Monday, November 25, 2013

Siren and Flashing Lights

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I pulled over to the curb to let the speeding police car go by as I was on my way to the dog park with my yellow lab Ben. But instead of whizzing on by, the flashing lights pulled up behind me.  Truly puzzled I asked the officer, “What’s the problem?”  He told me my license plates are expired.  I told him that can’t be because I always take care of that kind of thing as soon as I get the notice.  To which he responded sarcastically, “I wouldn’t be pulling you over if I hadn’t verified with Madison that your plates are indeed expired.”

As I waited in the car for the officer to return with my citation I remembered a note I wrote to myself after a previous unpleasant experience.  My note said, “Getting upset is so unproductive.”  I don’t always remember that wise conclusion, but bumping into the law the other day actually became a blessing for it caused me to pause and reflect on the fact that I have been too narrowly focused of late.  Loosing my vehicle registration form in a mess of papers was the proof along with other things I have let slide.  

Lately I have been bent on finishing David Sloan Wilson’s book “The Neighborhood Project – Using Evolution to Improve My City One Block at a Time.”  After I found my registration form and wrote the check, I picked up the phone and called the library to extend the due date on Wilson’s book.  It was so easy to do and relieved me of much unnecessary stress.  It makes me wonder how much else I could let go of, or extend till a later date.  Ironically the siren and flashing lights verified what I am reading.  Life is a pinball machine and how I react to what I bump into determines my progress or decline.  The ability to reflect on my experiences is the vital spark that transforms, and being flexible in how I respond determines my success or failure.  And ultimately I see I am still in process—learning to trust more and remembering that all good things can and do take time.   

Thank God for Ben for he always makes sure I get out EVERYDAY.  Which reminds me we are way overdue for a good long off leash trek somewhere.

What if we could always stop and reflect when bumping into unpleasantness?                     

Monday, November 18, 2013

So Who Are We?

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David Sloan Wilson shares some of Teilhard de Chardin’s (1881 – 1955) ideas on how we have come to be who we currently are.  Even though the Catholic Church forbid this priest, paleontologist and mystic from publishing his work, friends did so after his death.  David Sloan Wilson writes, “For Teilhard, the vital spark that transformed us from a mere species to a new evolutionary process is the capacity for reflection…the power acquired by a consciousness to turn in upon itself, to take possession of itself as an object endowed with its own particular consistency and value…to know oneself…to know that one knows. …  For Teilhard, there had to be an atmosphere of trust for reflection to get started in the first place.” 

Wilson attributes modern dysfunctional social life to a lack of trust in one another—think bitter political disputes for which the only goal is to beat one’s opponent.  He states, “Left unattended, cultural evolution will take us where we don’t want to go.”  Small groups, with trustworthy social partners are seen as essential to counteract dysfunction.  He uses the metaphor of the human immune system for it is profoundly cooperative requiring a team of agents performing different functions that are in constant communication with one another.  Alternatively, a dysfunctional immune system eventually destroys its host.  He says what’s needed is a meaning system that respects factual knowledge as scientists and scholars do, and then use that knowledge to implement values.  To sustain a functional social life we must listen, reflect and give meaning to our goals.

One of the factual studies Wilson cites is of a transformational first grade teacher who taught school for thirty-four years in a poor neighborhood.  As her former students became adults they were measured for grade of education completed, occupational attainment, and condition of their home.  Sixty-four percent of her students scored in the highest category, compared with only 29 percent for students of the other teachers.  When the other teachers were asked how this first grade teacher taught they said with a lot of love by expressing confidence in her children, vowing that no child would leave her class without being able to read, staying after school to help struggling children, and sharing her lunch with students who forgot theirs.   Sloan says gardeners would understand these stunning results since they “…know that a small difference in how the seedlings are tended can make a huge difference in their yield at the end of the season.”

Looking back over my 70 years I can see how small groups of people helped me evolve and overcome the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.  But I believe my greatest assist came when I reflected and wrote each evening for three years as I struggled with my aging parents care needs.  And Teilhard was definitely with me during that difficult time for when life got especially tough I would stumble across his prayer, “Above All Trust in the Slow Work of God.”

