myself laughing and wondering how they would go down in America. Or even in neighbouring England.
A no-parking sign read:
“No parking on the zig-zag lines. It’s both dangerous and selfish.”
Another sign warned:
“Delays due to maintenance.”
It was followed by what I thought at first was an admonition to the impatient driver but turned out to be the name of the town:
“Rest and Be Thankful.”
Or what about a sign flashing across the motorway reading:
“Be a courteous driver.”
My favourite actually lured us inside a chocolate factory and shop:
Last night at about ten o’clock, I read a review of some introductory research suggesting that the loss of the sense of smell is one of the earliest signs of dementia. Specifically, if the sense of smell is more impaired in the left nostril, it may be an early sign of Alzheimer’s. If the greater impairment is in the right nostril, it may indicate some other form of cognitive impairment.
The research used about a tablespoon of peanut butter with a blind-folded patient who was instructed to indicate when they could smell it. A difference of about ten centimeters (four inches) in the distance between when the peanut butter was detected by the right and left nostrils turned out to be significant.
I dashed into the kitchen and dished up a soup -spoon of peanut butter. It could hardly be called a blind study, since it was self-administered, but it seemed to me I couldn’t smell peanut butter with either or both nostrils, at any distance. I dug around the cupboards for something more strongly scented, but although curry powder made me sneeze, I couldn’t actually say I could smell it. Ditto for the vinegar, orange, and tomato juice.
My scientifically validated conclusion, based on this evidence, is that either a) my allergies are still acting up, b) I’ve never had a good sense of smell, c) peanut butter doesn’t have a smell, or d) I’m in the late stages of cognitive impairment. (Notice how I have cleverly omitted the possibility that I’m in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.)
I have noticed, though, that I have to concentrate harder than I used to when I’m working on cognitive tasks or trying to figure out a problem — like how to make some new gadget work that three-year-olds can figure out in about as many minutes.
I also concluded many years ago that achieving true and honest self-knowledge makes understanding quantum physics look easy.
So if I’m really loosing it, some complete stranger reading this blog will probably know it well before I do.
Like many others, I have been watching in stupefied horror as the House Republicans try to un-do legislation passed by an earlier Congress by holding the country hostage.
Some changes need to be made so that a minority is not again in a position to negate legislation which is already law because they don’t like it. But that is for the future. The question now is not just how to get government workers back in their offices again, but how not to avoid an even worse situation in which the United States defaults on its debts.
I have thought that Obama is right to refuse to compromise on Obamacare at this point.
But if it comes to it, and the choice is between defaulting on our debts and defunding (ie, essentially destroying) Obamacare, I think Obama should choose the lesser of two evils and make it clear that it is the Republicans who are responsible.
The health care being made available through Obamacare is essential for tens of thousands of seriously sick people today unable to afford essential medical treatment. It is terrible to refuse to help them. But the economic destruction that will be caused by default by a major economy whose currency is the reserve currency of the world will cause even more suffering and poverty. It will last for years – some economists think the economic effects could last a generation.
And the loss of prestige and trust and leadership by a country that does not pay its debt because it is fighting over whether to provide health care for its sick will probably be permanent.
I’m finding it hard these days to be proud to be an American. We seem to be betraying so many of our own basic principles of justice and responsibility.
I can’t say I’ve actually known it all my life, but I have known for many years that inserting words like “like” and “you know” in the middle of what we are saying, sometimes several times in a single sentence, is often a way of giving our brain a few extra milliseconds to think through what we to communicate.
But I mean, you know, I think it’s gone too far. I often hear journalists not only add an extra two syllables to “you know,” in mid-stream, but it is not uncommon to hear them begin a question with “I mean, you know.” Do such people have the required communications skills to do their job?
But what is really irritating is that I now hear myself doing it. This morning I heard myself ending an answer to a question with “I mean.”
I mean, that really was my concluding statement.
A comment following my post yesterday asked why I care at all about what happens to the structure of the Roman Catholic church, or about whether it might change from bottom-up after changes from the top-down have clearly failed.
Actually, I wrote the post as a result of discovering yet another of my unrecognized Catholic assumptions. You’d think after almost half a century during which I no longer considered myself a Catholic that I wouldn’t still be discovering ways in which I am unconsciously thinking like one. But it was only when I heard someone express the view that if Pope Francis can’t change the Vatican-controlled structure of the church, he will be a failure that I recognized this same unspoken assumption in my own thinking.
