Troubled World

The world is beset by so many dire problems that it’s difficult to even comprehend them in the first place, let alone figure out how to solve them. During the past two weeks alone, I’ve read about our oceans being emptied of life and acidifying, climate change intensifying, a looming global food crisis brought on by said climate change, and persistent economic troubles that are worsening inequality and poverty in dozens of countries.

While the world has always had it’s problems – and as a history buff, I’m well aware of that – they’ve never been on this scale nor have they even been this existential (save for the threat of nuclear war during the Cold War). The human mind wasn’t evolved to deal with issues of this magnitude, which most people can’t even piece together let alone bring themselves to solve. Heck, we have so many intractable problems affecting us on the local, state, and national level that most people don’t even think to begin on the largest scale of all.

How do we bring together a disunited world that is overwhelmed with too many other concerns and manipulated by elites who care little about these issues? Where do we even start? I thought I knew, but now I’m not so sure.

Death in the Age of Social Media

Social media has made the ritual of death pretty interesting. When we die, we will be among the first generation to leave behind a unique timeline of our lives, in the form of photos, biographical information, status updates, and interactions with others. Our profiles will become shrines for our loved ones to leave condolences or see a time capsule of our time on this Earth (I’ve already seen this happen with the Facebook profiles of several deceased friends and acquaintances).

Of course, this would raise another interesting thought: do we plan on keeping our social media profiles indefinitely? Will there be a point where we’ll just grow out of it, or will it continue to mature with us until we die? It’s strange to think that we’ll have this constant (albeit wildly variable) record of our lives following us as we age.

Before I Met You

You know what’s strange? 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.

Speaking of the Dead

It’s always strange to read about someone who is dead, especially if their death was recent. I read a lot of history and international news, in which death is so common that it starts to lose meaning. It’s kind of unreal, as if we’re just reading a fictional story and they’re just numbers or names without any real weight or presence. Unless we know them personally, no amount of empathy can ever make these casualties feel truly human in our minds, at least by my experience.

It’s even odder to consider that the world continues to go on without the dead. This may seem like an obvious observation to make, but think about it: we’re talking about the dead, debating their legacy, or – if they were influential enough – feeling the effects of their actions to this day, and yet they’ll never know.

They leave the party early while the rest of us keep going on, bringing them up as if they were still around. They exist only in memory. They’re just events or characters in our mind’s eye: since we didn’t know them personally, we can only go by our own individual interpretation. So not only do they never seem real to begin with, but their very identity and life exists only in imagination, and we’ll never know what they were truly like.

It’s weird to imagine that when I die, people will be talking about me or brining me up even when I’m not around. What will they say? How will I be remembered?

Regret

Regret is a silly waste of time, and that’s coming from someone who does it often. It’s very easy to dwell on our past mistakes and wish that we could have done things differently. But those are errors of the past, which we’re only able to regret with the benefit of hindsight. At that time and place, we didn’t have the knowledge and understanding that we end up obtaining afterward. We only regret an action once we’ve learned its consequence. And we only learn its consequence once we’ve committed the action. So what’s the point in worrying? We simply couldn’t have known any better at the time, so we did what we did within that limited framework. We only feel like we could have done more because we’ve learned more about it after the fact.

The best thing to do when looking back on lamentable actions is to learn from them. Now that we have a past experience that we can study and think about, we can derive lessons from it and apply them in the present and future. Our existence consists of continuous learning. Every moment that passes is one in which we learn or experience something new that we hadn’t known before. Thus, we will always do things we’ll regret, because we’ll always have situations where we couldn’t have known any better. There’s no set number of things to learn: there will always be something new to us for as long as we live.

In light of that, we shouldn’t bother wasting time feeling guilty about the inevitable. Just learn from it as best as you can, and adapt to the repercussions that you couldn’t have prepared for anyway. Obviously, this is easier said than done: after all, I’m still prone to wasting my time regretting things too. But I’m a lot better about it than I once was, and I’d like to think that’s because I’ve learned from past experience.

As always, feel free to share your thoughts and experiences on the matter. You won’t regret it 😛 (hopefully).

A Cruel World

A car crash in Cape Cod this holiday weekend claimed the life of Marina Keegan, a 22-year-old woman from Wayland, Mass. who graduated from Yale University last week, with plans to pursue a writing career, the New York Daily News reports.

Keegan was killed around 2 p.m. Saturday afternoon in a single-vehicle rollover that occurred when her boyfriend Michael Gocksch, also 22, lost control of his Lexus and hit the right-side guarding rail, according to a press release from police in Dennis, Mass.

