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Happy International Day of Peace, Alberto and Maria!

Thanks to a crude bomb that just exploded in a dumpster in New York, much of the world learned that the United Nations General Assembly is preparing to convene in New York, as it does it does every year at this time. What much of the world does not know is that at the same time the U.N. sponsors an annual International Day of Peace “devoted to strengthening the ideals of peace, both within and among all nations and peoples.”

1-multiGiven that I write a blog about world peace, I’m a big fan of this day. This year, I will celebrate it in another country. I’m also a big fan of travel. I believe that war is often (though not always) the result of old grievances and common fears being nurtured and ignited by politicians eager to preserve power and prestige for themselves and wealth for their friends. I recognize that any interaction that results in armed conflict is complicated, and that many people try to do what is best. However, my own reading of history tells me that “bloody few” armed conflicts were ever noble or unavoidable; the only thing they all have in common is that they were bloody.

Those of us not in politics have few ways to steer the human race away from the machinery of war. One of those is travel. As we spend time with others who are currently demonized, or who once were, we learn to question the assumptions about other nations, religions, races, continents, and what ever else you have when you describe “those people” in terms vile enough to make the average citizen believe that they must die. Of course, you can’t just get on a bus or plane and go somewhere. You need to interact.

roadYou need to try to drive up a road that your GPS should never have thought was a road in the first place. You need to try to turn around on a steep, narrow hairpin curve and manage to get your rental car stuck with its nose in the dirt and its ass two feet off the ground while your tires spin. You need to hike down the hill, stand out on a highway, and hope that some decent people will stop and give you a hand.

Odds are they will. If you are lucky, someone like Alberto and Maria will pull over cautiously, looking nervously at their daughter in the back seat. They will see how sweaty and frustrated you are, and ask what is wrong in a language of which you speak only a hundred words quite poorly. You will figure out that they speak no English, but you might manage to convey carro for car and espouso for husband and point up the hill. If you are very lucky Alberto will say “cima?” very clearly, like he cannot believe both the car and husband are up there, and you will recognize his word for “on top of” from your hours with Rosetta Stone and you will nod.

On a good day, Alberto and Maria will take it from there. They will drive their old car up the road that brought you to a standstill, chuckle with sympathy when they see your predicament, and gesture to the two of you to help them lift your car and literally set its rear end down in a better place. While you marvel that it is even possible, it is done. You will try to press some money into their hands, helpless to thank them any other way, and they will not want your it, at least not until you insist. Maria will give you a hug and, as she does, you and she will both have tears in your eyes, brought on by the intensity of the exchange you have managed without a single word. They will drive off and you will never see them again.

c_norman_rockwell_do_unto_others_2But later that night, as you read about the ideals of learning to coexist with your fellow humans, you will think of them, and understand how one can travel for world peace.

So, Happy International Day of Peace, Alberto and Maria. May others always treat you with the same kindness that you showed to us. And happy Peace Day, as well, to your seven billion brothers and sisters, most of whom have needed help at least once or twice and, in turn, have helped a stranger or two along their way.

 

 
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Posted by on September 21, 2016 in being better, empathy, peace

 

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Do less harm

Is a course of action better if it results in less harm? Most people would say yes, at least until they are confronted with the reality of the choices made by those who struggle to improve the world without making it perfectly right.

What am I talking about here? Well, drug addiction and educating women in Afghanistan and preventing pedophiles from molesting children and female genital mutilation and pretty much everything else I’d rather not discuss or think about. It turns out that there is a lot of icky stuff in the world, and it’s hard to make it any of it go away.

Enter the British news magazine “The Economist.” It shows up every week, and recently I read about the plight of Aziz Amir, an Afghan cardiologist trying to raise funds for an all-female university in Kabul. Dr. Amir particularly wants to offer medical training to women in a world where many females will risk death rather than visit a male practitioner. He knows that some families who would never allow their daughters to attend a coeducational college might relent and allow them to attend his university. But foreigners are reluctant to support gender-segregated education.

life lessons1I agree with the foreigners. I believe that by studying and working together, young males and females learn to respect each other as human beings. But I also agree with Dr. Amir. He is trying hard to make the world better, in a way that will work. My high-minded ideals matter little in a situation in which many girls will be denied any schooling and many women will not have access to any medical care. The issue seems to me to be about whether I am going to look at this through my own eyes, or through the eyes of the girls of Afghanistan.

A few pages later I was drawn into an article about Stop it Now, a group dedicated to reducing the sexual molestation of children. This practical group runs a hotline for pedophiles, and has been criticized for being “offender friendly”. In fact, the group is trying to understand what can be done to prevent pedophiles from acting on their desires, and getting such information requires talking to potential offenders with compassion, and trying to offer them realistic ways of coping. Other similar groups face related challenges by offering confidentiality to those seeking help.

