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.


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.


Big girls, big confidence

One of the many good things that comes of writing like this is getting to see who is out there, reading our few words.  To “big girl” I can only say you have inspired this particular observation.

Confidence.  Who are we?  More importantly, who are we with respect to the rest of the world?  Who are our peers?

A few of us are very lucky in that confidence is something we are both born with (genetics) and something our families nurture within us (environment).

Some of us, however, may have the double negative double whammy.  It may be because of our weight, our speech, our eyes, or something else.  We weren’t born with it; and our families didn’t even try to nurture it.  What’s important is that we face these fears head on.  As students of behavior we have to create our own confidence.  We have to trust our own hearts, our own minds, and love ourselves for what we are.

So many of us have parents who put us down.  It may be that it’s being done unintentionally, in a loving fashion.  It’s also likely that to an outside observer, these put-downs would be considered inconsequential.  But for so many women, the slightest gesture from their mother crushes whatever happiness that held in that moment.

For you who are put down by your parents, love them for who they are, but don’t feel bad about avoiding them for what they do to you.  For today, in this universe, you are the most important being.  And you are connected to everyone else.  Owe to them the same courtesy you expect from others.

As students of behavior, think about confidence as you would any other feature of your physical body.  What does it really mean?  Is it possible to understand confidence to the point where we can both have and not have it?  How much of it relies upon our peers and popularity?  Is it possible for someone who is truly alone to be confident?

Let me know your thoughts!

Halloween Boos

As a fan of the dark side of life, I’ve always found Halloween an opportunity to reveal our hidden psyche. Not only Halloween, but all forms of celebration related to Death. These include All Hallow’s Eve, Day of the Dead, and even the wide variety of funeral and internment rites from around the world. All of them bring us face to face with the fact that our personal reality, everything we know and love, will someday become meaningless.

Our religions do their best to restore that meaning, telling us that death is a door leading to another chapter. Perhaps. That’s a discussion for another day. For today, it’s our visit with Death that reveals the most about our behavior, and not only you and me as individuals, but as a society.

Halloween has gone global, and people from all cultures have embraced the role-playing party-going festivities Halloween provides. In the US, we culture children to beg for candy. There was a time when mischief was expected, in the form of toilet paper in trees, soap on windows, and perhaps an errant egg or two. But the fun-loving Death-themed festivities have caught our imagination.

For you and me, Halloween mean different things. There’s a good chance you will use it as a chance to have fun, dressing up as something silly, scary, sexy, or a combination of these. You’ll have fun, act out in some way, preferably with friends watching, and eventually call it a night.

But what does Halloween tell us about behavior? What can the great picture of how our world deals with Dia de los Muertos reveal about our inner soul? A great deal, as we shall soon reveal.

A few decades ago, Halloween was a way to have fun by confronting Death. Blood, corpses, and ghosts were the norm, and a tinge of fear creating thrilling chills was enough to keep young children at bay, and teenagers occupied. The smallest children were kept away as the night’s events were considered too horrific. And the adult population – starting at 18 back then – found the entire episode too childish to care.

Childish? Halloween? To adults back in the 1930s and 40s, Death was real enough. There was a good chance your family knew of someone who had died in war, or of poverty, or in an accident. Our world didn’t have the same safety regulations, medicines, or even the same amount of world peace we enjoy today. To those adults, death was already a neighbor, they didn’t need any reminders.

Skip ahead to today. Death is no longer a neighbor, but seems to be a distant cousin who will visit someday. Someday, but not for a very long time. Not only that, but we will see him coming. Hardly anyone today, relatively speaking, dies unexpectedly any more. When it does happen, we’re surprised, and lament their passing all the more.

With Death so far away, what does an adult do? Forget the Grim Reaper exists. Find another excuse to party. Include the baby, dressed up like a pumpkin. The teenager can be a vampire, and the wife and I will go to a party as superheros, animals, or whatever suits our fancy.

And that, Gentle Reader, is our revelation. We as adults, and as a society, have forgotten that Death still lives nearby. We may treat him as a distant cousin, but he always sits at our elbow. Pretending he’s not there doesn’t make him go away. And the best evidence for this is our changing attitudes towards Halloween.

