Thursday, January 24, 2013

On Constancy

So I was reading a book, and came across this:

“And whatever each man believed in he hammered at steadily, without skepticism: and there was a time when the Established Church might have fallen, and the House of Lords nearly fell. It was because Radicals were wise enough to be constant and consistent; it was because Radicals were wise enough to be Conservative.” —G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

Conservative. Conservative radicals. Radical conservatives. Radical.

How interesting—their radicalism changed the world because their radicalism did not change. What an intriguing idea—only constancy can bring about change.

William Wilberforce knew it; he worked tirelessly for over a decade to bring about a stop to the slave trade. He tried different tactics to do it, but the main driving force, what gave him power, and the end goal was always the same: end the suffering of those involved in the slave trade. Period.

“But,” one (minorly annoying) critic may say, “Wilberforce changed his approach a million times!” (at this natural break I would point out that this minorly annoying critic was exaggerating. Ignoring me, the critic would continue) “How can you call that constant?”

To that I say this: he never changed his purpose. And he never changed who he was. He got to be a better version of himself, and he did get sick along the way, but he didn’t change who he was—his ideals, and his desire to stop the evil he could from being practiced. In the movie about him, Amazing Grace, he said, “I didn’t change! I never change!” And it’s true. If you attach your purpose and goals to eternal truths, you won’t need to change them. You will most certainly have to change yourself.

The most nefariously evil villans are the ones who are bent on one specific evil scheme.

Constantly changing your goals, or worse yet, the ideals and purpose on which your goals are based, makes it hard to plug at hard problems long enough to be able to actually change things in a permanent way.

So what? Why does it matter that in order to change we need constancy?

Well, it doesn’t really matter unless we want change. What's worth being constant enough and changing yourself? And being dedicated enough to a cause, deep enough to plug forward until it's accomplished? 

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Why Dragons Are Typically Evil

After writing my previous blog post about knowing things, I made a connection to something I wanted to explore how we learn more about people or things we're afraid of. AttributionNoncommercial Some rights reserved by modowd

I watched How to Train your Dragon the other day, and I, as I typically do as an English major, started to analyze it for deeper or more universal meaning. I found a few things, but I'll just share the one that relates to the topic of knowledge. When Hiccup went to learn more about the night fury in the book the vikings had compiled, he found nothing. Well, nothing useful for his situation. The vikings really hated the dragons (except for the glory they got from fighting them). And, although they wouldn't admit it, they kind of feared them, too. That's why it was such a big deal to kill a dragon--there wouldn't be honor in fighting something no one was afraid of. Thus, the information they included in their book about dragons was limited to what their prejudices and hate led them to think of the dragons. They didn't really want to know everything about the dragons—but to their view, all there was to know about the dragons was how they fought and how to best kill them. Instead of showing all the aspects of these creatures, they only saw the parts relevant to them—only the parts absolutely necessary for them to know for their purposes in interacting with them.

They saw the havoc the dragons wreaked on their village and went on damage control—they looked for the quickest way to get the dragons to stop setting their wooden houses on fire and eating their livestock—it was to kill them. I can't say I blame them: I'm pretty sure I'd start going for the kill if big dangerous things were torching my house and eating my future meals. . . . Yet, do you see how being stuck in "damage control" mode prevented them from really seeing what the dragons were after? And consequently, they postponed (possibly indefinitely) the chance to put a permanent end to the war between the two of them. Instead of looking for ways to deter the dragons from attacking (they must've learned early on that fighting the dragons didn't prevent them from coming in the future), they made harder weapons, made fire-proof shields, taught their children how to fight the dragons. They defined full warriorhood by what dragon they first killed. A bit interesting that they defined their culture around the dragons, even though they didn't want to look further into how the dragons worked. By ignoring the dragons' reasons for their behavior and focusing on fighting them, they created a permanent place for the dragons in their very culture, in the hopes and dreams of their children (wasn't it Hiccup's aspiration to kill a night fury to get positive attention from his peers and father?).

