Science, Fiction, Life

Category: Personal (Page 1 of 2)

The Most Important Thing in the Universe

One of the side effects of studying science is an appreciation for how insignificant humans are in the scheme of things. It is pounded into your head at every opportunity. We are microscopic compared to the Earth, and Earth is not the center of the solar system. Our solar system is one of billions in our galaxy. Our galaxy is to the universe as grains of sand are to the beach. The universe is unfathomably old, and the Earth has been around for a good chunk of that time but humanity is brand new. In Sagan’s famous cosmic calendar analogy, in which the age of the universe is compressed down to a single year, humans don’t appear until minutes before midnight on December 31. On the scale of the universe in both space and time, humans might as well not exist. 

Apart from a thin film of life at the very surface of the Earth, an occasional intrepid spacecraft, and some radio static, our impact on the Universe is nil. It knows nothing of us.

Carl Sagan

This is all true, and it’s important to teach people, especially people who plan to make it their business to study the universe. You need to face reality even when it makes you uncomfortable.

However, it’s a little alarming how gleefully some people like to drive this point home. There’s a sense of smug superiority, a feeling of being somehow above the petty things that concern “ordinary” people. I find this is especially true of certain fields (you get this much more from the physical sciences than biological and social sciences) and certain types of people (especially those who think they have something to prove). 

As I have gotten older, I’ve started to realize that despite good intentions, this “minimize humanity” mindset leads to its own flavor of wrong-headed thinking. People begin to mistake feeling smart for being wise. 

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. 

F. Scott Fitzgerald

This is one of those cases that Fitzgerald is talking about. Humans are indeed insignificant in both space and time when compared to the universe. But at the same time, we are far more important to each other than the distant reaches of space and time. Both of these things can be true. “Meaning” or “significance” are not laws of physics, they are human constructs. We as humans get to decide what is significant, and the scale of the universe is not the appropriate comparison. Our lives occur on the time scale of decades, and on the spatial scale of a tiny fraction of the surface of the Earth. So what if that’s small compared to the universe? It’s big for us.

Minimizing humanity might help avoid mistakes like saying that the sun goes around the Earth, or that we are at the center of the universe since most galaxies are flying away from ours. But it can also lead to dangerous reasoning like: If humans are insignificant, then how can we be responsible for climate change? Even if you accept that there are enough of us that collectively our actions are significant enough to mess up the planet, it can lead to a nihilistic view that it doesn’t matter. After all, we’re just a flash in the pan. Earth will survive whatever we do. Some species might go extinct with us, but others will adapt and flourish. So who cares? The sun will eventually become a red giant and consume the Earth, and the universe will eventually succumb to entropy. On the scale of the universe nothing matters, everything is insignificant and transient. So if nothing matters why should I care about anyone other than myself and my immediate gratification? A brief bit of hedonism before I return to the nothingness from whence I came. 

Of course, that’s a cop out. An avoidance of the uncomfortable responsibility of deciding for ourselves what is meaningful. It’s easier to throw our hands up and say “well, nothing matters.”

LIfe has no meaning a priori. Before you come alive, life is nothing; it’s up to you to give it a meaning, and value is nothing else but the meaning you give.

Jean-Paul Sartre

Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.

Jean-Paul Sartre

This minimization of Earth and of humanity also can trick otherwise smart people into fixating on the wonders of the universe and neglecting the wonders around them. I have been somewhat guilty of this. I was fascinated by science from an early age, and started studying space right when I got to college. I thought I had a pretty good understanding and appreciation for “mundane” stuff and was more interested in the exciting weirdness of the rest of the universe. But of course, I knew almost nothing about life, and now as I get older and have more life experience, I have come full circle: I feel less drawn than I used to be to the mysteries of space which have no bearing on human life, and am more interested in the richness of regular everyday life.

My point is not that we should not marvel at the universe, my point is that, in looking up at the stars we must try not to devalue the wonders that are right in front of us.  The things that matter and can bring us real happiness are right here on Earth. 

Think of your own life. All the memories and experiences that are stored in your brain. All the relationships, all the places you’ve been, all the things you’ve done. Think of your proudest moments, your greatest disappointments, your loves and your losses. Think of the things you have created, the mark you have made on the world, whatever forms that takes. Just take a moment to recognize the richness of your life and everything you know and have done. These things don’t lose their significance because the universe is vast and ancient. The universe doesn’t get to decide what is significant to you. You do. 

Now consider: there are 7.9 billion other people on this planet. If you looked at one face every second it would take 250 years to look at everyone (and in that time, billions more would be born). Every two years, humanity’s collective experience spans more time than the age of the universe. That’s a lot of people. And what really boggles the mind is that every single one of them has just as rich and vivid and intricate a life as yours. Every one of them has their own favorite places and favorite foods, their own family, their own memories. Every person has things they have created, songs they have sung, dreams they have pursued. Every person has their own story. 

Every place and every thing in the world plays a role in countless people’s stories, and has a story of its own. That big tree in the park is just a tree to you, but to someone it’s where they shared a sunny afternoon with their first love. To someone else it is where they were sitting when the doctor called with bad news. To someone else, it’s where they take their family photo every year.

I think about this a lot when traveling or looking at a map: every place that you see is someone’s home. Every house, apartment, street or park, is at the center of someone’s whole life. When you really think about this and stop relegating these things to mere scenery, the world feels anything but small. 

It feels even larger when you fold in time as well. Consider not just the significance to people alive today, but the countless lives going back tens of thousands of years. We hear so much about how all of human history is the blink of an eye in geologic or cosmic time, but at the human scale, our history is almost unimaginably deep. We’ve been here long enough for every single patch of the earth’s surface to be rich with human history. Most of it forgotten, but all of it real. 

Lately I’ve gotten much more interested in history, especially ancient history and prehistory for this reason. Just as it is eye opening to think of all the places you visit on vacation as someone’s home, it fires my imagination to consider people as real and complex as you and me living thousands or tens of thousands of years ago. Real people peering out over the wilderness of an uninhabited continent, or cautiously trading with tribes of Neanderthals, or waging a forgotten war on the ground we walk every day, or struggling with the timeless day to day tasks of raising a family. I feel the depth of history stretching out into the past, at once unreachable but intimate in our shared humanity. 

I came across this on my social media feeds after I had written this blog post.

Yes, we humans are insignificant on a cosmic scale, but so what? We don’t live on that scale, we live on a human scale. Nihilism is a cop-out. We are responsible for deciding what is significant and meaningful, and as anyone who has held a newborn can tell you, it has nothing to do with size or age. You can hold the most important thing in the universe in your arms.

For small creatures such as we, the vastness is only bearable through love.

Carl Sagan

Election Eve Thoughts

It has been a hell of a year. It is not the end of the calendar year, but tonight is the night before Election Day and it feels like the nation is balanced on the edge of a precipice. It feels like all the horrors of the last four years, and particularly of this last year, have been building to this point and now we are collectively holding our breaths. There are another couple of months in the year, but this feels like the right point to pause and reflect. It feels important to capture how I’m feeling right now, as we sit here at the brink and wonder what happens next.

I have been very quiet here on the blog. My last post was a video game review in July, and before that a post in April about the pandemic and how it hadn’t been too bad so far for me and my family. Since then, a lot has happened, and I’ve had a lot of thoughts about it that I would normally share here, but at a certain point it got to be too much. What could I say in the face of all that was happening? What good would it do to add my voice to the noise? I would just be echoing what everyone in my carefully curated social media bubble was also feeling and saying. How could I find the words to do justice to the pain and suffering that others are feeling, from which I am sheltered by layer upon layer of privilege?

I still have all of those doubts, but as I sit here freaking out about the election, I need to do something. Writing helps me process, so I’m going to write. I am going to resist the urge to rehash everything terrible that has happened in the last 6 months, or for that matter the last 4 years. You have all lived through it. You know.

I’m just so tired. The constant anxiety and outrage and despair and depression as I watch my country and the world succumb to the worst that humanity has to offer has culminated in sheer exhaustion. That is the other reason that I have not written much here, or anywhere else, this year. I’m just emotionally and mentally exhausted, so by the end of the day when I have time to write, I don’t have the energy to do it.

I’ve been trying to be kinder to myself about that. In this of all years, I have been trying to stop the negative self-talk that says I must spend every moment being productive. The last few years, and especially 2020, have taught me the value of “mindless” entertainment. It is ok that I just want to curl up and eat comfort food and play video games or watch dumb shows. Seeking out comforting non-productive activities is fine. There is nobody but myself who sets the expectation that after working all day and parenting into the evening, I should then do something “productive” instead of something fun and relaxing. Maybe someday I will have the energy for that, but right now I don’t and that’s ok.

