Reality is how we talk about it. In times of chaos and change, it’s helpful to backtrack to some fundamental order and start over. Genesis (translated by Robert Alter 039331670X)is one example we can read to remind ourselves what’s real.
Bottom Line Up Front
What if reality is a chaos soup: cells and atoms bouncing around. Humans evolved to survive and thrive in the chaos soup over many lifespans. To do this, the collective consciousness of humanity started to recognize patterns in the chaos. They did this by bootstrapping a biological tool: language.
This tool gave the emergent human collective brain a way to set order from the chaos. Humans recognized the cells and atoms consistently bouncing around into a drinkable source of water. We named “stream” as a “drinkable source of water.” This shared understanding gave power to each individual within the collective to navigate the world using “streams” for drinking water and finding fish. This ability is so powerful and so unlikely that it seems God-given. Genesis explains the origin of reality as the use of language. Furthermore, the text relies on the same tool to communicate itself down through generations of humans.
In Genesis, God speaks reality. In the first six days, God creates things. The biblical text follows a structure of God “saying” things, then God saying the words, which results in: “so it was.” Creation comes from speaking into being.
“And God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered in one place so that the dry land will appear,” and so it was.” (Alter, 4)
Since the steps of “saying” and “so it was” are separated by an “and,” it’s not clear whether God does two actions or one. It seems as though the speaking suffices without any other action. Speaking is the magic here: by invoking language to call a pattern of chaotic soup into a name which can then interact with other named things. Humans can then navigate this system of named representations much better than the chaos soup.
Every word has meaning and contributes to reality. How we use language builds our world. Being honest and speaking truth builds a more durable reality.
Was language the reason why reality exists as it does to us today? Could God use any other tool to create this reality other than language?
My one year wedding anniversary is coming up. What have I learned in (almost) 1 year of marriage?
We’ve grown in our love for each other. We made the right decision for us. We face challenges and joys every day. Relationships require mutual, active effort to be successful. These are common learnings.
There are three less obvious things I noticed:
1. Generally, people give a higher baseline of respect to a married person than to a single person. We think a married person is a bit less likely to be a crazy psycho, because someone else has latched onto them for life. Who would latch onto a crazy psycho? It’s one less thing to worry about when meeting someone who’s married. That’s a benefit because now I have less to prove in new interactions.
2. Others expect that we consult each other on big decisions now. Before, I rarely heard “Are you dating? Why don’t you get back to us after you ask your girlfriend?” Why do that if there’s no legal basis for me asking her, other than being on the same page in my relationship? She wouldn’t have the legal rights and privileges to represent me. But now, what’s mine is hers and hers is mine. So any decision for the family must come from both of us. So now there’s an expectation when I hear: “Oh, you’re married? Why don’t you get back to us after you ask your wife?” This expectation affects how we make choices. I’m more used to consulting her on even smaller items now, which is positive because it encourages more open communication and decision-making.
3. We aren’t that old couple in the diner that sits in silence, enjoying each other’s company without talking. They don’t say anything because there’s nothing else to talk about. They’ve already discussed all topics and ideas and events. For us, that’s not the case. We are always experiencing new situations and growing as individuals, and we experience these changes together. Our conversations have continued to deepen as we explore the world together. We talk about injustice, travel, and plants.
The world has no shortage of novelty that we take on together. Life is a learning adventure, and I’m still at the starting line.
Every month, I make one significant change of my life to add a new beneficial habit or to undo an unhealthy habit. These healthy habits stay with me after the month ends, and I’m onto the next one.
This month of June, 2020, I am putting in effort to notice when I perpetuate racism. And when I notice it, I am taking responsibility to stop it.
I am wearing a rubber band when I go out. Whenever I judge someone unfairly based on their race, then I will snap the rubber band against my wrist. The pain associated with the previous action trains me to not do the previous thing. I am training myself to not be racist.
When I make this judgment on race, I restrict the opportunity for others to prove their character. This is unfair. If many people do this a few times every day, then this is systemic racism.
Human behavior is complex. There are many other factors that contribute to differences in outcomes, such as wealth or attractiveness. Wealthier people and more attractive people have more opportunities and are more successful. But these topics are beside the present issue, which is race: the color of your skin should not dictate your opportunity because that’s how our country is supposed to work.
