Saturday, August 24, 2013

Deflective Arguments and All-or-Nothing Beliefs

Woke up today and made the mistake of reading the comments section on a news story (not one of mine though).

It almost doesn't matter what the story was because the arguments in the comments shifted immediately to whatever personal rant, rational or not, the trolling masses wanted to bring up.

I am sure you have seen the flawed tit-for-tat pattern many times:
  • A story captures public interest.
  • Person A makes an argument (sometimes opinion masked as fact) not directly related to the story.
  • Person B deflects Person A's argument (typically with their own opinion masked as fact) and again does not relate to the original story.
  • Widespread animosity ensues.
While I appreciate well-thought discussion, it is discouraging when arguments degrade this way. Rather than get at the nature of the actual issue, grumbling opinions take over. It is as if the objective is to dismiss any differing ideas . . . because everyone knows the Earth is flat, the Moon is made out of cream cheese, and it is just crazy talk if you disagree with me---right?

My sarcasm aside, the concern I have is that we don't actually speak realistically about societal issues; I recognize that some folks don't want to be bothered with this because they believe that such problems only affect the people at the epicenter.

Part of the problem is that judgement quickly gets muddled by feelings. Even an eyewitness account of events might be rejected because of mistrust and a desire to stick one's own established opinions.

This is an element of what I call an "all-or-nothing" belief system. Simply put, it is a conceit that anything that is a boon for one person or group is a detriment for another person or group. Rigid, adamant thinking such as this does not match reality though. Worse, this can lead to a belief that everything about a person or group is negative while one's own actions or collective group is infallible and beyond reproach (this is not to imply that affirmed criminals deserve a pass but rather their actions are not the measure of an entire people).

So what was this apparently polarizing story that immersed my morning in derogatory opinions?

Astute readers might try to guess but I think the trolls have been fed enough for one day.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Her Birthday Today . . .

I have been trying to recall how my mother and I spent last year's birthday. If she were here, she would tell me vividly what we ate and how happy the gifts made her (regardless of how mundane they might be). She could remember tiny little details from most every day because such things were important to her.

Here it is six months to the day since she passed and I can't remember how we celebrated her last birthday. And that frustrates me. I can recall the usual things like the sound of her voice and how she cheered "Happy birthday!" every year. But I want to remember what we talked about, the jokes I'm sure we told each other. The last hugs.

I did manage to find a grainy video from her birthday in 2010.

You would think it was easy to celebrate her birthday because she was so easy to please but that just made me want to figure out better ways to show that I cared. How do really honor someone who showed boundless patience and understanding regardless of how things were going for her?

I'd like to tell her that everything is okay or at least that I am taking care of things as best I can. Every day is different and some things don't work out right. If I could recapture more of her spirit it would make the tough days a bit easier.

It's raining something fierce right now. I suppose that's good. It means the last of her flowers will keep blooming.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Happy Independence Day: Feel free to speak, pray (or not), and debate . . . but keep it civil

As we celebrate our belief in independence, I invite you to see the First Amendment as a responsibility not just a right. It guarantees individual rights regarding faith, speech, and expression but I think we have let something tangible get lost.

I believe we have a responsibility to express ourselves in meaningful, rational ways while embracing the fact that what we say might be refuted.

Some things in life cannot be argued. The molecular composition of oxygen and my shoe size come to mind.

If we make bold statements, it does not mean people with differing perspectives are not allowed to respond. On the contrary, our country has the opportunity to grow by debating our opposing points of view.

This freedom for open discussion, whether over matters of policy, faith, or the quality of a song, does not exist every where in the world.

Right now there are nations going through violent growing pains of trying to open up to democracy after generations of autocracy and other systems that stringently limited their citizens' capacity to express themselves. There is no need to use allegory to depict what is happening in the streets of Egypt; the protests are not symmetrical clashes of good guys and bad guys. The head of state was ousted; who knows what will happen next? The current entity in power wants to characterize this transition in a favorable way. I don't know how much control is being exerted over their local media. I watch everything I see with a deeply questioning eye. However I cringe at the growing number reports of violence against women in the midst of this turmoil. This is why I am not ready to laud anyone.

The U.S. has seen its own historic, at times violent, upheaval but we have also created the capacity to give voice to our issues and disagreements. We cannot lose sight of this lest we tumble into a way of life where physical force between opposing citizens rather than discussion rules the day.

I am far from fond of the gossipy way that freedom of speech gets used in our country (there can be an abundance of whining about nonsense when there is real work to do) but I will not tell another person how they should express themselves. Instead I speak with determination . . . and I listen.

The "spin" that governs our political dialogue (among citizens and representatives) does not phase me that much because I'm frankly trained to see past it.

