Wednesday, July 31, 2013

It's Dangerous to Make Assumptions

 Today is Wednesday, July 31, 2013. 

"In the middle of the night, when you're ambiguously ethnic, like me, when you're brown, beige, mauve, sienna, one of those lighter browns in the Crayola box. You have to be careful of the cops and robbers, because nobody's quite sure what you are, but everybody has assumptions.
  –Sherman Alexie 

 President Obama spoke about assumptions that white people make about blacks.  He mentioned hearing locks click as cars passed him on the street.  He saw women clutch their handbag a bit tighter when they were with him on an elevator.  George Zimmerman made the same kind of assumption, that Trayvon Martin was "up to no good" because he was black, wearing a hoodie, and walking around late at night.  

As Sherman Alexie wrote, above, blacks are not the only ones that white people make assumptions about.  Latinos, Native Americans and Asians routinely face this issue, as well.  It works the other way, too. Lots of folks of color assume that all whites are against them and act accordingly. 

“Assumptions are dangerous things to make," wrote Lemony Snicket (a.k.a Daniel Handler) in The Austere Academy, "and like all dangerous things to make -- bombs, for instance, or strawberry shortcake -- if you make even the tiniest mistake you can find yourself in terrible trouble. Making assumptions simply means believing things are a certain way with little or no evidence that shows you are correct, and you can see at once how this can lead to terrible trouble."

People make assumptions all the time.  Some of them stand us in good stead, while others, perhaps most others, land us in big trouble.  In schools we teach kids to make inferences, which are a kind of assumption, except that an inference is made about something on the basis of another fact that is true, or seems true, while an assumption is made without consulting the facts at all.  

For example, we see dark clouds and assume that it's probably going to rain, so we haul out our umbrella.  Whether or not it rains, we have taken steps to keep ourselves dry, if necessary.  That's a good call.

We hear a scratching noise at the door and infer that the cat wants to be let in.  We are working from the facts that 1) we have a cat, 2) the cat is outside now, and 3) the cat has made this sound before when it wanted to come in. 

We hear a door slam and assume that someone has just come home.  Depending on the time of day, that may be entirely correct, but it might also be true that someone has just left the house.  There's no way to know for sure by the sound of the door slamming, so we have to confirm our guess by calling out, "Who's there?" or calling the name of the person we think it might be. 

A friend is late meeting us for lunch, and we may assume that he or she is being inconsiderate.  It may be that the person was unavoidably tied up in traffic.  Unless we wish to make an issue of it, we may not get an explanation, so we really have no way of knowing for sure.  An inference like this could endanger the friendship if we let it fester. 

We meet a tall young man and assume that he plays basketball at the local high school.  But what if he doesn't?  We have no way of knowing.  Maybe he tried out and didn't make the team.  Maybe he doesn't care for sports at all.   We offer a conversational gambit about basketball, and depending on his reply, we will know whether we were right or not.

An Asian applies for a job that requires mathematical skill, and we assume that he's good at math, simply because he's Asian.  It may be true that a lot of Asian students are good at math, but not all of them are, so this is a dangerous inference that has just crossed the hazy line between an inference and an assumption.   If we hire the guy without checking out his credentials, we could be in for a surprise.

Our daughter brings home a young man for us to meet, and we learn that he is from a well-to-do family and has just graduated from an Ivy League school.  He is handsome and clean-cut, and we infer that he will be a good husband for our daughter.   Five years down the road, we are shocked to find that the young man is an alcoholic, can't hold a job, and is abusive to his wife, our daughter. 

There are a lot of racial and ethnic stereotypes here in the United States.

White people don't have rhythm.  All white people are racist.

African Americans are good at basketball.  They would rather be on the dole than get a job.  A young black man walking around at night wearing a hoodie is probably a drug dealer or a thief.

All Asians are geniuses and all of them know kung fu.

Hispanics are lazy and don't speak English well.  Most of them are illegal aliens who are running drugs.

Native Americans are lazy drunks who love to gamble.

Middle Easterners hate America.  All Middle Easterners are Muslim.  Muslims are terrorists.

Racial and ethnic stereotypes are big players in issues of immigration reform, gun control, and fighting crime and terrorism.  One of the problems with assumptions is that the people making them don't even realize that they are making them.  Nor do they realize that there are no facts to back up their assumptions.

Assumptions have played a huge part in our history as a nation.  European settlers in the New World assumed that the Natives were godless savages whose land could be taken because it wasn't being used for cultivation.  

Founding Fathers assumed that all or nearly all citizens of this country would be Christian, and tried to base the new government on Christian principles.  They failed to imagine that the population of the United States would grow to current levels, and that the system of representation they devised for the House of Representatives would one day cease to represent citizens accurately or fairly.

Men assumed that women were not educated enough or rational enough to vote, so they were not given the voting franchise until 144 years after the United States was formed.

Americans assumed that if alcohol were made illegal, the crime rate would go down.  Instead, it went up. 

Americans assumed that Japanese-Americans would side with Japan in World War II, so we put all of them in concentration camps, so they could be watched.

Educators have assumed that children of color and children in so-called broken homes are incapable of learning, and it has often been because of the educators' attitudes, rather than because of the children's native IQ that they have not succeeded in school. 

After September 11, 2001,  airlines began to profile people of Middle Eastern descent, or people who looked vaguely Middle Eastern.  Airport security was increased to ridiculous levels, inconveniencing all passengers.  Muslims became synonymous with terrorists in the minds of many.  

Christians, a majority in this country, have long assumed that non-Christians, agnostics and atheists are A-OK with having Christian prayers in schools and at public functions, displaying Christian symbols on public property, and celebrating Christian holidays ad nauseam.  When people finally began to speak up and say, no, they didn't actually like this stuff crammed down their throats, Christians assumed that there was some kind of "war on Christianity."  Meanwhile, true religious freedom remains an illusive dream.

Some people assume that the vast majority of Hispanics in this country are undocumented immigrants, so the police in border states tend profile citizens and make more traffic stops for persons of color.  There is a huge fight coming up in the United States Congress regarding immigration reform, and assumptions about Hispanics, in particular, are a huge part of this.