I don’t know what will happen tomorrow. Odds are that Biden will win and Trump will lose, but the odds favored Clinton in 2016 too. That collective trauma, and the subsequent damage that Trump has done to to country and to each of us over the last 4 years, will be with us for a long time. I deeply hope that tomorrow is an absolute incontrovertible Biden blowout. Even if that happens, I worry about the violence that Trump’s cult will inflict, and the damage a lame-duck Trump and Republican senate will do. If the election is close, it’s going to be a huge mess. Trump has already said he will declare victory prematurely and fight against counting all of the votes cast, turning to the Republican-stuffed courts to overrule the will of the voters. If Trump wins, I don’t know what I will do. It will affirm the lesson that we all learned in 2016, that a huge portion of this country is so much more selfish and hateful than we want to believe. I don’t know how I can live in a country that looks at what Republicans have done in the last 4 years and says “yes, more of that please.” But I also don’t know how I could leave.

Another thing that this year in particular has taught me is the value of focusing only on those things I can control. There’s a reason the famous “serenity prayer” is so famous. Along the same lines, in Buddhism they talk about how much of the suffering we experience comes from “clinging” to the way we want things to be, rather than facing the way things are. It is a lot easier said than done, but there have been moments this year when things got to be too much that I have taken some solace in narrowing my focus on what I can control.

I cannot control what happens tomorrow. I have done what I could by donating, writing letters, and phone banking (though I am disappointed in myself that I didn’t do more calls), but in the end the results of the election are out of my hands.

I think what makes this so hard is that with the memory of 2016 fresh in my mind, and the events of this year so relentlessly bad, I’m afraid to hope. But, in the end I do hope. I hope that the country steps back from the brink, that new leadership finally gets the pandemic under control and stops the needless loss of life, that this election is remembered as the point where the country had a stark choice and chose wisely, and began the long work of fixing what is broken. I hope that soon we can all rest a little easier, and turn our efforts toward that work with a little more optimism. I hope.

Finding Balance – Part 2: Yin and Yang, Happiness and “Heroes”

In my previous post I wrote about how the book “Feeling Good” helped clue me in on the major causes of my (mild) mental health issues. It turns out, the need for approval from others and the constant pursuit of external achievements in lieu of real self esteem can lead to anxiety and depression. Right after reading that book, I read a collection of essays, speeches, poetry, and other short writing by Ursula K. Le Guin called “Dancing at the Edge of the World”. Some of the insights in Le Guin’s writing really resonated with what I had just read in Feeling Good, and I’m still thinking about them.

Dancing at the Edge of the World is a strange book, and I wouldn’t recommend reading the whole thing to anyone but the most die-hard Le Guin fan. Some of the essays are brilliant but quite a few are academic and esoteric, and I suspect most of the speeches work better as speeches than on the page. However, despite the challenges, I found it provided the clearest summary I have yet read of the core themes and philosophy underlying Le Guin’s work. In particular, the interconnections between her interest in Taoism, her feminism, her writing, and her general philosophy of life.

As far as I can tell, Le Guin didn’t believe in an afterlife or God or anything supernatural, she just uses Taoism as a way to recognize a dichotomy that pervades much of society between those things traditionally grouped under Taosim’s “Yin” and “Yang”:

YinYang
DarkLight
PassiveActive
MoonSun
GatheringHunting
ContainingPenetrating
ProtectingAttacking
WildernessCivilization
Nature“Man”
CircleLine
FlexibleRigid
ConsensusAuthority
DecentralizedCentralized
SoftHard
HomeExploration
RepetitionNovelty
StabilityChange
FemaleMale

Throughout the essays in the book, Le Guin makes the case that our society is profoundly and deeply biased toward the “yang” or masculine attributes and often downplays the importance of “yin” and those things traditionally considered feminine.

This should come as a surprise to nobody, but the framing in terms of Taoism’s dichotomy was a new spin on it for me. It takes our society’s misogyny and links it up with other biases, some of which are listed above, that may not be as obviously gendered.

She also digs deeper and addresses why there is a pervasive bias in favor of “yang” traits, and proposes that it links back to storytelling. In particular, the following quote from her brilliant essay “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction” really resonated with me. In the essay, she discusses the very reasonable theory that, contrary to long-held consensus (among mostly male anthropologists), it is likely that the first tool used by early humans was not the (masculine) spear, but the (feminine) “carrier bag”: Something in which to put gathered food.

It is hard to tell a really gripping tale of how I wrested a wild-oat seed from its husk, and then another, and then another, and then another, and then another, and then I scratched my gnat bites, and Ool said something funny, and we went to the creek and got a drink and watched newts for a while, and then I found another patch of oats…. No, it does not compare, it cannot compete with how I thrust my spear deep into the titanic hairy flank while Oob, impaled on one huge sweeping tusk, writhed screaming, and blood spouted everywhere in crimson torrents, and Boob was crushed to jelly when the mammoth fell on him as I shot my unerring arrow straight through eye to brain.

That story not only has Action, it has a Hero. Heroes are powerful. Before you know it, the men and women in the wild-oat patch and their kids and the skills of the makers and the thoughts of the thoughtful and the songs of the singers are all part of it, have all been pressed into service in the tale of the Hero. But it isn’t their story. It’s his.

Ursula K. Le Guin

Humans are storytellers, and so we are biased toward the sorts of actions that make for an exciting story. Things with danger, adventure, change, and heroes. And when all of those story-worthy things are culturally defined as the domain of men, it’s no wonder that the result is a bias in favor of men and anything seen as masculine, and against women and anything seen as feminine.

LeGuin goes on to highlight how this bias toward the “masculine” is pervasive in science fiction, choosing in particular to pick on Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey:

Where is that wonderful, big, long, hard thing, a bone, I believe, that the Ape Man first bashed somebody with in the movie and then, grunting with ecstasy at having achieved the first proper murder, flung up into the sky, and whirling there it became a space ship thrusting its way into the cosmos to fertilize it and produce at the end of the movie a lovely fetus, a boy of course, drifting around the Milky Way without (oddly enough) any womb, any matrix at all? I don’t know. I don’t even care. I’m not telling that story.

Ursula K. Le Guin

I highlight these two quotes not just to convince you that you should go read everything by Le Guin (though you should) but because they were particularly resonant for me given the circumstances in which I read this particular Le Guin book. I was on paternity leave, taking time off of work to take care of my growing family and was feeling anxious about it. Why was I feeling anxious? As I discussed in my previous post, taking a lot of paternity leave is not as widespread as it could/should be in my workaholic field (or in American society in general), and I had some level of irrational paranoia that people would disapprove of how much leave I was taking.

The Le Guin essay helped to get at a reason for this paranoia: taking paternity leave is an act that, at least temporarily, prioritizes traditionally feminine roles (caring for family, staying at home, domestic life) over the more “masculine” roles (being the primary earner, going to work, prioritizing career, etc.) that I have been taught that people expect from me, even if I would prefer something more balanced. And as Feeling Good taught me, I’m overly susceptible to letting my mood get wrapped up in speculations about what people think of me.

It’s not just paternity leave; Le Guin’s framing of our cultural misogyny in terms of bias toward “heroic” or “yin” or “masculine” traits resonates in other ways.

In the section of Feeling Good that tries to help the reader overcome the obsession with achievement, there is a fictional dialogue that pits a chronic overachiever against their former high school classmate who is happier and less addicted to achievement. The overachiever went to a prestigious school, got a PhD and has a lucrative, jet-setting, influential job. The more well-adjusted person is a high school teacher and coach with a family and a happy, more locally-oriented life. The point of the dialog is to take the idea that achievement (traditionally defined) makes a person more worthwhile to its ugly logical conclusion to show just how absurd it is, so the overachiever comes across as a completely unreasonable jerk.

Unfortunately, although it’s not a perfect match, I do see some of myself in that jerk. Even though the overachiever in the dialog is supposed to (and does) come across as an awful and unpleasant person, I’m ashamed to admit that there is a part of me that still thinks they have a bit of a point. It whispers in the back of my mind that, really, if you think about it, your life is more worthwhile if you are famous and influential and achieve things that will last long after you’re gone.

And this brings us back to the bias not just toward masculine traits, but “heroic” traits. A hero is someone who is famous and influential, whose actions changed the world, about whom stories are told. In short, a hero achieves a sort of immortality. Conscious or not, I think that taste of immortality is why our society has a bias in favor of these traits.

