A Small Case of Ignorance

ignoranceI live in a suburban residential area where the speed limit is 25 mph. In the neighborhood is a middle school, where the speed limit drops to 20 mph at the beginning and end of the school day, when children are arriving and departing. One morning, as I was leaving the neighborhood and approaching the school zone, I saw ahead of me two boys walking along the sidewalk. One of them wore a hoody that obscured his peripheral vision. The other was intent on some electronic device—a phone or game. Neither showed any sign of awareness that a car was coming toward them as they sauntered across the street right in my path.

No, I didn’t hit them. I noticed them in plenty of time and anticipated what they might do. 

On the surface, this is just one of thousands of examples of child-like behavior. It’s the kind of thing kids do, and it’s why the speed limit is decreased in school zones. There are kids everywhere.

On a deeper level, it’s just another example of ignorance. And here I don’t use the word to mean stupid. I mean ignorance of reality, ignorance of what is really happening. Those boys were ignorant of an approaching car and ignorant of any danger. With their lack of vision and occupied with their distractions, they simply weren’t aware of what was happening around them. 

But at what point in a child’s life does he or she cross the threshold from a state of ignorance to a state of awareness? Sixteen? Eighteen? Twenty-one? As I noted above, the speed limit is reduced in school zones because kids are everywhere. And those kids need to be protected from drivers who’s awareness is impaired by thousands of distractions, drivers who may be ignorant of what’s going on around them.

There is no built-in threshold a person automatically crosses from ignorance to awareness. Indeed, many people remain ignorant of reality their entire lives. They like their hoodies and their distractions, and they are unaware that the world is anything otherwise. It is their reality. 

But there is a reality outside the distractions, just as there was for the boys who walked in front of my car as it was heading toward them.

Questions:

• Can you think of one or two adult instances where you saw the foolishness or danger in someone else’s behavior, but they could not see it?

• If so, is it possible that others can see the foolishness or danger in something you are doing but can’t see?

• If there is a state of “the way things really are,” is it possible to be in it?

• If so, how do you get there?

• What do you think?

A Day in the Life of a Robin

We have a jasmine bush climbing up the trellis next to our kitchen window. It is home to two robins’ nests. One of them has been there for about five years. The other is new this season. For the past few weeks I’d been watching the parents flit in an out, most recently with beaks full of food for the two chicks I knew were in the nest. 

Yesterday morning, the chicks fledged. I wasn’t watching for the event. Our two dogs, Metta and Mollie, were in the back yard. Suddenly there came a raucous twittering. Through the dining-room window I saw the parent birds swooping at the dogs, which were paying no attention to the warning attacks. 

Robin and I (now I should mention, for those readers who don’t know, my wife’s name is Robin—no kidding), Robin and I hustled the dogs in and I investigated the jasmine. One of the chicks was perched on a branch inside the bush. The other was nestled in the wood chips and rotting leaves near the deck. We kept the dogs out of the backyard for the rest of the day.

Later in the afternoon I saw one of the chicks running along the back fence. Every once in a while, one of the parents would drop down with food. I saw no sign of the second chick and can only guess about why. In the evening, the one chick was still running around, not yet able to fly. I wondered how it could survive the night if it couldn’t yet fly. Robin captured it and put in back in the nest, thinking it would be safer there during the night. It didn’t stay long, though.

This morning I was surprised to see it still running along the fence. It did survive the night despite the thunder storm and brief downpour. A bit later I went outside to look for it. The dogs were with me. Suddenly, once again, there came the squawking from the parents, which were swooping at Mollie, who just five feet from me had plucked the fledgling from among the ferns.

I shouted at her, and she dropped it. I got both dogs into the house then inspected the chick. It was hunkered down and breathing heavily, feathers ruffled. It spent next several hours like that, moving only a few feet. I felt terrible about what happened, taking it personally. 

Forty years ago, a cat I had got hold of bird. I found it dragging its bloody self around in the yard. I filled a bucket with water and drowned it, thinking it was the right thing to do.  Today, no, it would not be the right thing to do.

Instead, I left it there, thinking it was just in shock (certainly) and would recover (doubtful). Then I went into the kitchen and cracked open a couple of eggs for lunch. The irony was heavy as much as enlightening.

Lives we care about are important and need to be nurtured and protected. Sometimes, lives we don’t care about—even when they are fundamentally the same as those we do care about—are irrelevant and meaningless. And we can conjure all kinds of reasons to justify our disregard. 

I checked in on the fledgling a little while ago, perhaps four hours after the attack, giving it a little prod. It gave a weak but encouraging flapping of wings and went after my finger with it’s beak. Then it scampered a couple of feet. I left it alone, and moments later one of the parents swoop down with some food. 

That was an hour ago or more. Since then, I haven’t seen the parents. Since then, I’m sure the bird will not survive the night.

