Emerging Renaissance

"These are the best of times."

Introducing Caring Witness

There is a fair amount of research implicating unprocessed child abuse and neglect as significant causes in adult dysfunction, from relationships and job performance to academic success and life happiness (or lack thereof). Unprocessed maltreatment may also have a big effect on sociopolitical trends and global events, so preventing child abuse is important all the way from the individual to the global level.

There is also a lot more abuse and neglect than people realize (or want to think about). In fact, pretty much every time I go someplace where there are a lot of children with their parents, I can be certain of seeing it in public. While it’s hard to know exactly what goes on at home, seeing mistreatment in public gives us the opportunity to do something about it, even if that means just pointing out that it’s a bad thing.

For the child, the importance of knowing that someone in the world noticed the situation they were in–and cared enough to say something–is difficult to overstate. Even a single intervention can have a lasting impact. But standing up for a mistreated child in public is also a difficult thing to do. In my experience it is almost always very emotionally volatile and even frightening.

I and a number of friends have made a commitment to intervene in abusive situations, and over the past few months I have noticed a big increase in the number of posts people are making on Facebook and some of the message boards I frequent about confrontations they initiated. Sharing the experience with friends and getting support and encouragement in return is a vital part of the process.

That’s what Caring Witness is for. It’s a place where you can post stories about times you intervened when someone was being mistreated, even if all you could manage were some encouraging words to the victim. A community for people courageous enough to confront abusers, supporting one another and getting the encouragement they need. Also a channel through which you can discover new ideas or “best practices” for a successful intervention–since obviously the best outcome is one in which the abuser changes their ways.

Join us! Learn More or Share Your Story.

June 27, 2011 Posted by | Parenting, Psychology, Relationships | , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Abuser Confrontation Script

After trying to confront abusive parents in public several times, I realized that confronting abusive people is a little more difficult in practice than in theory. It might help to have some kind of game plan next time. This is my outline for confronting abusers:

  • Center myself and move physically toward the situation with confidence and presence.
  • 2 Options:
    • Empathic Identification: “You must be feeling a lot of stress right now. I know it’s frustrating, but you really don’t want to do that. You’re driving a wedge between yourself and your child, destroying the possibility of intimacy and true respect now and in the future. It may seem counterintuitive, but…”
    • Firm Countermand: “___ behavior is completely unacceptable, is actually illegal in some places, etc. It may be hard for you to stop, but you just can’t do ___ anymore.
  • Remind the adult that they didn’t like being treated that way as a child; consider using the thought experiment about a giant doing the same to them as they are doing to their child.
  • Speak to the child and ask if they are okay; sympathize with them and show that something better is out there.
  • Consider my responses to the most common excuses and justifications:
    • “You don’t know what it’s like because you don’t have the kids.”
    • “___ treatment is good for them, teaches them values, etc.”
    • “It’s the only way to get obedience out of them.”
    • “What else am I supposed to do?”
  • In general, expect projection and defenses.
    • Strong emotions may not belong to me, but to the child or parent.
    • If the abuser accuses me of something, they are certainly describing themselves.

Let me know if you think this is a good idea, or if you have any contributions to make to the script!

October 6, 2010 Posted by | Parenting | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Sunday 2.0 Introduction

There is a new club at North Carolina State University. If you’re interested in learning some proactive steps to taking control of your personal growth, we’ll be meeting once a week to consider a compelling presentation on a wide range of topics — spiritual, psychological, philosophical, and everything in-between.

Click here to go to the Sunday 2.0 homepage, and here for the Sunday 2.0 Facebook group.

What do you think of when you hear the phrase “personal growth”? All kinds of warm and fuzzy connotations are attached to it, but what does it really mean?

Philosophers, artists, and spiritual thinkers have tried to create or discover a roadmap for growth for centuries. One could be forgiven for observing the state of human society and surmising that all these efforts have been in vain. But believe it or not, people actually have come up with some pretty good ideas over the years, but you probably haven’t heard of most of them. Even when good ideas have made it to the mainstream, they have as a rule become so diluted so as to have lost most of their power.

At Sunday 2.0, we’ve done a lot of digging. We have searched out new ideas from a host of sources, both well-known and esoteric. Although we haven’t found a single silver bullet that answers the questions of Growth and Enlightenment once and for all, we have discovered a number of edifying and practical concepts that we believe are worth sharing.