Keegan was pronounced dead at the scene while Gocksch, a fellow Yale alum who graduated with Keegan last Monday, was transported to Cape Cod Hospital in stable condition. Police said both passengers were wearing seatbelts and speed did not appear to be a factor in the crash.

According to Yale Daily News, Keegan was “a prolific writer, actress and activist” who graduated magna cum laude from the university with a concentration in writing. She had just landed a job at The New Yorker as an editorial assistant and was scheduled to move to Brooklyn with friends in June.

In addition to acting, writing plays and serving as President of the Yale College Democrats, Keegan was a member of OccupyYale who sparked debate on campus with a feature story in Yale’s WEEKEND Magazine called “Even artichokes have doubts,” which discussed the high percentage of Yale graduates who enter the consulting and finance industry. National Public Radio highlighted the story in a February episode of the program “All Things Considered.”

During Memorial Day weekend, Keegan had planned to workshop her folk musical “Independents,” which was slated to appear in the New York International Fringe Festival in August.

“[Marina] was just one of those amazing, wise souls that was given to us as a gift. She had an unbelievable, beyond-her-years way of looking at the world, and her passion was to try and use her words to explore the human condition,” Keegan’s mother told the New York Daily News. “[The musical] is one of her legacies that she will leave behind.”

In her last piece as a staff writer for the Yale Daily News, an editorial called “The Opposite of Loneliness” published Sunday following her death, Keegan wrote about her hopes and anxieties as she looked toward the future.

“What we have to remember is that we can still do anything. We can change our minds. We can start over. Get a post-bac or try writing for the first time,” Keegan wrote. “The notion that it’s too late to do anything is comical. It’s hilarious. We’re graduating college. We’re so young. We can’t, we MUST not lose this sense of possibility because in the end, it’s all we have.”

Source: Huffington Post

This is yet another reminder of the horrific randomness and indiscrimination of death. By all accounts, this girl did not deserve to die. Nor should she have: she was wearing her seatbelt, and the car was not going particularly fast. Many people have survived far worse. That could just as easily have been me in her place. There’s just no telling how death will work its arbitrary ways.

Think about what this young woman could’ve given this world. She had talent, intelligent, and ambition. She was already a leader among her generation. And now she’s gone forever due to the most unexpected scenario (though we’ve yet to know what really caused the crash).

I feel especially bad for her boyfriend, who will wake up to hear the most horrific news imaginable. He’ll no doubt blame himself, too, given that he was the driver. Losing someone like that is hard enough, but feeling some level of responsibility for it is even worse. It’s an awful feeling, and I had a close-call like that myself (sparing the details, at one point I thought my girlfriend had died in a car accident; the horror remains indescribable).

The world is such a cruel place. Even if you remove all our capacity for evil and foolishness, there are still terrible occurrences like this going on all the time (an earthquake recently struck Italy for example). As long as we have the intellectual capacity to be self-aware of our mortality, we’ll always suffer for some reason or another. Even a “natural” death is no less painful to loved ones. Distress is an inseparable component of life. All the good in the world is just a band-aid.

 

My Reflections on Another Senseless Massacre

shooting spree just occurred in Seattle, Washington, claiming the lives of five people, plus the perpetrator. As to be expected, the details are horrifying: the man walked into a café like any other client, then began opening fire at everyone inside. As he fled the scene, he shot and killed a woman at a nearby parking lot, hijacking her truck before driving off somewhere to kill himself.

As in most such instances, the gunman was allegedly mentally ill. It remains to be seen how he obtained a gun, namely whether he stole it from a family member or friend (which is often the case) or managed to purchase it himself (which also tends to happen, as with the 2011 Tuscon massacre).

I know these kinds of incidents are rare, and the number of unfit people who use guns is smaller than the overall population of gun owners. But how many times can we write these off as isolated tragedies before we have a real discussion about the high rate of gun violence in this country? I’m all for gun rights, but every freedom has its sensible parameters for the sake of protecting the public at large (as well as not so sensible ones, but that’s a different story).

And before anyone says it, I’m not letting this single event color my entire view on gun politics in this country; my current musings were triggered by this incident, but informed by the many others that have occurred before it. I know full well that we can’t stop every madman or criminal from slipping through the cracks.  But this sort of thing seems to occur far more than it should, and in any case, gun laws are hardly the only factor involved – plenty of other countries have high rates of gun ownership without approaching our uniquely high level of gun violence.

