A Brief Address to Former Strangers

One of the strangest feelings is looking back on the period of your life before you knew your current friends or lovers, while keeping in mind that they were still around out there. Before I knew any of you, we were each going about our own independent lives completely unaware of each other’s existence.

Then all of a sudden, on some fateful day, our lives intersected. Your presence became known, and our lives were no longer totally separate. From my perspective, your history doesn’t begin until I meet you.

Furthermore, you were a very different person before I got to know you, and visa versa: with time, I began to forget what it was like not to know or love you; it starts to feel like you were always there in my life. Even if we lose touch, our lives will remain irreversibly influenced or impacted in some way. You’ll be a part of my narrative in some way or another until my story ends (and visa versa).

I wonder what other former strangers will enter my life. People I could never conceive may some day spontaneously cross paths and become acquaintances, colleagues, friends, lovers, and maybe even enemies. It is both exciting and, given my recurring social anxiety, a bit scary at the same time.

My Ambivalence on Human Nature

It is astounding how just a cursory glance of the human condition at any given moment can simultaneously yield so much good and evil. Browsing through one day’s worth of news, I can find such a mixed bag of humanity’s best and worst tendencies. It puts my mood in such a flux.

I will read an article about an altruistic act, a peace accord, the lifting of millions from poverty, or some other event on either a micro or macro level that demonstrates moral and social progress. Then right after I see some stomach-churning demonstration of cruelty, whether it is a heinous crime, warfare, or the immiseration of millions by a seemingly impervious regime.

After so many weeks, months, and years of taking it all in, both academically and autodidactically, it is difficult for me to be consistently cynical or optimistic about the course of humanity. Perhaps this is to be expected, since our thoughts and worldviews are shaped by our experience and knowledge, both of which are continuously changing.

As it stands, I suppose I am currently cautiously optimistic, because we have nonetheless come a long way as a species, even if innumerable vices and problems remain. I see the potential for progress and prosperity, even amid so many reminders of our proneness to fallibility, apathy, and hatred.

I think it is worth acknowledging that suffering would remain even with the best intentions. There are still the vagaries of natural disasters, disease, and simple misfortune (accidents and what not). The impact of all these factors can and have been reigned in, but I feel it is only up to a point.

Sorry if my thoughts seem all over the place, this was sort of a stream of consciousness. It goes without saying that I am fortunate to have the luxury to pontificate on such things in so much comfort, largely by an accident of birth.

 

Reflections Upon Mild Sadness

I fell asleep sorrowful, filled with a vague foreboding of coming trouble…That precaution of love against death, even in the presence of abounding life, caused my thoughts to wander all night about those scenes where I had passed, without knowing it, the happiest hours of my life.

– Jorge Isaacs, Maria

It has been a while since I have written a personal post, so I know it must be strange to see these sad musings amid sociopolitical topics. But as the tagline says, this blog is about wherever my mind takes me, and right now it is a sad place.

I have been feeling quite a bit of melancholy lately, a sort of mild, back-of-the-mind type of sadness that keep resurfacing throughout the day and especially at night. I have no idea what has triggered — there is almost never a clear reason for it — but I know that a lot of nostalgia is emerging as well; I miss the simpler and more naive times; old hangouts, friends, first-experiences. 

And while I indulgently reflect upon the past, I start to dwell on the “what ifs” and “what could have beens” — a futile endeavor, I know, but I cannot help myself. I know I was younger and stupider back then (as we all our), I know that I am looking back with the benefit of hindsight, with information I could not have possible known at the time of my dumb, regrettable decisions. But I nonetheless still go down all these hypothetical paths that I will never truly know.

Ultimately (and graciously), these feelings pass quickly; as I said, it is all very mild and subdued. But it still lingers to some degree, and I worry if this is simply the way I am. For as long as I can remember, I have always been nagged by some sort of worry or melancholy even when I am otherwise happy. Maybe it can be attributed to the intrusive thoughts characteristic of OCD, or maybe it is the clinical depression or dysthymia that I suspect I have. I do not know, but I suspect I am going to have to get used to it.

Thankfully, I find myself handling these things better than I once did. Life goes on, and I continue to find little ways to cheer up and move forward — from the simple joys of green tea, good music, and a walk through the park, to deeper focus on goals, fitness regimens, and planned trips. I am mercifully surrounded by potential and opportunity. I just need to find the courage to take action and overcome the fear of what if; I just need to embrace the adventure of the unknown rather than dwell on ephemeral and pointless nostalgia. 

