What suffering does

On a more contemplative note this weekend – is there any point to the ‘hard stuff’ in life? I resonate with Brooks when he writes about how when we look back, pain, suffering and failure have become particularly formative, even ennobling.  

David Brooks for the New York Times 

Over the past few weeks, I’ve found myself in a bunch of conversations in which the unspoken assumption was that the main goal of life is to maximize happiness. That’s normal. When people plan for the future, they often talk about all the good times and good experiences they hope to have. We live in a culture awash in talk about happiness. In one three-month period last year, more than 1,000 books were released on Amazon on that subject.

But notice this phenomenon. When people remember the past, they don’t only talk about happiness. It is often the ordeals that seem most significant. People shoot for happiness but feel formed through suffering.

Now, of course, it should be said that there is nothing intrinsically ennobling about suffering. Just as failure is sometimes just failure (and not your path to becoming the next Steve Jobs) suffering is sometimes just destructive, to be exited as quickly as possible.

But some people are clearly ennobled by it. Think of the way Franklin Roosevelt came back deeper and more empathetic after being struck with polio. Often, physical or social suffering can give people an outsider’s perspective, an attuned awareness of what other outsiders are enduring.

But the big thing that suffering does is it takes you outside of precisely that logic that the happiness mentality encourages. Happiness wants you to think about maximizing your benefits. Difficulty and suffering sends you on a different course.

First, suffering drags you deeper into yourself. The theologian Paul Tillich wrote that people who endure suffering are taken beneath the routines of life and find they are not who they believed themselves to be. The agony involved in, say, composing a great piece of music or the grief of having lost a loved one smashes through what they thought was the bottom floor of their personality, revealing an area below, and then it smashes through that floor revealing another area.

Then, suffering gives people a more accurate sense of their own limitations, what they can control and cannot control. When people are thrust down into these deeper zones, they are forced to confront the fact they can’t determine what goes on there. Try as they might, they just can’t tell themselves to stop feeling pain, or to stop missing the one who has died or gone. And even when tranquillity begins to come back, or in those moments when grief eases, it is not clear where the relief comes from. The healing process, too, feels as though it’s part of some natural or divine process beyond individual control.

People in this circumstance often have the sense that they are swept up in some larger providence. Abraham Lincoln suffered through the pain of conducting a civil war, and he came out of that with the Second Inaugural. He emerged with this sense that there were deep currents of agony and redemption sweeping not just through him but through the nation as a whole, and that he was just an instrument for transcendent tasks.

It’s at this point that people in the midst of difficulty begin to feel a call. They are not masters of the situation, but neither are they helpless. They can’t determine the course of their pain, but they can participate in responding to it. They often feel an overwhelming moral responsibility to respond well to it. People who seek this proper rejoinder to ordeal sense that they are at a deeper level than the level of happiness and individual utility. They don’t say, “Well, I’m feeling a lot of pain over the loss of my child. I should try to balance my hedonic account by going to a lot of parties and whooping it up.”

The right response to this sort of pain is not pleasure. It’s holiness. I don’t even mean that in a purely religious sense. It means seeing life as a moral drama, placing the hard experiences in a moral context and trying to redeem something bad by turning it into something sacred. Parents who’ve lost a child start foundations. Lincoln sacrificed himself for the Union. Prisoners in the concentration camp with psychologist Viktor Frankl rededicated themselves to living up to the hopes and expectations of their loved ones, even though those loved ones might themselves already be dead.

Recovering from suffering is not like recovering from a disease. Many people don’t come out healed; they come out different. They crash through the logic of individual utility and behave paradoxically. Instead of recoiling from the sorts of loving commitments that almost always involve suffering, they throw themselves more deeply into them. Even while experiencing the worst and most lacerating consequences, some people double down on vulnerability. They hurl themselves deeper and gratefully into their art, loved ones and commitments.

The suffering involved in their tasks becomes a fearful gift and very different than that equal and other gift, happiness, conventionally defined

The Empirical Kids

My student Marc (thanks Marc!) highlighted to me this series of David Brooks essays on youth/children – how they grow up, cope and thrive.

