Thursday, September 26, 2013

Empathy/Kindness Robbed by Self-centeredness through Technology

Death, disaster, violence, famine, poverty, disease, crime and oppression. Every day, we are bombarded with stories of despair from all over the world. It is so pervasive that it has mostly become white noise. Sure, situations like the Boston Marathon or Super Storm Sandy get the general population's attention and we send donations and pray for the victims, but almost immediately, we are all back to our normal lives.

Empathy is short lived, if we feel it at all. We have been desensitized to others'  pain and suffering because information regarding all of the disasters is constantly at our fingertips. The news is all around us, in coffee shops, at airports, at home. The constant accounts of worry and despair are pushed to each of our pockets or purses a hundred times a day.

This desensitizing warps our grasp of reality. We seldom hear about the good things that go on from one community to the next. This is a big difference from several decades ago, when people's information came from their neighbors and the evening news. Most folks' life experience was largely family, work and community involvement; going to PTA meetings, bake sales, poker nights, church and neighborhood barbecues was how we accumulated info on current events. Crime was relatively low and generally took place in particular, finite areas. Personal interactions were personal. Now, they are filtered through technology. Today, most of our interaction is in the form of texts, emails, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn... the list is endless.
All the info in the our finger tips.
Quantity over quality, perhaps?

There are several explanations for why this is happening. There are also several consequences to what is going on. By being desensitized, we become callous to the pain and anguish others are experiencing. We see trouble for pretends on our favorite TV shows and movies, in video games, and we read about anguish in our favorite novels. We hear about trouble for real on the radio, via internet news outlets and through news programs. Unless it affects us directly, we hear it, feel sad, then move on.

This all happens because of the convenience and appeal of modern technology. Our hunger for the latest gadgets to enhance our connectivity drives engineers to incorporate new features and create new tasks for our devices to accomplish. The consequence is that it increases our susceptibility to self-centeredness. We become somewhat isolated by a wall of technology. The knowledge of disasters, calamities and pestilence we acquire comes via the same device on which we watch things on Netflix, like "The Office" or "Derek". The same device on which we play Angry Birds and Words with Friends, details the circumstances in starving Africa or war-torn Syria.

World powers are at odds, wars are being
waged, countries are starving.
We are left with a scant bit of knowledge that characters in a distant setting are in distress. Is it real? Is it fake? To our minds and in our spirits, the difference shrinks and becomes indistinguishable. We imagine life must be tough for these people, but we have no personal connection to their plight. We donate to the Red Cross, but the empathy barely remains two minutes after we click 'submit' on our donation. There is so much going on in each of our lives and we hear and see so many different micro-pieces of news each day that it isn't surprising. We can't all care with all our hearts about every single bit of suffering. So what do we do?

Even the most kind-hearted people out there struggle with this dichotomy. They are kind, giving people, but each of us has his or her own life, don't we. We know what we know and we only can do what we can do. So, how can I say that--as a whole--we have become a self-centered species? It certainly is a generalization and I don't pretend that it is anything else but that. But there has to be a balance. There has to be something we can do to still reach out with more of ourselves than our $25 donation to XYZ Storm Relief.

There is a wonderful family who lives in my neighborhood and the wife, Ginger, is one of the greatest people probably ever to be born into this world. She is very sweet, very genuine and she is without guile. To me, Ginger (and people like her) set the example of how we can live in society, being part of the modern world, while still maintaining sincerity in our humanity. What Ginger does is very simple. She cares. She takes the time to thank people when she feels they've enriched her life and she gives of herself constantly. Ginger taught a few of my children at our church. Each week, whatever the topic, she had a little trinket or picture for each of the children to remind them of the principles she taught that day. She did it because she cared.

Each of us can be like Ginger by making an effort to be friendlier or by setting aside the time to be a little more grateful. Because of the optimism with which she approaches life, even when difficulty comes her way, Ginger has always been able to glean valuable lessons from otherwise trying circumstances. It is because of her selflessness and sincerity that she is able to stay grounded. Her focus is not on the latest smartphone, but on the people around her.

