Making America Whole Again

Two band-aids which might work

In my Sept 14 post, Now that the Buffalo are Gone, I said Americans had lost sight of the ideals that once held the country together and were dangerously fracturing into warring tribes. I then suggested that the demise of old ideas was not necessarily a bad thing if we replaced them with better ones. Caught up in my stubborn idealism and inspired by the image of our little blue planet, I went as far as proposing a new narrative for humankind, transcending country, race, and religion.

I was right, wrong, somewhat right, and ahead of my time…


Read my two simple solutions for how to make America whole again in this exclusive post.

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In Defense of Intellectuals

Brave thinkers, tinkerers, and insatiably curious. Nerds, if you will.

Twenty-four hundred years ago, Socrates, infamously known as the gadfly of Athens, was condemned to death for thinking too much and urging his fellow citizens to do so as well.

Fifth Century female scholar and philosopher Hypatia was hunted down by Christian men who brutally stripped off her clothes, beat her with tiles, skinned her alive with oyster shells, then dragged her body through the streets of Alexandria, Egypt, until she died.

The Church forced Italian scientist Galileo to recant his discovery of a heliocentric universe which challenged the notion of the time that humans were at the center of everything.

“The Church says that the Earth is flat, but I know that it is round, for I have seen the shadow of the earth on the moon and I have more faith in the Shadow than in the Church.” – Explorer Ferdinand Magellan

Echoes of Galileo’s trial can be heard in the current debate on climate change where today’s Inquisitors dispute the consensus of science on no other ground than their fear of having their cherished notion of progress challenged and not knowing who they would be or what they would do once they give up their toys and recover from their addictions.

In the 1930’s, Nazis conducted a campaign to ceremonially burn books viewed as being subversive or representing ideologies opposed to Nazism.

In the early seventies, Chinese poet Mu Xin was imprisoned and tortured during China’s ‘Cultural’ Revolution that placed intellectuals last in the “Nine Black Categories” (or castes) deemed inferior by the government of Mao Zedong. Mao mobilized high school and university students known as Red Guards to humiliate and torture teachers and scholars. Claiming that “the more knowledge a man had, the more reactionary he would become,” Mao also had millions of ‘educated youth’ sent down to the countryside to receive reeducation from the peasants.

The Killing Fields in Cambodia are lush green, fertilized by the corpses of more than a million people killed from 1975 to 1979 under Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime. Many were slain just because they read. Even wearing eyeglasses could cause your death. You Nerd!

The benighted ghost of anti-intellectualism is once again spreading its shadow on the world threatening mankind with a new Dark Age.

Dark Ages

It’s raising its ugly head in President Trump’s attack on journalism, his mockery of science and truth, and his allergy to the written word (except Tweets).

It howls through Brexit proponent Michael Gove, U.K. Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary (2015-2016), when saying: “People in this country have had enough of experts!”

It lurks in Governor Scott Walker’s recent attempt to change the century-old mission of the University of Wisconsin system by removing the words that commanded the university to “search for truth” and “improve the human condition,” replacing them with “meet the state’s workforce needs.”

It perhaps explains why fewer people are reading, preferring television instead.

I understand people’s exasperation with those who perch high-and-mighty on their ivory towers presuming to know the ‘right way’ and who hurl their godlike knowledge down upon us lesser mortals as an indictment on how we live our lives. But to use these condescending windbags to sneer at those whose talents and inclinations happen to be better suited to serve humankind through academia, is foolish and dangerous.

A bit ironic too. For these modern day Inquisitors, these champions of ignorance, will rush to a medical scientist the minute they sneeze; drive to a mechanic to repair their car; trust a nutritionist more than their gut for what to eat or not, or stand in line for hours at an Apple store to have a Geek fix their iPhone.

It was bacteriologist Alexander Fleming who discovered penicillin.

British scientist Sir Richard Doll who first linked smoking and lung cancer.

It was geochemist Clair Cameron Patterson who stopped us from being further poisoned by increased lead levels in the environment and our food chain.

Writer and marine biologist Rachel Carson who saved us from the adverse effects of the indiscriminate use of pesticides and launched the environmental movement.

The Hellenistic philosophical schools in Greece and Rome – Epicureans, Skeptics, Stoics – all conceived of philosophy as a way of addressing the most painful problems of human life.

