Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Ambitions for our children

There is, I believe, a natural desire on behalf of parents to give their children every opportunity to grow and develop. The very notion of parenting necessitates some level of sacrifice on the part of the parents in order to open new doors for their children, doors that for many parents were shut due to familial circumstances. Their children will have the best education, primary, secondary & tertiary.
Although this ambition itself is worthy of analysis, it may be that the dreams of the parents are being lived through the children, I am rather perplexed by another less mentioned, and possibly ignored ambtion.
That our children become "Better;more ethical, more patient, more kind, more charitable & more moral than us".
Surely that is just inconsistent?
Our children's future, if we are to attempt to direct it is some way, should be pointed in the direction of making more of a contribution to the world than we have....

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

You're never 'Welcome'

Most people share a common self-assessment, that they are basically good.  We strive for the title of being considered a mensch, and many would hold that it is the value that trumps all others. 

But how does one earn the noble title?

Ordinarily it is by purely doing good deeds for, to or on behalf of others.  The more altruistic the deed, the nobler the doer.  The more anonymous the performer, the more pious the character.

This mindset has to change.

Selfless good deeds need to be replaced by conditional assistance. An offer of free-help needs to be replaced by indebtedness.
But the debt is not owed to you, it’s owed to society!
People live with a paradigm that may have been historically true, but it has lost its relevance in modernity. It is natural and rational to expect that  kindness be both graciously received with a sense of gratitude. We often hope that the recipient of that kindness also feels a natural need to be similarly kind to others. “If I am kind to you, you’ll be kind to others” goes the logic.

This is both idealistic and unrealistic.

People may intrinsically want to help others and share the kindness, but the self-absorbed nature of modern man usually denies him doing so. We have become so disillusioned that it has become sufficient if the kindness is merely acknowledged.
What society needs is a sense of obligatory responsibility towards the greater good.
How is this done?
By making people translate the benefits that have received from the society into a quantifiable, or at least qualifiable, debt that needs to be repaid.

We need to attach strings to our favours. Gone are the days of altruistic kindness; nowadays every random act of kind comes with baggage and a price tag- the price is the obligation to pay it forward.
The next time you help someone out- when they do thank you for your efforts- DO NOT say “You’re welcome”!

By letting people ‘off’ easily, we relegate an opportunity that was there to impact the world as merely an isolated deed- to be forgotten in the passage of time.

Instead of “You’re welcome” now say “I am glad that I could help you, but you have to promise me to ‘Pay it forward’ ”. “Quantify the help I gave you; put a dollar figure on it and find someone to give it to. “
Even better, make it a condition to helping them in the first place.

This seemingly trivial condition creates a joint vision and a potential movement towards making a real change in the world. My act of kindness lives on beyond the initial deed, not because of natural reciprocity and appreciation, but rather because of my having demanding that people make a difference in the world.  

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

...and the pursuit of arbitrary & fruitless goals

These thoughts were prompted by:
What motivates explorers to venture into the unknown?
This is my dilemma- on the one hand I have enormous admiration for the accomplishments of selected individuals. The glory of the human form being capable of achieving feats, that require enormous  physical strength as well as psychological determination and courage, is nothing short of marvellous.
On the other hand I often feel that the substance of those accomplishments are trivial and arbitrary. They lack no intrinsic value, other than the accomplishment in and of itself. This I find not only pointless, but it is a waste of my time, in following them, and their talents in pursuing such fruitless tasks.
For clarity, I am not specifically referring to sports. The modern sporting arena is more a form of entertainment through the means of athletic endeavour than an intrinsically important activity for mankind and civilization in general. The stadium of today is more comparable to the cinematic experience than it is to real life.
I am specifically referring to are those superhuman feats, triumphed by unbelievably talented individuals, which are completely meaningless to everyone except those involved in the mission.
Rowing a boat across the Atlantic, hiking across Antarctica, climbing Everest, sky diving from space etcetera etcetera etcetera.
To be fare, there are people who use such extreme activities as a means to raise money or awareness of noble causes, which can make the actual 'event' a means to a nobler end. It appears, however, that more often than not, the altruism of the 'athlete' is more of an afterthought than a guiding principle.
But what about those people who do it just for sake of it? Is the fact that humans can endure such difficult circumstances and accomplish such feats enough merit to warrant our interest, our respect and our admiration?