OP-ED COLUMNIST By  Published: March 28, 2013 282 Comment

Twelve years ago, I wrote a piece for The Atlantic, called “The Organization Kid,” about the smart, hard-working, pleasant-but-cautious achievatrons who thrive in elite universities. Occasionally, somebody asks me how students have changed since then. I haven’t been perceptive enough to give a good answer.

But, this year, I’m teaching at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale, and one terrifically observant senior, Victoria Buhler, wrote a paper trying to capture how it feels to be in at least a segment of her age cohort. She’s given me permission to quote from it.

Buhler points out that the college students of 12 years ago grew up with 1990s prosperity at home, and the democratic triumph in the cold war abroad. They naturally had a tendency to believe deeply “in the American model of democratic capitalism, which created all men equal but allowed some to rise above others through competition.”

Then came Sept. 11. That was followed by the highly moralistic language of George W. Bush’s war on terror: “Our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.”

But Bush’s effort to replicate the Reagan war on an evil empire led to humiliation, not triumph. Americans, Buhler writes, “emerged from the experience both dismissive of foreign intervention as a tool of statecraft as well as wary of the moral language used to justify it.”

Then came the financial crisis, the other formative event for today’s students. The root of the crisis was in the financial world. But the pain was felt outside that world. “The capitalist system, with its promise of positive-sum gains for all, appeared brutal and unpredictable.”

Moreover, today’s students harbor the anxiety that in the race for global accomplishment, they may no longer be the best competitors. Chinese students spend 12-hour days in school, while American scores are middle of the pack.

In sum, today’s graduates enter a harsher landscape. Immediate postgrad life, Buhler writes, will probably bear a depressing resemblance to Hannah Horvath’s world on “Girls.” The hit song “Thrift Shop” by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis “is less a fashion statement, more a looming financial reality.”

Buhler argues that the group she calls Cynic Kids “don’t like the system — however, they are wary of other alternatives as well as dismissive of their ability to actually achieve the desired modifications. As such, the generation is very conservative in its appetite for change. Broadly speaking, Cynic Kids distrust the link between action and result.”

A Brookings Institution survey found that only 10 percent of young people agree with the statement, “America should be more globally proactive.” The Occupy movement, Buhler notes, “launched more traffic jams than legislation.” The Arab Spring seemed like a popular awakening but has not fulfilled its promise.

In what I think is an especially trenchant observation, Buhler suggests that these disillusioning events have led to a different epistemological framework. “We are deeply resistant to idealism. Rather, the Cynic Kids have embraced the policy revolution; they require hypothesis to be tested, substantiated, and then results replicated before they commit to any course of action.”

Maybe this empirical mind-set is a sign of maturity, but Buhler acknowledges that the “yearning for definitive ‘evidence’ … can retard action. … The multiplicity of options invites relativism as a response to the insurmountable complexity. Ever the policy buffs, we know we are unable to scientifically appraise different options, and so, given the information constraints, we stick with the evil we know.”

She suggests calling this state of mind the Tinder Effect, referring to the app that lets you scroll through hundreds of potential romantic partners, but that rarely leads to a real-life encounter.

Buhler’s most comprehensive disquiet is with the meritocratic system itself. It rewards an obsessive focus on individual improvement: “Time not spent investing in yourself carries an opportunity cost, rendering you at a competitive disadvantage as compared to others who maintained the priority of self.”

She wonders if the educated class is beginning to look at the less-educated class — portrayed on TV in shows like “Teen Mom 2” and “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” — as a distant, dysfunctional spectacle. She also wonders if the mathematization of public policy performs a gatekeeper function; only the elite can understand the formulas that govern most people’s lives.

I had many reactions to Buhler’s dazzling paper, but I’d like to highlight one: that the harsh events of the past decade may have produced not a youth revolt but a reversion to an empiricist mind-set, a tendency to think in demoralized economic phrases like “data analysis,” “opportunity costs” and “replicability,” and a tendency to dismiss other more ethical and idealistic vocabularies that seem fuzzy and, therefore, unreliable. After the hippie, the yuppie and the hipster, the cool people are now wonksters.

