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Empathy

July 03, 2018

Mirror neurons are neurons that fire when an animal acts and when an animal observes the same action. It’s crazy to me that these weren’t discovered until the 1990s. I’ve taken the Myers Briggs test and my result was that I’m an INFJ. According to that, I am basically a big ball of empathic energy. I naturally feel the energy of someone else, and they don’t have to move or talk. That is why I say it’s crazy to me that these mirror neurons weren’t discovered until the 1990s, seems like that’s a really long time to figure it out. Even the word ‘Empathy’ didn’t appear in English until 1909.

This study is centered around how children in the Toraja, an indigenous Indonesian group, learn how to empathize and express emotions. This is a fascinating thing for me to read on, as I feel like children in America in the current generation are having some trouble empathizing with each other and expressing their emotions to each other IRL. One particularly interesting quote the author mentions is referring to a Guinean tribe. “The culture fosters a certain style of personal expression, one that allows considerable leeway for individual foibles and eccentric behaviour.” I personally think we could use some more room for eccentricities and imperfections in our culture as well. Also FYI, the Samoan translate ‘empathy’ to their native term - alofa - meaning love, affection, compassion, pity or kindness. Children learn alofa by being of service to others and learn to receive it by taking part in hosting parties for other villages. These parties teach children the social ideal of shared feelings in action.

For the Toraja children, cooperation is a cultural value and moral requirement. One boy from the study, age 13, is quoted, “If there is work to be done, it must be done cooperatively.” Another girl, age 14, after attending a funeral reacts by saying, “By taking part I’ve learned that we must help each other in every task.”

It’s pretty fascinating to read another culture’s norms for developing empathy and kinship in their youth. This article didn’t go much into how children are educated in a formal setting, but I sometimes wish American schools put a bigger emphasis on things like this. It would be nice to have more interaction with each other as regular kids in school. More activities that foster learning about each other and how we think. More activities that help us develop the compassion to support one another. More activities based on cooperation and learning how to work together to accomplish goals.

Reference to the article:

Empathy

Bertrand Russell from his essay "How To Grow Old"

November 01, 2018

"The best way to overcome it [the fear of death]—so at least it seems to me—is to make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life. An individual human existence should be like a river: small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past rocks and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being."

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn on Owning Nothing

November 10, 2018

I'm just starting part II of Solzhenitsyn's account of life in the gulag, Soviet forced labor camps from 1918-1956. It's terrifying and horrible what these people endured, according to Solzhenitsyn. I recommend the book for anybody interested in history and politics. I myself enjoy reading these type of books for a few reasons. First, I am interested in understanding what could cause something so horrific to happen and how it could go on for so long. I am interested in humans. Second, I am extremely inspired by people that are forced to endure such a terrifying reality and still manage to find a meaning to it all. There is nothing more inspiring to me than this. Somebody who faces something that's unimaginable and uses their human brain to devise a method of handling it and moving through it. The following passage is taken from a piece of Solzhenitsyn's book in which he is describing the conditions of some of the ships that were used to transfer prisoners to the labor camps. It nearly brought me to tears.

"But it is better still to stop as soon as possible being a sucker-that ridiculous greenhorn, that prey, that victim. You will never return to your former world. And the sooner you get used to being without your near and dear ones, and the sooner they get used to being without you, the better it will be. And the easier!

And keep as few things as possible, so that you don't have to fear for them. Don't take a suitcase for the convoy guard to crush at the door of the car (when there are twenty-five people in a compartment, what else could he figure out to do with it?). And don't wear new boots, and don't wear fashionable oxfords, and don't wear a woolen suit: these things are going to be stolen, taken away, swept aside, or switched, either in the Stolypin car, or in the Black Maria, or in the transit prison. Give them up without a struggle-because otherwise the humiliation will poison your heart. They will take them away from you in a fight, and trying to hold onto your property will only leave you with a bloodied mouth. All those brazen snouts, those jeering manners, those two-legged dregs, are repulsive to you. But by owning things and trembling about their fate aren't you forfeiting the rare opportunity of observing and understanding? And do you think that the freebooters, the pirates, the great privateers, painted in such lively colors by Kipling and Gumilyev, were not simply these same blatnye, these same thieves? That's just what they were. Fascinating in romantic literary portraits, why are they so repulsive to you here?

Understand them too! To them prison is their native home. No matter how fondly the government treats them, no matter how it softens their punishments, no matter how often it amnesties them, their inner destiny brings them back again and again. Was not the first word in the legislation of the Archipelago for them? In our country, the right to own private property was at one time just as effectively banished out in freedom too. (And then those who had banished it began to enjoy possessing things.) So why should it be tolerated in prison? You were too slow about it; you didn't eat up your fat bacon; you didn't share your sugar and tobacco with your friends. And so now the thieves empty your bindle in order to correct your moral error. Having given you their pitiful worn-out boots in exchange for your fashionable ones, their soiled coveralls in return for your sweater, they won't keep these things for long: your boots were merely something to lose and win back five times at cards, and they'll hawk your sweater the very next day for a liter of vodka and a round of salami. They, too, will have nothing left of them in one day's time-just like you. This is the principle of the second law of thermodynamics: all differences tend to level out, to disappear....

