On Fictions and Doing What is Right

Part I – How Do You Know What Is Right?

The Serenity Prayer asks for “the courage to change the things you can, the serenity to accept the things you cannot, and the wisdom to know the difference”. The brilliance of this little prayer is the last line – “the wisdom to know the difference.” So often, in our lives, it feels like we are ships in a storm, being tossed around by forces beyond our control. Of course, this is true. Operating in an environment is to be operating with forces beyond our control. And operating in an environment does not excuse us from action, or from pursuing what is right. But how do we know what is right?

If we knew what was right all of the time, if things were labeled “good” and “bad” on their surface, then life would be simple. Ironically, in our world, things that are labeled good and bad are usually the most dangerous items. So we are left to fend for ourselves in a murky land.

Here is a small example, how does one choose between going to a job to provide for their families and spending time with their families? Should someone strive to meet the unrealistic obligations of their boss who is trying to meet the unrealistic obligations of their boss – and therefore miss their daughter’s soccer game? Or put family first and tell the boss they can’t meet the deadline? Or should they be modern and appear in person at the soccer game but be absent in spirit as they work from their phone or laptop?

This is a small everyday example. Life is full of these questions and that is what is so wonderful about the serenity prayer. In just a few words, it acknowledges that we are confronted with choices, we have power, but we do not control the outcome.

Part II – Role Models and Right Actions

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius begins with a list of individuals Marcus finds exceptional for some reason. He takes time, and makes those reasons explicit. Marcus is curious and trying to discover what is worth emulating. We can do the same in our lives and we are not limited to real people, we can also study the characters of history and fictional worlds. Lately, I have been reading the Kingsbridge series (Pillars of the Earth) by Ken Follett. This series is filled with characters who are confronted with challenging circumstances for which there does not seem to be a good or right answer – and yet, they persevere.

Pillars of the Earth is set in England in the 1100’s. I am not a scholar of this period, so I will have to take Ken Follett’s work as tonally accurate – which is to say violent, difficult, and brutal. Parts of the this book are truly difficult to read. Visualizing them in your mind is disturbing, but at the same time nothing feels out of the realm of possibility for every day life in that period. And it is in that time that the character of Philip the Prior is raised. (Spoilers ahead)

Philip’s parents are brutally murdered when he is a young boy and he is raised by the church. His life is given to God. But throughout the book, Philip never thinks that things are out of his hands completely. He believes he can influence things and that is his mission – that is the reason God put him on the earth. This is a very different stance from the often used, “why does God let bad things happen?” A question which might be reworded as “why do people lose sight of God and do bad things?” But each question has its merits.

The division between the self and a higher power is something I have always struggled to accept. As a framework for living, devotion to a higher calling is powerful as a life force. There is often a resolve, a fortitude, within those who feel called by God that individuals serving their own aims and goals cannot muster. But what if you do not hear the call? What does a higher calling mean?

In our modern times, it is hard to find comfort in religion, Marx’s “opiate of the masses”. The world is increasingly secularized. Popular culture does not revolve around conversations about God’s desires for us – but rather – whatever feels good or whatever you want right now. For the most part we live in a secular era for the senses.

The world was not so different in the past. People have always had the same interests, comfort and food, sex and power. Prior Philip is a character who is able to inhabit this morally challenging secular world without losing his spiritual compass. He undertakes big projects, that require business acumen and economic skill such as the ability to forecast wool prices and rights to quarries. He does not simply sit in a room meditating and humming. But how does he know what is right?

Part III – Moral Systems

How do we know what is right? Can’t we ask someone? Why would someone else know and we would not? Perhaps they have lived longer, read more, experienced more, but we all know that no one can experience enough to know the answers to the complex questions we face. Said a different way, at what age are you a sage?

Only we can answer the questions for ourselves. And in order to answer the questions for ourselves – we must reference something. Some touch stone. A center.

To paraphrase David Foster Wallace, in his famous “This is Water” speech, – there is a secret in day-to-day existence. We all worship. There is no such thing as not worshiping – and the only case for worshiping something like God, Allah, or the Wiccan mother goddess is pretty much anything else will eat you alive. If money is where you place your focus, you will never have enough. If you focus on your looks, you will die a thousand deaths before you go.

You do not need to believe in God, Allah or the Wiccan Mother Goddess to ask questions. To get outside your own head. And once you get outside your own head, temptations that can lead to terrible life changing consequences can seem small.

