22 December 2008

The Meanings of Christmas

So this is Christmas
And what have you done
Another year over
And a new one just begun
And so this is Christmas
I hope you have fun
The near and the dear ones
The old and the young - John Lennon, "So This is Christmas"

When I was a child, Christmas began shortly after Thanksgiving. My sister, father, and I would all go out to the storage shed behind our home and clamber around looking for the Christmas decorations. The shed was the epitome of chaos, and it always took a while. We'd bring the boxes in, where they would be opened in full and used to decorate the home. The plastic tree would rise and the ornaments would be plucked out of their boxes. I would root anxiously through them looking for my personal ornament: a hand-sewn Santa Claus that my 2nd grade teacher gave me. He had holes in him, and we stuck candy canes through him: the hooks served as arms and the staves as legs. The tree would become an interesting environment for my toys as the month wore on and my mom made her traditional holiday treats. On Christmas eve, we would pile into our family vehicle and go looking at Christmas lights while the radiator blew warm air in our faces and we listened to Christmas music. We always had our favorite yearly spots. When we returned home, my sister and I would each open one Christmas present, and then go to bed.

In the morning, I would wake up early and make my way to the living room, shivering in anticipation. As I rounded the corner the couch would come into sight, loaded with the toys that "Santa" brought. My mom would wake up when she heard me, and then she and I would wait for my teenage sister and dad to wake up. After going through the gifts, cleaning up the mess the wrapping paper made, and eating breakfast, we would spend the day at my grandparents, returning home late that night. Such was our Christmas custom. As we all grew older, customs changed. Action figures gave way to CDs as I entered my teenage years, while at the same time my sister grew up, got married, and had a couple of children. As the years wore on, Christmas became less about my sister and myself and more about my niece and nephew. Our traditions changed accordingly. We now go to my sister’s house on Christmas Eve, and we watch the kids tear through their own toys with great delight. My Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles playsets have been replaced by my nephew’s toy motorcycle collections: the pictures my mother takes no longer reflect the beaming faces of my sister and me, but rather of my niece and nephew -- whose smiles and faces look ever so much like ours, and our parents.

The meaning of Christmas has changed for me. It has become much more of a reflective period where lighthearted frivolity has given way to somber joy. That is not the contradiction-in-terms that it may sound, for it means to me a deep satisfaction with life and an inner happiness that may not translate well. While I normally scoff at tradition, the Christmas season changes that. I look forward to going to my parents' home and watching Christmas movies, to going to my sister's on Christmas eve and listening to my niece and nephew's prolonged chorus of "Awesome!" and "Cool!". I look forward to perpetuating my own private traditions -- to watching A Christmas Carol, to reading a few books, and to watching the Star Wars trilogies straight through. (The last is admittedly an odd tradition, but my tradition nonetheless.) I look forward to seeing a lit-up tree and to going to my grandparents' home and smelling the chicken dumplings and seeing the countryside around their home the way it has been all of my life. Our traditions, Christmas and otherwise, good or otherwise, connect us to the past. They give our present meaning.

So much of what we consider "Christmasey" is tradition. The very timing of it, for instance -- near the winter Solstice (December 22). The winter solstice represents the beginning and deepest part of winter. It is the shortest and darkest day of the year in the northern hemisphere, a fact recognized by every culture in said hemisphere that I know of. During the long, cold, and dark winters, our ancestors once brought into their homes pieces of evergreens to give them color, even as they were surrounded by the bleakness of winter. We continue that tradition unthinkingly as we put up our Christmas trees, real or otherwise.

Christmas has become a time of reflection for me. As I think on the the past and the traditions thereof, I realized how they have changed. I realize how my life has changed, and I realized that future Christmases will bring future changes. My niece and nephew will eventually grow up and establish families of their own, and my family's traditions will change. I may be forced to move in pursuit of a career, separated from "home" by a distance only airplanes can shorten. When in my reflection I realize this, I realize too that this also gives my present meaning. When I think on this, I realize the necessity of appreciating the moment, of enjoying today. I think that when I am older, I will look on these years with the same fondness that I now look on my childhood years with.

