Boo. You.

Boo!

Not scared?  You will be, by the end of this story.

YOU should be scared because this is all about you.  It’s all about WHO YOU ARE.

You see, once you know who you are, you will also know who you aren’t.

Let’s start off easy.  And since this is Halloween, let’s start off imagining that you are chained to a classic rack of the Inquisition.  Scared yet?

First off, as your Inquisitor, I will clip your long fingernails.  Now I’ll give you a nice manicure.  Look at those fingernail clippings.  Are they you?  Are you they?

Of course not!  You are not your fingernail clippings!  You don’t care if they go or come, do you?  And look at how nice your fingernails look!

Is the nail polish dry?  Good.  Let’s go to step two.  I’m now pulling out all your fingernails.  The whole thing.  Don’t worry.  It won’t hurt.  Much.  I’ll wait for the crying to stop before we continue.

Now, here are your fingernails in a box.  Here are your fingers, without any nails.  A bit bloody, but that will heal.  Are YOU still YOU?  Probably.  People will recognize you.  You can sign your name on checks and play with your smart phone.

Can you guess what step three is?  Step four?  Do I need to elaborate?  I hope not.  If I remove your hands, your feet, your arms, your legs, and so on, when do you stop being you?  If you were to be deprived of everything except your brain, and if we knew how to keep your brain alive and even still be able to communicate with you, would that be you?

A story was written a long time ago about this very sort of thought experiment, called “Johnny got his gun.”  It was meant to be a statement against war, but it serves equally well as a question about where YOU end, and the rest of your body begins.

The next time you’re clipping your fingernails, think about what would happen if the nail clippers suddenly became possessed and began clipping away at your body, out of control.  At what point would they have stopped clipping body, and started clipping you?

Boo!

 

Humility Helps

“Oh! why should the spirit of mortal be proud?”

So begins Abraham Lincoln’s favorite poem.  It’s all about mortality, and poetically reminds us that our time on this Earth is short.  Many act as if they are immortal, yet all of them eventually return to dust.

Why was it that Abe had to remind himself of this fact?  Certainly he already knew this.  Being surrounded by the Civil War must also have been a constant reminder as to everyone’s eventual end.  And he was the first President to start receiving actual death threats (as far as I know).  So what’s with the poem?

Another way to ask this same question is why don’t modern politicians and leaders remind themselves of the same thing?  How many actually acknowledge their mortality, not only in words, but in deeds?  The newest pope comes close, by the way.  Why does admitting their own mortality matter for leadership?

Because the sin of pride distorts your world in your favor, and increases the distance between your view of reality and the rest of us.

If you are proud enough you expect to have a 747 at your beck and call.  You expect to live in a palace with a staff of 100.  You expect a legion of photographers to follow your every move.  And the more you come to expect these things as normal, the more likely you are to make decisions that reinforce your reality.

Do small airplanes get in the way of your 747?  Tell them all to stop flying wherever you fly.  Are the parks around your palace looking dingy?  Ask the government for a few million to tidy them up.  Are the paparazzi getting a bit too close?  Ask for laws to keep them at bay, or decide you’re above the law and do whatever you want to mislead them – like speeding.

But if you’re serious about making great decisions and seeing the world as the rest of us, then mortal, be not proud.

Don’t be afraid of your public, take a regular flight from Washington to Chicago in the economy seats.  Palace park has litter?  Go pick it up yourself!  Paparazzi want your pictures?  Give it to them, and stand there till they get bored.  Heck, hire some yourself and make some money yourself.  Better yet, lead a modest, quiet regular life and bore them to exhaustion.  If you really want them to go away, that is.

Abe was humble because he wanted to be the best leader possible.  He knew he was smart and powerful, he didn’t need sycophants for that.  But he also knew he had to understand, to the best of his ability, what the world looked like for ordinary Americans.

He may have been afraid that fateful night when he went to the theater.  He certainly knew he had enemies and crazy people threatening him.  But he also knew that he could not live in fear, not if he wanted to be a great leader.  Especially when his country needed a great leader the most.

I like to think that Abe would still go to the theater that night, even if he knew what was going to happen.  And to me, that is the greatest attribute of leadership – humility and the loss of fear.

Thank you Mr. Lincoln.

 

Impact of an 8 year old

Saturday, yesterday, at noon, here in my peaceful little village in the middle of Ohio, a little boy was killed by a car.  We don’t know the details, yet, but they don’t matter.

We do know is his family was crossing the street.  A car driven by a sixty-something hit the entire family; all of them went to hospital.  As of this writing his is the only death.

