Wednesday, August 31, 2011

What is Optimism?

I had an argument yesterday about this question.  My friend equated optimism with idiocy.  To him, optimism was synonymous with Pollyanna-ism:  "A belittling and often insulting term for believing in a good world where everything works out for the best all the time" (  I see his point, but that's not what optimism means to me.  Perhaps both optimism and pessimism have active and passive forms:

Passive optimist:  You don't have to do anything because generosity and kindness will somehow triumph.
Passive pessimist:  You don't have to do anything because incompetence, stupidity, and selfishness will always triumph.

Active optimist:  You look for alternatives, other ways of seeing, explaining, and solving problems.  Choose your battles.  Tackle problems one at a time.  Even when things do not improve, your passionate actions might inspire others, and you probably have more fun.
Active pessimist:  Be indignant.  Complain and whine about incompetence, stupidity, and selfishness.  You can see a better way - that's why you're so frustrated.  But although you tend to see the worst in everything, sometimes your indignation causes you to try to try to change the world (but never yourself).

Passive or active, pessimists are a pain to be around.  They don't even get along with each other.  Oh dear.  I seem to be terribly pessimistic in my opinion of pessimists.  Let me change that.  Maybe just as winter helps us appreciate summer, we need the cold, dark pessimists to appreciate sunny optimists. 

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Why Do I Believe What I Believe?

When asked to explain his success, Arno Penzias, 1978 Nobel Prize winner for physics, said "Change starts with the individual.  So the first thing I do each morning is ask myself, 'Why do I strongly believe what I believe?'  Constantly examine your own assumptions."    from "The Art of Powerful Questions" (see toolkit) 

We choose our beliefs (e.g. love is better than anger, hope is better than fear), but can we always logically justify why we believe it?  Everything we believe has a source - our upbringing, education, or culture form the categories through which we process our experiences.  To even answer that question, we are subject to assumptions contained in the language of our inquiry.  Assumptions within assumptions, mirrors within mirrors.

No wonder many people need to find some firm footing in a pre-existing belief system or they would feel like Alice falling through the rabbit hole.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Why Do They Apologize for Mourning?

Many people grieving Jack Layton online (especially in the first few days on the Globe and CBC websites) began with "I didn't vote for him, but" or "I don't agree with his politics, but" and other similar statements.  What's with the disclaimers?

I suppose there are many reasons for the need to modify our feelings and statements by first apologizing for them.  My most generous interpretation is that those apologizing for grieving are surprised at the depth of their own feelings -- given their past non-support for Jack Layton or the NDP.  The disclaimers also seem defensive and self-protective (glossing over an underlying fear).  Yes, I respect the goodness of Jack -- but I don't want you to see me as a socialist.

It is so hard for humans to hold contrary beliefs at the same time.  Their brains hurt when they think something like this:
  • Jack Layton was a good man, but
  • Socialists are bad, but
  • Jack was a socialist, therefore
  • Jack was bad - except that he was good.
When faced with opposites, people experience a kind of cognitive dissonance or bad music in the brain.  The disclaimer helps them live with the two opposing thoughts -- but prevents them from examining the underlying assumptions.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

What Is the Meaning of Life?

Being alive is a miracle, a mystery, and a gift.  I can't say I think about the meaning of life at all anymore, yet my friend M. says that's the question she thinks about most often.

I stopped wondering about the meaning of life after reading these lines from Joseph Campbell:  "I don't believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive."

The moment I read that quote, I decided that I would try to deepen my students' experiences of being alive.  I left the meaning question to others.

Joseph Campbell continues - People are looking for the experience of being alive so that "our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonance within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive. That's what it's all finally about."

My favourite quote on this question, though, comes from the wonderful writer and therapist, Rachel Naomi Remen:

"We are all here for a single purpose:  to grow in wisdom and to learn to love better.  We can do this through losing as well as through winning, by having and by not having, by succeeding or by failing.  All we need to do is to show up openhearted for class"

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

How Can We Be Loving and Hopeful?