What concerns me is the rise of "all or nothing" arguments within our country, where someone is only satisfied if their voice is the only one heard and any difference of opinion is viewed as invalid. We use hyperbole in excess when we complain about things we don't like. I attribute this to a desire to paint any opposition as "the bad guy."

This does not mean that malice is absent when we disagree. It does not mean that some people use freedom of expression largely to further themselves or to cause turmoil rather than to make the nation stronger. Worse, I think people dismiss ideas if they simply don't like the person who is speaking. And that dislike may stem from things unrelated to the message: age, ethnicity, wealth, attractiveness, socio-political identity, or faith.

Do any of those things matter if someone tries to warn you that a building is on fire or that a car is about to hit you?

We will always be a country of vehement opinions; I have no desire to see that squashed. What I hope is that we remember that our way of life is built on a promise to allow a myriad of voices to be heard.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Much Fanfare About Turning 40

The rumors are true. As of today, I am 40.

And in other news, the sun rises in the east in all its molten, gilded fury.

I do not mean to sound flippant but rather---if you will permit my indulgence---I strive to find richness in each day. It is not just about making today's birthday special, though it is something of milestone. The thing is, I want my own deep library of experiences to reflect on.

I pay attention to seemingly irrelevant details such as the texture of a couch I sat on when visiting someone who is important to me. That might sound like a waste of energy but that is how I turn abstract time into tangible memories. It is not for nostalgia's sake; remembering what my past felt like helps inform my future decisions.

The familiar coarseness of the dress shirt I wore for an important speech; the heat on my skin in spite of the cool spring air during an intense discussion; the soft, lush tickle of a dog who flopped on my lap to cheer me up---such things remind me who I was and what was happening.

My memories can be complex like grains of timber full of spirals, whorls, and undulating lines. I wish I could say I had perfect clarity of every significant moment from these past 40 years; my mother had one of the sharpest memories I have ever known, which made for wonderfully colorful tales.

I am resisting the urge to dive into extremely, lengthy stories that dole out pieces of my supposed wisdom. If you truly know me, you already know there is a method to all of my shenanigans.

Some of my aspirations can come across as bombastic. My sense of humor shifts from salty to cartoonish (I grew up on Benny Hill, G.I. Joe, Hardy Boys mysteries, and scads of other literary and farcical material). I thread mischief into my candor whenever possible.

Let us all celebrate every day we share together. In this era of social media disconnect it can be easy to create excuses (myself included) to avoid making real time for each other. Embrace people who consistently make themselves conspicuous, in positive ways, in your life in the real world. These are the people who truly believe your well-being is important and will be the welcome, usual suspects knocking at your front door in the midst of June.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

My Mother Gave Her All to the World

My mother unconditionally loved and cared about everyone she met as well as people she did not directly know. She dedicated her life to teaching in the classroom and at home. In the past when I would take her out grocery shopping, it was not uncommon for preschoolers she taught to run up and hug her. Parents would call out to her. Even years after these kids grew up and went on to other schooling, they still ran up to hug her.

She always found the best in others, gave them the benefit of the doubt---unless you crossed her. Sweet as she was, my mom had very strong opinions and spoke her mind at all times. In these last days, it was frustrating to see her struggle to speak while her words were restricted by the machines that helped her breathe. She had so much she kept trying to say.

I was lucky enough to hear many lively stories from her childhood, such as folks making and drinking dandelion wine in their basements. She told these tales with a sprightly wink and smile. Her best stories often started off with her saying, "I really shouldn't be telling you this but . . . "

My mother shared kindness and joy from a heart of innocence and honesty. Her jokes were never at the expense of others but she would say things that made my eyes go wide. I would be in a heap of trouble if I divulged everything she said.

Sometimes I think my mom didn't get enough love back for all that she gave to the world. She was always more interested in helping others than looking out for her own self-interests. I am fortunate to have a mother who cared about guiding and shaping the lives of all children as if they were her own.

Whoever you may be, even though she did not know you, mother hopes you are surrounded by love and smiles.

Flame and Bone

When I was made from fire
Poured into the tender vessel of caution
That keeps my smoke from rising
Quickly did I discover that apart from crisp drizzles or falling snow
The world chilled my touched
Walking the narrow cornered gap between girders and cut stone
One learns to tuck his shoulders in or risk
Jostling a neighbor passing by rapt with want
For a clear path without the distraction
Of another man's boiling eyes
The tip of a finger
That oldest of all weapons
Grown deadlier and pristine in its invention
Gathers a mote of a cinder on its bare flesh
And turns pondering how best to scratch the impious itch
Prying open the tender seam
Where the oil of thought dews
Offering a new wick to ignite
Squirming alive as a salamander of mischief
That yearns for a taste of air it is so ready to devour
The steam of breath betrays me
Before the glint of orange spreads
In popping bright waves
Eroding the fibers feeding it
Leaving naught but ash
As my shell of quietude falls away