Thursday, December 16, 2004

Emotions, Romanticism, and Compassion

What are emotions? Why do I experience emotions? How do emotions serve me? How do emotions make me a better human? How do emotions serve humanity? How do emotions make the world a better place?

These are some of the questions I have been confronting as I submerge myself into my art work. I started painting in ernest in January, 2004. Since then, I have been on an emotional roller coaster. I find that painting (and more recently, drawing) put me smack dab in the middle of my emotions. My poor wife and family have had to tolerate my emotional swings as I come home each day from art class.

More than just a sense of "triumph" and "failure", I find that creating art heightens my emotions. I would not say I am more conscious of my emotions, because I have never been very good at recognizing or understanding my emotional state. Rather, I am left "raw" and "sensitized"; all my senses are heightened and seem to feed directly into an emotional reaction. There are days when, as I drive home from class, I start to cry as I experience how beautiful the world looks to me!

What are emotions? After many months of introspection, I began to understand that emotions are the shared language of my senses. By that I mean that each of my senses gathers information about my environs: I see a tree, I hear rustling leaves, I smell the earth. My senses feed into my emotions, where each sense is compared to the other senses using the common language of my emotions: the tree, with its branches swaying gently in the wind, is predictable and yet pleasantly unpredictable, the rustling leaves are soothing, and the smell of rich, rotted leaf dirt is comforting. All my senses point me to an emotional response which includes safety, security, celebration, growth, and life.

Why do I experience emotions? How do emotions serve me? Perhaps, emotions are there to make sense of my diverse (and largely orthogonal) senses. Emotions let me compare the beautiful petals of a rose to the smell of a rose to the pain of the rose thorns. Perhaps emotions are the mechanism through which I use my senses to respond to my environment. Maybe emotions are the reaction to my senses which guide me as to what I should do next. My senses give me the warnings I need to react quickly and correctly to the world around me. Sudden bright light or complete darkness, loud noises or the sound of something behind me, bad flavors, a fire's heat on my skin, the smell of death all invoke anxiety and fear and help me to take precautionary actions.

How do emotions make me a better human? As I struggled to find the connection between my art and my heightened emotions, I became dissatisfied with the idea that emotions make me a better human being. I have always thought that logic and reason were the guiding lights to becoming a better human being. The discipline of careful, intellectual thought was the answer. Emotions were a degradation, a lower, more basic form of my humanity. I struggled to understand how my art work, so intertwined with my emotions, was or was not making me a better human being. I began to worry that my art was just a self-serving excuse to experience the drama of emotions.

I would come home from art classes giddy with heightened senses and rich in sensuality. I began to search out sense experiences; beautiful drives through the autumn tinged grape orchards, long sits in cafes watching people and imagining their stories, conversations with people closer to death. I live in and enjoy the moment, often overwhelmed by the creativity and life in the world. I seemed to be falling into a world dominated by my emotional reaction to my environment - not the place I wanted to be; not the place where I could make the world a better place and serve humanity. I began to question how my art could serve humanity. I wondered do emotions served humanity?

Yesterday morning I had an insight. As I began thinking about how emotions serve humanity, I realized that the expression of emotions was the precurser to a spoken language. Showing emotions like pain, anger, or caring were how humans communicated with one another before there was a spoken language. The expression of the reactions we experienced to our senses became our standardized language. Our expressed emotions became the way one human communicated with another human. The expression of our emotions to another human being was our way of letting others know our reaction to what we were experiencing. Expressed emotions allowed humans to communicate with one another. Expressed emotions became the socializing glue of humanity which allowed humans to work and live together more successfully than they could alone. Even today, we experience this level of communication with newborn children. Until infants learn more, they express their emotions (crying=pain, silence<>pain) to communicate to us their reaction to their sense experiences.

Now I was getting somewhere! Emotions are the common language of our senses. Expressed emotions, as a shared language, allow social behavior. Social behavior allows humans to interact and cooperate, develop language, spoken and written, and set in motion the (so far) successfull survival strategy for the human species.