And, yes, I gave her an A.

Protecting kids from failure

The case for self-esteem, success, and even an occasional participation trophy

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It isn’t usually spelled out quite so bluntly, but an awful lot of parenting practices are based on the belief that the best way to get kids ready for the painful things that may happen to them later is to make sure they experience plenty of pain while they’re young.

I call this BGUTI (rhymes with duty), which is the acronym of Better Get Used To It.

If adults allow—or perhaps even require—children to play a game in which the point is to slam a ball at someone before he or she can get out of the way, or hand out zeroes to underscore a child’s academic failure, or demand that most young athletes go home without even a consolation prize (in order to impress upon them the difference between them and the winners), well, sure, the kids might feel lousy—about themselves, about the people around them, and about life itself—but that’s the point. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, and the sooner they learn that, the better they’ll be at dealing with it.

The corollary claim is that if we intervene to relieve the pain, if we celebrate all the players for their effort, then we’d just be coddling them and giving them false hopes. A little thanks-for-playing trophy might allow them to forget, or avoid truly absorbing, the fact that they lost. Then they might overestimate their own competence and fall apart later in life when they learn the truth about themselves (or about the harshness of life).

The case for BGUTI is, to a large extent, a case for failure. The argument is that when kids don’t get a hoped-for reward, or when they lose a contest, they’ll not only be prepared for more of the same but will be motivated to try harder next time. An essay on this very blog last year, titled “Why Parents Need to Let Their Children Fail,” cued an enormous on-line amen chorus. The journalist Paul Tough informed us, “If you want to develop [kids’] character, you let them fail and don’t hide their failures from them or from anybody else.” A casual Web search produces tens of thousands of similar declarations.

Unlike the charge that children are spoiled, which has been around forever, there was a time when it would have seemed surprising to make a case for failure because it up-ends the expected order. It’s logical to think that success is good and failure is bad; we want to help kids succeed and reassure them about their capabilities. But listen to this: Failure can actually be helpful!  It’s possible to feel too good about yourself! Parents may be hurting their children by helping them!

These messages presumably raised eyebrows at first because they were unexpected and counterintuitive. Except now they aren’t. People are still telling this story as if it represents a bold challenge to the conventional wisdom, but the fact is that almost everyone else has been saying the same thing for some time now. It has become the conventional wisdom. Indeed, the notion that failure is beneficial, or that kids today are overprotected or suffer from inflated self-esteem, is virtually the only message on these subjects that we’re likely to hear.  Continue reading

Ideas that Matter

Ever had a feeling that whatever we are discussing has a bigger name to it? That the complexities of the issue not withstanding… there is really a name to all these parts?

A personal dictionary of IDEAS, BIG EXCITING NOUNS (!)  that have a bearing on our understanding of the world is an invaluable resource for any GP student – heck, it is valuable resource for anyone who has a stake in communicating his thoughts.

A dictionary of ideas (more than the sampling provided in Themes of the World) is a starting point that enhances our understanding of the world, its movements, the possibilities emerging, and gives us LANGUAGE to label the intellectual world.

Some examples:

Eco affluence. Commodification. Commercialism. Scientisim. Welfare. Aesthetics.  

Enrichment materials for self-learning. Download Big Ideas

Once again, TED (with its tagline ‘ideas worth spreading’) takes the prize for the most up-to-date and engaging resource to build literacy in both the scientific and cultural aspects. http://www.ted.com/watch/topics

2 books I’d recommend, easily available from Kinokuniya (add to cart!)

