Lost in a Fishbowl

Fishbowl

 

Imagine you’re a parent.

This shouldn’t be hard for some of you. But now imagine your child, a young girl of about 5, has an amazing talent. She totally rocks at that fish game you play at carnivals.

Where at first you’re simply indulging in her delight at possibly winning a fish and then, before you know it, you find yourself driving home with your fish game prodigy daughter who is hauling ten individually bagged fish in her arms.

You stop at the animal store, pick up a tank, rocks and a few castles and cool decorations for your new army of tiny fish that your daughter has procured.

Once the fish are set up and in their new home you call and tell one of your best friends about your daughter’s amazing, but slightly odd, talent. Being your best friend, they of course want to bust your chops and minutes later something pops up on your Facebook page:

Fish Riddle

You’re a smart cookie so you figure out the answer but then something starts to nag at you as you stare back and forth between the post and your actual tank of ten little fish.

Things like these are meant solely for entertainment and aren’t meant to go deeper than what they are but through a philosopher’s eye we can learn something terribly important about life as we break down the simple answer.

Ok, first off, it says two of your fish drown. The official answer to this question says that fish can’t drown. This is, in fact, wrong. When humans drown we are deprived of oxygen because our lungs fill with water instead of air. Fish obtain their oxygen by filtering out the oxygen in the water around them. If for some reason they are deprived of oxygen and their lungs were to be filled with water, they would drown.

So, second thing they tell you is that four swim away. What exactly do they mean by ‘away’? This brings us to a very important skill in philosophy and in life. Defining what the words you use mean. This doesn’t mean every single word but a lot of times words can be open to interpretation. In this case ‘away’ can only mean so much since they’re in a tank. The word is meant to deceive you into thinking they’re gone but it could just very well mean they’re hiding in a castle or in some other portion of the tank not nearby. Being aware of the what you mean and what others may or may not mean with the words they choose can give you an upper hand in a disagreement (possibly by noticing someone’s trying to deceive you) or even just give you a leg up in a discussion in your relationship by realizing they chose a word that they didn’t quite mean (just don’t ask your wife what she means by ‘fat’ when she asks you if her dress makes her look fat).

Lastly, it says that three of your fish die. This is where misunderstandings can come up when we look critically at the wording. It says three die but they don’t explain if those two that miraculously drowned are counted among the three that are dead, so you could either have five dead or three dead where two of those drowned and the other one from natural causes. It also leaves open what happens to these particular dead fish. Are they taken immediately out of the tank? Are they left there, floating aimlessly? Perhaps they’re eaten by the other fish, as is a common occurrence.

After all this we come to the question of how many are left. Once again, we put on our philosopher’s hat and we ask what they mean by ‘left’. Perhaps it means, how many fish are in our sight or how many fish are still left living. Once again, we are meant to be deceived by wording. We hear the word ‘left’ and we are meant to immediately assume they mean that are still living based on the fact that they told us numbers pertaining to their deaths. But with a few moments of thought we come to realize they mean how many are left in the tank.

The answer they’re looking for is, of course, ten. They assume that even if they die, the fish are still in the tank and therefore you have ten fish left. But how do you even define what makes a fish? What if you believe in an afterlife and that fish have souls? Would you still consider a fish to be a fish without his fishy soul? Or what if, being left in the tank, as it’s implied, the dead fish are eaten? How much of a fish has to be left for it to still be considered a fish?

This is a common exercise in philosophy as it helps to remind us that we humans love labelling things. It’s in our nature to name, define and organize life into boxes but, as we saw in our first blog, things are rarely that simple.

 

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I’m going to go on the assumption that most of you have seen the movie Finding Nemo. If you haven’t, you should, it’s a fun movie. Anyway, in that film the little clown fish Nemo’s mother is killed when he’s still a little fishy egg and Nemo’s left to grow up with his insecure and overbearing father.

In reality, when a dominant female clown fish dies a male will often change sex to take its place. Meaning that, in truth, Nemo’s dad should’ve become his new fish mommy. Most people won’t argue with you in saying that Nemo’s dad would now be considered his mom and yet we argue over this very thing every day in our human lives whenever someone identifies as a different gender or even goes the whole nine yards and obtains a sex change.

We’re left to ponder what it means to be a man or woman or even gender neutral. Suddenly these words, or more specifically these labels, need definitions because we get uncomfortable when something defies categorization. Some people may even be getting uncomfortable just because they’re starting to think about it or even because I brought it up.

