We claim to be rational beings. We believe it fervently, noting the many logical reasons for why we think the way we do, why we act the way we do. Other people are nuts, sure. We see it all the time. But we are brilliant.
The truth, of course, is more complicated than that. When we vote against our own interests, we don’t believe we’re doing so. Each election involves many issues – guns, health care, immigration, taxes, the environment, abortion, national defense, business regulations, foreign policy, LGBTQ rights. The list goes on and on.
And when we vote, we tend to focus on one or two big issues. We usually vote the economy and one other large issue. We also tend to vote for the people we like more than the people we dislike, even though the truth is that we don’t really know the candidates at all (and never will) so our affinity for one person over another is actually not very rational. It’s subjective. Arbitrary. Based on things we’ve heard from other folks.
We like what Al Franken says about the environment. Or we hate what Al Franken says about the environment. But we have an emotional reaction to every candidate, either good or bad, and we then use our brains to craft logical arguments to justify our gut instincts.
When people say they don’t know who they’re going to vote for in an upcoming election, they’re usually either lying (to themselves or to you) or they truly haven’t decided on a candidate because they’re waiting for some sort of divine guidance, which never comes.
Regardless, not much careful consideration goes into the calculus. In the last presidential election, for example, I heard many people say that they hated both candidates and they planned to vote for the least objectionable one.
Is that rational?
Maybe, but it’s definitely not ideal. What it leads to is people picking candidates based on the hot buttons that really get them riled up. We believe what we want to believe, so we’re easily led to identify with one candidate or another based on their statements concerning whatever topics we feel most strongly about.
Candidates know this. They know they can’t win, for example, by talking about tailoring regulations to maximize economic efficiency as well as societal good. Yawn. Instead, they mention guns or abortion or some other topic that elicits strong feelings because that’s the only way to attract ardent supporters.
And when we vote based on those hot button topics, ignoring the many smaller issues we don’t deem critical, we often find we’ve acquired leaders who do things we never thought they’d do.
They usually can’t make the changes they promise on the big issues because the country is split right down the middle on most of them. So what we’re stuck with is little successes that nibble around the edges of what we want, little failures that erode our confidence in government.
And the next candidate (or more likely the same candidate) tells the same story in the next election cycle, promising what cannot be delivered, and we buy it. Meanwhile, the only ones who win are the big spenders, the companies or individuals with the deep pockets and the united fronts.
We occasionally get change, but generally not the change we desired. We believed their promises because we wanted to believe them, but our logical brains knew they were false. So we get what we deserve.
Age is the thief that enters in youth, leaving small hacks behind, backdoors that allow it to enter anytime it desires. A scrape here, a broken bone there. Illness and injury that weaken the immune system, setting in motion a series of events that will lead to arthritis and diabetes, heart disease and dementia.
The blow to the head from a fall. The chicken pox that returns as shingles. The use of antibacterial soap that kills off healthy bacteria our bodies require to function properly, permitting evolved and dangerous germs to take their place.
We begin with such promise, such possibility, the world laid out before us, the urge to conquer and explore strong, innate. We hurtle forward to examine the butterfly and the toad, the mouse and the minnow, releasing our grip on our parents’ hands to find our own way.
I can do it myself, we protest. Often we’re wrong. A mess ensues. But we learn. Eventually we master it. In the process, however, something is lost to the thief, who latches on to our every failure, our every success, depositing another marker, another smattering of entropic decay into our shells.
Don’t get me wrong. I much prefer aging to the alternative. I gladly yield my body to the thief – well, not gladly, perhaps. But the good (who die young) miss out on the opportunity to have their vigor and strength, their energy and well-being, removed a minute portion at a time.
The thief works with almost infinite patience, burgling such a tiny amount with each visit that we go about our business mostly oblivious to it all until the day we want to get down on our knees to weed the garden or stand on the stool to paint the ceiling in the spare bedroom, which seems so much harder than the last time we did it.
And the next day (or the day after) we feel sore and fatigued. We notice pain in joints we hadn’t felt in precisely that way before. If we’re unlucky, we feel the twinge in our backs or shoulders or fingers even as we’re working, and maybe we have to stop to take a break, despite never having to take a rest before.