And it was psychologist Linda Caporeal’s curiosity that finally linked an outbreak of rye ergot (a fungus blight that forms hallucinogenic substances in bread altering behavior when consumed) to the odd conduct of 15th Century women in Salem, Massachusetts, which condemned them to the gallows. Too late though.

All brave thinkers, tinkerers, and insatiably curious. Nerds, if you will.

Verbal intelligence, the ability to analyze information and solve problems using language-based reasoning, is linked to open-minded thinking. Close-minded thinking, on the other hand, allows opportunists to manipulate your emotions to control your thoughts and actions. They will, warned Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire, make you believe absurdities and so make you commit atrocities, like burning books or hanging ‘witches,’ skinning female scholars, and shooting four-eye nerds. Or its more contemporary versions: mailing pipe bombs and shooting inside places of worship to annihilate those who you are told are the enemy.

Critical thinkers are amiable skeptics, wrote Heather Butler for Scientific American. They are flexible thinkers who require evidence to support their beliefs and recognize fallacious attempts to persuade them. Critical thinking means overcoming all sorts of cognitive biases. Roughly speaking, critical thinking helps you figure out whether you should believe some claim and how strongly you should believe it.

Willful or lazy ignorance is an insult to the gift of reason, a danger to democracy, and a grave threat to our survival. Compounding this ignorance with the deprecation of those who do think, is outright contemptible.

If you don’t want to read or think, that’s fine. Your loss. But the next time you see someone reading an actual book inside a coffee shop or walking down the street with a slide-rule, pocket protector, and adjusting his glasses, I suggest you salute him as you would a brave soldier for he might be close to discovering something that will heal or save your life.

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We’re Running Out of Time

Desperate times call for stealthy measures

The latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change presents a bleak picture.

It’s bad.

Like you-rather-not-know kind of bad.

Barring massive economic mobilization and rapid transition to more efficient technologies, we are in serious trouble.

After I first ranted about this, then followed up with a second one at the peak of the summer’s heat wave, I stuck my head in the sand and ignored any article dealing with this issue because I felt there is nothing I could do.

I’ve also been numbed by fear.

But I can’t turn my back and ignore it, can I? Like you, I hold one share (of 7.5 Billion) in our planetary venture and feel it my duty to do something. If anything, out of gratitude for my luck of living in such a beautiful place.

I don’t know about you, but I really like this little blue planet, which, as far as I know, is the only home we have.

planet earth

As it is, my carbon footprint is as shallow as Paris Hilton. I like meat, don’t have many devices plugged in, own an iPhone 5 whose battery just ran out…again, don’t own a car, don’t conform to latest fashion, and can’t line-dry my clothes. What to do?

Call a legislator and rant? Write a letter to the United Nations? Pope Francis?

Good luck with that.

From their track record, it is clear that the powers that be are too unwieldy – or spineless – to bring about the rapid transition we need to stave disaster. It’s been twenty years since many of the world’s leaders adopted the Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse gas concentrations and here’s what they’ve accomplished:

Kyoto Protocol graph

Pretty grim, I know.

What then?

I decided to find out what the largest sources of greenhouse-gas emissions are, and then figure out what the average Joe can do about it.

US Greenhouse Gas Emissions Graph

Ok.

Since I cannot afford an electric car nor house on which to install solar panels and double-pane windows, I focused instead on Industry and Electricity which constitute 50% of the problem.

The Industry sector produces the goods and raw materials we use every day and its main emissions are produced by burning fossil fuels for power or heat. So stop buying unnecessary stuff, and don’t upgrade my iPhone5. Check!

The Electricity sector emissions are also released when burning fossil fuels, such as coal, oil, and natural gas.

Burning fossil fuels, then, is the common denominator; the main culprit, and the most carbon intensive fossil fuel out there is coal. In the electricity sector alone, coal accounts for 67 percent of CO2 emissions yet only generates about 30 percent of U.S. electricity.

What now? Call Rob Murray, Coal-Boss of Murray Energy, and rant?

Good luck with that too. Murray is the guy who reportedly presented Trump with a plan to overturn the classification of carbon dioxide as a pollutant.

I think I have a better idea.

Instead, let’s contact the person in charge of our 401K or pension plan to instruct him/her to divest our portfolios of anything having to do with coal and switch those investments to companies which are leading the pack in energy efficiency and renewable energy. Or, if you live, say, in Norway, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, or China, call the officer who manages your country’s sovereign wealth fund and tell him the same thing (Okay, maybe not China).