How can we avoid making assumptions?  We can recognize when our imagination starts to run wild and make a conscious effort to stop imagining negative consequences. We can check the facts, and double check.  We can check out sources of news that we are not familiar with, ones that don't  ordinarily agree with our political opinions.  We can listen carefully to our internal mental chatter and realize how much of what we think is pure speculation.  We can remind ourselves that people do grow and change, and we can allow for this.   None of us is completely innocent – we have all made assumptions at some time in our lives.  The good news is that the more aware among us are starting to realize when we're making assumptions and making a conscious effort to stop the practice.  :-/

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

What Makes You Come Alive?

Today is Tuesday, July 30, 2013. 

We need to remember who we are. 

It seems strange to think that we are not allowed to know who we truly are when we come into this life.  For many lifetimes, we are under the impression that we do know, but at some point, a certain restlessness sets in, and we wonder why we are here, and what the meaning of life is.  That's when we also start to ask, "Who am I?"  

Like a key that fits into a lock, this question, asked sincerely, opens us up to certain experiences that can give us a clue to all three questions:  Who am I?  Why am I here?  What is the meaning of life? 

A general answer can be given, but each and every one of us has to experience the answer for ourselves in order to be able to process it.  The general answer is that you are Soul, a spark of God, and you have come here, to this physical earth, to learn some things, teach some things, and grow spiritually.  Your ultimate purpose – everyone's ultimate purpose  – is to be of service to God.

If this sounds like drudgery to you, then I can guarantee that you haven't found your area of service yet, because when you do, you will realize that it is something you love to do, something you are very good at, something that excites you, challenges you, and keeps you on your toes. 

Why don't we come into this life knowing what it's all about so we don't waste so much time?  It seems that the principle here may be, "Half the fun is getting there."  We're here to learn, and we must do this on our own steam.  We learn by experience, and we are in a place where free will is possible.  Apparently, God did not mean for us to be robots.  Rather, God wants us to learn how to exercise our free will in ways that benefit all life.  God wants each of us to ask the questions for himself or herself.  That way, our free will is never taken away from us. 

Everything happens for a reason.

It takes many lifetimes for Soul to learn all of this, and yet nothing is a waste of time. Everything that happens in every single lifetime offers the potential for learning.  Slowly, we learn qualities such as patience, discrimination, detachment, humility, perseverance, tolerance, balance, and discipline.  Lifetime after lifetime, we learn what it means to give and receive absolutely unconditional love.

Each and every thing that happens in your life is an opportunity to learn something that will assist you in realizing your ultimate purpose in life.  You may not see the connection just now, but there is one.  Perhaps you just need to learn a bit more about self-discipline.  Maybe you need a crash course in humility.  Or maybe you just need to brush up on your ability to set and prioritize goals.  Whatever you are working on now will be useful to you now and in the future.

Ask yourself what makes you come alive.

The best way to discover your individual purpose in life is to figure out what interests you, what fascinates you, what makes you come alive.  When you find it, no matter what it is, go for it.  Whatever obstacles you find in your quest to achieve your goal are there for you to learn from.  

Keep in mind that the thing you do best may not be the thing that you do for a living.  It may be more of an avocation or you may think of it as an "interest" or a hobby.  If it doesn't make you any money, you may feel guilty about spending too much time on it, but you will find that when you make some of your free time available for this activity, you are refreshed and renewed, and able to do your paying job more productively. 

If you have already found what you love to do, you are very fortunate.  You may wish to take it up a notch, now.  If you haven't figured out your passion in life, start now.  Ask the questions:  Who am I?  Why am I here?  What is the meaning of life?   Then be open to the answers that you get, no matter how improbable or impossible they may seem.  Pay attention to your dreams.  Pay attention to "coincidences."  Pay attention to opportunities.   :-)

Monday, July 29, 2013

Relationships Bring About Transformation

Today is Monday, July 29, 2013.

"The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed."  –Carl Jung

This is a really perceptive comment, because it would seem that the most optimum outcome of any relationship is transformation.  Perhaps I should say, "any relationship with at least one human being," because a true relationship between a human being an an animal (usually a pet) also results in the transformation of the human.  It could probably be argued that a human being can also be transformed in some way by a "relationship" between him/herself and nature or between a human being and an inanimate object such as a computer, a creative process such as painting, or some other process such as training for Olympic competition or mastering a musical instrument.  

Let's confine ourselves to relationships between two human beings, for the purposes of today's discussion.  We can change in all kinds of ways as a result of our relationships. Not all of the changes are necessarily positive ones, however.  Some relationships harden our hearts, leave us bitter and angry, or bring out some negative quality in ourselves that we weren't previously aware of.  Actually, that last thing happens more often than we realize, and although the reaction itself is not very pretty, we at least have the opportunity to see what elements of our personality need to be addressed and healed.

We can gain wisdom not only about life and about people in general, but we can also learn a lot about ourselves in particular.  We can gain emotional maturity, a sense of discipline and responsibility, and learn to manifest any number of positive personal qualities, such as honesty, loyalty, and the ability to set goals and priorities, to compromise for the highest good, and to solve problems creatively. 

Have you ever met someone whom you loved or hated instantly, as soon as you met?  Have you ever met someone who seemed to be luminescent compared with anyone else in the crowd?  These people are probably ones you should get to know.  If the relationship turns out to be a bit rocky, it's not necessarily a sign that you shouldn't be together.  It's more likely to be a sign that you have issues to work out between you.  When the relationship has served its original purpose, it can either be allowed to end amicably or it can be re-purposed.  It depends on how aware you and the other person are about the true nature of your relationship.  :-)

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Compassion Is a Relationship Between Equals

Today is Sunday, July 28, 2013.

"Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded.  It's a relationship between equals.  Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others.  Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity." 
– Pema Chödrön

Pema Chödrön is an American woman (born Deirdre Blomfield-Brown in 1936 in New York City) who converted to Tibetan Buddhism in her mid-thirties after two failed marriages.  She had been an elementary school teacher.  She is now an ordained Buddhist nun.   She is an author and teacher in the United States and Canada.  Her books include The Wisdom of No Escape, Start Where You Are, When Things Fall Apart, The Places that Scare You, No Time to Lose, Practicing Peace in Times of War and most recently Taking the Leap - Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears.  