A study of history shows that power is rarely yielded by those who hold it. Cultural and social structures change when the people no longer recognize their authority as legitimate. Why would the Roman Catholic church be any different? It won’t.
Do I care? I do not take my direction from the church. But many people do, and in that sense, I care to the extent that any powerful institution is as bigoted and sexist as the Roman Catholic church so often is. But I do not see myself involved in any attempts to try to change that particular institution – from below, from above, or from the outside.
One thing I do ponder occasionally, however, is the recognition that some of my values were rooted in my early socialization as a Catholic. They are values like a respect for truth, for the rights of others, for the value of work. Not uniquely Catholic or even Christian values. But it is where I first learned them.
I am grateful.
I said in a post last month that my worry about Pope Francis was that he would eventually be canonized as a saint, while the Vatican hierarchy itself proceeded in its autocratic ways unchanged.
But I’m not so sure about that. Pope John XXIII tried the top-down method of reforming the church. He called Vatican II, and all sort of suggestions for radical reform were heralded. Then the pope died and for the last half century, the Vatican has systematically dismantled, ignored, over-ridden or distorted practically every reform suggested by Vatican II. Meanwhile, the exodus from the RC Church has reached hundreds of thousands.
And so I’m wondering now if the mistake is expecting change to be mandated from the top, rather than from below. Perhaps 50 years ago too many practicing Catholics expected it to be done for them, so that all they had to do was to continue to follow in humble obedience.
But several of the things Pope Francis has said and done suggest that he does not think this kind of blind obedience to church authority is any more Christian than blind obedience to civil authority. The Nuremberg trials were based on the recognition that “I was only doing what I was told” is not an adequate justification for crimes against humanity. In the end, we must refuse to follow commands against humanity no matter where they emanate from.
So when Pope Francis asks questions like the one he asked about homosexuality “Who am I to judge?”, is he not saying that the bottom line is not obedience even to church teaching? is he not saying the bottom line is caring, love, respect for our fellow-man? When some bishops and priests are welcoming divorced Catholics who have remarried to the communion alter, are they not saying that love is more important than obedience? When theologians argue against excommunicating a nun working in an emergency ward for authorizing an abortion for a woman who had been raped in order to save the life of the mother, isn’t the fundamental principle one of love? When millions of couples use birth control so that they can engage in sex without passing on the AIDS virus or having another child which they cannot feed or care for, isn’t it getting our priorities backwards to say that this expression of love must take second place to procreation under any circumstances?
I don’t know, but maybe what Pope Francis is saying is that “the greatest of these is love.” That whatever we do, for a Christian it is love that is the bottom line. It’s not doctrine, not obedience, not approval from the religious powers that be. Of course, the hierarchical structure of the church needs fundamental change. But perhaps it is only going to come from the bottom up. That’s the way it was with the first Christians.
Hmmm. I might even consider myself an aspiring Christian again. Though I’m sure I couldn’t possibly get the Vatican’s acceptance. I don’t think they could handle the scope of my disbelief.
Well, unless maybe if I met Pope Francis. He did say recently he believed that many atheists were men and women of good will and didn’t suggest that their only future was the fire of hell.
Last month I read about research suggesting that using Facebook seems to make people feel rather miserable. It’s not that lonely and unhappy people use Facebook more than happy people do. The research found that the more time volunteers spent on Facebook, the lower their self-esteem and feelings of worth and the higher their feelings of depression and loneliness.
Even more surprising was the discovery that spending the same amount of time socializing with people directly had exactly the opposite effect.
These results reflect the experiences of young people in their 20’s, who seem to compare themselves to the presentations of their friends on Facebook, and feel they don’t measure up. What doesn’t occur to them is that these presentations may be a little overly idealistic with doctored photographs, clever answers and masterful achievements that weren’t exactly the way things happened in real life.
I wonder if these results would find something similar among older users. My guess is that as we get older, we get a little less naive, a little less self-centered, a little more suspicious, and that that would make a difference to how we evaluate the Facebook presentations of others.
But I can’t really say for myself. I didn’t like the experience at all, and deactivated my Facebook account.
On the other hand, there is also research showing that working at a computer for a couple of hours before bedtime is associated with sleeping difficulties. I had already begun to discover that for myself. It’s one of the reasons I’m not blogging as often as I used to.
