Monday, March 28, 2011

Tricky, with Ham

My wife Krista and I read the Bible together every morning. My family did it and I assume hers did too. In addition to a refreshing start to the day, it helps me out on those occasional biblically themed crossword hints that pop up once a week or so.
We read a story that I later discussed with a friend. It's a tricky topic, which makes it all the more fulfilling to mull over. Not terribly surprising. My wisened French Canadian grandmother admonished frequently - "Nothing easy is worthwhile."
That might be overstating the point, but I hear you Nanny.
Our conversation had a lot to do with Cain, and later on with Ham, son of Noah. These people were both cursed, and their posterity after them. Ham reportedly fathered both the African and Arab nations, which raises an interesting question:
Could it be that the dearth of agricultural plenty that afflicts much of Africa and the Middle East be a result of one person's decision, thousands of years ago?
Is such a thing feasible? Is it believable? Does it fall under the range of possibility, albeit remote?

To clarify: Everything after this point is conjecture and I claim no belief that any race of people is cursed because of their ancestry. Just to clarify there.

Initially, we are inclined to say no, for obvious reasons. It doesn't seem very loving, or gentle, or kind. Definitely not fatherly. These are key attributes of God, without which religion fails. After all, if God doesn't love us, then what is the motive to return to live with Him? Every person knows that a hovel with loved ones is better than a mansion with your enemies.
Still... there's precedence. If not for this exact sort of behavior, then similarly initially eyebrow-raising God-directed cataclysms.
There are actions which, the Old Testament tells us, warrant punishment for up to three generations.
How does this make sense?
I think the answer lies in what we call terrible.
Assuming the existence of a God who loves us, and that the basic tenets of religion (that there is a life after this one, that we are rewarded for our goodness and punished for our wickedness, etc.) are true, it's obvious many things we think of as terrible aren't all that bad.
Dying? That would be like moving someone from one room to another.
Seperated from loved ones? Ultimately, the time we are separated from loved ones would be like a blink of the eye compared to the time we might spend with them hereafter.
Suffering? Well, okay. Suffering merits further attention.

Suffering seems entirely relative. As a good example, I have a magical phone. I think it's magical. I talk at it's little plastic casing, I tell it where I want to go, and the glass cover lights up with arrows and roads, showing me where I am, and where I should drive. I see things at stores, and I don't know if they're too expensive. I point my phone's camera at it, and it reads the barcode, then in a few seconds, scours the literally trillions of possible websites that might offer me the same product, then gives me a concise readout of what they would charge for it. Oh, I also talk to my friend in the Middle East on it. That's right. Other side of the globe.
What about when I don't have my phone? I suffer. It's hard to not have my phone, and I whine and complain like a big baby until I get it back.
Ten year old me knew no such suffering. The greatest source of suffering for ten year old me? Probably that my parents didn't want to get me pokemon. No surprise I don't suffer from that anymore - pokemon is but one more feature of the magical phone.
My grandmother suffered for not being able to communicate quickly and easily with her family when she moved to my grandfather's province. This suffering has been eliminated in my life.
My great grandparents suffered to grow enough food to last them through the winter. It pains my heart to think of them, but such a concern for modern me is outright laughable. It is winter. I drove through McDonald's on my way to work and picked up a sausage and egg McGriddle. Yum.
It's not an uncommon motif to examine these strange phenomena. Many are the tv shows and movies where a modernite goes back anywhere from 50 to 4000 years and initially suffers without what he considers a commonality, then adjusts, and soon finds his quality of life equal, if not improved, by what he has learned.
That injustices exist is undeniable, but the effect they have on the respective sufferers is an assumption we make even though we are completely incapable of doing so.
How much does a hungry Ethiopian child suffer? I can't say. But I'll have a hunch that he actually suffers less than a person living in poverty here in the United States in a ghetto. Even the poor here in America have much more than many suffering in Africa, but suffering is a comparison we make ourselves rather than an objective state of being.
The starving Ethiopian knows only starvation, as does his family and those around him. It fits the status quo and so, while inconvenient and painful, it does not hinder his ultimate ability to find happiness. The poor ghetto resident often lives in starvation but is surrounded by wealth which is out of his grasp, sometimes only for the time being, sometimes for life.
The physical pain for the hypothetical Ethiopian is undoubtedly greater, an empty stomach hurts, and the emptier it is, the more painful. But in all likelihood, his happiness remains higher than an average white male in America who, though the owner of a house and car, has recently lost his job.
(Someone might interject and say things like 'Then the white man is wrong and should realize how much he has.' This statement only proves the point being elaborated here. We invite the unemployed white man to make a new comparison, and stretch the spectrum of his vision -- but we are still asking him to evaluate his suffering based on comparison.)
Individually, our power to assess the relative suffering of each individual is weak. Suffering is a state of mind.
Hopefully this realization doesn't cause us to be less empathetic to those starving in third world countries, but rather more empathetic to those suffering around us. The $1.50 we donate to a telethon probably, after all, will relieve less human suffering than we could by working on being a better listener, maybe inviting a friend over for dinner, or asking a coworker why they look blue.
After all, just like Adam and I concluded in another conversation on another day: We're not arguing that our feelings aren't ridiculous -- we're arguing that they are still our feelings, and thus, need to be addressed.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Another Diagnosis