Retirement accounts and foreign investors – primarily sovereign wealth funds – own close to three-quarters of U.S. corporate stocks. They control the spigots that flow with the capital companies need to invest and grow.

If we all wiped our portfolios clean of coal, we might have a chance.

Desperate times call for stealthy measures.

Once the CEO’s of these companies see their capital flows run dry and stocks plummet, they might wake up and move towards more efficient technologies. After all, they should know that they are not in the coal business per se, but in the energy business. All they need is some imagination and a little push to evolve.

As for those employed in the sector, governments must step-in to ease the transition. A combination of a temporary guaranteed income and intensive retraining should work. The U.S., for example, employs about 80,000 workers in the coal industry. At the country’s median income, the country would need to come up with about $5 billion to cover a year’s worth of salaries. If the U.S. government has $3.1 billion to spare on vacation for federal employees placed on administrative leave, I’m sure it can make this work.

For all other investments in your 401K or pension plan portfolio, make sure the companies you are supporting are aligned with your values by becoming a conscious investor as Vinay Shandal suggests in his humorous TED talk.

Margaret Mead famously said we should “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Rachel Carson published ‘Silent Spring’ in 1962 as a warning to the nation about the adverse effects on the environment of the indiscriminate use of pesticides. Silent Spring was met with fierce opposition by chemical companies but spurred a reversal in national pesticide policy, led to a nationwide ban on DDT for agriculture, and launched the environmental movement.

In 1965, geochemist Clair Cameron Patterson tried to draw public attention to the problem of increased lead levels in the environment and our food chain. In his effort to ensure that lead was removed from gasoline, Patterson fought against the lobbying power of the Ethyl Corporation and against the lead additive industry as a whole. Following Patterson’s clarion call, he was refused contracts with many research organizations, including the United States Public Health Service. In 1971, he was excluded from a National Research Council panel on atmospheric lead contamination, even though he was the foremost expert on the subject. But he persisted, and by 1975, the United States mandated the use of unleaded gasoline resulting in the phaseout of lead from all automotive gasoline by 1986. Lead levels within the blood of Americans dropped by up to 80% by the late 1990s.

“The world is not dangerous because of those who do harm but because of those who look at it without doing anything” – Albert Einstein

Inspired by these courageous figures, I have sent my ‘No More Coal’ letter to my pension fund.

It’s my tiny drop in the bucket.

How about adding yours?

Hurry though, because we’re running out of time. 

 


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Kavanaugh vs Ford (Round 1)

The dying flame of good imagination.

As an outsider, I have a bird’s-eye advantage of looking down at the fires raging across the American political landscape and the internecine clashes which threaten to tear the “United” States apart.

Being a-moral, un-ideal, non-religious, non-partisan, and pledging allegiance to nothing else than the Earth and all living beings, I sit far removed from the circus arena and watch the clowns and carnage while munching on metaphysical popcorn.

A shrill tragicomedy unfolds before my eyes on this Theater of the Absurd.

For several weeks, the main act featured the clash of two puppets, male and female, Kavanaugh and Ford, whose strings were manipulated in shadow by the doctrinaire forces rending the fabric of this nation. Meanwhile, exploitative reporters thronged the front row feeding spectators raw meat and venom which devoured their entrails and made them vomit it back without once passing through the sieve of their intellectual integrity. Thus poisoned, and burning with self-righteous rage, they cast doubt on the testimony of these two players, based not on objective evidence, but in blind allegiance to the dark forces pulling their strings. One side claiming there should be a statute of limitation for wrongdoing, while the other insisting on imposing perfect morals on imperfect beings, they precipitated their judgment, and, like Roman Emperors, lowered their thumbs condemning their despised to death.

 

I’m not so easily duped, which is another advantage of being an exile.

From my vantage point, it sounded to me like the underlying matter in this deranged spectacle was – and still is – the issue of abortion. A renewed clash between those who consider life to begin at conception (thus sacred from that moment), and those who fear Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court might overturn Roe v. Wade, denying women the right to choose.

Maybe munching on metaphysical popcorn makes me naïve, but while watching this buffoonery from this healthy distance, it occurred to me that instead of gnashing teeth, digging heels even deeper, or drawing red lines on sand, these dark forces would do everyone a great favor if they worked together and expended all that wasted time and energy on opening adoption centers right next to every Planned Parenthood and abortion clinic. Problem solved! Women retain sovereignty over their bodies and babies live. What am I missing here?