We cannot throw the baby out with the bathwater; to say that we cannot solve all injustices and so we shouldn’t solve any. Rather, we can start with one: race.
It is constitutionally unfair that our country is designed to give all Americans equal opportunity, but in practice, this doesn’t happen to different races. If black Americans face more barriers to opportunities for justice and education and competition based on their race, whereas I am privileged to get the most opportunities because I am white, then our system is not working as designed and it needs to change.
There’s a difference between unfair outcomes and unfair opportunities. If two students take the same test in the same school and get different scores on a test, this is a difference in outcome. But if possession of drugs is a crime in one zip code and therapy in another zip code, this difference of outcome is likely pointing to a difference in opportunity.
Furthermore, if there has been overt racism in policies that restrict opportunities by race, then getting rid of a racist policy doesn’t mean the racism is gone forever. It could be written into our inner lives from our past. For example, historical Minneapolis housing covenants specifically restricted housing opportunities by race. The neighborhoods that formed as a result have not instantly changed in less than a century. Thus, this injustice could be playing out in individual interactions (or lack of) on a daily basis.
I am a vehicle of cultural systems. The ideas from culture flow through me. Most ideas are positive. But many are negative, such as racism. Even if I am not a racist (which is not guaranteed) and thus I do not come up with my own racist thoughts, it’s still my responsibility to stop systemic racism from flowing through me into my thoughts and behaviors.
George Floyd was killed unfairly. Why is this so significant?
Before diving in, please note: I am not black and I live in a position of privilege, and so George Floyd’s death as well as other similar deaths have not affected me as directly as they’ve done my black colleagues. But I see and empathize with this pain and fear, so I must speak out.
Also, police officers have one of the most difficult jobs in the world; often making quick judgment calls in stressful situations. I trust our police force and know that occurrences of unfair brutality are rare; but they must stop.
What’s different about George Floyd?
Why was this event unique? 1. The events moved slowly, and 2. We saw enough on video.
In many videos in which police use excessive force, the situation typically moves fast and thus it’s not clear whether the result was justified. Any small action or movement push the officer to pull the trigger and shoot in a split second. It’s impossible to see that same action or movement in the video that caused the officer to pull the trigger. So, we cannot have full certainty whether the officer acted unjustly.
George Floyd’s death was different. We see the video clearly. Derek Chauvin and the other 3 officers had 9 minutes of slow bleeding while George was handcuffed, face down in the street, and calling for his mom for help. Once the clock started ticking and Derek put his knee on the neck, there was no need for a quick judgment call. George was already apprehended and the officer was in a position of power. Even if Derek felt in danger, Derek had 3 officers as backup to reposition George from a fatal hold into a non-fatal hold. In fact, this is actually how good officers are supposed to apprehend suspects: hand-cuff the suspect and then reposition them.
But not this time. Every second that Derek held his knee on George’s neck was a second he chose to actively continue murdering George. Officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd.
George did not face a fair trial for his alleged crime. He was arrested, which we trust our police force to decide when to do. But George was not treated according to just practices given the opportunity to face a trial. Instead, the officer carried out a slow murder on the street in full awareness while others in power watched. Maybe George was guilty. But our country has a justice system that is promised as “innocent until proven guilty” to all. With countless evidence showing how black people are treated over-proportionately as criminals, the justice that is promised is not provided to all.
I identify as someone that has not felt the pain of black issues from systemic racism; however today I woke up to see this as a human issue. No human deserves a knee to the neck in the street by anyone for 9 minutes until they suffocate on their own blood.
A whole lot of Maybes
It’s currently unknown why Derek and the officers carried out the execution for 9 minutes. The reason could occur at any level. Maybe the ethical imbalance of how to treat certain humans was in Derek as an individual. Maybe as a group of 4 officers, their morality was off. Maybe it was racism in the police precinct, or maybe institutionalized systemic racism. Maybe none of that. Maybe a bit of everything.
Maybe the result of how the officers face charges will expose systemic racism, institutional racism, or some other form of injustice. Maybe they were all having a bad day and George was really unlucky.
What’s clear is that this cannot happen again to any human being.