So, I have ADD.
At least it would explain a lot. This morning during my microbiology techniques class, somewhere in the middle of his lecture on the myriad uses of caenorhabditis elegans, my teacher looked up at me and burst out to my and the classes surprise -- "Would you stop playing around with your ****ing phone?" he said in frustration, looking at me. Sheepishly I apologized and put the phone away.
I don't mention the professor by name, because I like him. His outburst is a reflection only on his proclivity to outburst, and not on his quality as a professor. Furthermore, I can't blame him. I felt bad; Not terrible. While I caused the eruption, I also asked the most questions in class and felt very involved. What was so important I had to have my phone out for?
I was discussing the merits of the newest generation of Pokemon with my friend James.
My mother has told me many a time that had I been born into any other family, I would have been drugged. I believe her.
In grade 1, I was put in a separate desk behind the rest of the class. During a parent teacher conference, my parents asked why I was so far removed. My teacher explained it was because of my tendency to tip my desk over, crashing to the floor.
When I was in grade 7, a teacher I will always love -- because she read us The Hobbit even when we were "too old" to have stories read to us -- took me aside to talk with me.
Mme White wanted to talk about my constant disruptions. I told her, as I had told many people before, that I was bored. Either I knew what was being taught, or I had no interest in it. She taught me to draw when I was bored, and focus my attention on a secondary activity. This has served me well over the years, and I should probably stick to notebook rather than cell phone activities in my graduate level courses.
If you're talking to me, know that my mind is wandering. Don't take it the wrong way, and know that I'll wander back. I'm still storing what you're saying, and I'll process it when my tandem is done, but my thoughts don't travel in trains -- they're more like kangaroos.
Ultimately, this little 'handicap' of mine has hindered me little in my waltz through life. I'm now working on my doctoral research and I feel like I have accomplished much, including becoming an OK cook, priest, husband, and picking up a few languages. My mother's balance of tolerance and strictness guided me through piano lessons and to my eagle scout, and I feel great.
What if I had been born into another family?
What if I had been drugged?
As Mormons, we eschew any mind altering substances whenever possible. (Obviously some medicinal drugs have their place for which I'm grateful.) It seems obvious to me why we have this policy. Man has a long history of "solving" it's problems with substances. With the first lager brewed thousands of years BC, it's long been one of our favorite pastimes.
My dad has two doctorates, one in a traditional medicine field, and one in a more homeopathic variety. He has explained the difference to me like this: If a rubber band is tight on your finger and hurting it, traditional medicine will give you painkillers to stop the pain, and homeopathy will teach you how to remove the rubber band. Some rubber bands can't easily be removed, so both disciplines have their place, but the central distinction remains crucial.
Man would, historically, rather solve it's problems with a patch than find the source of the problem. It is an easier fix, one which doesn't require us to change who we are and how we act.
I apologize openly to my parents, family, many teachers, church leaders, wife, and future acquaintances for this, one of the many diagnoses that make me me.
Gratefully, I know none of my friends would want to change this about me. I struggle to concentrate, people care about me, and we somehow work through solving human problems in human ways, rather than with substances.
I know how incredibly odd and intensely strange many of the world's great figures were - Winston Churchill; Albert Einstein; Ernest Hemingway.
How many Churchills, Einsteins, & Hemingways are we snuffing out of our generation in our efforts to help them be more... normal? A concerning thought.

Monday, March 21, 2011

From whence comes goodness?

I told Trevor today that I was going to start a blog, and he asked me about what. This question first caught me by surprise, then manhandled me.
It occurred to me then that most people have themed blogs, based on ideas they love discussing. Politics, comics, food, books, movies, etc. -- all the things they have me fill out my favorites for when completing the archetypal internet profile. I love all these things. If my blog won't be themed, it should at least be good.
Then what makes things good?
Some things are just fantastic; Some things improve other things simply by being there, with their aura; Interestingly, there are things which are so very bad they have become, somehow, good again, going full turn -- this formula doesn't always work though, and some things are so bad that they are only bad, and heaven help the fools who brought those ideas to fruition.
Is there anything ubiquitously good, and not in the moral sense, but in quality so overarching that one can't help but accept the universality of it's epic nature? Perhaps.
For now, I'll have to hope that I'm good enough to keep this readable.