Good. I want you uncomfortable. That’s how philosophy works. Better yet, it’s important to learn that sometimes you’re going to be uncomfortable and that’s okay. See, you’re not dying just because you can’t come up with a valid definition of what makes a man that can’t be argued with (believe me, there’s always a counter argument).

What’s more important is that you must learn that not everyone uses the same definition as you for everything. Even something seemingly simple like gender. And disagreements on definitions or just in general aren’t a bad thing. They create an opportunity for growth and conversation.

But what you must always be, no matter where you stand on anything, is respectful. If someone identifies as one gender or another or even no gender at all, be respectful of that. If someone believes in a god or gods that you don’t, be respectful. Even if someone thinks that Finding Nemo wasn’t that great of a movie, no matter how terribly wrong they are, be respectful.

Labels and definitions are incredibly helpful in many ways and being aware of what you mean and what others are trying to say can make any situation easier to deal with, but remember that they’re man-made. Life doesn’t fit into little boxes with perfect labels. And if we try to fit someone or something into a box because it makes us uncomfortable that it’s not labelled, that’s when people get hurt. So, if you come to a crossroads where someone thinks, feels or believes something you don’t, be respectful of them and their wishes. There’s never any reason to be mean or hurtful and it accomplishes nothing. Instead, remember that disagreements are opportunities to learn something new about yourself, the other person and world around you.

Grow Up and Start Acting Childish

*Note: This is something I wrote last April. It’s a bit different and more personal than most of the things I’ll post here. It talks about birthdays but I felt that this also applies to how “Adults” look at holidays. So, from Stuck In Traffic, I hope everyone has a safe and wonderful holiday.

 

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“When I became a man I put away childish things, including the desire to be very grown up.”

-C.S. Lewis

 

This past April there was a birthday party.

This birthday brought friends and family over in a dazzling array of costumes. There were Batman and Avengers balloons and streamers everywhere, a Captain America cake on the table and even a Captain America piñata (which subsequently lost its head to a mighty blow from Thor’s hammer).

Oh, did I mention that this was my birthday and I was turning 31?

When I tell people about what I did for my birthday I get funny looks and I’m told just how silly the whole ordeal is. How could someone who’s in their thirties take part in such childish frivolities? And in response I always say, “How can you not?”

This world can be a harsh and terrible place at times. Those we love are stolen from us without an explanation, whole cities crumble from earthquakes, populations die ever so slowly from famine and drought and let’s not forget the plain old awful people who cheat, lie and murder for selfish reasons. In the midst of such harsh realities, it’s easy to give in to cynicism and apathy. But, in the passing years I’ve learned a thing or two about dealing with that.

I grew up far too young. I experienced my first great loss at 15 to a drunk driver. Since then I’ve seen some of the worst things humanity can inflict upon itself, save for having gone to war. I quickly gave in to anger and madness because that’s all the world seemed to have for me. Joy was fleeting and pointless it seemed, and it was all the more solidified in my mind when I got divorced.

The following months I was hollow and empty. Any feelings that washed over me were so brief as to be non-existent.

Then I started volunteering.

It started out just once a month at a children’s cancer ward. I saw children facing their mortality with laughter and smiles because, as children, that’s the only way they knew how to live. I soon moved on to the local Boys & Girls Club and that’s when I first felt it.

I felt alive.

I taught an art class once a week. Sure, there were those pain in the ass kids but I didn’t do it for them. I did it for those kids that would light up when they drew something they were proud of. One of my happiest moments actually came when I wasn’t even there. A child I’d been working with had drawn several superheroes he made up just like I’d taught him. The woman who would one day become my wife (more on her in a bit) was sending me texts of his progress as other children crowded around him watching him create one character after another. This came from a child who regularly came into the art room saying “I can’t” whenever I asked him to draw something.

That’s when I truly understood what I’d lost. This boy was drawing a crude and simple superhero of what would, from an adult’s perspective, be utterly ridiculous in concept. And yet, he beamed with joy and excitement, as did the others around him.

Almost indistinguishable scribbles were the highlight of this child’s day.

Scribbles.

I’d spent my life trying to obtain money, a marriage and a career so obsessively that the joy had gone out of all of it. I’d always envied children and their ability to find such joy in such small things.  Do you remember what it was like to see a house covered in lights and decorations around Christmas? Or the exhilaration of heading out into the darkness on Halloween night, clad in whatever costume was your greatest passion in that moment?

