Thursday, October 24, 2013

Oh The Irony...

  So... the wife and kids went to the local grocery store a while back, during a community celebration of some sort, and came home with these cute little United States flags. See if you can spot the reason unfettered American capitalism is not turning out quite as well as some people would have us think.

Coming soon: the red and yellow collector's edition.

Friday, October 18, 2013

I'll Try Again Tomorrow

  When I finally decide to sit down and write these days, I typically start with the goal of writing something I would enjoy reading if someone else had written it. My ultimate goal in writing is to connect with others by being honest about the human condition. I enjoy exploring the things that don't usually get talked about in the everyday rush of life.

  The process of organizing my thoughts enough to communicate them coherently is good exercise, it helps me feel like I am able to view the world a little bit clearer than I did before. And if the reader enjoys taking that journey with me, then that's an added bonus! I like to think that in one way or another, we are all in the same boat: we all feel joy and pain, we all want to be understood. We are all human souls, and that gives us something in common.

  At the close of my last post, I encouraged everyone to "be the best version of yourself". When I funnel a piece of my consciousness through the keyboard, my desire is to give the best version of myself a chance to come out and play, even if only for a brief moment in time. The truth is, I dream of contributing something to the universe that might outlive me. Maybe that is naively ambitious of me, but I don't care. We all have the right to dream. We all have the right to hope that something we do in our lifetime could make a difference in the world; that we might become a part of something bigger.

  There are many ways to participate in the human "race". We can walk, we can run, and sometimes the best we can do is crawl. But at the end of the day, our attitude is what provides the real victory. In my heart, I genuinely want to be brave. I want to be the kind of person who can smile through their pain; the kind of person who chooses to dance in the rain. I believe in the human spirit, and our power to choose to learn from hardship. But I have a confession: I don't feel brave.

  I don't feel like the best version of me today, I feel flawed, and my batteries are drained. I will admit, my heart aches with discouragement at the moment. Sometimes I fear my courage is a carefully constructed house of cards, and all it would take is a little breeze to remind me that I still have a lot of growing to do. But I know that courage is most effective when combined with humility. A vital component of being brave is the ability to admit when you don't feel brave. Discretion is the better part of valor, as they say.

  "Courage doesn't always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says I'll try again tomorrow." - Mary Anne Radmacher

   I love that quote, it reminds me to stop counting my falls and focus on how many times I get back up; it validates the tears that build up in your heart when the harder you try, the harder life gets. In the last two months I have been in and out of the hospital several times due to a grab-bag of medical problems. The first in my recent chain of hospital visits, I was in there for five days. Sometimes the value of simply "surviving to see tomorrow" is not as cliche as it sounds.

  Sometimes it seems that life tries to make us feel like our existence has become small and insignificant, that we are just taking up space. Despite knowing that your family and friends love you, have you ever found yourself wanting to be reminded that you really do matter as a unique individual? I am not talking about feeling valued because someone else needs you, although that is important. Sometimes we need to be reminded that we are special, regardless of our external roles and relationships.

  We all stand to benefit from a clear and sustaining sense of individual worth. In the movie "It's A Wonderful Life" that comes on TV every holiday season, Jimmy Stewart's character gets the rare gift of seeing exactly what the world would be like if he had never been born. He gets to see his neighbors, friends, and family living without any of the good that he brought into their lives... and he has a sobering revelation about the difference one person can make.

  As for myself, I know there are people who's lives have intersected with mine in special and irreplaceable ways. In fact, just yesterday I had a wonderful chat with a good friend who was also having an "at the end of my rope" kind of week. We commiserated and helped each other fan the flame of hope. This "you are not alone" type of support is a simple thing that inspires me to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

  Beloved children's author, Theodor "Dr. Seuss" Geisel was truly a unique person. He shared his imagination with the world in a way that reminds us all to never lose our child-like sense of wonder. He wrote:
"Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You."

  This is a simple, timeless piece of wisdom. I may struggle, you may struggle, but that's okay! Acceptance is the heart of authenticity. There is no sense in comparing one person's grief to that of another. Pain is pain, sadness is sadness, and frustration is frustration. If what you are going through is a big deal to you, then it's a big deal to you... and that matters. However big or small a person's worries may seem to someone else, compassion does not have a minimum threshold to meet before we should care for each other and bear one another's burdens. In an increasingly cold and calloused world, a little empathy goes a long way.

  Patience and humility are the tools with which we can learn from the challenges we face. Of course, this is much easier said than done, but I recently came across a poem that offers some advice on the subject:

When you get what you want in your struggle for pelf,
And the world makes you King for a day,
Then go to the mirror and look at yourself,
And see what that guy has to say.

For it isn't your Father, or Mother, or Wife,
Who judgement upon you must pass.
The feller whose verdict counts most in your life
Is the guy staring back from the glass.

He's the feller to please, never mind all the rest,
For he's with you clear up to the end,
And you've passed your most dangerous, difficult test
If the guy in the glass is your friend.