So, we need something to police the police. We design similar systems for other groups with power and privilege like banks and government branches. We need a review board of how law & order treats crimes and criminals.
We’ve seen this too many times before
This was not the first time that an unarmed black civilian has been killed. Eric Garner. Trayvon Martin. Philando Castille. Tamir Rice. Breonna Taylor. George Floyd.
In the past, I would defer to authority. I didn’t know the whole story, so I’d let the experts and the system carry out justice. But the evidence in this case is undeniable that Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd. Now, this makes me question whether past events were judged fairly and why police trials for civilian killings are so rare.
There is something going on and it is not new. Minorities and underprivileged people, but especially African-Americans, have been treated unfairly for centuries in this country from the very beginning. And there is still imbalance of treatment today. We thought we solved it before. But we are seeing the unresolved injustice more often now, because people are filming and sharing events. I was in willful ignorance a few years ago.
Those on the receiving end of imbalance are used to feeling this pain and fear from systems meant to protect or support us. But those who have rarely experienced this imbalance of opportunity need to wake up and see how fairness that is promised does not always equal fairness given.
What do we do?
The right thing to do is to identify areas of imbalance of opportunity; why a drug crime in one neighborhood is a sickness, while the same crime in another neighborhood is a felony. Why? If the crime is the same, then why is our justice given out differently? Why are unarmed black people killed at higher rates? Then we address them. Then we change them.
We as people with privilege have a responsibility to make change, share our opinion, and address these issues. Let’s educate ourselves to have wisdom and empathy for those experiencing systemic imbalance.
Where as a country have promised one thing, but practiced another? Suppose that George Floyd was killed because he was black or poor or suspicious within a country that accepts institutionalized racism. Then we can talk and think about why other unfair imbalances occur, like why the iPhone facial recognition has more trouble recognizing black faces than white. The product designers didn’t intend to be racist, but nevertheless we see an unfair imbalance. A black person spends the same money on the same product but receives different value. This is not fair. Then we can talk about how we would design the next iPhone differently to enable a fairer result.
I believe in good. I believe hierarchies are good. Institutions are good. Change is good. Let’s use what we have.
George Floyd’s death is a universal issue. His life mattered because all lives matter. If you are in the hospital for a broken leg, your broken leg matters because, of course, your whole body matters. But the issue here is that your broken leg needs the treatment. Black lives have not mattered enough in the US, and we must finally follow through to make “fair and balanced” in policy to be “fair and balanced” in practice.
Throughout history, things come from other things. Offspring emerges from parents. Physically, matter changes forms. Metaphysically, things change into other things. How does this happen? Consider two explanations.
(A) all stuff is already created
Thus, new things emerge by splitting up the existing stuff amongst them
(B) new stuff emerges from old stuff
Thus, new things emerge as distinct from the old stuff
The Greeks thought of the changing process as a force with a personality: a god: Eros. Eros was the god of love and sex. Through Eros, parents beget children and things become other things. In Theogony, Hesiod pulls together all the popular stories of his day into one meta-narrative. In doing so, he explains where things come from and how they change.
Let’s consider (A) and (B) in some examples from Theogony.
1. Earth produces Sky, Mountains, and Sea.
This seems to be (A). Our planet Earth includes features like sky, mountains, and sea. Thus, Eros can split up Earth into those parts sky, mountains, and sea.
2. Night + Darkness = Day and Brightness.
This seems to be (B). Night has a quality of darkness, which is the absence of light. Day has a quality of brightness, the opposite of darkness. Seemingly, Night does not have the qualities that Day has. So, Night produces something entirely new when Day emerges.
Alternatively, maybe the Greek idea of Night included brightness, and Eros split it up into two: Day and Night. Certainly, in modern language, a “day” can refer to either the daytime and brightness for 12 hours, or the full scope of brightness and darkness for 24 hours.
3. Earth + Sky = Titans, Cyclopes, and Hundred-Handers.
This is not clear whether it’s (A) or (B). The offspring of Earth and Sky seem to have personalities and “souls” like humans do. Whereas Earth and Sky should be like non-living material. How would conscious life emerge from pure physical matter except as new emerging from old, like (B)?
However, the Greek beings Earth and Sky are actually beings that are closer to living than non-living material. This makes (A) more possible to have Titan beings emerging from other living beings.