I suppose my frustration lies in the missed opportunity. If people could use their talent in the service of world, rather than fuelling their own egotistical and existential hunger, how beautiful might the world be?

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

The paradox of popularity

We live in a world that praises individuality as long as it conforms to the societally acceptable norm- "popular individuality"...an oxymoron?

But surely being an individual is, by definition, being different to all other people. You think differently, you feel differently and you believe differently. If our experience is identical and our faith common- then we have chosen to reject our uniqueness in favour of a shared and popular system.
To be unique and individual means to be lonely. I am not saying that that being lonely necessitates being alone, on the contrary I can feel lonely in the presence of others, but rather that loneliness is an inevitable reality. But one need not be frightened of loneliness, even if it connotes and arouses negative images,  it is in fact the mere corollary of individuality- my uniqueness necessitates that I am lonely in my experience.
Through this loneliness I can arrive at my own conclusions as to what energises me, what motivates me and what inspires me.
That is not to say that I cannot share experiences with others, it's just that no one can really know me, or understand what I feel and think.

Popularity on the other hand, whether it be popular literature, popular culture or even or especially popular philosophy, is, again by definition, palatable to the masses. It is the acceptance or desire for acceptance amongst the broad populace, or at least within a specific group of the population. Popular culture denies the individuality of the experience in favour of conformity.

To make myself clear, I am not pitting these two ideas up against one another as dichotomous entities, but rather seeking to understand and define them.

There is a time a place to express individuality, but more often than not we best seek to confirm to popular opinion and practice. Each person needs to find their own balance.

The crucial message is this, one cannot find or express one's individuality by latching on to a popular trend. 

Individuality isn't popular, it can't be.

"We are all individuals and we all think for ourselves" - from Monty Python's The Life of Brian

Sunday, 7 July 2013

The day our sadness began, and it's only getting worse.

Positive psychology, the science of happiness, suggests that happiness is a relative construct rather than an objective position. The pleasure I gain from my possessions, job and family are all dependant on how I perceive others' lives and their objective happiness.

In other words, if I surround myself with miserable people my life would be pretty good- not only perceived as good but I would actually be happier.
To expand upon this theory the logical conclusion would be that my misery is proportional to the kind of company that I keep. If I surround myself with happy people, my life will be more miserable rather than happier. (A bit counter-intuitive)

If you were to take a few moments to consider the people closest to you, would you consider their lives and lifestyles idealistic? Most probably you are well aware of the most dysfunctional aspects of their lives- broken relationships, unruly kids, economic ruin and personal insecurities.They are not unique, we all struggle with our demons- but it is only with those that we know well that we can appreciate the demons and struggles of others.

Throughout our history our relationships seldom ventured outside of our shtetl. Everyone knew everyone else, as well as all their dirty laundry- envy was less of a problem for their was little to be envious of.

Even when we look to pictures of the 'olden days' we seldom feel any sense of jealousy and wish to go back to those times.

People seemed depressed and their lives unmistakably plain.
But something changed, and through that change was born an era of depression and low self esteem.
That change was the invention of the 
instant photography.

The reason that people had such dull expressions in old photographs is that you had to sit still for a very long time in order for the exposure to take hold. It is virtually impossible to freeze frame a smile for 15 minutes, thus sober and sombre poses were almost unanimously accepted.

Instant exposure photography allowed us to flash a cheezy smile at every opportunity, whether standing at the entrance to Disneyland or Alcatraz.