As adults we’ve gone out of our way to lose such childishness so that we can be regarded as a grown-up to other passionless grown-ups.

My time at the Boys & Girls Club reminded me of that ability to regard things in this world with a child-like wonder. Yet, I still maintained it was exclusively for children. That adults were devoid of such passions. But then I met my wife.

Laura was a Program Director for the Club and I met her one night when I was volunteering for their haunted house. I was taken aback because here was a beautiful, intelligent woman dressed in a pink wig with a mustache drawn on her face. As I got to know her I realized such quirks exceeded beyond the haunted house. We’d be walking through a store and a song she loved would come on and she’d dance unabashedly no matter who was in the vicinity. She’d make fart jokes, watch cartoons and sing songs loudly and completely off key. On the flip side of this we’d have in-depth conversations about history, anthropology, psychology, even astrophysics. For her birthdays I always picked a theme complete with maps, riddles and a mission to save the world.

Slowly but surely, through this woman who lived her life truly not caring what other people thought, I learned something about myself… I was happy. More than that, I was a happy grown-up. I pay my bills, work hard, every day I listen to Yale and Harvard courses to constantly broaden my knowledge of the world and the people in it. And yet, every year on the first snow my wife and I get on our snow suits and go out and play. We then come home to a nice cup of hot cocoa we made with the snow we’d collected from the previous year’s first snowfall.

While there are important staples we learn about being a grown-up (be respectful, compassionate, and be able to talk to people without scaring them) that doesn’t mean you should give up that joy and wonder that gave you tingles back when fairy tales were real and wishes in wells still came true.

As children we start out viewing the world through a very simple, clean (admittedly small) window. As we grow, so does the window. But the world around us and those who are in it with us can dirty the window or put shades and blinds on it so we can’t see things we should or keep the light from getting to us.

Tear down the shades, wash your windows, and be prepared for the brightest light you’ve ever seen. It is the light of your childhood and, like all energy, it is eternal. Once it enters you it’s a part of you forever in some form or another.

So, yes, be a grown-up. Exercise, take care of yourself and your family. Be compassionate and understanding. Learn as much as you can about the world and be an active player in its fate. When there’s an issue in your life, talk about it respectively and patiently and cut out people who are endlessly negative and ignorantly selfish. Learn from the mistakes you made in youth and try not repeat them and work hard to make a wonderful life that you’re proud of.

But along the way don’t ignore the child inside you. Take a moment to just look at the beauty and magic of the snowfall and not see the driveway that needs to be shoveled. Laugh loudly and unapologetically at things that are silly like cartoons and farts. Dance and sing whenever the feeling comes over you because people will judge you no matter what and you’d rather have them say “Well, that person’s certainly having a good time” and let them go home, ignoring the fact that they can’t remember the last time they danced so freely.

And most importantly, if something’s important to you like, say, a superhero birthday party, don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something because it’s childish. As long as you’re not being stupid and you’re not hurting yourself or someone else they have nothing to say. Any shaming they send your way is from their own insecurities and fears of not being as happy as you are.

And that’s just childish.

 

 

“Grown-ups love figures… When you tell them you’ve made a new friend they never ask you any questions about essential matters. They never say to you ‘What does his voice sound like? What games does he love best? Does he collect butterflies?’ Instead they demand ‘How old is he? How much does he weigh? How much money does his father make?’ Only from these figures do they think they have learned anything about him.”

― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

I Drove Through the Fence and Now Neither Side of the Grass is Greener

Fence

“CAN I SEE YOUR DRIVER’S LICENSE?”

It was October 31, 2015.

My pregnant wife was at home and I was on my way to the Halloween store to pick up a costume. The store itself was sitting in a rather precarious spot with a one-way road in and out of the parking lot so I knew I was in for a bit of traffic and an obnoxious load of people.

I hate people.

But, resigned to the fact that I had to get a costume, I headed in with my patience at the ready. I actually managed to get in easily enough, grabbed my costume and headed out, hoping my luck would hold.

It didn’t.

I was stuck just getting out of the parking lot for twenty minutes. But while I was there, I began to look around. I may not like people but I love watching them. I find humanity endlessly interesting and I’ve spent the better part of my life trying to fully understand them through every avenue I could get my hands on. Philosophy, science, history, psychology…. All of them and more were endlessly connected and had given me so much insight.