Finding fellow travelers on your journey will make your quest for personal growth more enjoyable and more successful. Join us Sunday mornings for a presentation on some of the most interesting and inspiring ideas we’ve come across. We hope you hear something you can use to make your life better, and we hope you’ll meet people who are on the same path and can provide support and companionship along the way.

September 12, 2010 Posted by | Education, Introduction, Philosophy, Psychology, Relationships, Religion | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Letter to School Board

The following is a letter I sent to the administration of my former high school about eliminating the practice of spanking. Spanking is still legal in Alabama, as it is in 19 other states primarily in the southeastern US. The current bill in congress, while applying to public schools across the US, does not apply to private schools that do not receive funding from the federal government.

To Whom It May Concern:

My name is [Name], and I am a Briarwood graduate from the year 2007. I attended Briarwood for all of my schooling, from K-4 through the end of high school. Since graduating, I have spent some time studying psychology, both formally (through college classes) and informally (by reading a number of books and current journal articles, and by listening to interviews with experts in the field). Conflict resolution, both among adults and between adults and children, has been of particular interest to me.

I recently spoke with Dr. Mosbacker about alternatives to spanking, which I believe (and which research has shown) to be not only ineffective, but a counterproductive means of discipline. I was overjoyed to hear that the practice has been officially discontinued at the high school and junior high level, but I believe there is a good case to be made for change at the elementary level too.

Like any exercise of authority and power, spanking creates external incentives for a child to change his behavior. It may achieve compliance in the short run, but it does not promote genuine understanding of the difference between right and wrong [1]. A child who is spanked does not internalize a methodology for making healthy and sound decisions. He only learns to follow the dictates of authority in the moment [2]. Instead of spanking, teachers could model negotiation. They could explain why certain rules exist, and how they serve the interests of both the school and the child. Children want to cooperate. If they are given the chance to understand the purpose of a rule (and if the rule makes sense), then they are much more likely to participate in following the rules and encouraging others to follow them as well.

If a child is climbing on a fence, the teacher could threaten him with punishment, or she could say something like: “When I see you climbing on the fence, I feel afraid because you could fall off and hurt yourself, and I don’t want you to be hurt. Even if you are a good climber, other children who are not good climbers may see you climbing and want to copy you. I don’t want them to fall and get hurt either. I want you to have fun, but I have to watch the whole playground. I can’t make sure everyone else is playing safe and having fun if I have to spend all my time paying extra attention to you because you’re doing something dangerous.” She could go on to suggest alternative forms of play that don’t involve increased risk.

This approach may seem time-consuming—and at the beginning it is. But because it promotes understanding of the reasons behind the rule, the child can internalize the logic behind not only this particular rule, but perhaps other rules as well. Children want to know why things are the way they are—That’s why they’re always asking!

Negotiation begins when the teacher explains her perspective, but that’s only half the equation. It is equally important for the child to be heard, and to feel that his perspective is understood. Even if the rule doesn’t change, it can be enormously helpful for the child to have the experience of being listened to. If his thoughts and feelings matter, he is much more likely to feel that he has some investment in the school. Children aren’t alone in this. As adults we also feel more invested in our relationships when someone listens to us—our bosses, our neighbors, our spouses…And of course, there may be some chance that the rule is not serving its purpose (to keep the children safe and happy, to promote a secure and stimulating learning environment, etc.) and needs to be amended. Because children experience the teacher-student authority relationship from below rather than above, they may be able to see something that others have missed.

Spanking can also be physically dangerous. There is no safe way to hit a child, particularly a young child. Depending on where they are hit, bruising and even damage to bones and tendons can occur [3]. Even if one is attempting to hit a child in a “safe place” the child might move in the last moment so that he is struck in an unsafe place (such as the lower back, tailbone, or a major nerve, which for young children are still developing and are easily damaged). What if the child were to fall and hit his head or eye against the corner of a desk or table? A teacher may be two, or three, or even four times larger than a small child. What if the teacher overestimates his strength? What if a teacher gets carried away in the moment?

Certainly the school has policies that attempt to protect against extremities, such as recommending that teachers not “spank in anger,” and requiring that two adults be present during the procedure [4]. But the physical, emotional, and spiritual risks of spanking are not reduced by hitting “without anger.” In my experience at Briarwood the “rule of two” was never followed (I was spanked once and saw other children being spanked on at least four other occasions, and there was never a second adult present). There is no way to enforce this policy; children are unaware of it and therefore cannot report violations (or will not, if they fear additional punishment), and teachers may also be unaware of the rule, or they may not wish to enforce it on themselves.