4. Theia (Titan, “goddess”) + Hyperion (Titan, “he who goes above”) = Sun, Moon, and Dawn.
This is closer to (B) but not clear. This doesn’t make sense in a modern perspective. How could two Titans, beings closer to humans than materials, produce the non-living material Sun, Moon, and Dawn? This appears like the opposite of #3: non-living things emerge from living beings.
Hesiod does not detail how beings are born or how things become other things, whether through (A) or (B). But Theogony still ties together an important narrative to explain the high-level transfer of ideas and concepts among beings. It shows generally where things come from.
In our modern day, we delve into science to explain the world. As we discover the micro-steps that details how matter changes at a small scale, let’s keep the big picture in mind, like Hesiod did. Maybe it’s ok to build and believe a story that leaves out the details but gives us an explanation of the world at a higher level.
In Theogony, Hesiod pulls together all the popular stories of his day into one narrative. Since it’s one narrative explaining the common thread of many narratives, let’s call it a meta-narrative.
Meta-narrative = an overarching account or interpretation of events and circumstances that provides a pattern or structure for people’s beliefs and gives meaning to their experiences. – Oxford Dictionary
The Greeks wanted one narrative story that tied together all the common stories of their day. Through the one common meta-narrative, the Greeks found knowledge of their shared human condition.
The stories of Theogony include the massive Titans, the powerful Zeus, the forethinker Prometheus giving knowledge to man, and the gods’ punishment in response: the first woman Pandora who unleashes a box of evils upon humankind. Lightning bolts tore the sky and babies emerged from the force of love. From top-down, these stories justified worldly events and human behavior.
From bottom-up, a narrative is formed by human biological processes that interpret the world; these processes manifest as human behaviors; these combine into archetypes (“good” behaviors and “bad” behaviors); archetypes then map to language in a narrative story.
Different human people groups create different types of stories. This is because the biological processes and worldly events differ. Humans in arctic adopt different behavior than those in the desert.
But even in disparate people groups, common narratives emerge. For example, many groups strangely spoke about the common Flood Myths. Since the events and behaviors in the Flood narrative appear so widely, a catastrophic flood may have occurred and affected many humans in recent history. Or, many humans have experienced a tragic calamity that destroyed lives and resources. So, a flood should be in our human meta-narrative.
Narratives emerge from many different groups. A meta-narrative like Theogony incorporates all narratives. Thus, it explains what’s common among all of the narratives it uses. The commonalities are what we share. What we share is what it means to be human.
I recently joined Online Great Books, “an online community developing classically educated men and women using the Great Books of Western Civilization.” Thus far, we have read Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Aeschylus, Euripides, and we’re about to start Plato. Each month we have a virtual seminar to discuss ideas that we found interesting. In parallel, I’m also in a seminar to discuss creation stories; we have read the Enuma Elish, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and Theogony by Hesiod.
I love it. I highly recommend joining if you are able. Or at least trying it out. I’m reading more and thinking critically. And I’m appreciative of the great things that persist.
In meditating on and discussing these works, certain ideas pop out to me. Some as “AH HA!” and some as “WTF!”.
Thus this is the first of a series of meditations on the ideas from great books that apply to life today, inspired mostly by the ideas of others in my seminars: #037 and #creation. Thanks team!
Euripides I: Alcestis, Medea, The Children of Heracles, and Hippolytus
Euripides is known as the last great tragedian. This is probably because he pushed the limit of storytelling. His characters acted rationally enough while pushing the limit of believability. I think he fills the role of the last tragedian because anyone trying to one-up Euripides would have had to jump over the line into ridiculousness.
What’s the edge of what humans can do? Race 26.2 miles: easy to believe. Race 3,100 miles: less easy to believe.
In Medea, Medea is a powerful, rash, and logical woman who has used selfish acts to get her way. She betrayed her family by killing her own brother to help Jason, her husband. Later, Jason betrays Medea and their marriage oath by taking a mistress. In response, Medea plots and then murders his mistress by tricking her to wear a fancy dress that burns into her flesh. Medea then kills their own children. And literally rides off with their bodies unburied into the sunset on a chariot while Jason looks on in horror.