BasicVirtueClosing recommendation: Balance. It is okay to put the tablet down or to turn off your phone. There are a lot of people right around you whose lives can be enriched by your presence within them. Learn all you can from the people around you and teach them all the good things you know. By doing so, you can be just as upstanding a person as people were from your grandparents' generation and all good generations prior. Your empathy will increase and you will become a more well rounded individual. This life is bigger than you and me--it is bigger than all of us. Let's do our part to make it better, right here where we can make a difference.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Effort Equals Results

Nineteen ninety-four, in a typical American suburban community, a few of my buddies and I were sitting around a kitchen table in a home down the street from where I lived. As we sat, joking and laughing, my best friend’s dad tried schooling us in the ins and outs of how the world works. He was our scout leader, and we were less than attentive. Thinking back to that experience (and countless others, similar in nature), I have developed a profound appreciation for any patience that our scout leaders demonstrated as they selflessly imparted of their wisdom to the rising generation.

As Jon (my buddy’s dad) delivered his instructions to us, often having to raise his voice over our senseless and disrespectful running commentary, he produced for each of us an object. He handed each of us a part of a treasure. He gave us each a special coin. It wasn’t an American Gold Eagle and it wasn’t recovered from any maritime shipwrecks–it wasn’t even something a numismatist would look at. Rather than calling it a coin, I should more accurately describe it as a token. On one side of the token was the Penske logo (Penske the transportation company, not Penske the file George Costanza worked on), while the reverse displayed the simple phrase:

“Effort equals Results”

The statement is basic. But the statement is one of the most valuable three-word declarations that exists in the human experience. Effort equals Results. It is a universal truth. We get out what we put in. It doesn’t matter if it is school, a project at work or playing a particular sport, there is a direct correlation linking our diligence to our outcome. Anywhere in society, the best people we know are diligent. They are constantly striving to be one of the best people. Successful business owners would never achieve success if they refused to work hard. Great athletes would never excel without constant training. The kindest among us would not be very pleasant if they effortlessly submitted to the negativity that is so pervasive in modern society.

All people are valuable. We each have traits and talents that set us apart from one another. Not one individual is the same as another, relating to potential. If we desire to develop our talents and fulfil our various potentials, we are required to reason and to put forth a conscientious effort toward attaining our goals. If we just don’t care, the results will match our efforts. Aristotle declared that the ability to reason is what distinguishes mankind from the rest of the animal kingdom. If he is right, and I believe that he is, when we demonstrate a lack of effort or fail to reason, we act illogically and irrationally. We are then just another variety of animal. We become the sad vessels of wasted opportunity. You are better than that and so am I.

Ladies and gentlemen, strive for excellence in all you do. Set your goals and then achieve them!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

"Mediocrity is of the Adversary"

Mediocrity is of the Adversary

Ladies and gentlemen, this week’s post will be on something we have discussed previously. The topic is mediocrity. To maintain clarity in this discussion, let’s define terms. Mediocrity will be defined as any state that results from one’s own decision to avoid self-improvement. Adversary will be defined as anything or anyone with the aim of inhibiting the individual from improving his or herself.

This discussion will primarily go over goals, objectives and outcomes.

Religious people view Satan or some other kind of devil as their adversary. He and his minions are out there to cause havoc and to create stumbling blocks along one’s path throughout life. Temptations to sin, if one submits, can lead to one’s derailment from attaining his/her spiritual and temporal aspirations. If the individual’s objective is to overcome the worldly things and strengthen his or her spirituality, he or she must also defeat their spiritual adversary. As the battle rages on, if the individual decides to stop trying to beat the aforementioned spiritual adversary, the battle is over. The adversary no longer needs to exert any effort on that person. He or she chose to stop at a certain point and to just stagnate… mediocrity is the state in which this person now dwells.

Study hard.
In school, if a student is very gifted and desires to be at the top of the class, there will always be someone else there to pounce at the slightest hint of slacking. This same student may also have a personality that clashes with a particular teacher or administrator. Despite all the effort this student puts into studying a particular subject, his or her work may be critiqued more harshly by this teacher than perhaps some other student may be graded. If he or she gets frustrated by the unfair treatment and throws his or her hands up, the quest is over. Mediocrity settles in and the SOB of a teacher wins.

Work hard.
The same thing can happen in the work place. But instead of a teacher and a student, it would be a boss and an employee. Having one’s contributions belittled day after day can really begin to wear on that individual’s nerves. By giving in to the negativity created by the boss’s attitude, the employee can stop being productive… and by extension, he or she stops developing the skills that will lead to promotions and raises. The SOB of a boss is the victor, because the employee settles into a state of mediocrity.