Spanking can harm brain development. Even if no visible physical damage is done to the child’s body, being struck by an adult (or even being threatened with such aggression) causes the release of stress hormones in the brain, including cortisol. Overstimulation by adrenaline and cortisol, particularly during the rapid development that occurs at an early age, has been shown to cause brain damage, even significantly reducing the size of certain areas of the brain. Such brain damage can result in learning disabilities, behavioral problems, and an inability to empathize with others—resulting in aggressive or even violent behavior [5].

I really appreciate that you took the time to read my letter. Like you, I want the children who go through Briarwood Christian School to have a safe, happy, and productive time at school. I want teachers and the students they are responsible for to have the best relationship possible. I want school to be an experience that children look forward to, not just one they endure. Thank you for considering the ideas I put forward above. I hope they are useful in beginning (or continuing!) a dialogue about the best way to model love and respect between teachers and students.

I would be happy to speak further on this matter or to provide additional references to anyone who is interested. Thank you again for your time and consideration.

[Name]
Class of 2007

[1] Alice Park, “The Long-Term Effects of Spanking” – TIME Magazine, May 3, 2010, available here

[2] See Dr. Thomas Gordon’s Parent Effectiveness Training, ch. 9-10

[3] Jordan Riak, “Plain Talk about Spanking,” available here

[4] See Briarwood’s policy, available on their website

[5] Alice Miller, “The Political Consequences of Child Abuse,” The Journal of Psychohistory, available here

August 23, 2010 Posted by | Education, Psychology | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

One Drawback of Summer Reading Programs

My elementary school summer reading program, by paying us with points and prizes for each page we read, did not encourage us to read for enjoyment or understanding, but for volume–to “finish” a book. Perhaps that’s why I feel resistance to quitting a book, or to pausing to absorb or add to a thought, or to “not reading fast enough.” But if the point is to gain knowledge or enjoyment, rather than to process a high volume of words, why should mere speed matter? Even well-meaning summer reading programs seem to have unintended consequences.

June 30, 2010 Posted by | Education | , , , , | Leave a comment

Stefan Molyneux on Leadership

Preface

Stefan Molyneux is the founder and host of Freedomain Radio, which he describes as “the largest philosophical conversation on the planet.” Molyneux has an M.A. in History from McGill University, and he has lived in Ireland, England, South Africa, and Canada. He is a former software executive and entrepreneur who currently lives in Toronto. He quit his career in software in 2007 to run Freedomain Radio full-time.

Freedomain Radio is a podcast about philosophy—but that isn’t nearly as boring as it sounds. As Molyneux demonstrates, philosophy touches every aspect of our lives, from abstract topics in politics, economics, and religion, to more personal subjects in psychology, relationships, and parenting. In addition to the podcast series, there is a growing community of listeners who meet online to discuss the topics covered in the podcasts. In fact, the community is increasingly active “off-line,” as people meet and become friends with other listeners who live near them. In London, there is Freedomain Radio-inspired “Psychology Book Club,” which meets once a month to discuss works such as Alice Miller’s Drama of the Gifted Child and Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication. When I asked Molyneux what he thought set Freedomain Radio apart from other philosophical conversations, he said it was the combination of respect for science and rationality (without falling into determinism) with recognition of the depth and meaning of human experience (without falling into mysticism). “I think that [kind of] balance is really, really unusual in philosophy, and I think it comes out of my immense respect for science and my immense respect for psychology and the pursuit of self-knowledge…I’ve not seen anything like it out there.”

I originally discovered Freedomain Radio and Stefan Molyneux in a political discussion group on Facebook, where someone posted one of his YouTube videos. In this video, Molyneux explained that he believed the cultural and political development of society was governed largely by our individual experiences and personal relationships. His points were of particular interest to me because I had myself been speculating about the effects of self-esteem on politics and religion. Perhaps Molyneux could help me develop this line of thinking further.

After a few weeks of exploring the website and listening to some of his introductory podcasts on psychology, politics, and economics, I realized that Freedomain Radio was one of the most stimulating intellectual resources I had ever found, and I decided to become a regular listener. Since that time I have listened to all of Molyneux’s 1800+ podcasts, and I have become a regular contributor in online discussions. Last summer, I had the privilege of meeting Stefan Molyneux in Philadelphia when he debated former presidential candidate Michael Badnarik on the question: “How Much Government is Necessary?”

