Tag Archives: social issues

Thoughts on “Strangers Drowning” by Larissa MacFarquhar

This is the latest book that I read for the book club to which I belong. It’s a look at people who dedicate themselves to doing the most good that they can possibly do, often sacrificing their own happiness and well-being, as well as that of their families, for the sake of assisting complete strangers. MacFarquhar refers to this type of people as do-gooders.

She begins the book with her definition of a do-gooder.

This book is about a human character who arouses conflicting emotions: the do-gooder. I don’t mean a part-time, normal do-gooder—someone who has a worthy job, or volunteers at a charity, and returns to an ordinary family life in the evenings. I mean a person who sets out to live as ethical a life as possible. I mean a person who’s drawn to moral goodness for its own sake. I mean someone who pushes himself to moral extremity, who commits himself wholly, beyond what seems reasonable. I mean the kind of do-gooder who makes people uneasy.

(p. 3)

So why would a person who wants only to do good in the world make others uncomfortable? That’s a legitimate question, which MacFarquhar also addresses early in the book.

One reason may be guilt: nobody likes to be reminded, even implicitly, of his own selfishness. Another is irritation: nobody likes to be told, even implicitly, how he should live his life, or be reproached for how he is living it. And nobody likes to be the recipient of charity. But that’s not the whole story.

(p. 6)

The rest of the book explores the personal stories of various altruistic do-gooders—their motivations, challenges, and so forth. They are all really interesting, and many are inspiring, but when MacFarquhar examined social workers, it hit a little close to home for me.

At first the social worker may become too emotionally involved with his clients, so that when they fail he suffers, both because they are unhappy and because their failure is his failure, too. It’s hard to spend his days confronting devastating problems that he cannot fix—the misery and helplessness rub off on him.

Gradually, he learns to be more detached. He realizes that he needs to be tough, and to develop a thick skin. But if he becomes too detached, he stops caring about his clients at all.

(p. 163)

Many years ago, when I decided to go to college in my late 20s as a non-traditional student, I intended to go into counseling. As I started taking my basic required classes, I also took on a part-time job as a mental health technician in the chemical dependency ward at a local hospital. I had a strong desire to help people, and the primary residents in this program were pregnant teenage girls addicted to crack cocaine, so there was no shortage of suffering individuals to whom I could offer help. But the turning point for me was when one young woman completed the 28-day program, was released, went to a crack house, and got shot in the stomach. Her baby died inside of her. I had gotten to know this person fairly well during her four weeks there, and I was devastated. The pain and sadness were so intense, I realized that I could not do this job with the level of detachment needed to be effective, and maintain my levels of compassion and empathy for others. I decided then and there that I would need to pursue a different career path.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. Not only is it thought provoking, it is very well written. It challenged me to look at how much I am doing for the overall good of the world, and how much more I could possibly do.

Thanks for stopping by, and keep reading challenging stuff.

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Thoughts on “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer

My daughter gave me this book as a gift, and I have to say, I loved it. She obviously knows me well.

Kimmerer is Native American and a Professor of Environmental Biology. So this book is essentially a weaving of environmental science writing and spiritually based storytelling. Science and spirituality used to inhabit opposite ends of the spectrum, but not anymore. The people who are at the forefront of each discipline are exploring the relationships between the two, and Kimmerer’s skill as a wordsmith makes this book a joy to read, even when she addresses painful issues, which are unavoidable when writing about environmental topics.

I have Bruce King’s portrait of Skywoman, Moment in Flight, hanging in my lab. Floating to earth with her handful of seeds and flowers, she looks down on my microscopes and data loggers. It might seem an odd juxtaposition, but to me she belongs there. As a writer, a scientist, and a carrier of Skywoman’s story, I sit at the feet of my elder teachers listening for their songs.

(pp. 5 – 6)

We live in a society that is detached from the sources of that which we consume. As a result, we do not have to think about where everything comes from, and the true cost to our world in the mass production of commodities that are destined for landfills. But as Kimmerer points out, almost everything that we use, every item that finds its way into our homes, is made at the expense of another living entity.

Just about everything we use is the result of another’s life, but that simple reality is rarely acknowledged in our society. The ash curls we make are almost paper thin. They say that the “waste stream” in this country is dominated by paper. Just as much as an ash splint, a sheet of paper is a tree’s life, along with the water and energy and toxic byproducts that went into making it. And yet we use it as if it were nothing. The short path from the mailbox to the waste bin tells the story. But what would happen, I wonder, to the mountain of junk mail if we could see it in the trees it once had been?

(p. 148)

There is a long section later in the book that is worth quoting. Kimmerer uses the myth of the Windigo as a metaphor for our current state of mindless consumption.

