Friday, February 23, 2018

What I Don't Know

Things I Don’t Know:

1)    I Don’t Know Why People Do the Things They Do.  I can observe people’s actions and behaviors, but I can only guess at why they act the way they do.  I make a grave error when I assume somebody’s motives and reasons based on how their behavior affects me or others around them.  I may assume malice or affection when they haven’t felt either.  Even if they tell me their reasons, I may only get half the story as people are complicated and may have multiple, even conflicting, reasons behind their choices.  The lesson?  It is a dangerous self deception to categorize or stereotype others based solely on their observed behavior or choices.   Deal with the behavior and actions without assuming the motives.  I should explain the consequences of others’ actions and negotiate a change in behavior rather than try and change what I might think are the other person’s ideas or assumptions.
2)    I Can’t Speak for God.  Whether you believe in God, providential fate, or just the random chance of life, I don’t know the mind of the universe.  I can’t define for you the ultimate truth.  I can’t tell you who God loves or hates (although I hope he doesn’t hate) or why he allows or causes certain things.  I can tell you what I believe based on my own experience and thoughts, but I can’t extend that out to apply to all humanity as the one and ultimate truth.  Nor do I feel comfortable in telling most that their beliefs are deluded, evil, or just wrong.  I can only say what I believe and how I might feel different from them and allow them to accept or reject it as they choose.  The lesson is that I’m slow to accept the ultimate truth as presented by others without first gaining a testimony of those truths through my own experience and rumination.  Even then, I can only adopt it as what I now believe and not assume everybody will or should believe the same.
3)    I Don’t Know History:  I consider myself an amateur historian, but I also recognize that most of what I’ve learned about history is from what somebody else wrote, and often that was written based on what still others may have presented earlier--resulting in opinions and perceptions based on opinions and perceptions.  History is written by historians and few, if any of them present an unbiased view.  And, the farther we go back in time, the fewer are the verifiable facts from which to draw assumptions.  Hence, we are left to try and draw conclusions from incomplete information often handed down from biased sources.  The lesson?  Take all historical “facts” with a large grain of salt.  It’s always a valid question to ask, “how do we really know that?”  And on a related note. . .
4)    I Don’t Know Reality:  My limited understanding of quantum physics is that scientists have shown that the very act of observing a thing, changes the thing.  Further, objects and situations can appear vastly different depending on the focus and perception of the viewer.  Hence, it seems that our limited mortal viewpoint makes it impossible to have a conclusive perception of reality.  Rather, all I have is my perception of reality as I see it--which is likely skewed and incomplete at best.  I have told others that I don’t think anybody has a right to an opinion until they can understand and argue the facts from at least three different and opposing perceptions.  Even then, I realize a true reality may be vastly different still.  The lesson is to recognize and accept that how we see our reality is a child of our perception and not our perceptions being the children of any fully discernible reality.
5)    I Don’t Know that I’m Right:  I can know my opinion and preferences.  I can know what I think is best, at least for me.  I can express and explain my perception.  But, I can never know with complete certainty that I’m right.  Why?  To be absolutely sure that I’m right, I would need to meet a few impossible criteria.  One, I would need to have a complete understanding of the situation from all the different perspectives.  I would need to understand the thoughts, motivations, and intentions of all the other people involved.  I would need to feel comfortable that my own intentions and perceptions were all motivated by the greater good for all involved, including individuals, other life forms affected, and the environment.  If you can find somebody who is able to say they meet all those criteria, then they can say they are right--but they are also deluded.  Lesson?  Humility and a willingness to always entertain the possibility of more information and a better understanding--leading to the possibility you may NOT be totally right.
6)  I Don’t Know Jack:  Bottom line is that I don’t know Jack.  Like all of you I am muddling my way through life based on too little information and not enough understanding.  I’m just trying to do the best I can with what I got--and often I mess up.  My only hope is that if I’m trying to do little harm and occasionally some good, that whatever fate comes next in the eternities it will take that into account and not dump me in some proverbial lake of fire and brimstone.  Good luck out there in your own journey towards knowing what you don’t know.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Empathy: The Key to Peace

The world’s problems are crying for solutions, they always have.  Never has there been a time in history where peace was universal, neither between countries, nor among individuals.  All sides in conflict seem to want peace, but they are much less willing to do what is necessary to achieve peace.  More often than not, we demand peace at the other party's sacrifice.  If only they would see the justice and morality of our position and give in, then there would be peace.  And, once bought into this blame game, we feel justified in settling for less than peaceful solutions because it is, of course, the other party’s fault that we can’t come to a peaceful agreement.

