I used to want to be a superhero. How cool would it be to fly or pick up a car with one hand, to save the day for the good people around me and make life miserable for the bullies and criminals and immoral jerks who seem to be everywhere?
I think a lot of you would like to be superheroes too, at least judging by the tremendous success of many recent movies. And the increasing diversity of the characters on screen is designed to allow all viewers to imagine themselves with superpowers. Films like Black Panther, Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel have been among the best box office performers, expanding the base of superheroes beyond white men.
But what if you really were a superhero? What would that be like?
Obviously, to start with, you’d need the secret identity. Otherwise people would be constantly asking you to use your superpowers on ordinary tasks. Hey, Clark Kent, can you fix my fence for me? The posts are crooked from frost heave. Just pull them up and put them back down in the ground so they’re plumb and level. Thanks, buddy.
But aside from that, there are other concerns. First of all, who do you help? You can’t save everyone. Do you focus on the macro or the micro? Do you save the city from a flood or prevent a bank robbery or stop a mugger? Do you destroy all the nuclear weapons in the world or do you build thousands of homes and create farms for the destitute in Third World nations?
What is it like when you prepare for bed at night, pondering what you’ve accomplished and what you failed to do? Can you sleep? Or do you toss and turn, wondering if you made the right call when you used your powers to extract those miners trapped underground? Maybe they would have been saved by someone else anyway. So maybe your efforts would have been better spent rescuing someone else.
And what if the people of the world come to rely on you and stop helping themselves? What if they expect you to bail them out of every dicey situation? How long should you keep aiding them? After all, you don’t want to enable them to avoid handling their own problems.
People need adversity. If you take that away from them, they won’t grow properly. They’ll become marshmallows, easy to fleece, easy to defeat.
Plus, who knows if the people you saved are actually good people? Unless one of your powers is knowing other people’s hearts, you’ll only be guessing. So when you save a little boy from drowning, you might be rescuing the next Hitler or Stalin or Pol Pot. Do you really want that on your conscience?
Maybe, instead of being a superhero, I should consider becoming a supervillain. At least the ramifications of my actions will be clearer. Grab what I can for myself. Forget everyone else. That’s shallow and selfish, but perhaps more honest in a way.
Although I wouldn’t want to feel compelled to kill anyone, let alone lots of people. And supervillains have to at least attempt to murder a bunch of innocents. So maybe I shouldn’t want superpowers at all. Maybe I should just be content with the powers I have. Kind of boring, but, okay. I won’t be a supervillain either. You’re welcome.
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Which problem should we focus on? There are so many to choose from. Let’s start with climate change, which is causing problems all over the world already – from heat waves and droughts to massive floods, from calving glaciers to monster storms and (paradoxically) even colder temperatures in parts of the world at times during the winter.
This last can happen because the pool of dense air that normally stays in place over the North Pole has warmed enough that it isn’t quite as heavy, allowing it to become dislodged by the jet stream and shuttled south, where it hits the Midwest, for example, with brutal cold.
Or we can talk about gun violence, thousands of children killed by guns every year, and more than 30,000 deaths overall each year. This is an epidemic of disastrous proportions that, if it were caused by something else, like a virus, we would be panicking over, but since it’s a byproduct of something as sacred as guns, we don’t do much about it.
Then there’s the opioid crisis, which kills tens of thousands more every year – people who get hooked on prescription drugs pushed by companies like Purdue Pharma (owned by the Sacklers) as well as those who got into drug abuse via illicit paths.
We could concentrate our energies on air pollution too, which kills about 4.6 million people each year, according to the World Health Organization. Despite this, we continue to emit massive amounts of particulate matter, toxins like mercury and lead, which is a neurotoxin that never goes away. It has no half-life like uranium, so once it’s out there, it will continue to be there for our children and grandchildren and beyond.
Perhaps we should focus our efforts on water pollution, which may be a greater problem in the developing world than in the US, although we have our own issues with increasing levels of nanoparticles like plastics in the water as well as drugs flushed down the toilet and of course continuing discharges of pollutants by farmers, manufacturers and miners.
Maybe we should focus on sick and dying children in hospitals and hospice care. Or we could concentrate our efforts on children and adults with disabilities, giving money and time to Special Olympics and other charities that do tremendous work.
We could devote our energies on combatting AIDS or cholera or malaria, or we could concentrate on the overuse of antibiotics in livestock (as well as people), which is accelerating the evolution of bacteria, making it more likely that we will encounter far deadlier germs in the future.