The 12th of July should have been a memorable day for him because he probably got ice cream, saw the water falls, and probably enjoyed seeing many of the dogs and people walking about.  The village was different from his home in Virginia, and perhaps he would remember us as he grew into a young man, a man with a family, a career, and the possibility of helping humanity into the future.

The title of this essay is deliberately harsh, because the impact of that car has caused this little boy to impact my life, and through me, perhaps, some of you.  It’s my fervent hope that his life does not end with a short obituary and a few tears.  It’s my dream that events like this create a greater impact within ourselves, and our society.

I dream of a day when every tragedy causes us to pause, appreciate each other, and be thankful for the simple things in life.  I dream of a day when every tragedy becomes a new incentive to learn, and improve ourselves and our society.  And I dream of a day when tragedies like this are only known through ancient history.

We must be careful not to over-react.  Was the family paying attention and following the rules of the road?  Was the driver competent and was the car in proper working order.  If something did fail, what was it and how can we prevent such events like these in the future?

This little boy’s memories of our village have been erased.  But his memory becomes part of ours.  Even as I write this, I’m also reading about children whose memory is being erased in Syria, Gaza, Irag, Afghanistan, and other places.  Will our society ever grow to the point where those lives are also mourned?

Or will their impact be lost?

 

 

Silencing your Genes

Suicide, a willful decision a living entity makes to end their own life.  The very word elicits a shudder from every normal person, and for those who have been touched by it, a deep feeling of sadness.  But to study and understand people, society, and life in general, we must move beyond our personal feelings and think about what suicide means.

Suicide means that someone, something, that is alive chooses to not be alive.  What happens when a soldier chooses to participate in a dangerous mission and never returns?  We call such missions suicide missions because that is what they represent.  What happens when an organization is disbanded?  In a sense, while it is together, that organization is alive.  Suddenly it no longer exists, whether through bankruptcy, ineptitude, or some other form of life-altering event.  What happens if someone decides that they never want to have children?  In this sense, their ‘life’ as represented by their genes will cease to exist.  Their unique genetic signature will die, because it is only through offspring that such information is preserved.

In all these cases, a choice has been made in which ‘death’ may not be in the form that we are most familiar.  That soldier’s suicide mission may not result in physical death, but a mental collapse from which there is no recovery.  That business that was purchased by another no longer exists in the same form, even though its products and name may continue.  And that person who is capable of reproduction has decided, willfully, to not have children.  Though their body may live to a ripe old age, their genes will not be passed on.  This is genetic death.

Choosing not to reproduce is a choice.  It deals with the same forces of life and death for the individual as it does for the family.  There are great joys that come with creating a new human being.  And there are great pains as well.  Our Western Civilization has seen a great reduction in reproduction, possibly because the apparent cost of children is rising while the benefits are decreasing.

Balancing great forces of life within ourselves, and making a choice.  As unbiased students of behavior, we should be impartial and non-judgemental.  But we should acknowledge at least one bias;

Life is nice.

 

Suicide as Behavior

We don’t want to think about it, exercising free will upon ourselves in such a way as to end our lives must be discussed.  It happens all too frequently today, and usually distresses everyone around the ‘victim.’

One of the reasons it’s difficult to discuss is that we don’t want to admit that everyone considers suicide as an option.  The good news is that very few people consider it as a viable option.  It’s considered, and then it’s gone.  Because it’s a deep dark thought, we never have to admit it.  Yet evidence of its familiarity are all around us.  Shakespeare perhaps said it best (of course) as Hamlet considers whether he should be or not.  However, consider this.  How many children have considered running away from home, away from the repressive regime represented by their parent?  How many parents have heard the tearful teenage admonition, “you’ll miss me when I’m gone!”?

The thoughts are there, always to some degree.  In some minds the dark forces are stronger than in yours, and for that we are thankful.  It’s our job as students to try and tease out the forces that push the decision one way or the other, no matter how ugly they may be.

And in this fashion, the simple lessons of primal biology give us the greatest insight.  For it may be that the choice of suicide is one of avoiding pain.  In fact, it could be argued that most of the decisions we make everyday are to avoid pain.

Yes, suicide is painful.  No matter how we would choose to do so, there will be some fear factor in its execution, and fear equals pain.  Furthermore, we are human, and we have relationships with others.  We know that our choice will bring pain to those we care about.  Add up all this pain, and we have a sum representing the force of life.

Life.  For most of us, life is mostly joy.  But for some, life is mostly pain.  In truth, life is a mix of both.  Sources of pain are pressures from our peers, parents, and teachers.  We have homework, social obligations, possibly a job, a family, and a huge project.  Perhaps we don’t have a job, and we want one.  There is the great divide between where we want to be and where we are, even after years of toil.  Add to this our knowledge that all these sources of pain may increase over time.  The sum of all these sources of pain, added up across time, becomes the force of death.