No matter what they call it, Johnston and many other scholars point to the current epidemic of self-destructive practices—addiction to alcohol, gambling, technology, and more—as a sign that Windigo is alive and well. In Ojibwe ethics, Pitt says, “any overindulgent habit is self-destructive, and self-destruction is Windigo.” And just as Windigo’s bite is infectious, we all know too well that self-destruction drags along many more victims—in our human families as well as in the more-than-human world.

The native habitat of the Windigo is the north woods, but the range has expanded in the last few centuries. As Johnston suggests, multinational corporations have spawned a new breed of Windigo that insatiably devours the earth’s resources “not for need but for greed.” The footprints are all around us, once you know what to look for.

(p. 306)

We all have important decisions to make, and every choice, regardless of how insignificant it may seem, will have lasting consequences. We are indeed at a crossroads, and we no longer have the luxury of complacency. Every one of us has a responsibility, to begin the healing process and start undoing the damage that we have done as a collective species.

We do indeed stand at the crossroads. Scientific evidence tells us we are close to the tipping point of climate change, the end of fossil fuels, the beginning of resource depletion. Ecologists estimate we would need seven planets to sustain the lifeways we have created. And yet those lifeways, lacking balance, justice, and peace, have not brought us contentment. They have brought us the loss of our relatives in a great wave of extinction. Whether or not we want to admit it, we have a choice ahead, a crossroads.

(p. 368)

I strongly encourage you to read this book. It will inspire, outrage, and motivate you. Remember, everything that you do matters. Act accordingly.

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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 48” by Lao Tzu

Learning consists in daily accumulating;
The practice of Tao consists in daily diminishing.

Keep on diminishing and diminishing,
Until you reach the state of Non-Ado.
No-Ado, and yet nothing is left undone.

To win the world, one must renounce all.
If one still has private ends to serve,
One will never be able to win the world.

This passage really hits home for me. I have always considered learning to be of utmost importance in my life, the gathering and accumulation of knowledge and wisdom. But over the years, I have had to accept the fact that thoughts and knowledge are also just things to which we become attached. So for me, I have had to practice the subtle art of letting go of things I have learned, of not clinging to old ideas. In doing so, I am opening myself up to the inflow of new concepts, new knowledge and wisdom. As I look around at the social insanity that plays out in the world around me, I can see how so much of the discord is a direct result of the tenacious clinging to the antiquated ideas which we have learned. And this is not limited to one side of the socio-political spectrum. It’s rampant everywhere.

There is a line in the song “Soul Kitchen” by The Doors which encourages the listener to “Learn to forget.” I believe that Jim Morrison was echoing the ideas expressed by Lao Tzu in this passage. We must let go of the things we learned that no longer serve us or society, and make room for new ideas.

Thanks for sharing in my musings today. Cheers!

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Thoughts on “Burmese Days” by George Orwell

This book has been sitting on my shelf for years, waiting to be read. A friend of mine, Dave, gave it to me before he moved. Every time I would see it nestled among the other books, I would think “Oh, I should read that,” but then got sucked into another book. But finally, I got around to it.

Burmese Days was Orwell’s first novel, published in 1934, more than ten years before Animal Farm or 1984. It is a tale of British imperialism and expresses some of Orwell’s ideas which would become dominant in his later more popular works.

The central location in the story is an English Club in Burma, which has been instructed to start allowing native people in. The result is tension that seethes with racism.

“… Anyway, the point’s this. He’s asking us to break all our rules and take a dear little nigger-boy into this Club. Dear Dr. Veraswami, for instance. Dr. Very-slimy, I call him. That would be a treat, wouldn’t it? Little pot-bellied niggers breathing garlic in your face over the bridge-table. Christ, to think of it! We’ve got to hang together and put our foot down on this at once…”

(pp. 23 – 24)

This attitude of racial superiority is offensive on so many levels, but was the dominant paradigm at the time. This feeling of racial superiority is manifest in the concept of the “white man’s burden,” the belief that it is the job of the white man to civilize blacks and indigenous people. But as Orwell points out, this is nothing but a lie intended to justify the exploitation of people, cultures, and resources.

“Seditious?” Flory said. “I’m not seditious. I don’t want the Burmans to drive us out of this country. God forbid! I’m here to make money, like everyone else. All I object to is the slimy white man’s burden humbug. The pukka sahib pose. It’s so boring. Even those bloody fools at the Club might be better company if we weren’t all of us living a lie the whole time.”

“But, my dear friend, what lie are you living?”

“Why, of course, the lie that we’re here to uplift our poor black brothers instead of rob them. I suppose it’s a natural lie enough. But it corrupts us, it corrupts us in ways you can’t imagine. There’s an everlasting sense of being a sneak and a liar that torments us and drives us to justify ourselves night and day. It’s at the bottom of half our beastliness to the natives. We Anglo-Indians could be almost bearable if we’d only admit that we’re thieves and go on thieving without any humbug.”

