Let’s Dance


And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.  – Friedrich Nietzsche

It’s easy to believe in war and injustice

in greed and corruption

in hatred and prejudice and violence.

It’s harder to believe in equity and justice and unity and peace.

But once upon a time…

Slavery was the norm – nobody thought it unreasonable that one human being own another.

Everybody believed women were inferior to men.

White people were genuinely thought to be superior to everyone else.

Appendicitis was usually a death sentence…

The thought of human beings flying was ludicrous and nobody had ever dreamed people all over the world could communicate almost instantaneously…

All change happens because at the very, very start someone believes it is possible.

We see what we believe so if we believe something is possible then we will search and search until we find the way to make it a reality – for better or worse.

So – while peace, love, understanding, equity, and justice might not be that easy to envisage, the first step in attaining any of those things is to believe they are attainable.  Strain your ears until you hear the music and then – dance…

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The Tale of the Iron Fish


Anemia is a serious problem throughout the developing world and it has serious consequences for the health of women and children in particular.   After he graduated from the University of Guelph, in Canada, and while awaiting the start of his post-graduate studies, Chris Charles took a summer job in Cambodia.

Much of his work concentrated on was trying to persuade villagers to increase the amount of iron in their diet. Charles and his team tried to persuade the village women to cook in iron pots or put chunks of iron into their pots while cooking as the iron transferred into the food can help combat anaemia.  But the women refused – the pots were too heavy and the chunks of iron were – well, probably just too ugly.

Undaunted, Chris Charles and his team kept working on the problem. They tried all sorts of iron shapes to no avail until they hit on the idea of making a shape that looked like a local fish that was considered lucky.  This time it worked.  The women liked the 3-4 inch lucky fish and began to cook with it in their pots.

As it happens, the iron fish really was lucky, at least insofar as it brought health and well being to the villagers.  Within a short time the use of the iron fish helped anaemia levels to plummet.

This is an example not only of innovation but also learning to – figuratively – speak the language of the people with whom they were working.  When the development workers offered the iron fish in a way that could be understood by the locals, they heard what was being said and participated in the process of helping themselves.

Deceptively simple.

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Photograph – University of Guelph grad student Chris Charles with the iron fish that  women in Cambodian villages now put in their cooking pots to help raise the levels of iron in their bodies.

The Story of the Long Spoons


There is a Jewish folk tale that tells the story of a man who wanted to understand Heaven and Hell.

First, he travelled to Hell.

Here, row after row of table was piled high with platters of food yet the people seated around the tables were starving to death. Each person held a full spoon but both arms were splinted with wooden slats so they couldn’t bend either elbow to bring the food to their mouths.

Next he went to Heaven.

The setting was the same here as in Hell – row after row of long tables laden with food and all the people had their arms splinted so that they couldn’t bend their elbows. But the people in Heaven were happy and well fed.

He couldn’t work out why things were so different so he watched for a while.

As he watched, a man picked up his spoon and dug it into the dish before him. Then he stretched across the table and fed the person across from him. The recipient   thanked him and returned the favor by leaning across the table to feed his benefactor.

The man ran back to Hell to tell the poor souls trapped there what he had discovered.  He whispered the solution in the ear of a starving man – “You don’t have to be hungry,” he said. “Use your spoon to feed your neighbour and then he will return the favour and feed you.”

But instead of being grateful, the starving man became angry.

“What are you talking about?” he shouted.  “You expect me to feed that man?  I hate him!  I would rather starve than give him the pleasure of eating.”

Then the man understood – both Heaven and Hell offer the same circumstances and conditions. The critical difference was in the way they  treated each other.

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Rescue Work – Dayton, March, 1913

Persistent URL: hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ggbain.12020

Call Number: LC-B2- 2576-2

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Suffering…what is it good for?


Evil causes suffering and evil is preventable, but even in a paradisiacal world without evil, suffering would still exist.

In the most wonderful and peaceful of worlds, completely free of war and violence and famine and prejudice, children will still die and be bereaved, people will become ill and have accidents, make mistakes – there will be natural disasters and unfortunate events. Suffering will still exist.

