Up until now, I have avoided writing too much about politics on Twitter and on my blog. This isn’t because I don’t have political views. It’s because (1) I believe that if you don’t have anything original to say, you shouldn’t add to all the noise, and (2) I hadn’t organized my original thoughts into a coherent philosophy I could effectively defend.
That has changed, now that I have written the Quick Start Guide to Human Society™. That document lays out my views on human nature, and hints at what those views on human nature imply about politics.
Now, I’m just a dude, not some tenured professor, nor some celebrity performer, nor some big-shot billionaire who launches cars into orbit around the sun. I don’t have the credentials to get anyone to take my ideas seriously. I understand that. All this is probably just shouting into the wind. At this point, I don’t care. I think I have something to say that is original and better than anything you hear in the echo chambers of modern politics, so I’m going to say it anyway, even if it’s pointless and futile. This is my sponge dip for the American soul.
* * *
Even before this coronavirus pandemic happened, I felt that global politics was in desperate need of a new paradigm. The political ideas of the 1980s (Reagan/Thatcherism) and 1990s (Clinton/Blairism) had both run their course, but no new real ideas had emerged to replace them. Without any new ideas, people seemed to be trying to reinvent some old ideas (like Fascism or Socialism, only this time it’s better in this shiny new box somehow!).
Computerization and globalism are new phenomena, that have caused huge fundamental changes to human societies. The old ideas, primarily formed out of the industrial revolution, are not designed to handle this new 21st century landscape.
Now that’s an argument that I just pulled out of my ass, and without proper credentials, you’re not just going to take my word for it. So here are some credentials to support my argument:
A tenured history professor named Yuval Noah Harari was once interviewed by another tenured professor and Nobel Prize winner named Daniel Kahneman on Edge.org, where Harari said this:
When the Industrial Revolution begins, you see the emergence of new classes of people. You see the emergence of a new class of the urban proletariat, which is a new social and political phenomenon. Nobody knows what to do with it. There are immense problems. And it took a century and more of revolutions and wars for people to even start coming up with ideas what to do with the new classes of people.
What is certain is that the old answers were irrelevant.
And looking from the perspective of 2015, I don’t think we now have the knowledge to solve the social problems of 2050, or the problems that will emerge as a result of all these new developments. We should be looking for new knowledge and new solutions, and starting with the realization that in all probability, nothing that exists at present offers a solution to these problems.
Harari goes on to say that he thinks that looking to the Bible or the Quran for answers to these issues is a mistake. The new religion should come out of Silicon Valley, instead of the Middle East. That’s where I’m going to disagree with him, in part.
The ancient religious texts provide, in part, a set of rules to follow to make your human society run smoothly. I agree with Harari to the extent that those rules don’t really apply to the new situation. The Ten Commandments won’t tell you anything useful for, say, managing the economics of infinite digital supply. Where I disagree is that those religious texts are also our most reliable source for information about human nature, if you know how to look at it properly.
So I’d say what you want to do is to first get a solid understanding of human nature, from both the ancient texts and from modern science. Then look at the new phenomena that are emerging out of Silicon Valley, and apply both the ancient and modern wisdom to build a new paradigm for the modern world.
* * *
This pandemic has made the need for a new paradigm even more acute. The old paradigms are being exposed as woefully inadequate every day.
I don’t have all the answers, nor do I pretend to. A new paradigm isn’t a new set of rules that provide a new set of solutions. A new paradigm is a new model, that opens up a new way of thinking, which produce new types of ideas, from which a new set of rules with a new set of solutions can emerge.
So I hope now, using the Best Practice Model from the Quick Start Guide to Human Society™, to start using this new model to think a little differently, to come up with new 21st century ideas that can address the problems of the 21st century. I invite everyone to join along with me in this exercise. But if no one wants to, that’s fine. I intend to be here anyway, shouting into the wind, until the Grim Coronareaper comes to take me away.
A girl sitting on her own in a small café in Rickmansworth
by Ken Arneson
It is hard to know what to do in times like these, when the world depends on most of us doing nothing. I have little to offer beyond nothing itself.
But little is not nothing. So as a small gift to anyone who happens to stumble upon this place, lest it disappear when the Grim Coronavirus comes knocking at my door, I have written down what limited wisdom I have come to possess in my brief span upon this earth, in the form of a thing called the Quick Start Guide to Human Society™.