Author Jeff VanderMeer is right in saying that the history of the world can be seen as an ongoing battle between good and bad imaginations.

Consider drugs as another example. Since 1971, the United States has wasted 1.5 trillion dollars on its “war on drugs,” but done nothing to lower the rate of addiction. Why? Because addiction is not a “drug problem” but the habitual avoidance of reality. It is the self-destructive manifestation of despair. A country with good imagination would invest its treasure on mental health, not ineffective wars.

What about guns and mass shootings? Here again, this country faces a problem of anguish, one which mostly afflicts young men. Bad imagination would have government confiscate the 270 million guns owned by Americans or have teachers carry concealed weapons at recess. The good kind would focus attention on the underlying issue.

What about walls? Bad imagination conjures idiotic ideas that immigrants are determined to take over the country or are somehow afflicted with irrepressible wanderlust and must therefore be stopped at the border with ever-higher fortifications. Good imagination understands that most immigrants originate from neighboring countries as yet not sufficiently developed to afford everyone the opportunity to provide a decent living for themselves and their families. “Tough luck!” Bad imagination would say. “Not our problem. Build that Wall!” forgetting that necessity is the mother of invention, so, while laying another row of bricks, the ground beneath their fortress becomes tunnel-riddled like Swiss Cheese. President Truman’s 1949 inaugural speech outlining his vision to assist developing countries is a perfect example of good imagination:

“We must embark on a bold new program for making the benefits of our scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas. More than half the people of the world are living in conditions approaching misery. Their food is inadequate. They are victims of disease. Their economic life is primitive and stagnant. Their poverty is a handicap and a threat both to them and to more prosperous areas.

How those intentions were later translated into action is a perfect example of bad imagination.

Climate change is yet another example, pitting those who insist on wasting time trying to pin the blame on humans against those who deny it, often with such vitriol and vehemence it reminds me of the Spanish Inquisition. To my mind, it is not ultimately a matter of who is responsible, but what we do about it. Whether man-made or not, it is a phenomenon which poses a serious threat to human survival, so we might want to stop splitting hairs and, instead, roll-up our sleeves and get to work before it’s too late.

The forces of bad imagination — preferring strife over compromise, war over healing — now control the United States and threaten to tear it apart. One can only hope that the millions of puppets under their spell will soon wake up from their hypnosis, start thinking for themselves, take back power, and unleash the right kind of imagination on their country.

I’ll still be perched here, munching on metaphysical popcorn, to report on the awakening, or watch in disbelief as Rome continues to burn.


Read Round 2: Bravo America!” written right after Kavanaugh’s confirmation.

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“Oh, the Good Old Days”

Aching for slow beauty to save us from our quick-quick life!

Tired of hearing old people pine for the good old days; frustrated really, from sensing that I have somehow missed the boat, I decided to ask my eighty-seven year old father and his wife what they meant.

Aside from the predictable nostalgia for their carefree days of childhood, one answer topped the list:

SIMPLICITY: The good old days of civility, tight-knit communities, only 3-TV channels and 2-cylinder cars, the 30-minute newscast, rotary phones, human operators, physical maps, doctor house calls, limited choices of mates and breakfast cereal, little regulation and much self-reliance and self-responsibility.

Attempting to make our lives more convenient, free-up time, and expand our choices, it seemed from their leading answer and clarifying definitions that us “young ones” have made matters worse by transforming our world into a kind of giant, impersonal Rube Goldberg contraption, performing simple tasks (calling a friend, getting from point A-to-B, remedying a cold, choosing a partner or cereal) in convoluted, impersonal, and dizzying ways, often riddled with frustrating redundancies, and, in many cases (dating, entertainment), with so much to choose from, we end up tied up in a knot, unable to choose.

Rube Goldberg

I had to admit they had a point.

But what about all the free time we’ve gained thanks to our technological advances?

If that is so, why are most of you, “young ones,” so overwhelmed, harried, stressed and burnt out? Why, for instance, has the number of vacation days taken by the average American worker declined from twenty to sixteen in the last forty years? And if, in fact, you’ve gained free time through all your techno wizardry, it appears it’s been claimed by new and meaningless distractions…a tossing welter of irrelevance.

Ok…but! I pressed on, in valiant defense of our times…technology helps bring families, friends, and communities closer together.