Insight which became overwhelming sitting amidst the sea of cars.

I saw a bunch of assholes, cutting each other off, shoving themselves in wherever they could, swearing and flipping the bird.

I saw those who were kind, letting others in when they had the chance, keeping their cool when someone took advantage of their generosity and offering that universal wave of “You’re welcome” as they let yet another frustrated driver out to freedom on the open road.

I saw parents yelling at their kids. Men and women on cell phones, oblivious to the other drivers. Couples. Singles. Families. Old people. Young people. Every aspect of humanity was surrounding me in a perfectly poetic metaphor for life:

A Traffic Jam.

After all, who among us hasn’t felt stuck? Or frustrated with strangers or loved ones? Or watched as idiot after idiot makes the same mistakes and you wonder how the hell these people manage to dress themselves let alone make it through a single day in this world?

That’s when the idea stuck me. I’d write a book! Something that would utilize my years of study to help people through the traffic jam with a little more patience, dignity and success. And it would be called Stuck in Traffic: A Philosophical Critique of Humanity.

But…. There was a problem.

I didn’t have the time to write a book. And even if I did the only people who read books like that are either intellectuals or overly pretentious teenagers. I wouldn’t reach the people that I wanted to help. I didn’t want to write a book filled with references and detailed explanations of statistics from experiments. That wasn’t relatable or fun for the average Joe.

So that’s why I’m here. To lend my insight to normal issues that I see people dealing with every day in a way that’s not meant just for lovers of philosophy or science but to everyone, using metaphors, anecdotes and facts that are easy and clear to understand.

That being said, while I’m not going to throw names like Kierkegaard or Nietzsche at you, I am going to ask you to think. The point of these posts are to be rational and logical investigations into the truths about life and this is something the world sorely needs more of, as put beautifully by the Philosophical Society:

“Why should anyone bother to study at least a little logic? To sharpen the mind in a world saturated by streams of propaganda and advertising. To know when a pitchman is conning you, when some ‘expert’ or pundit is propounding a dubious doctrine, when someone is making an apocryphal claim about miracles or divinity or the afterlife. To chasten one’s own thinking, to develop an appreciation for tenable arguments and a respect for good reasoning. To become more adept at solving problems, whether they’re encountered in business, science, politics, or the law.”

Now, before we begin, a small warning. These thoughts, ideas and topics can be unsettling or uncomfortable at times. In it we are made to confront things we already know in a whole new light, turning the familiar strange. And once you open the windows and let this new light in, the whole world changes, and, like lost innocence, however unsettling, it cannot be unseen, unthought or unknown.

 

“WHY ARE YOU DOING THAT? OH, IT’S BECAUSE YOU’RE STUPID”

My wife and I were driving to work one morning when we came to a stop sign at an intersection. The other road had no stop sign and thus, had the right of way. Sure enough, just as we came to a full stop, a car was pulling up from the other road so, naturally, we let him go first. But, instead, he came to a full stop. For no reason.

Obviously, the only rational thing for us to do was to yell at him wildly from our car, “What’re you doing, you idiot?! You don’t have a stop sign!”

Magically, he heard us and he began to go. Though it was just our luck that he was turning down the direction we were headed. In all his brilliance, the man must’ve thought that his stop at NOTHING a few seconds earlier had given him a free pass for the next ACTUAL stop he came across because as he approached a red light, he just kept on going.

I don’t have an exact number, but it’s gotta be well over a hundred times a day I utter the phrase, “People are idiots.”

In the intro to this blog I explained that this wasn’t going to be for just the intellectuals and geniuses. But what do we mean by genius or intelligence?

Do you think you’re smart? Probably. Do you think you’re an idiot? Probably not. Was that guy driving in my story above an idiot? Sure seemed like it. But how do we determine who’s smart and who’s dumb? I bet that guy driving doesn’t think he’s an idiot.

The word “smart” actually comes from an Old Dutch term that means “pain”. Like the saying, “Ow, that smarts!” Feel free to use that little tidbit to impress your friends. They’ll think you’re smart.

Psychologically it’s been shown that most people believe they are smart, good drivers and good in bed. But we’ve all known enough idiots, seen plenty of crappy drivers and most people have had at least one night of shitty sex to know that just because you think something of yourself doesn’t mean it’s true.

