Empathy Over Entertainment, Compassion Over Consumption, and Love Over Luxury

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As we reflect on the rise and fall of great empires of the past, numerous markers of a declining society have been proposed. While some of these markers are almost certainly innocuous, others may be the harbinger of a failing civilization. Although we may be caught up in chronologic snobbery, the erroneous perception that we at this end of history are more advanced and above the problems of the past, we should be wary of considering our civilization insulated from the incessant ebb and flow of great civilizations of the past.

One marker thought to be a harbinger of the end of the greatness of a nation or civilization is a fascination and obsession with entertainment. As we look back at the great empires of the past, they began with what we could call grit-the willingness of the people to sacrifice, to work, to build, and to suffer, believing that they could become something great. As the empire became something great often the members of the empire lost this grit, instead prioritizing comfort and entertainment over persistent work and a willingness to sacrifice. Whether this prioritization was the cause or simply accompanied the failing of the empire could be debated, however we must recognize that essentially no great empire of history has gone without a period (as short as it may have been) of luxury and decadence, before the often rapid decline and decimation of that civilization.

In a day of the globalized economy and the rapid recognition that truly no man or nation is an island unto itself, and in light of the fact that a large portion of the world’s population lives in historically unprecedented wealth and health, we should be wary of the changing of the tides of greatness as these affect every member of planet earth. Particularly in the developed work, there is an obsession with entertainment and luxury. This is not to say that there are not many people working to become better and to better those around them, but it is to emphasize that the amount of time and money that we (as the developed world) spend on entertainment through TV, video games, books, sports, games, and a host of other activities is unprecedented and rapidly escalating. More people than ever are hoping to make a living utilizing one aspect or another of the entertainment industry whether that be in music, TV, YouTube, or the plethora of other platforms available. This trend is troubling and is only getting worse.

The hope is this. Many of the platforms by which we entertain ourselves with frivolous consumption can be leveraged for much greater benefits in education, in developing new technology, and in relating to one another in more diverse yet intimate ways. It is to this end that we must strive. Both to keep the grit that pushed us to advance, as well as to leverage our advantages for the good of our knowledge and benefit of all people.   When we choose empathy over entertainment, compassion over consumption, and love over luxury, that is when we will have found true, sustainable greatness personally and societally. 

Special (pt1: a small part of nature)

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From a scientific point of view, the ’specialness’ of the human species means very little. We are one of but a vast array of species who have only arisen in the last blink of earth’s existence.  As we gaze at the galaxies surrounding us and focus on the proteins and cells within us, we realize that we are but a small part of our universe composed of the same tiny molecules that compose everything else around us. A small part of something big, made up of the same materials that surround us.

Physicist Richard Feynman said Science is a way of trying not to fool yourself. The principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”

We should not fool ourselves in thinking that we are more, or less, than the world that surrounds us, perhaps not in a religious sense, but in a sense of the interdependence and the sharing of a mutual habitat. We are not special in our level of consciousness, our love for other members of our species, or our ability to work hard. Technology has given us a tremendous advantage as well as a tremendous responsibility to use our tools for good. No species can change and mold the environment around it to the extent that human beings can. Therefore it is our responsibility as impactful, but not special, members of this planet we share to modify our habitat in a manner which benefits all, not just some.

Real and Genuine

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Over the past several days I have been going back back and forth with a researcher in a nearby lab over what is “real” or relevant in the systems that we study. In short, are the high doses of chemicals we give our cells in culture relatable to the conditions that those cells would see in a healthy or diseased individual? Unfortunately, the answer is often no. While this is a problem that has plagued basic biological science and biomedical research for decades, it should also spark a similar question for each of us as we study life through the lense of the camera.
More than any other time in the past, we spend a large amount of time taking in and digesting information from a screen. The information and entertainment that comes through that screen has been carefully sculpted to convey a message and change our perceptions. This is not to raise conspiracy theories or become an alarmist, but rather to point out that what we see on TV and the movies actually colors how we see the world around us. In some cases the message is accurate; however, in others the message is not. So the question to consider is this: Is what I see on the screen relatable back to life? We must pick “systems” and entertainment that communicate truth. The damaging effects of dishonest depictions of life are easy to see around us:  violence played out on streets and playgrounds as learned from videogames; a selfish view of love and sex as learned from movies and pornography; a lifestyle of consumerism motivated by an endless stream of ads; a need to appear fake as all we see are smiles and successes on social media. This is the struggle in life: to pick out the real from the fake, the genuine from the forgery.  

Meaning and making marks

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Often when faced with the ephemeral nature of life, people express the desire to ‘leave a mark’.

 

Perhaps our desire, our joy should not be in the futile quest for permanence, but in the impressions we leave on those around us. Those who are just as fleeting and ephemeral as ourselves, yet who have all the same fears, dreams, hopes, and yearnings.

 

Our journey is short and our mark light.

On this adventure of life, may our goal be to journey well, as curious and gracious sojourners. May we value personal interaction over distraction,  intimacy over accolades, and strive to fully devote ourselves to loving and learning.

 

Composing and comprised of

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“Science takes things apart to see how they work; religion puts things together to see what they mean.”