In fact, I got an insight into what is going on today and what I can do better. Notice that there are two levels on which emotions occur: internally as a reaction to my senses and externally as an expression of my emotions. The "me" generations, which really got their big start with the rise of "humanism" in the Italian Renaissance of the 1400's, have been confusing more and more the function of internal emotions and external emotions. Romanticism and the rise of the individual has focused human experience into the relm of the internal (individual) emotional reaction. Expressing emotions has not matured to match the advances made in language. Instead of refining the expression of my emotions, I enjoy the undisciplined revelation of my internal emotions as a way to draw attention to myself and make my life more "meaningful". The expression of my emotions has become a sort of "self-definition", to the detriment of using the expression of my emotions to communicate with others to ensure our collective survival. I have become obsessed with expressing "MY feelings" rather than concerned with what others are telling me with the expression of their emotions. I have subverted the use of emotional expression as a social tool to a personal tool.

But all is not lost! In fact, I am right on target. I started thinking about all the emotions that help me as a member of society; among them, emotions like love (but not self-gratifying romantic/addictive love), compassion, caring, empathy, concern (for others). These emotions require more discipline and training to become habitual. These emotions are more proactive rather than reactive. They are more forward looking than backward looking. And they take more work, more effort, more focus, and more energy. These emotions are often in short supply when I am lower on my Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.

Well, where does all this leave me? I am still struggling with the purpose of my art. But now I have a clearer picture of the direction in which I want to go. I have a better understanding of the function of emotion in our social structure. I think there are good reasons to keep the expression of emotions around for a while. And when I think of what this means for my art, I want to create art that inspires people to be more compassionate. I want my art to invoke an emotional reaction that helps people express their own compassion. How do I do that? I don't konw. I know that a part of it is the expression of my love for life in my art. If successful, I will inspire others to care enough about life to work to preserve it, not just for the short haul, but for generations long after we are all dead. If I can do that, then I will have made this world a better place. 

December 16, 2004

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Violence and Vegetarianism

Yesterday, my wife bought a microwave bacon cooking pan. This morning, the smell of bacon filled the house. When I came down to the kitchen, she said, "It's the best $4.95 I've spent!" I turned towards the sink and counted to 10.

I am a vegetarian; a lacto-ovo vegetarian, to be more precise. I eat milk and egg products, but I do not eat flesh or anything that requires the animal to be killed to produce it. I don't eat beef, pork, chicken, turkey, fish, shellfish, or insects (though I do kill mosquitoes).

I do not require that people around me be vegetarians, though if I am cooking for others, they will be eating a vegetarian meal. I required that my children eat follow my vegetarian diet until they were 16, at which point, they were responsible for choosing what they ate.

So why was I so angry this morning that I had to work hard to hold my temper? I've been thinking about it for an hour, now, and I have become aware of several simmering emotions:

I do not believe it is right to kill animals so that I can eat them.
I have believed this since I was 18 when, because of a number of events, I asked myself why I wasn't a vegetarian:

- I remember reading a science fiction story about a spaceship that came to Earth and picked up humans, only to eat them. I hoped that if an intelligent species from another planet were to come to Earth, they would ask me if I wanted to live (and respected my wish) before they decided to kill me and eat me.

- I saw a documentary on how cows are slaughtered. The look of confusion and terror (anthropomorphisms, I know) on the cows' faces as they were herded towards a trap door chute. Falling through the door, the cow's rear leg was grabbed and held by a clasp. As the cow fell through the roof if the slaughterhouse, the clasped leg caused the cow to flip upside down. Within seconds, the waiting butcher slit the cow's throat. Hanging upside down, the cow was left to bleed to death as it was moved down the assembly-line to the next station. In the space of only a few seconds, a living being was converted to a production-line commodity.

I asked myself how I could eat cows that were killed without respect for their lives. I decided that I would not eat anything that I though was self-aware. I would ask myselft the question, "If I could communicate with this animal, would this animal say it is all right for me to kill and eat it?". If I had any doubts about the animal's preference, then I would respect the possibility that the animal might choose to live.

Many people who eat meat do not know from whence it came.

Compare your reactions to these statements:

- I eat chicken breasts, but I don't like seeing whole chickens hanging in the window.
- I eat meat, but I don't like seeing the tongues or brains.
- I eat beef, but I don't think it is right to eat veal.
- I eat hamburgers, but I won't eat steak.
- I don't eat fish because it comes with a head and eyes, but I eat salmon steak.