The storytelling is masterful because even though Medea toils between feeling pity for her innocent children vs. anger in cold blood, she can understand both sides: mercy and revenge. However, she is consistent in her behavior and self-justification by always acting to fulfill revenge. But, even though she commits heinous acts, her anger is believable and justifiable. She follows her anger to the end but justifies her decisions every step of the way. Medea’s character straddles chaos justified into order.
What would Euripedes’ successor have to do to make the sequel to Medea? Tricking Jason into eating his parents? Maybe infanticide in revenge was the evilest but most plausible act by the Greeks. Anything beyond this would reach parody beyond believability.
Battles of rhetoric with witty insults from emotional confrontations are universally enjoyable for us to watch. Euripides includes two levels of battle. Phase one involves long paragraphs of one character going at the other. Then phase two is one-liners back and forth in quick succession. The play acted out seems like a real battle. Each shoots at one another with their slings and arrows from a distance. Then they get closer, fighting hand-to-hand, jabbing and countering.
In Alcestis, Admetus has a chance to save his life from his fated death. Death, personified, pursues him. A god saves him by telling Admetus that he can save his own life by picking a family member to die in his place.
This may seem like a strange thought experiment, but it’s applicable to today. Who decides who lives and dies if a COVID-19 outbreak hits an underprepared hospital without enough beds?
Admetus first asks his parents, who refuse. Then he asks his wife Alcestis, who accepts and dies in his place. Props to Alcestis for going the honorable route: I think this is why the play is called Alcestis, to honor her sacrifice.
Anyway, after Alcestis dies, Admetus confronts his father Pheres about why he wouldn’t sacrifice himself for his son. The following insult battles are compelling. Keep in mind, this was ancient Greece and not Shakespeare.
Part of Admetus’ soliloquy to his father as a “battle phase one”:
“Go on, get you other children – you cannot do it too soon – who will look after your old age, and lay you out when you are dead, and see you buried properly. I will not do it. This hand will never bury you.”
Medea and Jason share some blows back-and-forth from their story as well as a “battle phase two”, after Jason confronts Medea about their kids.
Jason: “O my poor children, what a vicious mother yours has proved to be.”
Medea: “O my poor boys, what a sad end you’ve met, thanks to your father’s failing.”
J: “It was not by my hand they died.”
M: “It was, though, because of your own arrogance and your new-saddled marriage.”
Stories throughout history still capture our interest by maintaining believability while pushing the limits of what’s possible. Anything outside of believability enters into comedy and parody.
Intellect and wit can be used as an attack, similar to physicality and technology. Throughout history, we appreciate and enjoy fights, either with swords or words.
Personal protection has always been cool – Bali, 2019
During this unique time, I’m missing the freedom to explore, among other things. Travel is an escape from the mundane routine. This is a throwback to our escape to Bali last summer for part 3 of the lessons we learned.
A little tip goes a long way
Money from the West goes far in some other countries. People work hard everywhere. Leave a healthy tip when you’re pleased with the service. Remember that while you’re on vacation, residents are still working. They deserve to know when you appreciate good service.
“Nothing can be built higher than the coconut tree”
There is a fascinating concept that states no building can exceed the height of a coconut tree. Apparently, this isn’t completely true. But it’s a nice story that’s been around for so long because it would make sense if it were true. Regardless, there is a deep respect for nature on Bali.
A store is a home
Often, vendors live and sell in one place. You’ll find the whole family in the store sometimes. Treat it with respect, buy something, and play with the kids. It’ll make their day.
Bali and Indonesia went through some shit
The tsunami absolutely wrecked the island. The debris and leftover destruction are still there. But the Balinese rebuild stronger and continue living with honor.
There is no fee for any ATM withdrawal
Seriously, every ATM we withdrew from did not charge us a fee. My wallet supports whatever program enabled this to happen.
You’re not obligated to buy from a vendor even if you feel like it
This is like the tug of guilt you feel when you walk out of a store without buying anything. Vendors will ask you to take a “quick look, but no need to buy.” They know that looking makes you more likely to buy. Your act of compliance makes you more likely to comply with a future request coming soon: “Why not just buy one?” Then later, “Why not buy another?”