Jack Layton's letter to Canadians ended with these words:

"Love is better than anger.  Hope is better than fear.  Optimism is better than despair. 

Darwin believed that human emotions evolved via natural selection with fear and anger evolving earlier than social emotions such as love and hope.  Anger and fear can find us quite easily.   Love and hope have to be chosen deliberately and consciously.  It seems, though, that after a while of deliberately choosing love and hope, those choices start to be made automatically.

Anger and fear drive us apart.  Love and hope bring us together.  "So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic.  And we'll change the world."

Saturday, August 20, 2011

How Do You Know a Film Was Good?

Movies (and other art experiences) are often completely forgettable.  Here are two questions I ask in considering the value of a film:
  1. Do I think about it at least once the next day?
  2. Would I want to have dinner with any of the characters? 
If I say "yes" to both of these questions, then it was probably worth seeing.
What are your criteria?

Friday, August 19, 2011

What's the Hardest Thing You Ever Had to Let Go Of?

Back in the last century, I had to let go of a doomed relationship that had already let go of me.  To help myself in the process, I asked everyone I met:  "What is the hardest thing you ever had to let go of?"  "My freedom," said a new mother.  "My youth," said someone who had just turned 40.  People told me that it was hard letting go of jobs, friends, homelands, beliefs, and resentments.

One friend, a graphic artist, said this:  "For years I was ready to buy a house.  I had an image of the house I wanted.  It had to be modern in some ways, but cosy and old-fashioned in other ways.  The problem was that the house of my imagination didn't exist.  I poured tens of thousands of dollars into rent instead of into a mortgage.  When I finally let go of the house in my head, I found a great place.  In the end - letting go was easy, hanging on was hard... it stopped me from growing."

Fears sit just below the surface of the difficulty of letting go.  If we bring our fears into the light and face them, letting go might be easier.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Is There Something BIG and IMPORTANT Going On that We Know Nothing About?

Today's question, "Do you think there is something big and important going on that we know nothing about?" was one of the original 13 questions that I would ask my university English students.  Their answers included,
  • "I'm not that paranoid."
  • "If it was important, my mother would tell me." ... and
  • "The people campaigning to remove fluoridation from the water supply are being instructed by their Martian overlords who control them through the fillings in their teeth."
On the course that year was Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End in which humans evolve to unite with a large cosmic cloud of consciousness (the overmind). Timothy Leary also speculated on this idea suggesting that there was a manifest destiny of the DNA.

I think that there are many many things going affecting our lives every day, but since they are things we know nothing about, I cannot say more.  What do you think?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

What's the Best Birthday Present Ever?

Last year my brother asked me what I wanted for my birthday.  I told him that I'd like to meet him somewhere for coffee or whatever and for him to ask me three questions.

His first question was about my spousal unit and led to a discussion of our relationship.  His second question was "What did you learn this year?"
His third question was "Where do you find peace in the heart?"

If you do not want more stuff, then interesting questions, close attention to the answers, and thoughtful responses can also be wonderful gifts.


Monday, August 15, 2011

What Am I (And I Alone) Responsible For?

I woke up this morning with this question on my mind:  What am I responsible for?
Isn't that one of the bigger questions we each face in our lives?  If we ask it at all.
I immediately started reading commentary on Genesis 4:9 ("Am I my brother's keeper?"), but decided to look elsewhere for a first answer.  I'm certain of two things:
1.  I'm responsible to do things that I say I will do.
2.  If I bring life into the world, I'm responsible for cherishing it. [Explaining the meaning of "cherish" would take many more words.]

What are my responsibilities as a citizen of a nation-state?  as a worker who is paid to do a job?  as a member of a family?  as a breather of air in the biosphere?
What are my responsibilities to myself as a lifeform?

Sunday, August 14, 2011

What Else is Disappearing?