(I feel like I’m lacking the appropriate words here. “Heroic” has positive connotations, but what I want is a word that means roughly the same thing but is more neutral, because my whole point here is that equating “heroic” traits with positive, and therefore implicitly saying that “non-heroic” traits are negative, is a big part of the problem. Since language is failing me, I’m going to keep using “heroic” as shorthand. So, just pretend I have found a less-loaded version of the word and am using that instead.)

Humans learn by telling stories, and almost every story that we tell reinforces this bias, to the point that it becomes a real challenge to conceive of stories that really center on the “yin” attributes. Le Guin talks about this challenge, and I think her conscious effort not to tell variations of the same old heroic, masculine story, while still working in the fantasy and sci-fi genres that are so dominated by that story, is a large part of what makes her stories so refreshing and distinctive and interesting. (It helps that she’s a good enough writer to pull it off…)

Alas, not all authors are Ursula K LeGuin, so we exist in a culture that is steeped in stories that almost all reinforce the same traits. Reflecting on myself, and my own motivations, it’s hard to deny the influence, and it is also hard to deny that a lot of the angst I’ve been working through in the last few years has been a process of breaking through those patterns of thoughts and values and acknowledging that I am in a stage of life where, essentially, my focus is shifting from “yang” to “yin” and that that’s okay.

Though I don’t love to admit it, part of my desire to become a scientist was the alluring myth of the “great scientist” whose amazing contributions to science not only advance our understanding of the universe, but also earn a place in the Pantheon of great scientists. Of course in reality, science is a collaborative effort where most big discoveries are made by teams, but that doesn’t fit the narrative. That doesn’t provide the story with a singular hero.

Not only is science a team effort, I have also discovered that I don’t really like being the leader of the team. I’m much more comfortable and effective in a supporting role. For example, my work to improve the accuracy of ChemCam’s measurements feeds into almost every paper and discovery the team has made. The cumulative impact is almost certainly greater than if I had focused my efforts on leading a few scientific papers. And yet it has been really difficult to come to terms with the idea that I prefer doing “behind the scenes” work. I feel guilty that I am not writing amazing papers that end up getting all the attention of other scientists and the press. There’s a part of me that is still the anxious grad student, irrationally worried about what my advisor would think of my path and my preference for the less flashy work (there’s that approval seeking again). I hate that I feel a pang of jealousy when friends publish big, attention-grabbing papers. A part of me feels like a failure for not living up to the “great scientist”myth. The bias toward “heroic” or “yang” traits, toward constant striving for the next big achievement, is strong.

It shows up in my goals for the future as well. I’m not content to just want to be a good science communicator, there’s a part of me that will see it as a failure to be anything less than the next Carl Sagan. I’m not content to just try to write a book, I’ll be a failure unless I am the next George R.R. Martin. Of course, this part of me is almost entirely counterproductive. It has not spurred me to make great strides in either of these areas, it just needles me enough to attempt things and then abandon them as I stress out about the impossible expectations I impose on myself. It maintains a constant cycle of anxiety and disappointment in myself, but never gets channeled into a truly motivating force for long enough to break free and rise to the level of something positive like inspiration. My hard drive is littered with fiction and nonfiction writing projects abandoned in the first chapter. Heck, even this blog has a good number of aborted posts in varying states of completion, in large part because of the unrealistic expectations I set, and the paranoia about what people will think. (This blog post came perilously close to being one of them.)

The good thing is that with the perspectives afforded by Feeling Good, Dancing at the Edge of the World, and more generally the realignment of priorities that comes with maturing and having kids, I am gradually starting to move toward a more balanced attitude.

A good example of this is how I feel about being an astronaut and human space exploration in general. In college when people asked me if I would go to Mars if I was given the chance, I said yes with minimal hesitation. I even considered applying to be an astronaut a few times. But as I have gotten older and built a family and a life and grown to appreciate the Earth, my answer has changed. The temptation is still present – the bias is strong – but it’s no longer an easy decision. I have a lot more to lose. My default answer would now be “no” and it would take convincing and a lot of caveats and guarantees to change that to a “yes”.

A corollary to that is how my attitudes toward building a Mars base have changed. For a long time I was strongly in favor of it, both scientifically and as an “insurance policy” in case of a global catastrophe here on Earth. Now I see the idea of Mars as a “lifeboat” for Earth as deeply flawed and problematic. It provides a comforting fantasy as if it is a valid option, and people cling to it rather than facing the more important but more difficult challenge of changing our society so that we become good stewards of the wonderful planet we live on. People gravitate toward the “yang” option (exploration, colonization, risk, heroism) and shun the “yin” option (staying where we are, taking care of our home). We’re sitting here destroying the literal paradise that is Earth and saying, “Don’t worry, the billionaires will save us. With their rockets we could maybe eke out a miserable, dark, cold, dusty, claustrophobic existence in underground shelters on Mars,” as if that’s a solution.

Anyway. I’m getting off track. The point is, my perspective on things is changing, and one way to frame that change is as a shift from thinking that is strongly biased toward the “heroic”/”masculine”/”yang” traits to an attitude that is hopefully more balanced. I don’t need to be the great scientist, I am happy to support others. I don’t want to colonize a new world as much as I want to take care of our home. I am not that interested in jet-setting around the world, I’d rather stay home and enjoy time with my family.

A major theme in this shift of perspective can be summed up as coming to peace with the idea that I am not exceptional, and that is ok. To be clear, I’ve never had the kind of self esteem that allowed me to go through life thinking “I’m exceptional.” But despite that, I have spent a lot of angst convincing myself that I need to make a mark of the world so that when I’m gone there will be some evidence that I lived. It’s that lure of the immortality of the “hero.”

I’ve achieved some things that I’m proud of and my name is on a number of scientific papers that will hopefully be read for a long time into the future. Or if not read (let’s be realistic), then at least they’ll exist. There will be evidence in the world that I existed and did a certain type of science. But when push comes to shove, I’m a pretty boring, normal, privileged white dude. My life is mostly like the life of millions of others. When I am gone, my friends and family will miss me, but then they will go on with their lives and that will be it.

There’s a flaw in the sort of thinking that says that you’ve only left your mark on the world if people remember you, or if you did something that has your name on it. That’s a very “hero-biased” way of looking at things. Sure, writing the great American novel or making a major scientific discovery or walking on Mars or becoming president or any number of other ways to be famous and influential can guarantee that you’ve left some sort of mark, but that’s not the only way.

The truth is that we are all constantly making our marks on the world, whether we, or others, recognize it. We should think of our influence not as a discrete achievement or event that plants a flag and announces “here is my legacy” but more like concentric ripples, expanding away from ourselves into the world as we move through our lives. Everything we do has an influence, and the world is too large and chaotic to know when any given action or choice will go on to have a profound effect and when it will amount no effect at all. All we can do is try to make good choices, be generous with our time and our resources and ourselves, and try to leave the world better than we found it.

I’m not saying that we should not pursue big goals, nor am I implying that simply being a good person is sufficient to effect positive change in the world. I’m saying that the amount of recognition that we receive for the things we do has little to do with the significance of the legacy we leave when we are gone. I can work hard and get recognition for achieving major goals like publishing scientific papers and writing books, but it’s entirely possible (and perhaps more likely) that the greatest impact I’ll have on the world is through things that get much less recognition like raising my kids, donating to good causes, and doing political volunteer work.

More important than recognizing that I don’t have to do things that get recognized by others to leave the world a better place is the recognition that no matter what I do, big or small, my legacy will be ephemeral. Here I’ll bring in another book I recently read: Conqueror, by Conn Iggulden. It’s the 5th book in a historical fiction series about Genghis Khan and his successors. I was not expecting to find insight into the topics of this essay in a book about Mongol warlords, but books can be surprising that way. Conqueror focuses on Kublai Khan’s rise to power, and the final lines of the book are Kublai talking to his son:

“I would like to change the world,” he said.

Kublai smiled, with just an edge of sadness in his eyes.

“You will, my son, you will. But no one can change it forever.”

Conqueror, Conn Iggulden

Maybe part of this process that I’ve been going through, this shift in perspective, is a growing acceptance of the fact that life is ephemeral and a realization that trying to deny that fact is the recipe for a lot of pointless angst. Taken the wrong way this could be seen as nihilistic and depressing, but it’s actually kind of liberating.

I have been trying to pay attention to what actually makes me happy and here’s what I found: happiness comes from the ephemeral, from living in the moment, from being so caught up in the present, in the sensations, the feelings, the task at hand, that self-consciousness falls away. You can’t think your way to happiness. You can’t set it as a goal to achieve.

