Sunday, November 2, 2014

Two Stories about Forgiveness

I like stories about forgiveness. I like them because I believe that forgiveness is a manifestation of love, and love is something for which each of us have the faculty to feel. Indeed, I believe that we all, deep down, have a desire to love and be loved. But that is because, recognizing my own bias, I believe that all human beings are the literal offspring of Heavenly Parents, who themselves have bodies of flesh and bone, and who endow us with the capacity to love one another. The same love that They have for us, we can have for one another. That love, in more practical terms, has the power and potential to transcend all boundaries of nation, creed, color, and class. Here are two stories that that illustrate forgiveness that I would like to share with you.

This first one comes from October, 2005. 
“How would you feel toward a teenager who decided to toss a 20-pound frozen turkey from a speeding car headlong into the windshield of the car you were driving? How would you feel after enduring six hours of surgery using metal plates and other hardware to piece your face together, and after learning you still face years of therapy before returning to normal—and that you ought to feel lucky you didn’t die or suffer permanent brain damage?
“And how would you feel after learning that your assailant and his buddies had the turkey in the first place because they had stolen a credit card and gone on a senseless shopping spree, just for kicks? . . .
“This is the kind of hideous crime that propels politicians to office on promises of getting tough on crime. It’s the kind of thing that prompts legislators to climb all over each other in a struggle to be the first to introduce a bill that would add enhanced penalties for the use of frozen fowl in the commission of a crime.
“The New York Times quoted the district attorney as saying this is the sort of crime for which victims feel no punishment is harsh enough. ‘Death doesn’t even satisfy them,’ he said.
“Which is what makes what really happened so unusual. The victim, Victoria Ruvolo, a 44-year-old former manager of a collections agency, was more interested in salvaging the life of her 19-year-old assailant, Ryan Cushing, than in exacting any sort of revenge. She pestered prosecutors for information about him, his life, how he was raised, etc. Then she insisted on offering him a plea deal. Cushing could serve six months in the county jail and be on probation for 5 years if he pleaded guilty to second-degree assault.
“Had he been convicted of first-degree assault—the charge most fitting for the crime—he could have served 25 years in prison, finally thrown back into society as a middle-aged man with no skills or prospects.
“But this is only half the story. The rest of it, what happened the day this all played out in court, is the truly remarkable part.
“According to an account in the New York Post, Cushing carefully and tentatively made his way to where Ruvolo sat in the courtroom and tearfully whispered an apology. ‘I’m so sorry for what I did to you.’
“Ruvolo then stood, and the victim and her assailant embraced, weeping. She stroked his head and patted his back as he sobbed, and witnesses, including a Times reporter, heard her say, ‘It’s OK. I just want you to make your life the best it can be.’ According to accounts, hardened prosecutors, and even reporters, were choking back tears” (“Forgiveness Has Power to Change Future,” Deseret Morning News, Aug. 21, 2005, p. AA3.). 

I found that story in a talk by Gordon B. Hinckley. The talk was given at a general conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in October 2005. The talk is called "Forgiveness." Hinckley was president of said church from 1995 to 2008. 

Here is the next story. This one also comes from a general conference, but this time is from James E. Faust, one of Hinckley's counselors:
In the beautiful hills of Pennsylvania, a devout group of Christian people live a simple life without automobiles, electricity, or modern machinery. They work hard and live quiet, peaceful lives separate from the world. Most of their food comes from their own farms. The women sew and knit and weave their clothing, which is modest and plain. They are known as the Amish people. 
A 32-year-old milk truck driver lived with his family in their Nickel Mines community. He was not Amish, but his pickup route took him to many Amish dairy farms, where he became known as the quiet milkman. Last October he suddenly lost all reason and control. In his tormented mind he blamed God for the death of his first child and some unsubstantiated memories. He stormed into the Amish school without any provocation, released the boys and adults, and tied up the 10 girls. He shot the girls, killing five and wounding five. Then he took his own life.
This shocking violence caused great anguish among the Amish but no anger. There was hurt but no hate. Their forgiveness was immediate. Collectively they began to reach out to the milkman’s suffering family. As the milkman’s family gathered in his home the day after the shootings, an Amish neighbor came over, wrapped his arms around the father of the dead gunman, and said, “We will forgive you.” Amish leaders visited the milkman’s wife and children to extend their sympathy, their forgiveness, their help, and their love. About half of the mourners at the milkman’s funeral were Amish. In turn, the Amish invited the milkman’s family to attend the funeral services of the girls who had been killed. A remarkable peace settled on the Amish as their faith sustained them during this crisis.
One local resident very eloquently summed up the aftermath of this tragedy when he said, “We were all speaking the same language, and not just English, but a language of caring, a language of community, [and] a language of service. And, yes, a language of forgiveness.” It was an amazing outpouring of their complete faith in the Lord’s teachings in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you.”
The family of the milkman who killed the five girls released the following statement to the public:
“To our Amish friends, neighbors, and local community:
“Our family wants each of you to know that we are overwhelmed by the forgiveness, grace, and mercy that you’ve extended to us. Your love for our family has helped to provide the healing we so desperately need. The prayers, flowers, cards, and gifts you’ve given have touched our hearts in a way no words can describe. Your compassion has reached beyond our family, beyond our community, and is changing our world, and for this we sincerely thank you.
“Please know that our hearts have been broken by all that has happened. We are filled with sorrow for all of our Amish neighbors whom we have loved and continue to love. We know that there are many hard days ahead for all the families who lost loved ones, and so we will continue to put our hope and trust in the God of all comfort, as we all seek to rebuild our lives.”
. . .
Hearing of this tragedy, many people sent money to the Amish to pay for the health care of the five surviving girls and for the burial expenses of the five who were killed. As a further demonstration of their discipleship, the Amish decided to share some of the money with the widow of the milkman and her three children because they too were victims of this terrible tragedy. (Faust, April 2007 Conference, “The Healing Power of Forgiveness.”)
There you have it. Two stories about forgiveness. I like them because I think that while maybe it is so easy to get angry and become spiteful or hateful, and maybe it is so easy to resort to violence, but I believe that forgiveness can do much to heal our relationships, both with others and with ourselves.