So instead of seeing sad depressed people in pictures, we see people appearing to be having a great time. Everyone is happy and having a blast. The most important detail is missing from the picture, its context.

Facebook has added insult to injury, now it is not only people I am close to who appear to be having a marvellous existence, even shallow acquaintances are living a blissful life- just look at their photos.
There is invariably a discord between people's Facebook status and their actual private lives.

My personal reality cannot possibility come close to the perceived reality of others. And thus a generation of misery is born out of the success of social media.
It would follow that the chances are that the more Facebook friends you have, the more miserable you will be...now that's a sad thought.

Perhaps the best solution has been suggested by columnist Oliver Burkeman, and that's to subtitle our pictures with the statement "Just remember that this person is barely holding it together".

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Nature is not good...it's only natural

Should we accept people as they are and for what they are?
The "Yes" rationale is that people don't choose who they are. It may be nature, and it might possibly be nurture, but it is clear to some that that we are a mere product, possibly even a  victim, of genetics & society.

Being a person who enjoys the presumption of free choice as the great director in one's destiny, I reject "determinism", that being who I am has been genetically predetermined. Determinism, as a philosophy, denies us of our responsibility in life and to life. It creates a paradigm of helplessness and of being a victim.

On the other side of the political divide are those that deny the role that nature has in influencing our behaviours. This group see lifestyle choices as having been chosen, rather than inherited, and therefore all choices that are inconsistent with the norm are considered "abnormal" & "unnatural".

Whichever side of the spectrum you sit on, the basic underlying assumption is the same- "Nature is good." The only question is whether a person's behaviour is to be considered as being consistent with that nature or at odds with it.

Perhaps there is an alternative paradigm to view this issue; Nature is natural- it isn't good or bad, it is just natural.

I often find myself duped into purchasing a product purely because of the claim that it is "100% natural", only to find that it is still loaded with saturated fats and sugar- natural sugar of course. Butter is 100% natural, as is Lard/Schmaltz, as is Cannabis- but I am not convinced that any of these things are particularly good for you.

The same has to be said for human character and behaviour. There are natural reactions to various stimuli, but that doesn't make those reactions good. Anger is the natural effect of disappointment, and violence is the natural response to anger- but it isn't usually a good response.

Illness &  pain are both natural, but they are not good.

The courage to not get angry when provoked is unnatural.
The ability to not resent others when offended is unnatural.
The strength to resist temptation is unnatural.
But it is these triumphs that make us good.

Good is achieved specifically by being unnatural; by rejecting our instinctual reaction in favour of choosing our preferred destiny.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Immoral Dilemmas

A moral dilemma is when two values challenge one another in a given situation. It is the triage of values where an individual is forced into a catch-22. Whatever he decides, he will be compromising at least one of his core values.

"Can I steal medication from a laboratory to save a life?"- The value of life versus that of stealing.
"Can I lie to someone in order to not hurt their feelings?"- The value of truth versus that of peace.
"Can I murder in order to save many lives?"- The value of life versus many lives.

These are genuine and troubling moral dilemmas. Any decision results in some level of regret and remorse- innocent people will suffer and injustice will result. Fairness and justice cannot co-exist within a moral dilemma. The resultant decision necessitates that result will, by definition, be partially unfair and immoral- this is no win-win answer.

We live, however, in a time where people find themselves faced with a new kind of dilemma. Unlike the moral dilemmas cited above, people are now struggling with issues of compromising their personal happiness or defaulting on another value.

"If I already have made a commitment and something better comes up, is it OK to cancel my first arrangement?"- My happiness versus responsibility for earlier commitments.
"If I can cheat on an exam without getting caught is it OK?"- My happiness/success versus being an honest person.
"Can I lie to get myself out of trouble?" - Saving myself versus telling the truth.

These questions were once issues of  right and wrong, but now that have been given an elevated status of becoming "moral dilemmas".