Is this so bad?” you say. “So what?” you wonder. Why does it matter how we consider Death? It means little to how we live, doesn’t it?

Our attitude towards Death lies at the very root of our culture, and is exactly the center of how we live each day. Our American ancestors came from established countries to a New World, not knowing what to expect. The first frontiersmen pushed West without knowing what lay beyond. Their means were meager, their only incentives were a better life for their family, and they had Death at their heels the whole time. They weren’t afraid to take risks.

Today it’s exactly the opposite. We’ll get arrested for not using seat belts or smoking the wrong kind of leaf. we have to carry identifications almost all the time and tacitly accept surveillance of almost everything we do. Finally, and perhaps most personally, we can’t eat something unless it’s in a cold package with a valid expiration date. And we certainly can’t touch anything without continuously dousing our hands in alcohol.

Halloween was a time when we had a little fun acknowledging and confronting our true fear of Death. We’ve lost that. Death is something we ignore, using this precious day as an excuse to dress up and drink.

We have become a culture, a country, a world of frightened children. Taking risks is what building a better world is all about, and who among us does not want a better world? All those things we do to reduce fear, from seat belts to smoking, are not bad in themselves. This essay should not be seen as arguing against their use in any way. That’s not the point.

What I’m arguing for is that our society has become risk-averse. though we appear to embrace Halloween, we are in fact, more afraid of Death than ever before. That fear translates into less innovation and more resources diverted to our peace of mind. And less innovation and fewer resources for risk means that there’s less to spend on our future.

What do you think?

Happy Halloween! Boo!


Fiery Fears

Pains real. Fears not.
Pains denied, Fears alive.
Pains accepted, Fears rejected.           (anon)

There’s a pair of decent books tackling the tricky subjects of hate and fear. [1] I’ll say more about them later, but Rush Dozier makes one particularly provocative statement; humans are the only species that isn’t innately afraid of fire.

Is it true? An internet search doesn’t tell us very much. Maybe it’s one of those universal truths that modern science doesn’t deem interesting enough to verify. Scientists, like the rest of us, assume that it’s true because everyone else since the beginning of time has also assumed it’s true. I don’t want to make any waves, so let’s agree. Humans are the only species on Earth that isn’t afraid of Fire. We’ll take this as a fundamental truth, and call it axiom number one.

What I mean by innate is that there is nothing about not being afraid of fire that isn’t learned. In fact, what I’m saying is that babies like fire. I’m pretty sure that most parents teach their toddlers to avoid fire. It’s pretty, it’s red, it’s inviting, it goes snap crackle pop, it’s warm, and – WATCH OUT! You’ll get burned! Did this ever happen to you?

This is yet another statement that science should check into, using the same tried and true methods that have gotten us into skyscrapers and airplanes. Since it’s not a scientific fact, let’s make another bold statement; humanity’s lack of fear of fire is totally due to nature. This means that nurturing, or learning, has nothing to do with it.

Any behavior that is one hundred percent nature comes from our program. Our program is something we all know with no training required. Sucking mother’s nipple for food is something we want to do as soon as we get shoved out the birth canal. One hundred percent natural. And there’s axiom number two.

Biologists know that our program is written in DNA. That’s like saying this essay is written using letters of the alphabet. Our DNA program is extremely large, so it is divided into subroutines and extra apps, called genes. These are like the paragraphs and concepts in this essay. We have about thirty thousand genes, and they probably all work together. On top of this our genes have preferences, just like the apps on your phone. The settings are somewhat randomly chosen for us as soon as we’re conceived. There’s about three million settings for each of us. The professionals call these settings SNiPS – for single nucleotide polymorphisms.

Somehow, shared among all people, is a combination of genes and SNiPs telling us not to be afraid of fire. It’s one of the biggest things making humans totally distinct from all other animals. The same DNA, written differently, tells chimps, mice, birds and snakes to fear fire. We lack this trait, and all other animals have this trait. Yet, if you go back far enough in time, we will find an ancestor that links us to all other animals. Somewhere along the line, a bizarre combination of genes and SNiPs gave rise to us, modern man, with a new type of strange behavior. Biologists call distinct behaviors like this, phenotypes.