So, is going soft and giving in the answer to finding peace?  Should we just let the other party have their way and sacrifice our position?  Is that what it takes to gain peace?  Somehow making ourselves a martyr for the cause of peace seems a less than ideal solution.  In terms of the resentment and loss we may feel it may not be much better than violently demanding our own way.  But, are being tough to the point of violence in our own interests or soft to the point of total self sacrifice the only options we have?  I’d like to suggest another.

In summary, I think the answer lies in empathy as demonstrated through two simple-to-understand, but hard-to-enact concepts.  The concepts are distinguishing interests from positions, and making the other party’s interests as important as our own in reaching a consensus solution.  I will give references on where you can look further into these concepts at the end of this essay.

What is the difference between an interest and a position?  Imagine two individuals studying in a room.  One demands that a window in the room be opened to let in the fresh air.  The other demands that it be closed.  These are the positions of the the two parties involved.  Since a window can’t be both open and closed at the same time, it would appear to be an insolvable conflict.  To illustrate an interest vs. a position, imagine a third party enters the room.  After hearing each person’s position, they ask each person why they want the window open or closed.  One person states they want it closed because the wind is coming in and disrupting their papers.  The other states they want it open because it is stuffy and they need some fresh air.  Avoiding the wind and getting fresh air are the interests of the two parties.  The third party thinks a minute and then opens a window in the same room, but where the wind will not interfere with the person studying and suddenly, both parties are satisfied.  By concentrating on what each is interested in rather than their established positions, the consensus solution to the problem can be found.

Granted, that was a simplified example.  But the interesting question that applies to far more complex situations is why the two parties didn’t do this to begin with?  Why did they jump to and then become set in their positions rather than explore how looking at interests might lead to a solution agreeable to both?  This leads us to our second concept, putting the other person’s interest on an equal footing with our own--caring about them and a consensus solution as much as we do ourselves.  Most of us take a position and then build for ourselves an emotional and intellectual box from which we judge others and justify our choices, attitudes, and behaviors.  This self justification leads to condemnation and even hostility towards others when they don’t meet the expectations of our positions.  When that condemnation and hostility are felt by others, they will in turn retreat to their own boxes and we feed off each other’s self centeredness, often times creating and exacerbating the very situation we may be complaining about.

Deciding to care about others and communicate from interests rather than positions is a choice we make, but it isn’t always an easy choice--especially when we are used to viewing others as formal or informal competitors in a zero-sum world.  We approach things from an attitude that says for somebody else to get what they want, we have to give up something that we want.  We are also sure that others are out to take advantage of us or the situation and we need to be tough to hold our own.  Well, people aren’t perfect and most will be approaching things from the same type of box we ourselves have used in the past.  An important concept to remember is that when we start putting others on an equal basis with ourselves, it will invite them to do the same.  Just as operating from self centeredness invites others to build their own boxes, operating outside the box or showing interest in others and their interests, will invite them to do the same for us.  Another important point is to realize that just because you are caring for and listening to others, doesn’t require you to sacrifice your interests to benefit theirs.  You can still say no to something you aren’t willing to accept and search for better solutions.  But, you can do so without anger, judgement, and contention.

Some quick ideas before I bring this to an end.  Recognize that when you are having negative feelings towards another person, or even towards yourself in relation to the other party, you are likely operating from within that self centered box.  It is only when you put yourself in a state where you no longer have those feelings that you can begin to see clearly and focus equally on the other party.  Despite how justified you may think you are, negative feelings are almost a guarantee you are in an emotional and intellectual self centered box.  Also, we must be willing to put aside our assumptions and judgements and be willing to really listen to another person or group’s interest.  It is only when we try and see the situation completely from the other party's perspective that we can see clearly enough to come to a mutual consensus.  In other words, we have to care more about the relationship and coming to a solution more than we care about being right or achieving some self-centered definition of winning.

These concepts aren’t rocket science, but neither are they easy.  They take a concerted effort accompanied with a lot of introspection to bring to reality.  But, in the end, they will result in better relationships and better results for all involved.  For further information, I suggest the book Getting to Yes for more information on reaching consensus through focusing on interests.  I also suggest The Anatomy of Peace put out by the Arbinger Institute on recognizing and avoiding the self centered box.  Finally, the books on the 7 habits of success by Steven Covey are good sources for more information on seeking to understand before looking to be understood.  Good luck in gaining the empathy that will change the world.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Journalist Quotes

I recently read a collection of quotes by a German-American Journalist from Baltimore named H. L. Mencken, who wrote in the early part of the last century.  I found the collection interesting and decided to use it as a springboard for some thoughts on the ideas they conjure up.  I recognize not all the quotes may be exact or may be quoted differently from different sources.  But, they are close enough to suffice.