This is not a particularly new insight. None of this post is, really. But it’s one thing to hear some of these things in the form of quotes and platitudes and another to really internalize them. To use a physics analogy, it’s the difference between being given the equation and deriving the equation from first principles.

Looking back over this post, I worry that it comes across as implying that “masculine”/”yang” traits are toxic and “feminine”/”yin” traits are good. That’s not my intent. It’s good to have goals, to try to achieve great things. But the point is that our culture, our stories, my educational background, my professional life, all have a strong bias toward the “yang.” Toward constantly striving to live up to the “heroic” ideals. This often leads to neglecting the richness of the “yin” side of life, which is a recipe for the anxiety and depression that I’ve been struggling with.

I’ll end with one more relevant quote from a book I recently read. This time from “A Little Life” which is one of the best books I’ve ever read but is also devastatingly sad. It deals with what makes life worth living even in the face of horrible suffering, and at one point the main character thinks:

It had always seemed to him a very plush kind of problem, a privilege, really, to consider whether life was meaningful or not.

Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life

This quote puts its finger on one of the reasons I feel uncomfortable about these long, over-earnest, self-indulgent, pseudo-philosophical blog posts. I have a wonderful life, and it is because I don’t have to do things like work three jobs or worry about whether my family is safe that I have the luxury of analyzing all the reasons why I sometimes feel anxious for no good reason. It makes these blog posts feel embarrassing and faintly obscene even though (or perhaps because) they do capture and help me process the thoughts that rattle around in my head. So, just for the record, I understand that posts like this warrant at least some eye rolling, especially from people with real problems.

If you’ve made it this far, thank you for letting me indulge in this privileged rambling. This post in particular was difficult to write. It ended up far longer, and took far longer to write, than expected. It makes me uncomfortable to post this, but that discomfort probably means I’ve hit upon some important themes that are worth posting. Bottom line, here are my take-away lessons:

  • My life is shifting from a focus on achievement and a general bias toward “yang”/”heroic” type traits to a focus on home and family and a greater emphasis on the “yin” side of things.
  • Despite deeply ingrained biases in culture, stories, professional settings, etc., the shift toward a more balanced life is not only okay, it’s healthy and good.
  • That said, some of my anxiety comes from the conflict between that cultural bias and my shifting priorities.
  • Stressing out about leaving a legacy through my actions is just a recipe for anxiety. Life and everything in it is ephemeral, and fighting against that truth is a losing battle. Better to focus on living in the moment, accept what is happening in that moment without judgement, and do things because I enjoy the process rather than to achieve some lofty goal.

Intrinsic Value

  • Immigrants and asylum seekers provide a net economic benefit to our country.
  • Universal health care would be less expensive than our current system.
  • It costs less to provide affordable housing than it does to leave people homeless.
  • No one who works full time should have to raise a family in poverty.
  • Every dollar spent on NASA returns about ten dollars to the economy.

We have a problem with how we think about the value of things. As a society, and as individuals in that society, we are almost incapable of talking about why something is worthwhile or the right thing to do without talking about its monetary value. Or, if not monetary value, then at least pointing to its usefulness.

This makes sense. Our civilization is made possible by the fundamental notion that we understand the world around us by studying it and measuring it. If you can’t quantify something, whether it is the mass of an electron or the return on an investment, how do you know that it’s real? There are countless examples of the folly that comes from ignoring rigorous science and instead operating by gut feeling alone. That sort of thinking is what gives us astrology and homeopathy and antivaxxers and climate change deniers. In many ways our reliance on quantifiable facts is a very, very good thing.

But there is an important distinction between an observable quantity grounded in the real, physical world, and the observation of non-physical quantities that we ourselves assign to things. There’s no law of nature that shows that something should have a value of $10. Monetary value is a convenient abstraction that allows us to more efficiently exchange goods and services. Some might argue that there are mathematical laws that show that a certain item should be given a certain monetary value. After all, we have the field of economics, don’t we?

But we must always remember that Economics is a field of study dedicated to a complex topic that we ourselves invented. It behaves in many ways like a physical science studying fundamental truths, but it applies that mathematical approach to studying the nuances of an artificial concept. Don’t get me wrong, those nuances are very important. Economics has meaningful things to say and implications for our lives. But economics is not physics.

It is easy to fall into the trap of assigning a numerical value to a qualitative concept and then relying on that value so exclusively that we forget that there is any other way to conceive of value. We create an imperfect model of reality and then forget that reality is not the model. IQ is not the same thing as intelligence. Standardized test scores do not measure everything a student has learned. A high Body Mass Index does not guarantee that you are fat. A low credit score doesn’t necessarily mean you aren’t trustworthy.

Our insistence on talking about everything in terms of monetary value or economic benefit is an extreme case of mistaking the comfortingly simple artificial metric for inconveniently messy objective reality. We are so deeply steeped in a capitalist society that prioritizes monetary value over everything else that it is difficult to even conceive of other types of value. We are like those cultures who do not have a word for the color blue and therefore are challenged to even recognize it. We lack the framework to fully conceive of or acknowledge other types of value without consciously exerting effort to do so.

A distressingly large portion of our society has taken this a step further, and not only prioritizes monetary value above all else, but actually uses it as a proxy for moral virtue. Morality is so uncomfortably hard to define around the edges, but net worth is nice and straightforward. If someone is poor then obviously they made bad choices or didn’t work hard enough. If someone is rich, it must mean that they are reaping the rewards of hard work rather than fortunate circumstances.

I was watching “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” the documentary about Mr. Rogers the other day, and it had a disgusting moment showing talking heads on Fox News blaming Mr. Rogers for a supposed “entitlement culture” among kids these days. How dare he tell a generation of children that they are special just for being themselves? Why should these kids think they are special if they haven’t earned it? What a bunch of fragile little entitled “snowflakes.” The documentary then used the exact words I have had in mind since I started writing this essay: “intrinsic value”. The idea that everyone is special and worth caring about, not because they have earned it, but because they are human beings with intrinsic value. That everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect and celebrated just for being uniquely themselves. The documentary points out the deep Christian roots of this message: Mr. Rogers was a minister after all, and the show was his way of preaching the fundamentals of his faith, without ever mentioning religion.

There is not much that I find more depressing that witnessing half of our country give up on this idea of intrinsic value and human dignity while claiming to be Christians. They insist on preserving the sanctity of life in the womb (sometimes at the expense of the life of the living woman carrying that child), but once that child is born it’s a freeloading, entitled snowflake that needs to prove its worth.

These false Christians question whether people deserve health care, a home, food on the table, education, if they haven’t “earned” them. A little while back there was a Republican congressman who tweeted:

Yes! It absolutely should be. It is a fundamental sickness in our society that would even question whether some people deserve to eat.

Imagine if we lived in a society where people actually acknowledged the intrinsic value of other humans. Where everyone was guaranteed food, shelter, a basic income, healthcare, and a good education. Imagine the explosion of creativity, innovation, happiness and well-being that would result. Imagine allowing everyone to spend their one precious life doing what they love, even if it doesn’t pay well, or at all.

Imagine actually valuing human life.

Yes, it would cost money. Billionaires would have to pay some taxes. But it is not at all clear to me that the economic cost would be greater than the economic benefit, and it is absolutely clear that the intangible benefit, the lives saved, the lives raised out of poverty and misery, the freedom from suffering, would be worth it.

It’s hard to get there from here. We live in the real world, where the monetary cost of things is an important consideration. I understand that. I understand that even if we do acknowledge intrinsic value, we often need to be able to fall back on economic value for the sake of argument, to convince those that may not share our values. That’s ok. Often the right thing also makes good economic sense too. But we must not fall into the trap of making the economic argument so much that we forget the real underlying reasons for our positions.

  • Immigrants and asylum seekers provide a net economic benefit to our country. If they did not, would that change whether they deserve a safe place to live and raise their families?
  • Universal health care would be less expensive than our current system. If it was more expensive, would that change whether or not everyone deserves to be healthy?
  • It costs less to provide affordable housing than it does to leave people homeless. If it cost more, would that change whether people deserve a roof over their heads?
  • No one who works full time should have to raise a family in poverty.* Does someone who does not or cannot work full time deserve to raise a family in poverty?
  • Every dollar spent on NASA returns about ten dollars to the economy. If there were no economic benefits or spinoffs, would it be worthwhile to explore the universe?

*This line is taken directly from the Democratic party platform

The Fire at Notre Dame

Notre Dame de Paris burned last week. As I watched along with the rest of the world, helpless to stop the loss of centuries of history, there were moments when I had to fight back tears. It may seem strange for an atheist and scientist to feel the loss of a religious building so acutely, but I love cathedrals, and Notre Dame in particular holds a special place in my heart.