Subway loyalty card.
At the age of 17, Fred DeLuca opened a sandwich shop with a $1,000 loan from a family friend. One year later, he opened a second. Now, 48 years after opening that first little sandwich shop, Subway has over 3,600 stores in 99 countries. Little Fred DeLuca, who only started his sandwich-creating endeavor to earn some extra money for college, is worth over 1.5 Billion USD. During his first year in business, he realized marketing and visibility were the two most important ingredients to expanding his success. The biggest problem he encountered was the crappiness of his first location. Had Fred let the mediocre location of his first store be the face of his brand to his potential customer base, it is possible that no one outside of Bridgeport, CT would have ever heard of a sandwich shop called Subway. But he overcame the downside of his maiden store’s location by having a good product and getting positive marketing out to the people who would become his business’s patrons. He then opened additional stores in more reputable locations, while continuing to build the brand. Fred blew past mediocrity and destroyed his adversary in the process.

There are thousands of examples of people overcoming their adversaries in industry, sports, entertainment, literature, academics, diplomacy, military, etc. You name the field, there have been people exactly like you and me who have been inspirations and leaders to their peers. The only thing that sets them apart from the rest of their contemporaries is that they put that little bit extra into not being mediocre. Mediocrity is of the adversary, because if you stop trying to improve, he/she/it stops having to stop you. Mediocrity is synonymous with self-defeat, throwing in the towel, or simply giving up.

What the world needs now, is success... sweet success!
Ladies and gentlemen, find your passion. If you don’t have one right now, seek one out. Something that makes you want to excel. Develop skills, expand your knowledge, try a new approach and beat the odds. The universe is only against you if you let it be. Don’t give in, don’t get down and don’t give up! The world needs more excelling and less mediocrity. The world needs you!

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Time lost...

Back to the Future
Since I was a little kid, I've been enthralled by the idea of time travel. I used to watch Back to the Future most Saturday mornings before or after running off to my soccer game each week. My obsession with the movie may have been due to the phenomenal acting or the captivating cinematography for which Back to the Future is so well known (end sarcasm). More realistically, my habit of watching that movie stemmed from my strong desire to go back in time. Back to a time before my dad had died.

In the movie, it was particularly fascinating to me that Marty McFly went back to 1955 and met his dad. This was the same year my own father was born. In my 4 year old mind (and throughout most of my growing up years), I was sure that if I could have gone back to 1955 and spent time getting to know my dad as a baby, then as a kid and eventually as a teenager, we would have been great friends. We could have squeezed a whole childhood of playing catch, fishing in nearby streams or talking about hot babes into a modified timeline.

Maybe I could have warned him that his genetics frowned upon the diet he would develop and it would lead to clogged arteries. Perhaps I could have warned him that if he didn't do things differently, he would have his first heart attack at 29, then his second (and final) heart attack only 3 years later. But then again, it is possible that his demise at such a young age was his fate. Even with my imagined warnings, perhaps he still would have had to leave our little family as a 32 year old victim of dangerously high cholesterol.

But, now that I am a grown up, and have dabbled a bit in relativity and theoretical physics, I am certain that my childhood dream of hanging out with a youthful version of my dad will not happen. Time, for now, is linear. We can only travel that line in one direction. Once time is in the past, it is there for good.  
Our family sans Mom, ca. 1985

Now, let's break time down a little bit. Within a single day, we have 1,440 minutes to spend, invest, bear or waste. There are 86,400 seconds in each day. Each second that passes in which we haven't learned something, developed something, served someone or created something is just a lost period of time. Every lost fragment of time represents one in which we were not productive.

Of course, one could assume that making the most of every second would mean no time for rest or quiet contemplation. How effective would one's work be if he or she never took the time to plan or think things through? What if someone was anxiously engaged in projects non-stop? There is a good chance the end result would be a bit shoddy. 

None of us are the kind of vampire made popular in the Twilight series... we have to sleep. We have to eat. Our minds, bodies and spirits require a variety of activity to stay sharp and performing at a high level. Sometimes it is wise to invest a period of time into rejuvenating one's mind and soul, so that when it is time to work again, that work will be fortified by our A-game. Taking the time to enjoy a bounteous meal can also yield great results. It can give us the strength and energy to get back to the grindstone.
Not to be squandered

Society, in the modern era, is so fast paced. Everyone is driving faster, communicating less and with fewer characters, eating fast food, getting news, studying and being entertained via high-speed broadband. But faster isn't always better. As we rush through headlines and articles on the internet, we are only skimming bits of information. We do not easily see the whole picture or gain much contextual or factual understanding. Very little is absorbed while going at the speed of light. On our freeways, we blaze through towns and cities...cutting through the intersecting lives of hundreds and thousands of people without picking up a single anecdote from that place and from those people.