What if we all belonged to a trusted small helping group and reflected each day on our struggles?  

Monday, November 11, 2013

Who's in Your Neighborhood?

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Using science, technology and evolutionary theory, David Sloan Wilson listens to and reflects on his city of Binghamton, NY. His reflections lead him to ask the right questions and to develop a survey for which he enlisted the help of an enthusiastic school superintendent who is interested in helping children become healthy, productive adults. This allowed Wilson to survey thousands of public school students. He asked them to rate themselves anonymously on a scale of 1 (this doesn’t describe me at all) to 5 (this describes me exactly) with the following statements:

I think it is important to help other people.
I resolve conflicts without anyone getting hurt.
I tell the truth even when it is not easy.
I am helping make my community a better place.
I am trying to help solve social problems.
I am developing respect for other people.
I am sensitive to the needs and feelings of others.
I am serving others in the community.

Wondering if students would honestly describe themselves on the survey, Wilson did a GIS (Geographical Information System) map of the city. He rated such things as Halloween and Christmas decorations and activities; he left ‘lost’ stamped letters lying in neighborhoods seeing which ones were subsequently put in the mail; he took photographs of different neighborhoods and noted garage sales. Social games were played with the school children who took the survey with game titles such as Dictator, Ultimatum and Prisoner’s Dilemma. The web of causation connecting survey results, holiday decorations/activities, lost letters returned, photographs of neighborhoods, and social game results all correlated.

Reflecting back on my own life has led me to know how critical it was to ask the right questions to change the direction of my life, even leaving the church of my birth. Wilson states: “The eternal conflict between benefitting oneself and benefitting one’s group, which suffuses religion and literature, also suffuses the biological world.” But he also notes, “Religious believers aren’t just exhorted to obey the dictates of their faith; they are locked into a system that makes it difficult to do otherwise. In just the same way scientists and scholars are locked into a system that makes it difficult not to seek the truth.” They question.

I shall continue reading “The Neighborhood Project – Using Evolution to Improve My City One Block at a Time.”

What if we all learned the right questions to ask that lead us to become more healthy and productive citizens?

Monday, November 4, 2013

Life in a Pinball Machine

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As I am reading David Sloan Wilson’s book, “The Neighborhood Project – Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time,” I find it useful to have 70 years behind me.  Initially I did not like Wilson comparing life, his and all life, to the randomness of a metal pinball bouncing into or off of something else.  But the more I thought about it the more I understood and even liked his metaphor.  I see how it fits with his definition that evolution is about randomness, differences and change.

Looking back over my life I understand how my actions, and the actions of many others had the pinball effect, changing the direction of my life.  It ends the idea of control.  It shines a light on the wise counsel to accept whatever is as a foregone conclusion while also defining the starting point for change and growth.  It all sounds so simple now.  It wasn’t.  But I am still here.

I am early into Wilson's book.  He is setting the stage for what is to come through story.  First there is the story of the paternalistic George F. Johnson, a shoemaker from humble roots who cared for his employees through good wages and working conditions, providing health care, and starting a savings account for every child born to an employee.  He gave the community parks, recreational facilities, and carousels for the children.  I saw in Johnson’s story the difference between the patriarchal versus the caring paternal.  It also reminded me that I really want to see Robert Reich’s (former U.S. Labor Secretary) movie “Inequality for All.”  Then Wilson tells the story of the remarkable water strider’s adaptation to walk on water, but their less than successful group interactions’, compared to the highly successful interactions of wasp colonies. 

The author really wants us to understand his profession as a scientist and evolutionary biologist.  He writes, “I rankle at the way science is understood by the general public, especially when it is portrayed as a sacred body of knowledge presided over by a priestly caste.”  And we are back in the pinball machine again with his statement:  “Every movement made by an organism is based on a physical environmental input, which initiates a physical chain of events inside the organism, which results in the physical movement of the organism—its behavioral output.”  I look forward to reading more about how we adapt, change and grow.

What if we all bumped into the more paternal and maternal among us more often?