A few weeks ago I “sat down” with Stefan Molyneux via Skype, and we discussed his views on the topic of leadership.

Leader Background and Development

Molyneux’s training in leadership can probably be traced back to the experience of being on his high school’s debate team, where he got a good deal of practice formulating arguments and learning to ask tough questions. His experience with debating continued—although much less formally—into University, where in addition to debating fellow students he got into arguments with professors.

Molyneux credits his experiences in the business world with helping him overcome shyness. Early in life, he found most other people to generally be “overwhelming” or “intrusive,” and he didn’t have much of a desire to interact with them. Even as he became more comfortable around other people through playing sports or debating, he struggled with how to share his ideas with other people. “I always thought that I had a lot to offer, but I never thought that I could communicate in a way that would be interesting to people.” Frustrated by his ability to communicate effectively, particularly in the face of hostility toward his ideas, Molyneux slid back into shyness. But the business world turned things around for him. “If you can program really well, or if you can do a really excellent sales presentation and think on your feet, then you automatically have something of value to offer—and it’s not something as volatile or as challenging as philosophy. So in the business world, I recovered somewhat from the re-infliction of shyness that occurred for me in the academic world, where because of my political and atheistic beliefs, I ran into a lot of opposition.” He found that in the business world, where productivity and competence are usually more important than ideology, he “could relax and enjoy communicating with [people] more.” Freedomain Radio would later be forged from the synthesis of his controversial philosophy and his new-found relaxed communication style.

As an entrepreneur, he also learned the importance—and difficulty—of providing value to people in the free market. These experiences (with voluntarism and negotiation) helped to confirm his conviction that voluntary solutions for all social problems can exist in the absence of a centralized state. He also gained a greater appreciation for the amount of work it takes to create value, making him skeptical of big promises by government bureaucrats and politicians to solve the world’s problems.

By far the most important element in the development of Molyneux’s leadership abilities and style is his experience with psychotherapy. Molyneux sees self-knowledge as a prerequisite, not just to being a good leader, but to being a good person. Molyneux views “working on yourself” as training for leadership just like going to medical school or residency is training for being a doctor. Self work helps aspiring leaders to “avoid the ‘sin’ of hypocrisy and the ‘sin’ of substituting authority for the embodiment of the virtues that [they] are pursuing…Because if you don’t embody the virtues that you’re trying to motivate or inspire other people to pursue, then you end up having to manipulate them, and you end up having to bully them…and of course you end up attracting people who would respond to that kind of interaction, which is not [what] you really want when you’re trying to motivate people to genuine excellence.”

A major part of self-knowledge is gaining awareness of our own motivation—including our motivation for improving our self-knowledge or becoming leaders. Molyneux suggests that we should pursue self-knowledge in order to develop our own wisdom, virtue, and happiness. If at the end of that process we decide to use our wisdom to help others, then we can begin to think about becoming leaders. Becoming a “leader” should not be our primary goal. “Because I pursued [self-knowledge] for its own sake, I have a kind of credibility…when it comes to the steps that I think are necessary [for people to achieve happiness]—or at least the ones that worked for me, which I think can be reproduced in others.”

Self-esteem also has a role to play in good leadership. But Molyneux says it is vital that a leader not get his or her self-esteem from being a leader. If our self-esteem is tied to our relationship to other people (i.e., leading them), or based on the behavior of other people in any way, then we run the risk of having to manipulate them in order to preserve our tenuous grip on self-esteem. However, if we are confident of our worth and efficacy independently of our role as leaders, then we are more free to treat others with respect and compassion.

Leadership Perspectives

For Stefan Molyneux, leadership is about inspiring people. In his words, “the kind of leadership that I aspire to…is motivating people to excellence in virtue and excellence in self-knowledge, and I think that the ideal of leadership is self-obsolescence. You want to motivate people to replace your leadership with their own self-motivated leadership…[T]he true definition of excellence is self-knowledge, self-actualization, and philosophical wisdom.”

But “motivating people” is easier said than done. What is the best way to motivate people? In Molyneux’s formulation, motivation is about demonstration: “[T]he way that you motivate people in what I do is…as simple as putting a thin person on the cover of a diet book. You show people the results that you are trying to motivate them to achieve…you have to embody those results as best you can. And so you want to show them the “after” picture. You see on those websites “I got ripped in four weeks,” and there’s some pasty guy in a basement and some bronzed and ripped guy on a beach. You have the before and after, and everybody—prior to being motivated in the realm of wisdom or virtue—is the ‘before’ picture. I know that I was. And you have a look at the after picture, and you say, ‘Do I want that?’ The way that you motivate people is to embody the goal that you’re trying to achieve.” Molyneux believes that if we genuinely desire to help others, and if we have something of real value to offer them, then we will draw people to ourselves who are interested in what we have to offer.