#1)  American’s admire the most daring liars and detest most those who try and tell them the truth.”  It is true that we probably wouldn't vote for somebody who told us the truth.  Rather, we'll vote for the guy/gal who tells us we can cut taxes, expand our pet programs, and do it all while balancing the budget.  I recently heard an interview by a candidate who is high in the polls who said the same thing.  He claimed he could represent the interests of all the citizens while cutting govt. spending.  Everybody will vote for that, even though it makes no practical sense.  He was pointedly asked by the interviewer for some specific details, but failed to offer any.  See one of my previous posts on what I would do if I were president.

#2)  Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance.”  When you study the writings of many of the men in the constitutional convention you find that they were terrified of giving the vote to the common man.  Rather, they wanted it to remain in the hands of the educated, landed gentry.  When the common man believes things that don't make sense or votes for somebody based on how well their hair is made up or whether they sweated during a debate, I fear the founding fathers were right to fear.  I believe in representative government, but think it can only thrive under the direction of an educated and moral electorate.  I also think we ought to take responsibility for the government we have created by whom and what we have voted for.  In the end, regardless of how horrible we think it is, a representative government can no more than represent and mirror society as a sum of its sometimes ignorant and immoral whole.

#3)  The press is a device for making the ignorant more ignorant and the crazy crazier.”  Both sides of the political debate accuse the oppositely aligned press of being biased and ignorant.  They are probably both right.  Everything is based on the spin of the message and its sensationalism.  When the most prominent thing on the news is the shenanigans of some celebrity or whether a football had the wrong air pressure in it, what does it say of our society, its priorities, and its values?  When you find an article which attempts to give a reasoned and fact based representation of multiple sides of a truly important issue, count yourself lucky for handling such a rarity.

#4)  The aim of public education is to put down dissent and originality.”  It is a sad truth that education does tend to reward and advance conformity.  Facts can trump reason.  The ability to regurgitate ideas on standardized tests is more important than critical thinking, cogent analysis, and the ability to clearly and convincingly communicate advanced thought.  Our education system should primarily be teaching students how to learn and evaluate—turning facts into wisdom.  But, how would you accurately assess that?  It is a quandary, but one we shouldn't give up on.

#5)  A judge is a law student who grades his own examination papers.”  I feel greatly for somebody who is put in the role of a judge and empowered to so deeply affect the lives of their fellow humans.  There is so much room for error and so little oversight to correct excesses, intentional or otherwise.  In the end, we are the imperfect passing judgment on the accused sinners on behalf of the damaged.  At best we can reward those who care more for those they serve, both victim and accused, than they value their own opinions and rulings.

#6)  A philosopher is a blind man in a dark room looking for a black cat that isn’t there.  A theologian is the man who finds it.”  Lest I raise the hackles of the religious who might read this, know that I too am a believer.  However, I also look around me and see so many different beliefs—many held as dearly as my own—and do not wonder how some can scoff and claim it is all made up to opiate the masses.  There are thousands of Christian congregations, most of which claim to study and draw their beliefs from the same Bible.  Yet, they can interpret the same passages in opposite ways, then claim their interpretation is ultimate truth while consigning those who read it different to an eternal fire.  Clearly if there is an ultimate truth to be found, it needs to come from a higher source than the words in a book, whether it be Bible, Qur’an, or Bhagavad Gita (all of which I have read).  Even if we feel we have encountered that higher source, we should retain some humility and charity for the beliefs of others—including the skepticism of the non-believers.

#7)  The urge to save humanity is almost always a false front for the urge to rule.”  Some of the greatest tyrants in history have burst onto the stage claiming salvation for their respective groups.  Hitler preached a renewal of German pride and accomplishment.  Lenin and Stalin claimed they were freeing the oppressed masses from the excesses of capitalism--promising bread, land, and peace.  We should only seek to serve humanity.  There is only one empowered to save them.  Reserve a healthy distrust for the person who promises to solve all our problems without little or no pain.  Remember the line from The Princess Bride, “Life is pain princess, anybody who tells you different is trying to sell you something.”

