Snide and Prejudiced.

The Sneetches and Other Stories

Probably the best story ever written about the danger of prejudice is The Sneetches, by Dr. Seuss.  In this story the star belly Sneetches look down on the plain belly Sneetches and the message is clear – if you have a star on your belly you are a superior Sneetch.

And then…along comes Sylvester McMonkey McBean – The Fix-it-Up Chappie.  This entrepreneur has a machine that will put stars on bellies – and so the plain belly Sneetches – overjoyed to be able to elevate themselves socially – pay him to put stars on their bellies.

Now everyone has stars on their bellies.  But the original Star-Belly Sneetches are having none of it. So, McMonkey McBean offers them a solution – he also has a Star-Off machine – “I’ll make you again the best Sneetches on beaches and all it will cost is ten dollars eaches.“.

So they have their stars removed and then so do the others and on and on it goes as they vie with one another to be the best.  A terrible confusion ensues while stars are put on bellies and taken off bellies –

They kept paying money,

They kept running through,

Until neither the Plain nor the Star-Bellies knew,

Whether this one was that one or that one was this one

Or which one was what one…or what one was who. (1)

Eventually the Sneetches spend all their money and Sylvester McMonkey McBean leaves – rich and laughing at the foolish Sneetches.

But expensive as it was, the Sneetches learn their lesson and finally realise the truth,

Sneetches are Sneetches and no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches.  

Proving that not only do our prejudices make us mean and ridiculous they also make us vulnerable as we invest in proving the fantasy to ourselves and everyone else.


The Shadow of the Future

Even computers know that the best strategy for winning is to cooperate.  (1)

Birds, animals, cells in our body – all know to work together. And yet human beings – the owners of much lauded brain power – seem to be still struggling with the concept.

Robert Axlerod, who conducted the studies on cooperation that proved even a computer would cooperate, suggests that one of the key factors influencing the decision to cooperate, is what he calls, ‘the shadow of the future.’

Axlerod discovered that players in the study were careful not to burn their boats if there was a chance that they would meet again.

Most of us would agree that not alienating people with whom we have on-going relationships is simple commonsense. So, perhaps we might be more willing to trade short-term gain for long term results when we are interacting with others, if we teach ourselves to lift up our heads and look past the moment.

If we all did that, just think how much cooperation would be going on – I wonder how that might change the world?


Photograph – Physical Culture Class, April 27,1909 – Poole Collection – National Library, Ireland

(1) Axelrod, Robert (1984), The Evolution of Cooperation, Basic Books, ISBN 0-465-02122-2


Laurence Fishburne and Kenneth Branagh as Othe...

Laurence Fishburne as Othello and Kenneth Brannagh as Iago.

Being patient is an active state.  It isn’t resignation or admission of defeat.  It isn’t giving up on the things you hope to change.

It is a condition of sure and certain knowledge that the only inevitability in life is change. Sometimes, however, the change takes a while to manifest and that is where patience comes in.

The trick to patience is to focus on the coming change and not the wait – at least that’s my trick because I have to admit that patience is most definitely not one of my virtues.

But even I know that, sometimes there is no choice but to wait – in the immortal words of Shakespeare – How poor are they that have not patience! What wound did ever heal but by degrees?

Othello (II, iii, 376-379)

Search For Truth

The School of Athens (detail). Fresco, Stanza ...

In Plato‘s Republic, he asks us to imagine a Cave in which prisoners live from birth. These prisoners are chained in such a way that they can’t move their heads or bodies, therefore they all face the same direction. Behind them is a screen and behind that is a fire.

The prison guards move about behind the screen and the fire casts their shadows on the wall in front of the prisoners.  This is their reality.

Plato then asks us to imagine what would happen if one of these prisoners was released. This man would first find it difficult to look at the fire in the Cave behind him. But this difficulty would be nothing compared to what would happen if he was dragged above the ground, where he would be completely blinded by the natural light.

But gradually, the released prisoner would be able to look at shadows, then reflections, then objects themselves.  After that he’d be able to bear looking at the sky at night and finally – once he’d developed an ability to see – he’d be able to look at the day-time sky and the sun itself.

This famous Simile can be interpreted in many ways but one of the most useful is to see it as a description of the search for truth.

It’s a hard job this quest. It definitely requires us to move and often to be uncomfortable.  It’s easier to stay where we are and not bother looking for the reality of things. Plato refutes the idea that real knowledge can be planted in a human mind and instead suggests that it can only be acquired by making the effort to acquire it for yourself.  Because, according to Plato,

…the capacity for knowledge is innate in each man’s mind.(1)

But also – according to Plato – getting access to this knowledge within us requires a voluntary turn towards truth.

In other words – come on out of the Cave – it’s sunny outside and who knows what wonders you’ll see if you make the effort to search for truth yourself?


(1) The Republic, Plato (To read The Simile of the Cave itself, click on More About…)

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Courage is not the opposite of fear – it is the defiance of fear. Looking fear in the eye, we gird up our loins and act anyway.