When you start looking at a problem and it seems really simple, you don’t really understand the complexity of the problem. Then you get into the problem, and you see that it’s really complicated, and you come up with all these convoluted solutions. That’s sort of the middle, and that’s where most people stop. . . . But the really great person will keep on going and find the key, the underlying principle of the problem – and come up with an elegant, really beautiful solution that works.
Beginning a story with a quote often implies that the rest of the story will say same thing as the quote, but with different words. This story follows that formula. The opening quote serves as a box within which the rest of the story is confined.
This story is not original. It says what Steve Jobs said in the above quote. It says other things that other people have also been saying for hundreds and even thousands of years. So why bother telling this story?
We tell stories because there are simple approaches that don’t address the complexity of the problem. We tell stories because there are convoluted solutions where people have stopped. We tell stories because sometimes the underlying principle remains, but the old, elegant, once-beautiful solution has now stopped working.
Sometimes the lock changes, and we need a new key. Sometimes we refuse a key from one person that we will accept one from another. Sometimes this particular key won’t work for us, but a different key will click the door open. And sometimes we need to try a different door entirely to get into that room.
We tell stories because we are human beings, endowed by our creator with the delusion of hope. We tell stories in faith, believing, without evidence, that communication will forge a key that unlocks something incredible and amazing.
I got mad at my kids recently for having a messy room.
It’s such a cliché, I know. In that moment, I was an ordinary parent, just like everyone else, easily replaced by a thousand identical others.
Although, that’s not exactly true. I had my own, different angle on the messy room story. I didn’t really get mad because their rooms were messy. I got mad because their messiness was starting to spread out into my spaces, the common areas of the house that I keep clean. I did not want my space to be a new frontier for their stuff to conquer.
Wait, that’s not exactly the whole story, either. I didn’t even get mad because their stuff was getting all over the house. I got mad because when I suggested that we go to IKEA, like a good Swedish-American family, and look for some solution for where they can put their backpacks and schoolbooks and binders and such, so that I can keep my spaces clear of their stuff, they laughed.
I got mad because they laughed.
Is a story a kind of technology?
The word technology derives from the Greek words for “skill/craft” and “word”. Since a technology is a set of words about skills, perhaps a story is the original technology, the underlying technology upon which all other technologies are based.
We craft our words into a story, to transfer information from one person’s brain to another person’s brain. The more skillfully we craft our words, the more effectively that information is transferred, retained, and spread.
The most celebrated technologies of our times, Google and Facebook and Twitter, are merely extensions of this original technology. They are the result of stories built on stories built on stories over thousands of years, told orally, then in print, then digitally, all circling back to their original purpose. They are ever more effective tools to transfer, retain and spread information from one human being to another.
I’ve been watching James Burke‘s series Connections (1978) and The Day The Universe Changed (1985) on YouTube lately. There was one passage that struck me in particular:
“Before 1450, life was intensely local. Most people lived and died in the same cottage, and never went further afield than seven miles. […] Here, in church, was where they got their word-of-mouth news about the mysterious and unreal world, out beyond the forest where nobody ever went. The pulpit was their TV, newspaper, wire service, calendar, landlord, lawyer, teacher, timekeeper, social diary.”
–James Burke, The Day The Universe Changed, Episode 4, “Matter of Fact”
Replace the word “pulpit” above with the word “iPhone”, and think about that for a second. What an amazing technology churches were! The church, once upon a time, was the state-of-the-art communications technology. For people in the Middle Ages, it performed many of the same functions that mobile phones perform for us in 2013.
Around 1439, Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, and everything changed. This technology, the church, which contained many different products in one, began having its functions stripped away from it one by one. Now that people wanted to read things themselves, you didn’t have just a single, monolithic technology called “church” anymore. You had churches, and schools. And books, and newspapers, and calendars. And as knowledge quickly started to spread because of the new printing technology, other innovations happened which plucked off more and more functions of the church.
550 years later, in 1989, Tim Berners-Lee invented the world-wide web. The iPhone followed 18 years afterwards, and gravity suddenly reversed itself. All these technologies, which had been blown apart half a millenium earlier, suddenly started consolidating again, back towards a single monolithic technology: the mobile phone.
* * *
Western religions have a linear view of time. They see history as having direction, a beginning and an end. They build empires, like Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar, and never expect these empires to fall. Another great conquest is always coming next.