The people who are able to do this, who can see the bigger picture and realize that their own hunger, pain, or self-interest are not the only thing at play are the people we call heroes. They are all over the world and wear all sorts of different clothes, sometimes they look like superheroes on the big screen, sometimes they are your family members getting up before dawn to advance some project that will help put some food on the table, sometimes it is a monk who wants to rebuild a church in a fictional work. Philip’s ability to bring God into the world, to make hard things better for people, to build something beautiful where there was previously something ugly – showcases how to separate right from wrong.

Forgetting to Listen

Kate Murphy’s “You’re Not Listening” is a reminder that in the age of everyone having a voice, it helps if there is someone listening. The book is filled with practical wisdom that has already paid dividends for me. However, at times, the book does tip into the feelings over reality territory that feels so ever present in our culture.

People have often told me, “you are a really good listener.” I just thought I was curious. I have long been fascinated with how people interact. Why people do what they do. What they choose to reveal and what they choose to conceal – from each other and from themselves. So, when I picked up Kate’s book, I did it with the intent to uphold my preexisting opinion – I AM in fact listening and this book is for all my friends and family who would never pick it up themselves. I was wrong. Somewhere along the way, in this busy and chaotic life, I stopped listening.

Where had I gone wrong? At some point, I went from being curious about other people to having things to say. I spend a lot of time reading, learning, listening and reflecting on content like books, podcasts, and media. And when I have an opportunity to bring my sharpened discussion points to a conversation with friends and family, I do. But this comes with an unexpected cost. My explanatory stance has not yielded me with an ever growing contact list of people reaching out to get my opinion on issues – it might be doing just the opposite.

People when confronted with someone who “knows more,” shift into status mode. They try to save face and appear more knowledgeable, take the moral high ground, or become defensive. The conversation does not become one of fascination and exploration between two people who know about different things in the world as I so often hear in podcasts (yes, like the Joe Rogan Experience), but instead it becomes trapped contention. People shift from curiosity to the need to score points.

In the short time since I have read Kate Murphy’s book, I have shifted how I approach conversations. My goal previously, if I had been asked and if I had been forced to crystallize it, might have been to have interesting conversations. I felt it was my duty to bring and share things from the world that were interesting. This is easy because I find the world incredibly fascinating and ceaselessly amazing. Just the fact that water falls from the sky periodically is enough to blow me away. But now I have a new goal, and it is…hard to define.

I want people to share. I want people to feel heard. I want people to walk away from conversations with a smile on their face because for the first time in a long time they felt heard. This sounds mushy and vague and somewhat nebulous as I write it – and perhaps that is my failure as a writer, because what I have in my head is much clearer. Conversations change temperature when you ask a follow up question instead of sharing something about yourself after someone has finished speaking.

The whole book is worth reading (and rereading perhaps) but the chapter that stood out to me the most was “Supporting, Not Shifting, the Conversation.” That is in effect, what I have been writing about. Over the last 5 years I have become someone who shifts, instead of supports the conversation. All the while, feeling like I was supporting the entire conversation because I would talk endlessly about whatever issues were relevant, but in effect, I was taking away from others abilities to share and learn about themselves.

The book at times shifts a bit close to the feelings over reality territory. “Reality is perception” is a popular cultural thesis – aka Expressive Individualism. Roughly defined as what you feel is real because you feel it. This idea is true, but only half true. Your feelings are true and important, but there is also a shared world outside of your feelings and your perspective, and that is reality. A person’s ability to sync with reality is one way to define mental health. 90% of this book might be used to defend the “reality is perception” notion, but I don’t believe Kate is making that argument.

There is a great short film on YouTube called, “It’s not about the nail.” Sometimes it feels like this book is an argument that “it’s not about the nail.” Kate differentiates herself from this occasionally in the book. And the very last chapter is important, “When to Stop Listening.” As with most things, it comes down to each conversation and each reader to differentiate when, who, and how they listen.

17/21 – well worth the money and the read.

Face Masks and Communication

Photo by Polina Tankilevitch from Pexels

How are masks changing communication? 

Some studies estimate as much as 93% of communication is nonverbal. I think the number is much lower – but we do send many communication signals nonverbally. The most information dense area of nonverbal communication is people’s facial expressions. Because of COVID-19, all of a sudden, everyone has half of their face covered. We have unwittingly entered into an unmeasured experiment.

For a more in depth dive on this I like Markham Heid’s piece over on Elemental, “Face masks hide what words can’t say”.

The other day I experienced this first hand. A routine interaction in my office building escalated to a lecture from a stranger on proper behavior – something I have never experienced. (We were both wearing face masks. The lesson was on…rudeness? Not sure.)

This was a completely foreign situation for me and I blame the mask. Perhaps our face says more than we know. 

Have you had any strange communication experiences with masks?