The most difficult decision of my life

There are some actions that are not right, but context defines our decisions. Sometimes we must do the wrong thing at the right time. Me walking away from a medical degree, for instance. It was what needed to be done at the time, much to people’s disbelief. But I wasn’t living my life. My life was living me.

What is indisputable is that we’re here to do something worthwhile. And who is the one that’s going to tell you what that thing is?

Well, that’s going to be you. Not society. Not your parents. Not your neighbors, and not your partner.

The how and the why is answered by you, and you alone.

Your values are what make your actions your own.

Advertisements

“Yea, but we do.”

I was in the gym the other day and there were weights all over the place, but they weren’t on any racks. Some dumbells were strewn on the floor and the barbells were left on the bars. I arranged the weights that I needed, racking some to make room for the weight I wanted, and I did my exercises. When I was done, I started to put the weights back, but I hesitated, thinking, “Why should I? No one else did.” Then I thought of Erik.

Erik is one of my most interesting friends. He is a writer, which might explain why he was so interesting. He likes Goth clubs, but he always seemed to be an outsider, like he was researching a book he was writing. He dresses their way, he likes the same music, and he is highly tolerant of their unique lifestyle. But Erik isn’t angry at anyone. In fact, he likes everyone. His smile literally beams as shiny as his shaved head and black combat boots. I like Erik because he simply does his thing, with adventurous heart and a thinking mind. I visited him soon after he had moved to Las Vegas and we found ourselves in his gym.

We did bench press and the weights were not racked. We arranged the weight for ourselves and did our sets, taking turns until I finished the last set. Erik started putting the weights away, and I said, “Erik, let’s leave them. Other people didn’t put their weights away.” Erik didn’t look up as he continued pulling off barbells, “Yea, but we do.”

I thought about this a few days ago, although I’d shrugged it off at the time and helped him begrudgingly. I thought about how easy it is to pass up doing the right thing. Our actions are lost in anonymity… all of us shop at the big superstores which use greeters now as they try to replicate the feeling of the mom and pop shops that they (and us) are putting out of business. We buy things made in the China because it would require serious effort to go without that item or find an alternative to it that was made here. It’s easy to keep our money and retirement accounts with the Wall St banks after they defrauded people, because everyone else is. What difference does it make when there are so many people out there doing the same thing?

The difference is because it’s wrong.

So I returned my weights to the rack. No biggie, I know. And I’m only one person. But I’m part of a larger environment, and if I don’t think about that, and more importantly, if I don’t do something about it, then I am part of the problem. Other people may not do anything, but Erik’s words are still strong in my head:

“Yea, but we do.”

National Defense Authorization Act has been passed: The government has now taken our right to trial

During Hurricane Katrina, martial law (termed state of emergency) was declared in New Orleans while the city streets were cleared, power was restored, and looting stopped. Martial law power was instituted during World War II when Japanese-Americans were imprisoned to protect all of America from the possibility that ethnic loyalties would turn the Japanese violent.

Martial law is declared when the safety of the populace is threatened. It gives military control over an area and military power over you. You can be arrested and jailed indefinitely until the military decides to release you. It is one of the paradoxes of life. We fight war for peace. We have martial law take our freedom, to protect our freedom.

Earlier this month, the government claimed the power of martial law

Congress passed the NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act) which has declared that American citizens who are suspected of supporting terrorism can lose their right to trial. This emergency measure is to protect us and is only temporary. Like in New Orleans, after power was restored and the roads cleared, martial law was lifted. Like after Japan surrendered to the US in World War II, the Japanese-Americans were released from prison.

But how long can the government hold current martial law power when our war isn’t against a group with a leader or against looters during a natural disaster? When do we win the war on terror?

It’s true, the military is not patrolling the streets, but why wasn’t the wording in the NDAA made more clear than “supports terrorism”? Why didn’t it specify that support is giving information, material, or physical help to a terrorist? Why didn’t the law err on the side of protecting our freedom while protecting us from terrorists? Why did they instead take absolute power over arresting Americans in the US?