The dictionary defines compassion as the ability to feel what someone else is feeling, specifically suffering or sadness, but unlike mere empathy, the person has an active desire to give aid or reduce the other person's suffering.  Mother Theresa would be a good practical example of this, because not only did she feel pity for the poor and sick in India, she did something to help them, and she lived in such a way that she was actually as poor as they were.  A relationship between equals, indeed.   

There are a number of synonyms for compassion: pity, commiseration, condolence, sympathy, and empathy, but each of them has a slightly different shade of meaning.  Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes to understand how they must feel or why they are acting as they do.  It doesn't necessarily mean that the person who empathizes actually feels the same.  Sympathy is similar, but it is a feeling that you can have for someone whose situation is obviously miserable, even though you have not experienced that situation for yourself.  Pity implies tender, but sometimes contemptuous sorrow for someone who is in misery or distress.  There is an element of feeling superior to the person that one pities.  Commiseration is expressing your empathy in words.  Condolence is similar, but a bit more formal, and generally offered to someone who has lost a loved one to death.  

I think Pema really hit the nail on the head when she said that compassion is a relationship between equals. If you think about it, the most compassionate people are those who have experienced suffering for themselves, so they can recognize it in others.  Most of us become more and more compassionate in our later years.  We understand the emotional pain of a young person who has just gone through his or her first breakup because we have been in a relationship that ended.  We identify with the anxiety of a person who has lost his or her job, because we have experienced the loss of a job and the resulting financial worries.  We see ourselves in a parent whose child is very ill, a person whose aged parents are too old and infirm to care for themselves, a woman struggling to step up from the curb from the street to the sidewalk, obviously in pain, because we have had these same experiences, or similar ones,  ourselves. 

When I had cancer, the people who gave me the most support and comfort were those who had been diagnosed with cancer, themselves.  When my beloved cat, Baby, died, the people who had lost a pet were right there to comfort me.   

Interestingly enough, there are those who speak of having compassion for animals who are suffering.  If compassion is a relationship of equals, can we really call it compassion when we feel moved to reduce an animal's suffering?  We can if we consider ourselves equal to the animals in God's creation and recognize that they feel pain and fear, just as we do.  

Sometimes, all we can do is be with them, give them a hug, and let them cry or talk it out.  Sometimes there are really no words to say, and silence is the most comforting.   Often, it is listening, rather than speaking.  Just listening, without judgment, without advice, without telling them to stop crying. 

Notice in all of these pictures, the two people are sitting or squatting down.  Compassion is not something you do on the run.  It's something you have to stop and make time for.  It's a one-on-one activity.  It requires proximity and human touch.  

Think of all the tough times that you have been through.  Who comforted you?  Who listened to you?  Who showed the most compassion?   Then think of people that you know who are suffering in some way.  How have your tough times helped you to feel compassion for the other person?  How did your sense of compassion compel you to act?   

Pema Chödrön, Tibetan Buddhist nun
Some people have noticed that the "imperfect" nature of this world we live in is actually a perfect classroom for Souls to learn how to extend compassion for one another, because we have a chance to experience pain, sorrow, loss and grief in our own lives.  Without this personal experience, we can't really extend compassion to others.  

You may not be able to solve another person's problem for them, but you can still be there.  You can listen.  You can give them a hug.  You can offer to take the weight off their shoulders for a little while as they struggle to get through a miserable situation.  In this way, you serve the Creator even as you serve others.  :-)

Saturday, July 27, 2013

"Unfriending" People

Today is Saturday, July 27, 2013.

"The less you respond to rude, critical, argumentative people, the more peaceful your life will become."   -Author unknown

It's true, whether you are attending a party, sitting in a meeting, or participating on social media, you can limit the amount of stress caused by discord in your life if you will only stop responding to people who don't know how to stop arguing.   Recently, three of my friends have found it necessary to "unfriend" someone on Facebook because the person simply would not stop arguing, and their comments were not only negative, but also rude, insulting, or even racist.   All three people felt that badly about crossing the person off their lists.  (The person who was unfriended was different in each case.) 

Why do we allow people to argue with us, ad nauseam?

Educated folks like to think of themselves as open-minded, and because of this, they are OK with allowing others to present their opinions in their homes and on their Facebook pages.  Generally speaking, this is a good thing.  The problem is when one person keeps on arguing until (ideally, anyway,) everyone in the room or on the discussion thread agrees with him.   These people seem to think that if they can just manage to explain their ideas clearly, other people will come over to their way of thinking, given the supreme logic of their argument.  Often, they will accuse those who oppose them of not understanding.  I don't know about you, but I've been guilty of this, myself, a few times.  

Some people feel that it's important to "fight the good fight" and "stand up for their beliefs," which is all well and good, but for every belief you argue for, someone will argue against it, and for every side you take in an argument, someone will take the other side.  Some people just want to be free to say what they like, which is also well and good, but it's worth asking ourselves what this actually accomplishes.  When we are stating our opinion, aren't we really just starting an argument?  Aren't we really trying to convince others to see things the way we do?  If we really believe we aren't trying to convince others, then wouldn't it be just as well to keep our opinions to ourselves? 

Whenever there is controversy, "the facts" are not the only things to consider. People differ in their interpretation of the facts, or in their conclusions based on the facts.  They also carry with them prior attitudes, beliefs, and opinions, with which they judge the facts.  Rarely do two people see the same thing in the very same way.  People form their own conclusions, and it is actually very rare for a person to stay "on the fence" for very long. Most people don't change their minds during arguments, either.  When we engage in an argument, it is very rare for a person to actually "win" the argument.  What usually happens is that one person talks until the others get tired of him (or her) and walk away, or just stop responding.  People generally come away from arguments even more set in their beliefs than before. 