I’m reading more at night, though.
I wonder why that isn’t interfering with my sleep.
Maybe I’d better not ask.
I’ve signed the petitions to add my voice to the swell of Americans saying that the United States should not bomb Syria.
But that’s not enough. Hundreds of thousands of people are being killed by a brutal civil war, and millions (millions) have been turned into refugees. How can we possibly stand by and say “let them get on with it; when they are tired of killing and being killed, they will stop? it’s not our business”?
Because they are our fellow human beings, it is our business. But what can we do that isn’t at high risk of making the situation even worse than it is?
Following are suggestions that reflect my own thoughts. It’s not my own words, but I can’t say it better. I hope that won’t stop you from bothering to read it.
The tragic dilemma we now face is that the murderous Assad regime in Syria should have been overthrown long ago, but the U.S. has no moral standing or credibility to be the agent of that overthrow.
The U.S. interest in Syria is not perceived by much of the world as a human rights interest. If the U.S. cared about human rights, it would not have armed Saddam Hussein after he gassed the Kurds in Iraq, it would not still be arming the Egyptian military after its coup and murder of thousands, it would not be arming Israel without demanding that Israel end the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and create a Palestinian state living in peace with Israel. The U.S., finally, would not have waited until one hundred thousand Syrians were killed to begin contemplating action against Assad.
Neither can nor should we be indifferent while watching as civilians are systematically murdered. The planet has shrunk to a size where we are in fact responsible for each other’s well-being and we must take that responsibility seriously.
What is needed is different strategic approach, an approach which is grounded in an expanded sense of moral imagination. Instead of trying to right every wrong at the moment, the U.S. should be involved in a global strategy to relieve the huge suffering of people on this planet.
Slow down the rush to militarism and instead let Obama use this moment to forge a whole new direction for the US’s role in the world. Congress would be wise to hold town hall meetings in every Congressional district to discuss the range of options before voting to support a military intervention.
In the fierce urgency of the current crisis in Syria, in which the U.N. is blocked from acting decisively because Russia and China will use their vetoes against any action that imperils Assad, President Obama should call a conclave of the world’s other countries, all of them, and let them together decide on what should be done with regard to saving the people of Syria from its rogue regime. The specific use of chemical weapons should be referred to the World Court for possible trial of whoever is responsible for that use in Syria.
Meanwhile, the deliberations of a world conclave should be open to the public, democratic, and not controlled by the United States or other Western powers, or any one group. Let that body decide whether there should be an intervention, and if so, led by whom, with what short term and long-term goals, and what mechanisms to ensure those goals are achieved. This creates a de facto global forum such as the UN should have been, by eliminating the ability of the Great Powers to veto any decisions made by the people of the world. Hopefully, that global forum will come up with non-violent ways to hasten the end of the Assad regime. But if that body decides on an intervention, the Obama Administration should decide if it can bring the U.S. population along with that, in part by conducting public fora throughout the U.S. focused on the call for an intervention issued by the nations of the world participating in that open and democratic meeting. And if the people of the U.S. support it, then the U.S. should be part of that international intervention.
Clumsy? Undoubtedly. Postponing immediate action? Certainly. But this path would create a precedent precisely because it would slow down the hunger for more violence. It would allow the people of the world to introduce into that global forum the possibility of a different kind of logic in world affairs, a logic based on recognizing our mutual interdependence and mutual responsibility for the well-being of all.
This plan is not perfect, as many will readily point out. The governments of the world often do not actually represent their people, but often only an elite of wealth and power. The killing in Syria would not be stopped while the process went on. However, the Obama administration has all but explicitly said that the symbolic action they will take will not stop the killing either, nor would it overthrow the Assad government.
If President Obama were to use this moment to teach the world and the US about a new direction in dealing with the forces of evil, he could take his place among the great peacemakers of the human race.
In the fierce urgency of this moment we must look beyond the tired options and rhetoric that have brought us to this place. The options are only limited by the narrow visions of the elite and the powerful. The options are only limited by a discourse and set of assumptions that should have been replaced many decades if not centuries ago. If not now, when?