There are so many worthy causes out there, more than we can ever sink our teeth into. We have to pick and choose what stirs us in the moment. But which ones are the most important? Which ones will we not regret focusing on when we’re old and knackered?
I suppose we have to pick the few that feel most urgent and that fit best with our personalities and emotions. They all deserve our attention. We have far more problems than we can solve in a lifetime, so we have to tackle them a few at a time – money over here, time spent over there.
The one thing we can’t do is throw up our hands and say, “It’s hopeless. I may as well not even try.” Because then it will be hopeless. Then the problems will be insurmountable. So pick a cause – any cause – and jump in. The water’s not too bad. Yet.
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Everything is relative, or so we like to think, because we are wired to compare everything. We begin as infants, putting things in our mouth and noticing that some of the objects taste better than others. We see our mothers and fathers, maybe siblings or pets and notice they’re not all the same. Some are bigger, some smaller, some louder, some quieter.
We find toys, which include our parents’ eyeglasses and car keys. We look at them, shake them, and even put them in our mouths if our parents aren’t quick enough to stop us. This one is louder and more jangly than a banana. That one is hard and tastes strange, not like a cantaloupe.
So we compare everything. It’s part of how we learn about the world. As we grow, we retain what we’ve learned and add to it. This is an apple. It is a fruit. This is candy. It is sweet. Candies are sweeter than apples.
We do the same thing with people. This is my brother Joe. He’s nicer than my brother Pete, who teases me all the time. I sometimes hide from Pete but I never hide from Joe.
We go to school and make even more comparisons. That’s what math and science are all about. One thousand is greater than one hundred. Cobalt (atomic number 27) is denser than oxygen (atomic number 16).
We encounter classmates who are either like us or different from us in ways that allow us to classify them as friend or foe. Teachers also get classified as either nice or mean, and not just because of how much homework they give.
Once we reach the workplace, we classify more people: bosses, coworkers, customers, suppliers, manufacturers. And not just people but the space itself and the objects we toil around, the atmosphere and the value assigned to our work output.
Everything gets classified by our brains. Useful, useless, significant, irrelevant, pretty, ugly, hot, tepid, black, green, delicious, bitter, etc. As a result, we come to see the universe as relativistic. There’s even the theory of relativity to bolster our views of how everything works.
But there are absolutes. There either is a god or there isn’t. Global warming is either happening or it isn’t. Not everything is absolute, but not everything is relative either. And it behooves us to ascertain which truths are absolute and which are relative. And to understand which absolute truths can never be known (e.g., the existence of god).
Journalists, for example, are trained to present both sides of an issue. So they might invite a doctor to discuss the perils of refusing to vaccinate children, but then also bring on an anti-vaxxer to spout pseudo-science about increases in autism or some other such blather to justify an idiotic position.
So we need to do a better job of differentiating objective truth from relative truth. It can be difficult. It requires more than a superficial understanding acquired from a brief search on Google. We need to find the people who, with rigor, study the subject at hand and learn from them why the truth is objective and not relative.
And even if it goes against our gut feelings, we need to accept such truth. Yes, it can be hard to admit we’re wrong, but sometimes it’s necessary.
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This tendency to form ourselves into groups is written into us, a carryover from our earliest days, when belonging to a group meant that we had a much better chance of survival. Left to our own devices on the savanna, we were much more likely to perish.
So we joined groups. More importantly, we conformed our behavior and even our thoughts to others in the groups we joined so that there would be less chance of being expelled. We wanted our fellow tribal members to see that we were just like them. And if anyone was going to be shunned, it was going to be an outsider.
We became social mimics, not just identifying ourselves as part of a larger whole, but doing everything in our power to be part of the larger whole. If we could think and act like our compatriots, we could bond with them that much better. That kind of connection brought a sense of happiness and fulfillment.
Psychologists have done studies on exclusion and inclusion to determine exactly how we are wired. They’ve found that people who were excluded from a “task” (a psychological experiment) were more likely to unconsciously ape the behavior of others in a subsequent group setting.
Further, these “rejected” people sought to be included by the group of people they thought had rejected them. Essentially, they wanted a second chance to prove they belonged. They didn’t want to belong to just any group. They wanted to belong to the group that dismissed them earlier. But if they couldn’t do that, they would accept a new tribe.
Tribes give us a sense of common identity and shared fate, which increases the cohesiveness of our group. Rituals of synchronization have a powerful effect on us. It’s one of the reasons armies march together during training. They’re not doing it because they plan to fight that way; they’re doing it to build camaraderie.