Monday, October 20, 2014

"This World is Not Conclusion," by Emily Dickinson

"This world is not Conclusion.
From Wikipedia
A Species stands beyond--
Invisible, as Music--
But positive, as Sound--
It beckons, and it baffles--
Philosophy--don't know--
And through a Riddle, at the last--Sagacity, must go--
To guess it, puzzles scholars--
To gain it, Men have borne
Contempt of Generations
And Crucifixion, shown--
Faith slips--and laughs, and rallies--
Blushes, if any see--
Plucks at a twig of Evidence--
And asks a Vane, the way--
Much Gesture, from the Pulpit--
Strong Hallelujahs roll--
Narcotics cannot still the Tooth
That nibbles at the Soul--"

- Emily Dickinson

Sunday, September 7, 2014

An Ultra-Brief Comparative Religion

Check this out. I think it is cool to see what so many systems of belief have in common.

Christianity: "All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do you even so to them for this is the Law and the Prophets." (Matthew 7:12)

Judaism: "What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow men. This is the entire law: all the rest is commentary." (Talmud, Shabbat 31a)

Hinduism: "This is the sum of duty: Do naught unto others which would cause you pain if done to you." (Mahabharata 5:1517)

Buddhism: "Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful." (Udana-Varga 5:18)

Islam: "No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself." (Sunnah)

Confucianism: "Surely it is a maxim of loving kindness: Do not unto others that you would not have them do unto you." (Analects 15:23)

Taoism: "Regard your neighbor's gain as your own gain and your neighbor's loss as your own loss." (T'ai Shang Kan Yin P'ien)

Zoroastrianism: "That nature alone is good which refrains from doing unto another whatsoever is not good for itself." (Dadistan-i-dinik 94:5)

I found this information in a book by Robert Kane on page 34. The book is called Through the Moral Maze: Searching for Absolute Values in a Pluralistic World. I didn't expect to find this information in Kane's book, but I thought it was interesting. A discussion about ethics would of course be incomplete without a discussion about religion. Just for fun, we should perhaps add one more statement, one from a more philosophical source--Immanual Kant:
Here's a picture of the book. I found this
picture on

Kantianism: "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction." (Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals)

Or: "Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end." (Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals)

Basically, we are all human beings, and it is well for us to treat one another as we would like to be treated. Let us not hurt one another or be unkind in any way. Surely no matter how skeptical we are, if we can celebrate at least one thing together, would it not be our short lives together on this little planet?

Personally however, I want to believe that we have much more in common than we perhaps realize. That is not to say that we don't have differences or that our differences are not important. Actually, I think our differences are complementary and not necessarily contradictory. I believe that because I think peace is better than conflict, and peace comes, I think, by learning to live with differences. And part of learning to live with differences entails looking not just at differences but at common ground. Sometimes we have things in common that we don't realize.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Two Boys Perform an Act of Kindness

I personally believe that kindness is something that is good. I like the following story because it illustrates a small act of kindness that had positive consequences. The story is pretty short:
An older boy and his young companion were walking along a road that led through a field. They saw an old coat and a badly worn pair of men's shoes by the roadside, and in the distance they saw the owner working in the field. 
The younger boy suggested that they hide the shoes, conceal themselves, and watch the perplexity on the owner's face when he returned.  
The older boy thought that would not be so good. He said the owner must be a very poor man. So, after talking the matter over, at his suggestion, they decided to try another experiment. Instead of hiding the shoes, they would put a silver dollar [which was then a commonly used coin] in each shoe and see what the owner did when he discovered the money.  
Pretty soon the man returned from the field, put on his coat, slipped one foot into a shoe, felt something hard, took his foot out and found the silver dollar. Wonder and surprise shone upon his face. He looked at the dollar again and again, turned around and could see nobody, then proceeded to put on the other shoe. When to his great surprise he found another dollar, his feelings overcame him. He knelt down and offered aloud a prayer of thanksgiving, in which he spoke of his wife being sick and helpless and his children without bread. He fervently thanked the Lord for this bounty from unknown hands and evoked the blessing of heaven upon those who gave him this needed help. 
The boys remained hidden until he had gone. They had been touched by his prayer and by his sincere expression of gratitude. As they left to walk down the road, one said to the other, "Don't you have a good feeling?" (As quoted in Gordon B. Hinckley, Way to Be! 16-18)

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

What Speech Reveals, According to a Chinese Philosopher and a Few Rhetoricians

Kung-sun Ch'ou asked Mencius, the Chinese Philosopher, how he was better than Kao Tzu, another Chinese Philosopher. 

Mencius said, "I understand 'what can be put in words.' I am adept in the cultivation of the ch'i."