To help us make decisions about how to spend our money, marketing and advertising try to keep us from thinking about unpleasant or distasteful consequences of our choices. But ignoring them does not mean they do not happen. If one is not willing to accept the way in which meat is produced, then one should not clense one's conscience by handing over money in echange for meat.

How we treat each other is reflected in the way we treat all living things.

I do not agree with those that claim that because we are humans, we are entitled to eat animals. I hope the aliens find these same folks when they land on Earth and claim the same right to eat them!

Even if you do eat meat, at least be aware of the violence done on your behalf and for your pleasure. If you eat meat, you are responsible for the forced death of the animal. The animal is dead and you are not, because you are stronger and you forced your will on the weaker species.

The use of force to impose will is prevalent in nature. It is the law of the jungle, the order of the animal kingdom, it is might making right. Is that how we want to treat each other

December 4, 2004

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Fear vs. Freedom

As the election of our new President of the United States approaches, I have become discouraged. So little of the conversation is about basic human rights, freedom, and the responsibility of everyone to accept that freedom comes at a cost. What are you willing to do to have freedom?

It is one of the ironies of human history (and maybe one of the great truths of humanity) that you can't buy freedom by paying someone else to fight for it! Those waiting in the wings, greedy for the chance to take whatever you have to offer, know so little about freedom that they inevitably take it away and replace it with fear.

What are we so afraid of that we will let our own government take away our freedoms in the name of protecting the homeland? How many times have democratic governments heard this cry? How many have survived after responding to the cry?

Democracy isn't just "one person one vote". The rights of each member of a democracy reflect the belief that all are created equal. Democracy implies a tolerance of diverse perspectives, a willingness to let everyone be heard, and a mechanism for making decisions that reflects the choice of the majority. And the ultimate power of a democracy depends on each individual's commitment to fight for these rights.

What happens when fear is used to persuade people in a democracy? Being afraid, as in being afraid for one's life, as in being afraid a human bomb terrorist will be on your next train or a jet will crash into your building, or a dirty bomb will poison your community, or terrorists will invade your school and kill your children; being afraid is normal. If I really think about it, I am afraid to cross the street, I am afraid to open my door at night, I am afraid to let my children go out on their own, I am afraid of what the President, any President, will do next. Fear is good thing. It helps us to focus on potential outcomes of current decisions. Fear motivates us to think about what will happen before it happens. Our fear is successful if it keeps us from doing something that would have been a mistake.

The problem with fear being used to persuade people in a democracy is two fold. First, fear as a motivator is not bad, but choices made out of fear to avoid short term pain may not be in the best interest for long term gains. This is fear without foresight. This is the way panicked crowds and herd animals react to fear. I am reminded of herds of buffalo being stampeded over the cliffs, falling to their death out of fear for their death.

Secondly, reacting to fear is a denial of a citizen's responsibility to stand for what s/he believes. Part of the discipline of democracy is the belief that there are some rights for which its citizens are willing to fight to the death. The strength of democracy comes from the threat of such extreme action on the part of the populace. When the removal of fear is offered by politicians as a reason to empower them, the citizens have given up their most powerful weapon: their own commitment to their beliefs.

The current (George W. Bush) administration leads with fear and reaction; fear of terrorists attacking the homeland, reaction to the 9/11 destruction of the World Trade Center towers. We are soothed (and exploited) by our own expectation that we are entitlted to a safe world. And the Bush administration, with the greedy help of many business interests, is ready to take from us in the name of freeing us from our fears. The only way to make democracy work in the world is to keep the responsibility for freedom in the hands of the citizens. If we aren't willing to make sacrifices for that which we believe, hiring a gunslinger will only hasten our fall into tyranny.

September 21, 2004

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Change in Focus of Human Legacy...

I was lying in bed, again, thinking... Richard Dawkins' book The Selfish Gene brought to my attention the idea of "memes" (rhymes with beams). A meme is anything that is learned (as opposed to things like genes which are "hard wired"). Dawkins talks about the evolution and survival of memes the same way biologists talk about evolution and survival of genes. Very interesting stuff. As I lay in bed, I was thinking about how human beings survive as a species; how human survival, like many other animals, relies on learned behavior.