All of this makes life pretty stressful every four years here in the United States, where political campaigns rev up over a year before election time.  These days, politics isn't the only thing we argue about.  We also take sides on social issues, civil rights issues, gun control, healthcare, the economy, immigration reform, and science.   These days, the arguments have spilled out of our living rooms, meeting rooms, and bars, to social media on the Internet.  When we can't walk away physically, we "unfriend" people in self defense.  

I guess it beats shooting them in cold blood.  :-/

Friday, July 26, 2013

A Garden of Thoughts

Today is Friday, July 26, 2013. 

I've written about thoughts being like seeds before, but maybe not from the garden angle.  If you scatter seeds on the ground, some may grow, but most will not.  There's an element of planning and conscious effort in getting seeds to grow.  The seeds have to be healthy, and they have to be planted in a climate where they will get the amount of sunlight and rain, and the right temperature and humidity that they need to grow.  If nature doesn't provide enough rain, then the garden needs to be watered.  If the soil doesn't have enough nutrients for the plants, it needs to be enriched with fertilizer or compost.  If there are too many rocks in the soil, they have to be removed, and clumps of dirt have to be broken up.  If there are too many pests eating the leaves, we have to think of a way to get rid of them.  If weeds start to grow, we have to pull them out by the roots so they won't grow back. 

If thoughts are like flower seeds, then we must recognize which of our thoughts are healthy and which are not.  Some of my healthy thoughts include:  I am a child of God.  I have a right to be here.  God loves me.  I am unique.  I am better than some folks at some things, and not as good as some folks at other things.  I have strengths and weaknesses.  My weaknesses can be overcome.  I'm OK. 

Our thoughts, like seeds, have to be planted in the right place and in the right climate.  This was especially true  when I wanted to change my thinking habits about my weight.  I wanted to lose weight, so I started with the positive thought that I am fully capable of losing weight, since I've done it before.  I had a bunch of pictures of myself at my heaviest hanging around, but I realized that was only going to reinforce a thought that I am fat.  So I got rid of those pictures.  Instead, I dug up some of myself at my goal weight.  Now I had some images to strive for.  I "prepared the soil," so to speak, for my thought that I am capable of losing weight, as well as other positive thoughts to that end.

I changed my living space to make it easier for thoughts of being at a healthy weight .  One thing I was doing was eating too many convenience foods.  I needed to do more cooking from scratch.  I re-arranged my kitchen so that I had more counter space to prepare food, since nothing puts me off cooking like a cluttered kitchen.  I cleaned out my fridge and decided to use the drawers for water or bottled tea, since I tend to forget fresh food is in the drawers and then it sits there until it s spoils.  The fresh food goes on the shelves.  

I'm trying to work on the "weeds," but it's hard.  These are thoughts that crop up when I'm tired or when I have eaten a bit too much for the day.  I feel like quitting my diet and just pigging out.  Sometimes I just look at myself in the mirror and think, "Oh, what's the use?  I'm only getting older."   Or I look at the way clothes fit on my body, now that I've had a mastectomy, and think, "You're never going to look good in anything again, no matter how much weight you lose."   Thoughts like these slip in all the time, and have to be rooted out, one by one.  Sometimes I try to do a kind of "stop-action" command, then I imagine the thought as a photograph that disintegrates into dust in a plain white field, then I blow the dust away.  Sometimes I imagine that the thought is a balloon, and I pop it with a pin.   The point is that as soon as I do these little visualizations, the "weed" thoughts no longer have power over me.

What seeds have you planted in your "thought garden"?  How do you nurture your "thought seeds"?   How do you get rid of the "weeds" in your garden?   :-)

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Worry Is a Misuse of Imagination

Today is Thursday, July 25, 2013. 

"Worry is a misuse of imagination." – Dan Zadra

 At first blush, worry and imagination don't seem to have a lot in common, but if you look up the definition of worry, you realize that it is "negative thoughts,  images and emotions about some anticipated threat.   The key word is "anticipated," which means the perceived threat is some time in the future.  

What is imagination?  It is the act or power of forming a mental image of something not immediately present to the senses or something that has never before existed in reality.   The key here is "not immediately present."  If what we imagine does come to exist, it will do so in the future.   

Worry and imagination have several things in common, then.  For one thing, they are both mental activities.  Secondly, they are both rooted mainly in visual images.  Finally, whatever is being worried about or imagined does not exist in the present time.  In fact, the thing we are worrying about or imagining need never exist at all. 

It is said that at least 85% of the things we worry about never actually come true.  The things that do come true, in my experience, are never quite as bad as I had anticipated.   I've spent plenty of time worrying, believe me.  

When I was very young, I worried that I would never get married.  Because of this, I ended up marrying my first boyfriend.  I won't call it a "mistake," because I find that I learned a great deal about myself, about society in general, and about relationships.  Because I married a man from Japan, I got a very rare chance to experience Japanese culture "from the inside," so to speak.  I also learned a great deal from the divorce process about myself and my ability to solve my own problems. 

When I moved from Oregon, where I had taught Japanese at the high school level but had been let go because I lacked a formal certification to teach the language, I worried that I wouldn't be able to find a place to live or get into the University of Minnesota to earn postbaccalaureate teaching certification.  It was a lengthy process, and I had to depend on my parents for financial support, and I spent much of that time as poor as a church mouse, but I did manage to get the certification, picking up a Master of Education degree, as well, with certification in both Japanese language and English-as-a-Second-Language.  

I got a job teaching Japanese, too, but left it after a short time for reasons that I have written about in a previous post.  Then I worried that I would never get another teaching job again.  That worry didn't materialize, either, although it did take a couple of months.  Months, you say?  In the present economy, some people spend years looking for another job!  I was incredibly lucky, because St. Paul Public Schools was still looking for ESL teachers after the school year started.

Later, I ran into financial difficulties, and worried that I would never get out of debt.  I beat that rap, too, although it did take several years, and when I finished, I had a long list of things that I had done without, including new glasses (my vision was beginning to get jumpy), a bridge for my teeth (I just left a hole in my mouth for a couple of years), hearing aids (mine got old, pooped out, and could not longer be fixed), and a computer (old one crashed).  I had been paying so much money through the debt management people that when I was all paid up, I was able to buy all of these things in cash, without ever using my credit card.  Amazing.   And I had money left over to move, lock, stock and barrel to South Dakota. 