This whole blog has a driving metaphor and, as much as we all love talking about sex (we’ll get to that another day) let’s stay focused on smartness. The truth is, there’s no shared definition for intelligence. So how can we know for sure that the guy driving was an idiot and that you’re smart? Aside from the evidence that you’re here reading this amazing blog and he’s out there defiling the rules of the road.

We, in America have this obsession with intelligence. We take baseless Facebook IQ tests and get excited when we stumble upon something that says “If you solve this under one minute, your a genius!”

I want you to take another look at that last sentence since I cut and pasted it from an actual Facebook post. It uses the wrong “your”. It should be “you’re” so obviously the person writing that wasn’t a genius. And does solving something in under minute really make you smart anyway?

Let’s look at someone everyone knows was smart: Albert Einstein.

Every so often you’ll see ads that say. “Einstein’s IQ was 160! What’s yours?” First off, no one knows Einstein’s IQ. He refused to take any kind of IQ test because he didn’t believe in them. Instead, he is often quoted saying, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.”

But what about that whole solving a puzzle under a minute thing? Back to Einstein. He’s famous for his theories on relativity and those theories took him roughly 9 years to figure out. He also got stuck a bunch of times and asked several of his mathematician friends for help. Apparently he was really good at sticking with one problem for a long time and knowing when to ask for help. It seems speed isn’t as important as we’d like to think. So why do we get sucked into stuff like that so easily?

It’s our culture and our psychology.

We want to feel special and smart because we equate these things with a good life and success. But anyone who’s seen an episode of the Kardashians knows that you don’t have to be smart to be successful.

Even our educational systems play into this. We take SAT tests that challenge our overall intelligence in order to get into college while every other country in the world makes you take Subject Tests based on your area of study. Because they know that not everyone is a physicist or a mathematician, two types of people who tend to score high on IQ and SAT tests. But take an artist like Picasso or a poet like Pablo Neruda, geniuses both, and they may not do as well on an IQ test because their genius isn’t based in that realm of knowledge . In fact, a mathematical genius, in all other regards like common sense, human interaction or driving could be a total moron for all we know.

Historically, this country began using IQ tests when they realized there was a correlation between high IQ and overall success rates. While it makes sense that people who have a broader and more useful set of knowledge of the working world would be more likely to be successful, this inevitably brings us to a very important phrase that will come up A LOT in future posts.

Correlation does not equal causation.

I know, I said I wasn’t gonna throw big words at you but these one’s are IMPORTANT. This is a mistake we humans make a great deal in our logic. Simply put, it means that just because you do something and then another thing happens, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the first thing is directly related to the second thing.

So, for example, if one morning you woke up, got out of bed, put on a pink bunny costume and then did a little pee-pee dance in your living room only to leave your house to find five dollars blowing down the sidewalk, it doesn’t mean your magic bunny pee-pee dance gave you the five dollars.

The world is endlessly complicated and we have to remember this fact when faced with the majority of issues we come upon in life. Yes, perhaps someone is giving you a five dollar tip for getting to watch your urine-filled bunny boogie through your window like a creeper but most likely, it’s just a coincidence. And just because someone’s good at math and you’re not doesn’t make them smarter than you, it makes them better at math. I can read papers on quantum physics no problem but ask me to fix a carburetor (or even spell it without spell-check) and I’m useless. This applies to a multitude of topics, not just intelligence, which we’ll see shortly.

The philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah says sometimes he’ll meet people on a plane and whenever he tells them he’s a philosopher they inevitably ask him, “What’s your philosophy?” He always answers, “My philosophy is that everything is more complicated than you thought.”

 

“THAT GUY’S AN ASSHOLE”

If you’re on any kind of social media these days, I’m sure you’ve seen shared stories about a massive comet hitting earth at such and such a date or that there’s a huge alien megastructure we’ve discovered or something simpler like bacon causes cancer or gluten is unhealthy and makes you fat.

We see these articles, mostly written by journalists seeking likes, views and shares and we spread them around like wildfire without ever going deeper into the truth. First, let me clarify these stories for you:

No, there is no comet set to hit and destroy earth. You can check any myriad of astronomical sites that constantly report the whereabouts and sizes of comets. Trust the majority of scientists, this is what they do for a living (don’t trust just one, though, because he could easily be wrong).

Most likely, there’s no alien megastructure. Yes, this theory was said by a respected scientist but when you go back to the full interview he was just spit-balling a myriad of theories for something big (or possibly a bunch of small things) that was passing by a distant star. But no one’s gonna click on an article that says “SCIENTIST SAYS THERE COULD BE A COMET CLUSTER SOMEWHERE FAR AWAY!”