Thoughts on the Relationship between Discomfort and Fear

To sit in meditation means to sit still and be with what arises—both physically and mentally. The idea, or one of them, is to resist the urge to move the body when discomfort arises. We’re always moving away from what is unpleasant toward what is pleasant. It’s an unconscious response that occurs all day, and all night, long. Shifting, fidgeting, scratching. Meditation is a time to resist the natural instincts to move away from the unpleasant and notice instead how and when it arises and our reactions to it. These are the moments when insights arise.

When I sit long enough, I’m sometimes able to notice a threshold where discomfort gives rise to pain. I noticed it the other day with the pain in my right hip. When I had stuck with it long enough I had two simultaneous responses to the increasing pain. My responses were subtle but vivid. They were panic and fear. Panic said I had get out of this situation fast. Fear said this pain will last forever. Both were untrue, of course. This was my mind talking. I know how my mind can talk a good story. I also know how some of those stories are not at all rooted in fact. They are unreal and groundless.

Often, when I experience a moment of insight, it feels so profound and big. Yet moments later I can’t remember what it was. Not so with the insight that came to me after noting this panic and fear. It occurred to me, as I sat there examining the mounting pain and the sensations that surrounded it, that behind all discomfort there is a wisp of fear.

What are your thoughts on the origins of fear?

Perception, Projection, and the Trap of Illusion

A marionette is a kind of puppet whose articulated parts are manipulated by someone pulling on strings or wires from above. Evidently, marionettes have been in use for four thousand years, give or take. Historically, their  function went beyond mere entertainment. They were used to teach lessons in morality to illiterate masses, shame errant children of nobles, and convey messages to kings in a way that saved the messengers from possible execution. Puppets could get away with saying and doing things in public that would have been taboo for real people.

Predicating all of these uses is our ability to suspend disbelief so we can think of the marionette as real while knowing it is not.

As I watched the video of the dancing skeleton, it was easy for me to see it as a person—not as a collection of plastic bones held together by bits of string or wire and manipulated by a real person. I projected on it a lecherous personality. It was the clacking of the teeth—presumably at an attractive woman—that did it. But then, toward the end, as he (it!) gets down on his knees to check the take and sees how sparse it is, he sobs despairingly. Aw, he can’t be all bad. A passer-by thinks so too, and drops in some cash.

It’s obviously an illusion, yet it evoked sympathy. 

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But isn’t this the way with people to? I mean we form opinions about people based on our perceptions—all of the data that come through our senses—and create a story so convincing it becomes true. 

But it isn’t true. Any two people will see another person differently—and most certainly differently from how that person sees himself. There will be as many views, and  opinions, of that one person as there are people doing the viewing. No single view—not even one’s own self-view—can be considered the “right” one. My story about me isn’t “true” because it’s impossible for me to view myself as others see me.

Even with this knowledge, our stories about ourselves and others are so convincing they become real and true. Yet they aren’t true, not in a universal sense, anyway. The stories we tell ourselves are illusions.

It seems to me a trap.

What is Skillful?

I began this series with some thoughts on the differences between liberals and conservatives—views that have everything to do with one’s beliefs about things like justice, patriotism, authority, and spiritual purity. Most recently, I concluded that one’s actions, what one does, are fundamental to one’s morality and live outside the above categories. On the surface it may sound as if I’m saying there is a difference between belief and action. Not at all. Belief and action are interrelated. 

I suggested that morality and virtue are skills one can develop, much like a musician or a woodworker can develop skills. A person can be skillful at being a person. 

Sabio, a commenter on my earlier post, responded:

…I would say the normal use of this word is:

Skillful: the quality of actions which allow acquiring the desired product with a specific qualifier such as better, faster, prettier, effeciently ….

[…]

All to say, I don’t think “Skillful” is going to get us anywhere in building a ethical nest that will be universally comfortable nor conforming to everyone’s common sense.

Well, I’m not attempting to find some common ground that is universally comfortable or conforming. That’s futility in action (possibly, what I’m talking about here is futility in action too). But I do maintain that one can be a morally skillful person according to the above definition. In that regard, I must define morally skillful actions as those that when carried out result in one’s longterm benefit and the longterm benefit of others. If my actions benefit me but harm someone else then they would not qualify as skillful. 

The difficulty—and here I use “difficulty” in its strongest sense—is discerning between what is skillful and what is unskillful, between what is harmful and what is beneficial. This takes a lot of work. It requires an ongoing examination of one’s actions and their results. To do so, one must first shed the armor of self-deception. That, too, is difficult.

What actions can we consider harmful? I think we can all agree that causing someone physical harm would not be to that person’s benefit. Certainly, killing someone would cause the maximum harm and would be unskillful. And here I can hear the rebuttals: What about executing dangerous criminals? What about killing terrorists who would kill us first? What about war to defend our country? Remember, I’m talking about developing qualities in oneself that would be morally skillful as opposed to morally unskillful. If you are the kind of person who never harms anyone or anything in any way, I have nothing to fear from you. Nothing at all. Regardless of who you are or where you’re from.

Further, if one professes non-harm in one circumstance but does harm in another, then there is a double-standard. Double standards are suspect.