A terrorist attack killed nearly 3000 Americans on 9-11.
In comparison, over 28,000 babies born in the US die before their first birthday

In reaction to the attack on 9-11, the government waged war in three countries, created a Department of Homeland Security, and has taken our right to trial.

I think we must ask why they deserve to take such a power to protect us in a war that has no end in sight.

Sources:
http://www.forbes.com/sites/erikkain/2012/01/02/president-obama-signed-the-national-defense-authorization-act-now-what/

http://www.webmd.com/parenting/baby/news/20081015/infant-mortality-us-ranks-29th

MLK commemorative post: Dr. King fought against the majority. Today we have the same fight.

Dr. King once said: “We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to endure suffering.” And so, today, we too, must sacrifice to take control of our lives once again.

Dr. King fought against the apathy of the white majority and today we also fight against the apathy of a majority

Dr King inspired others to face the powerful and established practice of discrimination. The discrimination which Dr King fought against was based on race, but it didn’t affect the mostly white US population. Society went about its business, just like today, but today our apathy led us to a recession that almost resulted in the total economic collapse of our country.

A corporate system without consumer oversight is a system that will promote inequality

Today we have a cultural acceptance of our powerful financial system, which has slowly grown and allows us to spend less and have more money in our bank accounts. The benefits of this system are for everyone, from the corporation to the consumer. Still, the situation threatens the very structure of our free society.

Power follows money, and today we see a movement of power from elected officials to a corporate minority. This concentration of power has grown so large that when the existence of a few banking and automobile corporations was threatened, the whole country was affected: Regardless if you were rich or poor, we lost businesses, jobs, and retirement savings.

We can reclaim power over the institutions if we follow Dr. King’s advice: Sacrifice.

A sacrifice of personal financial growth. As Dr King sacrificed, we too must sacrifice our way of life to correct the injustices of today: We must turn away the money that trickles down from careless and dishonest Wall Street bankers and the corporations. We must control our own finances and earnings to take back the power we are giving them. We must move our money to local banks and credit unions. Institutions should be dependent on us. Not us on them.

Race cannot be used to determine who is given opportunity, and neither can capital

Today, as in the past, we have a grave danger that cannot be ignored. We cannot continue to be apathetic about the division of the country into rich and poor, just as the population before the 1960s was apathetic about the division of the country by race. We cannot continue to watch our capital accumulate in the hands of the minority. The future of our society depends on our capacity to sacrifice and to recognize the power we have as consumers.

Yes. We can.

The ant and the grasshopper

The ants worked and the grasshoppers played. The grasshoppers had a giant nest that was always stocked with food, so they spent their summers relaxing. They largely ignored the ants, but noticed that the ants would sometimes bring back shiny pebbles with their food. The grasshoppers offered the ants some of their food in exchange for the pebbles. The ants agreed. The grasshoppers grew to love the shiny pebbles, so the ants decided to collect more pebbles for the grasshoppers in exchange for their food. After a time, the grasshoppers’ nests were both finely decorated and stocked with food.

Years went by like this, but soon the grasshoppers’ food stock got dangerously low and they didn’t know what to do. Fortunately, a boy came, and curious about nature, decided to feed and observe the grasshoppers. The grasshoppers were happy again, and the ants continued with their work, gathering food and providing pebbles.
Years and years went by. The grasshoppers grew old, and so did the boy, and he started visiting less and less frequently. The grasshoppers didn’t mind at first, but soon their food was almost gone. They tried going out and finding food, but discovered they had forgotten how to hunt and scavenge. They went to the ants and asked for food, but the ants told them they didn’t need the grasshoppers anymore.

The grasshoppers were confused.

“What do you mean?”

The ants moved their feelers sympathetically. “We have found ways to live without you or the boy anymore.” The grasshoppers were still confused. The ants explained, “Whenever the boy visited you, he cleared a path through the grasses, making it easier for us go out and find food. And before, you would give us food for the pebbles. But now, we’ve found a way to grow our food. Right here.” They showed the grasshopper their nest full of food, which looked just as the grasshoppers’ nest had looked many, many years ago. Then the grasshoppers saw the ants had started their own garden, filled with whole fruits!

The grasshoppers didn’t have a choice. They asked the ants, “Please, can we do anything for you in exchange for some food?”