Eastern religions like Hinduism see history as cyclical. The universe and everything in it comes into being, then cycles out of being, then back into being again. Or as Tim Lott writes about Alan Watts and Zen Buddhism:
The emphasis on the present moment is perhaps Zen’s most distinctive characteristic. In our Western relationship with time, in which we compulsively pick over the past in order to learn lessons from it and then project into a hypothetical future in which those lessons can be applied, the present moment has been compressed to a tiny sliver on the clock face between a vast past and an infinite future. Zen, more than anything else, is about reclaiming and expanding the present moment. […]
For all Zen writers life is, as it was for Shakespeare, akin to a dream — transitory and insubstantial. There is no ‘rock of ages cleft for thee’. There is no security. Looking for security, Watts said, is like jumping off a cliff while holding on to a rock for safety — an absurd illusion. Everything passes and you must die. Don’t waste your time thinking otherwise.
With a linear view of history, church administrators in the west spent a lot of the five and a half centuries following the printing press looking for that old security, never quite believing that their breakup was acceptable, yearning for the good old days when the church was all the technology anyone needed. History is moving in the wrong direction! People aren’t coming to church as much because of these newfangled books! Let’s invest in Baroque art! That’ll wow ’em back into the pews! We have to fix this!
* * *
The popular technology of the day seems to agree more with the Buddhist view that all that matters is the present. As Erick Schonfeld wrote in TechCrunch in 2009:
Once again, the Internet is shifting before our eyes. Information is increasingly being distributed and presented in real-time streams instead of dedicated Web pages. The shift is palpable, even if it is only in its early stages. Web companies large and small are embracing this stream. It is not just Twitter. It is Facebook and Friendfeed and AOL and Digg and Tweetdeck and Seesmic Desktop and Techmeme and Tweetmeme and Ustream and Qik and Kyte and blogs and Google Reader. The stream is winding its way throughout the Web and organizing it by nowness.
If I might cite the much-maligned Benedict, the Church does essentially three things: it cares for the poor; it worships God; and it evangelizes. Isolate any of the three from the other two, and distortions set in.
Those three things, here in 2013, are a lot fewer than the long list of things the Church did in 1413. I wonder then, if Pope Francis’ popularity isn’t just about the Pope’s message itself, but also about two linear arrows of history intersecting: a time the Church is ready for a pope to focus the Church on those three things, and also a culture at large that has reached a point where it is ready to hear a message about lasting values.
Perhaps now, in this peak-iPhone/webstream era, people have found out through their own experience that the Buddhists and the Christians each own a piece of the truth: that most things in life are transitory; yet there are a few select eternal truths worth hanging on to. Perhaps mankind is relearning an old lesson: that one should render unto Steve Jobs the things that are Steve Jobs’, and unto God the things that are God’s.
S.J. in my mind stands for “Statens Järnvägar“, which is the name of the Swedish national railways. But here, it means Society of Jesus, the formal name of the Jesuit Order. The abbreviation after a name means that this person is a Jesuit priest or brother.
From 1958 to 1964, Father FitzGerald served as the fourth President of Fairfield University, a Jesuit university in Connecticut.
The Jesuit Order has received a lot of publicity lately after Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina was elected Pope Francis on March 13, 2013, becoming the first Jesuit pope.
Pope Francis made news today when he said that people who do good deeds, even atheists, are good people. “Just do good and we’ll find a meeting point,” he said.
Fairfield’s diversity statement seems to reflect that same “find a meeting point” sentiment that Pope Francis expressed today.
Fairfield University defines diversity in the broadest sense, reflecting its commitment to creating a more inclusive community that is reflective of the richly diverse global community of which we are part. Diversity encompasses not only racial, ethnic, and religious diversity, but also diversity of socioeconomic contexts, cultural perspectives, national origins, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, physical ability, and educational backgrounds.
Not sure how much that’s a function of their shared, timeless Jesuit values, which Father Fitzgerald would have agreed with back in the 1960s, and how much such a diversity statement is a function of the values of the 2010’s.
But it seems that Fairfield’s commitment to diversity at least welcomed both extroverted and introverted personalities back in the 1960s. Fairfield’s web site describes Father FitzGerald as “a determined man who wanted everything to be very structured and orderly. He avoided public appearances as much as possible and suffered when obligated to make speeches.” Sounds like an introvert to me. Yet even while avoiding public speaking, Father Fitzgerald managed to grow Fairfield University, adding some new fields of study, like a Graduate School of Education, and also constructing several new buildings, where people learning to do good deeds could find a meeting point.