I can't say I didn't worry about death when I had cancer, and later, when I was lying in the hospital with two big pulmonary embolisms, but both times I was way more worried about not being able to finish up my life than I was about the actual process of death or what might come next.  Obviously, since I'm sitting here writing this, those worries never materialized, either. 

Lately, I've been worrying about money again, since I have medical bills to pay as a result of my car accident in Florida, but it appears that these worries will be mostly unfounded, as well.  I just got a call from the insurance adjuster this afternoon.  

What else is there to worry about?  Nothing, really, but trust me, I'll think of something.  :-/

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Is It Necessary to Be Religious to Be Moral?

Today is Wednesday, July 24, 2013.

"You don't need religion to have morals.  If you can't determine right from wrong, then you lack empathy, not religion."  – Unknown

A while back I wrote about a lady who was going to be denied the right to apply for U.S. Citizenship because she stated that she was an atheist, even though she also stated that she had a belief in ethics.  The government later allowed her to become a citizen.  The other day I saw this graphic and quote on Facebook, and began to think about that whole issue once again.  

A lot of people equate religion with morality, but a great many of these same people believe that only their own religion provides a sense of morality.  They don't necessarily think that followers of other religions are capable of being moral.  

Some people say that when followers of a religion behave morally out of fear not going to heaven or fear of having to come back into physical incarnation, it isn't really a true sense of morality.  They point out that we should do the right thing because it is right, not simply to avoid punishment.

What is morality, anyway?  Morals are beliefs regarding how people conduct themselves in personal relationships and in society.  In other words, it has to do with how we treat other people or how we act in relation to others.  There's always a distinction made between "good" and "bad" behavior.  One of the problems is that what is considered moral behavior differs from culture to culture, and from religion to religion, or even from sect to sect within one religion.  

Samuel Butler wrote, "Morality is the custom of one's country and the current feeling of one's peers.  Cannibalism is moral in a cannibal country." In Brazil, there is no legal ban on incest: an uncle may have sex with his niece or an aunt with her nephew, as long as they are both over 14 and have a health check first.  I don't really know if they consider it "moral" or not, but most countries tend to establish legal consequences for acts that are considered immoral.

In certain sects of the Mormon religion, it is considered moral for a man to marry more than one woman.  In Amish communities, it is considered immoral to serve in the armed forces, or to marry outside their religion.  In some sects of Christianity, drinking alcohol is considered immoral, while in others drinking occasionally, and always in moderation, is OK.  In societies where strict forms of Islam are enforced, it is immoral for even a husband and wife to walk down the street holding hands in public.  In places where Buddhism is practiced, the intentions of the person are always considered when deciding if an act is moral or immoral.  In India, where Hinduism is practiced, it turns out that there are different moral codes for people in different castes.  And since a number of religions are practiced in India, there are separate divorce laws for Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, and Zoroastrians (Parsees).

Christopher Hitchens wrote, "We keep on being told that religion, whatever its imperfections, at least instills morality. On every side, there is conclusive evidence that the contrary is the case and that faith causes people to be more mean, more selfish, and perhaps above all, more stupid."   Researcher Gregory S. Paul wrote about this issue in an article for the Journal of Religion and Society.  He cited studies that indicated high rates of religiosity were correlated with "higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion in the prosperous democracies."  In fact, the studies that have been done don't seem to indicate any consistent correlation between religion and morality, at least where "morality" is tied to the rate of crime, something that can actually be measured. 

OK, so what is empathy?  Empathy is defined as the ability to put ourselves in another person's shoes in such a way that we can understand and the other person's feelings, desires, ideas and actions.  Ronald E. Riggio, Ph.D. has described three separate types of empathy.  The first type is "perspective-taking," essentially the definition of empathy that I wrote at the beginning of this paragraph.  Riggio seems to think that we can do this without actually experiencing the other person's feelings, but merely cognitively understanding the other's feelings, or maybe simply understanding their point of view.

The second type is "personal distress" – actually feeling the emotions of the other person.  Riggio seems to limit this type of empathy to negative emotions, but I believe people can also be extremely happy for others, as well, so I'm not sure I buy the "distress" label.  It's true, though, that we generally speak of empathy more often in terms of understanding and identifying with negative emotions rather than positive ones.

Riggio's third type is "empathic concern," where you can recognize the other's emotional state but don't necessarily participate in it.  He says this is the sense in which former President Clinton once said, "I feel your pain," when talking to a constituent.

If morality deals with our interactions with other people and empathy is our ability to understand how people feel, then it stands to reason that you would need empathy in order to be moral.  In other words, you would know right from wrong in terms of whether or not you have hurt someone - either physically or emotionally.  It is conceivable, then, that if a person followed a practice of "do no harm," his or her behavior would be considered moral by most people, regardless of whether he is religious, atheist, or agnostic.   My only concern with that, having lived in a "foreign" culture for a decade, is that our being able to put ourselves in another person's shoes is heavily influenced by the culture we grew up in.  It's one thing to put yourself in the place of another whose culture you share.  It's a little harder to understand how a person from another culture will feel.

If a person lived his or her life with the aim of being helpful to others (over and above doing no harm), then his or her behavior would be considered moral, too, wouldn't it?   I'm not so sure.  It depends on what you mean by being helpful.  Are people who shoot doctors at abortion clinics committing a moral act?  Are people in Muslim countries who stone an adulteress to death or put her in prison for reporting that she was raped behaving morally?   Are people who take land from others by force because they believe it is their destiny to live there being moral?  (I'm not only thinking of European settlers taking land away from American Indians, but also Jewish settlers taking land away from Palestinians.) 

I'm not saying that religious people are all immoral, but I am saying that not all religious people are automatically moral.  There's a difference.  If you're talking about crime rates, the statistics certainly seem to bear this out.  It may be that prisons have a lot of inmates with no particular religion, but it's also true that there are lots of people who profess one religion or another in our jails.   