Then we choose.  The easier the tools are to find, the more accepted the choice is within society, then the more likely we are to choose death over life.

As students of behavior, it’s difficult to truly say we study this phenomenon with impartiality.  But we must try.  And as we study, we realize that suicide does not only come in one size, or in one form.  For that we must step back, and consider the balance of forces on yet another scale.

The scale of a generation.

 

Dark Side of Free Will

Every power and right carries threat and responsibility.

As students of behavior, and with a rudimentary knowledge of philosophy, we can identify a power that only people seem to possess; something called free will.

As a great power, we revel in it throughout our childhood.  Our first car, our first experience away from home, our first great financial decision are all empowering actions that declare “I have free will!”

There is a terrible downside to free will, one that is touched upon all too seldom because of its terror.  And for those of you who tremble easily, you’ll be forgiven for closing this page and visiting again next week.

This terror exists in every being that possesses free will.  It lives in you, and for that reason you will be afraid.

This terror is what we call suicide.  It is the decision of an individual with free will, exercising that free will in such a way as to end their life.

As students of behavior we must commit ourselves to an impartial, unbiased, and evenly balanced study of all things that behave.  Suicide is one of those things, and we must study it.  This next series will touch upon suicide in many forms, not only the form in which you know it best, and fear it most.

Through these articles I have come to meet many of you, and know some of you have been touched by these dark forces.  I extend my condolences.  Many years ago a cousin decided to take her life, at such a young age, and it still pains me to this day.  I have some understanding of the forces that were acting upon her, but can never know exactly what went through her mind in those final days.

To her I have not ceased thinking about what she did, and what it may reveal about myself, society, and life in general.  Here are those thoughts in a few short essays.

For KM.

 

Civil War Wonders

The American Civil war was our bloodiest and ugliest contest, a distinction our short history should not soon forget.  It is an American trait to be fascinated with this period of our time, and to learn as much as we can about a period in which over a half million Americans fought each other over the concepts of self-rule, federalism, and self-determination.  It wasn’t land or riches for which we fought, but a way of life for our society.

A friend and I had a gentle go-around many of the “what-ifs” that surround this history.  He argued that McClellan saved many lives by NOT fighting as fiercely and Lincoln wanted.  I argued that he may have saved his own life, and that of some of his men from an early death.  However, he also gave the South time to mobilize and entrench further, as a result it took far more Northern resources to vanquish them.  In other words, had McClellan struck quickly, decisively, and with conviction, he may have lost his army, but he may have won the war and saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

We will never know.  That’s the problem with history, it’s already happened and there’s no back button.  However, as students of behavior, we are entitled and expected to reenact the war in order to test our theories.

Consider this.  If the body has an infection, isn’t it best to root out the cause before it’s had a chance to settle into hard-to-reach areas?  We all know that an infection that settles in the lungs can result in a lengthy hospital stay, but if you catch it early a few pills of antibiotics are all you need.

Consider this as well.  If you were to meet an adversary on the street, would it be better to show them fear and condescend at first?  Or is it best to put on an air of bravado, matching their own threatening posture, and showing them that any potential move of theirs can be matched by an equal or greater reaction of yours?

History has shown, time and time again, that the latter is always the winning strategy.  As students we must be wise enough to learn from history, and to understand that behavior manifests itself in many forms.  This is why those who study military strategy, tactics, and theory are also students of behavior.  In many ways they are the highest form of our discipline, because what they study is at the very heart of the purpose of our discipline; survival.

So, to all those who serve and also serve to teach us,

We salute you.  Thank you for your service.

 

Time Travel

Reading is fun.  It expands our lives, putting us into the mind of the writer, seeing her world, thinking her thoughts.

Reading is time travel.  The technology of writing and translation allows us to inhabit the mind of someone who lived long ago.  The people and events she describes are long gone, the actors dead.  Yet they live as inked thoughts, springing to life as our eyes light upon the page.  My favorites are the works of Homer (any translation is good, but Fagels has done a brilliant job) and many of the translated fragments we have from ancient Egypt.  I’m skipping through Miriam Lichtheim’s “Ancient Egyptian Literature” at the moment.

One of the fun things about time traveling like this is that we realize there are so many behaviors that are similar to what we do today.  Is this so strange?  Are we not the same people?  Men chasing women, thinking of them as property to be mounted.  People in power looking for even greater glory, or being bested by an underling using intrigue and guile.  The excitement and gore of war, and the joy of feasts.