For a week now, I’ve been writing a blog entry each weekday about a random Wikipedia article. I’m not sure why. Something about it struck me as an interesting idea, so I went with it.
But when the Random Wikipedia Wheel of Fortune brought me to the 2013–14 Clemson Tigers men’s basketball team, I almost quit the idea. It annoyed the hell out of me. I mean, look at this, here’s the entire Wikipedia entry:
The 2013–14 Clemson Tigers men’s basketball team will represent the Clemson University during the 2013–14 NCAA Division I men’s basketball season.
It’s basically a tautology. It’s nonsense. It’s vaporware. It’s nothing.
Pffffft. The 2013–14 Clemson Tigers men’s basketball team doesn’t even exist yet. I didn’t go to Clemson University. Why the heck should I care about it? I don’t think I personally know anybody who went to Clemson. Heck, I barely know anyone who went to any of the schools in Clemson’s athletic conference, the ACC. Why should I bother writing about it?
* * *
The past few weeks, I’ve been taking an online course in Behavioral Economics. One of the issues they talk about is how much we overvalue the present and undervalue the future. We also overvalue things that are near to us, and undervalue things that are far away from us. For example:
Would you give $100 if it would pay for an operation that would, guaranteed to work or your money back, save the life of a 5-year-old child today? Probably, you would.
Would you give $100 if it would pay for an operation that would, guaranteed to work or your money back, save the lives of a hundred 5-year-old children in Belgium in 2043, kids who won’t even be born for another 25 years? Hmm…it’s a tougher question, isn’t it?
Why is it so hard to feel sympathy for people and events far away and in the future?
* * *
Taking that knowledge, I plowed ahead and did some googling about next year’s Clemson basketball team. I found an article on RealGM Basketball which uses some statistical analysis of college basketball players to predict that Clemson will go 6-12 in the ACC during 2013-14. Dan Hanner explains:
Given that they lose their two best players and have zero players who were elite high school recruits on their roster, I think a lot of preseason predictions will have them even lower than this. There really isn’t anyone on the roster who looks like a likely offensive star. (The only good news is that Clemson was young last year and the sophomore leap should help at least a couple of their freshmen become solid players.) But let’s face it, this is going to be an ugly team to watch. The only reason the model doesn’t have Clemson lower is because of Brad Brownell’s ability to teach defense.
Maybe that’s accurate. Or not. A year from now, we’ll know for sure.
But I’m from California, not Carolina. I follow the Pac-12, not the ACC. So again, I really don’t care. Because I am human. I concern myself mostly with the here and now. I am, as my behavioral economic class suggests, biased against the people and things that are separated from me by large gaps of space and time.
* * *
In my last Random Wikipedia entry about Błudowo, Poland, I examined a picture of a bible passage about the Lamb of God. I didn’t examine a matching companion text on the ceiling of that same church, partly because the image is interrupted by an ugly ceiling lamp, but partly because it seems to contradict the first image. The text is a quote from Revelations 1:8:
In English, the Błudowo text quotes God saying, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End.” The next part of that passage goes: “I am the one who is, who always was, and who is coming. I am the Almighty.”
It’s an interesting pairing. In the first image, God is presented as being meek and humble. Here in the second, God is powerful and eternal. What does it mean to put these passages together?
When you live a Christian life, everything you do, from showing up to church on Sunday, to going to the grocery store, to pumping gas, to hitting a home run, to striking out, is done for the glory of Christ. Hamilton isn’t thanking Jesus for helping him hit a homer; he is thanking Jesus for everything.
I think that’s right, but incomplete. Living a Christian life doesn’t just mean understanding or believing Christianity, it means practicing it. And I don’t mean practicing as in “doing”, I mean practicing as in “training.”
We are naturally biased towards the here and near and now. We naturally discount the distant, both in time and space. You can’t just overcome that built-in bias with rational understanding. That bias is our default mode. You have to overcome that bias by actively training yourself to overcome it, otherwise you slip right back into your default mode.
In default mode, you think that three-point shot you just made to win the game is the most important thing in the world. You’re so awesome!
Expressing gratitude toward God, as a practice, removes you from that default mode. It strips away your bias, in two ways:
It affirms that second passage in the Błudowo church. It’s an acknowledgement that there is some thing more awesome than you, and some time more important than now. It is, as Leitch suggests, gratitude towards everything that was, is, and shall be.