Bacon causing cancer created a worldwide gasp from every bacon-lover in the world. But with a little research we find that the statistics are low and as long as you’re not gorging yourself on bacon every day, you should be fine (and if you are, I’m sure heart disease will take you out LONG before cancer cells start to form). In fact, there are more carcinogens in your average cup of coffee than in a slice of bacon. All things in moderation when it comes to your health and food. Sugar, for example is an important part of your diet. However, we Americans drink giant sodas numerous times a day and chomp away at cookies and snacks and we’re overloading our bodies in a very unhealthy manner.

This brings me to my ever-constant hatred of the gluten phenomenon. Gluten will not make you fat nor is it bad for you. It is merely a protein found in bread that holds it together. People with Celiac disease are allergic to this particular protein but this number of people is VERY small. Recently a study was completed testing people who claimed to have a “gluten sensitivity”. It turned out that it was a placebo effect that caused these people’s “symptoms”. In other words, it was all in their heads. So when you see yogurt or beef jerky that says “Gluten Free!” I want you let out a very loud DUH! Because it never EVER has gluten.

All of these issues and so many more are similar to the ideas about intelligence that we’ve already gone over. When you read or hear about these kinds of topics you should never take them at face value. Especially when it comes to important things like your health, relationships or the state of the world. So, when you see an article that suggests your lover could be psychopath… take it with a very small grain of salt.

The idea here is to stop and think when given something simple and straightforward because life is almost never either of those things. Another good example of this is something I saw floating around Facebook a while ago. It had two pictures, one of Hitler and one of Hillary Clinton. Underneath each it gives quotes by both Hitler and Clinton about society’s needs coming before the individual. Now, whatever your feelings are about Clinton, doesn’t matter here. What the image is inferring is that Clinton is evil like Hitler for saying something similar to what he said. However, Hitler was also a vegetarian and a Christian and we definitely wouldn’t automatically think of other Christians or vegetarians as evil.

Let’s also think about what they both said. “Society’s needs outweigh those of the individual.” There are plenty of people who would agree with that statement. It makes sense depending on your views of an individual’s importance within society. Now if you quoted the both of them saying the “Jews should be annihilated”… well then you’ve got a problem. What this image of the two them is trying to do is to plant the idea of Clinton being evil in a person’s brain without a valid argument because comparing her to Hitler is so much easier and simpler for the common folk. Now, you may not agree with Clinton’s policies on things like gun control or foreign policy but her faults are a far cry from being a megalomaniac bent on world domination. If you have a point of view, back it up with a valid argument, not childish rhetoric and demand the same from those who oppose your view point. And the second someone starts throwing “Hitler” around or claiming it’s a conspiracy, you can be relatively certain that they lack the evidence necessary to back up their argument and are taking last resorts meant to insult, aggravate or confuse more than prove their point.

Now, remember when I said sometimes things on here can get uncomfortable? Well, this brings us to one of those moments. Even if you have what you think is a well-informed opinion from sources you trust, you should still go out and read from those that go against what you believe. It’s vital that you keep an open mind and to hear the evidence from other sources. You may find that with a little critical thinking you can dismantle the opposing side’s view or perhaps you’ll learn to see things from a different perspective and begin to see the grays in life and not the black and whites that we’d like it to be.

Let’s take a simple example: Pedophiles are bad.

It’s pretty straight forward and I doubt there are many who would argue with me on that. But let’s take a look at a situation written about by psychologist Paul Bloom:

“In 2000, an otherwise normal Virginia man started to collect child pornography and make sexual advances toward his prepubescent stepdaughter. He was sentenced to spend time in a rehabilitation center, only to be expelled for making lewd advances toward staff members and patients. The next step was prison, but the night before he was to be incarcerated, severe headaches sent him to the hospital, where doctors discovered a large tumor on his brain. After they removed it, his sexual obsessions disappeared. Months later, his interest in child pornography returned, and a scan showed that the tumor had come back. Once again it was removed, and once again his obsessions disappeared.”

Suddenly a straightforward black and white idea has become gray. This man, for all intents and purposes, was a pedophile which is bad, but upon further investigation a tumor is the root cause of it and suddenly we are met with hesitation at condemning him.

