Ringing in the New Year With Gratitude and Purpose

I know 2017 was a rough year for many people across the world. That makes me all the more grateful that it was overall kind to me. I got engaged to the love of my life, finally started law school (after nearly seven years talking about it), and got to travel to almost a dozen new places. I made a lot of great news friends while fortunately still remaining with the same tried but true ones. I continued struggling with my physical and mental health, but made a lot of progress on those fronts, too (due in no small part, as always, to my incredible support network).

So, on balance, I could not have asked for a better year. Things do really seem to be getting better with time, and I am really thankful for that. The cosmic dice were rolled in my favor, and for no other reason than raw luck, I find myself in such incredibly good circumstances. I hope that in the coming years, I can give back accordingly, both through and beyond my legal career. I hope for the best for everyone else and promise to do whatever I can to be there and help out, even if I am not the most available or reliable. (Something I am continuing to work on, promise!).

Finally, if it is any consolation, for all the horrible things still going on in the world, each passing year of 21st century is seeing a consistent improvement in everything from poverty reduction to increases in longevity. Progress is somehow still marching on, and there is a good chance that there will be many great things ahead on the horizon, however many bad things may still be there for us to resolve. Let’s keep the moral arc going in whatever way we can.

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World War Three?

I think people are too quick to invoke World War Three after every diplomatic scuffle, arms race, or rising tensions.

Over the last two centuries, since the advent of the international system, there have been literally hundreds, if not thousands, of potential flash points for global war. Only twice did it result in global conflict, and each of those were interrelated and stemmed from the intersection of factors unique to that time and place. Plus, it is obviously easier to notice the wars that occurred rather than the numerous potential wars that were averted or preempted.

Granted, those two wars killed over 70 million people and unleashed a level of destruction and barbarity that still remain incomprehensible. So, fear of something like that happening again is perfectly justified, and we mustn’t be complacent – war has long been the natural state of humanity, and the last few decades have been unusual in their relative peacefulness.

But we should be measured in our caution and tone down the apocalyptic rhetoric, which all too often feels dangerously fatalistic, if not eager (there is a subset of people, generally religious, who seem to welcome world-ending events).

What are your thoughts?

Hans Rosling, Data-Driven Optimist, Passes Away

It is not easy being an optimist, and doing so just got harder with the recent death, at 68, of Swedish physician and statistician Hans Rosling. A tireless advocate for improving the world through compelling yet data rich presentations, Rosling brought a unique and crucial pizzazz  when it came to public advocacy and education.

Foreign Policy, which once named him one of the world’s top 100 thinkers, highlighted  some of the work Rosling did to change people’s perceptions of the world and to bring attention to humanity’s often-understated progress.

After roughly two decades studying hunger in Africa, he became a professor at the Karolinka Institute — a medically focused university in Sweden — and then the founder of data visualization site Gapminder. He was dedicated to bringing people facts in a way that seemed compelling and understandable to them.

In Feb. 2006, for example, he gave a presentation that used data to demonstrate that the concept of the “developing world” was one based on preconceived biases, not borne out of reality.

In 2010, he showed in just four minutes how lifespan and wealth had increased over the past 200 years — and how inequality between and within countries increased with it.

Indeed, I have twice posted about Rosling’s videos and data (here and here), and considered him a personal hero of mine. He helped inform my optimistic, humanist worldview with his energetic yet substantive presentation of the facts, be it about the rapid decline in child mortality or the growth of leisure through innovation. He was a champion for human development, using his data to both inspire hope and inform future policy and action. His eclectic mix of humor, colorful visualizations, and endearing levels of energy — which formed his shtick as an “edutainer” — has no doubt done much to keep the world moving along towards progress.

Rosling will certainly be missed, but thank goodness for his rich legacy of creative and hope-inspiring talks, all of which you can view here. That’s quite a way to live on.

 

 

 

An Award Winning Map of the World

As I have discussed here before, most maps of the world are spatially wrong, due to the inherent difficulty of projecting a spherical planet into two dimensional form. Some landmasses end up looking far larger than they are (notably Greenland and Antarctica)  while others appear much smaller (such as Africa and Australia). Continue reading

How Hobbies Bring Meaning to Our Lives

One of the ways I cope with the vagaries of life, from mundane, day-to-day stressors to major events and tragedies, is to focus on one of several life projects that I have cultivated over the years: reading, gardening, aquaculture, and, of course, blogging. These and other activities give me something to look forward to each morning, and serve as a form of therapy, allowing me to suspend all other worries and focus on something as simple yet gratifying as completing a chapter in my favorite book, or watching my plants bear fruit.

Over at QuartzAlex Preston explores the philosophy of hobbies and why they are integral to personal identity and quality of life. Continue reading

Roger Ebert On Kindness And Death

The iconic film critic, who died in 2013, redirected his talented writing from film to public reflections on his own mortality. His thoughts are relevant to any one of us who has ever contemplated the inevitability of our demise and how we come to terms with it, especially within a secular worldview (as Ebert himself prescribed to).

The following excerpt from his book, “Life Itself: A Memoir”, courtesy of Salonreads as an ode to the humanist approach to life and death.

“Kindness” covers all of my political beliefs. No need to spell them out. I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.

One of these days I will encounter what Henry James called on his deathbed “the distinguished thing”. I will not be conscious of the moment of passing. In this life I have already been declared dead. It wasn’t so bad. After the first ruptured artery, the doctors thought I was finished. My wife, Chaz, said she sensed that I was still alive and was communicating to her that I wasn’t finished yet. She said our hearts were beating in unison, although my heartbeat couldn’t be discovered. She told the doctors I was alive, they did what doctors do, and here I am, alive.