Someone once said that the life flashing before your eyes is what really matters to you. So what really matters to me right now in this COVID-19 crisis? What will I remember about this time? I’m a thinker, so conceptualizing the lessons from this period of my life will take time. As a way to get me there, I am looking back on what formed me to this day. In each case, I’ll outline three things I learned and why they are relevant today.
Until high school, I always ended up doing new things but didn’t know why. Why did I do certain things and not other things? Video games? I did that. Writing poetry? I didn’t do that. I could imagine myself writing poetry, but why didn’t I?
In my high school years, I started differentiating between the first step and the second step. I first imagined a world in which I did something as before. Next, I added step two: try that thing. I made active choices to expand my breadth of experience. I started out small, stepping a bit out of my comfort zone one inch at a time. Soon, my experimenting exploded into new experiences everywhere. I set myself on a track of openmindedness without limits.
I could imagine a world pranking band camp with my buddies. So, one step led to another by tricksters sneaking to the school overnight and rearranging the letters on a school sign to “GO SUCK COLON.”
Now, my goals span beyond one night of debauchery. I’m finding that there are many worlds in which I can imagine myself. Could I build that bookshelf? Yes, but it looks hard. Still, try it to see if you can. I still experiment today by imagining and then trying.
Learning how to socialize:
I was timid for most of my life until high school. Then, I finally found myself in certain social groups that were familiar. I could not navigate a classroom or gymnasium full of random people. But I started seeing the same teammates on sports teams and pushing ourselves through pain for dozens of hours every week. I opened myself up to them and formed the strongest friendships.
The way to socialize in new situations came down finding familiarity in new situations: new people, new places, new conversation topics. The way I succeed is by latching onto the things I find familiar, finding comfort in that feeling, and then opening myself up to the newness around me. Certainly, the way to succeed is to recollect myself in the familiar but not to stay there, because that’s boring to others.
Colleague I know in a group of strangers? When in doubt, comment on a shared memory.
New place but something looks the same? When in doubt, comment on what it reminds me of.
New topic? Learn it to satisfy my curiosity with the purpose to incorporate it into my worldview. Then share my own experience when I can segue the topic to something similar.
One day the librarian threatened to kick me out of the library before class started because I was not working. As a way to impress my friends there, I turned to the closest bookshelf, picked the first book that caught my attention, and set it down on the table. “I’m reading.”
Luck had it that I chose a bright red paperback copy of Engels’ and Marx’s The Communist Manifesto.
For the following few weeks, I walked around with that book in my backpack, fully owning it. Just before I entered the library each day, I pulled the book out of my bag and held it out to walk past the librarian’s front desk.
During those weeks I learned that self-confidence comes from ownership. I fully owned my choice to be reading The Communist Manifesto and even got into debates with the librarian about its ideas. With every interaction, I gained confidence.
Thus, my ConfidenceManifesto is taking and fully owning the choices I make. Confidence could be based on experience or could be based on delusion, or many other things. But I learned that confidence is a choice that is within my power: more specifically, a series of choices that align my actions together into a common thread.
Today, I actively base my confidence in relevant experience rather than randomness. I am more certain of my ability to drive a car than a plane. But should I somehow wake up as the pilot of a plane careening toward the earth and everyone is trembling in fear, I have two choices. Tremble, letting fear drown me. Or, have some confidence and try my best to fly the thing and maybe succeed.
Things may be new right now. But I can imagine myself surviving like this. So watch I Am Legend and let’s try it.
Everything may feel different. Latch onto familiarity to enter the chaos.
The librarian is kicking us out. Grab a book and let’s dive in.
There’s something special about delayed gratification. It allows us to bargain with the future. We bet on more later, rather than less now. The crazy thing is that it works. Athletes delay gratification by actively pushing through pain for a goal in the future. Economies and societies run on this idea as well.
In May 2018, my wife and I chose to give up physical intimacy for a month as a form of devotion. We were having some tough times, and we needed a reset. We prayed for guidance and disciplined our bodies. As a result, we grew closer together. We plunged into cold water, woke up, and reminded ourselves why we loved each other.
Why is this important? Delayed gratification is more than just an indicator of long-term success. It’s a form of discipline. It blocks out the malaise of sloth. The lazy, comfortable body gets a master who knows what’s best.
Delayed gratification is one of the most important human realizations.