I just read this line in the August 8, 2011, New Yorker, "He prefers skinny ties, which, he maintains, are harder to find than a decent reading lamp."  (Patricia Marx, "Real Men Don't Shop").

Yes, skinny ties are apparently disappearing, along with thin belts. I'm wearing one now on my flammable shorts (see July 21 blog post), but it was very hard to find.  Most irritating is the disappearance of B and 2B pencils in packs of 10.  You can get B (#1) or 2-10B pencils in the art section of your office supply store, but they don't have erasers and you are meant to use them for drawing only.  Decent pencils have been disappearing for a while now.  I met a frustrated man in Staples the other day.  We were both hunting for pencils and he went on and on about lead falling out of pencils when he sharpens them, lousy erasers, and the effect bad pencils are having on his golf game.

I mentioned in yesterday's blog that conversation is disappearing and apparently picnics.  You doubt me?  Then ask yourself, how many picnics have you had this year, compared to 1986, say?

I know the disappearance of skinny ties is trivial compared to non-renewable resources, bees and other species, and clean air, but maybe all these disappearing things are part of a pattern or a trend?  Oh, I've noticed trends are also disappearing.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Should I Leave the House?

Yes, you never know what might happen.

I was coaxed to leave the house yesterday and go hear The Sultans of String - a charming three-person band playing music from Lebanon to Cape Breton Island.  The music was delightful, but the outing became more delightful when I began chatting with a young man at the next table.  I asked him whether he thought music answered questions, and we got to talking about questions in general.  He opened his notebook and showed me the entry he had made that very morning:  "What are my biggest questions right now? - or if not the biggest, then the next biggest?" and underneath, "Where is my next inspiration going to come from?"

I told him I was working on this question:  "What else is disappearing?"
He said, "This is disappearing."

He said piercingly, "Would you mind if I started my own book of questions - or would that be stealing?

"Everyone should have their own questions," I replied. 

Friday, August 12, 2011

What Questions Does Harry Potter Answer?

In the April 10, 2011, New York Times Book Review, a writer asked the question:  Why are vampire books and Harry Potter books so popular among young people?  The author, Dana Stevens, said that pre-teen and teenage readers are "poised between the powerless dependence of childhood and the frighteningly unmoored freedom of adult life."  Books in which children harness otherworldly powers to vanquish cosmic evil answer their most urgent questions.  Stevens says these questions are 

1.  What is my destiny?
2.  How can I know the extent, and limit, of my powers?
3.  Do the moral choices I make really matter?

I recall asking a version of those questions when I was younger.  Some of us try to develop our powers and create our destiny.  Others let destiny decide for them (or think they do).  We make large and small moral decisions every day.  They always matter.  Those decisions determine our character and set up the circumstances that lead to our next decision.

Another review in the same issue of the NYTBR said that books for children 3-7 asked these questions:  "Is there anything good about being small?"  and "Will I ever be as good as the big kids?"

My question:  What's with book reviewers saying that books ask (and answer) questions?
My answer:  Questions are everywhere, like math, physics, and love.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

What Should I Believe?

In Doug Coupland's book Generation A (2009), one of the characters gets a phone call:

Father:  "It's time we had a talk."
Zoë:  "What is it, Father?"
Father:  "It's simple, really.  You need to know that your mother and I don't believe in anything."

and later he says, "Ideology is for people who don't trust their own experiences and perceptions of the world" (pp. 165-166).

This is reminiscent of a line from Marat/Sade, by Peter Weiss.  In the play, the infamous Marquis de Sade says, "The only truth we can point to is the ever changing truth of our own experience."  In other words, truth is a moment-to-moment negotiation.

The trouble with experiences and perceptions being equated with "truth" is that perceptions are often immediately interpreted and the interpretation is remembered and believed, rather than the direct experience  -- brain research shows that even when a part of the brain is poked to elicit a feeling, the research subject creates a non-poking cause for the feeling (See

In his song "God," John Lennon discounts all the things people normally believe in including magic, the Bible, Jesus, Gita, Elvis, and the Beatles.  He says, "I just believe in me, Yoko and me."