Here’s the craziest thing about fire. It’s powerful. It cooks meat and veggies so we can digest them more easily and stay healthier. Fire keeps bad animals away. Fire allows us to work when it’s dark outside. Fire changes ordinary Earth into extraordinary tools, like arrowheads, pottery, glass and steel. We are a species and a society born of fire. Yet, we take fire for granted. That’s too bad, because we should appreciate it for the great abilities it gives. So, the first step is to think back in time, to a period when we didn’t have this ability.

Go back far enough, say two hundred thousand years ago, and you’ll see our distant ancestors, hiding in trees, eating fruits and dirt, probably hanging about in small groups. They very likely acted much like today’s chimpanzees – our closest cousins. Let’s call this particular tribe ‘the standing up people,’ or Homo erectus. [2]

Now, as happens in successful tribes, there are babies. One particular baby was born with a set of genes and SNiPs that were very different from all the others in her tribe. It was a difference no one could see, but it was still there. She grows up, safe, sound, and happy. Then comes that fateful day.

The tribe is taking shelter from a storm, lightning and thunder surrounding them. They huddle together. Suddenly, nearby, a bolt of lighting ignites a pile of dead wood, bringing fire to life. The thunderclap, the light, the flare, and the living combustion of wood makes the tribe hoot, holler, and run away. That is, all but one. Our heroine has no fear, and has not learned to be afraid of fire. Instead of running, she gingerly approaches the bonfire rising before her.

She advances, observing everything in wonder. She picks up a long stick whose end is engulfed in flames, noting how it has acquired a smoldering sharpened point; the first hardened spear. Or she may have found a cooked squirrel, the first fast food.

Or, and this is the truly most wonderful moment in our ancestry, perhaps she looked up from her smoking spear and roasted squirrel and sees, across the flickering and snapping wood, another Homo erectus. He’s not from her tribe, and he, too, is not afraid of fire. The moment is right, she and he spend time together. And eventually you, I, and everyone we have ever known throughout history comes into existence.

In that moment, that Promethean portal gave birth to their love, their offspring, and an entirely new species. It’s quite possible that a single blaze sparked the rise of ‘people who think,’ or Homo sapiens. Our heroine was, in fact, Eve, the mother of all humans today.

What makes us so special? Our laugh? Dogs laugh, so not quite that. Our brains? Dolphins are bigger yet, and birds are proving to be pretty darn smart. Wars? Watch insects duking it out sometime. Our tools? Nope, birds and even some insects have those. Our high technology? There’s something to this. Where does all that technology ultimately come from? Fire.

We are a species forged in fire. It never would have happened if we hadn’t evolved the phenotype that describes not being afraid of fire. So, assuming that only one species, Homo erectus, isn’t afraid of fire, and assuming that behavior is one hundred percent natural, then we must conclude that this behavior is one of the most critical factors in differentiating us from all other life. Therefore, what made Eve so special was that she wasn’t afraid. It may be two hundred thousand years too late, but thank you Eve.

Think about that the next time you have to confront one of your own fears. Perhaps YOU could be the start of a whole new species.

[1] Fear Itself – Origin and nature of the powerful emotion that shapes our lives and our world.
Why we hate – understanding, curbing, and eliminating hate in ourselves and our world.     Both books by Rush Dozier. Published by McGraw-Hill, 1998 and 2002 respectively.

[2] Sequencing Y Chromosomes Resolves Discrepancy in Time to Common Ancestor of Males Versus Females, G. David Poznik, Brenna M. Henn, Muh-Ching Yee, Elzbieta Sliwerska, Ghia M. Euskirchen, Alice A. Lin, Michael Snyder, Lluis Quintana-Murci, Jeffrey M. Kidd, Peter A. Underhill, and Carlos D. Bustamante. Science 2 August 2013: 562-565.
Y Weigh In Again on Modern Humans, by Rebecca L. Cann. Science 2 August 2013: 465-467.