Beyond tradition, I think too of my good standing in life. I cannot use words like "fortunate" or "blessed" because I believe in neither luck nor fairy god-mothers. I can say that I am safe, warm, happy, and -- grateful. I am grateful to my parents for working so hard to give my sister and I the childhood we had -- and I am grateful to my sister and her husband for working as hard as they do to provide another childhood like that to their children. I know that Christmas brings with it much aggravation, but still I cannot escape the deep satisfaction that it brings.

So that is what Christmas means to me: family, tradition, and reflection. I value the season. I know that the same values are not shared by everyone. Other people have other traditions: they may have none at all. They may not see the time as a period of reflection. My niece and nephew certainly won't, and I would find it odd if they did. Many people lose focus and became consumed by commercialism -- forgetting that the tokens of appreciation that we exchange are tokens only, bereft of meaning outside of the intent in which they were given. Other people use the solstice period to honor the religious traditions for which the holiday is currently named: the Christian tradition that YHWH sent his son to Earth to reconcile him with humanity. For them, ideally, the period is a time of forgiveness and brotherly love, the kind epitomized in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Other people maintain these beliefs and pay lip-service to the ideals while crowing that the Christian meaning is the ONLY meaning. I say that's nonsense. While many people do pay service to their religious traditions, those traditions are about people -- about people's fears and hopes and desires. Family traditions and personal meanings far overshadow the religious contributions to the season -- beyond the name, some music, and nativity scenery. When people think of Christmas, do they really think of theology -- or do they think instead of the smell of hot chocolate and family feasts?

Here we are as in olden days,
Happy golden days of yore...
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Gather near to us once more
Through the years,
We all will be together --
If the fates allow.
Hang a shining star
Upon the highest bough..
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

I do not believe those who say theirs is the only meaning of Christmas. They are wrong, but if they wish to drive their blood pressure up while ranting about the evil secularists, they are welcome to the emotional distress they bring upon themselves. Ironically, these are very often the same people who are more devout to another religion of the season -- the religion of money and commercialism. As for me, I will continue to keep Christmas in my own way, in reflection and somber joy -- all the while thinking about the values of shared ideals like forgiveness and tradition.

"There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say, " returned the nephew [of Scrooge]: "Christmas, among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round [...] as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open up their shut-up hearts freely and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe it has done me good and will do me good, and I say God bless it!" - Fred Scrooge to his uncle Ebenezer, A Christmas Carol

20 December 2008

Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan died on 20 December 1996. I don't remember when I discovered his work, but his books were invaluable to me in 2006. Through his books, he helped me rediscover a love for science and an accompanying sense of wonder about the world. His Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors and The Demon-Haunted World are two particular favorites. Sagan was not just a scientist and a skeptic, though: he was also a humanist and has been an inspiration to me these past few years.

A few Sagan-related links:

18 December 2008

This I Believe II

A few days ago I posted some meaningful quotations from a collection of essays wherein individuals express their personal values. I read a second collection this week and am sharing similar quotations now.
"We all belong to the same human tribe; that kinship supersedes our differences." - Terry Ahwal

"I believe I've got no right to make others suffer for my lack of conviction." - Brigid Daull Brockway

"What I want more than ever is to appreciate that I have this day, and tomorrow, and hopefully days beyond that. I am experiencing the learning curve of gratitude. I don't want to say 'have a nice day' like a robot. I don't want to get mad at the elderly driver in front of me. I don't want to go crazy when my Internet access is messed up. I don't want to be jealous of someone else's success. You could say that this litany of sins indicates that I don't want to be human. The learning curve of gratitude, however, is showing me exactly how human I am." - Mary Chapin Carpenter

"I believe we have the power to create our own happiness. I believe the real magic in the world is done by humans. I believe normal life is extraordinary." - Wayne Coyne

"I believe how we treat the people we dislike the most and understand the least -- Jehovah's Witnesses, for example -- says a lot about the freedoms we value." - Joel Engardio

