A numbing adaptation

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Growing up, I recall being terrified of mummies. The dried skin clinging to the shriveled body, the decayed head and bony hands. The vestiges of the embalming process present as loss wrapping hung now limply around the shrunken skeleton. Whether in a museum or book, the death and the customs surrounding the death were foreign in a terrifying way.

Recently, while wandering the halls of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History I came across a mummy. Interested, I walked over expecting the same feelings of fear and apprehension that had always accompanied close examination of a mummy. Instead, I felt nothing.

As I wandered off to look at other exhibits I wondered why this was.

In medical school we spend many hours with cadavers investigating first one organ system, then another. While the first encounter with your cadaver is cautious, even timid, indifference rapidly sets in. Every once in awhile you are stopped by the abrupt recognition of what you are working on. The details of the hands, the tightly closed mouth, the mottling of scars where previous injuries and surgeries left their mark. However, the majority of the time the face stays covered, the hands wrapped, and your focus narrows to a small area of study and dissection. The formaldehyde that once stung your nose and eyes is barely noticeable and the various textures of each organ system no longer bother you.

This is why I was no longer bothered by the mummy. Death was no longer so foreign and the embalming process not as startling.

It is interesting how the mind becomes numb and the focus becomes narrowed. In some cases we must actively avoid such numbing and narrowing whereas in others this can be a helpful adaptation, a welcome respite from more stressful pontifications and realities. Knowing which is which then becomes key.

We must care…

 

 

2016-05-07 19.10.53This is as political as this blog will get. The fact that this topic is construed as political is concerning. Somehow what is, in reality, a human and an earth problem, has been relegated to a small portion of political bickering in much of the modern world.

A bit of history. Originally there were two questions that needed answering: (1) was the earth actually warming up, in particular, at a rate that was faster than normal, global temperature variation? and (2) was human behavior responsible for such warming? The answer, obtained through rigorous and extensive research, has been a resounding yes. In fact, around 95% of scientists agree that global warming is occurring and is likely a significant problem. Getting scientific consensus, much less 95% agreement, is a challenge few other topics have achieved.

So why should we care?

If we care about human health we must care. Changes in weather will lead to, and have already begun to change and accelerate how disease is able to spread. Diseases that were once only endemic to tropical areas will spread diffusely as the globe warms. Pollution and environmental contamination has already, and will continue to cause chronic disease such as asthma and increase rates of cancer.

If we care about our countries we must care. Changes in global temperature will lead to loss of coastal and island areas. The natural resources will shift causes droughts and natural disasters which will threaten our

If we care about our neighbor we must care. The golden rule, love thy neighbor as thyself, is echoed in nearly every major religion. As a globalized world, it is no stretch to say that the best way to love our neighbor is to take care of land that we share. Although well intentioned, UN help from Nepal is what brought cholera to Haiti. Although well intentioned, missionaries to indigenous people were often the bearers of deadly disease. We must think carefully about our actions and how they will affect our neighbors, both near and far. In the developed world, most will be able to compensate for these changes and it is our neighbors in the developing world, already living with little buffer, that will suffer the hardest. If we care about “the least of these” we must care about global warming.

If we care about financial stability we must care. Hurricanes, famines, lack of natural resources, war, and chronic health problems strain and implode economic systems. Although financial stability should not be our primary motivation, we know that it is often one of the strongest motivators. If we save money for retirement, we must realize that the money is only as strong as the economic system backing it. Therefore we must invest in the environment through conservation efforts as systematically and methodically as we should our retirement accounts.

The challenge then is to do what we can now, as inconvenient as it may be, to protect the environment around us. There is hope. The majority of the world has recognized this as a problem but have yet to realize the motivation to act with anything beyond accords and empty words. If we care about human health, our nation, our neighbors, and our money we must be that motivation.

 

 

What a Journey

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Whether in science, faith, investments, or relationships you can always talk yourself out of the next thing. The next experiment. The next exercise or experience. The next trade. The next friend.

There will always be ways to convince yourself to stick to the status quo, to stay where you are, to play it safe.

It is those moments that will resound many years from now. The opportunities, the challenges, the adventures. Many years from now, instead of wondering “what if?” let us celebrate “what a journey“.

All we do not see…

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One form of chronological snobbery that I often hear, and yet am convinced is erroneous, is the condemnation of previous generations as bigoted, racist, sexist, etc with the belief that were we to live in those times we have gone about life differently.