Ideas That Matter : The Concepts That Shape the 21st Century (Reprint)50 Big Ideas You Really Need to Know -- Hardback

Ideas that matter – concepts that shape the 21st century

50 Big Ideas you really need to know

 

 

Deconstructing Logic

The art of analysing arguments must be matched with the craft of expressing the flaws within those arguments. Language that moves your own argument forward in an academic fashion helps your reader follow your chain of thought, and systematically persuades us that these flaws exist. Without being emotional (the argument is retarded! look at the moronic logic!), you should methodically dissect the text and avoid resorting to the fallacies the writer utilises.

In the absence of genius, practice makes perfect. You should complete the rest of the analysis from where the sample stops, using your own work/class discussion as a source.

Download for today’s work here:  Deconstructing poor logic (handout)

Email  (laureentoh.cjc@gmail.com) your analysis for the remaining portions of the text. You should also attach your draft 1 analysis.

Due: 11/3 (Tuesday), 10pm – please indicate your name and class in your email

Water Woes and Forward Thinking

SIngapore’s thirst 

February was Singapore’s driest month – the longest since 1869. Till date, no rain in sight. Here’s a sobering reminder that if we hadn’t carved out our own future in terms of securing water supplies, a water pact with Malaysia would have expired this week.

Singapore endures driest month since 1869

A water pact with Malaysia upon which Singapore used to depend expired this week. Its end was marked by a cordial handover of a water catchment area in Johor and treatment facilities – a powerful testament of Singapore’s progress towards greater self-sufficiency in water. Insight tells the story of that quest.
Elgin Toh Straits Times 3 Sep 11;A SIMPLE turn of the tap did not guarantee water if you happened to be in Singapore on April 24, 1963.
It was the first day of a water rationing exercise that would last 10 months. An unusually dry spell both in Singapore and in the Tebrau River area in Johor – a primary water source for the island – caused water stocks to plunge dramatically, leaving the authorities with little choice but to impose restrictions.

For four days a week, depending on which area you lived in, you were either deprived of water between 8am and 2pm or between 2pm and 8pm.

People who did not ordinarily read the newspapers or listen to the radio suddenly found themselves having to scan headlines or turn knobs at least once a week – to stay informed about rationing schedules.Those who forgot to store water in pails at home during the allocated timings had to stand in queues to use public taps.

The cost of food went up.

A government advisory that called for the washing of cars and watering of gardens to be ‘kept to a minimum’ clearly did not stop some. A forum letter in The Straits Times on May 3 had one reader wondering ‘why the gentleman living opposite me still finds it necessary to water his lawn non-stop for 14 minutes’ a day.

Eerily, the spying on neighbours went further than that.

Another letter on May 17 read: ‘At a time when the state is facing an acute water shortage, is it proper for a person to bathe three times a day? That is exactly what my neighbour and his six children are doing every day of the week.’

Eventually, the rain returned and the reservoirs filled up. Curbs were finally lifted on Feb 28, 1964 – ironically, on a day when heavy rainfall caused an 11-year- old boy to drown.

Singaporeans who lived through that angsty period learnt a lesson they never forgot: that water, or the lack thereof, was a major source of weakness for the island-state.

This week, a no less momentous milestone in Singapore’s aquatic history was crossed, but with far less public interest. A 50-year water agreement signed in 1961 – one of just two between Singapore and Malaysia – drew to a close.

As a result, a catchment area in Johor more than five times the size of Singapore’s Central Catchment Nature Reserve ceased to serve Singapore’s water needs, but with nary an eyebrow raised.

Public indifference, however, can be seen in a positive light. It is arguably a testament to Singapore’s success in overcoming its water vulnerabilities. Continue reading

Mindfulness – Getting its share of attention

A lot of ink has been spilt lately about the idea of Mindfulness. Meditation has hit the front cover of Time and  describes it as a ‘revolution’… a new “science” of finding focus in our stressed out, hyper-kinetic world. The Wisdom Conference kicked off this year to the sound of… well, silent meditation and The Huffington Post has an interesting article on what it is and isn’t .

The columnist says the simplest definition of meditation is learning to do one thing at a time.

By DAVID HOCHMAN | NYTIMES

What is the sound of one hand texting?