"I believe our capacity to tolerate both religious and personal difference is what will ultimately give us true liberty -- even if it means putting up with an occasional knock on the door." - Joel Engardio

"I believe in upholding reference for all life. I believe that humanity has a responsibility to the earth and to the life that we share our experience with." - Michaelle Gardner-Quinn

"Can one act of friendliness start to generate peace? I believe it can. Peace begins with one person but spreads like warmed syrup. When I connect with my neighbors, they return it in kind. So I believe in friendliness and an open ear. For me, it starts with making eye contact when I pour coffee and ask my customers, "How you doing?" and then listen to their answer. My job is to take care of customers at the counter in a small Texas diner, but I also believe we're in the world to take care of each other." - Ivory Harlow

"I believe in being what I am instead of what sounds good to the rest of the world." - Yolanda O'Bannon

"I watch what I do to see what I really believe." - Helen Prejean

"I believe that I always have a choice. No matter what I'm doing. No matter where I am. No matter what is happening to me. I always have a choice." - Catherine Royce

"I am my words, my ideas, and my actions. I am filled with love, humor, ambition, and intelligence. This I believe: I am your fellow human being, and, like you, I am so much more than a body." - Lisa Sandin

"Science has taught us that normal genes in cells can be damaged or mutated to become deadly 'oncogenes' that result in cancer. I believe brutality is a disease just like cancer; each and every one of us is at risk, including me. [...] We're taught not to smoke in order to prevent carcinogens from damaging the genes in our cells. I wish we could learn to prevent hatred from forming and brutality from actualizing." - Yinong Young-Xu.

17 December 2008

I Am Humanity

I found this song on YouTube over a month ago, but neglected to share it here. The song is "I Am Humanity", and is by Bob Rafkin. I found it when I search on YouTube for the phrase "I am humanity".

Sample Lyrics, first versus and chorus:

I can't say I am free of guilt --
I bear responsibility.
For everything there is outside,
I also have inside of me.
The beauty and the joy,
I know I'm quick to claim --
But I must also recognize
That I'm the hand that brings the pain.

I'm part of all eternity,
The center of the wheel
The one who lives an honest life,
and the one who lives to steal
I witness every age,
I'm the foolish, I'm the sage --
I am everyone oppressed and free,
I am Humanity.

11 December 2008

This I Believe

Recently I read This I Believe, a collection of some eighty essays sharing the personal philosophies of average men and women. In the interests of promoting it, I decided to share a few quotations I particularly liked. Many of the essays have a value that cannot be communicated in one quotation, however.

"I believe in people. I feel, love, need, and respect people above all else, including the arts, natural scenery, organized piety, or nationalistic superstructures. One human figure on the slope of a mountain can make the whole mountain disappear for me. One person fighting for truth can disqualify for me the platitudes of centuries. And one person who meets with injustice can render invalidate the entire system which has dispensed it. I believe that man's noblest endowment is his capacity to change. Armed with reason, he can see two sides and choose: He can be divinely wrong. [...] We must encourage thought, free and creative. We must respect privacy. We must observe taste by not exploiting our sorrows, successes, or passions. We must learn to know ourselves better through art. [...] We must not enslave ourselves to dogma. We must believe in the attainability of good. We must believe, without fear, in people." - Leonard Bernstein

"Good can be just as communicable as evil." - Norman Corwin

"If I were to discover that there is no afterlife, my motive for moral living would not be destroyed. I have enough of the philosopher in me to love righteousness for its own sake." - Elizabeth Deutsch (Earle)

"I believe that it's important to recognize and appreciate joy when you feel it. Every once in a while, and not just on special occasions, I've suddenly realized that I am truly happy right now. This is a precious experience, one to savor." - Elizabeth Deutsch (Earle)

"I believe in the connection between strangers when they reach out to one another." - Miles Goodwin

"I don't believe anyone can enjoy living in this world unless he can accept its imperfection. He must know and admit that he is imperfect, that all other mortals are imperfect, that it is childish to allow these imperfections to destroy all his hope and all his desire to live." - Oscar Hammerstein II