The haunting question for us, for our generations, is “what do we not see?” In what ways are we blind. In what ways are we unintentionally ignorant and in what ways are we intentionally ignorant. Most people today believe that they would not have been racist in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s, would not be greedy if they were part of the 1% today, and would not have been against women voting at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. Although a handful may have been able to resist these tendencies, the vast majority would likely have fallen into the same pitfalls as their contemporaries had they lived at that time. The problem is that while we articulate the problems with culture at those distinct times, we find ourselves unable to honestly examine, and then change, ourselves.  

It is easy, even enjoyable, for us to notice these defects in those around us. A number of people I interact with make pointing out the bigotry bias of others a full time hobby. However the predominant concern must be for ourselves. Those who call out racism in others, point out sexism in the workplace, and heap titles like bigot upon others are certainly biased against their neighbor in less obvious ways. This is not to say to say that we should support or accept hate and bigotry for even one moment; however it is to emphasize that our responsibility is ourselves. Us. Me. You. Examining ourselves. 

The idea that change starts with us is not the call for us to be the keepers of our neighbors but rather the examiners and improvers of ourselves first, and then the encouragers and motivators of those around us.

So instead of pointing fingers and labeling racist, what if we chose to see each person as a human being with intrinsic value. What if we encouraged others to hear the stories of those so different from themselves. What if instead of calling others bigots, we looked within ourselves for ways in which cultural relativity was harbored as immovable truth in our hearts biasing us against others. What if instead of seeing the worst in those around us, we identified the worst in ourselves and strove to change. 

What if instead of standing still and wondering “what if”, we examined ourselves and encouraged others to better love our neighbor and live a greater story. 

On Honesty and Lying

2011-08-16 14.11.46Honestly, and the antithesis, lying, are simple in concept, but can become inordinately complicated to consider practically.

When children are young, it is simple and sensible to imbue them with what they take as the hard and fast principle that one should never lie. The humorous, classic example is when a child eats a candy, and when asked about whether he/she ate the candy, firmly denies it while having a face smeared with chocolate. Most people then would recognize the wrong not in eating the candy, but in lying about it. Therefore we can see that in some cases lying is wrong.  Between religions and cultures this is general principle is relatively consistent albeit with a handful of notable outliers.

However, there are cases when the majority of rationale people agree that lying is justifiable, even commendable. For example, during WWII, should the Nazis have visited your house where you were hiding Jews and inquired as to whether or not there were Jews present, most people would agree that lying is justifiable. As the Jews would likely be killed or at least tortured should you reveal their presence, most people would agree that it is in fact commendable to lie in this situation. Therefore we can see that in some cases lying is justifiable, and even right.

It would be simple then to argue then that death or severe discomfort are justifications to lie; however we quickly see that this cannot be true. Take the case of Christians, Muslims, Buddhists etc around the world that are tortured or killed for their beliefs around the world on a daily basis. Many people would agree that when asked whether they are Christians/Muslims/Buddhists etc even under pain of death, the right thing to do is to hold true to their beliefs and refuse to lie. So can a coherent framework of honesty and lying be constructed?

Love as the supreme ethic. 

We must then return to love as the supreme ethic in this case, as in all others. Neither convenience nor comfort can be the supreme ethic. Lying to avoid punishment or an uncomfortable situation is selfish and often stupid. Lying out of love for others, such as the Jews in the previous example, is done out of love at great risk to oneself, and is commendable. Love is the unifying, supreme ethic. 

Does this make every scenario clear and unquestionable? Of course not. But should we look at each scenario when we are tempted to lie through the lens of deep and self sacrificing love, the scenario and the right course of action become clearer. Am I acting out of love or fear? 

Time and Talents

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At the end of everything, when all is said and done, it will be how we allocated our time and leveraged our talents for the benefit of others that will matter.

No one is the same. People are given vastly different amounts of time. Some a handful of years, some a century or more. People are given vastly different talents. Some a large amount of skill in many areas, others struggle to master one. But everyone is given some measure of time and some meaningful talent. 

Incredible from the historical perspective is the ability to select a career, a place to live, and a place to train for that career. Therefore we must use this new opportunity, this new responsibility, to select work that uses our time and talents for the benefit of others. Interestingly, this notion does not include the criteria of selecting the occupation that makes us the most happy, but instead where, in the words of Frederick Buechner, “our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” 

Furthermore, we must do away with the notion that using our time and talents best is dependent on the vocation itself.

The United States has a grossly disproportionate number of lawyers compared with the rest of the world. The world does not need another attorney but is in desperate need of an attorney who fights for the underprivileged, the oppressed, and the destitute, taking cases not because of the profitability of the case, but because of a deep concern for justice. The world does not need another scientist, trying to publish one of the million or so articles that are published in a scientific journal each year but is in desperate need of scientists who care about studying the world around us and the bodies that sustain us to make changes not for profit or exploitation, but for healing and conservation. The world is not in need of another musician, another artist, another YouTube channel, but is in desperate need of reminders of truth in lyrics and melodies, beauty in paintings and sculptures, and challenging new perspectives seeing creative people from around the world. 