I sincerely do not think that people are trivialising these issues nor do I think that they are self-rationalising and justifying their positions- I truly believe that these 'dilemmas' genuinely trouble people and keep them up at night.

The problem is that 'my happiness' has become a value on par with all other 'altruistic' values.

Whether it is the media, literature or just social changes; happiness has become not only an important goal in people's existence, it has become the number one factor in our lives. Almost anything can be justified if it brings happiness.

Purpose, the feeling of actively contributing to the betterment of the world, and meaning, the sense of being a positive influence in other people's lives, have been relegated down the ladder.

The world is giving birth to a new generation of  fanaticism and fundamentalism, a calling in contradistinction to most Westerners hedonistic ambitions.  These people are rejecting the self-fulfilment and pleasure and are embracing a higher calling. A calling that demands the sacrifice of personal ambitions and happiness for the goal of doing what's right. They demand adherence to their values, even at pain of death- happiness isn't sought or even valued.

But there must be a middle, moderate, position. One that can restore the hierarchy of values to their former glory. Where happiness is looked to as a by-product of a life well-lived, with meaning and purpose rather than a goal to be pursued.

Our values need not be to the exclusion of all others, tolerance is a value as well, but the core of our argument should be that we are striving for enduring values that extend beyond us and our personal ambitions.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

"Sportsmen are not Angels"- that's not what they're paid to be

A brief disclaimer: One has to distinguish between explaining/rationalising something, and justifying it. Rationalising something puts it into context in order to understand why people do what they do. The assumption is that most people act rationally, and even though their behaviour may at times seem bizarre, there is an underlying logic to why they do what they do.
Justifying something is giving it legitimacy, saying it is OK and acceptible.

I am attempting here to rationalise, not justify.

Perpetually we are inundated with reports of poor behaviour amongst our top athletes from every code. As an example this article was published this morning:

"A "typical" day in the life of an NRL player looks, apparently, like this. After a good, solid warm-up he takes the field and pees in his shorts, shaking it loose with the legs, because, hey, when you gotta go you gotta go, lol.Halfway through the game he stands and fires a one-two into his opponent, wins the game, then heads out to celebrate with a beer or 10.
Before the clock even reaches midnight he is kicked out, but shows that some of his best footwork comes off the field when he sneaks back in through the kitchen.
He likes the little blonde over in the corner, so he goes over and ends up getting his face slapped. Her boyfriend isn't all that happy.
On his way back to his car he is still frustrated by the knockback and, well, did you see the way that street sign was looking at him?
Nobody looks at him like that and gets away with it, so he rips the street sign out of the ground and puts it through some poor innocent's car window. They can deal with it in the morning. Not his problem.
Then he jumps into his car, unlicensed and with a cabin full of mates, and gets pinched for drink-driving before arriving home with one of the girls his mate pulled earlier where, somehow, she ends in casualty with a fractured eye socket."
Although the author laments his frustration and disappointment in the NRL and its dealing with players' behaviour, it would be worth understanding the mentality of the perpetrators themselves.

Why do we love sport?

When you boil it down, the basic reason is that some people are capable at performing phenomenal feats of athleticism and strength.  Their speed, their power and their skill defy belief, and we are in awe of them as a result. The arbitrary nature of scoring a try, shooting a hoop or getting a ball into a hole is irrelevant- it is these people's ability to do the impossible that inspires and energises us.

The athlete seeks perfection in his physical abilities and is constantly encouraged to drive it to places beyond historically accepted norms. In order to achieve this he must invest all his energy into his body. His must train harder, get stronger and earn the right to perform on the great stage in the arena.
The professional era of sport has insisted that he not only be dedicated, but also devoted to nothing else other than his body and what he can and must make it do.

His mind is marginalised, unless it can help get more out of the body. His head tell him to stop when he feels pain but, being an elite athlete, he learns to not listen to it. In fact he may even enlist the support of a psychologist to assist him in ignoring the complaints, the doubts and the fear- the natural and normal fear- of his mind.