I love cathedrals because, in attempting to build structures invoking the glory of God, humans instead have demonstrated our own potential. Cathedrals show us that despite the cruelty and pettiness and meanness that we too often see in the world, we are also capable of breathtaking beauty when we work together toward a common goal. They demonstrate that we can do anything if we set our minds to it, even if it is the work of many generations. Cathedrals show us that physics and engineering can work hand in hand with artistry, and in fact can become art themselves. When I walk into a cathedral, I am in awe, not of God, but of humans. Imagine what we could do if we once again devoted our time and ingenuity and resources and hard work to a common goal. What could our modern cathedrals be?

Notre Dame de Paris is special to me. I first visited in the summer of 2001 on a whirlwind trip to Europe with a bunch of other high school kids as part of the People to People program. To give an idea of how little I had seen of the world up to that point, one of the highlights of the trip for me was seeing mountains with snow on top of them. I had spent my whole life in the midwest and the biggest mountains I had ever seen were the Appalachians.

Notre Dame was the first cathedral I had ever seen, and it took my breath away. The experience of entering from the hot, bustling noise of a summer day in Paris through the intricately carved doorway into the cool, quiet, interior, of looking up into that impossibly high vault, then down the length of the cathedral to the distant altar, of marveling at the stained glass windows, is one that left its mark on me. Of all the experiences from that trip, that first astounding view of Notre Dame became the touchstone for the whole trip for me. It encapsulates the wonder I felt at the sudden broadening of my horizons, the internalization of what had until then been just the abstract knowledge that the world is huge and fascinating and full of rich history beyond anything I had experienced.

The woman in blue, singing beneath the rose windows.

I have had the privilege of returning to Paris twice on work trips, once in 2012 and again in 2015, and both times Notre Dame was one of the first places I visited. In 2012, I went to Notre Dame immediately after arriving and dropping my bags at my hotel. It was late afternoon when I got there and I inadvertently walked in on a service. There was a woman in a blue robe on the dais, illuminated by spotlights mounted high up on the walls, and her voice was impossibly beautiful in that impossibly beautiful building. On that same trip, I returned to the cathedral later with two colleagues from work, Ken Herkenhoff and Nathan Bridges. We waited in a short line and then climbed up the towers to the walkways that afford the classic views of Paris, with the chimeras in the foreground and the Eiffel tower behind. From that walkway you also get a stunning view of the roof and spire of the cathedral, all of which are now gone. Nathan is gone now too; he passed away unexpectedly two years ago. Whenever I see Notre Dame, I am reminded of him.

The fire at Notre Dame is shocking because we like to think of monumental buildings like cathedrals as eternal. Yes, we know intellectually that in the past they have burned and been renovated and rebuilt and expanded, but that was all in the past. We have a certain arrogance that now, in our modern era, disasters like that don’t happen anymore. There’s a feeling that we live in a post-historical world that is somehow special and different from all the time that came before, and that we will be able to preserve things as they are forever. Of course that’s nonsense. Anyone who is paying attention to what is happening in the world should be all too aware of how the world is changing.

Almost all of this is gone now.

Even without superstition, it is hard to not to see the symbolism of the fire. It reminds me of the poem Ozymandias, about the folly of believing that current glories can last forever. It is a reminder that even the most apparently permanent human creations can be lost at a moment’s notice, just as a human life can be suddenly lost, and that we should appreciate and cherish the beauty in our lives while we have it. The fire represents the loss of a beautiful and irreplaceable relic of a bygone era, but there is also an element of hope. More of the great old structure survived than many expected during the blaze, thanks to those who took swift action to limit the damage, many risking their own lives in the process. What looked like total destruction has turned into a chance to rebuild, honoring the long history of the structure but also a chance to put the mark of our current era on it, preserving a record of ourselves in the long history of the edifice.

There are lessons here to be learned.

How did I end up an angry liberal activist?

Frodo: I wish none of this had happened.

Gandalf: So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in this world, Frodo, besides the will of evil.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a furious blog post about anger. I was livid about the impending confirmation of Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. I was so stressed I was not sleeping well, during a week when I was already sick, and I needed to write to get some of the emotion out of my head and onto the page.

The post had some good writing in it, if I may say so. I talked about how the anger of the Right is a petty and insular anger, a defensive curling-inward, seated in fear of losing a privileged place in society. I contrasted that with the anger of the Left, and particularly of those who have not traditionally held power. I had fun with the image of liberal anger as a volcanic eruption, long dormant but growing beneath the surface, unstoppable once unleashed and leaving the world changed but fertile, ready for new growth to replace what was burned away.

It was cathartic to write, but I took it down after posting it for less than a day. If I’m being honest, it was a bit over the top. I decided that, in the midst of all the negativity, my righteous anger was not was the world needed at that time.

After taking down the post I asked myself a question: Why am I so angry? What is it about Trump and the Republicans that bothers me at such a visceral level that not only do I rage about it ad nauseum on social media, but it has driven me to become a genuine political activist, attending rallies and canvassing for the Democratic party?

Believe me, I have a lot of other things I would rather do with my limited free time. None of this is fun for me. I’m an introvert. I avoid conflict. I hate inconveniencing others. So activities like canvassing are very draining for me. I would much rather write and talk to people about things like my adorable toddler, or good books and movies, or cool science. I have a dozen other hobbies or interests that I’d love to spend my time on. But instead I am pouring my energy and time into politics.

Why? Why am I so angry and stressed out that I can’t sleep at night? Why not ignore politics and enjoy my life again?

These questions have been rattling around in my head since I took down that furious blog post, and I think I’ve finally figured out the crux of the matter. It’s because the modern Republican party is diametrically opposed to two of my most deeply-held core values: Truth and Empathy.

Truth

“The truth may be puzzling. It may take some work to grapple with. It may be counterintuitive. It may contradict deeply held prejudices. It may not be consonant with what we desperately want to be true. But our preferences do not determine what’s true.”

Carl Sagan

As a scientist, I’ve dedicated my life to truth. My worldview is built on the idea that we can understand the world around us, even when it behaves in unexpected or counterintuitive ways, by observing, testing hypotheses, and making corrections when we find out that we were wrong. Science has also given me a healthy appreciation for how unbelievably much there is to know in the world. Nobody can be an expert in everything (alas), so we have to trust in the expertise of others while still thinking critically and, as Sagan famously said, demanding extraordinary evidence to back up extraordinary claims.

The corollary of placing a high value on truth is placing a high value on honesty. During the 2016 election I went so far as to make this figure comparing the prominent politicians from the two major parties. There are two notable things here. The first is that yes, both parties misrepresent the truth or outright lie more than I would like. But the difference in the extent to which they lie is striking. Trump barely seems capable of telling the truth, but Pence and Romney are not far behind despite their more “traditional” political personas. The contrast between Trump and Clinton, especially in the blatant lies, is frankly breathtaking. If you were to set ideology aside and vote strictly based on the honesty of the candidates, it is clear which party you should vote for.

Let me put it this way: There are things that are true and things that are false.

  • It is true that the planet is warming and that greenhouse gas emissions are a dominant factor. The best scientific models predict we are rapidly headed for a world of droughts and famine, refugees fleeing coastal cities, mass extinctions, more destructive storms, and more.
  • It is true that voter fraud is vanishingly rare and that voter suppression is widespread.
  • It is true that trickle-down economics doesn’t work, that cutting taxes on rich people just means they get richer while deficits skyrocket and poor people remain poor.
  • It is true that police officers and indeed the entire criminal justice system exhibits bias against people of color, and that in many cases that has deadly results.
  • It is true that having more guns leads to more gun deaths.
  • It is true that sexual assault is common and false accusations of sexual assault are rare.
  • It is true that health care cannot be treated as a free market and that doing so costs people’s lives.
  • It is true that seeking asylum at our borders is not illegal, and that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than native-born citizens, and that they provide a net benefit to the economy.
  • It is true that the greatest threat of terrorism in this country comes from  right-wing white men.
  • It is true that the modern Republican party is following very closely along the path that led to the rise of fascism in pre-WWII Europe.

Do these statements sound partisan? They’re not. They’re just true. There should be nothing partisan about truth, yet the Republican party has worked so tirelessly at distorting the truth for so long that actual truth sounds like a liberal attack.