The chore becomes drawn out, extended to several days instead of just one, or we rush through the process, feeling like we got the bulk of the project, whatever it is, done. Good enough. It doesn’t have to be perfect any longer.
We don’t see the theft, even when we look in the mirror. We wonder who that is staring back at us, how it is that we young people have become trapped in the bodies of elderly and fragile creatures. Aliens.
We know, intellectually, that entropy wins in the end, but our emotional cores struggle against that truth. We fight it for years if we’re lucky, for decades. We kick and scream and rage against the decline, only surrendering when the inevitability of the darkness reaches beyond hope, the thief taking finally that last gift.
But the battle, the glorious battle of life, continues with the next generation, the strangers who share the molecules we breathe, hope passed down from one family to the next, an endless cycle of rebirth.
From a young age we’re told that it’s important to tell the truth, and there’s no question that truthfulness is important. We want to be able to trust what others tell us, and if they lie a lot, and if we uncover their lies, we can’t.
So truth is definitely something to strive for, most of the time.
But lies are almost as important as truth. No one has to tell us the importance of lies. We figure that out at an early age. The first time we do it and get away with it, the first time our brother or sister takes the fall for something we did, or the first time we take the fall for something they did, we understand the importance of lies.
Lies have power, just as truth has power.
A properly told lie can move people to do amazing and terrifying things.
Look at the Gulf of Tonkin incident during the Vietnam War, a fabricated incident to draw the US deeper into the conflict, to get Congress to authorize President Johnson to escalate our presence there.
Or more recently, the shooting at Comet Ping Pong by a North Carolina man who believed that Hillary Clinton and her campaign chief were running a child sex ring out of the place – a belief fostered by conspiracy theories and blatant lies promulgated by people who wanted to ensure Clinton lost the election.
A good lie, or a series of good lies, can propel you to fantastic heights, even the presidency. And once there, more lies become one of the ways you hold onto power. Nixon famously claimed he was not a crook. Bill Clinton asserted that his presidency would be the most ethical in history.
George W. Bush – following his father, who asked us to read his lips (No new taxes, then raised them) – told us he would not be a nation builder, then became the largest nation builder in our history. Obama said he would lead a transparent administration and then didn’t.
Trump, well… what can I say about Trump and his many lies, too numerous to detail?
The point is, lying produces results just as well as, and sometimes better than, the truth. Lies offer us the opportunity to manipulate the people around us, to get them to do what we want them to do.
But even apart from malicious ends, lies serve important purposes. For example, we don’t tell our bosses what we really think of them because we want to keep our jobs and if we tell them the truth, we likely won’t. We don’t tell our friends and family that what they’re doing annoys or irritates us (at least, not all the time).
Sometimes we express ourselves honestly, but often that results in hurt feelings. And so the next time, we think twice before issuing a true statement about whether those pants make her look fat or if we mind that he’s going out to the bar with his friends again.
So when someone claims he doesn’t lie, when someone talks about how important honesty is, consider carefully what that really means. It may mean that the person really believes he tells the truth all the time. In that case, he either is defining truth differently than the rest of us would or he’s delusional or he’s trying to manipulate you.
We all lie. Not all the time (maybe not even often), and some of us only lie for good reasons, but we all lie. We do it because it’s a survival skill that’s been passed down from generation to generation. We’ve learned the power of the lie and we understand its importance.
When I say that life is like a Merry Go Round, it may seem like a stretch, but bear with me. The earth spins and we each inhabit our little space upon it. We can move to another space, another seat that happens to be empty. A few of us can even hop off for a time, standing outside the Merry Go Round and looking upon it from, say, the moon or the space station, but we always come back to it.
We sit astride our horse or unicorn or lion or elephant, whichever one appeals to us, unless the one we want is taken, in which case we have to ride the donkey or the camel that’s missing part of its face. If we’re bullies, we might kick someone off the horse we wish to ride, making them sit on the floor or go back to another horse that doesn’t offer as much fun.
We don’t choose where we start on the Merry Go Round. That place is determined by our parents, who live in one particular section, on one particular horse. Most of us don’t get to ride the unicorn. That’s reserved for the few at the top, the ones who got there early and saved the spot, the ones whose parents made sure they had the advantages the rest of us didn’t get.