In essence we, as sports devotees, have insisted on creating beasts of physicality- who are masters of their bodies.
The cost, however, is the deterioration of their brains.

I am not refering to cognitive impairment as a result of excessive knocks to the head, but rather of an inability to distinguish between good decisions and bad ones- a lack of moral clarity.

Are we not expecting too much from athletes that they should be well mannered and exhibit impeccable etiquette in the public arena, when that part of the brain has been not only completely ignored during all of their training, but the voice in one's head has been viewed as the enemy throughout all of his training. And now we expect him to shed, along with his uniform, his mindset every time he leave the 'office'.

Accountants stays accountants at the bar- it is who they are. Sportsmen are sportsmen- in competition as well as out of it.

Perhaps we are expecting too much from our athletes...

Again I am not condoning this behaviour- I am just not surprised that it happens.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Bad questions

I often encounter bad questions.

That is not to say stupid questions, but rather just bad questions.

"What is a bad question?" you ask.
Good question...

In order to dissect the concept of a question, we need to first understand the anatomy of a true question.

Firstly questions are prompted by a lack of a specific knowledge. In order to discover the answer to my ignorance, I question an expert- real or self-professed- in order to resolve my doubt and concern. If, for any reason, the questioner already knows the answer to his question, then one needs only to ascertain the true motives of the questioner and the question- rather than its answer.

Secondly the questioner wants to know the answer to his question.

If one either knows the answer, or alternatively does not care about the answer, the dynamic that is created between the questioner & the respondent is not an educational paradigm, but rather a debate, argument or statement- but it is not a true question.

But even if these two components are fulfilled, we may still be confronted with a bad question.

Most questions are built upon assumptions. These assumptions create the basis and framework which form the foundation on which the question can be built.
For example- "Why did Abraham Lincoln abolish slavery?"
The built in assumption is that  Abraham Lincoln did, in fact, abolish slavery, and my only question is to understand his motives.
This assumption may be correct, but if it is not, then the question is a bad question.

The reason I call it a bad question is that if the underlying assumption is incorrect, the question ceases to exist. I don't need to answer the question, because there is no question.

Allow me furnish you with a few biblical examples, see if you can spot the underlying assumptions:

"Why does the Torah not mention dinosaurs?"
"How can the Torah talk about the world being 5773 years old when we know it is billions of years old?"

Assumption: The Torah is a history book, and as a history book it appears incompatible with modern scientific knowledge and understanding.

"How do snakes & donkeys speak in the Torah?"

Assumption: The Torah is attempting to tell us a story where the reader is supposed to imagine being a witness to the events as they are told. I am struggling to imagine a time where animals converse with human beings in a shared language. (Other than Dr Doolittle)

"What fruit did Adam and Eve eat in the Garden of Eden?"

Assumption: It is important to know the answer, despite the fact that the Torah leaves the fruit's identity anonymous. Curiosity for it's own sake is a value- i.e.. I am just interested to know the answer.

These assumptions may or may not be correct, but they still form the basis of the question.

If these assumptions are indeed wrong, then perhaps more important that answering the questions, we need to first and foremost, question the veracity of our assumptions.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Can we admire those that we hate?

In every dispute the combatant sides are convinced of the correctness of their position. Whether this be in the area of politics, religion or even social interactions, we take positions that are, by definition, correct and true, for that is the reason we chose them in the first place.

One of the great challenges when entering into debate is to distinguish between the 'issues' and the 'people'.

Unfortunately, this distinction is often blurred, and disputes that should stay impersonal and emotionally neutral, become heated debates where the very character of the parties is questioned and denigrated, rather than just their arguments.

Whereas we seldom question our internal motives for supporting our position, we are convinced of the biased, self-serving and delusional motives of those that sit opposite us. It is extremely difficult to see them as positively motivated individuals who are doing what they believe is best for society, motivated by altruistic notions of Tikkun Olam.