To solve the many and complex problems facing the world today, we must start with truth as a foundation. Lying to win elections harms everyone. Lying so regularly, so consistently, so deliberately that nearly half the country lives in an alternate reality where the facts are exactly reversed is literally threatening the stability of this country. In just the past week it has led to a mass assassination attempt, a racially motivated double-murder, and a massacre at a Jewish synagogue, and those are just the crimes that have made national headlines.

All of the true statements in the list above highlight real problems that need to be addressed, but we as a nation cannot address them if one party consistently, relentlessly, lies about all of them. It is enough to make a person think that Republicans are more interested in obtaining and holding power than they are in helping people.

Empathy

And that leads me to the second core value: empathy. I am not a religious person. I don’t think there is a being on high who determines what is right and wrong. Without an external definition of morality, I try to keep things simple: something is “Good” if it helps people, something is “Bad” if it harms people. The more people helped or harmed, the more good or bad. Empathy is the guide for this morality. If you want to do “good” and good is defined as what helps people, then by necessity you have to put yourself in their shoes and do unto them as you would have them do unto you. There is a reason the Golden Rule appears in every major religion.

I don’t think that there is an afterlife where we are rewarded or punished based on our actions in life. I think this is it. We get one life, and when it is over we are gone. The only things that remain are our genes, the people who remember us, and the changes we made in the world. That means I place a high value on making positive changes in the world. It means that I push myself to recognize how profoundly lucky I am, and that I take responsibility for my privileged life and try to pay some of my good fortune forward. Part of paying it forward is supporting policies that will help as many people as possible, even if that means I have to sacrifice a little bit.

When you look at the policies and behavior of the modern Republican party through the lens of empathy, it becomes clear that the party is completely morally bankrupt. Its policies are all about prioritizing the individual over the well-being of the broader society. An “every man for himself” mentality that promotes distrust and fear, rather than a “we’re in this together” mentality that promotes cooperation. Republicans reject the idea that there is a social contract and prefer to believe in the myth of the self-made man, ignoring the fact that the social contract is literally why humans are so successful as a species. (No, you might say, we are so successful because of our intelligence! But the leading theories of human evolution suggest that we evolved our intelligence primarily so that we could keep track of our social interactions among larger and larger groups. We are smart because we are social.)

Republican policies are just profoundly selfish. The obsession with taxes is the best example. Republicans prioritize a rich person’s right to obscene wealth over the well-being of society. Heaven forbid rich people pay a fraction of that wealth that will have no meaningful impact on their own lives for government services that could literally save other people’s lives. There appears to be this disturbing conflation among Republicans between wealth and morality. Rich people are rich because they somehow deserve to be. Poor people are poor because of some moral failing that makes them that way (typically laziness). The moment you suggest that success might not be entirely based on hard work, that some people work hard all their lives and remain in poverty while others are extremely successful and have sailed through life with minimal hardship, Republicans get upset.

There is also this strain of victimhood among Republicans that is fascinating and betrays a complete inability to put oneself in another person’s shoes. Republicans point to things like the #MeToo movement and Black Lives Matter as part of a broader societal shift that persecutes white men. They wring their hands over the possibility that false accusations of rape might ruin a man’s life ignoring the fact that (a) sexual assault or the threat thereof literally does ruin many women’s lives, and (b) credible accusations or even blatant admissions of sexual assault often carry little or no consequences (see, for example Donald Trump and Brett Kavanaugh).

“When you are accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” – Author Unknown

“Conservative” Christians likewise have a bizarre persecution complex that Republicans are only too happy to tap into. They claim there is a “War on Christmas” when Christmas dominates literally every aspect of American life for the last two months of the year. They claim persecution when people protest putting the Ten Commandments on government buildings or putting creationism in textbooks. Meanwhile actual religious minorities are victims of hate crimes like the recent massacre at a synagogue.

Possibly the worst of all to me is the attitude toward immigrants and refugees. It frankly terrifies me that someone could be so heartless and consumed by hate and fear that they see parents and children fleeing thousands of miles to build a better life and rather than welcoming them with open arms, Republicans think the logical response is to lock them up in prison camps. When confronted about why they are imprisoning children, they say “well, their parents shouldn’t have broken the law” as if that is a reasonable response. What a dark and terrifying fictional world Republicans live in.

Why I’m So Angry

The Republican party has become a party that whips up white nationalist fervor in its base to protect the staggering wealth of its donors and the power of its politicians. It is the party that cuts taxes on the rich and pays for them by cutting benefits for the poor. It locks children in cages. It cuts funding from schools. As I type, it is using American troops as props in a desperate stunt to whip up racist fear of a convoy of refugees desperate for a better life so that it can win an election. Across all issues, at all levels, if there is something that will benefit normal people, the Republican party is against it. If it will benefit the rich and powerful, they are for it.

They say that in any situation where you have two groups who disagree, that you should be careful not to fall into the trap of characterizing the other side as “Evil”. That when that happens, both groups will just become more and more entrenched and the differences between them will never be resolved and often will become worse.

But what happens when one side is genuinely evil? I looked it up and the definition of “evil” is “profoundly immoral” or “morally reprehensible” or “causing harm.” Explain to me how the Republican party does not fit that definition.

The Republican party is literally undermining the pillars of our democracy. They are preventing people from voting. They stole one Supreme Court seat and filled another with a horrible man because they knew he would rule in their favor. Experts in the ways in which democracies fail are sounding the alarm. The Republicans are following the playbook of the Nazi rise to power in Europe with terrifying precision. The president’s rhetoric has inspired his supporters to commit or attempt heinous acts of violence, and instead of walking the rhetoric back he and the rest of the party just double down. The Republican party is in favor of policies that will kill people and ruin lives, whereas the Democratic party is in favor of policies that might raise taxes or cut into corporate profits or allow brown people to live here in peace. You can’t look at that and shrug and say that it’s not clear which party is morally right.

The Republican party lies constantly to advance a profoundly selfish and immoral agenda. What they stand for goes against my two most deeply held values: Truth and Empathy.

That’s why I’m so angry. That’s why I can’t just ignore what is happening. That’s why I resist even when it would be easier not to.

 

 

 

 

You Can’t Go Home Again

 

There is a cabin on a small lake in the forest in northern Michigan where I keep all my most vivid childhood memories. My family drove up there every summer (and occasional winters) from our home in the suburbs of Detroit, and I will always cherish those brief weeks off the grid, when we could leave normal life behind and spend our evenings watching campfires instead of TV screens.

This summer, I returned to Michigan for the first time in seven years and the nostalgia was almost overwhelming. A lot has happened in that time: I got a PhD, my wife and I moved across the country to Arizona, we bought a house, we settled into permanent jobs, we got a second dog, and after struggling with mild fertility issues, we had a son. He has grown from a preemie who had to spend the first twenty days of his life in the hospital learning to eat into a happy, healthy toddler who is obsessed with birds and books and will enthusiastically roar like a dinosaur on command.

It’s strange to visit my old stomping grounds with my young son. For me, every stump and rock and path and beaver lodge is a memory, and I can’t help but wonder what they will mean to him. How often will we be able to make the pilgrimage back to Michigan? When we visit, will he build his own fort in the forest and fashion wooden medieval weapons to defend it from unspecified foes? Will he have bonfires twenty feet tall and learn roast the perfect marshmallow over the coals? Will he pick wild blueberries and eat them in homemade pancakes? Will he learn to fall asleep to the haunting call of loons? Or will he be indifferent to it all, and wonder why Dad drags him to the north woods of Michigan instead of going on vacations to more interesting places?

I have always been a bit prone to nostalgia, but I’ve found that since becoming a parent, that desire to cling to the past has only gotten stronger. Children allow us to revisit our childhoods, and there’s a natural tendency to want to pass our cherished formative memories on to our kids. I grew up catching snakes and making swords out of sticks and riding four-wheelers through the north woods of Michigan, and so I want my son to have all of those experiences too.

This instinct to make my son’s childhood a highlight reel of my own extends beyond just the time spent Up North. My son is only 20 months old, but I have been debating when to introduce him to the stories that shaped me — Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Redwall, Jurassic Park — since before he was born. I didn’t even know what Star Wars was until sixth grade, and I didn’t read The Hobbit until early high school. I know that delaying exposure to these stories is impossible in today’s world where geek culture and pop culture have become indistinguishable, but there’s a part of me that nevertheless wants his introduction to them to mirror my own. The fact that my son’s experience learning that Vader is Luke’s father or telling riddles in the dark with Gollum will be very different from mine makes me uncomfortable in a way that’s hard to explain.

As parents, it’s tempting to assume that our children will turn out just like us. When I picture my son in high school, I imagine him loving science, playing the trumpet in marching band, and spending his free time playing video games with friends. But I have to remind myself: that’s not him, that’s me. He might turn out like that, but he might not, and that’s ok.