This can be good or bad. If we’re part of a group that is lifting us up, we will be lifted up with them. On the other hand, if certain members of the group become dysfunctional, they can bring the whole group down with them.
It’s like trying to diet or give up smoking around a group that isn’t doing the same things, a group that isn’t properly supporting you – either by torpedoing your successes or by ignoring them. You’re much more likely to fail when you don’t have the proper support of your group.
Tribes have enormous power over us because we surrender our power to them. And asking us to stop being tribal may be impossible if we wish to retain our full humanity.
But even though we need tribes to feel whole, to feel completely human, we don’t need to stay permanently connected to any specific tribe. We don’t need to belong to a particular tribe if it has become dysfunctional. We can join another one if the one we’re in has become too toxic.
That’s where logic and intellect come into play. Examine the tribes you’ve chosen to belong to. Determine whether they’re helping or hurting you. And if they’re not beneficial, find other groups to join, groups that lift you up instead of tearing you or others down.
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We are born into delusion. Our earliest thoughts lead us to believe that we’re the most important people in the world. Why wouldn’t we think that? Our parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles, neighbors and friends all coo at us and smile. Everyone works to make us happy; everyone puts forth effort to make us smile and then laugh.
This comes about for two reasons. First, happy babies make us happy. Second, crying babies make us irritable. We are hard-wired to want to procreate. It’s part of our genetic legacy to desire sex. Like all creatures, we wish to continue our species to the next generation and the next and the one after that.
So we experience sexual urges. Some would argue that it’s only the sexual act that is hard-wired into us and not the urge to produce children. That may be. But the two generally go hand in hand.
In addition, we encounter societal pressures, sometimes subtle, to have children as well, to continue our line, just as lions and mackerels and red-winged blackbirds do. It’s still a bit of an open question as to how much these urges are driven by genetics and how much they’re driven by society, but it can’t be denied that the pressures exist.
Moreover, whether the pressures come from nature or nurture, they become a part of us. We succumb to the desire that is inflicted on us and if we don’t, if we manage not to feel that pressure, we don’t have children, we don’t continue our line, we slowly extinguish our flame as the world burns around us.
Thus, over many generations, the result is a population that generally wants children. We become happy at the successes and unhappy at the failures. Crying children indicate that we might have failed in some way, so our bodies react strongly and quickly. Numerous studies have shown that oxytocin floods a mother’s brain when a baby cries.
Blood pressure and heart rate elevate, and skin electrical conductivity is increased in people of both sexes at a relatively young age. All this makes us want to respond, to ease our discomfort. And at least one study shows that babies begin to understand their cries produce a result (like a comforting mother) as early as eight weeks of age.
Because they have learned that they can manipulate the world, they begin to assume that they are in charge of it. I smile and Mommy smiles. I cry and Daddy picks me up. I scream for food and someone feeds me. How could anyone not reach the conclusion that they rule the world with that kind of feedback?
They understand causation to a point, and everything they do confirms that they’re kings and queens who have only to call to get servants rushing to their aid. Of course, this isn’t universal. Neglected babies feel abandoned and develop signs of stress, including lower levels of oxytocin and higher levels of cortisol.
But most babies come to believe that the universe revolves around them. It can take decades to fully disabuse them of this notion, and for some, the notion never completely dies. So for a good chunk of the population, life is lived under the delusion that we are the most important people in the world.
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I’ve been avoiding the sun for years, having contracted skin cancer half a dozen times. My doctors have warned me about its deleterious effects, and I took them seriously. Still do. And yet…
Most if not all of us feel better in the summer than in the winter. We are closely tied to the sun’s light and we get much more of that in the summer months, so we of course tend to feel happier and less anxious when the sun’s rays are plentiful.
For some of us, the seasonal mood swings can be pretty extreme. These folks can become almost manic in the summertime and suffer severe depression in winter. This condition is known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (or SAD).
I’ve noticed that I seem to have a mild case myself, which has gotten slightly worse as I’ve aged. This year, my brother got me a happy light that I began using to alleviate the symptoms of SAD. I’m not sure if it’s helping but at least it isn’t hurting (except perhaps in raising my electric bill by a few dollars).
And it’s not just mood. It’s pretty well established that the farther you get from the equator, the greater the chances you’ll have high blood pressure, suffer from heart disease or experience a stroke, particularly in the darker months of the year.