"I have often longed for peace and tranquility -- looked into the lives of others and envied a kind of calmness -- and yet I don't know if this tranquility is what I truly would have wished for myself. One is, after all, only really acquainted with one's own temperament and way of going through life. It is best to acknowledge this, to accept it, and to admire the diversity of temperaments Nature has dealt us." - Kay Redfield Jamison

"I believe in the absolute and unlimited liberty of reading. I believe in wandering through the stacks and picking out the first thing that strikes me. I believe in choosing books based on the dust jacket. I believe in reading books because others dislike them for find them dangerous. I believe in choosing the hardest book imaginable. I believe in reading up on what others have to say about this difficult book, and then making up my own mind." - Rick Moody

"We are each other's business; we are each other's harvest; we are each other's magnitude and bond." Gwendolyn Brooks

"I believe in the human race. I believe in the warm heart. I believe in man's integrity. I believe in the goodness of a free society. And I believe that the society can remain good only as long as we are willing to fight for it -- and to fight against whatever imperfections may exist." - Jackie Robinson

"I believe in life. I believe in treasuring it as a mystery that will never be fully understood, as a sanctity that should never be destroyed, as an invitation to experience now what can only be remembered tomorrow." - Andrew Sullivan

07 December 2008

Emotional Maturity

I'm beginning to think that the foundation for emotional maturity is the realization of two things:
  • We cannot control what happens to us.
  • The only thing we can control is our response to what happens to us.

In the summer of 2006, I fell sick for nearly two weeks. I don't know what hit me, but the two symptoms I was conscious of were (1) extreme fatigue and (2) prolonged and severe headaches. I was bedridden the majority of the time. Despite this, though, I somehow had the presence of mind to write "...we have good days and we have bad days, but we deserve neither." I realized that I was sick, but I realized as the first week wore on that the symptoms were lessening, that it would pass.

It was this attitude that allowed me to maintain my composure while I was sick, to not give in to despair. I simply laid in bed, resting, thinking of other things. I won't deny that if I could have fallen asleep and died that I would have welcomed the relief -- for such was my physical misery -- but I survived. The lesson of that sickness has stayed with me, and has guided my thinking ever since. It's important to me. I don't know where it came from, but ah! -- how useful it is.

We do have bad days. We're attacked by viruses, mistreated by others, are stuck in traffic jams, have unexpected financial difficulties -- in summary, suffer from circumstances beyond our control. You can't stop people from talking about you -- you can't help catching a viruses. The air is filled with them. On the same note, though, we also have good days where traffic moves just the way we want. We go to the zoo and the animals amuse us: our path crosses that of a friendly stranger, and we make a personal connection. We have an easy day at work -- we go outside and find that the weather is ideal.

The idea that we can keep bad things from happening, or make good thing happen, is behind every superstition. Our ancestors did rain dances and sacrificed virgins to keep the sun rising: our contemporaries pray to the heavens to send rain. They weep and pray at their alters, trying to invoke the gods' favor to give them a raise, find them a mate, keep them from harm. People buy rabbit's feet and contractors design buildings that skip from floor twelve to floor fourteen.

Despite all of this effort, though, they can't actually change what happens. If I pray to Athena for good traffic on my drive to someplace, the effect will be exactly the same as if I had prayed to a bag of Skittles or not prayed at all (provided the time I spent praying instead of driving is taken into consideration). I can be as friendly as I like to people, but I'm not going to generate "karma" that makes people treat me kindly in return. Oh, some will return my smile with a smile, but that's only a natural response in people who like being treated with friendliness. We can't change these vents of life, and we waste considerable time, effort, and energy in trying to do so.

As much as we can't control, though, there is one powerful thing we can control: our own mind. It's safe to say that our emotional impulses give us much reason for regret: we make bad choices on them, and later say "I wish I'd thought that through". How many people are in the prisons today because they did something out of impulse -- threw a punch at someone, for instance? Human beings are so passionate that many religions and philosophies push for more self-control. Even emotional Pentecostalism teaches that self-control is part of the fruit of the spirit -- although it's not actually practiced. (An ex-Pentecostal joke: when is self control not a fruit of the spirit? In a Pentecostal church.)