It reminds us that our natural biases, a/k/a our sins, are not washed away by conquering the here and now like a tiger. On the contrary, our selfish, competitive biases toward satisfying the desires of ourselves and those nearest to us at the expense of others, is actually a cause of suffering in the world. The practice of thanking God is an act of humility and generosity, of caring about something beyond the immediate. Thanking God makes you more lamb-like than tiger-like.
* * *
Funny though, how in a large Christian nation like America, there aren’t any major sports teams nicknamed “the Lambs”.
* * *
So here I am, a sinner who doesn’t give a crap about the the 2013–14 Clemson Tigers men’s basketball team. If I were more God-like, more Christ-like, I would. I would overcome the bias that makes me care more about my local team and my local league and the current and most recent year than about some team far away and in the future. I’d be more generous, more caring, about everything.
* * *
And this is why I think I am writing these random Wikipedia articles. Like thanking God, it is a kind of practice, designed to train me away from my biases. Away from my compulsive desire to compete, to be great, to win in the here and now. A random Wikipedia article can send me anywhere–past, present, future–and it forces me to contemplate on it, to be generous towards it. Contemplation leads to empathy and compassion, and the world becomes a better place for it. And perhaps I become a better human being, too.
* * *
So Godspeed, 2013–14 Clemson Tigers men’s basketball team.
The Random Wikipedia Wheel of Fortune takes us today to Błudowo, a small farming village in northeastern Poland. Błudowo lies in a administrative district called Gmina Młynary along with 27 other villages. Gmina Młynary has a combined population of 4,593. Based on that information, Błudowo probably has a population of about 100 people or so.
This, via Google Maps, appears to be the center of Błudowo:
Błudowo has, it seems, at the intersection between the main road and the path to the village church, a large crucifix, over 10 feet tall. This very tall crucifix has a eensy-weeny teeny-tiny small little Jesus on it. For all I know, it may be the highest crucifix-to-Jesus size ratio of any crucifix in the world. What does it mean?
Perhaps here’s a clue. Up the path from this crucifix, there is a little brick church, which contains this image on its ceiling:
“Ecce agnus Dei, qui tollit peccata mundi” is Latin for “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” It’s a quote from John 1:29 of the New Testament, uttered by John the Baptist when he first lays eyes on Jesus.
It is interesting to ponder why God’s cleansing of sin is depicted as a lamb in the Bible, and why Błudowo’s church chooses to emphasize this image. God redeems mankind not as a tiger or a lion or a bear or an elephant or some such mighty animal, but as a lamb–a small, humble, meek and utterly ordinary animal.
Błudowo is not Berlin or Moscow or Stockholm or New York or Paris or Tokyo or Washington DC or Silicon Valley, where the inhabitants may feel it is their role in life to change the world. Because of its central geographic location between much larger powers, it has seen the flags of Poland and Prussia and Sweden and Germany and the Soviet Union all come and go through the area. It has seen the suffering that such tall ambitions can cause. Through all that, perhaps Błudowo through all these centuries of conflict around it redeems itself by not trying to be more that what it is meant to be: is a small, humble, meek and utterly ordinary village.
Hmm. Fear? Maybe. Something is holding me back, inhibiting my creativity right now. When I’m in my zone, the right words, the right crazy metaphor, the right structure — it all pours out of me as easily a river flows from a mountain to the sea. But right now, it doesn’t flow. I know it’s inside me, but it won’t come out. It’s a grind.
What is blocking that flow? Is it fear? For me, I’m not sure. If it’s fear, fear of what? Failure? Criticism? Being horrible? Being unextraordinary?
The beast, at Tanagra.
* * *
Have you ever seen the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Darmok“? In this episode, Captain Picard is stranded on a planet with an alien named Dathon. Dathon speaks a language that consists almost entirely of metaphor. Dathon says things like, “Temba, his arms wide” “Chenza at court, the court of silence” and “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra“. The words sound like English to Picard, but the statements are utterly meaningless to him because he doesn’t have any understanding at all of what those words symbolize. Here’s a key scene:
I have begun to feel that so many modern human conflicts, ranging from science to religion to sports, are like this. At their core, they are talking about the exact same thing, because there is only one human nature. But they have such completely different ways of expressing these things that the other side just discounts it as unintelligible jibberish.
Kadir, beneath Mo Moteh.
* * *
I was baptized and confirmed in the Swedish Lutheran Church when I was 14. In my confirmation proceedings, I acted as best I could to convey that I really understood what Christianity was about. But to be honest, there was one very key aspect of it that I didn’t get, that I’ve felt had a kind of “underpants gnome” quality to it.