However, to be courageous doesn’t mean to be reckless.

Recklessness is thoughtless.

Courage is thoughtful.

When we are reckless we don’t recognise – or acknowledge – the dangers, therefore it requires no courage to act recklessly.

Courage is what’s needed when you know what you stand to lose and act anyway.  We admire courage in others and, if we want to feel good about ourselves, acting courageously will generally help with that.

It’s easy to say we should have courage – we’d all like to think of ourselves as courageous – but if it was that easy to have we’d all be brave all the time.

Still, we can but try…

Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway.  John Wayne



Egyptian alabaster statuette of Alexander the ...

Perseverance requires us to change our way of looking at failure.  It requires that we adopt a scientific attitude and consider lack of success nothing more than confirmation that we need to look elsewhere and change tack – not that we should give up.

Alexander the Great inherited the throne of Macedonia when he was twenty.  By the time he died, at the age of thirty-two, he had conquered much of what was then considered the civilsed world.

Alexander is considered to be one of the greatest military strategists of all time. He destroyed the Persian empire and travelled with his men as far as modern Pakistan.  If there was one factor that contributed to Alexander’s success – even more than 13 foot lances or the army his father bequeathed him – it was, most definitely, perseverance.

Elephants, sheer rocky hide-outs, massive armies, determined opposition – Alexander faced it all – and more – throughout his campaigns. It took him nearly eight months to conquer the city of Tyre (in modern day Lebanon) – but he succeeded in spite of ingenious and determined opposition from the Tyrians.

Undeterred by failure he kept on going until he achieved his goal – whatever it might be. And while it might be better not to adopt Alexander’s attitude to world domination, we could, nevertheless, learn a lot from his application and his absolute and unwavering perseverance.

I think and think for months and years.  Ninety-nine times, the conclusion is false.  The hundreth time I am right.  – Albert Einstein

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All animals – including humans – can use their brains to think and their thoughts can then be transformed into actions.  However, only human beings appear to have the capacity to reflect on their actions.

Conscience, free will, self-mastery, imagination etc., are all facets of reflection. When we think and act, we are like our fellow animals.  When we think, act and then reflect we begin to develop our uniquely human capacities.  This process gives us access to a vast ability that allows us to be in control of our actions and not simply driven by our physiology.

Seems a shame not to use it more.


Photograph – Corean Beauty, c. 1904 – Collection: Willard Dickerman Straight and Early U.S.-Korea Diplomatic Relations, Cornell University Library.

Identifier: 1260.74.12.06

Persistent URI:


Now here’s a misunderstood virtue.  


It has come to be synonymous with pointless protocol or manipulative patter designed to delude.  It isn’t any of these things.

Courtesy is simply showing respect for others – even small children and people who have no power or influence.  Respect for their human rights. Their bodily integrity. Their views and opinions.  Their beliefs and ideas. Their homes and possessions.  Their existence.

Like all virtual virtues, virtual courtesy is worthless.  A courteous expression of respect must be just that – an expression of real and genuine respect.

Therefore, to really be courteous we must first have that respect for everybody – and then show it.  Because to be treated with real courtesy is our right, just as to show that courtesy to everyone is our responsibility.

…observe courtesy, for above all it is the prince of virtues…Who is illumined with the light of courtesy…hath indeed attained a sublime station. (1)


(1) Bahá’u’lláh – Tablet of the World

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Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (2nd from right) ...

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (2nd from right) in the Selma Civil Rights March with Martin Luther King

In any environment the atmosphere will moderate the growth.  Kindness allows all the conditions essential for human growth and development to exist.

Kindness is often misrepresented as a fuzzy, soppy state, devoid of rationality and reserved for children and animals who don’t know any better.

This couldn’t be further from the truth.  To be really kind requires such rationality, insight and self-mastery that it is an achievement of the highest order.

When I was young, I admired clever people.  Now that I am old, I admire kind people. – Abraham Joshua Heschel

Me too.



We all value trustworthiness.

Most of us try to be trustworthy ourselves and we look for it in others. When other people fail to be worthy of our trust, we chide ourselves for trusting and determine never to trust anyone ever again.

Maybe there’ s another way to look at it.

Clearly it’s foolish to insist that trustworthiness exists when we have evidence to the contrary – however the solution is not to stop trusting.

It’s like fool’s gold.

If you were a miner who found some iron pyrite and mistook it for gold, the experience might make you a little more circumspect the next time you thought you’d hit the mother-lode, but it wouldn’t stop you mining and looking for real gold.

Because you’d know that real gold also exists and is worth the search. Just like trustworthiness.

And who knows, given that human beings respond so often to expectation, perhaps searching for trustworthiness can also actually help it to develop in places it has shaky roots?

Few things can help an individual more than to place responsibility on him, and to let him know that you trust him.  – Booker T. Washington