People do learn self-control in varying degrees. They learn fairly quickly, for instance, that you have to watch what you say in front of authority figures. Some people are better at controlling themselves than are others. But this kind of self-control is limited to what we do, to how we respond rather than react to what's done to us. It doesn't include an ability to control what we do by ourselves, or how we think -- and these things are just as if not more important.

Why is how we think important? I believe it is so because our thinking defines our reality. If you go outside and look at a tree, you're not really seeing the tree: you're seeing the image your brain drew of the tree, using the light that is reflected or absorbed from them and taken in by your cones and rods. If you have "normal" vision, you will see it as a collection of greens and browns, probably. But what if you're color-blind? What if the equipment that draws your image of a tree is different from most everybody else's? The image drawn will be different.

The same is true of every sense, I think. Our brains create a reality based our senses. This is true for the sense of reason, which has to be trained rather than being automatic. (The idea of reason as a sense is another essay, I think.) I learned at a fairly young age that I could manipulate the way I sensed things. Have you ever noticed that a location that is new to you looks different than it does when you're familiar with it? Take a house -- does it "feel" different from the way it did when you first moved in? When things are new, they are colored by our imagination, by possibilities: when we are familiar with them, they're colored by our experiences. I realized that I could manipulate my thinking and see something old through new eyes -- and see something new through a sense of familiarity.

Not everyone is conscious of this: just last year, while walking up the stairs in my residency hall at my university, I commented to someone that 'I can still see this place the way it was when I first moved in.' He turned his head and looked at me, replying "It looks just the same. We haven't changed anything..." It wasn't the sight of the place, it was feeling of the place: what it meant, and through that, how it looked. It's a subtle difference, and I'm not sure how to explain it. But this taught me that I could manipulate the way I thought about things.

In late 2006 or early 2007, I read an essay titled Humanist Spirituality: Oxymoron or Authentic Path to Enlightenment? by Doug Muder, a Unitarian minister. In it, he explores the idea of spirituality, and connects it to the Stoic practice of being mindful of one's thoughts: of thinking about how you think and how your thoughts impact your state of mind. The lecture impressed me to the point that I re-read it every so often, and when I read it I began trying to put it into practice. I began to examine my thoughts, to apply reason to them and ask if they were doing me any good. When the way people treated me inspired anger, I seized that anger and thought: will growing angry do me any good? Or will it just make matters worse? When I want to give in to hate, I think: do I really want to sacrifice part of my emotional well-being to this person? Why? When I grew upset or despair at a situation, I turned that anger or despair into the willpower to change the situation. I forced my emotions to work for me -- and if they weren't useful, I neutered them. The podcasts of Zelig Pliskin -- amusingly, an Orthdox rabbi- helped. He advises his listeners to think about the way they're thinking and feeling, to apply reason to them.

I think that this Stoicism is a logical extension of being a freethinker. I said in my "This I Believe" essay that inspired by the successes of the scientific method, I adopted critical thinking as part of my worldview. If I use reason as my guide for what I believe, why not use it to order the way I think? A year ago -- Thanksgiving week, 2007 -- I read my first bit of Stoic literature, that of Marcus Aurelius' meditations. Shortly before Thanksgiving this week, I read Epictetus' Discourses and Manual for Virtuous Living. In both, I found amazing insights that built on this distinction between that which we can control and that which we can't. I've shared my favorite quotations from Aurelius before, and I plan to post my favorites from Epictetus in a week or so. I've been thinking about writing this essay -- or musing, whichever it has turned out to be -- since the summer, and I didn't want to post Epictetus until after posting this. The reason is partly vanity: the distinction between what we can control and what we can't is the essence of everything Epictetus said, and I like the fact that the stuff I think of independently has already been thought of before by people I consider wise. It makes me think I'm doing something right.

Because I read Epictetus before I finished articulating my own thoughts, I'm going to end this with a few quotations from his works that illustrate the theme of what I was writing about. It seems an apt way to conclude.

Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: some things are within our control, and some things are not. Keep your attention focuses entirely on what is truly your own concern, and be clear that what belongs to others is their business and none of yours.

When something happens, the only thing in your power is your attitude toward it: you can either accept it or resent it. What really frightens and dismays us is not external events themselves, but the way in which we think about them. It is not things that disturb us, but our interpretation of their significance. [...] We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them.

People don't have the power to hurt you. Even if someone shouts abuse at your or strikes you, if you are insulted, it is always your choice to vie w what is happening as insulting or not. If someone irritates you, it is only your own response that is irritating you.

05 December 2008

Other People

"It's easier to love humanity as a whole than to love your neighbor."

I constantly find myself evaluating the way I deal with specific people. They are people in my life for various reasons -- family and familiar acquaintances -- who I don't know how to deal with for various reasons. I always labor to treat people well, and I think I do a fairly good job of it. I'm not a person given to emotional displays or insults. It probably sounds a bit snobbish, but I consider that beneath me. I understand why other people do it, but I've guarded my emotions ever since I was a child and have not raised my voice since I was a toddler: broadcasting my emotions for all to see simply is not in my character. I could no more yell hateful words at someone than I could flap my arms and fly: my emotional restraint is that ingrained.

This is not to say I am a cold and removed person. I was at one point five or six years ago . Then, out of desperation for simple human contact, I began reaching out to people -- saying hello, then having conversations with strangers -- and realizing what it meant to function as a socially healthy human being. I am now described as friendly and personable by other people, and I consider such a compliment to be a personal triumph. But this amiability is simply the way I treat people I don't know: it isn't the way I treat people I'm familiar with, people who I share experiences with.

With strangers, the equation is simple: this is a human being, and I'm going to be friendly because I like being friendly and judging by my experience, more people than not enjoy being treated with friendliness. With someone I know, however, our history seems as if it has to be entered into the equation -- introducing variables that throw the way I relate to people into question. When I share experiences with strangers, they become three-dimensional people, and people are complicated. They're judging me by more than that initial friendliness, and so are responding to me differently. The relationship becomes much more complicated.

I take the golden rule seriously: I treat others as I would want them to treat me. I don't insult them or speak ill of them in their absence. I dislike even writing this because I have specific people in mind and I would not want them to do what I am doing -- even though no one reading this could possibly know who I had in mind. The problem with that ideal, though, is that people treat me in ways that I can't possibly conceive of treating them in. I can't say "How do I respond to this person for doing _____ to me, keeping in mind how I would want them to treat me if I had done _____ to them?" because their behavior is completely alien to me. I can no more conceive of acting that way because of my highly ingrained emotional control than I can conceive of acting as a termite acts, or acting as a whale acts. As a result, the entire apparatus of the golden rule ideal break downs.

But when my thinking turns to this, I think of Isaac Asimov's words: "Show me someone who says he doesn't understand people, and I'll show you someone who has built up a false idea of himself." They seem to ring true, for we all are human: we all share the same basic DNA, we all live in the same planet, and we all share the same hopes and fears, for the most part. But as a sociology and a history student, I cannot deny that some people, owing to their accumulated experiences, are different. This is not to say they are better or worse, but simply to say different. They don't think the way normal people do, and I sometimes wonder if I'm that way.

But then I stop thinking this way, because I cannot take the idea seriously. As different as I may be, I share more in common with my fellow human beings that I hold differences. I may have more emotional control than most people -- which isn't saying much -- but I relate to people more often than I am confused by them. The specific exceptions are exceptions, not the rule. Were I so perplexed by everyone, I would be in poor shape indeed.

The conclusion I seem to be reaching, at least for my self, is to realize that the way other people mistreat me is not my concern: if they treat others as they treat me, they are bound to regret it and perhaps learn to change their ways. I help neither myself nor them by focusing on the issue: how they treat me is beyond my control. The best I can do is simply continue to treat them with cordiality: I may no longer trust them, and I may no longer be as open with them as I have been in times past, but I will at least be cordial. They may notice my withdrawl, and they may not. I predict they won't. We'll see what happens.