This is the importance of taking the time to think critically about anything. Whether it’s what foods you put in your body, what you believe about the state of the world and the universe or if you’re simply judging a person, public or private, as good or bad. So the next time someone says, “Oh, it’s totally true! I read an article on it!” take a deep breath and remind yourself that they are probably referring to a click-bait article they found on Facebook and not a legitimate source of information and go look into it yourself later. Sometimes you’ll even find that there is no clear cut answer. There’s nothing wrong with reserving judgement until you have more evidence or simply not taking a side.

It’s human nature to separate things into good and bad, black and white, etc. It helps us to not be overwhelmed and frightened in a chaotic and complex world. We’d love to think that all soldiers who fight for our country are good and that pedophiles are bad but that ignores the fact that some soldiers are pedophiles or worse and perhaps that one pedophile in thousands has a tumor. Or we like to think that natural things are good and chemical things are bad, never mind the fact that natural things include Arsenic, the giant poo you took this morning and the only true evil in the world, sharks (I hate sharks) and that EVERYTHING is made of chemicals.

 

“SHIT, IS THAT A COP?”

Everyone’s heard of Sherlock Holmes, the brilliant detective able to deduce the most intimate of details with the simplest and hard-to-spot clues. I’m sure we all wish we had this skill at one point or another. Here’s the awesome part: In some ways, we do.

Let’s start with the simplest of simple examples. You’re in a room with a chair and a table. On the table sits an apple. In your life you’ve seen hundreds of chairs, tables and apples so you know that you can walk over, sit in the chair and rest your arms on the table while you eat the hell out of that delicious apple.

What you’ve done there is actually built up a stereotype in your mind about chairs, tables and apples. I know, “stereotype” is a big, bad word. We spend so much of our lives trying not to stereotype but there are good kinds. Kinds we’ve used in our lives to grow and learn about the world that have helped us to survive.

Remember the example I used earlier about soldiers and pedophiles? We believe that most soldiers are good men because most of them are. These are brave men who are willing to sacrifice their lives for us, the country and its ideals and that is a noble attribute that takes an even nobler person. The same logic goes for pedophiles. Most pedophiles are sexual predators who do terrible things and most don’t do it because of a tumor. They do it because they’re amoral sociopaths with a problem.

Like Sherlock, we’re able to look at someone in an army uniform and discern a great deal about who they are. Whether it’s their race, religious beliefs, political affiliation, or their views on foreign policy. The same goes for the creepy guy with the shitty comb-over who lives in the seedy motel down the street and drives an ice cream truck. He may not be a pedophile but we’ve certainly seen our fair share of them that fit that particular stereotype and it makes us cautious.

So where do you draw the line? How do we tell when we should go by the stereotypes that automatically play out in our heads or use that critical thinking that’s oh-so-important?

It’s easy. Just slow down and quit speeding.

I worked briefly for the post office as a mail carrier and when I was hired I had to take a special defensive driving course. At the end of the first day we were given a homework assignment. When we left we were told to see how far we drove before we started to think about something other than driving.

I barely made it out of the parking lot before I started thinking about dinner. What this assignment was meant to teach us was self-awareness.

Have you ever caught a kid doing something bad and you ask them why they did it and they just look at you blankly and shrug. They have no idea. They just did it.

We do this kind of thing all the time because we’re usually not taught to be self-aware about who we are and why we do the things we do. Other people do it way too much and it can become a hindrance. Self-awareness is how you handle this important balance between our natural biases and critical thinking.

You have to learn to be aware when you’re jumping to conclusions that could be false and take a deep breath and then think slowly about how to proceed. This can be difficult so don’t beat yourself up if you catch yourself after the fact. Every moment is an opportunity and you’ll always get more to improve.

As for the idiot driver who stopped for no apparent reason and then proceeded to not stop at a red light, my first conclusion is the man’s an incompetent moron. Upon further reflection perhaps he was just terribly tired. Maybe he was up all night caring for a crying baby. His license plate was from Jersey so maybe it was those damn Jersey drivers. At the end of the day, I’m most likely never going to see the man again so my opinion really is of no importance. I can express my frustrations by calling him a moronic, snatch-napkin and it doesn’t hurt his feelings or hinder any future relationship. But if I were to walk into work to find that he’s my new supervisor, then I would have to take a moment and put my conclusions about him aside and when I’ve had a number of further interactions with the man, make my judgements about how smart or stupid he is, and decide how I want this relationship to move forward. He may be an idiot driver but a brilliant leader. Whatever my conclusions about him, being my new supervisor, I may wanna keep those opinions to myself.