Aryeh Cohen is Professor of Rabbinic Literature at the American Jewish University, a contributing editor at Tikkun Magazine, and author most recently of Justice in the City. Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun Magazine and chair of the Network of Spiritual Progressives (which has developed a detailed plan for a Global Marshall Plan at www.tikkun.org/GMP). He is the author most recently ofEmbracing Israel/Palestine which you can order at www.tikkun.org/eip
I have just read what for me is a compelling case against the United States bombing Syria. The following are my own words, but the ideas are taken directly from Dan Ebener. He calls it “the Catholic case against attacking Syria,” using Catholic social doctrine but I can’t see what’s Catholic about it. I’m convinced because I think he is right: it gravely risks making things much worse rather than better for just about everybody involved.
Ebener gives several convincing arguments:
Today, I’m convinced that our credibility and reputation would be far greater if we relied more on demonstrating that we are a country that lives according to its principles and the rule of law, even when we are threatened.
But the alternative to not bombing Syria is not doing nothing. So what can we do?
America is often a trigger-happy country, and we tend to think that if our bombs are the biggest our moral superiority must be beyond question. But the world today needs countries with the wisdom to find other paths to peace besides violence.
Besides, what we’ve had to recognize more than once since Vietnam is that our bombs simply don’t automatically make us the winners anymore.
And we really do need peace if we are going to survive.
Advertisers know it. When we see the experience of a single individual, we are more apt to respond than we are to numbers, even when the numbers are about huge catastrophes and even millions of people.
We light up to the smile of one face in a way that statistics telling us how many people are happy with some political event leave us unmoved. We respond to the face of a starving child the way we do not respond to a report that there are six million people starving in the latest flow of refugees fleeing from war, drought, or flood.
In other words, one person can often do what millions cannot.
And so when we are walking around in infuriated anguish and helplessness over the latest turn of events, we are kicking against the goad.
Because no, of course, we can’t do what millions of people can do together.
But millions of people together can’t do what only one person can do either.
I would even go further. It is only individuals that can really transform the life of another individual – a child, a friend, our partner, even a stranger.
As individuals we were not created to run the world, no matter how competent and right we so often are convinced we are. Actually, I might today think I’m right about a lot of important things, like whether we should bomb Syria over the use of chemical warfare, for instance. But I have been desperately wrong in the past about a lot of important things. I am pathetically grateful that I didn’t have the influence to change things the way I thought the world needed. And so I have to look at the serious possibility that I’m still wrong about a lot of things. As I look at the history of the world, as well, I’m not at all sure that those individuals who do seem to have made a big difference did more good than harm. Look at Hitler. Or Stalin, simply to top a long and painful list.
But the reality that we are all often wrong about the big things is not really the point. Even if we are right, we have not evolved to make the entire world a just and loving place. And if in my frustration I cavil at that fact, it is much harder to see that my fulfillment as a human being is on a more intimate scale.
It is hubris – or at least it is a mistaken understanding of what it is to be human – to be angry that I cannot do what millions together can do.
I do think I’m much more apt to make a positive contribution if I recognize that there are many important things that only I can do. And that if I don’t do them, they won’t get done.
I think there’s more joy, peace, and fulfillment in knowing that too.
The above meditation (or diatribe) was brought on by the pianomusicman. I would like to say he can be blamed for anything you don’t like about this post, but I’m afraid I must take responsibility. He may, however, be responsible for the best of it.
In my earlier post today, I said I’d signed the petition to Obama not to try to deal with chemical weapons in Syria by bombing.
The Economist today published an argument for limited strikes, on the grounds that doing nothing in response to the chemical attacks that killed hundreds and injured thousands will eventually lead to more of the same.
It’s a measured reasoning which one cannot call war-mongering or even unreasonable. Actually, it represents the kind of reasoning that has influenced my own thoughts every time I think of Nazi Germany.
I think now we have to find other ways than brute strength and military might to fight for even such important issues as the use of chemical weapons.
But the Economist’s position deserves to be taken seriously and answered with respect by those of us who don’t agree with them. Because the results of whatever decisions are made will effect millions of people. It’s worth struggling as hard as we can to be right.
Feeling righteous isn’t enough.
I am assuming that if enough of us sign a petition telling Obama that we don’t want the United States to try to solve the problems of chemical warfare by bombing Syria that it will influence his decision.
So I’ve signed the petition.
The more I read and think and listen, the more I am convinced that, ghastly as the situation is, our bombing Syria will make matters far worse, not better.