Underpants gnomes are cartoon characters from an episode of South Park. These gnomes go around stealing underpants, because they have some sort of assumption that doing so leads to profits. But there’s a missing step in their business plan:
1. Steal underpants
Here’s the thing about Christianity that I kinda felt worked like the underpants gnome business model:
1. Jesus dies on the cross.
3. Believers get eternal life.
For years, I just happily accepted this conclusion, like the underpants gnomes happily accepted their business model. I enjoyed the idea of eternal life, just like the gnomes enjoyed the idea of profits. So why question a good thing?
Of course, as I grew older I did come to question it. Why should Jesus need to die on the cross for believers to get eternal life? God is all-powerful. Why couldn’t He just give believers eternal life without Jesus having to die on the cross? It made no sense to me. I didn’t understand the metaphor. To me, it was jibberish.
Chenza at court, the court of silence.
* * *
In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.
Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.
Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.
It’s interesting to juxtapose that David Foster Wallace speech with Clayton Christensen’s concept of the Job To Be Done. The Job-To-Be-Done model says that we don’t necessarily rationally think through what is the best product, and buy that. What happens is, we go along in our lives, and at certain times we come across a job that we need to get done. We tend to hire the product or service which (a) does the job, and (b) most easily comes to mind or is most readily at hand.
To borrow Christensen’s milkshake example, we may want to hire a milkshake to keep us busy on a long, boring morning commute. But we probably won’t hire that milkshake if it only comes packaged together with a hamburger. We’ll hire a banana or a bagel instead. We don’t want a hamburger in the morning.
By Wallace’s account, we humans have a psychological need to worship something. But when exisiting religions take sides in politics, or reject science, conflict with other values like equality for gays or women, they make it more complicated for us to pull them in to solve our Job-To-Be-Done. We want to hire something to worship, but we don’t necessarily want it packaged together with a rejection of science or equality.
And so what do we do? We may not outright reject religion, but we don’t explicitly buy it, either. We put the decision off. And then we find ourselves as Wallace describes, drifting unconsciously towards other things that can fill that Worship-Job-To-Be-Done. Money. Sex. Intellect. Art. Power. Reason. Fame.
Zinda, his face black, his eyes red.
* * *
Many religious institutions tend to think of science as their biggest competition. But if you ask me, sports is by far a bigger competitor. It’s global. It’s ubiquitous. There’s no religion that has 3.2 billion adherents. There’s no science book that has 3.2 billion readers. But the 2010 World Cup had 3.2 billion people watching it.
3.2 billion people hired the World Cup to do a job for them. But what job, exactly, is it filling?
Uzani, his army with fists open.
* * *
The other day I was watching a 2010 Ted Talk by Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston. Brown spent the first six years of her career studying a single human emotion: shame.
The data she collected led her to expand into exploring other aspects of human nature: courage, worthiness, and vulnerability. And she concluded that the fulcrum around which all of the other aspects pivoted was vulnerability. I recommend watching this talk, it’s both interesting and entertaining:
Rai and Jiri, at Lungha..
* * *
If you don’t have the time to watch the whole of Brown’s talk, here’s a money quote:
One of the ways we deal with it is we numb vulnerability… We are the most in-debt, obese, addicted, and medicated adult cohort in US history. The problem is — and I learned this from the research — you cannot selectively numb emotion. You can’t say “Here’s the bad stuff. Here’s vulnerability, here’s grief, here’s shame, here’s fear, here’s disappointment. I don’t want to want to feel these. I’m gonna have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin.”
You can’t numb those hard feelings without numbing the other affects, or emotions. You cannot selectively numb. So when we numb those, we numb joy. We numb gratitude. We numb happiness.
And then we are miserable, and we are looking for purpose and meaning. And then we feel vulnerable, and then we have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin. And it becomes this dangerous cycle.
Kiazi’s children, their faces wet.
* * *
This resonated with me regarding my writer’s block. One cannot create something for public consumption without passing through vulnerability. Writing is a risky act. When we write, we risk being wrong, we risk being ridiculed, we risk being rejected, we risk being dismissed, we risk being ignored, we risk being horrible, we risk being mediocre, we risk being unspectacular.
It’s natural to feel the desire to numb ourselves to those consequences. There are many ways to do so. We can use external sources to numb our feelings, with drugs or comfort foods. But can also do it with internal, psychological sources. Denial. Delusion. Cognitive dissonance. Confirmation bias. Self-censorship.