Writing these like this certainly helps bring clarity and organization to my disjointed and intangible thoughts. Thanks for reading my friends. I hope you are all well.

Brief Reflections on the World Cup

Although I am not a huge sports fan, I must admit that the energy surrounding the World Cup can be infectious, such that I find myself enjoying some of the games. Soccer is one of the few truly global institutions in our increasingly globalized world, enjoyed by literally billions of people across the planet.

Hundreds of millions of people from all walks of life are, in one way or another, taking part in the same collective experience. Not to sound sappy, but imagine — never in our thousands of years on this earth have so many people across so many different boundaries shared in one thing.

To be clear, I am not naive about or in disagreement with the various criticisms and controversies surrounding this particular World Cup and FIFA in general (which are similar to what bedevils the Olympics and the OIC). I just find it fascinating from an anthropological and historical perspective how something can transcend so many different cultures and nationalities.

Death in the Social Media Age

Social media has allowed average people to establish a persistent and indefinite presence on the internet, namely through profiles like Facebook. It’s strange to imagine that after we pass away, all these photos, posts, and other means of expression will otherwise remain permanently recorded. It can also be eerie when someone has died unexpectedly, leaving you with a timeline of last words and activities.
 
I’ve also seen the profiles of deceased people become shrines of sorts, with many loved ones browsing through them to capture the essence of their departed. I’m not sure of what to make of that — on the one hand, it’s nice to be able to retain so much of a person long after they die; but on the other hand, it may make it more difficult to let go.
 
I can imagine that very soon, it may become common for someone to mention in their will what should be done with their various social media profiles.

What are your thoughts and experiences with this?

 

Human Nature and Apathy

Many people, myself included, lament the fact that our species is so apathetic to the widespread suffering that is plentifully around us. However tragic, such indifference is both natural and expected. Our minds were not evolved for absorbing the sheer amount of stimulus that exists in the world.

Only very recently have most humans become regularly exposed to the overwhelming amount of people, events, and information that exists and multiplies all around us. There is a limit to how much we can think about or emotionally react to, and that’s why our immediate suffering — our trivial “first world problems” — is felt far more strongly that the more horrible but distant misery that exists out there. Telling someone that others have it worse is admirable but futile because our brains feel the personal circumstances more substantively and intimately than abstract ones.

It’s for this reason that society will obsess more about individual negative events highlighted in news versus the bigger but nameless and faceless statistics of human poverty. In fact, this is the same reason you’re more likely to donate to an individual suffering person than to broader charitable in general — look up Paul Slovik’s “psychic numbing” phenomenon. In some sense, this may even be a merciful defense mechanism — imagine if all the tremendous suffering in the world was equally impactful. We’d likely succumb to severe depression and misanthropy, or become very withdrawn.

Of course, I’m not saying this excuses callousness or apathy. We can still love and care for one another beyond our closest loved ones. We don’t need to be deeply affected by all the human suffering in the world in order to be troubled by it and seek to alleviate it. Empathy and social responsibility are intrinsic to our species. We must simply adapt to the existence of this new global community and expand our circle of compassion and consideration to be far wider. It’s difficult but not impossible, in my opinion.

What are your thoughts?

On Counterfactual Thinking and Negativity Bias

It seems that humans can’t help but think about the inevitable “what ifs” that we encounter in life — how things would have turned out  “if only” some factor or another was different. This is known as counterfactual thinking, and it is often problematic not only because we wrack our brains with  regret for having not taken a different path, but also because tend to only apply this train of thought to unfortunate circumstances.

Thus, counterfactual thinking works in tandem with another apparent human predisposition: a negativity bias that focuses more on the bad things that happen to us rather than the good. We’re less inclined to wonder how things could have been worse, because we’re more than happy with the results and would much rather milk the good fortune and move on.

All this makes sense: we dwell on the absence of something because our advanced cognition inclines us to wonder about such mysteries. And we focus on the negative because what hurts us is far more impactful than what doesn’t (with respect to applying this bias to news reports,  it works the same way: what tugs at our negative emotions is going to be more profound).

While there are many explanations for this tendency towards focusing on the negative, the point is, we can’t seem to help it. The bad things stand out the most, and subsequently, our regret at their occurrence makes us struggle with all the ways we — as individuals or as a species — could have prevented them.

But I believe we must make it a habit to notice the bad things that didn’t happen; to acknowledge that the absence of negativity is something to be cherished and pointed out, rather than taken as the default condition. What about making it home in one piece, when you could have very well gotten into a car accident? What about having your loved ones or your health, when the existence of both is ever so fragile? Indeed, the very fact that you’ve managed to live another day is something to be appreciated.