But what should we believe in?  More on this soon.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

I'm Shy. What Do I Say Next?

Most people see conversation as the search for overlap in the Venn Diagram of their realities.

"How are you?"  "What do you do?"  "What are you studying?" 
and then, for many people -- the awkward silence.

Here's what to do:  Listen carefully to the answer to your first question, and then follow up with a related question.

- What program are you in? [first question]
- Computer Science
- How did you get interested in that? [second question]
- My dad was an engineer.
- Really?  So you were forced to learn math before you could walk?  What was it like growing up in a family like that? [deeper question]

It sounds easy, but it's not.  In my classes, students introduce one another to the class as a public speaking exercise.  Each student has a chance to ask another student a question based on the information in the introduction.  They are told in advance which one of them will ask the next question.  Every class there are several who cannot come up with any question at all.  They may be shy or nervous.  Maybe they weren't listening.

A conversation depends on getting to the first question and then the second.  A conversation involves being open-hearted and genuinely interested in the other person.  Conversations with new people do not have to start with "What do you do?" or "Come here often?"  Try something else.  Here's some suggestions.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Does It Get Any Easier?

Almost 30 years ago, on the stairwell of McMaster University, one of my engineering students - his lip quivering - asked me, "Does it get any easier?" 
I replied, "No John, it just gets weirder."
This question is still asked by students. The answer is mostly the same.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

How Can I Comfort a Troubled Friend?

I had been going through some stressful times.  A friend of mine said via email, "Let me know if you want to talk.  I'm here to listen."  That phrase rubbed me the wrong way.  I didn't mention it because I know my friend only meant goodness and was troubled for me and wanted to show support.

As you know from my previous blog on complaining, venting, and whining, I do not find those behaviours useful.  The comment, "I'm here to listen" -- which I repeat, was said with a big, open heart -- must have made me feel like a whiner.

I mentioned this today to my houseguest.  She told me of a time when her offer of support to a friend was taken as an offense.  "Should I have just said, 'How can I support you?'"

Maybe - maybe not.  "How can I support you?" is probably a better response than giving advice or clichéd responses like "This too shall pass" or worse, "I know how you feel."  The problem with advice and "I know how you feel" is that, without realizing it, you are  barraging the friend with your reality.  They need you to put yourself aside for a moment and somehow "be" with them.  It's a tough thing to do and takes practice.  Here's a super-handy cheat sheet of sentence starters that will help you focus on the other person.

Troubled people are troubled.  Sometimes it doesn't matter what we say, but usually an expression recognizing their difficulty without trying to fix it will keep you connected to the other person.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

How Many Times Do I Have to Apologize?

Only once if you do it right.

Too often an apology sounds like this:  "I'm sorry for yelling at you -- but you pissed me off."  (Translation:  It's your fault.)
Or, "I'm sorry - OK?"  (Translation:  I'm sorry you're mad.  Get over it.)
Or, "I said I was sorry.  How many times do I have to apologize?" (Translation:  It's your fault that you're still mad.  Get over it.)

Have you ever been genuinely sorry?  Maybe you did something foolish or you weren’t sufficiently careful or you spoke inappropriately or you accidentally broke something that belonged to someone else.  After making excuses and blaming everyone else, you thought about it and you realized that you were wrong.  Maybe the other person contributed in some way...but that doesn't diminish your contribution.  When you finally apologized, the other person said, "That’s not enough" or "I don’t believe you." What now?