Own nothing! Possess nothing! Buddha and Christ taught us this, and the Stoics and the Cynics. Greedy though we are, why can't we seem to grasp that simple teaching? Can't we understand that with property we destroy our soul?

Own only what you can always carry with you: know languages, know countries, know people. Let your memory be your travel bag. Use your memory! Use your memory! It is those bitter seeds alone which might sprout and grow someday. Look around you-there are people around you. Maybe you will remember one of them all your life and later eat your heart out because you didn't make use of the opportunity to ask him questions. And the less you talk, the more you'll hear. Thin strands of human lives stretch from island to island of the Archipelago. They intertwine, touch one another for one night only in just such a clickety-clacking half-dark car as this and then separate once and for all. Put your ear to their quiet humming and the steady clickety-clack beneath the car. After all, it is the spinning wheel of life that is clicking and clacking away there."

Everybody Is Wrong About God Review

December 02, 2018

I just finished reading a book titled "Everybody Is Wrong About God" by James Lindsay in which the author argues that it is necessary as a society to move towards a post-theistic world and to find a new way to understand what it means to believe in "God". I found some of the points being made in this book to be quite interesting. Lindsay is saying that theism itself doesn't make sense, and is based on mythology. He argues that theism is not really a worldview because it looks to fantasy as a method of attempting to characterize and cope with life, death and many of the realities that come along with being a human being. He also argues that since theism makes no sense, then its counterpoint - atheism - also makes no sense and is ridiculous and likely to be harmful to the ultimate goal of leaving God behind as a society. The post-theistic world Lindsay conjures up consists of us learning to meet all of our psychological and social needs without religion and without a belief in a mythological God.

This a short read and I do recommend it for anybody interested in thinking more about God, religion and truth. I myself have more thinking to do, but it does seem like a logical argument that the author makes. It seems that religion offers some benefit for us, but also divides us and turns us against each other. It makes us more ideological. Anything that will help us come together as a whole, I'm all for. A post-theistic world seems to be an interesting vision to think about in this regard. I'll end with one of my favorite quotes from the book, in which the author is describing how we can find purpose in our lives in the absence of any belief in religion or God:

"Our efforts matter because in the light of this collection of facts, harsh and unpleasant as they may be, shines a fantastic opportunity. We can make our lives sparkle, and we can help those we love to do the same. For no matter how many hours of our lives will be spent in despair--and on some level it isn't absurd to measure it in hours since, at present, only the rarest handful among us will live so many as a million of them--we must also know that we possess the capacity to make those we love, including ourselves, tremendously happy in many others. We have the opportunities for love, for support, for help, for good work, and for kindness in every moment, and so realizing our finiteness is a nearly perfect road to understanding the best avenues for human purpose because those moments are the ones that, as they say, truly make life worth living."

Tent Life In Siberia

January 04, 2019

This book, written by George Kennan, is an awesome account of Kennan's exploration through the Siberian wilderness. Kennan and a small group of explorers, funded by the Russo-American Telegraph Company, set out to do the seemingly impossible - telegraphically connect the United States and Europe via land lines running through the Bering Straits and Siberia. Kennan relates the experience with humor, wit, intelligence and insight. It's a fascinating journey through difficult struggles that sheds some light on how beneficial challenging circumstances can be and what we can learn from exploring new territory - metaphorically and literally.

The beginning of the book details the boat ride that Kennan and the explorers took from San Francisco to Siberia. They were journeying through overcast skies with very limited visibility, essentially having no idea where they were, for over a month until they finally saw land. Once on land, they traveled through the Siberian wilderness in sub-zero temperatures, sometimes 60 degrees below zero. They camped out and crossed rivers. They encountered uncivilized people, far removed from any society. They stayed with them at times and learned about their culture and way of life.

Having read the book around the holidays, one of my favorite parts was when Kennan was describing a group of settled inhabitants in Anadyrsk that they happened to be around during the holidays.

"Throughout the holidays the whole population did nothing but pay visits, give tea parties, and amuse themselves with dancing, sleigh-riding, and playing ball. Every evening between Christmas and New Year, bands of masqueraders dressed in fantastic costumes went around with music to all the houses in the village and treated the inmates to songs and dances. The inhabitants of these little Russian settlements in Northeastern Siberia are the most careless, warm-hearted, hospitable people in the world, and their social life, rude as it is, partakes of all these characteristics. There is no ceremony or affectation, no putting on of style by any particular class. All mingle unreservedly together and treat each other with the most affectionate cordiality, the men often kissing one another when they meet and part, as if they were brothers. Their isolation from all the rest of the world seems to have bound them together with ties of mutual sympathy and dependence, and banished all feelings of envy, jealousy, and petty selfishness."