You may be like Jack Horner and "chisel" a plum,
And think you're a wonderful guy,
But the man in the glass says you're only a bum
If you can't look him straight in the eye.

You can fool the whole world down the pathway of years,
And get pats on the back as you pass,
But your final reward will be heartaches and tears
If you've cheated the guy in the glass.

- Dale Wimbrow

  So anyway... I may feel like a total mess today, and tomorrow, and maybe the day after that... but we all have the opportunity to learn to love "the guy in the glass", though a work in progress he/she may be.

  I am honestly encouraging you to hang in there, because I need to be reminded of it myself. The synergy of that exchange helps me a lot, and I hope it can help you too. So hang in there! And if you see someone else who is having a hard time, give them a hug and tell them to hang in there too!

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Government Shutdown: What Can We Do?

  October 1st, 2013: The United States federal government has entered another phase of being stuck with the consequences of consistently resorting to stubborn partisan bickering and gamesmanship; instead of intelligent, reasonable, equitable methods of solving problems. And sadly, the repercussions taking effect on our nation this week, are just the tip of the iceberg of what is really wrong.

  I have been thinking about what, if anything, I felt like writing about the source of these problems, and what we might do to change the future... and I think I have been able to condense my thoughts down to 3 simple questions we should all be asking ourselves right now.

  So anyway, here's my take on what we as citizens can do to stem the tide of chaos rolling across America right now. I see people embracing anger and division. I see people fearing that their freedom has been taken away. But there is one freedom that I know for certain can never be taken away: the freedom to CHOOSE how we are going to respond to life, and to other people.

The Three Core Concepts of NOT Being a Ridiculous Human Being (TM)

[These questions can (and should) be applied to individuals and groups.]

 1)  Am I ignorant?

  I mean this in the academic sense. The dictionary definition of ignorance is:
ig·no·rant [ig-ner-uhnt] adjective
1. lacking in knowledge or training; unlearned: an ignorant man.
2. lacking knowledge or information as to a particular subject or fact: ignorant of quantum physics.
3. uninformed; unaware.
4. due to or showing lack of knowledge or training: an ignorant statement.
  This means that if we don't actually know what we are talking about, we must first be aware that we don't know much about the subject, and then put some real effort into finding out more about it. Determining our level of ignorance in relation to a given topic is not necessarily a question of our intentions, or an insult to our capacity for intelligent thought. Ignorance is the state of being uninformed. Whether or not we choose to remain in that state is another question, better defined as apathy. Apathetic ignorance (individual or collective) can become a genuinely scary thing. For example:

EXHIBIT (A) -- Here is one example of the type of ignorance I am talking about:

  If your own prejudice and/or laziness prevents you from putting a minimal amount of effort into educating yourself on the facts of an issue that you claim is of vital importance to you...

Perhaps that is the real problem.

2)  Do I have my facts straight?

  This means that when we finally do get off our behind, and decide to learn about the subject we are engaged in, we need to be willing to face all the facts of the matter. This willingness needs to carry us beyond the narrow or biased bits of information that don't disturb our comfort zone. Having a casual discussion with a friend, or reading the first opinion piece you get your hands on, generally doesn't qualify as getting educated on the matter.

  Unfortunately, the dialog surrounding complex problems tends to become polarized pretty quickly. Developing a well-rounded understanding of a situation (especially the causal factors) when the topic at hand is overwhelming in scope, is typically more work than most of us are interested in doing.

  Make sure you are getting your information from a credible source. Or even better: multiple credible sources. The information people tend to pass around via social media in particular, usually sides with one extreme or the other, makes one or more arbitrary generalizations, and grossly oversimplifies the issue at hand. These trends should be a clear signal that objective thought is not being employed. We need to resist the urge to let ourselves get excited by such sensationalism, and calmly take ownership of our own search for enlightenment.

The dictionary definition of research is:
re·search [ri-surch, ree-surch] noun
1. diligent and systematic inquiry or investigation into a subject in order to discover or revise facts, theories, applications, etc.: recent research in medicine.
2. a particular instance or piece of research.
verb (used without object)
3. to make researches; investigate carefully.
verb (used with object)
4. to make an extensive investigation into: to research a matter thoroughly.
  If we lack the motivation to research something we feel strongly about, or a topic we feel socially compelled to develop an opinion on, we may need to sit down and take honest inventory of what our current values and priorities really are. Not what we would like them to be, but what they really are at this point in time.

  Once we have obtained more reliable information, we then need to be open to the possibility of letting our discoveries change our opinions. If the prospect of new information actually altering our opinions makes us uncomfortable, I would say that is a good indicator that we have fallen out of the habit of learning. (See question #1.)