But this answer didn't satisfy Kung-sun Ch'ou. So he said, "Might I ask what you mean by 'the ch'i'?" Then Mencius replied,
It is difficult to express in words. The ch'i [often translated as "physical vigour" or "passion-nature"] in this sense is the greatest, the most durable. If it is nurtured by rectitude it remains unharmed and permeates the entire universe. The ch'i in this sense is the fit recipient for Justice and the Way. Without it, man is ill-nourished. It is begotten of the sum total of just deeds. It is not to be seized and held by incidental just deeds. If an act of ours does not meet approval with the heart, then [the life force] is ill-nourished. That is why Kao Tzu has never understood Justice. He thinks it is external to man. One must render service to it; one must not regard it as an objective criterion. The mind must never let it out of its sight, but we must not try to make it grow. Let us not be like the man of Sung who, worried that his young plants were not growing, tugged at them [to help them grow]. He returned home, full of fuss, saying, "What a busy day! I have been helping my plants to grow." His son hurried out to the fields to look, but the young plants had withered already. There are few men in the world today who are not "helping the plants grow." Some neglect their plants, thinking it useless to weed them. Some help their plants by giving them a tug. But this is not merely useless; it is actually harmful.
But this somewhat cryptic answer still wasn't enough for Kung-sun Ch'ou. So he asked what Mencius meant when he said that he "understood what can be put into words." Then Mencius responded,
I understand what hides the other half of a half-truth. I understand the pitfalls that lie beneath extravagant statements. I understand the emptiness that lies behind evasive statements. Engendered in the mind, they cause harm to government. When they result in governmental action they cause harm to public affairs. If a Sage were to rise again he would agree with all I have said. (Mencius
Stephen Owen has interpreted Mencius' statement this way,
Mencius' knowledge of language is a knowledge of what the words reveal about the speaker, what they make manifest. . . . Words become only a surface whose shape reveals what lies within. Mencius' list of different kinds of language shows that the trained listener can make fine discriminations. Most important, what the speaker reveals in his words is involuntary--perhaps not at all what he would wish to have revealed. Error and deception are not autonomous categories here, but are subsumed under understanding the person: they are nothing more than manifestations of ignorance or the desire to deceive and as such become important pieces of evidence for us when we listen to someone speak, recognizing the truth or accepting error, being deceived or not being deceived rest with the capacities of the listener. (Readings in Chinese Literary Thought, 1992)
In other words, speech is a subset of action. Ways of speaking are ways of acting, and speech patterns reveal thought patterns. All of this suspiciously sounds like Isocrates, who wrote in his Nicocles that "We regard speaking well to be the clearest sign of a good mind . . . and truthful, lawful, and just speech we consider the image of a good and faithful soul" (171). 

That capacity that Owen reads into Mencius--the capacity to listen well and to listen responsibly--is what we as human beings all strive towards. Wayne Booth, at the end of his book that was subtitled The Quest for Effective Communication, wrote that the quality of our lives--not just individually but also collectively--largely depends on the quality of our capacity to listen and respond, in short, our capacity to actually communicate (The Rhetoric of Rhetoric 171-172).

But there is a difference between actually communicating and merely thinking that we are communicating. Actual communication does not happen between beings who do not try to listen with their hearts as well as their heads. Listening is more than merely hearing words, and understanding another human being is more than simply getting enough information that will make me sound cool when I open my mouth. 

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Music and Its Influence According to Shakespeare's Lorenzo

On a calm evening with a bright moon, "When the sweet wind did gently kiss the trees / and they did make no noise" (Merchant of Venice, 5.1.1-2), Lorenzo sends for musicians, who come and begin to play for him and Jessica. 
Title page from Wikipedia Commons.

Then Lorenzo begins to comment on the influence of music on its listeners. He says that when a herd of wild colts, whose natural tendency is to pretty much just go crazy, neigh loudly, and anxiously race about, whenever they hear "any air of music," they immediately stop to listen, and their nature is changed by its sweetness. Indeed, Lorenzo continues, the poet Ovid once wrote a fictional story about the legendary musician Orpheus who had such musical power that he could allure trees, rocks, and waters. Here is the passage:

For do but note a wild and wanton herd
Or race of youthful and unhandled colts,
Fetching mad bounds, bellowing and neighing loud,
Which is the hot condition of their blood,
If they but hear perchance a trumpet sound,
Or any air of music touch their ears,
You shall perceive them make a mutual stand,
Their savage eyes turned to a modest gaze
By the sweet power of music. Therefore the poet
Did feign that Orpheus drew trees, stones, and floods,
Since naught so stockish, hard, and full of rage
But music for the time doth change his nature. (70-81)

But it gets even more interesting. Lorenzo then concludes with the famous statement that the person who has no appreciation for good music and cannot feel its harmonic melodies must therefore have affections as dark the place of shadow between the earth and Hades, the Greek Erebus:

The man that hath no music in himself, 
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music. (82-87)

For Lorenzo in these passages (which are actually just two parts of the same passage) music has a massive amount of influence on humans and on animals. Could we translate this into modern speech? Let's try to do it.

First, what exactly does Lorenzo mean by music? Well, his statement in line 82, "The man that hath no music in himself," is repeated in different words in line 83, "Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds." In other words, to have music in oneself means something like having a capacity to be "moved with concord of sweet sounds." So, just hearing music, what Lorenzo is calling the "concord of sweet sounds" is not enough. The word moved is important. One must be moved by music. 

Next, what does it mean to be moved? To move is to go from one place or state to another. In this particular case, I think we are not talking about moving in the physical sense, but moving in a symbolic sense, where symbolic, could mean emotional or spiritual. I use the word spiritual because Lorenzo uses the word spirit in line 85 when he says that the person that isn't moved by music has a spirit whose motions are "dull as night." And I use the word emotional here because Lorenzo says that this person who isn't moved by music has "affections dark as Erebus" (86 emphasis added). 

Let's also briefly discuss "concord of sweet sounds." Concord means harmony. So "concord of sweet sounds" would become something like "harmonious or melodic sweetness." We left out the word sound just now, but the word melodic denotes sound, so we're good. Harmony is the one in the many and the many in the one.

While we're talking about harmony, let's cite Paul Woodruff, who teaches philosophy and ethics at the University of Texas at Austin. In his book First Democracy: The Challenge of an Ancient Idea he writes that harmony is the agreement that human beings make to live together even though all of us are not exactly the same. In terms of music, "Harmony," he says, "is not singing one note; it is singing different notes in a way that makes one texture of music" (99). Musical harmony is symbolic (or synecdochic) of political harmony. 

So, we can now translate Lorenzo's Elizabethian iambic pentameter to modern day speech this way: "The person that is not emotionally moved by harmonious or melodic sweetness is dangerous to society because that person cannot feel--and thus cannot understand--the necessary political principle of harmony." That person is hence "not to be trusted" and is thus "fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils." Furthermore, if we recall the herd of wild colts that Lorenzo mentioned earlier, we note that the herd is actually better off than this person who has no capacity to be moved by music because the wild colts, though their natural condition includes a savage gaze and untamed craziness, at least understand--and submit to--the principle of harmony. 