Examples of this kind of lack of understanding of another person/group abound in movies and literature:
In Shrek, Donkey seeing the dragon as an uncontrollable monster
In Othello, Othello perceiving Desdemona as his enemy because of the placement of her handkerchief
In Tarzan, Clayton seeing the gorillas as future piles of money, and Kerchak does not seek to understand what the humans are trying to do.
In To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout realizes that people have misunderstood Boo Radley

Does this relate to how we learn about our "enemies"?

I interviewed a soldier who worked in information in Iraq—that is, he helped question prisoners to learn about the area and investigate conflicts. While that sounds awful and may conjure up images from war or spy movies, I learned that "questioning" can take many forms, and soldiers really mostly try to understand the people and the culture they're deployed in. What this soldier found was that friendship often was more helpful than antagonism, and the more he just sought to understand the people he was working with, including their culture and their motivations and values, the more he could help the armed forces solve problems and ease conflict peacefully. He learned about peoples' world views and motivations for doing things. He learned that for some groups, family was most important, and for others, self-preservation. He learned the most from the people he developed friendship with—a connection with. And understanding why people did things helped immensely when it was crucial to know what the different clans were going to do, and how violence could be prevented. And they saw that when you really have the people's best interest at heart, you're more able to accomplish goals that benefit most people involved. That sounds awfully rosy-colored, I know, but if you think about it, that's the smart way with dealing with "enemies."

After all, "do we not destroy our enemies when we make them our friends"?

Monday, January 14, 2013

On Knowing

Okay, today I want to write a bit about what I know about knowledge. There are different ways to "know" something, but I'm not sure what those are yet. I'm sure this will be even less clear once I start getting into it...

One way to "know" something is to memorize it—have it in your mind. I think this could be the shallowest form of knowing something, because it doesn't necessarily stay and it doesn't have to be very deep or understood to be considered memorized (interesting--understanding isn't the same as knowledge). This is the type of knowledge my professors have referred to as "regurgitated" knowledge—there isn't a change from going in to coming out.

Another level of knowing something is seeing how it connects to other things. Like knowing that hamburger was once a cow, or knowing that heroes are important to people because there's a form of hero in all the cultures you've looked into. There is a change in this one—you add contexts to the information, thus influencing how it will be interpreted (by you or by others) in the future.

Another level of knowing is understanding why, or at least realizing there is more going on behind the scenes. Understanding is knowing that a light switch works because the circuit has electricity running through it and a light bulb is part of the circuit. Understanding can also come in the form of not getting mad at your friend even though he's being a jerk, because you realize there is probably something going on below the surface, even if he won't tell you what it is.

Found on Djumbo, creative commons license AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike
You have to do the most work to really understand something—it requires a lot of observation and research as well as the most rumination on that information once it's made its way into your mind. And in my experience understanding is the most fluid of the knowledge because it needs to be able to react to new information in order to maintain the level of understanding previously attained. And there is always more to understand, greater and greater context: If you understand how a bird can fly, can you understand how it manages to move its wings that way? If you understand why a computer crashed, can you understand why people still depend so much on them? If you understand what in that movie made you cry, can you understand why it had no effect on other people? If you can understand the spider on the web, can you understand how the house it lives in was built, and why it is now abandoned (and how all of that affects the spider)?

Monday, January 7, 2013

On Starting Something New

In honor of the new year, I will share some of my thoughts on starting new things, which may be relevant since many people have already begun their resolutions for the new year. Also a good topic since I'm starting this blog. :)

Starting new things—it's exciting to do. But the excitement wears off and then it's time to either continue or...not. The "not" might entail more definite means of ending something, but for the stuff I'm thinking of, it's not too hard to do. For example, you just stop using a program you bought or started using. Or you just don't take the paint set out again. Or you stop reading the book you found at the library. Or you stop exploring. Or just stop...and "stop" can mean something other than an abrupt, intentional cessation of an activity. It can be quite un-dramatic to stop doing something. You could just leave it and forget to come back. Or think of it and maybe want to take up guitar again, but not enough to actually physically go over and pick it up, or not enough to look for the guitar books and re-teach yourself how to play. This article is turning into being about stopping new things rather than starting new things.