We need a deliberate balance of hard work, relaxation, re-energizing and social interaction to be the best people we can be. But in order to not find ourselves 38 and living with our parents, we need to understand that it all relates to time and how we manage it. There is no age requirement in order to make an impact in this world. It isn't like trying to rent a car before you turn 25. Don't wait for the world to open a door for you, take the time you have now and make your dreams a reality (as long as your dream doesn't require a rift in the space-time continuum to be realized).

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Modern Society's Bass Ackward View of Government and Religion

White smoke rising from chimney in Rome,
signifying the election of a new pope.

With the recent selection of a new pope, many commentators from without and members from within discussed what type of pope the Papal Conclave would select. Would he be a progressive pope? Many of them had hoped so. Projections of eventual female priests began to take over the airwaves of public radio. A lot of those same commentators and a bunch of others pondered whether or not the new Bishop of Rome would embrace homosexuality and birth control.

Salt Lake Temple for the
Church of Jesus Christ
of Latter Day Saints.
Salt Lake City, UT
On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, and several years prior, advocates of California's Proposition 8 - a measure relating to same sex marriage - chastised churches for standing in the way of its passage and demanded that the IRS rescind the offending churches' tax exemption status. The majority of the complainants cited the 'wall of separation between church and state' as their grounds for opposing religion's opposition to the proposition. Unfortunately, those who take this approach fail to realize this wall of theirs protects the rights of the church and the rights of the citizens from having a state-imposed religion forced upon them. Nothing else. Any other interpretation is outside the construct of the United States Constitution. When the government involves itself in the moral sphere, it is stepping on the toes of religion.

Recruitment poster for
the 7th Indiana Cavalry.
Church and government are two real and powerful entities within human society. But in order for the two institutions to benefit the individual within society, he or she must understand the role of the state and the role of the church. Within that understanding, one must also understand how and why the one occasionally operates inside the other's realm. In addition to grasping the purposes of each universe, the individual needs to grasp the concept of his or her responsibility within both the state and the church and his or her relationship with each.

Religion is a realm of faith and government is a realm of reason and deliberation. Reason and deliberation require an exchange of ideas and opinions, which also requires compromise. Faith, on the other hand is something that is accepted. In government, if something seems out of place, one can effect change within government through the apparatus that exists in that sphere--namely voting or participating in committee hearings or speaking at council meetings. If something is off in a faith-based sphere, it is supposed to be the individual who changes himself or herself to bring spiritual harmony into his or her life.

Let's explore it a bit more.

Dallas City Hall by night. Dallas, TX
What is government? It is a body that directs and oversees the business of a state. In the United States, it is a democratic republic at the top, with some variation of the same concept down through state and municipal bodies. It is made up of citizens who represent themselves and other citizens. Citizens deliberate and debate to decide which laws and regulations will govern their conduct and the conduct of their fellow citizens. In principle, the laws of a state deal with private property rights, commerce and transactions, defense and how to address grievances between citizens.

Washington Monument.
Washington, DC
Active citizens in a state use reason and/or emotion to try to persuade others to support the same legislation or policies that they themselves support. Sometimes the movement is successful, other times it is not. This is the way it is supposed to work. It is individuals putting their ideas on how to better society out there, hoping to gain the support of others.

National City Christian Church
Washington, DC
Now, lets contrast that with religion. What is religion in general? A belief system. More specifically, a religion is a specific set of beliefs to which one adheres, usually in union with a number of other people. It is based wholly on faith. Through the exercise of this faith, the adherent gains strength to better himself or herself internally by accepting guidelines that suppress some natural desires and behaviors. But regardless of the specifics from one denomination to the next, religion operates in the realm of faith.

What is happening more and more in the modern era is that people are doing exactly the opposite of what they ought to be doing. Citizens are faithfully trusting government for their sustenance and to make up for their own shortcomings, while members of churches are trying to tinker with their churches' doctrines and traditions.