Personally, I believe much of this has to do with our relatively permissive attitude towards violence in general, exacerbated by the high rate of fractionalization, inequality, and disunity in our society; there is too much fear and animosity between all the different communities that make up our nation. It’s hard to measure if that’s being reflected by our uniquely high crime rate, and I frankly don’t have the time to explore the topic further at this point, but it’s something to consider.

Another point of concern for me was the fact that the killer’s relatives were apparently “not surprised” that he did this. They anticipated that he had the capacity to harm people, and they made no apparent effort to do something about it? As details emerge, we’ll see if they did in fact try, but in any case this raises the issue about how treat mental illness in this country, both institutionally and as a society. It seems that we still don’t take psychological problems seriously enough, nor do we have a developed enough mental health apparatus that could better address such problems.

Indeed, I recall reading how the US not only imprisons more people than most developed nations, but also institutionalizes far fewer people than the Western average – suggesting that people we’re otherwise putting in prison or ignoring should really be given mental health treatment. Of course, that’s not going to change so long as most Americans treat mental illnesses as nonexistent, taboo, or something that doesn’t require “real” medical treatment like physical health problems do.

Finally, as per my morbid nature, I can’t help but ruminate on the sheer horror of this event, as far as what it says about the randomness of death. The people going to that café did not expect that it would be the last time they’d live. Few people who die ever see it coming. And who comes out of a neighborhood parking lot expecting to be shot and killed? As the article mentions, there have been several such incidents of random death in Seattle, including a man getting shot by a stray bullet as he was driving with his family.

I go to cafes, park in public lots, and drive through the streets. I could just as easily be a victim of these random occurrences. It’s terrifying to imagine that, even as I write this, someone could barge right in and shoot me dead. While unlikely, it’s clearly not out of the realm of possibility. The rareness of these incidents makes no difference to the victims – or those who, like myself, are aware that they could be victims.

What Makes a Human

A human is made of the following:

  • Oxygen (65%)
  • Carbon (18%)
  • Hydrogen (10%)
  • Nitrogen (3%)
  • Calcium (1.5%)
  • Phosphorus (1.0%)
  • Potassium (0.35%)
  • Sulfur (0.25%)
  • Sodium (0.15%)
  • Iron (0.70%)
  • Magnesium (0.05%)
  • And trace amounts of Copper, Zinc, Selenium, Molybdenum, Fluorine, Chlorine, Iodine, Manganese, Cobalt,  Lithium, Strontium, Aluminum, Silicon, Lead, Vanadium, Arsenic, Bromine.

It’s hard to realize that everything we are, down to the smallest sub-atomic level, is a product of nature. We share the same origins and atoms of a tree, rock, insect, or star. Everything around us, everything in this entire universe, has the same origin. How strange it is that we’re all so connected in this way.

And just as our bodies are made off the atoms of previous organisms and stars, so too will future substances contains our atoms once we die. Nothing is ever destroyed. Our matter merely moves on to take another form, to make up some other part of our wonderful universe. As a great physicist once said, we are literally made out of star stuff – and visa versa.

The Default Western Perspective

Most people reading this post are from Western societies that are broadly middle-class (albeit under a lot of recent strain). Our popular culture – movies, television shows, music, etc – are all based on a middle-class perception of the world. That is the “default” or “normal” way we imagine life.

So it’s strange to consider that we’re a very tiny minority in this world: the majority of our fellow humans live in poverty. They don’t even remotely have the same perspective (although popular entertainment media will still depict middle or upper-class life as the default).

Indeed, the overwhelming majority of people who have ever lived were terribly impoverished and miserable. We are a very exclusive group, especially when you consider that most young people live in poorer societies, while most rich countries are older demographically.

Reflections of My Ancestors

I saw a mummy exhibit when I visited a museum yesterday, and it was one of the most impactful experiences I’ve had in some time. After a while, I grasped the amazing fact that I wasn’t looking at a mere archeological finding, but a human being just like me. This was someone who had emotions, thoughts, fears, and joys largely the same as my own, despite the thousands of years separating us, not to mention a culture and belief system that would be alien to one another. Imagine what it would be like to have a conversation with this person.

According to the caption, he was in his 40s when he died, probably due to an accident. He was apparently a physical laborer, maybe a craftsman, who was successful enough to afford the honor of being mummified. I wonder what his name was, or what kind of life he lived. What did he like to do for fun? It’s weird to think that billions of individual personalities existed before us, and many more will come into existence long after we’re gone too.