There is also a dark side to time travel; we can see how people are not quite the same.  For instance, women were treated more roughly than today.  Captured people became slaves.  Life was cheap, so that murder was considered acceptable.  And the darkest side of all is the treatment of children, for they were considered something less valuable than even a slave.

We don’t time travel as much as we used to, there is so much other fantasy and fiction to keep us occupied.  Even entertainment having the trappings of history is mostly concerned with sex and gore, sure to get great ratings.  But the true beauty of visiting a long-dead soul are learning to see the world through their eyes.

I’m going to talk time-travel over the next few weeks, but this trip is going to be on the dark side.  Be ready to look at people who committed atrocities thousands of years ago, yet were considered good people.  Through them, we will see that there are people even today that we consider good, who will someday be known to be committing atrocities.

Time travel.  Not for the weak of heart.

See you next week.

 

Ask a sponge

A wonderful, wispy, weaving friend of ours is a lover of music.  She organizes chamber music concerts in our area featuring local students and professors of the best music schools in the area.  These are world class performances that we get to enjoy intimately, in fabulous homes with home-cooked goodies afterwards.  We also get to mingle with the performers, enthusiastic young people who are devoted to their art.

It’s fun talking with them, but at the same time there is the ever-present shadow of their fate hanging above them.  For their chosen field is intensely competitive.  To be sure, any of them could end up in the orchestra of a small city, but to become a world-class musician is to meet competition so lofty that most of us can’t even imagine.  That wonderfully happy person I’m talking with today is very likely going to have a crushed future.  They will not end up in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, or going on a world operatic tour.  They will probably end up working as a music teacher by day, and in a small city’s orchestra on the weekend.

Part of me wants to hug them and wish them well.  Another part wishes that our world was a safer place that could hug all of them.  Why can’t our society be one that guarantees all the pretty good musicians a spot in a decent orchestra?  All the orchestras would be more average, but can the average concert-goer tell the difference?  I don’t think I could.  Why do we have to put hundreds of talented young artists through such hell, just so one might rise to the world stage and fame?

Here’s where our sponge comes in.  All life is an answer to a question; you only have to know how to ask the question and where to look.  The sponge is an animal that plays it safe.  It doesn’t go out of its way to explore the world, it lets the world take its babies wherever the current carries it.  It doesn’t fight to get better, it doesn’t work to learn, and it doesn’t go in for a lot of experimentation.  The sponge, every single one of them, is happy simply sitting on the bottom of the ocean.

Is this a bad thing?  Of course not.  Does it help the sponge survive?  It must, because they’ve been around a whole lot longer than people.  But does it allow the sponge to grow and thrive and push the boundaries of its existence?  And here the answer is no.

Those young people who dream of making a dent in the world must be allowed to try to the best of their ability.  Almost all of them will crash and burn, but it is their choice.  And in that attempt, they are also helping to carry the rest of humanity with them.  It is your choice to dream, to hope, to dare, and to fail.  Watching them fail is not tragic.  Taking away their chance to fail, that is the tragedy.

You, me, we, humanity, needs to grow.

Prepare to be squeezed!

 

Detroit decline

There was another story about the slow demise of Detroit, though this time it was in the context of how the Detroit Symphony Orchestra has fought back from the brink of disaster, with help from the suburbs.  Does the relative success of the DSO mean that Detroit city will also climb back to its former glory?

Sadly, no.  The story itself, reported incompletely as it was, touched upon the real reasons why Detroit will fail.  Not only Detroit, but many other older US cities that suffer the same structural defect.

As students of behavior, we must look upon the political entity we call City as a form of living thing.  And we must know how all cities are constructed, politically speaking.  The most successful cities, both here and abroad, are those that have become their own political kingdom.  Essentially, they are their own state.  Manhattan is one.  Columbus is another.  Shanghai, Paris, many others follow this formula.  In this way the city managers have greater resources to use for planning and execution of grand plans.

Not so for Detroit.  Poor Detroit, and many other US cities that were created in the 1800s, have many political entities to deal with.  Detroit is in serious problems because the “inner city” is desolate, without jobs or decent infrastructure.  The “suburbs” are in fact different political entities – they are not Detroit.  Yet, for you and me, when we look at the map, we are quite happy to call the entire thing Detroit.

And so should they.  The suburbs should be absorbed.  The larger metropolitan area should become its own county.  The suburbs have enjoyed the benefits of the city without having to shoulder their share of the burden, and now they are reaping the rewards of their neglect.

But will they?  This is the fun part of being an impartial student, a scientist.  Part of me wants them to succeed, and I know exactly how they should proceed to succeed.  Follow other successful examples.  But will they?  Can all those entrenched politicians and small suburbs commit political suicide for the greater good?

The bets are on!