Yes, I know, we stood by in relation to Rwanda and we could perhaps have made things better if we had intervened. And intervening in Bosnia, in retrospect, even without the UN approval, seems like a good idea. But Iraq and probably Afghanistan have made things much much worse for the people living there, for the U.S., for the region, and probably for world peace. Not all situations are the same, and each one must be examined carefully.
During the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations I asked my father what he thought about the war. “I’m against it,” he said. “Why?” I asked. “Because we can’t win,” he said.
My first response was to be appalled. How could one make a moral judgement based on whether one would win? Shouldn’t one be willing to die for a cause that is right, whether or not one wins?
But I have come to realize that there is a terrible price that is exacted for fighting a war one can’t win. The price is paid above in the deaths, starvation, loss, and suffering by civilians on whose benefit we are allegedly waging war.
Even when we drop our bombs, shoot off our missiles, or send out our drones without putting boots on the ground, we can make things much worse, however righteous our cause may be or wrong the actions we are trying to correct.
I think we can only make matters worse by military intervention in Syria at this point.
So as I said, I signed the petition.
I hope the situation with Syria does not escalate. I think Obama was a fool to say that the use of chemical weapons was a line in the sand. One can only hope that the results of our going in there militarily are not as catastrophic as the past suggests they will be, and as many are predicting.
Having said that, I’m not sure what I would do. The older I get, the more I am convinced that Homo sapiens is too trigger-happy, and Americans have a particularly bad case of it right now. We seem to think that because we have been economically so successful and have so much money compared to everybody else that we are also morally superior, and that our use of force is qualitatively different from an body else’s who disagrees with us.
I don’t see how we in the West can possibly bring about a resolution of the kind of conflicts that are ripping Syria apart and that are crisscrossing the Middle East.
But yet: even without Obama’s having warned Syria, for the West not to respond in some way to such a massive use of chemical weapons against civilians would be a green light for more and worse from Syria as well as other governments under threat from civil unrest.
Over here, Prime Minister Cameron is bringing a motion before Parliament tomorrow asking for support for a response to Syria specifically targeted to the chemical weapons, not toward regime change or getting involved in the civil war there. That sounds great in theory to me, but in practice I have grave doubts that the two can be separated.
As the man once said who was asked to give directions to a lost driver: “I wouldn’t start from here.”
I’m glad I’m not the President.
First, a confession: I have lifted the following story about George from Kaleidoscope, a blog which helps keep my feet on the ground, my head in the air, and my heart singing.
It illustrates,why revenge will always be with us. It is not only sweet, but sometimes very very funny. (Don’t tell me if you think I have a warped sense of humour. It’s beyond a cure.)
Mildred, the church gossip and self-appointed monitor of the church’s morals, kept sticking her nose in to other people’s business.
Several members did not approve of her extra curricular activities, but feared her enough to maintain their silence.
One day she accused George, a new member, of being an alcoholic after she saw his old pickup parked in front of the small town’s only bar one afternoon.
She emphatically told George and several others that everyone seeing it there would know what he was doing.
George, a man of few words, stared at her for a moment and just turned and walked away.
He didn’t explain, defend, nor deny.
He said nothing.
….and left it there all night.
For some reason, I seem to have been inundated of late by headlines and articles that begin with big letters promising me THE TRUTH ABOUT…!
The truths being announced range from revelations about the banks, medicine, food, fracking, politicians, global warming, the economy, health, dieting or even the creation of the universe.
Sometimes these revelations are accompanied by requests for money for the full story. But whether or not money is involved, the implication is always that up until now we have been lied to. What’s disturbing is that the frequency of these Truthful Announcements suggests that an awful lot of people believe that they are being lied to an awful lot but are willing to believe that at last, someone has arrived who is going to tell it straight.
Doubter that I am, promising me the Truth about important and complex processes – like the economy or health or the environment – sounds like a dead give-away that the Truth in question is a fraud. Anybody who thinks they have all the right answers on any of these subjects hasn’t examined the evidence.
The TRUTH is not so easily found.
I don’t know any research to back this up but I doubt it’s an exaggeration to say that most people think the world is in a mess and probably getting worse.
But is this so?