I would submit a sense of empathy, or the ability to put oneself into another's position, is probably a key ingredient in any system of morality, irrespective of religion.  But I also think that it's not enough to be able to understand the feelings of others.  We have to be able to act on those feelings.  :-)

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Thoughts on Detroit's Financial Collapse

Photo credit; Jeff Kowalsky/Bloomberg
Detroit firefighters leave an abandoned house 
after putting out a fire.
Today is Tuesday, July 23, 2013. 

Detroit has filed for bankruptcy, but a judge now says that's unconstitutional, at least, as far as the Michigan state constitution is concerned.  Is that because cities are supposed to be "too big to fail"?  

In December 2010, banking analyst Meredith Whitney predicted in an interview on he CBS program 60 Minutes that between 50 and 100 counties, cities and towns in the U.S. would have "significant municipal bond defaults."   Her timeline was a little off, since she predicted that this would happen in the year 2011, but given that Detroit has now decided to declare Chapter 11 bankruptcy, it would seem that Whitney may have been right, after all.

Here are 25 facts about the Motor City, taken from this article on a web page called The Economic Collapse.  I don't normally go in for "the sky is falling" routines, but each of these facts has a link to a story where the fact was reported.  You can check the links for yourself in the original article.  I'm reprinting the 25 facts here, with my own commentary.  

--> 1) At this point, the city of Detroit owes money to more than 100,000 creditors.

2) Detroit is facing $20 billion in debt and unfunded liabilities. That breaks down to more than $25,000 per resident.

3) Back in 1960, the city of Detroit actually had the highest per-capita income in the entire nation.

4) In 1950, there were about 296,000 manufacturing jobs in Detroit. Today, there are less than 27,000.

5) Between December 2000 and December 2010, 48 percent of the manufacturing jobs in the state of Michigan were lost.

6) There are lots of houses available for sale in Detroit right now for $500 or less.

7) At this point, there are approximately 78,000 abandoned homes in the city.

8) About one-third of Detroit's 140 square miles is either vacant or derelict.

9) An astounding 47 percent of the residents of the city of Detroit are functionally illiterate.

10) Less than half of the residents of Detroit over the age of 16 are working at this point.

11) If you can believe it, 60 percent of all children in the city of Detroit are living in poverty.

12) Detroit was once the fourth-largest city in the United States, but over the past 60 years the population of Detroit has fallen by 63 percent.

13) The city of Detroit is now very heavily dependent on the tax revenue it pulls in from the casinos in the city. Right now, Detroit is bringing in about 11 million dollars a month in tax revenue from the casinos.

14) There are 70 "Superfund" hazardous waste sites in Detroit.

15) 40 percent of the street lights do not work.

16) Only about a third of the ambulances are running.

17) Some ambulances in the city of Detroit have been used for so long that they have more than 250,000 miles on them.

18) Two-thirds of the parks in the city of Detroit have been permanently closed down since 2008.

19) The size of the police force in Detroit has been cut by about 40 percent over the past decade.

20) When you call the police in Detroit, it takes them an average of 58 minutes to respond.

21) Due to budget cutbacks, most police stations in Detroit are now closed to the public for 16 hours a day.

22) The violent crime rate in Detroit is five times higher than the national average.

23) The murder rate in Detroit is 11 times higher than it is in New York City.

24) Today, police solve less than 10 percent of the crimes that are committed in Detroit.

25) Crime has gotten so bad in Detroit that even the police are telling people to "enter Detroit at your own risk".

Doesn't sound like a very good place to live, does it?  Or even visit.   

Detroit has always been the home of the automobile industry in the U.S. and considering that the auto industry has been bailed out not once, but twice (remember Lee Iacocca, the CEO of Chrysler asking Congress for a bailout back in 1979?), we should have been able to see this coming.   

Detroit isn't the first municipality to file for bankruptcy.  It's just the biggest.... so far.  Other places that have filed for Chapter 9 include Stockton, CA,  Jefferson County, AL, and Harrisburg, PA.  In some cases, it wasn't the city itself, but smaller entities, such as utility authorities, that went under.  In Omaha, NE, for instance, ten "sanitary districts" have filed for Chapter 9 since 2010. 

It's not necessarily the end of the world, however.  Several smaller cities who filed for Chapter 9 assistance have already struggled back into the black, but it has taken a lot of time.  Official who have been through the process say that state intervention programs tend to be retroactive, and that state officials have to wait for cities or counties to ask for help.   Understandably, cities are uncomfortable with "outsiders" coming in to take over the controls, no matter how badly the locals might have bungled the finances.  One thing that has gotten some cities into trouble is promising generous retirement packages.  "We should be real careful about making promises that won’t come due for 30 years," says  Robert Stout, who served as finance director for the city of Vallejo, CA, back in 2008, when it declared bankruptcy. 

The cit of Flint, MI, is subject to Michigan Public Act 72, which allows the state to appoint an emergency financial manager for struggling cities.  Dwayne Walling, the mayor of Flint, says that states should reform laws governing relationships between municipalities and labor unions.

What happens when a municipality goes bankrupt?  Cost-cutting measures are put into place,  which usually means that firefighting, garbage collection and library branches will feel the pinch.  The city or county can also try to increase revenue by raising taxes. Usually, it's a combination of both.  Whatever happens, local politicians and a responsive citizenry will need to work together to restore their community to financial health.   :-/

Monday, July 22, 2013

Take a Sad Song and Make It Better

Photo credit: ABC News / AP Photo / Brennan Linsley
Today is Monday, July 22, 2013.

Saturday was the one-year anniversary of the horrific theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, where a madman walked into a packed movie theater during the midnight showing of the latest Batman film was in progress.  Twelve people died in the shooting, and 70 were injured, including Eugene Han, who was shot in the hip and knee, and Kristin Davis, who sustained injuries in the course of getting out of the theater.  Han and Davis had been childhood friends starting in the fourth grade, and had begun dating about two years before the shooting.  Han says he had thought about proposing to his girlfriend before the shooting, but hadn't yet got around to it.  Nine months later, he knew he had to propose, "because you don't know what's going to happen after tomorrow."  He asked Davis what she would think of marrying on the anniversary of the shooting. 