The point is, put your energies where they’re needed in regards to when you should and shouldn’t self-check your biases and stereotypes. Don’t look at a chair and wonder if it will collapse despite the fact that all the other chairs haven’t. But if you’re walking down the street and you see a young African American in a hoodie, don’t automatically assume you’re about to be mugged. He’s most likely just trying to keep his head warm.

Now some biases are engrained in us so deeply we don’t even realize we have them. In those situations we have to be more aware that we all have these biases and may even have to trick ourselves to do the right thing. It wasn’t that long ago that women were vastly underrepresented in orchestras. The people doing the auditions weren’t sexist they explained, it’s just that men were naturally better musicians. That was until they started doing blind auditions.

As soon as they started having the musicians play behind a curtain, the number of women skyrocketed. The sad thing was that some of the people holding the auditions were women.

I’ll go more into cultural and racial biases in another post when I get to compassion and empathy but I will say that our culture has raised us to believe certain negative stereotypes about sexes and races that even the negatively affected groups believe. In psychological studies where participants of various races were given two almost identical resumes and shown two corresponding pictures, one of a Caucasian man and one of an African American and they were asked which one they’d hire for a job. Most, even other African Americans, inevitably chose the Caucasian man. Does this mean that the majority of white people are just better to hire? Absolutely not. It means there is something wrong with how our society thinks.

 

“LET’S STOP AT THE EXISTENTIALIST DRIVE-THRU!”

At the end of the day, life, unlike driving, has no manual. Society has certain rules and boundaries that you should obey for good reason; things like don’t steal, murder or be a selfish douchebag. But as far as how you go about your life within this society, that’s up to you.

You can meander through your life, never questioning yourself or the world you live in; never contributing to society in any fashion. But that existence is shallow and empty once you realize what’s beyond it.

Once you stop and really think about what you consider is a smart or good person and honestly compare that to yourself, most of us are hit with rather harsh realities. What does it mean to be good? Do you even have a set of morals to guide you? And if you do, how well do they stand up to criticism and difficult situations? If they crumble, it doesn’t make you stupid. It just means you need to learn, grow and change.

And that’s what life is all about.

Being stagnant in any form is death. Your mind never stops growing and changing. And neither does society. It’s your job as an individual to decide who you are and who you want to be, not just for yourself but to find a happier place amongst society.

A few years back, some scientists asked the question if religion makes people happier. They did a poll in the United States and found that most people who went to church claimed to be happier and more fulfilled than those who didn’t. Intrigued by their findings they expanded their polls to the rest of the world and surprisingly, found the opposite was true in other more non-religious countries. The atheists were the happier ones in countries like Sweden and Norway which were overall much less religious.

How could this be? Was American religion better? Probably not. The scientists went back and collected more data and found out what it was that was causing the differences.

It was the sense of community.

America is a religious country and the bulk of communities are made up of those who spend time being a part of something bigger like their church. Whereas, atheists have fewer places or groups to be a part of. In other countries, while they’re not religious, still find ways to come together and be a part of a community. It wasn’t the religion or the lack there of that made these people happy, it was having a place to be together and belong.

We’re social creatures. Even those of us who are more introspective and withdrawn still crave closeness with other people. It’s why we go online, join groups, root for sports teams or go to concerts. As small as these things are, most people are comforted and overjoyed to be in a place where they are with those who are likeminded.

We yearn for connections and adore being a part of something bigger than ourselves. But we must always be careful, as this can cause an “us or them” kind of thinking. This separates us and causes divides that shouldn’t be there.

We’re all human and we each deserve happiness and respect, no matter our standing. But these things aren’t just given to us. Together we have to create a society that can give each of us a sense of pride and freedom in who we are as individuals.

It’s been shown that if a person is playing tug-of-war they’ll put in more of an effort if they’re pulling by themselves than if they’re on a team because they rely on others to pull harder. It’s time we changed that. If each person to his own took responsibility for who they are and started to improve and grow, society would follow.

We’re all stuck in this traffic jam together. It doesn’t matter your station or background, your intelligence or your worth. You’re stuck here. The only way we can get out of this happier and easier is by working together. But, like any relationship, the first person we gotta fix is ourselves. And that’s what we’re here to do.

So, sit back, start your engines and turn on the radio. It may be a long and bumpy ride but, it’s like they say, it’s not the destination….

It’s the journey.