(p. 39)

Orwell asserts that we have lots of freedoms, but these “freedoms” are only meant to be distractions, and that true freedom, and the freedom that matters, is denied.

It is a stifling, stultifying world in which to live. It is a word in which every word and every thought is censored. In England it is hard to even imagine such an atmosphere. Everyone is free in England; we sell our souls in public and buy them back in private, among our friends. But even friendship can hardly exist when every white man is a cog in the wheels of despotism. Free speech is unthinkable. All other kinds of freedom are permitted. You are free to be a drunkard, an idler, a coward, a backbiter, a fornicator; but you are not free to think for yourself.

(p. 69)

Orwell also addresses the relationship between money, power, and fame. People who are truly obsessed with money see it as a way to attain power and fame. This results in a vicious cycle of corruption where individuals will do anything and destroy anyone to get what they want.

“Money! Who is talking about money? Some day, woman, you will realise that there are other things in the world besides money. Fame, for example. Greatness. Do you realise that the Governor of Burma will very probably pin an Order on my breast for my loyal action in this affair? Would not even you be proud of such an honour as that?”

(p. 140)

The rest of the book reads like a Shakespearean tragedy. Plots are set in motion, tragic events unfold, and the book ends on a sad and unsettling note. But what is most unsettling is how little our cultures have changed. These prejudices, the disregard for others, and the striving for personal gain at the expense of others is still rampant. Orwell must be squirming in his grave.

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Evolution #11: Changing Times

Tomas: You ever wonder if the world is changing? Like, for the worse?

Abe: All the goddamn time.

Tomas: I see it all over. Not just in the big ways. It’s little ones. Sure, the weather is changing, resources are running out, and everyone seems to be loads crazier than before… But whatever is happening now? It seems way bigger. End of days-type business, you know?

In this issue, two men are on a train, discussing changes in humanity. It’s hard for this to not resonate. Our world, and everything in it, including all of us, is changing at a pace that we have not seen in the history of humanity. Change breeds uncertainty, and rapid change creates such a high level of uncertainty that the result is fear. You can see it everywhere, regardless of political leaning or spiritual belief. People are afraid and trust in others is diminishing. This fear is being exploited by media and corporations who see it as an opportunity to capitalize on this trend, offering home security systems, homes in “safe” gated communities, healthy this, secure that.

If you pause and take a step back, it is easy to see how insane this has become. Personally, I feel there is still a way out. Yes, the world will change. Yes, people will change. How that change manifests is still up to us. I choose to help foster a more positive change, and as such am doing small things on a personal and local level. Small changes ripple out and become larger shifts. Never underestimate the impact that your smallest decision has on the world.

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Evolution #10: Creating Our Own Horrors

We made a world where everyone is alone. Full of locked doors and safe rooms, away from the horror. But we’re all locked in with the monsters. The ones we create. The ones we are.

It is difficult to look around these days and not see the fear, isolation, and fragmentation that is rampant in our society. The level of distrust against the “other” has created pockets of people who are willingly keep themselves separate from all people who are not like them, who do not think and act in exactly the same way. And this isolationism is leading to more fear and distrust, creating a vicious whirlpool that threatens to suck us all down into a dark vortex.

I was told once that we are only as sick as our secrets. This is why I feel it is imperative that we break out of this habit we are in of isolating ourselves from people who we label as different and begin to have open, honest, and empathetic conversations. Because if we don’t, we are increasing the risk that we will end up with a world of horror, with all of us locked away in with our own internal monsters in cells of our own construction.

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Thoughts on “Evolution: #09”: The Effect of Ideas

The effect of ideas. The placebo effect. Fanatics who worship different gods “blessed” to walk across fire, or take venomous snake bites without pain. There’s real evidence that our minds can be trained to trick our bodies into wondrous things. So what if the opposite is true…? Isn’t it just as possible that we convince ourselves the world is going to Hell — and our bodies start to believe it?

When I read this passage, it resonated with me. Thoughts are powerful and definitely have an impact on how reality manifests. As I look around and see all the tension and anxiety permeating our world right now, it’s no wonder that more and more negativity seems to be manifesting. This is why I have taken myself out of a lot of social media platforms that have just become too toxic. I’ve also limited my news intake. Just by doing these small things, I’ve noticed a dramatic change in my life. I’m much happier, less stressed, and far less fearful.

We are all active participants in creating the world. As such, we have a choice as to what kind of world we want to bring into being. I for one will do all I can to envision and work towards something better than what we have now. I refuse to allow myself to mentally construct my own Hell.

 

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