So starting new things stops when the thing ceases to be new. That can take varying amounts of time. But I'm sure it happens to all activities. Or does it? I guess one would continue doing the new thing if he or she liked it enough. Or if it never stopped being new. But is that really possible? I've heard of people saying that they love their job so much because it's something new every day, or that a certain activity never "gets old." But shouldn't there be some time limit to something being new? Like a formula for the half-life of a new activity, depending on its complexity and the normal frequency of use? A blob of play dough can be considered old after just a couple days of playing with it (especially if it gets crusty), but a hobby that requires one to travel or go on excursions, such as rock hunting or sailing, could be considered new after 5 months if you've only gone on 3 excursions.

Maybe whether the activity is "new" or not is irrelevant. Something can be old and still be interesting. I like my old pictures and my old journals because they bring me back to those times. They have value. But  I'm talking about starting new things. That's the topic (rapidly unravelling) for this quick write. What is it about starting something new that makes it so appealing, even exhilarating? And what bridges the gap between stopping something new and continuing with something old? What makes people stick to something? Is it pure like for the activity? Is it the return in recreational value that keeps them coming to it? (I'm not going to talk about jobs here--those have all sorts of different incentives and things to keep people coming back to them day after day even if they're unsatisfied or rather unhappy. Here I'm talking about hobbies.) Is it compatibility with current tasks and lifestyle?

Is it something deeper than that? Like the activity somehow resonates with the person's purpose in life?

So what makes the difference? Not sure. Must have something to do with us being curious, and then retaining what benefits us--emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, or however-other-ly it can.

A Blog? Why.

I've caved—I've started a personal blog. 

When the blogging phenomenon started, I scoffed. Then a bunch of people started personal blogs detailing the doings of the day or airing angsty teen poetry. I thought these blogs would die out or only be read by the relatives of the people writing them—Who cares what you did today? And who cares what you thought about it? ... Do people really care what I think?

But my thinking has slowly changed, about blogs and about what I have to say. I have seen blog posts on personal blogs that are truly touching. I've heard some young mothers say that writing and reading blogs of other young mothers sustained them during those hard years of transitioning into being a parent. And I've seen that blogs can become more than just outlets (though that is great)—they can be places of connection between people and ideas. In my recent foray into the theory of digital culture from taking a college course on it and keeping a blog for that class, I learned that there is value in sharing ideas early, even before they're properly formed. And there is value in connecting with other people over those ideas. So now I see that blogging can do a lot of good, for blogger and reader alike (and those are not mutually exclusive categories).

I do have things to say. They aren't usually new ideas or expressed completely novelly, but they may resonate with people that have had similar experiences or have wondered the same things. And if I never talk (or in this case, write), will I ever know if what I have to say is valuable to other people? Of course I won't. So here goes the effort. 

This blog is my attempt at getting better at sharing things I write. It's hard to share something you've written, and sometimes I get so locked up on getting it just right that the piece never gets written or the occasion passes or the ideas don't get expressed. . . all because I didn't feel confident that the writing was polished enough to inflict on other people who may or may not be interested or want to read it. 

My solution: post some of the stuff I write on a blog. That way no one is forced to read it, and the people that are interested in reading or giving constructive feedback can access it without me personally sending it to them. I get practice writing for an audience, posting unpolished things, and letting people read what I've written. 

I really hope this exercise will yield more positive results than negative ones: I look forward to connecting with you—other people who also have things to say.

So enjoy any new sights you might acquire while visiting my site; and add your own insight. If you find or create something that relates to something here, post a link.