 

-Rabbi Sacks

 

In general, the approach of science has been to take things apart in order to understand how each part works. Tissues and cells are taken out of the body and studied in isolated systems. Even specific proteins are extracted from cells to study how they interact with individual proteins outside of any outside interference. Data is compiled and then analyzed from many angles to try and delineate meaning.

 

True, some fields such as epidemiology study large systems, but even in these fields the basic line of reasoning has been to take apart complicated systems and organisms to isolate and study individual elements.

 

Perhaps the most concerning implication of this approach is the underlying premise that an organism, including people, are only the sum of their parts.

 

Conversely, the general approach of religion has been holistic, inclusive, and focused on the system or whole organism. The closest that most faiths have to investigating the components making up to the individual is to speak vaguely and generally about the “essence” of an individual, such as that making up the spirit or soul.

 

Perhaps the most concerning implication of this approach is the seeming indifference to the role components making up a system.

 

Perhaps this is why both faith and science are important: providing a varied approach to understanding who we are, what we are, and why we are here. Alone scientific or religious explanation is inadequate. Accepted as complementary, they can become a powerful tool for understanding our place in the universe.

 

To provide an example, consider a car. We must be concerned both with the components and the car in its entirety to get a good understanding of the purpose and capabilities of the car. Components tell us how the brakes facilitate stopping of the car, how the accelerator is tied to increasing speed, and how the steering wheel moves the front tires. However the components cannot tell us how it will feel to drive the car or much about the inventor of the car. For an understanding of these, they require personal experience behind the wheel and an interaction with the inventor. As J. Lennox reasons, one cannot say that either Henry Ford or the combustion engine are responsible for the car; rather both Henry Ford and the combustion engine are responsible for the car.

 

Using faith and science in tandem as powerful mechanisms of pursuing truth, we can better understand our role and our place in the grand scope of the universe and the astounding adventure of human life.

Of Men and Microbe

Of Men and Microbe

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Classic biology teaching had been that we are outnumbered on the cell for cell basis 10:1 by bacteria. Certainly bacteria, especially the microbiome of the gastrointestinal system, are an important component of the body needed for homeostatic maintenance of health and prevention of disease. However a recent article published in the journal Cell (Sender et al. 2016) presented the finding that the ratio is much closer to 1:1. In the words of the authors:

 

“The B/H (bacterial to human) ratio is actually close enough to one, so that each defecation event…may flip the ratio to favor human cells over bacteria.”
Interesting in it’s own right, this also demonstrates the importance of revisting “old”, accepted principles as new technology and techniques come about. The beauty of science is a progression and building of knowledge in which even old ideas and concepts can be challenged for a better understanding of truth.

 

References cited

Sender, R., Fuchs, S. and Milo, R. Are We Really Vastly Outnumbered? Revisiting the Ratio of Bacterial to Host Cells in Humans. Cell 164, 337-340.

About This Blog

“Every sentence I utter must be understood not as an affirmation, but as a question.”

Niels Bohr

 

The pursuit of the correct questions is the meaning of life. One which we cannot seemingly perfect and can barely even optimize in our limited time on this planet. Whether laboratory science, religious experience, personal emotions, and logical contemplation are all methods by which we try to ask, and answer, the questions of life.
This is the grand adventure in which we find ourselves. A place to ask question, ponder truth, and share in every moment.

 

This is the purpose of this blog. A space to think . To write. To ponder. To adventure together. To share life with.

Love, an end and means

IMG_0674.JPGIt’s 2am. Looking out at the skyscape of Toronto from the top floor of a high rise. Lights fill the sky even at this late or early hour. There’s a healthy bustle of cars and pedestrians navigating the streets below. Looking at the mass of lights, the emanating energy, the towering monuments to human ingenuity it is difficult not to feel impressed, even untouchable. In this isolate glass box at the top of the world it is easy to imagine the scene below is one of peaceful utopia, with everyone living out the American, or in this case Canadian, dream. But as soon as you put feet on the ground, rub shoulders with the passers by, it becomes impossible to miss the angst, the anxiety, and the fear lacing every conversation and every hurried step. Fear that we won’t accomplish enough to earn a sense of value; Fear that we, the real we, will be rejected by those who mean the most to us. Fear that just around the next bend of life our health, our job, our finances, or our relationships will crumble. “Insurance” is a farce in that only a minute amount of what we value can be replaced through monetary exchange. True insurance, or rather assurance, can be found only in love.

 

Love says we are in this together, dependent on one another. Love says I give of myself for you, choosing you above all else. Love says I acknowledge you, your flaws and fears, and welcome them. Love invites full revelation and exploration. Love, true love says I believe in who you are and who you will become; I accept who you are and who you will become. Love says I am willing to be hurt with you and to be hurt by you. I am willing to struggle with you, I am willing to fight with you and fight for you. Love says laughs, celebrates, and enjoys. Love says I don’t want anything else if I can’t have you first.

 

Rightly, money, fame, and success may provide opportunities to show affection and love to others but can never be permitted to become the object of love themselves. Everyday life is dominated by demagogues, catering to the accepted, the popular, the tide of public opinion for the purpose of gaining money, fame, and success. Love rejects this notion, choosing a person to stick with, to stick by, to celebrate with, and to support. Love is both a means to an end and the end in and of itself.