Do I believe her? Absolutely. I believe her literally — not symbolically, figuratively or spiritually. I believe she was actually aware of my call and that she sensed my heartbeat. I believe she did it in the real, physical world I have described, the one that I share with my wristwatch. I see no reason why such communication could not take place. I’m not talking about telepathy, psychic phenomenon or a miracle. The only miracle is that she was there when it happened, as she was for many long days and nights. I’m talking about her standing there and knowing something. Haven’t many of us experienced that? Come on, haven’t you? What goes on happens at a level not accessible to scientists, theologians, mystics, physicists, philosophers or psychiatrists. It’s a human kind of a thing.

Zen Pencils has an excellent and touching comic told through Ebert’s words on kindness. It is well worth giving a look.

Needless to say, as a self-identifying secular humanist, I subscribe to wholeheartedly to the idea that a contemplative, ethical life is the one most worth living. Regardless of one’s theological or metaphysical views about the nature of our universe and our place in it, trying to make the world a better place in any way is a relevant and life-affirming cause. It fills us and others with hope, meaning, and happiness, and allows us to face the prospect of death with greater courage — a life well lived makes death less scary, for we can die knowing that we did the most with our finite time on Earth.

What are your thoughts?

 

 

 

 

The fact is that, despite the emphasis we place on good intentions, we do routinely pass moral judgment on ourselves and others for outcomes that were not intended, not foreseen, and influenced by factors beyond our control. Philosophers call this
“moral luck”, by which they mean that the judgment we deserve often depends not only on our intentions, but on how our actions happen to turn out.

This moral vulnerability to luck is pervasive, because nothing at all that we do as parents is fully under our control.

[…]

The moral quandaries we face aren’t dissolved when we find their neurological and evolutionary basis any more than our appreciation of art is undermined by the neurological and evolutionary basis of our perception of depth and color. But the knowledge that we are influenced by these competing psychological processes supports the somewhat comforting philosophical idea that we will never find an entirely coherent, tidy, systematic view of our moral responsibility. We see that it is problematic, unfair, even tragic, to burden people with responsibility for outcomes beyond their control. But equally it would, in the words of philosopher Bernard Williams, “be a kind of insanity” never to experience sentiments like Ariel Castro’s mother—never to feel a need for forgiveness, a need to atone, a sense of being at fault—when our otherwise blameless actions (like giving birth to a child), or our nearly blameless actions (like parenting a child imperfectly) cause unforeseen disaster for others. Rather than attempting to reason ourselves into coherence, we should embark on the more modest task of reflecting on the actual experiences that are the stuff of our moral life so that we can see our untidy morality in all of its contradictory richness. Since we can neither eliminate our responsibility for chance outcomes, nor find clear criteria for when we should accept blame, we ought to shift our focus and ask how we can live with parenthood’s painful uncertainty. What obligations does it place on us? What consolation can we seek?

— Claire Creffield, “Parenthood, the Great Moral Gamble“, Nautilus

Continue reading

The Best T-Shirt For Traveling

I have definitely found the next item on my wishlist: the IconSpeak, an ingenious T-shirt featuring 40 universal icons for communicating across language barriers.

travel-shirt-iconspeak-world-15

As the inventors recount in Bored Panda:

“Many times we were confronted with a language barrier that was only to be overcome by drawing signs, symbols or icons on a piece of paper, map, or into the dirt”, explain George, Steven, and Florian. “We thought it would be great to have an essential set of icons with you, permanently, so that you could just point on whatever you need – and people would understand. Soon the notepad was pulled out again and we started listing more or less essential icons that would have been of great help during not just ours, but basically anyone’s trip”.

Here are some nifty demo photos of the shirt in action:

The Fortunate Optimist

Many will — and indeed have — rightly point out that the only reason I am a fairly optimistic person is that I have lived a comparatively easy and privileged life. But I think that is how it should be — why should I be so grim when I have been so lucky? Why should I squander my good fortune and opportunity when so many others — indeed, the majority of humans who have ever lived and who presently live — have suffered far greater hardship and injustice. I am grateful to even have a basis for hopefulness and enthusiasm, so I cherish and cultivate it accordingly. It is not about being starry-eyed, naive, and willfully ignorant, but trying to keep even the bad in one’s life, and in the world at large, in check however one can.

Of course, this is not to say that people do not have good reasons to be cynical, regardless of their seemingly positive circumstances and experiences, or that pessimists are categorically ungrateful and ignorant. Like almost any person that has ever lived, I have seen and experienced enough to know that there are reasonable grounds to feel hopeless, misanthropic, and even nihilistic — indeed, I struggle regularly with bouts of those feelings as well. But for practical and philosophical reasons, I try to balance it out by valuing whatever flicker of hope I can find (be it in my life or among humanity as a whole).

What are your thoughts?

 

The Meditative Quality of Art

From early childhood up until my early twenties, I was an artist. Not in any particularly prolific or professional sense; just someone who liked to sketch, doodle, and draw fairly regularly. I cannot recall when or why I stopped exactly, but I have been meaning to get back into it, and on occasion I do manage to pull of a crude sketch or two.

A recent article in the Washington Post is giving me yet another reason to get back into the habit. As so many artists throughout history have attested, there is evidence that creative activity is good for the mind, as well as the body, being utilized to great effect in therapy. Everything from depression to post traumatic stress disorder and even cancer (namely symptoms like fatigue and pain) is mitigated through the creative process.

Whatever the exact mechanics of it, there is just something about making art that helps us feel better, both emotionally and physically. Here are four evidence-backed reasons, courtesy of WaPo  and Fulfillment Daily,  why letting loose with one’s inner creativity, regardless of skill level, is well worth trying. Continue reading