For example, I turned 50 this year. And though it is unlikely that I will be making any further direct contributions to the gene pool, several of my children (aged from 22 to 13) are still garnishing benefit from having me alive (at least I think so). I am helping them in ways that will contribute to the success of their continuing my gene pattern. So in some ways, I am still affecting the selection process and providing protection to my genes.

But I am much more active protecting and passing on my memes. Every day I am telling people that are unrelated to my gene pattern how I think they can better survive, thereby increasing the likelihood of the survival of their genes and my memes.

I don't know, but I would guess that I spend more of my life energy on fighting for the survival of my memes than I do on fighting for the survival of my genes. And I would guess that I am not that different from other human beings in that regard. And if, as a species, we are spending more of our collective life energy in perpetrating our memes, when did that happen? When did we start worrying more about making sure that our memes survive more than our genes?

And, it seems, that we aren't done spending more and more time on protecting our memes. As we move towards living longer past child bearing age, and we spend more time on education, "personal development", etc., it seems we focus a greater percentage of our attention on meme survival. Maybe so long as the genes are taken care of, and we have all this extra time on our hands, meme survival is the natural next step.

What is interesting is that if some physical characteristic is very valuable, but isn't visible or known until someone is past child-bearing age, then the hard wired legacy is lost, since it doesn't contribute to the success of the passing on the genetic characteristic. Take old age, for example: people who have gene patterns that contribute to their living beyond child-bearing age do not pass on their gene pattern with any more likelihood than people who don't have such gene patterns.

Now what happens when we take into consideration that men can pass on their gene patterns much longer than women? What characteristics of old men are we passing on through our genes? And what characteristics of old women are we not passing on?

Oops, thin ice, I'm falling in, I'm toast... 

August 25, 2004

Monday, April 19, 2004

Are Competitive Markets and Capitalists Good?

Assuming the definition of capitalists to be "an investor of capital in a business", then I would say capitalists are motivated by making money: they provide money with the expectation of receiving more money in return. Is this good or bad? In and of itself, making more money seems a hollow goal. Who wants to be remembered because they made a lot of money? And a good capitalist is captive to the needs of the market. The market is concerned with the efficient allocation of goods and services. Capitalists are pulled into markets where profits are higher. Capitalists help correct inefficiencies in the marketplace. But do they do good?

Competitive markets are silent on "good vs. bad". Is it better to have competitive markets? Yes. There is no more successful model for the efficient allocation of scarce goods and services. But does that mean it is good? Certainly, if it helps feed people, helps them have houseing, results in safer countries, then it is in the right direction.

But how might it not be good? It is not good if the benefit is not spread as widely as possible, resulting in great disparities in wealth. It is not good if market decisions are not being made with long-term information (i.e. the markets are not being short-sighted). Unfortunately, there are significant pressures (greed, entitlements, etc.) that work to keep disparities in wealth, especially between nations. And we all know how imperfect the information about long-term costs and benefits are; just look at our track record in the past 100 years. How can we know the long-term costs and benefits of something like nuclear energy when the technology hasn't even been around for very long? What are the long-term costs and benefits of burning fossil fuels at the rate we are burning them? Do we really know what will happen with all the carbon dioxide produced? Do we need our oceans and water supplies to be cleaner? What are the long-term costs and benefits of genetic engineering of plant and animal species? So many questions, so few answers. I don't trust our competitve markets to lead us in the right direction in such cases. Long-term costs are often ignored in favor of short-term benefits.

Moral choice, the choice between what is good or bad, needs to counterbalance the potential failures of the competitive market. I don't want to be governed by economists who often incant Keynes' statement, "In the long run, we're all dead." I prefer, thank you very much, in the long run to be good and alive!

April 19, 2004

What You Value vs. What You're Paid

Since you are paid according to the scarcity and supply of the labor you provide, it is very unlikely that the amount you are paid has anything do with what you need to do in your life. Do you want your tombstones to read, "I always followed where the market led me"? Not to mention that making a lot of money only allows you to receive what money can buy. How about the tombstone, "I was a good consumer!"

There are so many things that are important that have nothing to do with economics (the efficient allocation of scarce resources) and money (the medium of exchange). Can you name at least 3 things that are more important to you than money or the things money can buy?