Yesterday our boiler repairman, Geoff, came to fix a problem that he first visited last January but unknowingly left partially unsolved. I told him about it several days later, but since it was a problem we could live with, I suggested he wait until our regular servicing this summer to address it. In the meantime, I narrowed the problem down to either a mal-functioning thermostat or incorrect wiring. The first was going to cost somewhere in the region of $500 to fix, the latter was due to an error Geoff had made in January. I budgeted for the former.
When Geoff arrived, I told him the problem and left him to it while I fixed him a cup of coffee. Ten minutes later he emerged into the kitchen and said “It’s fixed.” Then slapping the back of his hand, added “it was my error.”
What was so uplifting about this for me was that there was no way I would have suspected foul play if Geoff had disappeared into the boiler room for an hour or so, and then announced that the problem had been fixed. He might even had added a feel-good factor by giving me a discount and charging me “only” $400 instead of $500.
When I told him that, he said “oh no, it was my fault. I put my hand up to it.”
My question is: “Is Geoff just one in a million?” Would most repairmen try to make money on their own mistakes? Surely there are many who would. Surely there are many who at least would not admit that the mistake had been theirs, even if they did not charge to correct it.
I’m not convinced Geoff is one in a million. I think I know a lot of honest people. In fact, I think I know more people who are honest and truthful and sometimes even incredibly generous than not.
But honesty and generosity doesn’t make news. Crime does. Tragedy does. Even really good news makes the headlines far less often than bad.
I wonder why. Is it because we really are on the road to destruction? Do we think we really are all sinners and cheats at heart? Do we really believe that the bad will win out in the end? Does bad news give us a tremor that boring old good news often does not? Or is the good news often harder to see because it is more private? Is that act of kindness that means so much – that might even change a life – simply not available for the journalist to see and so report?
My husband’s parents and grandparents grew up before the National Health Service was set up in Britain after WWII, and access to professional medical help was available only to those who could afford to pay for it. In the coal mining villages of Yorkshire, a lot of people relied on what today we would probably call folk medicine.
When we were taking care of Peter’s father, aged 90, we discovered a collection of various medicines in his cabinet that I had never heard of. What was interesting to me as an American with an anthropological bent was that it was impossible to distinguish between what worked and what didn’t, what was superstition, and what was truly effective medication — some of which quite probably have been re-named, re-packaged, re-priced, and re-marketed by today’s pharmaceutical companies.
Although ultimately most of the medicines in the cabinet were discarded, if only because they were well past a sensible use-by date, I never lost my respect for the processes which had led to the collection.
When a friend who grew up in Europe during the war told me about the uses for hydrogen-peroxide I was amazed, but not incredulous. The only use for peroxide I’d ever heard of was as a hair lightener. I’ve now learned that it consists solely of hydrogen and oxygen and was used during WWI as a disinfectant, and treatment for wounds. It can used as a mouth wash or stain remover on leather and other upholstery. It can be added to steam cleaners, humidifiers and laundry, will remove mold, and combined with vinegar, it is more effective at killing pathogens than bleach. Surprisingly, it can also be used in food preparation to sanitize meat and wash salad vegetables. It will even aid sprouting seeds and house plants love it as a refreshing spray. There are 42 uses suggested by Fluster Buster. Googling “hydrogen peroxide uses” brought up a page full of sites with long lists of potential uses.
So three days ago I went to our local pharmacy and bought a bottle of hydrogen peroxide mouthwash. To my delight, within hours it had removed the rust and mold stains on the white blinds in our sun room. So I tried it on an irritating fungal rash I’d picked up in the garden last week that was itching but not showing any signs of going away. The rash is now gone.
They say it also works as a teeth whitener.
I bet it does. And whatever else chlorine bleach might do, I don’t think it’s recommended for a bright smile.
I knew those old medicine cabinets weren’t all filled with silly superstitions.
More than one thoughtful person who guessed rightly that I would be interested have sent me the link to the Sunday New York Times editorial and video about the Maryknoll Sisters, the group of nuns of which I was a member for nine years. Sister Mary Joseph, originally Mollie Rogers of Boston, Mass. will be inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, N.Y. along with Betty Ford, Nancy Pelosi and others.
Mostly over the years I have looked back at that time I spent as a Maryknoller rather the way one reviews a long education. It was often difficult, it was often traumatic, and I was keenly aware that the Maryknoll Sisters were profoundly conflicted about their mission, and about what kind of women we wanted to be. Should we be submissive, blindly obedient, unquestioning of our superiors? Or were we an order that was creative, responsive, innovative, finding new ways to be among the poor? Mollie Rogers had the latter in mind. Those who took their cues from Rome thought the former.