Thursday, May 15, 2014

An Awesome Poem About Aragorn, Son of Arathorn

Frodo, Sam, Pippin, and Merry have just narrowly escaped into the town of Bree, and they're just arriving at the Inn of the Prancing Pony. Gandalf said he would meet them there, but there's no sign of him (other than a letter they receive from the innkeeper), and the person showing the most interest in the party is a strange and untrustworthy-looking man named Strider, a wandering vagabond with a mysterious past.

But at the end of the letter, Gandalf tells the party that Strider's true name is Aragorn, and Gandalf includes a poem that Bilbo Baggins had written years earlier about Aragorn, a poem that includes the wise counsel to think twice about the way they judge the enigmatic figure. There's more to him than meets the eye. Here it is:
All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king. (Lord of the Rings, 
One-Volume Edition, The Fellowship of the Ring, Book I, page 170).
I don't own this picture, but I found it on
In other words, things may not always be as they seem, and we should not be so quick to judge. Though the first thing that may come to our mind when we hear the word gold may be something shiny and polished, we must recognize that not all gold glitters; and though those who may wander might seem lost or homeless, that may not actually be the case. Just being old doesn't mean that one is also weak, and below-zero temperatures do not necessarily kill plants that have deep roots--there's a lot that happens underground that we do not always (or even sometimes) see. Ashes don't necessarily mean that the fire is completely out because there may still be some coals within from which one can start a flame. Aragorn, you'll remember, was the rightful heir to the throne of Gondor. 

In addition to its counsel to beware of poor judgments, I think this poem is also a poem of hope--like the entire Lord of the Rings saga. During the War of the Ring in Middle-Earth, when the dark Lord Sauron was waging war in order to dominate and take control over the known world, there was still hope, and that hope came from a small band of seemingly insignificant creatures--a handful of halflings, or hobbits. 

Many terrible things happened in Middle-Earth, but the good eventually did prevail. It took many long struggles and sacrifices, but a new era of peace eventually was established. 

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Why Mom is Awesome

Today, we think about Mom. 

We think about that time when we had finished kindergarten and were sad because we didn't study dinosaurs as first graders like we did in kindergarten, and so Mom gathered some materials together and acted as our dinosaur mentor. We think about that time when, at age 11, we moved to a strange city in a new state, and we we didn't feel like we had any friends--except for Mom. And we think about that time when we didn't get that job or promotion or grade or whatever that we really wanted. But Mom didn't think any less of us. She loved us.

I don't know why I'm using the first-person plural (we/us), and I guess it sounds kind of funny. But maybe you can see yourself in some of these stories, too. I don't know. Maybe you and I both have similar stories of Mom doing things for us because she loved us. 

That love Mom has for us is profound. Maybe it has something to do with the pains and travails that she goes through so that we can take our first breath in this world and have a mortal life. I don't know. It's impossible for me to know by my own experience, but I believe the sources that say that giving birth includes a great deal of physical pain. 

But that physical pain Mom feels for us at birth isn't all that Mom goes through for us. She sacrifices a lot so that we can have what we need when we are small, even helpless creatures. She gives us attention. She plays with us. She feeds us--some of us even from her own body. She teaches us to be kind, to clean up after ourselves, and to respect others. She teaches us to take care of our bodies and to be wise about the things that we do. She's done more for us than we perhaps realize. She loves us. 

It's true--mothers have a profound influence on us. Perhaps there is no greater influence a person can have than that which a loving mother has for her children. 

I don't mean to assume that mothers are perfect. Nobody is perfect. But one does not have to be perfect to have a lot of influence. 

In 1821, the English poet Percy Shelley wrote a treatise called A Defense of Poetry, the last sentence of which reads, "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the World." He was talking about how poets have a greater influence on society and the world at large than people realize, and he was partially right, though that's a discussion for another day. What I am curious about is the degree to which we can substitute "mothers" for "poets" in his treatise and still have true statements. Are mothers unacknowledged legislators of the world?

Furthermore, because of the potential positive influence of mothers, we must be cautious that, in our zeal to ensure that both men and women are treated equally in the workplace and in the home and in society and everywhere, we should not mock those courageous women who freely choose motherhood, the raising and teaching and loving of children, over and instead of other pursuits. A woman that chooses to be a mother--or even a full-time stay-at-home mom if she thinks that is what is best--ought to be honored, not demeaned, respected, and not debased. Besides--that mother may have more of an influence than she--or the world at large--may acknowledge. 

But her children will certainly at least try to acknowledge it, won't we? I confess I don't totally understand all of the good my mom has done for me, but I do know that I simply can't say how grateful I am for the positive influence she has had in my life. I thank her. And I thank all of the other moms out there, if not the unacknowledged then perhaps too often the underacknowledged legislators of the world. Today, however, we remember you and honor you.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Cicero on How to Treat One's Neighbor

Cicero, who lived from 106-43 BC and who is considered the greatest of the Roman orators, often has some pretty good things to say. In book 3 chapter 5 of his On Duties, for example, he writes that it is better to spend one's time in the service of others instead of spending it in the service of one's self. Here is the passage: 
There he is. Image courtesy of Wikipedia
[I]t is more in accord with Nature to emulate the great Hercules and undergo the greatest toil and trouble for the sake of aiding or saving the world, if possible, than to live in seclusion, not only free from all care, but revelling in pleasures and abounding in wealth, while excelling others also in beauty and strength. Thus Hercules denied himself and underwent toil and tribulation for the world, and, out of gratitude for his services, popular belief has given him a place in the council of the gods. The better and more noble, therefore, the character with which a man is endowed, the more does he prefer the life of service to the life of pleasure. Whence it follows that man, if he is obedient to Nature, cannot do harm to his fellow-man. (Loeb 30; 1913, 132)
Pretty good, right? I like it because it inspires me to want to work at making the world a better place instead of trying to make my own life as easy and extravagant as possible. I think it is true that the best human beings who have lived on this earth, the most respected and the ones who have done the most good, often "underwent [much] toil and tribulation" when they could have spent a life "revelling in pleasures and abounding in wealth." 