As Soren Gordhamer patiently quieted a packed Wisdom 2.0 event in San Francisco in September for a guided meditation, a few in the communal meeting space known as the Hub couldn’t resist thumbing another message or two before pocketing their sacred devices. A willowy young brunette in a black T-shirt shot video of the crowd with her iPad from her front-row seat. Even after Mr. Gordhamer, who is tall with a sculptural face and Errol Flynn hair, urged the group to “come into presence,” his voice rising in emphasis, someone’s phone was buzzing like a dragonfly.

Mr. Gordhamer started Wisdom 2.0 in 2009 to examine how we can live with technology without it swallowing us whole. The wait lists for his panel talks and conferences now run into the hundreds.

The “Disconnect to Connect” meet-up was typical. The audience was mostly young, mostly from the Silicon Valley tech scene and entirely fed up with taking orders from Siri. “There was a time when phones didn’t tell you to do everything,” said Mr. Gordhamer, 45, as the conversation got rolling. “What’s work, what’s not work, it’s all become blurred.”

And yet, the problem may offer a solution. Loïc Le Meur, a French blogger and entrepreneur and the evening’s guest speaker, recommended a meditation app called Get Some Headspace. The program bills itself as the world’s first gym membership for the mind. “It’s a way to have a meditation practice without feeling weird about it,” said Mr. Le Meur. He was wearing Google Glass with only a hint of irony. “You don’t have to sit in a lotus position. You just press ‘play’ and chill out.”

Earlier that morning at Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., Chade-Meng Tan, a veteran engineer, was laughing about the demand for an in-house course he created called “Search Inside Yourself.” The seven-week class teaches mindfulness, a loose term that covers an array of attention-training practices. It may mean spending 10 minutes with eyes closed on a gold-threaded pillow every morning or truly listening to your mother-in-law for once. Google naturally sees it as another utility widget for staying ahead. “Whenever we put the class online, it sells out in 30 seconds,” Mr. Tan said.

This is not just a geek thing. Everywhere lately, the here and now is the place to be. George Stephanopoulos, 50 Cent and Lena Dunham have all been talking up their meditation regimens. “I come from a long line of neurotic Jewish women who need it more than anyone,” Ms. Dunham, who’s been meditating since she was 9, told a capacity crowd last month at the David Lynch Foundation for Conscious Based Education and World Peace in New York. Then there was the tweet last April from @rupertmurdoch, who announced: “Trying to learn transcendental meditation. Everyone recommends, not that easy to get started, but said to improve everything!”

The Marine Corps is testing Mind Fitness Training to help soldiers relax and boost “emotional intelligence,” the buzzwords of the hour. Nike, General Mills, Target and Aetna encourage employees to sit and do nothing, and with classes that show them how. As the high priestess of the fully aware, Arianna Huffington this year started a mindfulness conference, a page dedicated to the subject on The Huffington Post and a “GPS for the Soul” phone application with a built-in heart sensor to alert you when you’re calm or stressed.

The hunger to get centered is especially fervent in the cradle of the digital revolution. The Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz told Wisdom 2.0 audiences about modeling his current software start-up, Asana, after lessons learned in his yoga practice. At the same summit, eBay’s founder and chairman, Pierre Omidyar, shared the stage with Thupten Jinpa, the Dalai Lama’s English interpreter, and pegged the auction site’s success on human goodness and trusting in complete strangers. At another, Padmasree Warrior, the chief technology and strategy officer at Cisco, detailed analog weekends devoted to family, painting, photography and haiku.

Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist leader who introduced mindfulness to Westerners (Google got first dibs on him as a guest speaker), once said, “The most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention.” Yet for the majority of sentient beings today, simply getting through an episode of “The Big Bang Theory” without tending multiple screens is a quasi-mystical triumph. Naturally, the architects of our electronic age approach the situation as if it were an engineering problem.

“This isn’t the old San Francisco hippie fluff,” said Mr. Tan, who started the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute as an extracurricular program in 2007. More than a thousand Googlers have gone through the course, which uses scientific research and the profit motive to entice coders and programmers to be here now.