Some of us get in line early, our parents’ wealth allowing us to move to the front, where there’s less competition for the good seats. And some of us work hard, sprinting to our horses when the gate is lifted, determined to find the best place from which to look out at the passing world.
Once we’re on, we fly. We spin. Everything goes by so quickly. And we only go in one direction, forward in time. Sure you can go backward for a little while, flying west as fast as you can for as long as you can, but eventually you have to land, and then you move forward again, spinning into the future.
Most of us wish it would go on forever, that we could stay on our horse or get off and move to another horse, but keep spinning for a long, long time. We never want it to end because we don’t know if this is the last ride we’ll ever take or if there will be other opportunities.
Our parents/teachers promise we can do it again, but sometimes they lie so we don’t always trust them. We cling to the horse, some of us, peeled away kicking and screaming because we want to remain on this delightful apparatus.
Finally we exit the ride, sometimes of our own accord, but more often because the music stops, the spinning slows to zero and we must leave even though we’re not ready to depart. But others must have their turn; we can’t stay here forever and keep them from enjoying the experience we had.
Is there another ride? The Tilt A Whirl or the Roller Coaster or some other exciting/scary venture? That’s something we can’t know until we get off the Merry Go Round.
Throughout our history, we humans have been problem solvers. Of course, many of the problems we’ve had to solve have been problems of our own making, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that we have mostly found solutions to them.
But what’s interesting to me is how often we, knowing the solutions to problems, nevertheless decide to do nothing to change the situation for the better. For example, we know that getting regular exercise will make us healthier – increase our metabolism, decrease our blood pressure, improve our blood sugar levels – and yet many of us don’t exercise regularly.
The same applies to what we put in our mouths: we know eating lots of fruits and vegetables is healthier than a diet with lots of meat and processed food. Cooking at home is better than eating out. Kale and eggplant and broccoli are good; French fries and burgers and milkshakes are bad. Yet…
Why do we choose to ignore these problems? Largely because we don’t perceive these problems as problems. If I like hamburgers and playing video games rather than sipping water and munching on a carrot while I take a long walk, what’s the problem? If I have a heart attack and my doctor tells me I have to give up smoking or eat better or get some exercise, then I’ll do it – or at least I’ll consider it seriously. Until then, don’t bother me. Go preach to the rest of the world and leave me alone.
The planet is warming? I don’t really see a problem. I don’t notice any major difference in my life as a result. Sure, it doesn’t get as cold as it used to in the winter, and it seems like we’re having more flooding events, but other than that, no big deal.
Those nerdy scientists will figure something out if it becomes a big enough problem. They always find a solution eventually. So why should I have to pay an extra dollar a gallon for gasoline? Why should I have to pay an energy surcharge on my utility bill? That’s government overreach. Let’s wait till it becomes a problem and then we’ll fix it.
But of course, even though we’ve always come up with some sort of solution to our problems (or a solution has occurred regardless of our efforts – like with the 1918 flu, which just sort of faded away), that doesn’t mean a solution will always be possible. For millions of years the dinosaurs ruled the planet, escaping extinction many times.
Until the last time.
That same fate may befall us. Our executioner may be bacterial or viral. It may be a combination of causative events. It may be slow, a gradual diminishment of the population that tails off to nothing over hundreds of years.
But I suspect we are headed for an ending of sorts, a time when humans will no longer be the dominant species on the planet. It won’t happen next year. It probably won’t happen in the next century. But I believe it will happen eventually.
What can we do about it? Many things. We can devote more resources to fighting bacteria and viruses. We can try to combat climate change by modifying our behavior, our energy usage. We can have fewer children to decrease the stress we place on our world. All these things will help. And we mostly won’t do any of them until we have to, until it’s actually too late.
Then we’ll lament our leaders’ shortsightedness and curse our forebears for their selfishness and ignorance, but that won’t really be us. That will be our great-great-great-grandchildren, and we’ll be long buried, having passed our time in luxury relative to the pain they will know.