The latter, I think, is the source of my inhibitions. I am subconsciously self-censoring myself, to avoid that vulnerability, to prevent myself from saying something wrong. But in numbing myself from those negative consequences, I am also numbing my creativity.
I need to let go of that fear of failure. I need to embrace my vulnerability, to risk being wrong to let the creativity flow out of me again. I need to do what Brown says healthy people do: practice gratitude, seek out joy, accept my limitations.
Kailash, when it rises.
* * *
It also seems plausible to me that this vulnerability is why we hire sports into our lives. When you commit to a team, when you say “I am a diehard Oakland A’s fan”, you are exposing yourself to vulnerability. You are vulnerable to the pain of Kirk Gibson homering off Dennis Eckersley, of Jeremy Giambi failing to slide, of Eric Byrnes forgetting to step on home plate, or of Coco Crisp dropping a fly ball in center field. But unless you expose yourself to that vulnerability, you also won’t experience the joy of Scott Hatteberg’s home run, of Ramon Hernandez’ walkoff bunt, of Marco Scutaro’s foul pole doink against Mariano Rivera, or of that crazy comeback in Game 4 of the 2012 ALDS. Vulnerability is the intersection where all the pain and the joy meet. If we humans crave that intersection, sports is a product that provides it.
Uzani, his army with fists closed.
* * *
Brown believes that our modern culture has an unhealthy attitude towards vulnerability. We perceive it as synonymous with weakness. We treat it like a disease to be avoided instead of as the source of everything beneficial in our lives. This has consequences for us not just individually, but as a society as a whole:
The other thing we do is make everything that is uncertain certain. Religion has gone from a belief in faith and mystery to certainty. I’m right, you’re wrong, shut up. … That’s what politics looks like today. There’s no discourse anymore. There’s no conversation. There’s just blame.
This unhealthy attitude towards vulnerability also applies to sports. When Derek Jeter broke his ankle the other day, Nick Swisher was blamed for it, even though he wasn’t involved at all in the play where Jeter got injured. He misplayed a ball on the previous play, extending the inning where Jeter got hurt. When your attitude towards vulnerability in sports is unhealthy, you treat victory as required, and failure as unacceptable. Talk radio and internet discussions are full of this sort of attitude: our team must win, or else scapegoats must be found and heads must roll.
Kiteo, his eyes closed.
* * *
If I have drifted away from religion in my life, it is because of this: the versions of Christianity that I was exposed to in my formative years, with all its certainties of how everything worked, became at odds with how I came to understand the world. I wasn’t certain God exists, at least not as a man with a white beard in the sky looking down on us. I wasn’t certain evolution is wrong, or that homosexuality was evil, or that if you’re a socialist, you’ll go to Hell. How could I be certain of any of those things if I didn’t even understand how the crucifixion worked?
The job I personally needed my Christianity to do was to be comfortable with uncertainty. To embrace my doubts instead of rejecting them. To be able to say, “I don’t know or I don’t understand–and that’s OK.” But that version of Christianity was not a product visible to any shelf I could see or reach. And so off I drifted, unconsciously and unintentionally, into the open fists of sports.
Shaka, when the walls fell.
* * *
After watching Brown’s Ted Talk, I went back and read the accounts of the Crucifixion. I found it interesting that Jesus only says two things while on the cross: the first line of Psalm 22, and part of the last.
The Old Testament’s Psalm 22 is subtitled “A Cry of Anguish and Song of Praise”. It could just as easily be subtitled “A Cry of Vulnerability, and a Song of Gratitude.” It is a poem that begins as an expression of our vulnerability. Sometimes we suffer, and in those moments, it feels as if God is not there.
My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?
Why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring?
O my God, I cry in the daytime, but thou hearest not;
and in the night season, and am not silent.
But this poem does not reject that suffering, nor does it reject God for allowing it. Instead, it praises God, and thanks him.
A seed shall serve him;
it shall be accounted to the Lord for a generation.
They shall come, and shall declare his righteousness
unto a people that shall be born, that he hath done this.
This is why Jesus needs to die on the cross to deliver eternal life. This is the missing stage 2. Because the path to everything that is divine (a/k/a eternal a/k/a good) in life passes through vulnerability. If Jesus is to be the example for the whole world to follow, to show us mere mortals the way to experience divinity, He must lead us to and through vulnerability. He must experience the ultimate vulnerability — death itself. So Jesus suffers. He suffers not just physically by being nailed to that cross, but also suffers spiritually.