So.  What is the point of suffering?

Viktor Frankl, concentration camp survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, said that suffering should be alleviated whenever possible but when it isn’t possible it presents us with an opportunity for change.

When we are no longer able to change a situation – we are challenged to change ourselves. (1)

What does this mean?  Perhaps it means that suffering changes us anyway and we can either be a part of that change or allow ourselves to be formed against our will by circumstances outside of our control?

The more you plough and dig the ground the more fertile it becomes. The more you cut the branches of a tree the higher and stronger it grows. The more you put the gold in the fire the purer it becomes. The more you sharpen the steel by grinding the better it cuts. Therefore, the more sorrows one sees the more perfect one becomes…Strange it is that I love you and still I am happy that you have sorrows. (2)

Maybe the purpose of suffering is so incredibly individual that there is no one answer other than that its very inevitability suggests it does have a purpose – however hidden?

Maybe it exists so that we’ll question the things around us that seem real and permanent and important and learn to distinguish between them?

Maybe our suffering can soften our hearts so that when we see others suffer we respond?

I don’t presume to know.

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(1) Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search For Meaning.

(2) ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, published in “Star of the West”, volume 14, number 2, May 1923.

Chaotic Butterflies


Photograph of David Bohm, taken from this page.

David Bohm

In ordinary life chaos means disorder – random, disorganised confusion.  In science it means something entirely different – it means apparent randomness. In other words, things that appear to be random and disorganised but actually obey an order that we either can’t see or don’t understand.

The physicist, David Bohm believed everything was governed by a hidden – or as he termed it – implicate – order.  He demonstrated this using a very simple but graphic experiment copied from a BBC Children’s TV programme.

Take a vessel composed of two glass cylinders, put glycerine (or other viscous fluid) in the space between the cylinders, then put a drop of insoluble ink into the glycerine and turn the outer cylinder.  As the cylinder turns, the ink is drawn out into a thread that eventually becomes so thin it disappears from view as it is enfolded in the solution.

But if the cylinder is then turned in the opposite direction, the thread form reappears and retraces its steps until the original droplet is reconstituted.

Bohm offered this as a visual example of how order exists even when it is hidden and not obvious to us.

But David Bohm is far from the only scientist to suggest that the seeming ‘chaos’ that surrounds us may not be as haphazard as it appears.

In the 1960s, Edward Lorenz, a MIT meteorologist and the originator of the Butterfly Effect theory, tried to explore why it is so hard to make good weather forecasts and as a result chaos theory was born.  Lorenz was the first to recognize what is now called chaotic behaviour in the mathematical modelling of weather systems.

Soon, many other scientists – including social scientists – were attempting to use chaos theory to search for the hidden order in everything.

Nowadays, chaos theory (and it’s offspring, complexity theory) provides us with models we can apply to everything from epilepsy to social problems.

So, organised chaos is not a contradiction after all – who knew?

Courage


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

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What Everybody Needs to Know About Reality


                   (A day’s worth of food in the palm of the hand – Emily Akai (34) and her family. Photograph: Rankin – Oxfam in Kenya)

What if many of the things we take as unshakeable realities aren’t fixed in some unalterable way but rather exist not only with our assent but with our whole co-operation?  What does it mean if much of reality is within our control not outside it?

Social reality is an expression of human agreement, someone is the president of a country and has the powers of that office because a system of government is created and acknowledged by the inhabitants of that country.  When the fundamental agreements which frame belief and behaviour change, social reality will change. (1)

Mount Everest and the Atlantic Ocean belong to a type of reality that the philosopher John Searle calls ‘brute’ reality.(2) We obviously don’t create brute reality – though we do seem able to destroy it.  Social reality is something different.

What everybody needs to know about reality is that while we don’t make mountains and trees, we do make social reality – or at least we all help to make it and so, we can all help to change it.

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(1) Paul Lample, Revelation and Social Reality, p. 9

(2) John Searle, The Construction of Social Reality.