Here are the parts of a good apology:

1.  Apologize for the specific thing.  "I'm sorry for being an asshole in the car when you were giving me directions and I took the wrong turn and I thought you were blaming me but you were just trying to explain how we could find the right street."
2.  Acknowledge the effect on the other person:  "When I behaved like that, you must have felt completely misunderstood, falsely accused, and disconnected from me."
3.  Recognize the consequences:  "I get so frustrated when I get lost that you probably are anxious about driving with me in a new city."
4(a)  Ask what you can do to build trust:  "Is there anything I can do to show you I'm really sorry about blowing up."
4(b) Alternatively, say what you will do in the future to reduce the risk of that happening again.  "How about if you drive next time we're in a new city?" 

After hearing your fabulous apology, the other person will likely also apologize for their contribution to the conflict.
Maybe there are extenuating circumstances and other issues -- there usually are -- but your apology is not concerned with them.  Bringing up excuses will diminish your apology.  Although if you really have to -- you can say, "There were some other things going on with me, if you're interested." 

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

What Can Parents Learn from a GPS Navigation Unit?

You've typed a destination into your GPS and it has decided on a route for you.
For reasons unknown to the unit, you decide to deviate from its route.
It says, "Recalculating" and then tries to convince you to go back to the original route a few times.  It will ask you to turn right, then turn right, or to make a U-turn.  Eventually it realizes what's happening and accepts the new route.

Recalculating involves giving up its version of reality and dealing with the facts on the ground.  There are many routes and you are taking a different one.
"Mom, I decided that I don't want to be a doctor.  I want to be a musician.  I can make a few dollars as a school crossing guard -- that'll give me time to compose music during the day.  I'll practice with the band at night."
"Recalculating.  Maybe you can take biology at night school."
"The band will be practicing every night."
"Recalculating.  If you apply to med school in the fall, you might be able to get in next year."
"We'll be on tour."
"Recalculating.  .... Recalculating.... When can I hear you play?"

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Why Don't Our Children Learn From Our Mistakes?

First of all, they do learn from many of our mistakes - especially if we have learned from those mistakes by the time the children arrive.  They also make many of the same mistakes we make.  It's genetic.  Mistakes are also hormonal.  Since, sometimes our precious and beloved children are the result of our mistakes, it's counter-intuitive for them not to make the same ones.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Are We Doomed?

Angels in America, Part Two begins with the oldest living Bolshevik asking three questions:
  1. Are we doomed?
  2. Will the past release us?
  3. Can we change?  In time?
In Angels, we see characters who loved their partners, but not enough.  There's Louis who was unable to handle his partner (Prior)'s AIDS.  He hoped he could escape his life and focus only on himself.  We see Joe who tried to abandon his wingy wife (Harper) and escape into his passionate moments with Louis.  And there's Roy Cohn who loved nobody and his loyalty was unapologetically only to himself (and note:  it is Roy who dies).  In the cosmological scenes, it seems that god did not love the angels enough and has abandoned them.  The angels are waiting for him or her to return.  The cosmological scenes seem to suggest complex societal changes as god, the angels, and humanity all drift away from each other.  (An old order is dying and a new one is struggling to be born.)

In the end, the possibility of redemption comes from the willingness of Prior and Harper to cut themselves off from Louis and Joe, cut themselves off from those who did not love them enough.  Not being loved enough is one slow, sure death.... and if god has not loved the angels enough, perhaps they too should stop waiting.

So I believe the play's answers to the questions that begin it are
  1. No.
  2. Only when we accept it.
  3. Maybe, some of us can.  Change.  In time.

 Here's a downer.  A quote from the play:

Harper: In your experience of the world. How do people change?
Mormon Mother: Well it has something to do with God so it's not very nice. God splits the skin with a jagged thumbnail from throat to belly and then plunges a huge filthy hand in, he grabs hold of your bloody tubes and they slip to evade his grasp but he squeezes hard, he insists, he pulls and pulls till all your innards are yanked out and the pain! We can't even talk about that. And then he stuffs them back, dirty, tangled and torn. It's up to you to do the stitching.
Harper: And then up you get. And walk around.
Mormon Mother: Just mangled guts pretending.
Mormon Mother: That's how people change.