April 19, 2004

Friday, April 16, 2004

Thing 2

There it is, in a see-through body bag, drowning in an ocean of life preservers: blue hair, red pantsuit, stuporous smile frozen on its face, "Thing 2" emblazoned on its chest.

Passed over by six children ahead of me, I reach down deep into the half-finished box of cereal and fish "it" out. What else to call it but "it"? Ageless and sexless, is it a he or a she? In any case, it is a "2". But where is its "1"?

Flashing that "1" is still buried, I frantically search the box. I realize, too late, that my empathy for "2"s loneliness is being exploited to dupe me into buying more boxes in a search for the missing "1". I wonder if there are any "1"s. Or was some advertising genius intent on having children everywhere plead with their parents to buy more boxes in search of "1".

I eat my cereal and milk, and save "Thing 2"; unable to throw it away. It sits, unopened, on my desk. A gift for Geri...


April 16, 2004

Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Courageous Action

What does acting courageously mean? Courage is doing what is right, even though you know that it may cause you personal sacrifice, even though you are afraid. But who among us is willing to give up the safety of his pleasant existence? Who among us is willing to sacrifice his own gratification to protect the very process that enabled us to live the way we do? Who will give up "I want because it makes me feel good" for "it may not feel good, but my children will inherit a better world"?

Isn't it interesting that the economic standard of living of United States consumers and our revered open, competitive market, only helps us make decisions about what we want to buy. So much of our lives is focused on this "efficient allocation of scarce resources". But the economy is ominously silent on, and doesn't have much to do with our desire to be allowed to think for ourselves, make decisions for ourselves, and say what we believe, other than expressing our opinions through what we buy.

Maybe it comes down to this, are we satisfied with the epitaph "he was a good consumer"? When we are dead, do we want our children to remember us with "he sure owned a lot of stuff"? Is this the ultimate destiny of humanity? Is this the best we can do? Is this what we want to do? Or is there something in addition to consumption of goods and services which we should be doing? And who will have the courage do it in spite of their fear?

April 14, 2004

The Role of Government

Maybe the role of governments should be to balance and correct the focus of what we should be doing as human beings; things we should be doing that aren't about buying stuff. Maybe the role of government is to ensure that those things that we think are important, other than being a good consumer, are given resources and encouraged, and allowed to thrive, too.

April 14, 2004

Confronting Lawlessness - Domestic vs. Foreign

On what legal basis is the United States government authorized to respond to foreign lawlessness in a way that is different that the government is authorized to respond to domestic lawlessness?

Each time I hear about covert action orders to kill people, instructions to break the law, support to overthrow other governments, I ask myself, "How are these actions justified when, in our own country, such actions would provoke the most vehement objection?" How soon will we justify such behavior against "the enemies within" the United States? I worry that our civil liberties, our freedom, the result of such a long and arduous history of vigilant protection, are being eroded by our own fear; our fear and our reluctance to accept our own responsibility to be courageous.

Is there something that we must do to protect and encourage the protection of our freedoms? Pointing a finger at "them" and saying "they are the enemy" strips us of our responsibility. Looking back in time, under what government at any time in history were freedoms improved by increasing the people's fear of "them"?

Fear, a response to a threat, can be met by finger pointing, blaming others for what has happened. It can be met by another form of finger pointing: charging others with the responsibility of making us feel safe. Or it can be met with individual courage, where each of us takes responsibility for our fear and choose to act honorably in spite of our fear.

April 14, 2004

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

New Idea for Search Engines: Event Search

Why not be able to search for events on the Internet? Let's say I am going to visit New York from August 1st to August 7th. I search for web pages with the word "New York" and with a date between August 1st, 2004 and August 7th, 2004 inclusive. The trick is recognizing pages with dates on them since 8/1/04, August 1, 2004, etc. all refer to the same day.

I posted a message to Google Labs suggesting this enhancement. We'll see what happens. I wonder how I would get the idea to Google through another channel?