(Phlegmy scoffs followed by huge eye rolls behind thick, smudged eyeglasses held together with duct tape).

Ok, not that then. But what about regulation? You can’t deny it helps curb abuse and blatant irresponsibility from others.

Aha…but the excess to which regulation has been taken has come at the steep price of self-reliance and self-responsibility…the loss of agency.

I can have a meal or book delivered in less time than it takes you to rinse your octogenarian dentures!

And you’ll eat your meal and read your book – if at all – in less time, and soon forget what you ate and most of what you read while suffering from heartburn.

I never get lost thanks to Google Maps!

Some of the most memorable adventures in our lives have occurred precisely because we got lost.

We have so much to choose from now.

And you never settle for anything.

We have gut-cleansing Kombucha, Mushroom Coffee, and Colored Toast! I bet you never had that in the “good-old-days,” huh? (mocking voice…finger doing air quotes).

What’s Kombucha?

By then, I felt like Charlie Chaplin in ‘Modern Times,’ struggling to repair the Giant Machine.

Charlie Chaplin

It does feel that our world is evolving, not from simplicity to complexity, but to chaos, or entropy.

As explained by James Clear, entropy is the natural tendency of things to lose order. Sand castles get washed away. Weeds overtake gardens. Ancient ruins crumble. Cars begin to rust. People gradually age. The inevitable trend is for things to become less organized and more so over time. This is known as the Second Law of Thermodynamics, one of the fundamental laws of our universe.

I decided to pose the same question to someone a bit ‘younger,’ my sixty-year-old brother:

“When you hear the phrase ‘Good Old Days,’ what comes immediately to mind?”

Before I reveal his answer, let me say that my brother’s nickname is ‘Turtle,’ not only because of his weathered countenance, but, especially, for his calm and plodding approach to life.

Here’s what he said after ruminating for a long time while sipping his signature Crown Royal whisky and puffing a fat cigar:

“Hmm…the good old days…

I’d say right now, this moment!

Ask me tomorrow and I’ll say the same thing.”

When in doubt, always ask a turtle.

wise turtle

My brother’s simple wisdom immediately brought to mind one of my favorite poems:

“MY HERO” by Billy Collins

Just as the hare is zipping across the finish line,

the tortoise has stopped once again

by the roadside,

this time to stick out his neck

and nibble a bit of sweet grass,

unlike the previous time

when he was distracted

by a bee humming in the heart of a wildflower.

Faced with the invincible force of entropy, I am starting to sense that a growing number of us are aching for slow beauty to save us from our quickquick life! as poet Kapka Kassabova said – for that simple, soft fascination I’ve told you about before.

I guess it all boils down to how we spend our days and choose to live our lives.

While we cannot stop our sandcastles from being washed away, we can certainly dial down the chaos in our own private universe.

We have the agency to come between our madly distracted minds and our distractions, to get lost, and nibble on a bit of sweet grass.


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Now that the Buffalo are Gone

It’s time for a new story

Once,

They covered the grasslands

Like the shadows of clouds,

And now the river gives up

Just one skull, a hive of bone

Like a fallen wasp’s nest,

Heavy, empty, and

Full of the whine of the wind

And old thunder. – From ‘A Buffalo Skull’ by Ted Kooser

At one point their population numbered in the tens of millions.

Hunted to near extinction by American market hunters, the once massive bison population was reduced to a mere 1,000 by the turn of the century.

Sanctioned by the United States government, the widespread slaughter was proposed to effectively weaken the Native Indians of the West whose livelihood was tied to the bison – central to their culture and heritage.

“Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone,” said Columbus Delano, the Secretary of the Interior in the early 1870’s. “The rapid disappearance of game from the former hunting-grounds [will] favor our efforts to confine the Indians to smaller areas and compel them to abandon their nomadic customs.”

The American settlers realized Native Americans could perhaps be eliminated if the bison were exterminated. Thus, the American government set out to destroy the plentiful buffalo population while enforcing a reservation system to confine the Indians to a tiny fragment of their ancestral lands.

Crippled by the scarcity of bison, the culture of the Plains Indians and other neighboring tribes unraveled.

“When the buffalo went away, the hearts of my people fell to the ground,” records Crow Chief Plenty in his personal biography. “After this, nothing happened. There was little singing anywhere.”

There is little singing in America today because it, too, has lost its Buffalo: a common mythology and shared identity; the story, ideals, and illusions which once bound the country together. And an era can be considered over once its basic illusions have been exhausted, playwright Arthur Miller said.