Catholic Church
in Victoria, KS
If a church disagrees with contraception, but an individual member supports the use of contraceptives, he or she must accept the difference, change his/her opinion or find another church that better suits his/her set of beliefs. Of course, if that doesn't work, one could organize a new church or give up religion all together.

Regardless of your politics or religion, being able to understand the purpose of each entity will bring a better understanding to your mind, on a small scale, and a better balance with more respect in society, on a large scale.You don't put faith in government, faith belongs to the spiritual and religious realms. You don't try to use reason and debate to alter a religion. Reason and consensus-building belong in the realm of government.

Martin Luther King, Jr Memorial.
Washington, DC
If you want to effect change somewhere, do it in the proper place--do it in government. If you have a disagreement with your church's theology or its exercise of tradition, then change your mind or leave your church. Trying to change the structure of a church is not your role, because through your attempt to change the faith, you infringe upon the rights of other members of the congregation. If you have a problem, and it relates to a church, change your personal stance or go somewhere else. If your problem is governmentally based, get yourself out into the public sphere. Grab your friends, family, neighbors and colleagues to help you. Effect the change that is appropriate to effect.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Crisis Jockeying: Sensationalizing situations to manipulate feeble thinkers

Ladies and gentlemen, lets look at and come up with a solution to a dilemma that has been occurring throughout human history and continues strongly today... I will call it crisis jockeying.

This is just like it sounds.

The horse and its jockey are
representative of a public crisis and a
Crisis Jockey, who rides the crisis and
tries to guide public opinion of the
crisis to maximize his or her cause's power
It is when people and institutions ride a crisis as if it were a sport, hoping for a big payout at the end. In crisis jockeying, as in horse racing, the jockey is only a small part of the team (pun intended). There are breeders who get a large share of the spoils of victory, as well. In the game of crisis, the breeders help instigate and proliferate a specific event or condition with the sole purpose of having their jockey ride it out to win the pot.

Crisis jockeys and their groups rely on hysteria to grant them power and/or money. They are the benefactors of windfall profits. Unlike big oil companies who had been getting a bad PR rap several years ago for 'windfall profits' the big crisis companies actually take windfalls. The oil companies had invested capital in their infrastructures and personnel for years. Then when market conditions shot the price of their goods upward, they were able to see an increase in profit. Rather than windfall, their profit was normal, market-based profit. The kind of profit that comes to all companies that invest money, time and manpower into an industry and are still functioning well when the market graces their industry with a boom.
Profit: 9.38% of Revenue.
Governments' cut: 22.98% of Revenue.
 Percentage of revenue put back into the economy: 67.63%.

Big crisis companies (cause-specific activists, political candidates and parties, etc.) become windfall profiteers when a storm hits or an earthquake rumbles. Their profit comes from blaming a natural disaster on an opponent or one of their adversaries. After they give blame, they begin to take donations. These donations are not necessarily just monetary contributions. It can also include face time on news programs or any other platform that enables that entity or individual to evangelize for their cause. Most of them are unrelated to the actual issue about which they are talking, but they find some obscure point or undertone to link the event or condition to their cause.

Sometimes the crisis jockeying involves jockeying for political position. Since it is so fresh, think of the sequester. The sequester was a proposal offered by President Obama a year and a half ago. It was designed to push Congress into coming up with a budget (something that hasn't really happened in years). Officials in the Obama Administration claim that at the time the sequester was proposed, they never expected it to go into effect. Taking their claim at face value, we will say that their intention was to scare Congress into action. Speaking glowingly of his sequester to the Des Moines Register, President Obama referenced the program and lauded the fixing power it would grant him. However, advisers must have determined that they would be taking a different stance publicly on the sequester and asked the Register to not print certain parts of the interview. They wanted to use it as a tool against Republicans from that point onward.

Fast forward to February/March of 2013. The period of sequestration was upon us. Members of Congress and even the president went out claiming that if the sequester goes through, lines at airport security will grow dramatically, unemployment will tick up significantly (Rep. Maxine Waters claimed the sequester would cost the US economy 170 million jobs, an economy that currently only has 140 million jobs), among other dramatic and drastic things.

We were told teachers would be laid off, policemen, firemen and all sorts of other kinds of public sector employees would be let go. To the casual listener, they would hear that and immediately think of their kids' teachers or their police force. Then they would think, heaven forbid, that if their house were to catch fire, without firemen, what would be their chances? The casual listener would willingly pay more of the income they earn to save these public servants. But you aren't the casual listener, are you?