Words matter. We all know that. We even learn a nursery rhyme to try to convince ourselves that they don’t: “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” But of course that’s a lie. Words can hurt.
Words matter for lots of reasons. If we don’t define words the same way, it’s difficult to communicate with each other properly. For example, the word enlightened can mean that someone has achieved spiritual knowledge or insight – one has come to see the light. It can also mean that someone has achieved a well-informed outlook that is independent of spirituality.
Both definitions are correct. But if someone is discussing enlightenment in a spiritual sense while the listener is hearing about enlightenment in a secular way, the two people aren’t really communicating as well as they might assume.
People often get annoyed with me when I want to define terms. They’ll say, “That’s just semantics” when I try to narrow a definition to something we can all agree on, but semantics (the meaning of a word, phrase or sentence) is important when trying to understand exactly what it is that the person communicating is actually trying to say.
On the other hand, sometimes it helps when we don’t know precisely what someone means by the words spoken. For example, two nations (like the United States and North Korea) might find themselves in disagreement over how they both ought to behave. One might accuse the other of violating international law by testing missiles while the other might accuse the first of improperly implementing sanctions in an attempt to suppress its ability to reach its full potential.
The President threatens North Korea. The Dictator threatens the United States. No one knows exactly how far each leader will go. Both sides say they won’t back down, yet both sides, for now, avoid a military confrontation.
Depending on which side you’re on, you’re likely to see your leaders’ words as correct. North Koreans believe that they must negotiate from a position of strength while Americans think that if North Koreans ever get the ability to strike the US mainland with a missile, that would be a disaster.
Perhaps it would. We don’t know for certain that North Korea would attack us if it could, but we suspect that it might, so we do what we can to prevent that from being a possibility.
They fire off missiles. We send an armada to the Sea of Japan. Our actions bring us closer to the brink of war while our words leave a great deal of room for interpretation, which forces everyone to slow down and try to ascertain the meaning behind the threats. If either side knew exactly what the other meant, that side would have an enormous advantage.
So words matter. Sometimes it’s important that we understand what our neighbor is saying, and sometimes it’s important that we don’t.
I’ve been thinking about exercise a lot lately. How valuable is it? How much is too much? What’s the minimum I should be doing? Can I get it in a pill?
Well, the last question is easy to answer. No. There’s no substitute for getting off your duff and moving your body – whether that be swimming or running or playing some sort of sport or even just walking. Actually, they’re now saying there are tremendous benefits to be had from crawling.
As for the first question, exercise is far more valuable than we thought it was even 20 years ago. From reducing heart disease (which we knew about) to diminishing the chances of acquiring Alzheimer’s and improving mental acuity (which we may have suspected but didn’t know), it gives us benefits to both body and mind.
As for the minimum amount we should do, current guidelines suggest we get 150 minutes of moderate activity a week – or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity. When you think about it, 150 minutes isn’t very much out of 6,720 minutes (which is how many hours we’re awake per week if we get 8 hours of sleep a night. It’s a little over 20 minutes a day.
Why is that so hard for so many?
I suspect that some people have taken a break from exercise for several years, if not longer, and that any exercise beyond minimal walking results in soreness and nausea, among other discomforts. It’s painful to exercise when doing so makes you feel bad, especially if you’re not training for some goal (like the Olympics or even a “fun run”).
But if you keep putting it off, you’re only going to make it harder on yourself as your muscles grow weaker.
On the other hand, waiting to exercise until you’re older seems to have some benefits. For example, our bodies seem to have a limited number of movements available before they begin to break down. You cannot run marathons every year for 30 or 40 years unless you’ve been genetically blessed.
You cannot put strain on your joints every year for 40 or 50 years unless God has somehow given you perfect fluidity or recoverability or some sort of enviable ability to heal yourself. That’s why people who were very athletic when younger often have difficulty moving around when older. Their bodies did what they could for as long as they could and now they can’t perform at even an average level.
So how much is too much? Studies have shown that marathoners and people who engage in strenuous exercise often suffer kidney damage from dehydration. They also can have more heart problems than sedentary folks. They can even suffer from depression, exhaustion and serious injuries.