This certainly doesn't mean entirely neglecting one's own duties to one's self. But it does mean not letting what I want distract me from recognizing that the most important things in life are not things: having a bunch of awesome stuff that I keep for myself doesn't really make me happy. The most important things, on the contrary, are other members of the human family. They are brothers, sisters, parents, children, friends, coworkers, acquaintances, and even strangers. After all, strangers to us are not strangers to themselves. Strangers have lives similar to our own, and their lives are certainly not strange to themselves. Doing things for these people--even strangers--is what makes me happy, and it is also what makes the world a better place.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

On Death and Life and Kindness and Respect

Well, friends, there's no reason for us to lie to ourselves, so let's be honest: someday we will all die. We're by no means invincible or immortal. We feel pain, we get sick, and our bodies grow older and decay. And just as our life began with birth, so it will inevitably end in death.

Is this an uncomfortable topic, and if it is, why is it? I mean, it really shouldn't be a surprise to any of us, but I admit it is certainly an unusual thing to talk about--after all, who thinks and writes about these sorts of things? Death is (by definition?) a topic we tend to avoid unless its necessary (or unless we're compelled to face it), and we want to write about things that people enjoy so that we can get views and hits and stats and likes. Right? Nobody is going to like an article or blog post on an uncomfortable topic. 

Maybe it was the one-year anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing that set this whole thing off. Or maybe it was any number of other news stories carefully written to tell some kind of sensational or emotion-evoking story under the guise of "journalistic objectivity." Or maybe it was something else. I don't really know. But whatever it was, the anger and violence and unkindness in the world is painful to watch, read, and listen to. Why do some people treat one another with disrespect? Why is there hate? Don't we intelligent beings know better, deep down? And isn't it a bit strange that all of us--all human beings--may come from different countries and backgrounds, we may speak different languages, eat different foods, and have different pastimes, but isn't it a bit strange that all of us, no matter what we believe, may still--and must ultimately--define ourselves as human beings? Let's admit it: there is something that transcends our differences and enables us to finally unite together as members of a human family instead of pretending to be divided as nations or races or parties or platforms. No matter what we believe or think, we must at least recognize and acknowledge that we're all human beings, we're all living out mortal lives on this earth together, and that we should treat one another with kindness, respect, and love. There is no argument that will justify any degree of hatred, prejudice, or bigotry--as human beings that value life, we know better. We know that these things don't get us anywhere. We know that these things lead to a symbolic death.

This idea of symbolic death is an interesting one, but there's more to say about physical death. (A discussion about symbolic death will have to wait until another day.) Far from being pessimistic or melancholic, these thoughts about physical death and dying motivate me to ask myself if I am doing the things that really matter the most to me: I know that my mortal life will not last forever, so am I becoming the kind of person I really want to become? Am I living the kind of life I really want to live? Who am I, anyway? 

Serious questions like that cannot be answered in a non-serious manner. They involve expressing what one really believes, deep down. But before I do that, let me say that I do not wish to impose my beliefs on others. Actually, I claim the right and privilege to believe what I choose to, and I believe that all people have the same right and privilege--let all people believe what they may. Let us all believe what is in our hearts and minds, and let us listen to, understand, and compromise with those whose beliefs differ from ours. We may believe different things, but we are also human beings. We can live together in peace. We can live together in harmony.

But I got off on an idealistic tangent again in those last two sentences. I was about to say a few things that I really believe. So who am I? The answer to that question depends not just on who I am today, but who I have been in the past. Where did I come from? Is death really the end, and was birth really the beginning?

The English poet William Wordsworth gives an interesting answer. He completed the poem in 1804, but it was not published until 1807. He wrote that 
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
     Hath had elsewhere its setting,
        And cometh from afar:
     Not in entire forgetfulness,
     And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
     From God, who is our home (Ode: Intimations of Immortality 5.58-65)
In other words, Wordsworth is saying that there is some part of us that was not created when we were born. The poet says here that "our life's Star," or "The Soul" "Hath had elsewhere its setting." Our birth may be "a sleep and a forgetting," but it is not an "entire forgetfulness" because there's still something that longs for what we might call our real home. I believe the principle Wordsworth is teaching. I believe that birth was not the beginning and that death is not the end. We lived before we were born, and we will live after we die. While mortal life is only a temporary thing and will not last forever, there is a part of us that existed before we were born and will continue to exist after we die.

This belief gives my life direction and meaning, and it also gives me peace. It gives me direction and meaning because I believe there is a purpose to my existence. It gives me peace because while I may be called "Jarron Slater" during mortality--and although I may have been called by another name before I was born and I may be called something else after I die--I have been, and I will still be, me. 

Let me be even more specific. My own personal belief is that all of us really are a part of the same family. But we are not just all a part of the same human family: as beings who have been created after the very image of heavenly parents, as beloved and literal spirit sons or daughters of those heavenly parents, and as sons or daughters with a divine nature and divine destiny, we are also a part of God's family. I find abiding peace in believing that there is a God and that He, as a loving Father, has a plan for each of His children. And I find lasting comfort in believing that He wants to help us be happy now and in eternity. 

But whatever any of us believe, we must at least admit that we're here on this earth to live out our lives together, and we should treat one another with kindness, respect, and love.