It is a tragedy of human nature — one very much observed throughout our history — that it takes something awful to happen to us to appreciate what life is like in the absence of that awfulness. Terrible things await all of us; inevitably, loved ones will die, hard times will come, and we will suffer and eventually expire. It can be a terrifying thought, but it’s all the more reason that we must stop and be mindful of the good times and precious moments while they last. The finiteness and fragility of life, and what is good, is precisely what makes those things so precious.

Education: An End In Itself

Whenever I’ve gone to an interview, I’ve often been asked how my undergraduate major – International Relations and Political Science, with a minor in Economics – has anything to do with the position I’m applying for. This implies that my education is only relevant, if not purposeful, insofar as it has economic value. This is all the more true considering that most of the course I took included such “soft” sciences as history, philosophy, anthropology, art, and law.

I didn’t take these subjects with the intention of making a lot of money. I had no such delusions about the economic potency of a piece of paper – which isn’t to degrade degree-seeking students or the non-monetary value of their plan of study, since having any sort of post-GED degree is still better than not. It’s just that getting a degree in itself is no guarantee of financial success. An education in and of itself is not going to make you money, contrary to what was (once) conventional wisdom.

And that’s okay. Indeed, I didn’t take these courses with money in mind at all. I didn’t pursue an education strictly for monetary enrichment. I studied because these subjects interested me, because learning is important for personal and societal well-being, and because I simply enjoyed them and felt enriched through the acquiring of knowledge.

Yes, making money is important. And yes, I had the luxury of learning for learning’s sake thanks to my scholarship, which makes my perspective somewhat biased. But my point is that my education is is my education. Learning about the world is a fun, fulfilling, and beautiful thing independent of its financial rewards.

Just because my current job has little to do with my major doesn’t mean my education was a waste of time, as some have said or implied. This once again presumes that my learning only matters if it makes me money and gets me a relevant career (and it also assumes that one’s career path is linear, as if everyone should jump straight into their job of choice rather than adapt to changing circumstances or desires).

It’s unfortunate that many in our society see an education as only a means rather than an end in itself. The value of an education shouldn’t determined solely by how much money it can make for you. While being financially successful is important, being educated and well-informed about the world should be valuable, period.

By all means, learn practical things and work to find a meaningful career. I’m not opposed to that. But learning about the world along the way – whether through a formal education, informal learning, or autodidacticism - should not be denigrated just because it doesn’t fit the commercialized paradigm of our consumerist, money-obsessed society. It’s just another way that our culture commoditizes and monetizes something that should have innate value.

But that’s a different discussion for a different day. Thoughts?

Self-Taught African Boy Impresses MIT

From  comes a fascinating story about a child prodigy skilled enough to earn the attention of the esteemed MIT. From the video’s caption (which includes additional links and information).

15-Year-Old Kelvin Doe is an engineering whiz living in Sierra Leone who scours the trash bins for spare parts, which he uses to build batteries, generators and transmitters. Completely self-taught, Kelvin has created his own radio station where he broadcasts news and plays music under the moniker, DJ Focus.

Kelvin became the youngest person in history to be invited to the “Visiting Practitioner’s Program” at MIT. THNKR had exclusive access to Kelvin and his life-changing journey – experiencing the US for the first time, exploring incredible opportunities, contending with homesickness, and mapping out his future.

Unfortunately, the video, which may be a tad too sentimental for some, glosses over how Kelvin managed such a remarkable feat, mentioning only that he’s “self-taught.” I’d very much like to hear him explain the creative and exploratory process that led him to do something that even those of us with the resources can’t pull off.

Stories like this – of child prodigies and other unlikely inventors – always make think: how many geniuses out there are harboring innate talents and skills that will never be known due to poverty and lack of access to educational resources? There could be millions of people just like this boy who are denied the opportunity to realize their potential. Imagine if Einstein or Newton had been born in abject poverty, without access to books, schools, or the time to focus on intellectual pursuits?

This boy pulled it off against all odds, but he’s an exceptional case: there are many more like him that remain under the radar, much to the detriment of the world. At the very least, the globalized and interconnected nature of our world (led by the internet) is allowing us to uncover such talents like never before – but it won’t be enough. The world can’t afford to let generations of potential scientists, innovators, and inventors remain unappreciated and untapped. There is no substitute for human brain power, and like any resource, it needs to be invested it and harnessed.