Further, some studies have shown that the sun may not be the enemy we think it is when we’re considering skin cancer. Most of us need sun exposure to get sufficient amounts of vitamin D (which we get from the sun’s ultraviolet B rays) because we don’t get enough of it from dietary sources like fatty fish and fortified milk. We need vitamin D to keep bones strong and help prevent certain kinds of cancer.
Sun angle plays a huge role. In the winter, if you live north of 36 degrees from the equator, you can’t get enough ultraviolet B rays to allow your body to produce vitamin D. Even during the rest of the year, if your shadow is longer than your body height, you can’t make vitamin D.
So you want to try to get at least 10 to 15 minutes of sun exposure a day in spring, summer and fall during peak hours (10:00 – 3:00) to allow your body to make vitamin D. And you should try to get that exposure to your arms, legs, abdomen and back – not your face or the top of your ears because those areas already get too much sun exposure. But avoid getting burned because that’s what increases your risk for skin cancers.
As for tanning, it may actually be beneficial even though medical professionals have been warning against the practice for years. Tanning increases your body’s ability to ward off sunburn, so even though it will prematurely age your skin, it may help ward off melanomas.
Consider how we evolved, living outdoors for thousands of years with very little skin cancer compared to today. There are lots of reasons for that, of course, but one is that we sit inside for much longer periods, and when we do go outside, we tend to overdo it and get burned.
Today’s lesson: Perhaps we shouldn’t worry quite so much about the sun. And perhaps we shouldn’t be quite so certain we know the truth.
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The Sessile Pioneer
I used to call my pine tree Shane
I just liked the name
It was one heck of a conifer too
Tall and broad, not an ounce of fat on it
But it finally moved
After threatening to depart for years
Packed its trunk and wandered away
Where are you going? I asked
North, I thought I heard its needles whispering
As it lumbered off without a hint of regret
Turning its back on me
And riding into the sunset
Like some mythic hero of old
Come back, Shane!
A Confederacy of Conifers
I longed to plant a spruce
A replacement for Shane
But I knew they talked among themselves
These ancient pines enslaved
Conspiring with one another over smog and haze
Plotting their escape
To cooler, wetter climes
Leaving us our beeches and our maples
Taking their cones and going home
Cowards, selfish bastards!
Worried about their own survival
When the things they should be worrying about
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Pick a problem, any problem. It doesn’t matter which one. It just needs to be a relatively big problem, like a bad job or relationship, climate change or political divisiveness, the opioid epidemic or gun violence.
Okay, now that we’ve done that, we can move on to an understanding that change needs to happen. We can’t continue on like we’re doing because we’re courting disaster. So we research actions to take. Then we initiate a few. Not all, because that’s too extreme. To do everything suggested would require a major disruption to our lifestyle.
But we take small steps even as we worry about the long-term ramifications of our unchecked present. How will our inertial movement affect the future? If we continue on as we have been, making only minor adjustments here and there, will it be enough? We wonder, but we don’t take more radical action.
We see other people taking small actions and we copy them, if we can do so without too much inconvenience, but if they take an action we’re not yet ready to take, we just salute their boldness before returning to our daily routines.
It’s hard to make massive changes to our lives. We’re dug in, entrenched by the small comforts we have accumulated over the years, over decades. And when we see others around us doing less than we’re doing, we feel vindicated to a degree. At least I’m not as bad as Jeremy. I’m doing my part. It may not be enough, but it’s better than Jeremy.
But the reality is that doing my little part may not be enough. It’s possible that only extreme action, extreme sacrifice, will save us. If so, do I care enough to make those sacrifices?
What if I make the sacrifices and it’s not enough? What if all I do is just make my own life miserable and the apocalypse comes anyway? Am I a sucker for trying to make the changes that need to be made when I’m the only one doing so? That’s the problem. We don’t want to be the only ones to incur hardship.
When have we as a people ever made a sacrifice without an immediate crisis forcing us to do so? When have we ever said we will accept less now for the sake of a long-term gain without a gun pointed at our heads?
Yes, there are some select individuals who can do that – a minority of the population – but to get a consensus from the majority for that kind of shared sacrifice is impossible. We need a crisis in order to take action on behalf of the whole.
I wish we could do better, but it may be ingrained in our DNA to wait until the last possible moment to save ourselves. We see that attitude reflected all the time in movies, TV shows and books. Someone says, “Get out of there before the place explodes!” and the hero doesn’t. The hero stays and manages to pull off the impossible. So we think it’s okay to wait until the very last moment.
But what if it’s not?