  I am a big fan of simple, verifiable pieces of data that are generally self-evident, or can be documented reliably via the scientific method. For example: the time of death on a death certificate is a relatively finite piece of information, it is hard to skew the manner in which that data was obtained, or the ensuing interpretation of it. Of course, information that needs little or no interpretation is a rare and valuable commodity, but certainly worth keeping an eye out for. Statistics, on the other hand, are notoriously corruptible; easily skewed by early data contamination in the gathering phase, poorly designed methods of recording the data that promote misinterpretation, and the most common problem: selective referencing with little or no context, often accompanied by arbitrary interpretation that breeds bias. Statistics referenced solely to give teeth to one side of an argument, rather than to educate on a variety of factors, tend to be the worst offenders.

  However, statistics used judiciously, with clear contextual ties to the subject matter, can be a reasonable way to illustrate a claim. The key is to avoid the trap of using statistics as a crutch in order to justify the idea being presented. If you can't make a convincing point without the statistics, you probably shouldn't be using them at all. Instead, I suggest an increased focus on obtaining a more robust personal grasp of the subject.

EXHIBIT (B) -- Here is a good example of supporting your message with data, while presenting a strong persuasive argument that stands on it's own.

3)  Am I being a hypocrite?

  After advocating healthy skepticism where statistics are concerned, I am going to go ahead and make one up. (Yes, my sense of humor feeds on irony.) It is easy to engage in a self-centered rant filled with 50% emotion, 25% thoughtless rhetoric, 20% childish belligerence, and 5% (or less) verifiable fact. Conversely, having an open minded, respectful dialog can facilitate challenging our views/opinions in a way that stretches our paradigm. That's a good thing! Healthy intellectual debate creates opportunities to explore new vistas, foster tolerance, and build the habit of thinking objectively.

  NOTE: Being stubbornly argumentative is not the same as useful debate. Regurgitating what you heard or read somewhere, just to "win" an argument with a stranger, doesn't count as intelligent debate! Equally important: refusing to accept input from sources that don't pander to your current opinion on the subject, does not count as sound intellectual discussion either. In general, we should do what we teach our children to do, and follow the golden rule: if you want your opinions to be respected, then a great place to start is to respect the opinions of others.

The dictionary definition of hypocrisy, is:
hy·poc·ri·sy [hi-pok-ruh-see] noun, plural hy·poc·ri·sies.
1. a pretense of having a virtuous character, moral or religious beliefs or principles, etc., that one does not really possess.
2. a pretense of having some desirable or publicly approved attitude.
3. an act or instance of hypocrisy.
  Being respectful and tolerant does not mean you have to agree with everyone. You can tell someone that you think their statement is not accurate, but pay careful attention not to indulge in making personal assumptions about the other party, and do your best to avoid using a condescending tone!
"As soon as men decide that all means are permitted to fight an evil, then their good becomes indistinguishable from the evil that they set out to destroy."  - Christopher Dawson
  It is wisdom to realize that we should look past the sphere of our own existence, and strive to understand the thoughts and needs of others. In today's "modern" (not to be confused with civilized) social climate, behavior that demonstrates a clear understanding of why we should always strive to exercise compassion, is harder to find than Waldo- if he wasn't wearing that conspicuous red and white striped outfit.

  If we ever find ourselves struggling (or consciously refusing) to genuinely consider the shared reality of the entire human race, not just the part of the world where we live- we need to think about how self absorbed we have become. If we can only manage to feel sympathy for those we see eye-to-eye with, it is time for some serious reflection. (See question #2.)

  An important thought to ponder when tempted to mete out judgment and derision, is this:
If I disagree with the stance another person is taking on a given issue, it is up to me to remember that they might feel the way they do because of something they have experienced. How would I view this topic if my spouse, or my children, or I were on the other side of this issue? How would I be inclined to approach solving this problem, in all honesty, if I had to walk in their shoes?

EXHIBIT (C) -- To call on better words than my own:
"A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another." - John 13:34

  He didn't say "Love one another, unless you disagree on politics." or "Love on another, unless someone else is treating you poorly." or "Love one another, unless you don't feel like it." God is not a Republican, God is not a Democrat. He is not even an American! We need to get over our foolish pride, and quit being so blasphemous as to justify our poor treatment of each other as "patriotism" or "righteousness". The eternal importance of having an attitude of kindness and humility hopefully makes sense to most people, but sadly, it is increasingly absent from too many interactions between "mature" adults in the world today. Remember:

  Ultimately, if a sincere exercise in sympathy doesn't conjure up some patience and tolerance in our hearts, sufficient to be kind to those we disagree with-- then perhaps we have not humbly faced and understood the true significance of the experiences, and relationships, in our own life.

  Perhaps we need to spend some time working on removing the two-by-four from our eye, before making a fuss about the splinter in someone else's. (Luke 6:42) Anger, fear, prejudice, and blame do not get us any closer to finding real, reasonable solutions to a problem. God gave us the instruction to love one another as a commandment. And it is our individual, personal responsibility do that.

Come on y'all...

Don't panic.
Don't turn against each other.

Be kind.
Be compassionate.

Be the best version of yourself!

Thanks, Congress!

This is an actual screen-shot of the page I got, while trying to research something this morning. I added the blue type because it needed to be there.  ;)

The Federal Government considers education a "non-essential" service... That explains a lot.