Monday, March 10, 2014

"I Don't Want to Live on the Moon," by Jeff Moses

Anyone remember this? It's a song written by Jeff Moses for an episode of Sesame Street. Here are the lyrics:
Well, I'd like to visit the moon,
On a rocket ship high in the air.
Yes, I'd like to visit the moon,
But I don't think I'd like to live there.
Though I'd like to look down at the earth from above,
I would miss all the places and people I love,
So although I might like it for one afternoon,
I don't want to live on the moon. 
I'd like to travel under the sea.
I could meet all the fish everywhere.
Yes, I'd travel under the sea,
But I don't think I'd like to live there.
I might stay for a day there if I had my wish,
But there's not much to do when your friends are all fish,
And an oyster and clam aren't real family,
So I don't want to live under the sea. 
I'd like to visit the jungle, hear the lion's roar,
Go back in time, and meet a dinosaur.
There's so many strange places I'd like to be,
But none of them permanently.
So if I should visit the moon,
Well, I'll dance on a moonbeam, and then
I will make a wish on a star,
And I'll wish I was home once again.
Though I'd like to look down at the earth from above,
I would miss all the places and people I love.
So although I may go, I'll be coming home soon,
'Cause I don't want to live on the moon.
No, I don't want to live on the moon. 
One of the things I think is interesting about this little song (or poem) is the underlying difference between the way the words visit and live are used. The speaker acknowledges that it would be fun to visit many strange places, but he doesn't want to live in any of them because he would miss his friends and family--the people he loves. Visiting places is fun. But it's in the places where our loved ones are that we do the real living.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Words, Emotions, Meat Markets, Philosophy, and Hamlet

Does language have anything to do with emotions? Well, we certainly do feel something when particular words are used, both when we use them and when we hear them. (It’s not just the words themselves, of course, but also how they are said that can incite or influence emotion. But let’s stick to words for this post.) 

Butcher Shop--or whatever you want to call it.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
For example, a butcher shop could also be called a meat store, a premium deli, a meat market, or even a slaughterhouse. Each of these words makes us feel a certain way. The words connote something different, and my own acts of naming, as well as the store owner’s acts of naming, would reveal an attitude or an emotion towards the subject in question or the thing being defined. Depending on how we feel towards the subject we’ll use a different word to describe it. If I’m a meat-lover, I’ll call it one thing ("Paradise" or perhaps even "Heaven"), but if I’m a vegetarian who’s interested in animal rights, I’ll call it something quite different (perhaps "Hell"). The same strategic name-calling is true from the perspective of the owner. The owner wants people to come to the store, so of course he or she is not going to call it a slaughterhouse, unless of course it's October and Halloween is just around the corner--because the word slaughterhouse is attractive to certain kinds of people at that time of year.

So what I'm curious about is, is there really a non-emotional language, a language free from passion and attitude? Or does all language necessarily have some kind of emotional baggage? And isn’t this one of the things Solomon was getting at in The Joy of Philosophy, especially in his “Afterthought” at the end of the book when he talks about the “non-emotional” philosophical jargon of contemporary analytic philosophy?

Solomon’s metaphors at the beginning of his essay “On the Passivity of the Passions”  in his book Not Passion's Slave make me wonder about another related idea. After asking several questions about the nature of emotion, Solomon offers a few questions of his own:
[I]s controlling an emotion like controlling one’s thoughts, one’s speech, one’s arguments, putting them into shape, choosing one’s mode of expression as well as one’s timing? . . . Or is it like coordinating one’s actions through practice, like riding a bike, which may be "mindless" . . . but is nevertheless wholly voluntary and both very much within one’s control and a matter of continuous choice? (195)
Is learning to “use” emotions similar to using certain words? Well, it can’t be that easy, but words and emotions have a metonymic relationship to one another? Might one be a type or shadow of the other? I mean, what about actors in movies and television? How do they train themselves to have particular emotions at particular times if emotions merely happen to us?

Interestingly enough, at the end of The Expression of the Emotion in Man and Animals, Charles Darwin quotes the following passage from Shakespeare's Hamlet, where an actor has just wept while quoting a passage from a play. Hamlet wonders how it is possible, if the play is just a play and the actor is just an actor:
A classic scene from the classic play.
Art by Eugène Delacroix, 1839.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
Is it not monstrous, that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit
That from her working all his visage waned,
Tears in his eyes, distraction in 's aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit? and all for nothing! (Hamlet 2.2.522-528)
Solomon ends his “On the Passivity of the Passions” with these words: “The truth is, we are adults. We must take responsibility for what we do and what we feel. And in our taking responsibility we learn to recognize the responsibilities we have, including responsibility for our own emotions” (232). Part of being responsible adults (or “Big Babies,” as Mark Johnson calls us in his book The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding) includes what we do with language, both when we speak and when we listen.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Communication and Mysticism

To what degree is an act of communication also an act of mysticism?

And what do I mean by asking that question?

At the very least, when we communicate we have to, to some degree, get outside of ourselves. When we listen, we think the thoughts of another person, and the degree to which we understand that other person depends on the degree to which we feel what they feel and see what they see. Communication is about cooperation and acting in common. It is about finding common ground. Otherwise the speaker will not transmit a message, nor will the hearer receive what the speaker is trying to give.

Communication is verbal and also non-verbal, so we can define communication as symbolic action. Rhetorician Kenneth Burke writes that a "symbolic act is the dancing of an attitude" (Philosophy of Literary Form 9, Burke's emphasis), and "The dance," he continues, "was originally religious" (qtd. in Hawhee Moving Bodies: Kenneth Burke at the Edges of Language 43). Dancing is conscious and deliberate. It is intending to do what is being done, and it is done in and with the body.

This helps us understand the following post, where Burke writes about his dog as a dancer . . .

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

A Dancing Dog

"My dog," Kenneth Burke writes, "is a dancer . . . in the surprising way he conjugates, let us say, the verb 'to eat.' For the present tense he uses, quite literally, the act of eating. But for the future tense, to say 'I will eat,' he sniffs at his plate, glances ill-naturedly at the cat, and salivates. And to express the perfect tense of this astoundingly irregular virb, to say 'I have eaten,' he picks himself a cool spot under the porch, curls up, and goes to sleep" ("The Dance: The 'Problems' of the Ballet." Nation 140 (March 1935): 343-44.)

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Fire and Ice, by Robert Frost

This poem first published in 1920 seems relevant to contemporary problems. .

Bob Frost Via Wikipedia
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
(The Poetry of Robert Frost, ed. Edward Connery Lathem. Holt, Rinehart and Winston: New York. 1979. Print. 220.)

I feel like anything I say now will only dilute what Frost just wrote because the more I say the less his poem becomes the emphasis of this post.