Shut away as we are becoming in impenetrable fortresses of tribalism, nationality, identity politics, gender, class, race, ethnicity, and rigid ideologies, the glue is coming undone and the center cannot hold as poet John Keats warned in ‘The Second Coming,’ adding, prophetically, that mere anarchy is loosed upon the world and everywhere the best [men] lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.

There was plenty of passionate intensity after 9-11, but a nation glued together by hatred does not hold together regardless of how righteous.

In a recent opinion piece, conservative columnist David Brooks wrote that the western civilization narrative, at least in Europe and North America, used for most of the past few centuries to explain their place in the world, came with certain values — about the importance of reasoned discourse, the importance of property rights, the need for a public square that was religiously informed but not theocratically dominated. It set a standard for what great statesmanship looked like. It gave diverse people a sense of shared mission and a common vocabulary, set a framework within which political argument could happen and, most important, provided a set of common goals. Now, Brooks adds, the basic fabric of civic self-government seems to be eroding.

A similar phenomenon is occurring with men’s old notions of masculinity which are rapidly eroding under a rising tide of the rightful demands from women to once again be co-authors in the human story. Yet, absent a new definition of what it means to be a man in this evolving narrative, many men are bewildered. This might explain why middle-aged men are committing suicide in greater numbers, and why many young men, as described by Stephen Marche in the Guardian, are mostly feral boys wandering the digital ruins of exploded masculinity, howling their misery, concocting vast nonsense about women, and craving the tiniest crumb of self-confidence and fellow-feeling.

The demise of timeworn ideas is, in my mind, not a bad thing. Who misses the Roman Empire, for example, or cries over the demise of monarchical rule in Europe which ushered in the age of liberty and democracy?

The danger is failing to write a new and better story out of the vacuum left behind by the demise of old ideas, ideas that seem to be running their course under the rapid changes our world is experiencing.

But as it happens, across the world today, we are handing the pen over to “strong men,” allowing them to author the new story, and we, unwitting characters, are cheering them on with tribal glee. Higher, more impenetrable walls are being built, deeper moats are being dug around our fortresses, and a new arms race is under way as the scorched-earth assault on our planet ramps up.

In a recent conference, author Chetan Bhatt dared his audience to refuse their identity myths.

What if we reject every single primordial origin myth and develop a deeper sense of personhood, Bhatt questioned. One responsible to humanity as a whole rather than to a particular tribe, a radically different idea of humanity that exposes how origin myths mystify, disguise global power, rapacious exploitation, poverty, the oppression of women and girls, and of course, accelerating inequalities?

Do we really need identity myths to feel safe?

What if the plains Indians would have diversified their diet? Or been less dogmatic about their choice of totemic animal?

What about you, now, listening to this? Bhatt challenged further. What about you and your identity? One stitched together with your experiences and your thoughts into a continuous person moving forward in time. This person you are when you say, “I,” “am,” or “me,” doesn’t this also include all of your hopes and dreams, all of the you’s that could have been, and includes all the other people and the things that are in the biography of who you are? Your authentic self, if such a thing exists, is a complex, messy and uncertain self, and that is a very good thing. Why not value those impurities and uncertainties? Maybe clinging to pure identities is a sign of immaturity, and ethnic, nationalist and religious traditions are bad for you. Why not be skeptical about every primordial origin claim made on your behalf? Why not reject the identity myths that call on you to belong? If we don’t need origin stories and fixed identities, we can challenge ourselves to think creatively about each other and our future.

For the past eighteen months, I have been playing Jenga with my Self.

Jenga is a game where players take turns to remove a block from a tower and balance it on top, creating a taller and increasingly unstable structure as the game progresses. But rather than placing back the old blocks, I have examined, removed and discarded all my old prejudices, misconceptions, illusions, self-delusions, fears, insecurities, vanities, and identity myths to which I unwittingly subscribed, all which were impeding a more authentic self to emerge. It’s been an unsettling but liberating experience, one which has cleared the way for me to replace those old blocks with new values – my unique values – and write my own script.

As for the world, what if we started by replacing our cherished Buffalos with ‘Earthrise,’ the most famous photograph ever taken?

Earthrise

That was Earth, our irreplaceable planetary home, which it is now wholly in our remit to destroy, wrote philosopher Alain de Botton when contemplating that iconic photograph taken on Christmas Eve 1968.