Molyneux even strives to carry his theory of motivation into the realm of parenting. He wouldn’t exactly say that the goal of parenting is to “inspire children to excellence,” but he likes the idea of using what he calls “positive economics” in childrearing. He assumes that children are basically rational and want to please their parents, and that they can be motivated by encouragement and enthusiasm much more effectively and positively than by punishment and withdrawal. Molyneux has long been skeptical of traditional ideas about the need for punishing or “disciplining” children, but since becoming a father some 15 months ago, he finds the concept of “discipline” almost completely incomprehensible. “It is astonishing the degree to which children mimic their parents…Dozens of times a day I will catch [my daughter] doing something that I’m doing, or I’ll say something and she’ll echo it—even if I’m not talking to her…She’s listening to everything. She’s observing everything.” With children it seems, the “need” for punishment (or some other form of “negative economics”) actually has more to do with the behavior of the parents. “[T]he leadership that we bring to our children will, in many ways, help to determine the kind of leadership that they expect—or perhaps re-create—in their own lives as adults.” Garbage in, garbage out.

Leadership Style

In an interview with Profitable Podcaster, Molyneux said that two of the most important characteristics of effective leadership are trust and consistency. For Molyneux “trust” goes both ways. Of course leaders themselves must be trustworthy, but Molyneux also believe that leaders should demonstrate trust in the generosity and good nature of other people. One of the ways he does this is by making all of his content available without charge and relying on voluntary donations to sustain both Freedomain Radio and his personal finances.

Moral consistency is certainly a qualification for good leadership, but Molyneux strives for consistency in other areas as well. He uses his reliance on donations to help motivate himself to consistently produce stimulating material. With most people used to getting things on the Internet for free, and with the vast array of alternatives available, Molyneux knows that he must continue to provide value for his listeners, as everyone is completely free to take their “business” elsewhere.

In his everyday interactions with people, Molyneux also strives for humility. “To the degree that people would hold me in high regard or high esteem, it is absolutely essential for me to not express any kind of superiority to people. If there’s one thing that I want to get right every time I interact with people, [it] is to not give them a sense that I am hurling down tablets from on high…I really do believe that to be treated as an equal by someone who you hold in high esteem is a very empowering thing.” He recounts a story about a time when he met a particular role model of his. Much to his disappointment, he found this man (a prominent psychologist who should have known better) to be arrogant and condescending. In podcasts or listener conversations, Molyneux makes a conscious effort to remind people that he struggles with the same challenges as everyone else. He says that if he is “ahead” of anyone, it is only because he started down the road of philosophy in self-knowledge sooner, and with all the resources available today (“particularly on the web”), people should be able to replicate his successes much more quickly.

Leadership definitely has its challenges. Like any online forum, Freedomain Radio has had to deal with at least its fair share of trolls and spammers. And because of the controversial aspects of some of the ideas it addresses, a few of those trolls have not limited themselves to anonymous online encounters. But Molyneux says the biggest challenge he has faced has been learning how to “deal with a community that is inhabited by such a wide divergence of knowledge bases and skill sets and experience.” On the one hand are the people who have been in the conversation for a long time and understand the complexities of the topics discussed on the show, but on the other end of the spectrum are a lot of people who only started listening recently. And of course there is the full range of experience in between. “I want to have the online community friendly to the people who have been around for a long time, because many of them are friends. But it also has to be friendly to the people who are just starting out, and friendly to all the people in the middle.”

Summary and Conclusion

Stefan Molyneux doesn’t often think of himself as a leader. He said that’s hard to do when most of his day is spent responding to e-mails, editing and uploading files, and tinkering with computer code. The majority of his work consists of this type of “management,” rather than some kind of glorious leadership “position.” But even the more exciting aspects of his job don’t include telling other people what to do. “[F]undamentally I just aim to be a kind of lighthouse. It is a stormy sea out there that we all swim in, and I try to [help] people…see that at the end of this process—or at least as far as I’ve gotten in the path of self-knowledge and wisdom—there is some peace and some joy…” Molyneux brags a lot about his listeners: “[Y]ou people are just incredible…It’s a completely beautiful thing that there are these little meteors of light and truth hitting the world over, that are causing people to wake up to truth, to reason, to philosophy… [and] to distance themselves from superstition and from irrationality and so on. It’s an incredible thing to…be part of. I’m really proud of the good that’s being done in the world.”