You realize that the money to pay police officers and fire fighters come from local taxes. Teachers salaries come from state level boards of education, primarily funded by local taxes (some are subsidized by the federal Board of Education, but that largely goes toward operational and curriculum-related costs). You also realize that the sequester doesn't eliminate budgets from last year's levels, rather it cuts money from this year's projected budgets. We are still spending more money under the sequester than we did last year. Yet the world is still in the process of ending.

Madam Secretary Janet Napolitano
Janet Napolitano, Secretary of the Department of Home Land Security, was asked which airports were reporting longer wait times at TSA checkpoints. She started her list off by saying: "I want to say...". However, after calls were put in to the airports she mentioned, it was clear that she was lying. Rather than reporting longer lines, each of the airports cited by Secretary Napolitano as being delayed confirmed that there were no additional delays.

The Department of Homeland Security's ICE began releasing illegal immigrants from prison (note, these were not just illegal immigrants going through the process of exportation, they were criminals serving time in prison, not jail, for prison-worthy crimes) before the sequester even became law. The releases were done in anticipation of possible budget cuts. The Arizona Daily Star reported that all 300-500 released the first day were in Arizona. Department officials have since suggested they would have to release up to 32,000 criminals back into the streets.

Also ahead of the sequester, Secretary Napolitano's department approved $50M for new uniforms for TSA agents. The math amounts to about $1,000 per uniform. As a cub scout, I had more patches than TSA agents wear and they, too, were sewn onto a blue shirt. The whole thing probably ran about $45-50. That included a hat and bandanna. Can the lighter shade of blue possibly push the cost up to $1,000?

At the White House, tours of "the people's house" have been cancelled. President Obama blamed it on the Secret Service and said he did not know about it in advance and would work tirelessly to get them back on. However, his press secretary Jay Carney didn't get the message and asserted that the White House had made the decision to cancel the tours, in association with the Secret Service. The staff that ran the tours office consisted of seven employees. Seven employees and the tours they had offered to students and tax payers had to go because of sequestration. This announcement came the same day that Secretary of State John Kerry announced an additional $60M in aid to the Syrian rebels (in addition to the $55M already pledged to the group). So, tax paying Americans visiting the nation's capital can no longer go see the inside of the White House because of budgetary shortfalls (private donations have been offered to fund the resuming of the tours, but the White House has refused), but the tax dollars the tax payers are paying gets sent off to fund opposition to Syria's brutal regime? Even if we assume the seven staffers that ran the tours are overpaid, why is that one of the first things to go?

The last piece that we will touch on is the issue of immunizations to kids in Maryland. Because of sequestration, the CDC had to cut the number of available vaccines in Maryland by about 2,050 doses. That is 2,050 fewer children getting vaccinations than would have otherwise received them. The director of the CDC, Thomas Frieden, found himself in an uncomfortable position while testifying at a congressional subcommittee hearing on the cuts. Because of some direct questioning from Maryland Rep. Harris, Frieden was forced to admit that the sequester, which cut $30M from their projected budget, forced them to cut the immunizations, BUT with the president's proposed budget's cut of $58M, the immunizations would have been saved. Do the math folks. With $28M less to spend in the budget, the CDC would have saved the vaccinations? How does that work?

The bottom line is this: people in power love being in power. The second to bottom line is this: manipulation (mass or otherwise) is the favorite tool of the powerful to stay in power. Today, the manipulation is executed with soundbites through news reports. A few centuries ago, as Niccolo Machiavelli wrote in The Prince, it was executed through raw force. Random killings in the town square would scare people into submission. Think of the Spanish Inquisition, the expansion of Ottoman Empire, Nazi and Soviet rule. The success of each of these movements was based on the exercise of power to instill fear. It has always happened and will, no doubt, continue to plague human society. Today the practitioners of this technique send experts, advisers and even celebrities into newsrooms to tell everyone how bad life will be if xyz doesn't happen. Then they say that if, by some off chance, the bad thing does happen, everyone needs to blame Company X, or the X party, or John/Jane Doe for the unavoidable misery that will follow.