What I would like to suggest is that the Torah's approach to engaging in debate, necessitates that we judge the other party favourably; they are in essence good people who have made bad choices.

They want exactly the same thing as we do, to make the world to be a better place, but we clearly disagree as to how we will achieve that.

In this week's Parsha Moshe's leadership is challenged by a number of aggressive and abusive groups. The story culminates in a dual, where both Moshe and his antagonists offer incense offerings to Hashem. Moshe is triumphant, but his opponents suffer the ultimate fate.
The post script to the story is that the fire pans that belonged to the recalcitrant group are hammered into a covering for the altar.

Why are the possessions of the wicked raised to become part of the Temple ornaments?

The Netziv (1817-1893 Russia) comments that even though the antagonists were wrong, their motives were pure; they sought closeness to Hashem through communal leadership.
The positive intent and motivation of the group is recognised and admired by the Torah, even though the individuals met an untimely demise.

Is it possible to vehemently disagree with someone, even hate their opinion or position, yet to still like, admire and respect them?

If the mob of this week's Parsha can be respected by Hashem, surely we can respect those with whom we disagree...?

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Interesting Links & News for Week ending 31 May 2013

Does God have a sense of Humour?

Do you eat meat out but would never touch pork...? Hallal  lamm hambergers found containing 50% pork

Why be Charedi?

Wanna buy a share in the world to come?

See our very own Daniel Saus & Ryan Levin on Korean TV. The documentary talks of the Korean's interest in Talmud study ( starts 1:30)

Racists, Bigots & Jerks


Perhaps we have become a bit too sensitive of late. Once upon a time throwing insults at one another were merely a commonplace activity used to express disdain and dislike for each other.  Seldom was the insult in anyway correlated with any semblance of the truth, with perhaps notable exceptions of Dumbo, Pinocchio and Carrot top.
But our personal sensitivities of individuals from every demographic, cultural & ethnic origin seem to be judging people too favourably by labelling everyone a racist.
 There are three kinds of people who hurl abuse:
There are racists. These are people who have come to a conclusion- logically or emotionally- that people of different colour, religion or background are objectively inferior. It is a deeply held value that they are superior and believe that a perfect world would place them at the top of the food chain.
There are bigots. These are cultural xenophobes who do not hate out of conviction to a set of values and beliefs, but rather dislike difference. They have no knowledge of other cultures but, out of pure ignorance & possibly fear, hate them all the same.
There are Jerks. These are people who call others nasty names, because they can and want to. The insults are seldom well thought out and generally have no real malicious intent, but they are unpleasant all the same. They do attempt at times to be sharp and witty with the choice of metaphor used against the victim, but in reality it is more the esteem of their comrades that they desire than the damaging of the victim.
When Jerks are confused for racists, we unknowingly grant them an undeserved title of sophistication. Jerks have not contemplated their philosophical positions nor have they given any thought to the ramifications of their words- because they are Jerks.
Let’s not fall into the trap of calling all jerks and bigots in the world ‘racists’.
 Let’s call them by their official titles- Jerks.

Monday, 20 May 2013

Are you truly Free? 21 March 2013

Are you truly Free?
There is a statement in the ethics of the fathers that says 'The only free person is one who is emersed in Torah'. This is counter-intuitive as we usually see Torah as restrictive rather than a liberating activity.
My understanding of the piece is that when we are living a life directed by our natural urges and desires, we cannot ever make a truly 'free' choice, any more than a alchoholic can freely choose to give up his addiction. Through learning Torah, one becomes aware of who we are, in real time, and what motivates us, what inspires us, what scares us and what pulls us. Only then, when we have full awareness of who we are, can we make truly free decisions.
I found the clip below that teaches the same idea, in a more inspirational and clear and concise manner.

This is Water...David Foster Walllace