April 13, 2004

Monday, April 12, 2004

Government's Role in Pharmaceuticals - Franchised Monopolies vs. Public Welfare

I just got back from a presentation by U.S. Rep. Lynn Woolsey (CA) and Rep. Bernie Sanders (VT). I was saddened to hear the amount of effort (in people resources and money) the pharmaceutical industry spends to influence congress and the administration. I was more deeply saddened by how congress and the administration seems to be influenced by the pharmaceutical industry. In particular, Rep. Sanders's description of the way that the 2003 Medicare law was passed in congress made me wonder. How could I have my head in the sand for so long? How far away has our democratic government gotten away from its purpose?

I am reminded, once again, that there are too many people who believe that the open-market competitive economy has everything under control! All we have to do is let it do its thing! There is something that sticks in my throat when I think about business people finding ways to make profits from captive customers who are sick and dying.

The pharmaceuticals industry is one such hard-to-swallow business model. Not only is every company given the incentive to make profits, but every astute business person is charged with finding ways to reduce competition by exploiting barriers to entry such as patents, legislation, and the high cost to enter the market. Few industries exhibit the characteristics of monopoly markets like the pharmaceuticals industry does. Drugs costing 5 to 10 times as much in the U.S. as in other parts of the world? Protections for the industry against the re-importation of drugs back to the U.S.? What happened to government's role in counter balancing the power wielded by monopolies? Who will represent and fight for the general welfare of the people? Unfortunately, it looks like the dollar is mightier than the vote, today.

In no way does this relieve the individual consumer from his responsibility to consider the public welfare, either. We are all good consumers, and that would yield a good global welfare result if only the consumer had a longer time perspective than his own life. If the options are "spend $100,000 on open heart surgery to prolong my life from age 65 to age 75" vs. "spend $100,000 to prolong the life of 10 children from age 0 to age 65", who among us would not choose to save oneself? Who would choose to save the children?

April 12, 2004

Violence, non-violence, creativity, and human destiny

Some musings on a Monday morning as I review my e-mail, especially an e-mail from a friend that reminds me that we must all encourage each other to be more creative. And more thoughts as a result of a phone conversation with another friend where we offer help her achieve her dreams...

Violence is when the action of one person reduces of options available to another person. By this I do not mean just physical, but all forms of violence including intimidation, degradation, abuse, etc.

Non-violence is when the action of one person increases the options available to another person.

Creativity is the way human beings take responsibility for being non-violent; we create options.

Why be non-violent? Why be creative? Because by increasing the options we have open to us we increase the likelihood that we will make a better choice.

What is a better choice versus a worse choice? What do we use to judge good choices from bad choices? The measuring stick I use most often, because it leads me in the direction of my faith in life, is, "Choosing the option that will result in the greatest likelihood that life will continue to exist for all time."

To achieve our humanity, we are responsible for being creative (increasing options) and making a good choices (that which promotes life).

Note: I use the noun "person", but these statements apply to all living things, not just human beings. However, because human beings are better at remembering the past and imagining the future, human beings are more capable than plants and other animals of, and more responsible than plants and other animals for, making good choices.

Note: We often discuss a person's intention when judging a person's behavior. The intention to do something implies that the entity which is doing something has the ability to see options, and judge the value of the options, prior to choosing an option. Does a rock rolling down a hill have intention? No, it is not making choices based on imagined options. Does a rabbit jumping out of the way of the rock rolling down the hill have intention? Yes, because the rabbit jumps out of the way to avoid the option of being hit by the rock. The level of intention depends directly on the ability of the entity to imagine and understand their responsibility for events in the future. The better able the entity is to see options and imagine the future results of choosing these options, the more the entity can be held responsible for its intention. Human beings have a greater ability to create options and to imagine the future results of their choices between different options than other life forms on this planet. We are responsible and are held to the highest standard of intention of any live form on Earth. If life forms do not survive, human beings must carry the most responsibility.

April 12, 2004

Monday, April 05, 2004

Le Paradis

"Paradis" begins and ends with Paris!

April 5, 2004

Once upon a time...

I guess I'm being pulled (dragged) into the 21st century by starting this blog. Too many people have suggested that I start a blog to ignore my ignorance any longer. It's Sunday night, I'm getting over a cold, and I am going back in my house to spend time with my family. The big news is my art show got hung on Saturday! I am excited, scared, and overwhelmed with my new creative outlet: acrylic painting.

I'll bet everyone starts out their blog with energy and determination. I wonder how I will feel about blogging in 6 weeks...