Jesus saying, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” confuses a lot of people. If Jesus is the son of God, why would God forsake him? But of course, God isn’t forsaking Jesus. But if Jesus is to be truly, genuinely vulnerable in this moment, He must feel vulnerable to being rejected by the one thing He loves the most, God the Father. That one moment, of God Himself feeling vulnerable, is the greatest gift God ever gave mankind. It creates the perfect example for mankind to follow, that single seed that shall serve him.
And that is how, if we believe in the story of Jesus–or, in the language of science, if we embrace our vulnerability instead of numbing it away–we can have access to all the blessings and joys that life offers.
Sokath, his eyes uncovered!
* * *
Does this mean I am now rejecting sports in favor of Christianity? Not at all. I don’t need to reject anything. There is only one human nature. We can express that single human nature through the language of Christianity, the language of science, the language of science fiction, the language of art, or the language of sports. We can make the mistake of numbing our vulnerability through each kind of language and suffer the consequences (hello, sports talk radio!). But we can also be uplifted in each of these languages by the beauty of human nature when it is done right.
Ubaya of crossroads, at Lungha.
* * *
“All that lives must die,
Passing through nature to eternity.”
– William Shakespeare, Hamlet, 1.2
On October 3, 2012, after beginning the season being expected to finish in last place, after trailing in the standings by five games just nine days earlier, an improbable Oakland A’s team completed an amazing comeback to win the American League West. The team and their fans went wild, celebrating the culmination of a miracle season.
A’s reliever Pat Neshek wasn’t there. He had flown to Florida two days earlier to witness the birth of his first child. He went to his hotel room to watch the last game. In the fifth inning of the game, he got a phone call. His wife told him, “The baby stopped breathing.”
If Pat Neshek had an unhealthy attitude towards life, he’d be angry. Angry at his team for distracting him away from being with his child. Angry at God for taking his baby away from him just as the promise of a new life together began to feel real. He’d be looking for someone to blame, wanting to sue the hospital for its negligence.
Instead, Neshek returned to the team two days later. And this is what he said:
It was probably the best day I ever had, the one day. I’d go through it all again just for that one day. It was pretty awesome.
Neshek went out the next day and threw a perfect inning in the first game of the playoffs.
Darmok and Jalad, on the ocean.
* * *
The A’s lost those playoffs, in a fifth and deciding game to the Detroit Tigers. But the fans were so overjoyed by this unlikely story, by this unlikely team, that even though they lost and their season was now over, they gave their team a five-minute standing ovation after the final out was recorded. Watch this, all of it:
This is Psalm 22, translated into sports. This Brené Brown’s scientific research, translated into sports. It starts out with an expression of vulnerability, of suffering. When the Tigers start rushing out onto the field to celebrate, the A’s fans boo. But very quickly, that cry of anguish transforms into a song of praise from 36,000 people for what their team had accomplished. There is no demand for certain victory, no bitterness at an entitlement taken from them, no blame for whoever caused the loss, no numbing or turning away from the vulnerability sports fans expose themselves to by choosing to root for a team. It’s just five minutes of pure gratefulness and joy.
Mirab, with sails unfurled, sing thee to thy rest. It is done. The rest is the river Temarc, in winter.
I wanted to say something about how cruel this world we live in is, when joy can be transformed into horror in just a matter of hours. About the pain of a present destroyed, and the emptiness of a future that will never come to be. About how I want to cry at the injustice of it, like Job did after God let Satan test his faith by destroying his wealth, killing his children, and taking his health.
“I cry to you, O God, but you don’t answer.
I stand before you, but you don’t even look.
You have become cruel toward me.
You use your power to persecute me.
You throw me into the whirlwind
and destroy me in the storm.
And I know you are sending me to my death—
the destination of all who live.”
I wanted to say something like what Ray Ratto said about the news. About how awful it is, and how any good news about the A’s going forward will now be tempered by this unbearable sadness the Neshek family must face.
But I also wanted to say how we … and baseball … together … and life … but, no.
My natural reaction, the desire to try to find something redemptive in this, to find something that can explain why and how such suffering can exist–that reaction doesn’t seem quite right. The loss of a child is not something the human mind is designed to comprehend. There is no lesson to be learned here, no perspective to be gained.