That’s my concern. We seem to want to wait until we’re confronted with an unmitigated disaster before we leap in to try and save the world. But what if, at that point, it’s too late?
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We’re often advised to live in the present. Don’t dwell on the past because you can’t change it. Don’t worry about the future because it may never come to pass. Live in the moment because this is all the time we know we have.
Seems like good advice, doesn’t it?
Well, maybe not so much. Thinking about the past, for example, allows us to evaluate our mistakes in the hopes of not repeating them. We all know how easy it is to make the same mistake twice.
I myself have a problem with certain foods. I’m not allergic, just intolerant. And yet I have, on numerous occasions, eaten foods that I knew would cause a reaction but somehow forgot about. Partly that’s because the list of foods I can’t eat continually changes. Some foods that I used to tolerate I no longer do. Others that used to bother me now don’t.
However, I also have eaten foods that bother me because I completely forgot that I shouldn’t do so. It may have been a long time since I tried that food or I may just have been tired and forgetful at the time I was offered the item. But I shouldn’t have forgotten that if it really bothered me.
So if I recall those foods that caused negative reactions in my past, I can avoid eating them in the present. The same holds true for other scenarios – making a lane change without signaling and then getting into an accident surely impresses upon one the wisdom of using the turn signal.
Likewise, thinking about the future has benefits too. For example, people who think about the future are more likely to save for retirement. And those who think about the future as approaching sooner rather than later do better than those who just generally think about it as being sometime off in the distance happening to one’s future self.
Thinking about the future helps in other ways too. Contemplating the possible outcomes of various actions helps us make better decisions on all kinds of issues. “I should go to that party because Joan will probably be there and I really want to visit with her.”
Thinking about times outside the present moment can bring great joy too – fondly remembering your daughter’s wedding or thinking about your father’s upcoming sixtieth birthday party.
When you live in the moment, yes, you don’t worry so much about things outside your control. But you also forsake the ability to plan for change that you’re capable of making. The ability to think outside the present gives us an essential tool we need to make the world better for all of us.
That doesn’t mean we’ll actually follow through with our ideas, but it at least gives us a chance, whereas if we’d stayed in the present, we would never have considered options that might enhance our lives.
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The other day, shortly after I finished reading a biography on Vincent van Gogh’s life, I was chatting with my friend Jack about it and I mentioned how strange it seemed to me that van Gogh’s works had become so popular, so expensive, when they appeared to be not particularly well done.
He never seemed able to master the painting of people, not like Leonardo da Vinci, anyway, who brilliantly captured form and movement, working at a level of detail van Gogh simply couldn’t match.
Jack then brought up Pablo Picasso and said he couldn’t understand how Picasso’s cubist works had become so expensive when they were so far from depicting reality. All this got me to thinking about value and its subjective nature.
It makes sense that we assign value to things that are rare – gold, platinum, even silver. When items are difficult to obtain, people of wealth and power want to possess them to demonstrate to the world their success.
History shows that many rare things have been used as currency, including shells, salt and leaves (tobacco and tea, e.g.). One reason certain works of art can hold great value is because of their rarity. But Picasso produced many thousands of pieces while a lot of talented artists produced many fewer pieces, so their work ought to be worth at least as much as his if we use that as the sole criterion.
Obviously, we don’t.
There’s also a subjective element at play. Some group of people decided at some point in time that works by Picasso and van Gogh were of great value. Those views were agreed upon by more people and still more people until enough folks decided that they were valuable, at which point their value soared.
This same dynamic plays out with every product, be it an iPod or a cashmere sweater. Yes, there are inherent costs to producing these products, but there are many instances in history when someone thought to create a great new item that was expensive to produce and failed when the market rejected it – see, for example, the Edsel.
So the cost of producing an item does not correlate that closely with its ultimate value. What determines anything’s value is the group mind, which either pushes the number down or raises it up. That group mind moves with new information and new tastes, sometimes making things that once were valuable practically worthless and vice versa.
And it’s not just products. Look at the Oscars. Every year there’s a dispute over films that should or should not have been included, or actors who should have won but didn’t. Awards are extremely subjective. Even our collective perception of a movie changes over time. Some that were considered classics in their time are now dismissed; others, dismissed in their time, now revered.
That doesn’t mean values are meaningless, but it does mean that we get to assign our own value to anything. If we like something and are willing to pay a lot for it, that’s okay. And if we don’t like something and would never buy it no matter how much others rave about it, that’s fine too. You get to pick your own treasures.
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