To avoid being manipulated, all we need to do is think things through a bit. Who is making this claim? Why is he/she making the claim? Do all of the claim's premises add up? Is the conclusion made within the claim sound? If there is a red flag that comes up as a result of the answers to any of these questions, chances are someone is trying to dupe you. The second thing to do is be vocal about the facts surrounding the attempted duping. Speak to friends and family, colleagues and neighbors. Be the voice of reason. Without being overbearing, discuss whatever the situation may be and review the actual facts together. Then soon, you/we won't be so easily played by these crisis jockeys.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Collective Soul's 'Run', Comfort in the Modern Era and Mediocrity

The second verse of Collective Soul's 1999 hit Run goes like this:

Is there a cure among us
From this processed sanity 
I weaken with each voice that sings 
In this world of purchase 
I'm going to buy back memories 
To awaken some old qualities 

As I listened to this song the other day, I actually listened to the words for the first time. It got me thinking:

Processed sanity. Most things these days that are processed are either unnatural, modified or wholly manufactured. I liked what was being sung. It was a message that has often crossed my mind. As a whole, humanity of today is very different than it was for our ancestors a thousand years ago. Mankind is not living up to its potential. We have changed fairly dramatically over the last 2-3 generations, even.

A geneticist from Stanford University, Dr. Gerald Crabtree, has argued in the journal Trends in Genetics that we are dumber than previous generations. He even stated that an Athenian from a thousand years ago could come to our time and be smarter than all of us.

But we make cars and planes... computers and smartphones. What did the Athenians and their contemporaries make? Little carts pulled by animals? Catapults? Come on, now. But wait...

Think about that. 

Someone designed a car or a plane. Someone designed and produced the electronics that we use daily. Specific individuals today combine other people's creations to make better tools for us all to use. But can you manufacture a car? Can I? Unlikely. But what about the Athenians? Sure they had markets and engaged in commerce and trade, but most any able bodied Athenian knew how to make and use the tools of his trade.

Similarly, two generations ago, my grandfather would see a problem, then with his natural ingenuity, he would engineer a solution based on what he had around him. He had the ability to do so because it was his nature... but it was also a talent that he exercised and sharpened. Sadly, what was a fairly common trait 40 years ago has now become a skill that most lack.

These Athenians are smarter than us and more resourceful...
even without all their limbs.
Dr. Crabtree pointed out that the average Athenian (and I suggest we include generations up through my grandparents' generation) had to rely on his or her own memory, problem solving and critical thinking skills. The current generation is devolving in these aspects because of inactivity. Our natural brilliance is suffering from atrophy. There is no life-saving necessity to store useful information in one's brain, because at one's fingertips is something called 'Google'. For example, where a previous generation had to know the basic workings of their personal vehicles, we have Jiffy Lubes everywhere and WikiHow articles accessible on a whim 24 hours a day.

Back in the Collective Soul song, the writer states that he wants "to buy back memories, to awaken some old qualities". This is exactly what Dr. Crabtree is suggesting we are missing. Memory and old qualities.

Richard Dean Anderson as the '80s real-life superhero, MacGyver
We are too comfortable. We don't need to constantly be aware of our surroundings in case we find ourselves in a MacGyver situation, because they just don't happen for the average person anymore. We have roadside assistance, so we don't need to worry about changing a flat tire. We have 24 hour plumbing services, so we don't need to understand the pipal organization within the walls of our homes. It is almost as if our self-sufficiency skills are stuck in a self-destructive round of the Kevin Bacon game. Rather than actually knowing how to do anything, we rely on being just a step or two away from someone who can help us.

In my fraternity, we had a chapter motto (to be perfectly honest, we actually had several, but one was better than the rest): "Mediocrity is of the adversary." Regardless of what or who your present adversary may be, your apathy or your choice to settle in and get comfortable is your biggest weakness and your opponent's most potent tool. By being mediocre, or getting too comfortable, your adversary does not need to do anything. You are limiting your own growth and your own progress.

If we are not finding ways each day to gain some level of useful knowledge, if we aren't finding ways to be better today than we were yesterday, we will continue to lose our natural abilities. To that degree, we will be responsible for the dumbification of the human race. Collective Soul asks, Is there a cure among us? I say to you there is. But it can only be self-administered. Be better today than you were yesterday. Get even better tomorrow. Decide to be observant and to think critically. Next time you realize that Danny DeVito's wife's real name isn't Carla, but you can't remember it is Rhea Perlman, think through it internally before immediately turning to Google. It works.