The ants thought about it and decided they could still use the grasshoppers.

And soon the grasshoppers found themselves an integral part in the growing careers of food service, landscaping, and housekeeping.

A return to 1942

Japanese-American child being detained by US government in 1942, Smithsonian Institution, Copyright 2003

In 1942, after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, the US government collected over 100,000 Japanese-Americans, most of them American citizens, and detained them in internment camps for over three years because they were seen as threats to American security.

Today, a bill approved by Congress gives the President the power to remove American citizens’ right to trial and allows the military to detain them as an enemy soldier. (From the Act: “Detention without trial until the end of the hostilities” of anyone who “substantially supports such groups and/or associated forces.”)

Before this act, the President only had the power to detain those who “helped perpetrate the 9/11 attack or (b) harbored the perpetrators.”

We give great power to our government and we trust them to use it wisely. What do you think? Should the government have this power to jail you without trial if they find that you “substantially supported” terrorism without defining “substantially” or “supported” and not not allowing a lawyer to argue it for you? And if so, should the President claim these powers “until the end of hostilities” in a war against terrorism which has no clear end?

The government has the power to dispense justice under a system of law with clear codes of right and wrong.
If Obama signs this bill today, the government will be able to decide, without argument, when punishment is necessary and how to dole it out.

These are serious questions that I hope all of you would consider to ensure we can live a happy life.

References:

http://www.lawfareblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/NDAA-Conference-Report-Detainee-Section.pdf

Rituals are funny…and dangerous



Rituals. We follow them without thinking. Some rituals are habits that we consciously try to form, like healthy exercise and diet. Other rituals are generally environmentally influenced… like going to church, going out to eat, or putting up a Christmas tree.

This past weekend, I went out to run, not having exercised the week before. My ritual is to run about six miles over a certain route that takes me through a subdivision and down a main street. I considered shortening the run, given my week-long inactivity, but I didn’t. I also thought about slowing from my usual pace. I didn’t follow that advice either. At the end of my run, I noticed a stabbing pain in my left Achilles tendon. I had injured myself, and it was all because I was accustomed to my ritual, and I didn’t want to change it.

We can form seemingly good habits, like regular exercise or a healthy diet. Some dietary habits are so ingrained in our minds that going against them seems like going against nature, like the practice of eating meat. As we have become more technologically advanced, we don’t need to slaughter our own animals or go to a farm, so we don’t see meat as coming from a living and breathing animal that can suffer and who raises its young, unless we take them away for veal or lamb chops. We don’t see that we have put these living things in factories where they aren’t animals anymore, but units of production on an assembly line. Input: corn, antibiotics, and hormones. Output: meat patty on our plate.

As human beings, we have the capacity to think through our actions and make a plan. Our mindfulness is our most important quality, otherwise, we are at the mercy of our environment and the whims of a culture that allows slavery to exist, restricts people from voting, and allows banks to defraud their customers, almost causing world-wide economic collapse. If we can recognize when a ritual is good or bad, we can make an exception and not blindly follow it.

So stop every once in a while and assess your habits and judge whether they are making you happy. You will probably find something you can change that will drastically improve your life and the state of the world you live in.

Is the easy life truly easy?

I was at the gym the other day, and I saw the cardio room filled with people, everyone moving on stationary machines, but going nowhere, and I laughed to myself. Later, on the way out, my laughter turned to amazement when someone told me about a projection keyboard her teacher used in her class. I didn’t understand how a keyboard could be projected and still work. Then I got to thinking about how our entire economy was dependent on bankers buying and selling bets, and how that could work.

Sounds abstract? I think so, too. So…

Is it possible to make life too abstract?

In a previous blog. I talked about how exercise gives us a feeling of accomplishment which is needed in a society that seeks to make things easier. When I looked out on the rows of cardio machines last week, I saw something a little different. There were people running in place. I turned to the other end of the gym, where people were lifting weights, up and down, over and over again.

