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
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.
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 Salon, reads 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
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.
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:
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?
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
I couldn’t agree more with the following observation by The Atlantic‘s Amanda Machado, whose article “Traveling Teaches Students in a Way Schools Can’t” explores the often-neglected experiential side of education.
During my time traveling in these areas, I often traveled without access to hot water, Internet, air conditioning, or even basic electricity. I slept in rooms with spiders, mosquitoes and bedbugs. I rode on public transportation that rarely left on time and often broke down suddenly in remote areas. Stripped of my daily habits and expectations, I was forced to surrender the idea that I have a right to anything—including the luxury of convenience, or days when everything I’ve planned actually happens. And my minor travel hassles seemed even more petty when I realized that they represented larger systemic problems that locals must deal with every day.
But these trips didn’t only teach me to appreciate what I had; they also moved me to consider why I had it in the first place. I realized that much of what I thought was necessity was, in fact, luxury and began to realize how easily I could survive off of much less. I didn’t necessarily need hot water or a timely bus or a comfortable bed to be happy for the day. I didn’t necessarily need a jaw-dropping landscape or a famous archeological ruin or a stunning beach to make my travels worth it. Instead, most of the time, that fulfillment came from the people I interacted with—not the things I had or did. It came from eating soup with locals at a rest stop on a 12-hour bus ride, sharing a meal with Peruvian soccer fans while watching a match, or chatting with the owner of my hostel during his lunch break. Discovering that my best travel moments came from these subtle, personal moments instead of the grandiose, materialistic ones made me understand that living contently required little. What I originally thought I “took for granted”, I now rethought taking at all.
Before traveling, I also assumed people from developing countries would all want the advantages I had as an American. And yet, I discovered that the people in these countries didn’t necessarily feel like their lives were lacking. During my last visit to South Africa, I worked with John Gilmour, the executive director of LEAP schools, a charter network for low-income students. Gilmour told me about an encounter he had visiting a Cape Town township community before he decided to open his first school near there. A local showed him a street corner and told him, “This is my favorite place in the whole entire world”. Gilmour was skeptical and argued, “How could you say that? Look at the graffiti, look at the trash covering the floor, look at the unpaved road”. The other man responded, “No, look at the people”.
Stories like these are what continue to whet my appetite for more travel. Even if it is just exploring a neighboring town I had never visited before, I always find myself learning something new — especially when I take the time to engage with fellow humans. Continue reading
Though feelings of gratitude should be a regular activity, one might as well take advantage of the spotlight offered by Thanksgiving to reflect deeply on both what we are grateful for, and why gratefulness itself is so important.
The Greater Good Science Center, based in the University of Berkeley, California, unveils the social, psychological, and even physical benefits of practicing gratitude, as told by a leading expert on the subject, Robert Emmons.
The social benefits are especially significant here because, after all, gratitude is a social emotion. I see it as a relationship-strengthening emotion because it requires us to see how we’ve been supported and affirmed by other people.
Indeed, this cuts to very heart of my definition of gratitude, which has two components. First, it’s an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good thing in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received. This doesn’t mean that life is perfect; it doesn’t ignore complaints, burdens, and hassles. But when we look at life as a whole, gratitude encourages us to identify some amount of goodness in our life.
The second part of gratitude is figuring out where that goodness comes from. We recognize the sources of this goodness as being outside of ourselves. It didn’t stem from anything we necessarily did ourselves in which we might take pride. We can appreciate positive traits in ourselves, but I think true gratitude involves a humble dependence on others: We acknowledge that other people—or even higher powers, if you’re of a spiritual mindset—gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives.
Emmons’ research on the power of regular thankfulness has gleaned four “transformative” effects: Continue reading
For most of human history, the average person rarely knew, let alone cared, about what happened beyond his or her little community of mostly interrelated people. Now, something can happen halfway across the world, to strangers of a completely foreign culture and society, and we feel emotionally and politically invested. We mourn, express solidarity, debate, and otherwise get involved in matters that by all accounts should not concern us.
It is easy to take for granted that we live in a global community, in which our social, economic, and even personal lives are impacted by the fate of total strangers thousands of miles away. But this is actually a radically new development in our species’s history, after millennia of living in small tribes, bands, and city-states. (Indeed, civilizations only emerged three to four thousand years ago, whereas modern humans have existed for at least a quarter of a million years.)
Doubtless, we are far from forming a truly cohesive and universal identity — too many things still separates us and undermine our ability to empathize, including our biology (e.g., our minds evolved to prioritize genetic kin — those who look and seem more similar — and can develop only a limited number of deep social connections).
But given the novelty of this globalized world, I am confident that with time, such limitations can be transcended. Just as the city or country — now totally common and accepted social units — was once an alien concept for thousands of years, so too can something as crazy as a global community, in the psychological if not political sense, be a reality.