But let me at least say that, whatever we believe, we have to admit that mortals do not live forever. We die. And I can't help but notice the crazy weather we've had recently. Lots of fires and lots of ice. In fact, for some breathtaking photography, check this page out. It shows firefighters putting out a warehouse fire a couple of weeks ago, and when they douse the building with water, the water freezes.

I wonder if we can take Frost's poem, flip it upside-down, and say that the environment is a reflection of our own nature. To what degree do environments reveal to us who we really are?

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Making the Safer Choice?: The Rhetoric of the Marijuana Super Bowl Ads

I started this post a few days ago, and I'm just now posting it. It's a tiny bit late, since the Super Bowl is over, but I can't just not post it now that it's finished.

Of course, normally I don't pay a lot of attention to sports. And though I'm from Seattle, this post isn't even about football or the Super Bowl. This post is analyzes the rhetoric of the advertisements surrounding the legalization of the recreational use of marijuana. In other words, I will reveal how these advertisements try to persuade an audience to their point of view.

Let's take a look.

Here's one of the advertisements:

Via Marijuana Policy Project
This billboard is actually kind of funny, when we think about it. It tells the audience that the first image is "Beer" and the second image stands for "Football," but it doesn't tell us that the third image is a cannabis leaf--we're already supposed to know that. Instead of the text "Marijuana" or "Cannabis" above the third picture (which would make the billboard pointless, but perhaps even more funny), we have the word "Safer." So the billboard is obviously making the argument that marijuana is safer than beer or football--or is it beer and football? The word and would link Beer and Football together, but the word or would assume that marijuana is safer than both of them separately. I'm not sure which it is, but perhaps the sign is purposely vague because it's in the advertisers' best interest to make it vague. After all, vagueness is persuasive to mass audiences, and when we're driving down the road and see something like this, we don't have time to think about what's going on behind the scenes.

But something even stranger is going on here than just a subtle vagueness: the advertisers are using a football helmet to symbolize Football. But a helmet? Why didn't they just use a football? Wouldn't a football be a better symbol for Football since the ball is the same word for the sport? But the advertisers are strategically not choosing a football, and I assume it's perhaps because they can't put a hole in a football and have it mean very much to a mass audience: I mean, look at that football helmet--it looks like somebody has taken a drill to it or something.

Unless, of course, what I am calling a hole is really a team logo that merely looks like a hole. Maybe it's a little lightning bolt? I don't know. I don't know what else it is, but if it really is a logo, then the rest of this argument--until the next section heading--is invalid.

But why is that hole even there? I mean, We've all seen people lose their helmets once in a while during a hard hit, but a hole that size? As far as I know, football helmets almost never even crack, and if they do it's only around the edges of the ear-guards. They're designed to not dent, let alone even crack. If they did, then so much for the head inside.

So, no--there's more going on here than just a casual helmet sitting between a mug of beer and a cannabis leaf. That helmet is, I think, strategic. I think the advertisers put the hole in the football helmet to make football appear to be more dangerous than it really is. Then the advertisers place a perfectly symmetrical cannabis leaf right next to the holey football helmet. The advertisers' argument, then, goes like this:

Look at that helmet with a hole in it and then look at this leaf. We've made it easy for you: they're right next to each other. And notice that there's something wrong with that helmet, but nothing wrong with this leaf. So, compared with football, there's nothing wrong with marijuana. So marijuana is safer.

But it doesn't seem to me to be very persuasive. If marijuana is safer than football, then why the need for the hole in the helmet in the first place? Why the need to make football seem like it's worse than it actually is if marijuana really is safer?

The advertisers are trying to downplay the harmfulness of marijuana by comparing it to football, which football is symobolized by a helmet (not a ball) with a hole in it. Or, put another way, the advertisers are trying to increase the safety appeal of marijuana by comparing it to a football helmet that doesn't exist--a helmet with an impossibly large hole in it that was put there strategically, a hole that, in reality, could not look as it does in the picture.

Football doesn't put holes in players' helmets. The advertisers are lying to us. They have showed us a picture of something that is not true. So to what degree can we then trust them with other information?

Safer and Less Harmful
Let's move on to another set of advertisements, but some of what we say below will still apply to the advertisement above.

This whole time we've been talking about or at least referencing the word safer, but we need a definition. What does it mean for something to be safer? Well, we could start by using these advertisements' own definition that defines the word in terms of its antithesis. We say that thing A is safer than thing B when thing A is less harmful than thing B. To be safe is to be less harmful. That is the implication of the below advertisements.

Via Marijuana Policy Project
And this one:

Via Marijuana Policy Project
These two are similar. I don't know much about the issue, but apparently some of the players have been punished for smoking marijuana, and they're not happy about it. The punishment went public, as it usually does in an age where people are trying to get one another's attention, and somebody wants to make sure that everybody knows about it. My question here is, how does the use of the words safer and less harmful affect the audience who reads these advertisements? Let's see if we can figure it out.

The words safer and less harmful imply a hierarchy of what is good. What's good is up, and what's bad is down. To be safe or safer is better than to be harmful, so when we have to make a choice between two things and one is safe and one harmful, we will naturally make the safer choice because we understand that it is better for us (if we are in our right mind, of course--for in our right mind we have a natural desire to keep ourselves alive [I guess could open my window right now and jump out of the 5th floor window but I won't--I'll make the safer choice to stay alive {when it's put like that, it sounds pretty ludicrous.}]). At any rate, safe is good. Harmful is bad.

Thus, when we say that something is safer we automatically put the subject in a more positive light. It sounds good because the word safe is a good word, and it makes us feel good to be safe. Not only that, but underlining the word safer will make us feel even better about ourselves because underlining a thing emphasizes it.

Finally, if harmful is bad, then less harmful is good. So less harmful will make us feel good (though maybe not as good) as the word safer.