March 15, 2010 Posted by | Education, Philosophy | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Environmental Conservation and Original Sin: A Personal Story

If we wish to change the world, I believe it is important to understand our motivation.

Are we motivated to help people by empathy for their suffering, or anxiety about their “problems”—or by a mixture of both? Does the existence of poverty make us feel bad because we see the humanity—the experiences, fears, and aspirations—of the billions of poor individuals around the world, empathize with them, and wish a better life for them? Or does “poverty” resonate with us because of the moral, intellectual, and emotional poverty of our own culture? If we advocate animal rights, is it really about the animals and their helplessness? Or are they a stand-in for the children we once were—for our own helplessness? Are we afraid of pollution or global warming because we feel true concern for our fellow organisms, or do we fear that our society is contaminated by an evil we cannot explain, as if the very air we breathe is toxic?

I care deeply about environmental conservation, but I must confess that I was not convinced to be an environmentalist by rational arguments. No accumulation of statistics, carefully crafted arguments, or scientific reports was necessary. I wasn’t brought around to conservation by news reports of a devastating oil spill or by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Conservation always just felt right. Even though I believe I have good evidence for my positions now, I didn’t originally accept those positions because of the evidence.

Could environmental conservation merely be a metaphor for an emotional need that I am acting out? If it is, then I am unlikely to be effective in helping to bring about significant, long-lasting change. My fervor will have more to do with me and my own anxiety than with the objective problems of the environment. In the end I will fail to achieve my stated goal because I didn’t know that I was really pursuing an entirely different goal all along. I will have used the environment as a tool for managing my own anxiety, and like any tool it will be the worse for wear—my intellectual abstractions and justifications notwithstanding.

When I was a kid, my dad and I used to visit the scrapyard or go dumpster-diving in search of raw materials for his building projects, with the maxim “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” I guess you could say this was my introduction to recycling. Thrift was a very appealing ideal to me, and I became rather obsessed with recycling and conserving “resources.”

The easiest place to act this obsession out was at school, where I was pretty bored anyway. At school I had access to a flow of resources that I could do my part to economize: school supplies. At the beginning of every school year, parents would eagerly buy their children exorbitant amounts of useless things insisted upon by supply lists issued by the school. Many times only the first few pages of a notebook would be used, and come May that scarcely-used notebook would be thrown away, along with reams of untouched paper, stacks of unused binders, and fistfuls of un-sharpened pencils. Next year the entire ritual would be repeated again.

I did my part to conserve supplies by using my own with extreme frugality. I only sharpened pencils when they really needed it, and I wrote in small print outside the margins on both sides of a sheet of paper. For a couple of years during elementary school I even ran a pencil “hospital,” where I would repair mine and my friends broken pencils and crayons. Conservation was something I could work on every day, but recycling came down to the last few days before summer. Most of the families in my neighborhood were pretty well-off, so it was not uncommon for the children in my classes to throw away just about everything in the bedlam that erupted at the summer jailbreak. I was the only person who ever had more school supplies at the end of the school year than at the beginning, because I collected the unused or reusable cast-offs from everyone else. By middle school my mom didn’t have to take me shopping for school supplies anymore—I had collected plenty of my own.
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As a child, when I thought that something I did might be an interruption to someone, or that it might risk causing damage to something, or that I could be using “inappropriate” amounts of resources (material, financial, or even emotional), I felt a high degree of anxiety. This anxiety had a lot more to do with the behavior of friends and authority figures—the people around me—than it ever did with “the environment.” In psychology, strong feelings about abstractions usually turn out to be based on intensely personal experiences, while the abstraction is merely an ex post facto justification and explanation for the emotion.

Strategies for managing my anxiety manifested themselves in introversion, meekness, thrift, and conservationism, among other behaviors and personality attributes. Throughout much of middle school and high school, I preferred solitary activities to engaging with other people. I would hold myself back from approaching someone I was interested in talking to for fear of “disturbing” them, and I avoided expressing disagreement with teachers or peers for fear of “annoying” them. Not all the time, but enough that it was an important aspect of how I interacted with others. This pattern was even evident in how I handled finances. For most of my life, I have saved much more of my money than I have spent, when given the opportunity; and I have refrained from buying some things I wanted for fear of “wasting money.” I have always been careful to “leave things as I found them,” occasionally to the point of compulsion, and I have felt an extreme degree of conscientious care for mine and others’ property.