#8)  Love is the triumph of imagination over intelligence.”  I have quoted this often referring to first marriages, with second marriages being the triumph of hope over experience, and subsequent marriages as insanity for doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.  Certainly it is true that romantic attraction, which too many in society label love, must eventually and soon grow into something deeper and less grounded in physical and emotional attraction or it is destined to die quickly away under the heat of reality, leaving the individuals involved to wonder how they could have been so mistaken.  Then, they will just as quickly dive into the next infatuation and claim true love at last.

#9)  For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”  Complex problems rarely have clear and simple answers.  Politicians try and reduce complex problems to sound bites, then throw over-simplified answers at them.  The devil, or angel, is always in the details.  We are right to not trust generalized statements such as “close the borders,” “stimulate the economy,” “reduce government,” “address homelessness,” “fight terrorism,” and “support our troops and veterans.”  If there aren’t some comprehensive details presented, those phrases mean nothing!

#10)  Marriage is a wonderful institution, but who would want to live in an institution.”  There are many who claim that families are falling apart, the sanctity of marriage is disappearing, and that family has been redefined out of existence.  I think there is evidence out there to support all those statements.  I also think we are missing the mark in terms of an ultimate solution.  This isn’t a problem that will be solved through legislation or hatred towards those we disagree with.  Rather, I think our emphasis should be on educating and changing the individual expectation about what marriage really means and its realities.  Society’s expectations are dangerously skewed and unsupportable—resulting in marriages either ending or disintegrating to relationships of quiet desperation that leave us bitter and cynical.  We must change the perception of what a long term marriage means, what it takes to be successful in terms of near heroic sacrifices and selflessness, and how to deal with the myriad of problems that will always come.  Societies will only change in the long run when a critical mass of individuals have a change of heart.

#11)  In the battle of the sexes, women fight from a submarine and men from an open raft.”  It is certain we often fail to communicate successfully with the opposite sex.  It is also true that there are differences in how we think and approach things—although perhaps not as different as some would suggest.  These barriers will only be overcome as we follow Covey’s admonition to seek first to understand and then be understood rather than expecting the other person to just get it.  But, of course, that takes effort and if they really loved me I wouldn’t have to be so overt.  With such an attitude it is a battle that both sexes will lose.

#12)  We value rights less than we do privileges. The average person doesn’t want to be free, they just want to be safe and comfortable.”  Our reaction as a society since 9/11 has made this statement a painful truism.  We seem unwilling to comprehend that everything we ask government to do to “make us safe” through increased and more intrusive monitoring, suspending the rules of evidence, and allowing arrests without warrants, takes away our individual and societal freedoms.  Regardless of what they may have done, holding individuals arrested without warrants and then leaving them in prisons without charges and without trail until they rot, should be an affront to anybody who cares about our constitutional justice system.  Add to that torture and other abuse, all in the name of getting information that may increase our security, and we should be ashamed to call ourselves a beacon of freedom to the rest of the world.  We allow the government more and more access to our most personal information as a supposed deterrent and we gently, carefully, but willingly, give ourselves over to the Big Brother system that Orwell warned us of almost a century ago.  We cannot accept and use the methods of tyranny to accomplish the designs of freedom and democracy.  To the degree with do, we justify everything the violent extremists perceive in us.   If we ignore the abuse, discrimination, or dehumanizing of any individual and take away their due process under law, we ultimately subject ourselves to the possibility of the same treatment when our benevolent protectors turns tyrants.

#13)  An historian is an unsuccessful novelist.”  We delude ourselves to some degree when we accept historical interpretation as non-fiction.  It has been said that history is written by the winners, or at least those left standing.  No historian presents facts and evidence without some interpretation and analysis, even if it is only in what facts and evidence he decides to present.  The same historical events can be seen and interpreted from many different perspectives.  Was the document of 1776 a declaration of independence from tyranny, or the ungrateful, rebellious treason of citizens?  Was Lincoln the great emancipator, or the greatest suspender of individual and state’s rights in the history of our country?  Depending on who and when you ask, both answers will be espoused as truth.  And, there are historical facts to support both conclusions.  I have long felt that if you don’t know enough facts and haven’t considered enough varied perceptions to argue an issue from at least three sides, you don’t have the right to a reasoned opinion.  I feel the same way about historical analysis.

#14)  If you ever remember me and have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner and wink your eye at some homely girl.” What is a good person? How do we identify them?  Are we willing to admit the stock we put on labeling people as good those who believe like we do, look like we do, live where we do, and act like we do?  Isn’t there some standard that rises above all that and is applicable to all cultures, languages, creeds?  If there is, I think some key words would be tolerance, forgiveness, kindness, and charity towards others in both thought and action.  Let us all spend time forgiving others and winking at those that might otherwise be passed over.