So let us use our time and our talents, whatever they may be, however large or small, to leverage them for our joy and the benefit of others.

Moving through mountains

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“Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view. Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you.”

– D. McCullough Jr.

If life was flat, monochromatic and dull, it is possible the journey would be easier, however there would be no enjoyment in overcoming challenges and no enthralling wonder looking at the world from above.

The goal is to enjoy not only the feeling of accomplishment or the view from the top, but to relish the challenge and the view all along the way. If your goal is to be a doctor you must not only enjoy the idea of having a successful practice, but must be compelled by a curiosity and wonder of the human body. If your goal is to be a runner you must not only enjoy the feeling of the race and the tape at the finish line, but must also enjoy the thousands of hours running alone without a crowd. If your goal is to be a writer you must enjoy not only the feeling of a published work in your hands, but also embrace the release that comes with organizing and creating a story on paper. If your goal is to be a scientist or academic, the love of learning, of understanding, and of finding more must far outweigh any desire for external motivations.

The love of the journey is critical not only for career but for the personal life, the relationships, the hobbies and dreams. As our society becomes goal oriented often the goal becomes the only end. However, for sustaining a pursuit of the goal, the journey itself, and the challenges therein, must be an end in and of themselves. Perhaps our goals should be processes not places, our most treasured rewards memories not money, and our trails seeking out the highest peaks, not to seek out greater accomplishments, but to see how our small path connects with a far greater world. 

If I did not have ________.

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Over pad thai with a friend, a question arouse: how would you be different, how would your life be different, if you did not have your faith? 

This question provides perspective not only on faith, but on many aspects of life including friends, careers, hobbies, and dreams. Often aspects of our life that “feel” important or key in a visceral way, are revealed as being of little import in our day to day lives while the importance of other, seemingly background activities, are highlighted as key components making up the essence of who we are.

Reflecting on this question not only reveals the aspects of our life that are important, but once this revelation occurs, also allows us to make changes, to reprioritize and redefine ourselves. Are the things we want to be important to the essence of our being the most impactful on our person? Or is the essence of our being comprised of immaterial pursuits and distractions?

A week after our pad thai, we revisited the question with new answers, and more importantly, new questions. 

The Me in MoveMEnts

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We are a people driven by movements. Whether we are looking for a feeling of belonging, pursuing a greater meaning in life, or merely looking for an entertaining pastime, we are often drawn to movements. Over the past two weeks I have noticed the refrain of “joining a movement” and “starting a movement” in every sphere of life, from the church, to politics, to charities, to advertisements for products.

Movements can bring change for the better. The movements  for civil rights and for women’s suffrage, and many others have made our world a better place.

In very few other realms of life is this pressure to join the movement as obvious as it is in sports. The chants of the crowd, the euphoria and camaraderie after a win and glum solidarity after a loss. Sports draws us in and makes us feel part of something greater, a movement. While sports are largely innocuous, other movements can become bastions of evil where individuality is lost and acts are justified in the name of the movement. In fiction this was seen in Harry Potter wherein Grindelwald justifies evil with the phrase “for the Greater good.” However this has played over and over throughout history from the holocaust and genocides to unethical business practices and seemingly small lies. At first these begin as small alienations of other people groups, but soon, as the movement becomes the ultimate goal, individuals are asked to sacrifice individuality and identity for a single ideology. Actions which would have been unthinkable as individuals become permissible and even laudable for the good of the movement.

The challenge then is this. To maintain yourself, your identity, while being part of a movement. Individuals must shape movements not movements the individuals. Then and only then will movements be for the good of people not people for the good of the movements.

The conclusion is this. Movements are powerful, useful, and alluring. Therefore, one must note the critical nature of maintaining one’s identity even within the larger movement. When all is said and done and we give an account of who we are and what we have done, it will not be as a movement, but as an individual. The movement is penultimate, the individual is ultimate. 

Resilience

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Resilience 

Success is not about short bursts of hard work. Success is achieved through a willingness to grind each and every day. Greatness is not punctuated moments of brilliance; greatness is doing your best with determination and consistency.

Be resilient. 

Success is not about the hits you take. Success is about how your respond to those hits, how you bounce back from those hits, how you use those hits to make you better. Resilience is the ability to take a hit and get back up. Not just once. Not twice. But every single day. Spend your time and effort to make changes, not excuses. Take risks, knowing failure is part of the process. But when failure hits. Always. Get. Back. Up. 

Live resiliently.