Of course I agree with those who never, ever want the identity of a child molester to be kept hidden. And yet I understand those who point out that if you take that approach, you have effectively decided not to offer assistance to those seeking ways to behave better. Do you really want to do that?

The issue here seems to me to be about whether I am even capable of looking at the world through the eyes of a potential child molester. Am I?

How about seeing the world through the eyes of parents who would insist on mutilating their own baby daughter’s genitals? I can think of few actions I personally consider more despicable, and yet I have come to learn that these parents accept this religious procedure as necessary to their daughter’s upright moral behavior in later life. Luckily, even a tiny symbolic prick with a knife often will suffice for the parents, but a modern doctor willing to perform such a ceremony is understandably condemned. Unable to find a doctor, the parents then turn to non-medical religious personnel who insist on performing a far more horrific procedure.

It seems like what I am talking about here in every case is harm reduction. So I was surprised when a quick little search showed me that the term harm reduction, according to the Harm Reduction Coalition, is actually “a set of practical strategies and ideas aimed at reducing negative consequences associated with drug use. Harm Reduction is also a movement for social justice built on a belief in, and respect for, the rights of people who use drugs.” Those working in this field accept that “licit and illicit drug use is part of our world” and they choose to work to minimize its harmful effects.

wise and quietSo the term harm reduction is about practical ways to improve the lives of drug users? That sounds like, you know, once again looking at the problem through the eyes of the ones you are trying to help.

I’m starting to see a common theme. I can look into my own heart and try to make the world a better place. Or I can dare to experience the world through the heart of another human, one as imperfect as me, and allow myself and others to try improve their bad situation using compassion instead of my personal sense of how the world should be.

It’s that old empathy thing again. It just keeps on showing up everywhere, even in “The Economist.”

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on August 31, 2016 in empathy

 

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A gesture of peace?

peace 1No, that can’t be right.

Every once in awhile you read something so bizarre that you do a sort of mental double take. This happened the other day when I read that the classic hippie peace symbol from the sixties had its origins in satanic worship. What?

Well, it turns out that a fairly common misconception is that the peace symbol is based on the Nero cross, once used to represent the torture of Christians by the Romans. A few years ago the Huffington Post carried an article about a Christian school in Holland that destroyed 3,000 of its calendars when a student in one picture was discovered to be wearing the symbol on his jacket.

Thank you That's a Good Sign

But, the misconception simply isn’t true. According to the Peace Day website, the peace sign first appeared on letters from the Direct Action Committee Against Nuclear War after it was designed in 1958 by British artist Gerald Holtom for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). The design came from superimposing the semaphore letters “N” for nuclear and “D” for disarmament over each other.

The other common peace sign is a hand gesture in which the index and middle fingers are raised and parted, while the other fingers are clenched and the hand is held with the palm facing outward. It was originally used to symbolize V for victory in Britain during WWII, but by the 1960s, the “V sign” became widely used as a symbol of peace. As a victory sign, the symbol’s origins do include a story involving satanic worship, but not the way one might think. It was well know in Britain that Hitler’s inner circle was fascinated by the darker sides of mysticism, and British occultists were sure that the Nazi swastika was based on an ancient evil symbol. The story is that in 1941, Aleister Crowley, a British occultist, suggested using the V-sign as a magical foil to counteract the swastika, and that the usage caught on from there.

peace sign handThe story could be true, as Crowley not only had contacts in British intelligence, he actually worked as a consultant for them to help them better understand what Hitler might be hearing from his astrologers and other mystic advisors. The very idea of the hand symbol for peace being derived from seeking a magic symbol to counteract the evils of the Third Reich is appealing. Wouldn’t it be nice if, as we casually use it today, it could help ward off some of the evils of our times as well.

 
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Posted by on July 24, 2016 in writing

 

More in Common

This post is barely about recently murdered British Member of Parliament Jo Cox.

That’s because it’s kind of about how the book x0 was supposed to take place in Saudi Arabia, where my book’s hero, the oil hunting geophysicist Lola, was going to run up against all manner of things she did not understand or agree with, but as a budding telepath she was also going to learn that she had far more in common with those around her than she knew.

peace1Only the book ended up being about Nigeria instead. You see, in 2010, when I started to write it, Americans on the whole considered Nigerians scarier than Arabs. I had just taken a job with a Nigerian oil company where I often worked late in a common room and couldn’t help but overhear the phone calls of my young, male Nigerian co-workers as they called home. These “nefarious” young men spent their free time helping their younger siblings study for exams, assuring their mothers that they were eating well, and telling their girlfriends how much they missed them. I watched them struggle to overcome physical disabilities, inadequate training, and prejudice while noticing that all of that was usually overshadowed to them by their worries for those back home.