What we know is that doing nothing is bad. Exercising to excess is also bad. The answer, as usual, lies in moderation. Taking the Goldilocks approach. Do something every day unless you’re sick or injured, but don’t go overboard. Work different muscle groups. Combine aerobic and anaerobic (weightlifting, e.g.) workouts. Eventually you’ll find you feel better and you will (probably) live longer.
The two main drivers of war are philosophy and land. Under the broader category of philosophy, we can identify two subsets – religion and nationality – while battles over land often boil down to economic security.
Why does this matter? Because if we can figure out the causes, we can perhaps identify solutions that can minimize the occurrence of such tragedies. And although war between nation states is on the decline, war at the smaller level, at the regional level, continues at a pretty good clip.
For example, we in the US don’t consider ourselves to be at war except in the broadest terms. We’re assisting in Iraq (about 5,000 troops) and Afghanistan (about 8,000 troops). We’re trying to wipe out ISIS and Al-Qaeda. We’re threatening Syria and North Korea and possibly Russia, but we’re not sending thousands of troops to do battle anywhere in the world.
On the other hand, ISIS and Al-Qaeda are at war with us, while Syria, North Korea, Iran and Russia are committing hostile acts against us or wish they could commit hostile acts against us, so even though we don’t consider ourselves at war against them, they might not look at it the same way.
So if we define war more broadly than nation states engaging in combat operations against other nation states, we discover that there are many conflicts ongoing throughout the world, and we figure into a good percentage of them.
How do we diminish these conflicts? By either aligning our philosophy to better match the philosophies of the groups that wish us ill, by forcing those groups to change their philosophies to become more like us, or by somehow bestowing on them greater economic security so that they’re less inclined to want to attack us, or anyone else.
Examining the philosophy angle, we can immediately see the difficulties presented. We are unwilling to change how we view the world or God or our place on this earth for the sake of a bunch of radicals.
And the other side likewise refuses to alter their views of the world or God or their place in it. We think we’re right. They think they’re right. Never the twain shall meet.
No, philosophy is not the answer.
Which leaves us with economic security. If we want to stop the resentment and rage directed against us, we need to be willing to provide financial aid or at least revise our policies to assist those in dire straits so they can find a way out of their economic troubles.
Building manufacturing facilities in Syria and Venezuela. Educating students in South Sudan and Nigeria, and providing jobs when they complete their schooling. Assisting farmers in Afghanistan and the West Bank so they can grow the crops they need to provide for their populations. These are the kinds of things that can improve the world order and lessen the impact of conflict around the world.
Granted, these aren’t simple things. No one wants to risk lives and millions of dollars on building infrastructure that rebels and radicals are likely to bomb into oblivion. But here’s the thing. If we start, if we offer hope, the citizens in these areas will help us police them. If they have the potential for good jobs, they’ll help keep the terrorists at bay.
Obviously there will be setbacks, facilities bombed and employees murdered. Any progress forward will come with the occasional step back.
But the problems the Third World faces aren’t going away. They’re here for the long run. And if we keep ignoring these areas, their increasingly desperate denizens are going to engage in increasingly desperate actions.
Even a small portion of what we spend on military might can go a long way toward solving some less developed country’s economic issues. We can start small, work our way up, showing how it can be done in those areas that aren’t quite so problematic, gradually easing the more troublesome spots into economic success.
But I suspect our leaders, our large businesses, will reject what I propose out of hand. ‘Why should we sacrifice for these hoodlums?’ they’ll say. ‘We worked hard to get here. Why do we have to help them? Let them do it themselves.’
And yet … if we don’t help them, we condemn ourselves to an almost endless cycle of hatred and conflict. We’ll need to beef up our military spending because as the situations in an increasingly hostile environment worsen, the pressures on us will be exacerbated too.
I’ve been thinking about illness for the past few days while fighting the flu, noting that it acts upon us in two ways. First, of course, it drains us physically, dispersing pain in many forms. The flu, for example, makes us uncomfortable by not only giving us chills and hot flashes, it also makes every muscle, tendon and joint in the body ache.
Second, it drains us mentally. Emotionally. We devote so much effort to trying to get well that we struggle to focus on anything else. Every time we decide to get back to work – and I work out of my house, so I won’t be infecting anyone – we find ourselves distracted by a cough or sore throat or runny nose or general weakness.