Hundreds of peer-reviewed studies verify the benefits of mindfulness training, and Mr. Tan appeared familiar with all of them. Meditation thickens the brain’s cortex, it lowers blood pressure, it can heal psoriasis and “it can help you get a promotion,” he said. Companies like Goldman Sachs and Farmers Insurance also hire Mr. Tan and his team to teach techniques like pausing before sending important emails and silently wishing happiness upon difficult co-workers.  Continue reading

Is the Internet facilitating inequality?

 JAN 28 2014, 4:34 PM ET
Reuters

In the 1990s, the venture capitalist John Doerr famously predicted that the Internet would lead to the “the largest legal creation of wealth in the history of the planet.” Indeed, the Internet has created a tremendous amount of personal wealth. Just look at the rash of Internet billionaires and millionaires, the investors both small and large that have made fortunes investing in Internet stocks, and the list of multibillion-dollar Internet companies—Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Amazon. Add to the list the recent Twitter stock offering, which created a reported 1,600 millionaires.

Then there’s the superstar effect. The Internet multiplies the earning power of the very best high-frequency traders, currency speculators, and entertainers, who reap billions while the merely good are left to slog it out.

But will the Internet also create the greatest economic inequality the global economy has ever known? And will poorly designed government policies aimed at ameliorating the problem of inequality end up empowering the Internet-driven redistribution process?

As the Internet goes about its work making the economy more efficient, it is reducing the need for travel agents, post office employees, and dozens of other jobs in corporate America. The increased interconnectivity created by the Internet forces many middle and lower class workers to compete for jobs with low-paid workers in developing countries. Even skilled technical workers are finding that their jobs can be outsourced to trained engineers and technicians in India and Eastern Europe.

That’s the old news. Continue reading

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20 Talks that could ‘change your life;

An oldie but a goodie from the Guardian here - talks/webinars and videos are a great way to listen to insight. Education by provocation is in its truest sense, the internal squirm that forces us to reckon with what we already know, what we choose to fade into the background and sometimes, what is blindingly obvious, if not important. The Guardian provides a roundup of some talks from Amanda Palmer on the music industry to Bertrand Russell on Christianity and Terry Pratchett on coming to terms with death. I also like the TED talks on Global Issues and the drop down bar when you can click Most Viewed/Informative/Inspiring etc. 

Knock yourselves out. 

http://new.ted.com/talks/salman_khan_let_s_use_video_to_reinvent_education

Hollywood Linguistics – the art of inventing languages

Khal Drogo Khaleesi Daenerys
Dothraki King Drogo & Queen Daenerys © HBO

Nautilus | Jennifer Ouelette

Seven hundred people gathered at the University of California, San Diego, one day this spring to hear the creators of three fictional languages talk about how linguistics has infiltrated Hollywood, particularly when it comes to building believable make-believe worlds. When it comes to building make-believe worlds, inventing a language makes it seem that much more real to the audience, fueling the willing suspension of disbelief that lies at the heart of entertainment.

“The days of aliens spouting gibberish with no grammatical structure are over,” University of Southern California linguistics professor Paul Frommer told the New York Times in 2011. Frommer invented the Na’Vi language spoken by the tall blue native inhabitants of Pandora in Avatar, and was on the San Diego panel, along with David J. Peterson, who invented the Dothraki language for HBO’s smash hit series, Game of Thrones, and Mark Okrand, who created the Klingon language forStar Trek III: The Search for Spock.

People who create new languages as a hobby—a very serious hobby—are called “conlangers.” The oldest and most successful invented language is Esperanto, dating back to 1887. It hasn’t yet ushered in world peace, as it was intended, but between 10,000 and two million people speak Esperanto today, mostly concentrated in Europe, East Asia, and South America, with as many as 1,000 native speakers who learned it from birth. There is also a tradition of inventing languages in the science fiction and fantasy realm. J.R.R. Tolkien invented an Elvish language while writing The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Disney’s John Carter featured an invented Martian language called Barsoomian. Continue reading

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