Kids remind us of what it was like to be young, to experience everything for the first time, but the corollary is that they also remind us that we are not that young anymore. As the saying goes, “you can’t go home again.” The world moves on and it’s important that we as parents do too.

It is a frustrating fact of the human condition that those memories that we cherish, that form integral parts of ourselves, are uniquely ours. There’s the inevitable temptation to try to model our children’s lives on our own nostalgia, to pass on those intangible parts of ourselves like a baton in an intergenerational relay, as if somehow that will allow us to return to our lost youth, but it’s important to moderate that temptation. Yes, embrace the chance to remember your own childhood. Share what you love with your kids. Give them the opportunity to experience things that were important to you, but also respect your kids enough to let them be different, to find their own passions and make their own memories.

It’s important to remind ourselves that our goal as parents is not for our kids to live carbon copies of our lives, it is to help them live their own.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Father’s Thoughts on Separating Families at the Border

I don’t know what words I can write here that haven’t already been said. I just know I need to write about this because if I don’t, it will consume me. If you’re sick of hearing about this, I understand. You don’t need to read this, but I need to write it.

It is now the policy of The United States of America to forcibly separate children and babies from their parents when they cross the border without documentation. It is not a law. It is a deliberate decision made by the Trump administration in order to shift the Overton Window for the immigration debate and extract concessions to get funding for an idiotic wall on our southern border, to solve a nonexistent problem. This outrageous shift in policy is abetted by Republicans in Congress who have been conspicuously quiet, because they know their base are a bunch of racists who quail at the sight of someone with dark skin, or who speaks a language other than English.

What is even more infuriating is that the Administration, after very publicly announcing that they were making the choice to adopt this “zero tolerance” policy, is now claiming that this is somehow the fault of Democrats, and that the Administration is just “enforcing the law”. And to top it all off, they’re trying to hide behind the bible as they do it.

First of all, if you think that Jesus would be in favor of shattering desperate families with literally nothing but the clothes on their backs, then you have been seriously misinterpreting the bible. Helping those who have the least is kind of a major theme.

Second of all, could we perhaps NOT base our policy decisions on a collection of barely coherent stories written by a bunch of hallucinating fanatics living in the desert a couple thousand years ago? Instead of pulling quotes from those often-contradictory stories to support whatever policy idea we prefer could we instead perhaps base our treatment of other human beings on the simple concept of empathy? Look, the golden rule appears in every major religion for a reason. Just treat others as you would want to be treated. Would you want your breastfeeding child to be taken away from you, never to be seen again? No? Then maybe rethink the fucking policy.

And while we’re at it, let’s talk a little bit about that excuse that destroying families is “enforcing the law”. It isn’t. But even if it were the law? Just because something is legal does not make it moral. Just because something is illegal does not make it immoral.

Let me repeat that for those in the back.

LEGAL ≠ MORAL

ILLEGAL ≠ IMMORAL

Undocumented immigrants are not amoral because they broke the law. Border patrol agents who are shipping children off to concentration camps are not acting morally because they believe they are following the law. (I should also note that many of these families are seeking asylum and voluntarily turn themselves in. This is NOT illegal.)

To add to the swirling soup of outrage and despair that this whole situation stirs up inside me, I know that this outrage I’m feeling? This impotent blog post I’m writing? It’s exactly the response the evil men responsible for this policy want me to have. These sociopaths know that this kind of cruelty will drive their opponents mad, so they can turn around and offer an immigration plan that halts the family separation policy as if that’s some sort of concession, and demand that in return we pay for a wall or some other idiotic policy that is worse than where we started. And it’s worth pointing out that “where we started” was already awful. We were already turning away people fleeing from war zones. People with terminal diseases seeking treatment. People who fled their homes because they were going to be murdered. We can’t lose sight of the fact that none of this is acceptable. We should welcome immigrants. Not only does it pay off in the long run, it’s also the right thing to do.

So I know I’m following the script perfectly by writing this post, by being performatively outraged on the internet so that my liberal friends can echo the sentiment and we can all whip ourselves into a froth about this. But what’s the alternative? Not be outraged by our country putting toddlers into prison camps? No. Sorry. If I’m not outraged by this, then I’m dead inside.

It is easy to look at the left these days and say “geez, you’re outraged about everything. Give it a rest.” Do you want to know why we’re outraged about everything? Because everything is outrageous right now. Do you want to know why people keep comparing the Republican party’s behavior to that of Nazis? It’s because they’re behaving like Nazis.

Father’s day is tomorrow. I had a nice introspective blog post about parenting that I was putting together. But right now, all I can think about are those fathers and mothers who have lost their children.

Imagine life in your home town, your home country, being so dangerous that the best choice available to you is to leave with nothing but the clothes on your back and your precious family, to travel vast distances at great risk to a country you know doesn’t particularly want you, based on the glimmer of hope that you might be able to get across the border and start a new life. There is a myth that, despite all evidence to the contrary, refuses to die about that country: that it is a land of opportunity where if you work hard you can make a good life for yourself and your family. You know the odds are slim, but you have nowhere else to turn.

But then you get to the border, and you’re intercepted by men with guns. They tell you that you’ve broken the law and you are going to jail. They tell you that your children cannot go with you. Or maybe they don’t even tell you. Maybe they just find some pretext to separate you, and then your children never return. You don’t even get to say goodbye. Your family is literally the only thing you have left in a world that has already been so cruel to you, and now your family has been destroyed too.

My son is 18 months old. He is innocent and full of joy. He toddles around making woofing sounds like a dog or pointing enthusiastically to birds out the window or bringing books over to me so he can climb up on my lap and read with me. All the clichés you hear about the love you feel as a parent are true. The love grows inside you until you think you might burst, that you can’t possibly contain it, and yet it keeps growing. It is so powerful it can be scary.

And so when I look at my son and feel that love, and then I think of someone taking my son away because I wanted him to have a chance at a safe life, I can hardly bear it. Just imagining what those parents are feeling, just conjuring the faintest shadow of what they must be going through, guts me. And then I think of what it must be like for the children. The confusion. The fear. I imagine my innocent son, living in a tent city, not seeing anyone he knows for months and months and months. It hurts me, but I cannot stop thinking about it.

I don’t have any hopeful message to end this on. I’ll just say this: Tomorrow is father’s day. Use it to cherish your family. Your safe and comfortable life. And then think about what you are going to do to fight the human rights abuse that is taking place on our border, and the people who make it possible. We need to get past the despair, harness the rage, and put it to work.

 

The Purpose of a Gun

What is the purpose of a gun?

It’s a  question I’ve been thinking about a lot since the Las Vegas massacre, and has come to the fore again with the massacre in Parkland and the national discussion about gun violence that has followed. It’s a simple question, but it’s one that I think doesn’t get enough attention, because the answers get to the heart of the gun debate in the United States.

The simple answer to this question is that a gun is a device for propelling projectiles at high enough velocities to kill animals at a distance. More specifically, many guns are for killing human beings. That’s what guns are designed to do. But when I ask about the purpose of a gun, I don’t mean “what do they literally do?” I mean, “why do people buy them? Why do people think they need guns?”

Many gun owners will say that they own guns for defense. They want to protect their property, themselves, and their families from harm. Others will say that they own guns for hunting: killing animals for sport and/or food, and all of the culture and traditions that go with that.  Polls show that those are far and away the two main reasons people own guns. Of course, guns serve another purpose as well: they are used in war for killing people. Our species has put a lot of effort into finding better ways to kill each other, and modern firearms are one result.

So, guns are for self defense, hunting, and war. But guns are more than just simple tools. Guns have a deep cultural significance that other tools don’t. People get emotional about guns. Why is that?

It helps to look at those three purposes more closely. Self defense, hunting, and war are intimately linked with our culture’s ideas of masculinity. The “man of the house” is traditionally responsible for keeping his wife and kids safe. Hunting is a manly thing to do: it is a rite of passage for boys to go out hunting with their fathers, and bringing home meat to feed the family again plays into the idea of the man’s role as provider for the household. And soldiers are seen as the epitome of masculinity, taking the man’s role of defender of the family and expanding to to defender of the country. Historically, killing has been a man’s job.

The purpose of a gun in modern American culture is not just as a tool, but as a talisman of masculinity. A fetish, worshiped for its power to confer masculinity on its wielder.