We fall prey to many kinds of illnesses, and as broad as the spectrum of disease is, the flu, at first glance, seems a pretty good one to suffer from unless you’ve got a compromised immune system. But then I think back to the pandemic of 1918 when between 50 and 100 million people succumbed to it – possibly as much as five percent of the population.
One of the biggest surprises about that pandemic was that it killed previously healthy young adults in far greater numbers than would have been expected. There are many possible reasons for this, but we don’t need to detail them. Instead, we just have to note that those of us who see the flu as not bad may in fact be wrong.
Yes, cancer is horrible, as are ALS and Alzheimer’s and MS and coronary artery disease and any number of other ailments. But the thing is, those diseases affect only certain segments of the population – Alzheimer’s largely a disease of the elderly, for example. And as bad as they are to those who are afflicted, they don’t have the same potential to cause global chaos as a new variant of the flu.
Microbes can reproduce about every 20 minutes. That means, for every human generation, there are many, many microbial generations – many opportunities for evolution to a new and more dangerous flu virus. Add to that our increasingly global connectivity and you have a recipe for disaster.
What are we doing about it? Not much. We’re increasing our military spending and focusing on immigrants and tax reform and health care, but not the kind of health care that might save us from a pandemic.
When the next major flu outbreak hits (not if, but when), will we be ready for it? All signs point to no. We continue to consider the flu to be a nuisance rather than a deadly enemy so we don’t devote the kind of research to new vaccines that we should. We don’t prepare our emergency rooms and hospitals to deal with the massive influx of the sick that would flood them upon another pandemic.
We need to educate ourselves to the potential disaster that awaits. There’s a good book on this subject – Deadliest Enemy, by Michael Osterholm and Mark Olshaker. You should consider reading it and then trying to put pressure on our politicians to find ways to make it easier to protect ourselves long term.
If we don’t act, we may someday decide that the flu is not so great an illness to have after all.
We all get angry. It grows in all our gardens – a base human emotion, hard wired into us by millions of years of evolution, rooted to the depths of our emotional structure. We can no more eliminate anger than we can lust or fear or joy.
The other day, I was driving on the interstate when a moron in a minivan – a little ahead of me and to my left – decided to brake and cut across two lanes of traffic to get to the rapidly approaching exit ramp, all without signaling. I was forced to brake and swerve and hope no one was directly behind me. Fortunately, I managed to avert an accident.
But I immediately became angry at the chucklehead who decided to act stupidly, disregarding the rules of the road. And I became angry at myself for failing to sound my horn, to let this moron know she had just done something completely idiotic. However, I was so busy trying to avoid a collision I had no time to blare a warning in the moment.
It took me quite a while to calm down from that event, to restore a sense of inner calm. Even now, as I write this, a hint of anger tries to emerge at the utter incompetence or indifference of that driver.
My point is, anger sprouts like a weed if we don’t manage it effectively. A little can be good. It can serve as a spice. But too much can choke off whatever else you’re trying to grow. It must be weeded occasionally, cultivated properly.
We need to choose only the best varieties of anger, those that will help foment change, either to the world or ourselves. Lashing out at imbeciles for their bizarre behavior feels good in the short term, but isn’t very helpful in the long term. We need to channel that anger, focus it on specific goals, make it work for us as a motivator.
By selecting only the very best angers to nurture – the unfairness of slavery (yes, still a problem in the twenty-first century, particularly sexual slavery) or the politicians who don’t see their own blinding hypocrisy – we can keep our emotional gardens healthy.
Work your anger every day, weed out the slights and miscarriages that choke off the righteous rage of true injustice.
So next time you get angry, stop. Fall to your metaphorical knees and examine the stalks and shoots before you. Why are you angry? Is it worth it? What sort of action ought you to take as a result? Is it some large issue that demands a response? Is it a minor peccadillo that can be shrugged off?
If it’s a big deal, water it with a reasoned response that’s well thought out and appropriate to the offense. If it’s a smaller issue, yank it from the soil, thin the growth a little and let the dying stems fertilize the more hopeful emotions in your garden.