As a result of this conflict, over several decades hundreds of sisters were either forced to leave Maryknoll or left voluntarily. I’ve just learned that my friend Pat Logan, about whom I wrote earlier this year, was told to leave because she was “too creative.” Others were told to leave because they were too questioning, or resistant to spending years at the Motherhouse in Westchester County, New York, when Maryknoll had said that they would be missioners in underdeveloped countries. A few simply broke under the strain. In 1969 there were 1169 Maryknoll Sisters, and hundreds of young women asking to be admitted every year. Today there are 471 Maryknoll Sisters, and many of them are old. Young women are no longer banging on the door to join.
I learned a lot during those years, though, and have not regretted the time I was there.
What I had forgotten was why I had entered the Maryknoll Sisters in the first place. But when I read the editorial and listened to the video, it came back like a flash of lightning. Yes, that was why I’d entered the convent! I wasn’t wrong. The choices that had been offered to me as I was growing up on a midwest farm in America was to become a nurse, but not a doctor, to teach grade school, but not in university, to be a secretary but not a lawyer, to choose social work but not psychiatry or psychology. But nuns did all those things not open to me as a mere lay person. And Maryknoll Sisters, above all, went to other peoples, other cultures, and lived there. They made a difference. I saw it as a kind of life-time Peace Corp.
As I have said before, the Maryknoll Sisters have changed a lot. They took Vatican II on board, and in many ways are today among the most active and innovative group of nuns I know. The hundreds of sisters who were forced or decided to leave were, I believe, a necessary part of bringing about that change. It became apparent to those still there that Maryknoll itself had been in part responsible for betraying the promises made to those who thought that Maryknoll Sisters were different.
But on some level, Maryknoll is still conflicted, and I am not sure whether they can survive within the straight-jacket imposed by the ruling hierarchy of bishops. The Roman Catholic Church is itself now engaged in the kind of conflict that characterized us at Maryknoll. Hundreds of thousands of people are leaving the RC Church and not returning. Pope Francis knows that change is called for, but I’m not sure at this point how fully he understands what needs to be done, or indeed how to do it. My fear is that he will be loved by the people and eventually be canonized as a humble unpretentious pope who cared for the poor and who is held up as an example to the faithful. But the Vatican power structure may remain, perhaps a little battered but fundamentally unscathed.
Perhaps I am wrong and real change is coming. I think since 9/11 something similar may be happening in America.
Perhaps the tectonic plates really are shifting.
The Sunday papers today are reporting that two British professors have patented a test that analyzes endothelial reactivity.
Oh good, you say – just what I always wondered about myself.
The paper is calling it a Death Test, but if the Americans get hold of it, it will undoubtedly be called a Life Test. Either way, endothelial reactivity measures the oscillation within the blood cells of capillaries, our smallest blood vessels. The results indicate just how well an individual is functioning over all, and so can predict the undiagnosed presence of cancer and dementia.
But the results are also graded for optimal functioning between 0 and 100, and with sufficient data will ultimately be able to make a reasonably accurate prediction of when an individual will die – even if that event is decades away.
The good news is that the test is a laser test that is completely painless, non-invasive, even user-friendly. The expectation is that the test will be available to GP’s within three years.
If it were on offer, would you take it? At my age now I would – it would make it much easier to plan for the rest of my limited future here. But would I want to know at the age of eighteen how long I probably had to live barring accident or epidemic. Or at the age of forty? fifty?
One thing for sure, once the data is reliable enough, insurance and pension companies are going to want to know.
Perhaps it’s the heat, perhaps it’s age. Perhaps it’s a need for a period of quiet contemplation. Whatever the reason, I feel a need to stop worrying about the world for a while, to trust that existence has its own intrinsic direction of which I am a part but for which I am not wholly responsible.
I increasingly find myself reluctant to blog right now. I’ve wondered if I should give it up altogether, but every time I consider it, a sense of loss overwhelms me. Writing is how I think and how I communicate, and blogging has become a way of staying in contact with the human community so essential to a fulfilled life.
But I need to stop talking out loud so often right now.
I might even learn something if I listen a little more.