“Suddenly humankind was able to view its habitat with a gaze hitherto reserved for the entity we have termed God, and it’s only us now who are responsible for ourselves and our fragile home. We may have to adopt in and for ourselves some of the attitudes we once projected onto divinities.”

I say it is time to snatch the pen out of the callous hands of “strong men” and write a better story for humanity and our planet.


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A Counterbalance to Unpleasant Memories

Harvesting positive experiences.

Of the many insights gained through writing my life’s story, the excess of unpleasant over pleasant memories has stood out like Al Sharpton would at a KKK rally or Trump as the guest of honor at a Cinco de Mayo fiesta in Tijuana. It has been such a striking, baffling, and irritating sore thumb, that I needed to find out why.

It’s not as if I grew up in Dickensian squalor or drought-stricken Ethiopia with a distended stomach and a permanent ribbon of flies on my lips. On its surface, anyone would call my life privileged.

So why does the number of unpleasant memories far outnumber the pleasant ones?

Survival Tactic

In their paper, ‘Bad is Stronger than Good,’ research psychologists at Case Western Reserve University and the Free University of Amsterdam suggest that survival requires urgent attention to possible bad outcomes, but it is less urgent with regard to good ones. Hence, it would be adaptive to be psychologically designed to respond to bad more strongly than good.

Put another way: it won’t matter how lovely the tall green grass swayed on the Savannah the day your best friend was mauled by a Saber-Toothed Tiger when you were out hunting together, but forget where it happened, and you might become its next meal.

‘Bad’ has a longer Shelf Life

A widely accepted account of the impact of life events was put forward by American psychologist Harry Helson and called adaptation level theory. In this view, the impact of substantial changes in life circumstances is temporary. Change produces strong reactions, but the circumstances that result from the change gradually cease to provoke a reaction and eventually are taken for granted.

Applying this theory to human happiness, psychologists P. Brickman and D.T. Campbell postulated a “hedonic treadmill” by which your long-term happiness will remain roughly constant regardless of what happens to you because the impact of both good and bad events will wear off over time.

In testing the hedonic treadmill, however, it emerged that bad events wear off more slowly than good events. Brickman and Campbell interviewed three groups of respondents: people who had won a lottery, people who had been paralyzed in an accident, and people who had not recently experienced any such major life event (the lottery wins and accidents had occurred about one year before the interview).

Confirming the hypothesis for positive events, the lottery winners did not report greater happiness than the two other groups. The research proposed that this result was due to habituation: The euphoria over the lottery win did not last, and the winners’ happiness levels quickly returned to what they had been before the lottery win. Ironically, the only lasting effect of winning the lottery appeared to be the bad ones, such as a reduction in enjoyment of ordinary pleasures.

No man has been shattered by the blows of Fortune unless he was first deceived by her favors. – Seneca

In contrast to the transitory euphoria of good fortune, the accident victims were much slower to adapt to their fate. They rated themselves as significantly less happy than participants in the control condition. The victims continued to compare their current situation with how their lives had been before the accident (unlike lottery winners, who did not seem to spend much time thinking how their lives had improved from the bygone days of relative poverty). Brickman et al. called this phenomenon the “nostalgia effect.”

The seeming implication of these findings is that adaptation-level effects are asymmetrical, consistent with the view that bad is stronger than good. After a short peak in happiness, we become accustomed to the new situation and are no more happy than we were before the improvement. After a serious misfortune, however, we adjust less quickly.

Put another way, you are more upset about losing $50 than you are happy about gaining $50.

The Stories We Remember and the Words We Choose

Returning at dusk from the hunt and settling around the campfire with your clan, the pleasant memory of the swaying Savannah grass, if recalled at all, will be perfunctorily described. But you will go to great length and in exquisite, emotion-wrenching detail when recounting the death of your best buddy. How helpless and pained you felt at seeing him try to fend-off the slashing cuts of the Saber-Tiger’s razor-sharp teeth; the harrowing screams which will forever haunt your sleep; the terror of watching the grass darken with all his blood.

In 1975, James R. Averill, psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, constructed a Semantic Atlas of Emotional Concepts by an exhaustive compilation of 558 emotion words. When he had participants rate them, he found that there were one and one-half times as many negative terms as positive ones (i.e., 62% negative vs. 38% positive).