It’s funny how we’ve replaced the work that gives us this exercise naturally, like washing clothes by hand, walking or biking to work, or raising and making our own food. We have specialized roles now, a machine washes our clothes or a laundromat offers to do it for us. Groceries provide us food, and a cook and a waiter who provide us meals. There are garbage men to pick up our trash and lawn service for our yards. We’ve got cars that we can drive, taxi drivers that can drive us, and car mechanics that will change our oil.

The same thing is happening with our retirement accounts. Instead of investing in stocks and bonds in companies we think are making a good product, we give our money to bankers and they make us money. They still buy stocks and bonds, but today we have added bets in the mix. These are bets that someone else’s purchase is going to go up in value. You can even bet whether something will go down in value.

Sound abstract? I think so, too.

The easy decision is easy…at first

We use machines to make it easier to do things and get places. It’s easy, but then we realize we bought a car that has 6 cylinders, instead of 4, and has cargo space for 6 people, and those things cost more. We realize that our sedentary lifestyle requires us to exercise. Not easy, because we must now pay money and make extra time to drive to a gym.

We’ve lost the knowledge of how to landscape a yard, or even change the oil in our car, and this makes us more helpless than before. And instead of making meals which we know the ingredients, we buy convenient meals which can contain sugars and fats that are out of our hands, hidden in the food.

Maybe most important, our investments are made by bankers. They send us statements that show that our little pile of money is ever increasing. It’s easy. Until we realize we don’t know what a derivative is, or a collateralized debt obligation, but we staked our future on them. We then realize that everything we’re doing is postponing the cost. The cost of us not supervising the banker is measured by the number of lost jobs and failed businesses after the banks defraud us and mismanage our investments.  

Sound abstract? I think so, too.

My cousin is vice-president of Securities at TD Bank.  He might be able to help us sort it out. I asked him how the derivative collapse affected them. He said, “Not too much.”

“Really?” I answered, surprised.

 “We looked at mortgage derivatives as a possible investment. We didn’t understand it, so we passed,” he answered simply.

If something is too complicated, ask why that is.

Maybe then we can make our lives truly easier.

Selfishness is not just about getting what you want, but knowing why you want it

I’ve recently been thinking about selfishness. Many would say selfishness is alive and well today in the US. For instance, we consume more than we produce. And although we have more than most other nations on earth, we are the fifth most generous nation, measured by our frequency of helping a stranger.

We do make some sacrifices, but not the ones you would expect of a selfish person: We sacrifice our health: 2/3 of us our overweight, and 1/3 are obese. We also sacrifice financial security: The average American household credit card debt is about $11,000.

Maybe we’re happy in this state. Let’s leave moral judgments aside and see if this is true.

The US ranks 16th in happiness in the world

Unfortunately, studies indicate that most people in the US are not too happy. According to self-report surveys, Americans are less happy than people in many other countries. But maybe our happiness standards are different than the standards of others, and these surveys don’t allow an apples to apples comparison.

Research shows that happiness is correlated with limiting our choices

Dan Gilbert and Barry Schwartz are two researchers who have added to the pile of observations about what makes humans happy.  There’s evidence that suggests that our actual circumstances don’t make us happy, and that more choices don’t lead to a condition that makes us happy. Having more options makes people less happy.  In test after test, subjects who were given more options were less happy than those who were given less options. Even more important, in a related study, people preferred to have more options, although this led to lower happiness. Why?

We want power

Having power makes us happy…until we get what we want.  Yet, we want the freedom to choose.  The freedom to decide. What is this called?

Selfishness.
And so it comes back to that.
That’s what we wanted all along, and in the United States, we have a lot of freedom to make our own decisions.
So why aren’t we happy?

We are not free from the most powerful control mechanism of all: Our mind. 

Our mind convinces us that happiness is achieved by controlling things, when it is truly achieved by controlling ourselves.  Instead of putting our priorities on assessing and improving our mental health, we focus on our material wealth. We most value our power over external variables, like other people or things, when, in the end, control over the material world means nothing if we cannot value ourselves. It seems that selfishness is vital to happiness, but not in the way we expect…

Selfishness is really about being mindful of ourselves

Selfishness is about being empowered and responsible. It’s not just about getting what you want, but knowing why you want it.

Here’s to all of us attaining the freedom of empowerment that is necessary to be happy.