Words also can cause harm. All of us are familiar with this one. But which is more skillful, honesty or dishonesty? How about words spoken with kindness or words spoken in anger or hatred? Or word used to bring people together and not divide? If you are the kind of person who never lies to anyone and always speaks kindly, then I am sure what you tell me is true and you will never malign me. 

Further, if one professes honesty in one circumstance but is dishonest in another, then there is a double standard. Double standards are suspect.

I can apply the same argument to stealing. If you never take anything that isn’t given to you, then I can trust that you will never steal anything from me. 

What I’m getting at here—aside from bringing this series to an end—is that morality and virtue have nothing to do with blind allegiance to doctrines or ideologies, or with professions of faith for that matter. Morality has everything to do with action. Actions spring forth from a core belief that acknowledges, Everything I do, for good or bad, has a consequence for me and for others. And what a person doesn’t do could be of greater moral significance than what a person does. 

The Irony of Teaching by Example

Dad shoots daughter's computer at close rangeA Youtube video making the rounds is one where a man in a white cowboy hat publicly berates his 15-year-old daughter for posting her own rant against him and her family on Facebook. The indignant father reads his child’s diatribe for the camera, text in one hand, cigarette in the other. He is seated in an Adirondack chair, apparently in his backyard. 

He is angry and incredulous that his child would again do such an ungrateful and disrespectful thing. He grounded her the first time she did it, but apparently that wasn’t enough of a lesson. 

After responding to all her complaints, he shows for the camera the girl’s laptop computer on the ground and his .45 caliber pistol in his hand. He then fires seven hollow-point bullets through the computer (“This one’s for your mother!”). He notes that the bullets are $1 apiece, and his daughter must pay him back for them. 

After watching the video, I read through some of the comments. So many of them are as disturbing as the video itself.

I support this father ! HE IS A GOOD FATHER ! THUMBS UP if you agree with me!

***

She is lucky the laptop took the heat. In the 80’s parent were allowed to bust that ass. I say bring the ass whoppins back. One good ass bustin on kids these days would be all they woould need. Most kids dont even have an ass anymore because all they do is sit on their backbone and type and text all damned day. Call me, I will come over and bust your kids ass for free.

***

This Dad is right. No matter what you and say and say….this Dad is right. He is a good man. Kids these days are ungrateful and revolting…..I hope she learns.

Ok, enough. You get the picture. Agree or disagree, this guy has a lot of support.

Now I don’t know the family situation, and I won’t even attempt to defend the daughter or her actions—which are disrespectful and ungrateful. But I’ve raised enough children to know that each has a unique personality and each responds differently to various parenting techniques. I know that some kids are harder to reach than others. I know how, at times, kids can bring out the worst in a parent and the best, too.

I also know this: Example is the best teacher. After watching this video I wondered if that angry, hateful, vengeful father didn’t teach his angry, hateful, vengeful daughter everything she knows.

Here’s the link, if you’re curious. So far it’s had only about 23 million views. A few more won’t hurt.

Examining—and Ignoring—Cause and Effect

Cause and effect is a natural law. It’s hard to dispute that one thing leads to another, especially when the links in a chain of events are short and close together. When they are long and far apart, it’s more difficult to see any connection between two events. It’s also easy to deny any connection whatsoever. In that case, it’s easy—intentional or not—to misattribute a cause to an event.

Two current events are examples. Today, the Republican Party begins the process to select a candidate to run for President of the United States. Listening to the news this morning about the Iowa Caucus (not to mention news from the past few years), it’s easy to detect the Republican theme that we have to get rid of Barack Obama to “turn this country around.” The implication is that Obama is the cause of the poor state of the economy and everything else they find wrong with this country. 

Does no one in the Republican Party remember (or care to admit) that the stock market crashed—losing 50% of its value—in October 2008? George W. Bush was President then. Barack Obama was only a candidate. Does no one remember (or care to admit) that economic policies of the Bush administration made Enron possible? 

The other event is far removed from the political arena. But perhaps it shouldn’t be. On January 1, a man shot and killed a park ranger on Mt. Rainier in Washington State after wounding several others at a party. These kinds of tragedies happen a lot all over the world. Some people are unbalanced, angry, frustrated, vengeful, hateful, and will do any number of terrible things to others. Who knows what causes lurk behind such acts?

Yet, one thing about this story that sticks out, begging the question of Why? The shooter was Iraq War veteran who was apparently suicidal and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. We don’t know what this person was like before he went to war. But we do know that when he came home he had trouble adjusting to civilian life. His wife had a restraining order against him because she feared for her own safety as well as that of their child. 

Can you imagine, all those years ago when George Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and many others were planning their attack on Iraq that they could have seen the consequences of their actions? Suppose someone in the war room said, “If we go ahead with this, on January 1, 2012, a park ranger with two children will be murdered by one of our soldiers.” Would it have mattered?

The law of cause and effect is always at work. And it’s human nature to ignore it just as it’s human nature to ignore an inconvenient stop sign.