And I thought, we could not be more different demographically, and yet how is it that the same things occupy our hearts and minds? It was an eye opening revelation. So, thanks to a handful of Nigerian geologists, Lola went on to have telepathic experiences in Africa, and part way through writing her story I added this to my dedication:

to my Nigerian coworkers and friends, with thanks for reminding me every day how the ways we are all alike are so much bigger than the ways we are different

But this post is only kind of about x0.

That’s because according to The New Yorker’s beautifully done coverage of Jo Cox’s funeral, Brendan Cox spoke about how his late wife had —

“come to symbolize something much bigger in our country and in our world, something that is under threat—her belief in tolerance and respect, her support for diversity and her stand against hatred and extremism, no matter where it comes from. Across the world we’re seeing forces of division playing on people’s worst fears, rather than their best instincts, trying to divide our communities, to exploit insecurities, and emphasize not what unites us but what divides us.”

It was an eloquent tribute, made all the more fitting given that the words she used in her first speech in parliament were

“[we] have far more in common than that which divides us.”

This blog is about the fact that I never heard of Jo Cox before her murder, although I wish that I had. I’d like to write a dozen pieces about her, even though I’d stay away from the subject of Britain leaving the EU because it seems to me to be an internal decision that the people of Britain were entitled to make.

No, more than anything, this post is about Jo Cox’s core values.

And it is about how I believe with all my heart that what she said holds the secret to world peace.

others

 

 
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Posted by on June 30, 2016 in Nigeria, peace

 

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It’s a VUCA world out there, people ….

person of interest2I’m a big fan of the TV show “Person of Interest” and last night I watched the long awaited first episode of Season 5. It has turned into a story about two warring supercomputers, one of which is good. Good supercomputer had to be totally rebooted last night and as it became reacquainted with its human helpers, it considered the amount of death and mayhem they had inflicted during the fight for goodness. To no science fiction readers’ surprise, it ended up deeming them every bit as bad as the bad guys.

The supercomputer has a point. When does what you are fighting for become irrelevant due to the amount of carnage and pain you have inflicted? Is the answer really “never”?

Enter an article in my to-be-read file called “The Madness of Modern War” published on the blog Alternet and written last month by William Astore. I stumbled on it this morning and it fed right into my funk about the moral ambiguities of fighting for peace. It begins

Since 9/11, can there be any doubt that the public has become numb to the euphemisms that regularly accompany U.S. troops, drones, and CIA operatives into Washington’s imperial conflicts across the Greater Middle East and Africa? Such euphemisms are meant to take the sting out of America’s wars back home. Many of these words and phrases are already so well known and well worn that no one thinks twice about them anymore.

fighting2Things do have a way of coming together like this, don’t they? The truth is, life under the watchful eye of good computer would be a whole lot nicer than human life on bad computer’s watch. And life in the freedom loving  U.S.A., for all of its faults, is orders of magnitude better than anyone’s life under the rule of the Islamic State.

So exactly how horribly is one morally entitled to behave in order to achieve an outcome destined to provide more freedom and joy for all?

I fall in the camp that believes there are limits. Something you do remains something you have done, and it stretches your capacity to do the unthinkable. I worry that good guys can become bad guys by imitating them. I think that part of a moral compass includes having lines you will not cross, and directions you will not go.

Let me be clear. I will fight for my own life and my liberty, and thank the others who do it for me. But I will not pay any price to purchase those things, and I like to think that I have the courage to accept that.

Peace2You don’t think you agree? If your life, or your freedom, required you to push a button and wipe out every living creature in Australia, would you do it? Would you let someone else do it for you? How about just half of Australia? Just a quarter of it? Okay, exactly how much of Australia are you willing to destroy? How about if we change the country to Somalia? Syria? Sweden?

It’s a messy question, isn’t it? As a species we can identify some actions clearly on one side of the line and others clearly on the other, but it is all that grey area in-between that gets us into so much trouble. How about we begin by at least agreeing that there is a line. That’s a start.

William Astore concluded his article with

If the gray zone offers little help clarifying America’s military dilemmas, what about VUCA? It’s an acronym for volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous, which is meant to describe our post-9/11 world. Of course, there’s nothing like an acronym to take the sting out of any world. But as an historian who has read a lot of history books, let me confess that, to the best of my knowledge, the world has always been, is now, and will always be VUCA.