Couple the gun’s near-mystical status with a culture that is deeply misogynistic, where men seek to distance themselves from anything that seems even remotely feminine. The easiest way to insult a man in our culture is to question his masculinity, to imply that he is in some way woman-like. Men are taught that they must constantly prove their masculinity to themselves and each other, so what better way than to acquire guns? Surely nobody can question my masculinity if I own an arsenal of military-grade weapons.

At the same time, expressing any emotion other than anger is seen as feminine and therefore forbidden to any self-respecting red-blooded man. Boys don’t cry. Boys are supposed to like gym class and play sports so they can prove their physical prowess against other boys. Boys are not supposed to like poetry or drama, because those activities involve openly sharing emotions other than anger.

That said, our culture is changing fast. Women are breaking down barriers everywhere you look. Same sex couples can get married. Nerds are cool. The #MeToo movement is exposing rampant sexual harassment and men who have long gotten away with it are finally facing consequences. We had 8 years with an African American president. Cherished bastions of popular culture like Star Wars and superhero movies are having success after success by featuring women and people of color.

There’s a saying that goes: “When you are accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” Right now a lot of white men, raised in a hyper-masculine culture, are seeing these shifts and feel like they are under attack. Plenty of men are able to adapt to the changing culture and celebrate it, but there is a segment of the population who instead double down on toxic masculinity. They perceive a threat to their way of life, and in response they acquire arsenals and continue to repress emotions to prove their masculinity at any cost.

There is another facet to guns that also comes into play here. Not only are they powerful symbols of masculinity, but guns offer the illusion of control. It is terrifying to think of an armed intruder breaking into your house and threatening your family, so many people want a gun so that if such a situation arises, they will not feel helpless. They can take control of the situation rather than wait for the cops to arrive. Studies show that having a gun in your house actually puts your family at greater risk, but it feels like it does the exact opposite. Likewise, the idea of a mass shooting is terrifying, and makes people feel helpless. You hear gun advocates say that they want to carry weapons to prevent such attacks, that if we just had more “good guys with guns” then we’d be safer. What they are really saying is that they cannot deal with feeling helpless if such a situation were to arise. By carrying a gun, they feel like if they found themselves in an attack, they could do something about it. This is of course not backed up by reality, where having numerous armed civilians in a shooting is likely to just add to the chaos, cause additional unwanted injuries, and make it much harder for law enforcement to do their jobs effectively. But the idea of having a gun is comforting because it gives an illusion of control.

So what we end up with are heavily armed, emotionally stunted, white men who feel like their way of life is under attack, and turn to guns as a way to reassert control. It’s the perfect recipe for gun massacres.

It is obvious that this country needs better laws to make it harder for dangerous people to get their hands on weapons that make killing easy. But I think it is equally obvious that gun violence in this country is also a byproduct of a deeply toxic culture of masculinity, and that if we want to curb the violence we need to work hard to change that culture.

My Experience as a Stay-at-home Dad

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been taking time off of work and spending it at home with our 7.5 month old baby. I’ll continue to be mostly off for another couple of weeks (more on that “mostly” caveat later), but I have enough under my belt at this point that I thought it would be worth writing down some thoughts.

Most people, if they’re going to take time off, take it right after the baby is born, and I did take some time off then as well. But we decided early on that it made more sense for me to postpone some of my paternity leave until now. Erin was lucky enough to be able to be off work from when Shane was born in December until the end of July, so the idea is for me to take this time off now to ease the transition as she returns to work.

The fact that I’m able to take this much time off at all is pretty great. The family medical leave act (FMLA) requires employers to allow employees to take up to 12 weeks of leave in the 12 month period following the birth of a child, but it doesn’t require that leave to be paid which is absurd. The only other nations in the world that don’t provide any paid family leave at all are Suriname and Papua New Guinea. Thankfully, I have accumulated enough sick leave and vacation time that I am able to take this time off without missing a paycheck, and my job is flexible enough that I can do this without causing major problems.

What I am doing is pretty unusual though. In the workaholic culture of the United States, and particularly the culture of science, it is not common for dads to take this much time off. Everyone I have told about this plan to take time off has been supportive, sometimes with with hints of jealousy, but I still feel the need to explain myself to everyone (including writing this blog post).

I hate that I feel guilty for taking this time, and that in explaining it, I feel the instinctive need to promise that I’m actually going to use this time to get some work done. Because heaven forbid that I would be so decadent as to take a month off for the sole purpose of spending time with my baby.

So, with that, let’s turn to the question of how my decadent month of child care is going.

First, the obvious: it’s great. Instead of just seeing my baby first thing in the morning, and then in the evening when both of us are tired and fussy, I get to spend all day with him. That’s interspersed with nap times when I can read a book, or get a little work done, or make dinner, or whatever else I want/need to do. We can go on little adventures, like taking the running stroller to Buffalo Park and going for a jog, or walking to the grocery store to get some ingredients for dinner. As a homebody who is content to just hang out in my house most of the time, this works well for me.

One thing I have noticed is how quickly I lose all track of time. Not that I don’t know what day it is, but at the end of the day it’s very hard to say what I actually did when. When did he last eat? How long were his naps? Did he go to sleep nicely last time or was it 45 minutes of screaming and crying? It all blurs together, making these questions surprisingly hard for me to answer. I actually went so far as to install a phone app to track feeding and nap times just so that I could verify that, yes, it has been 4 hours since the last bottle so that’s why he’s fussy. Taking care of a baby this age is repetitive: He is generally awake for about two hours, followed by a nap ranging from 45 minutes to a couple hours. In between naps, there are bottles, diaper changes, eating solid food, maybe a bath, and play time. When you add in at least 15 minutes (and sometimes much, much more) time spent getting him to calm down in preparation for nap time, you end up with a nearly endless cycle that blurs together.

I have also learned that I’m not very good at playing with babies this age. I’m probably not supposed to say this, but babies are pretty boring. I’ve always thought of myself as being good with kids, but babies are different. My go-to way of entertaining a baby is to read board books, but unlike younger babies who don’t really do much (and therefore make a fine book reading audience), 7 month old babies are interested in everything. This also means they aren’t generally interested in a single thing for very long. We’ll sit down to read some books, and after a couple pages, he’s fussing, wanting to gnaw the book or reaching for the dog, or looking at the colorful toy on the table. Also, this may come as a surprise to you, but books written for infants and toddlers are not particularly interesting for adults.

When books fail, there are always other toys. Dangling toys are always a hit, and things that crinkle or that feel nice to chew are also good. There’s peekaboo, or bouncing on my knee, and when in doubt I can usually make him crack up with tickles or a kiss-attack. My problem is that is seems like we can go through all of these options and then I check the time and only a few minutes have passed.

I’ve found that the best entertainment for everyone involved is actually food. We’re working on learning to eat finger foods, and putting Shane in his chair and placing a slice of peach or a stick of roasted sweet potato or a piece of banana on his tray to play with will keep him happy and entertained for quite a while. Meanwhile I get to play goalie, keeping him from sending his food off the edge of the tray, or retrieving fragments of food that have managed to bypass the bib and end up in his lap.

The hardest part about this has been self-inflicted and I knew it was going to happen, but that didn’t stop it. I built up this time off as this mythical gap in my calendar during which I hoped to get all manner of things done, ranging from work that I haven’t had time to get to, to writing, to exercise, to home improvement projects. Of course, it turns out most of the day is taken up with caring for my baby (shocker, I know), leaving just nap time for all of this stuff to happen. By not fully disconnecting from work, I have lost quite a bit of that “free” time during naps to answering emails, or helping my summer student finish up her presentation and paper, or doing some work (but not enough to feel satisfied). I am ashamed to find myself impatient for the baby to go down for another nap so I can get more stuff done, but then when nap times come, I never get done what I want to, and so I end up frustrated.

If I was truly off of work, with no responsibilities that kept drawing me back in, I think this month would be more enjoyable. Instead, I have been trying to exist as some sort of Schrodinger’s dad, in a bizarre superposition of working and not working, which turns out to just make both the time off and the small amount of work accomplished feel less satisfying. I think next week I am going to try to do a better job of actually being “off” so that I can enjoy this time. The week after, Shane starts half-day daycare, and I can ease back into working.

I want to make it clear that I recognize how fortunate I am in having this time off to spend with my son. I always feel guilty and self-indulgent when I write blog posts like this, because I know that many people only wish they had lives easy enough to have the “problems” I write about on this blog. I don’t mean to be overly negative, but I think it is worthwhile to talk about parenting honestly, and I use writing here on the blog as a way to process thoughts that otherwise would just rattle around in my head. So, thanks for indulging me and reading this far.

Now, the baby is waking up from his morning nap, so I am off to have a fun day with my son!

 

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