It took Davis about 30 minutes to decide.   She was worried about taking a sad anniversary and making it into a good day, but then realized that it was the right course of action.  "That way we can make good memories and start a new chapter of our lives rather than allowing this memory from a year ago to stick with us every single year," she explained.   Their wedding was attended by friends who were also survivors of the theater shooting, thereby giving their friends something good to think about on that day.

I think they did the right thing.  If we allow a terrible memory to mar our lives every year, we get stuck in the past.  I doubt that these young people will ever totally forget the shooting, but they have taken steps to put it into context in relation to the rest of their lives.   In the words of the famous Beatles tune, "Take a sad song and make it better. 

I wish them well on their life journey.  :-)

Sunday, July 21, 2013

History from Another Perspective

Today is Sunday, July 21, 2013

Perspective matters.  History is written by the victors, always from their perspective, but it is worthwhile for us to know about the history of the United States from the perspective of the Native Americans who were here first.   It's not a pretty story, unfortunately. 

When Europeans got to the New World, there were anywhere from 15 to 50 million inhabitants. It's hard to estimate, but in general the figure has been revised upwards in recent years.  They spoke around 1,000 different languages.  They lived in relatively small groups with leaders that inherited their position or were elected.   Modern DNA research says that the Native American population was likely at an all-time high around 5,000 years ago.

The Native American population quickly shrank by about half, following European contact 500 years ago.  At first, diseases such as influenza, smallpox and the plague, brought by the Spanish explorers and English settlers wiped out whole communities.  It is estimated that tribes lost anywhere from 50-90% of their populations from these diseases, alone.  In Massachusetts, 96% of the local Indians died.  In later years, their numbers were reduced by wars, forced relocation, and enforced poverty.

In 1850, then President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, which relegated all Indian tribes to land west of the Mississippi River, specifically Oklahoma, which was then known as "Indian Territory."  Within a span of 10 years, 70,000 Indian followed the Trail of Tears.  Many of them died along the way from starvation and exhaustion.   Among the five tribes that agreed to move west were the Cherokee, who lost 3,000 of their people, and that was only the ones who died along the way. 

The Indians had been promised help with their move, and they were told that the land west of the river would be theirs to use as they wished, but the settlers from Europe needed more land, and in 1862, President Lincoln signed the Homestead Act, which allowed individuals and their families to claim 160 acres of land and own it after living on it and cultivating it for five years.  This was only the first of several Homestead Acts.  Soon, it became bothersome for the U.S. government to engage in treaties with separate tribes of Indians, so the treaty system was abandoned, and the goal of the government became assimilation of the Indians into white culture and religion, namely Christianity. 

In 1876, after the Battle of Little Bighorn, commonly known as Custer's Last Stand, whites were outraged by the death of Custer, a popular Civil War hero.  The Black Hills, land that was and is sacred to the Indians, was placed outside the Indian reservations and opened to white settlement.  Why?  For the same reason that the United States annexed California: gold. 

In 1889, under pressure from white settlers and the railroad companies, President Harrison opened the land in Oklahoma that had been promised to the Indians, and the tribes that resided there were pressured into signing agreements allowing white settlement.  

With the goal of "civilizing" the Indians and assimilating them, Indian kids were forced to go to boarding schools, where they were harshly punished for speaking their native languages.  The goal was to obliterate native culture by not allowing adults to teach spiritual and cultural practices to their kids.  Native American spiritual practices and ceremonies were declared illegal.  

Indians were the last group to attain full U.S. citizenship, and the last to be granted the right to vote.  Today about 76% of all Native Americans do not live on reservations.  The ones who do are among the poorest people in our country.  

A few years ago, PBS made a series of five programs illustrating history from the Native American perspective, called, "We Shall Remain."  The series consists of five 90-minute episodes, all narrated by Benjamin Bratt.  "After the Mayflower" begins in the 1620s, showing how the Wampanoag and New England settlers coexist for nearly 50 years until war breaks out.  In "Tecumseh's Vision," the Shawnee leader and his brother try to unite native peoples to resist the U.S. government in the early 1800s.  "Trail of Tears"tells how the Cherokee nation opposes being forced out of its lands, taking the case to the Supreme Court.  "Geronimo" tells the story of the controversial Apache warrior who fought the government for several decades before surrendering in 1886.  In the final episode, "Wounded Knee," American Indian activists engage in a 71-day siege in 1973 to publicize their grievances.   You can still order the DVD here.  :-)

Saturday, July 20, 2013

More Thoughts on the Zimmerman Trial

Today is Saturday, July 20, 2013. 

I have some more thoughts about the Zimmerman trial, now that more information has come to light in the aftermath of the verdict.   Like a great many other people, I wondered how it was possible for the jury to render a verdict of "not guilty" in this case, since Trayvon Martin is obviously dead, and it was George Zimmerman's gun that killed him. 

Above you will find a comparison between the instructions given to the jury on the left and generic instructions that would have been given if Florida did not have it's infamous "Stand Your Ground" law in place.   If you read the instructions (click on the image to enlarge it), you see that the jury was not asked to decide whether Zimmerman was guilty.  Basically, all they had to decide was whether they thought Zimmerman believed that it was necessary to shoot Trayvon Martin in order to avoid "great bodily harm" or death. Since Zimmerman chose not to testify, the jury was not able to hear him make any statements of his own accord about how he felt that night.  In other words, the jury was asked to make a supposition about his state of mind, according to circumstantial evidence and statements made by the witnesses who testified. 

In all the trials I've seen or heard about, the only person who can establish a defendant's state of mind is the defendant, himself, unless there is a psychologist who is willing to testify, based on conversations with the defendant.  I've even seen judges instruct the jury to disregard witness statements that have to do with the defendant's state of mind. Now, all of a sudden, the defendant's state of mind is the only thing that matters in his guilt or innocence.