Well said.

 

 
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Posted by on May 15, 2016 in peace

 

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Too much!

say and learnI drew this up this in my head the other night when I couldn’t fall asleep. This is my brain on overload.

So you can see that I had this post in mind before I read Danae Wulfe’s brilliant post Too Many Books but she gets full credit for getting me to sit down today and write this. I am bursting out like the weeds on my front lawn. I am filled with ideas to write about. Blogs, short stories, and wonderful new twists for the book I am working on now all pop in and out of my head. Are they all that great? I’m sure they are not, but I wouldn’t know because I haven’t found the time to write down half of them. The point is that I have SO MUCH to say I can’t contain myself. It must be the spring air.

Then I walk into a book store, or have a conversation with another writer I respect. (I did both last week and I think that is what set me off.) Suddenly, I realize that I haven’t read anything recent. Or important. Not to mention keeping up with the news which any sensible person should be doing these days. Then there is research for my volunteer position, professional growth in my real life job, studying up on how to grow a garden in the mountains and okay, you get the idea. How can I possibly be this old and still not know so many things?

life lessons14My yoga/qigong brain tells me to take a few breaths, it will all be okay. The problem is that my monkey mind is considering staging a coup because it is starting to suspect that all these meditative arts are the main reason I don’t seem to have enough time to write or learn as much as I want. A rebellious faction tucked deep in the cerebral cortex thinks I need to be quiet and learn more. I seem to have a populist revolt going on over in the right brain that favors running away to an obscure foreign country and just writing my heart out. The parent in my head thinks I really out to finish unpacking the rest of my crap before I do either. And the child in my brain would just like to sit down and color for awhile.

It’s a nice problem to have, isn’t it? There are too many things I want to do. People rely on me. I’m curious about my world. Okay, okay, I recognize that there are worse situations in which to be. Still, what I need is a forty-eight hour day in which to get everything done.

A tiny voice in the back of my brain whispers to me. “You can have a forty-eight hour day, you know, any time you want. Just cram two days together and call it one day. What’s to stop you?”

I have to laugh. Yeah, it’s not really the same but I could do that and maybe I’d feel better; like I just had a long nap and got a whole lot more done that day.

“It’s kind of brilliant,” I say to the tiny voice. “Maybe I should put you in charge for awhile.”

It whispers back to me. “Don’t worry. I already am.”

 
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Posted by on April 24, 2016 in being better, writing

 

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Back to Building a World of Telepaths

I’m finally picking up momentum on book six of the 46. Ascending collection. I can always tell because that is when I start to have fun writing the story. I work with a very loose outline, and discovering what it going to really happen in my book is, well, my idea of a good time.

This final book was always suppose to be about all five of the main characters introduced in the previous novels. I joked about writing five prequels and then the real story. I still think that is the way it is going to go, but so far I’m pretty immersed in the telepathy part.

x0 was about empathy and compassion and how sensing others thoughts and feelings would ultimately make for world peace. e5 introduces my first evil telepaths, and I am having too much fun devising what set of circumstances would lead a person to become less empathetic as they learn more of how others feel and think.

emI’m lucky to be close to someone who is in the process of getting her Master’s Degree in Social Work right now, and given my journalism schooling and penchant for writing, I’ve been called upon to proofread a few papers. I enjoy doing it, but can’t help gaining perspective as I read. I am learning more about the concept of privilege  — white, male, western, hetero, cis, wealthy, healthy, pretty, young — there are a lot of variations here — but the concept that I am ordained by God or nature to be better than you seems to hold the key to failing to care about you at all. Why wouldn’t a human who is certain of his (or her) greater importance be deaf to the pain of those lesser? Might they just find it annoying? I think it depends on exactly how superior these people think they are. Maybe if they had a superpower, like telepathy …..

This line of thought has also given me a new lens with which to view current events and with which to better understand history. My husband is reading a biography of Charles Darwin right now, in part because Darwin will also play a role in the book I am writing. He recently read about Darwin’s dismay at economists using his theory of natural selection  to support Thomas Robert Malthus’ economic theory. In a nutshell, Malthus postulated that human population would always grow to exceed the food supply and that the poor and the weak needed to be allowed to starve so that the stronger humans could thrive. It would be an understatement to describe the theory as controversial, but can’t you see vestiges of it in some current policies? 

I like books that make me think.  I like to write books that make me think. I’m glad that just because I make up worlds with superheroes in them doesn’t mean there isn’t room for a good look at humanity and a chance to wonder about what makes it tick.

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on April 4, 2016 in empathy, writing

 

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