So you can imagine how much environmental conservation resonates with me emotionally.
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There are many ways in which having a conservation-oriented lifestyle may be good. But the question for myself is the extent to which I have internalized conservation, not as something I do, but as who I am. I do not want this “conservationist” mentality to keep me from living. Nor do I want it to inhibit me from achieving my goals. When a behavior pattern becomes dysfunctional or neurotic (as conservation seemed to have become for me), the problem lies not necessarily with the behavior itself, but with the fact that I don’t have a choice over it. I want to be able to choose conservation, and to do it for reasons that take the relevant facts about human action and the environment into account. There is no pride or virtue in having conservation be an automatic reaction to something in my past.

I am not responsible for the way the world is. I did not cause the pollution, the waste, the war, the inefficiencies, or any other of the litany of social and environmental problems we face today. To take full responsibility for the destructive acts of those who came before me is to accept a kind of Original Sin. I did not make the world. I did not break it. And I am not responsible for fixing it. I want to help fix these problems, but there is no reason that the solutions must come at the expense of my own happiness. These faults are not my burden to bear.

If I am more aware of how I am affected by my history with conservationism, and of how I act in my day-to-day activities on the premise that resources are scarce, then I will have more of a choice in the extent to which I act on that premise now and in the future. Just being aware that it is a choice is a powerful first step. As a child dozens of examples of conservation (thrift in finances, protection of the environment, and meekness and submission in relationships) were modeled for me by the adults in my life. But I do not have to follow their example forever. As an adult, I can choose.

For me, “the environment” turned out to be a metaphor for my social environment and my relationship to it. I suspect this is the case for a lot of other people as well. But as I alluded to at the beginning, we do a profound disservice if we act on the pretense that we are talking about the environment, when we are really managing our own anxiety about something that is completely unrelated to the well-being of “the planet.” Now that I understand the root of my strong feelings, I can analyze the facts about the environment more objectively. I can work to make sure that when I advocate solutions to environmental problems, I am basing my solution in objective reality, that the problem I am solving is really in the environment’s present, and not in my personal past.

January 28, 2010 Posted by | Environment, Personal Reflection, Psychology | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rig Veda Creation Myth

The following is a creation myth from the Rig Veda (c. 1200-900 BCE):

Before being, before even nonbeing, there was no air, no firmament. So what breathed? And where? And by whose order? And was there water endlessly deep?

This was before death or immortality. There was no division between night and day, yet instinctively there was breathing, windless breathing and nothing else.

It was so dark that darkness was hidden in the dark. There was nothing to show water was everywhere. And the void was a cloak about the Being who sprang from heat.

Desire pierced the Being, the mind’s first seed, and wise poet saints detected in their hearts the knot of being within nonbeing,

and this rope they stretched over…what? Was there up? down? There were seed spillers and fertile powers, impulse above and energy below,

but who can really know and say it here? Where did this creation come from? The gods came later, so who can know the source?

No one knows creation’s source. It was born of itself. Or it was not. He who looks down from the ultimate heaven knows. Or maybe not.

If you read the above creation myth as a failed attempt at recording the history of the creation of the world, go back and read it again. This time think of it as a figurative description of the creation of an individual human life. Think of the process of intercourse, conception, and embryonic development.

Like so many myths, this one is about ourselves, not about the “world.”
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(Translation by Tony Barnstone and Willis Barnstone, Literatures of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1999.)

January 8, 2010 Posted by | Psychology, Religion | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The End of the Ends-Means Dichotomy

Much ado has been made about ends and means. From university-level philosophy and political science classes to the mainstream media, the question is often asked: “Do the ends justify the means?” Historically, this question has been answered in one of two ways. Utilitarians and Consequentialists such as Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and Niccolò Machiavelli have tended to justify or condemn human action based on its consequences. If the expected outcome is considered to be “good,” then the actions necessary to achieve it are good. On the other hand, deontological theorists such as Immanuel Kant have argued that some actions are right or wrong in principle, no matter the consequences.