As far as facts in the case go, all the defense had to establish was that Zimmerman had a right to be where he was that night and that he was was not in the process of committing a crime.  Since the defense never actually mentioned the "Stand Your Ground" law, they didn't have to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Zimmerman thought his life was in danger.  They knew that the jury instructions would reflect the "Stand Your Ground" law.

*** *** *** *** ***

There have been some amazing comments in the media and all over the Internet, not the least of which was President Obama's recent statement that he could have been gunned down just like Trayvon Martin.  

"Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago," said President Obama, addressing the "context" of the case. "In the African- American community at least, there's a lot of pain around what happened here. I think it's important to recognize that the African- American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn't go away." 

President Obama spoke for over 15 minutes in a surprise visit to the White House briefing room.  He reminded us that the everyday experiences of African Americans and the way they are routinely treated by white people have an emotional impact on the way they interpret the incident itself, the late arrest, the trial, and the verdict in the case.   The president also acknowledged statistics that show African American males are disproportionately involved in violent crime, and that Trayvon Martin's likelihood of being shot by a black man was actually higher than that of being shot by a person of any other race.  

"There are very few African-American men in this country who haven't had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me.  There are very few African-American men who haven't had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me, at least [it did] before I was a senator. There are very few African-Americans who haven't had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often," Obama said. 

Very powerful words, indeed, when a man who has risen to the highest political office in the land has had experiences such as these.

President Obama reiterated that law enforcement in this country is a state and local affair, not a federal one, but he did outline some things that might be done to avoid another situation like this.  Specifically, he suggested that there be more training for state and local law enforcement on the issue of racial profiling and taking a closer look at "Stand Your Ground" legislation.   He also urged Americans to find ways to bolster African American boys and give them "pathways and avenues to succeed."  He suggested that all Americans do some soul searching to determine whether they are truly judging others "not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."

Referring to the fact that Trayvon Martin was also in a place that he had a right to be (staying with his dad) and that he was not in the process of committing any crime, the president asked whether (if he were of age) Martin, also, had the right to stand his ground, considering that he was being followed by an unknown man in a vehicle.   It's a question that others have also asked, recently.  Do people of color also have the right to stand their ground?  Do they have the right to shoot people when they feel threatened, even though no harm is actually committed? 

*** *** *** *** ***

Another set of comments has been going around the web.   These are comments made predominantly by white people.  Many of these comments begin, "I am not Trayvon Martin."   In their comments, these people give voice to a recognition of white privilege that has heretofore been understood but rarely mentioned in so many words.  Young people, in particular, are doing a lot of soul-searching over the manner of Trayvon Martin's death.  Hopefully, these young people will be proactive in teaching their children not to abuse white privilege, and in finding ways to level the playing field for all persons of color in this country.  :-/

Friday, July 19, 2013

Minimum Wage Woes, Part 2: Real McBudgets

Today is Friday, July 19, 2013.

The other day, CNN Money published an article in which they reminded readers of the recent McDonald's budget flap. The fast food giant showed a generic budget on their website for employees, with advice on how to live on minimum wage.  Like others, I took issue with this generic budget in a recent blog post, which you can read here

CNN Money decided to interview some real McDonald's employees to find out how they live on their McSalary. 

Devonte is working toward an Associate's Degree in criminal justice.  He is 21 years old and works in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  He works only 25 hours a week, for a total of $525 per month, and has no second job (unless you count studying for a degree a second job – I would.)  He lives with his mother and sister to cut down on living expenses.   His tuition at school is $180 per month, of which he can pay only half.  The school is allowing him to pay less while he is still taking classes, but when he finishes his coursework next semester, the bill will come due, and he's worried about paying up.  

Since he lives at home, his expenses fall mostly in the "other" category, including $40 per month for contact lenses, $50 per month on clothes, and $300 per month on food.  (You will recall that food expenses were left out of the McDonald's sample budget.) 

Christopher is trying to raise two kids on $7.50 an hour.  He makes $1000 a month, which means he works at least 34 hours a week.  He has no second job.  He pays $500 monthly rent, and spends $290 monthly for cab and bus fare.  His kids go to a school that does not provide buses, which is why he has to pay for cab or bus fare to get them to school.  He has no health insurance, and he pays about $100 a month on prescription medications.  (I wonder what they would cost him if he had insurance?)

McDonald's estimated a heating cost of $0 in their generic budget, but Christopher, who lives in Detroit, Michigan, where winters are very cold, pays $45 a month for this.  He pays $55 a month for his phone, and $45 for electricity.  He pays $100 a month on childcare. 

His older son is as big as a professional basketball player, with size 13 shoes.  Christopher pays a lot to keep him in clothing, which he constantly outgrows, and to keep his son's hair cut neatly. 

Basically, Christopher spends about $750 more than he earns each month.  I have no idea how he accomplishes this. 

Kyle makes only $415 per month, and he gives half his paycheck to his daughter's mother.  He keeps his food costs down by eating at McDonald's, which – by all accounts – is not a healthy thing to do.  He struggles to pay for gas for his car and the car insurance bills.  He says he borrows money from friends and family to get by. The article gave no information about how old he is or where he lives.  His picture shows a fairly young man. 

Tyree has worked for McDonald's for 21 years.  He works at two separate McDonald's restaurants in Chicago for a total of only $610 a month.  He pays $320 monthly rent, $56 a month for bus fare, $26 a month for health insurance, $135 a month for cable TV and phone.  He lists "other" expenses as costing $700 a month, which is more than his income.  (Keep in mind that McDonald's failed to include a category for food in its sample budget.)  Besides food, Tyree has to pay for prescription drugs.  

Despite research that shows that adult males make up only 27.5% of the minimum-wage workforce, all four of the workers interviewed for the article were male.  (Adult women make up 48.5%, teenage girls make up 14%, and teenage boys make up only 10% of the minimum-wage workforce total.)  Statistics show that 75% of minimum-wage workers are white, 19.3% are black and 2.6% are Asian.  3.1% are unaccounted for in the statistics I saw, but I would bet they are Native American, Alaska Natives and Pacific Islanders.   In spite of this, all four workers interviewed for this article are black.  I would say that the article tends to reinforce the stereotype of the black male as minimum-wage earner.   :-/