Spend five minutes writing down as many emotion words you can think of and you’ll probably arrive at a similar result.

Human recall for positive versus negative emotions was studied in 1990 by psychologists D.L. Thomas and E. Diener. They found that people tended to underestimate the frequency of positive experiences, but not negative ones, which is consistent with the view that the relative weakness of positive emotional experiences makes them more forgettable. Across two other studies people reported bad events over good events by about a four-to-one margin.

It may also be, however, that positive experiences are so much more frequent than negative ones and that the greater frequency accounts for the relative underestimation. How often do you recall being first in line at the cash register in your local supermarket versus all those times you waited behind the lady with the fat wad of discount coupons, or behind the old man wanting to rid himself of all the pennies he’s collected since World War II? The relevance of underestimating positive experiences will be made clear further on.

The inordinate amount of effort we expend on describing unpleasant memories is similar to the one we expend to change our moods. Research shows that people use many more techniques for escaping bad moods than for inducing good ones which is consistent with the hypothesis of the greater power of negative emotions.

Counterbalance

Dragging-out the pleasant memories of my childhood from the dark pit of memory often feels like looking for gold in a coal mine. Mostly, what I find are minute, scattered flecks, such as a smell, a flashing image, an emotion viscerally recalled. These I must then carry in my mind for a while until they begin to coalesce into a clearer, more complete memory. The task is arduous and time-consuming, and I know – and saddened to know – that many of what I am sure were wonderful experiences are now irremediably lost.

But what I can do – and have been doing and perfecting for the past five years – is prevent the gold of my present to suffer the same fate.

It began by writing down – almost daily – any positive moment or experience I had had in the recent past, along with three things for which I was grateful.

As I recorded these moments, I realized that the more detailed and vivid my descriptions were, the more lasting the memory. This exercise has made me realize how much we impoverish our lives by underestimating or taking for granted our positive experiences by considering them mundane and commonplace, “the most unphilosophical, irreligious and immoral word in the English language” according to author John Cowper Powys.

In her book ‘On Looking: A Walker’s Guide to the Art of Observation,’ Alexandra Horowitz says that to the child, as to the artist, everything is relevant, little is unseen.

By striving to recover my childhood capacity to see everything again for the first time, refusing to label a single one as “commonplace,” and adopting the habit of recording my positive moments in vivid language, I have not only begun to counterbalance all the oppressive weight of “bad” memories, but have been rewarded with two other precious insights:

  1. Any day I fail to recall a recent positive moment makes me realize, with great alarm, that I have lived without awareness, dishonoring the gift of life with callous inadvertence. This has made me more attentive to simple joys and pleasures enriching my life as a result.
  2. Being of an analytical bent, I categorized the 118 positive moments I have recorded to determine the type of experiences which had provoked an emotion strong and memorable enough to make me want to write them down. The result was stunning, inspiring, but not altogether surprising.

A third were moments of kindness and love (given and received), making someone happy, or involving meraki, a word that modern Greeks often use to describe doing something with soul, creativity, or love — when you put something of yourself into what you’re doing, whatever it may be. Many were moments when I cooked and shared a meal and stories with loved ones.

A second third have been moments of utter calm and serenity. No dramas, no emotional upheavals. Where the future – with all its wants and wishes – was totally annihilated. A state of mind known in Greek as ataraxia, a lucid state of robust equanimity characterized by ongoing freedom from distress and worry. These usually occur out in Nature.

One tenth were moments when I celebrated the successes of others.

Close behind were times when I experienced “flow,” the mental state in which I performed an activity (writing usually), fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process.

Moments when I displayed grit and discipline in tackling challenges comprised six percent of my positive experiences.

A similar proportion when I rewarded myself.

I was up to 97%, and money, fame, and meaningless thrills and distractions were conspicuously absent.

I discovered what truly brought me joy.

Remembering such a moment, author Henry Miller wrote:

“Christ, I was happy! But for the first time in my life I was happy with the full consciousness of being happy. It’s good to be just plain happy; it’s a little better to know that you’re happy; but to understand that you’re happy and to know why and how, in what way, because of what concatenation of events or circumstances, and still be happy, be happy in the being and the knowing, well that is beyond happiness, that is bliss, and if you have any sense you ought to kill yourself on the spot and be done with it.”

Rather than kill myself, I now purposely seek out the experiences that I know bring me joy and hoard those positive memories in vivid language to ensure they never fade into oblivion.