DIY for Social Change


Even if we all agree that our world needs a good overhaul in the area of ethics and morality, it is still a slightly frightening prospect as so many atrocities have been committed in the name of doing exactly that – improving the morals of our societies.  So how do we approach this revamp and not run the risk of creating totalitarian regimes?

It should be remembered that most of these disastrous attempts to ‘clean up our act’, were based on a conceptual framework of human nature that is founded on the notion that human beings are inherently bad.  Therefore, if instead of hyper-vigilance against evil, our starting point is one where we see human beings as inherently good, this will help protect against totalitarian paranoia and the oppression it engenders. Because if we approach everything from this viewpoint, then we will be actively seeking to unleash this great capacity and goodness in human beings, rather than struggling to keep the imagined evil bottled up.

It might also help if we change the type of approach we use when dealing with people and society from a linear, industrial model to one more suitable for complex, dynamic systems.  As all human society and all human endeavour are organic processes, it might be more fruitful (literally) if we opt for an agricultural-type model of development.  As Sir Ken Robinson, the British educational innovator, puts it,

…farmers do not make plants grow.  They don’t attach the roots, glue on the petals or colour the fruit.  The plant grows itself.  Farmers and gardeners provide the conditions for growth.  Good farmers know what these conditions are, and bad ones don’t.   Understanding the dynamic elements of human growth is as essential to sustaining human cultures into the future as the need to understand the ecosystems of the natural world on which we ultimately depend. (1)

If we identify the elements needed to allow healthy, dynamic human environments to flourish then once those elements are in place all we really have to do – like the farmer – is relax and let nature take it’s course.

(1) Ken Robinson, The Element, p. 258

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Ourselves and Others


Cooperation and it’s pre-requisite, reciprocity, require us to learn how to get on together but real human development needs us to be able to do this in a truly diverse and inclusive way.  Easier said than done.

So, how do we interact as individuals?  How do we see ourselves?  How do we see others?  Ourselves in relation to others?   Does it matter what we think about others and who they are and what they do?  How sure are we ourselves about who we are and what we do?  And what difference does it make anyway?

A fundamental feature of ethical and political thought is the attitude of an individual (“the self”) toward other people (“the other”).  One perspective acknowledges three modes of engagement.  First, is when the other is viewed as an object – a subject of research or victim of oppression that is merely a recipient of the actions and judgements of the self.  In the second mode, the other, is human, but the self claims to know the truth about the other completely, engaging him or her from a distance, offering certainty and authoritative direction, an example is the traditional relationship between a doctor and patient.  The third mode is one of reciprocity and mutual recognition; the self influences the other, but when the other speaks, the self must also be prepared to be called into question and, perhaps, to change. (1)

The real question then, as we learn how to live together, is how open we are to learning and changing in all our encounters with other people.  Especially when we believe (and we might even be correct) that what we think is right.

The human race is a complex, dynamic system of oneness – in spite of how we act. This type of system requires high levels of reciprocity if it is to function properly. And it is this interaction between ourselves and others – at all levels of society – that forms the basis for the creation of human environments where everyone can flourish.

TomorrowAnd in the beginning…

(1) Paul Lample, Revelation and Social Reality, p.226

I think therefore I act…


Soumonce

Image by Sem Vandekerckhove via FlickI think, therefore I am...

If our social reality and education are the factors outside of us that shape our view of reality, what factors inside us contribute to the decisions we make? Education definitely influences our decisions and ignorance can contribute to prejudice. However, if information and exposure were enough to correct prejudice, then men would never have been prejudiced against women and all colonizers would soon see that the natives were just like them.

In order to benefit from information about, and exposure to, other cultures and traditions, we need conceptual frameworks in which diversity is seen as a good thing and everybody is seen as equal and valuable. Otherwise the differences can simply be seen as proof of inequality or inferiority or well, proof of pretty much anything we want to prove.   Because one of the first ‘facts’ that we really do need to carry with us as we learn to think for ourselves is that as human beings, we don’t believe what we see but on the contrary we actually see what we already believe.

TomorrowTalking to your Hat