So, by stating that "Marijuana is less harmful to our bodies than alcohol," the advertisements already assume that alcohol is "harmful to our bodies," but the advertisements don't project alcohol as as harmful and marijuana as not harmful. Instead, marijuana is less harmful. (They don't say that marijuana is not harmful.) And saying that marijuana is less harmful than something else makes it sound a lot, well--less harmful. And if a thing is less harmful than something else, then it's a lot better than what it could have been. By saying that marijuana is less harmful than something else--as well as safer than something else--the advertisers persuade marijuana users to feel good about using marijuana.

Then there's the word the. By making the safer choice, the person that chooses implies that he or she is doing one thing instead of the others, and by doing this thing instead of those things which are not safer, a person will also make himself or herself feel good.

The advertisements claim that "we" (i.e. the players, but also, perhaps, anyone else who uses marijuana for pleasure and has been "punish[ed]") are "making the safer choice" because it makes us feel good to define the things that we do in positive terms. What we're doing makes us feel good, for a moment, at least, and it makes us feel doubly good to feel good about feeling good, so of course we're going to craft the issue in terms that make us feel good. That's a lot of good feelings.

There's something we can say about the word punish, too. The word punish is obviously a bad word. I mean, we don't like getting punished--punishment hurts! Usually that pain is more psychological than physical, and psychological pain can be more painful than physical pain. With this information about the word punish, we could translate the last sentence of the advertisement so that it reads like this: "Why does the league punish us (or do something bad to us) for making the safer (the better, the more good) choice?" And then, by implication, the audience is led to reply, "That's an injustice!"

In other words, "Making the safer choice" makes us sound good to ourselves. We're "making" this choice, which means we're doing it--we're the ones in charge, here, and our actions are deliberate. We're not doing things on accident. We recognize that those other things exist, but we choose to do this one. We're choosing this one instead of the other, and what we're doing now is not as bad as what we could be doing, so you should be happy with us. In fact, you should be proud of us. Proud of us for making the safer choice.

So apparently some of the players have been punished for smoking marijuana, and they're not happy about it. They're not happy and they want to make sure that we know about it. But at the same time, they want to feel good about their actions, but they also want us to feel good about them. It's perhaps no surprise that these advertisements come at a time when the two teams that played in the Super Bowl both come from states that have recently legalized the recreational use of marijuana.

Let's end this thing.

I am not here arguing that marijuana is not safer than alcohol or football. But I am questioning the motives of the people behind the claim that marijuana is safer than alcohol or football. And I am saying that by defining recreational marijuana use in terms of its being safer than more harmful things is a rhetorical strategy that tries to get audience members to feel good about the recreational use of marijuana.

What I want to know is why? Why do we try to make ourselves feel good? Not only that, but why do we try to feel good when we do harmful or less harmful things? Where does this drive to feel good come from, and is there a way to find it that is not manipulative, either of ourselves or of other people?

(The above advertisements, by the way, inspired this story that I posted earlier.)

Saturday, February 1, 2014

A Short Story Illustrating Something Ironic that Will Be Discussed More in a Later Post

Normally it takes more than 15 minutes to get there. You have only 10 minutes before it starts, though, and you're just now pulling out of the driveway. You hit the gas. It's early, so hopefully no one will be on the roads.

I didn't make this picture--and it's only vaguely
relevant--but it is pretty awesome.
You're making good time, and the speedometer proves it. Things are going well--until you see the red and blue flashing lights in the rear-view mirror. You cringed, and your eyes dart down at the speedometer. Then your heart sinks. You hit the breaks and exhale, then you pull over, turn your car off, and roll down your window. You lean your head on your thumb and forefinger and stare blankly at the wheel. The cop's feet crunch against the gravel as he approaches.

You give him your license and registration when he asks for it, then hear the gravel crunching again as he walks back to his car. You look at the clock. Six minutes. Maybe he'll just make it quick so you can get out of here. You hear the crunching.

"I noticed you were going 30 over," he says in a serious, matter-of-fact tone. You take a deep breath and say nothing.

"Well," he breaks the silence, "I'd like to congratulate you." A frown. Congratulate? Is he being sarcastic? "I'd like to congratulate you because you could have been going 50 over, but you were only going 30 over. Not only that, but when I turned my lights on, you slowed down, turned your blinker on, and pulled over, when you could have hit the gas and started a high-speed chase."

Wonder. Straighter posture, just a bit. What was he saying?

"You're wearing your seat belt, and--oh," he hands you back your license and registration, "your car is registered. You're also driving with a valid licence."

Now you turn your head and make eye contact, trying to put no expression on your face.

"And one more thing. I noticed that you were driving in your own lane the entire time." You blink. He smiles--genuinely--and says, "So congratulations, sir. Driving in your own lane, wearing your seat belt, driving a registered car, having a valid driver's licence, and only going 30 over instead of 50 over? Well, I'm going to let you go."

"Really?" He could still playing some sarcastic game.

"Of course. You made the safer choice." He walks away. You reach up with your right hand and turn the key.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Seeing and then Hearing Odysseus

He stands to speak. With a staff in his hand held straight and stiff, he stares at the floor and looks like he doesn't know a thing about what he's about to say. Those who looked on at him ready to listen to his speech thought he looked like a fool. But when he began to speak, things changed. The poet Homer describes the scene using these words:
Then in his turn the great tactician rose
and stood, and looked at the ground,
moving the staff before him not at all
forward or backward: obstinate and slow
of wit he seemed, gripping the staff: you'd say
some surly fellow, with an empty head.
But when he launched the strong voice from his chest,
and words came driving on the air as thick
and fast as winter snowflakes, then Odysseus
could have no mortal rival as an orator!
The look of him no longer made us wonder.
(Illiad 3.212-24)
When the speaker opened his mouth, his words changed the way the audience saw him. They listened. They no longer questioned his intelligence. And the words he spoke changed the way he appeared to them. The hearing of his words somehow affected their seeing of his character. Almost as if the words or the sounds had an effect on the listeners' eyes.

Book Review: The Rhetoric of American Civil Religion

I've recently received word from Taylor & Frances Online that a book review I wrote was published in the Journal of Religious and Th...