Instead of constructing morality from the predicted consequences of human action, or attempting to derive principles of preferred behavior rationally or empirically, many religions try to base morality on assertions. The absolute “moral principles” of religion are not the kind of principles that tell doctors how to cure diseases, or that provide ecologists with a methodology for preserving threatened species. They are merely arguments from authority based on the supposed will of an alleged deity, in whose existence we are expected to believe because someone else says so.

Other philosophers have attempted to deal with the ends-means dichotomy without the teeth-gritting willpower of the argument from authority. Ayn Rand contends that the ends do not justify the means. In Rand’s view, the ends determine the means—human action is a “process of choosing a goal and taking the actions necessary to achieve it” (“Causality Versus Duty,” Philosophy: Who Needs It, p. 98). Rand recognized the contradiction inherent in Consequentialism: just because the goal is virtuous, it in no way follows that any means which are believed to help achieve it will also be virtuous. The ends and the means must be consistent. Rand writes, “The end does not justify the means. No one’s rights can be secured by the violation of the rights of others” (“The Cashing-In: The Student ‘Rebellion,’” Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, p. 256).

In the words of modern-day philosopher Stefan Molyneux, Consequentialism is an “argument from effect.” The problem with arguments from effect is that they require perfect knowledge of the results before any action can be taken. We could accomplish very little if we always had to base our actions on philosophically-derived, certain knowledge of the outcome. According to Molyneux, arguments from morality are much more powerful. We may not be able to perfectly predict the outcome of any action, but principles can guide our behavior even when we do not know the future.

An example may be helpful. If we are trying to decide whether a given government program—say welfare—is “good” or not, the argument from effect requires that we predict not only whether welfare programs will help particular individuals (which is very difficult, since some of welfare’s effects do not appear for years or even decades), but also whether welfare is a net benefit to all of society (compounding the initial problem millions of times over). Even if such a computation were possible, it would take lifetimes to complete.

By contrast, the argument from morality allows us to apply a principle (such as, “the initiation of violence is immoral”) to the question of whether welfare is “good.” Now all we have to do is determine whether the welfare programs in question involve the initiation of violence. In our analysis, we will eventually discover that government-run welfare programs are funded by the collection of taxes. Since taxes are taken from citizens against their will (coercively), and since government welfare programs require the collection of taxes, such welfare programs are only possible because of the coercion inherent in taxation. Government welfare programs are tainted by the violence of the taxes upon which they are based, and are therefore bad—even if their “expected outcome” is good.

Because of the complexities inherent in any system (but particularly in systems of human interaction), it is very difficult to predict the outcome of an action with certainty. The same forces that make weather patterns and economic trends so unpredictable are also at work in many other areas of our lives. We do not know whether treating a stranger with respect will result in a “good” outcome or a “bad” one, because we do not intimately know the details of his or her personality and history. We do not have any control over those things, but we do have control over how we behave in the interaction. Instead of guessing, we can choose to follow a principle.

If we wish to be positive change makers in the world, we have to understand that change is only made by pursuing actions consistent with our desired goals. Gandhi’s much-cited but rarely followed aphorism “Be the change you want to see in the world” captures this truth perfectly. We cannot achieve our goals by pursuing their opposites. Peace cannot be achieved through war. If we wish to see more virtue in the world, no amount of complaining, voting, or violence will get us there. We bring virtue to the world by making ourselves more virtuous—by bringing honesty and respect to our relationships with our children, parents, and friends first. As these virtues radiate through our social networks, we will find that we see the change in the world which we have committed to be.

Thus in practice, no distinction can be made between ends and means. We cannot be violent and expect the world to become peaceful. We cannot be uncaring and expect the world to become empathetic. The ends do not “justify” the means. The ends are the means. The ends which we envision today will be the means by which we seek to achieve new ends tomorrow. We achieve our goals by implementing strategies consistent with those goals. But each day, those strategies are also goals, and the steps for achieving them must be consistent as well. “Ends” and “means” are divided arbitrarily by a distinction without a difference. There are no “ends” or “means.” There is only human action, and we would do well to make the most of it.

January 7, 2010 Posted by | Philosophy | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

I Remember You

Lonely Path

I remember you
The way you giggled in the tire swing
As I pushed you
I remember

I remember you
The way your skirts fluttered in the breeze
As I chased you
I remember

I remember you
The way you hesitated on the balcony
As I kissed you
I remember

I remember you
The way your breath came softly in sleep
As I held you
I remember

I remember you
The way you promised
To love me always
I remember

March 17, 2009

January 2, 2010 Posted by | Poetry | , , , | 1 Comment

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