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Random Thoughts: Politics, Spirituality & Labeling

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I am a Christian – and I don’t say that to make anyone uncomfortable or to assert some sort of specialness. Sometimes people wear their religious, or political party affiliations, their positions on a variety of issues like gun ownership or abortion like merit badges on a sash. It gives them a proclaimed identity. In some ways it is akin to a gorilla beating its chest. We want to be seen. To project the image of being special via the labels we wear and the stories we tell about our own virtue and courage – or by naming the groups we dislike or even hate.

There are people I know – good people – who have been caught up in the politics of the day. I’ve gone to church with them. Worked on community and disaster relief projects. I have helped some, and been helped by others. I have had my son taught by them in Sunday School, and have taught some of their children.

It hasn’t always been a natural fit. Our family is of Hispanic extraction and for the past 20 years or so we have mainly been part of Anglo congregations. Our shared faith allowed us to work together with people who were culturally different than us, and even form the basis for some friendships and camaraderie. A sense of brotherhood. But in recent years I find some of those people, even people I have greatly respected, poisoned by the politics of the day. This has caused by wife and I to become more cautious and retiring. My wife has quietly removed most of the members of the church from her Facebook friends list. This includes many we have kept in touch with from other places we have lived, because of their toxic politically driven and sometimes tonally racist posts.

I am saddened and disturbed by this. I have forced myself to try to engage and politely share a more moderate viewpoint. It hasn’t always gone well. I’m not sure if you have ever seen YouTube videos where cats are fighting and a peacemaker dog jumps in to separate the combatants but if you have that’s me. I’m not sure if it’s because I grew up in a house with violence or because I have experienced death and loss but all of this intolerance, narrow-mindedness, tribalism, hate and violence feels dangerous to me. Everyone is walking around with a nuke in their little red wagons and ready to use them.

There is an movie from 1983 called WarGames that I really liked. Matthew Broderick’s character is a young hacker who gets access to WOPR a US military supercomputer that runs simulations of possible outcomes of nuclear war. He believes WOPR is a computer game and starts a nuclear war simulation without realizing that WOPR is tied into the nuclear arsenal. The computer’s AI doesn’t know the difference between the simulation and reality and prepares to launch World War 3.

At the very last moment the computer, with some help from our young hacker, simulates every possible attack combination looking for a ‘win’ and determines that all choices result in mutual destruction. At this point the computer delivers the classic line;

“A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.”

That’s the game it feels like we are playing. Everyone is armed to the teeth – inside and outside the country. The fires of hate are stoked and politicians and others with self-serving agendas keep pressing the fear button. We are convinced that those on ‘the other side’ of every issue are trying to destroy us. We believe this is a life and death struggle with no room for compromise. If history is any guide, and I believe it is, this will eventually end in something we won’t all walk away from.

The reason I mentioned Christianity is because this is incompatible with a belief in a higher power. The scriptures tell us we cannot serve two masters. Either your faith is at the core of who you are, and you use that set of core values as a lens to view everything else – including your politics – or you are not a Christian. If you are using your politics, or your prejudices to interpret your religion, you are looking in the wrong end of the telescope. The same is true of any other religion, humanist or even scientific belief.

If you are using hate, racism, bigotry, your passions about some narrow topic, perverted ideals or selfish interests to bend the lens of TRUTH to fit your ‘truth’ then you are not a true Christian, or Muslim, or scientist, or public servant, or humanitarian or anything else TRUE.

It’s time for each of us to step back and take an honest look at who we are and who we want to be.

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The Broken Puzzle: Alzheimer’s & The Brain

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I’ve been thinking a bit more about how the brain works. I mentioned previously that it seems that for the most part our brains don’t react to the world, so much as react to a model of the world. Well, as I considered this further, I realized it is more likely that instead of a large rigid model of the world, we have multiple chunks of ‘pre-processed data’. Partial models.

I imagine it like this; our world, reality, is like a huge puzzle. No picture on the box. When you open it, you have 100,000 puzzle pieces. Reacting to our world, to all of the stimuli and data in realtime requires a huge amount of processing power. We would not survive our first encounter with danger, or be able to make decisions in a reasonable way if we had to comb through the individual pieces of the puzzle, determine where it fit into the overall picture, and how we should react each time we received new information via our senses.

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What if instead we pre-assemble chunks of the puzzle from the moment we are born? We learn new things and are taught new things that allow us to have enough chunks of the puzzle built and loosely laid out to make a reasonable guess as to the area a piece may fit in. This is much more efficient and flexible.

My musing today is a ‘what if?’ What if Alzheimer’s disease and perhaps other types of dementia, are a breakdown of these chunks of pre-processed data? Or perhaps of the system or ‘index’ that can make that quick ‘this piece fits here’ determination? So I am wondering if the disease breaks up the parts of the puzzle we have solved destroying the relationship. Then when they try to process that flood of input again they are unable to easily process the world in an efficient way.

I’m not a scientist, so this is just my creative brain asking questions.

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The Porch

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You sit in the twilight of a life
that is yet in the late afternoon.

The darkness you fear …
is but a shadow
cast by late summer clouds.

The wheeling ravens
you imagine …
Only brittle leaves
blowing in a steady breeze.

Do not depart
the pleasant porch
sooner than you must.

The falling sun
will paint the sky
in colors
unseen at midday.

From my account on Wattpad about 2019.
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Better Men Than I

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Better men than I now stand
with backs to gauzy veil
then step to mount
the feathered bridge
that arches o’er the dale

their feet once anchored by this clay
swift climb to lambent clouds
with shoulders wrapped in mystery
bright stars upon their brows

they shed the dust of mortal life
it drifts behind like snow
til joyously they stand at last
‘fore gates thrown open wide

by hands of those who went before
to welcome them inside

From my account on Wattpad about 2018.
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Winter’s Trail

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When last you walk on winter’s trail,
and reach the highest snowy pass,
to stare beyond the veil of ice
at hidden valley’s wonder

You’ll have some time to turn your head
and read a tale of slips and falls
rime brightened and inked
on frosty Gaia’s landscape.

A life thus spied, from airy height
is given form by distance,
joys and regrets, once estranged
now bound like storied pages.

No single footprint writes the verse
that tells the traveler’s legend,
each choice, each deed
a word inscribed, to infamy or glory.

I hope that when you reach that place,
you’ll smile at what was written,
turn your heel, pick up the pace
and to far mountain hasten.

From my account on Wattpad a few years ago.
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GIGO & Your Brain

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I’m not sure if it was binge-watching season 4 of Stranger Things but I found myself thinking about the craziness of the world again and decided to pen a few more words.

I am convinced that we are victims of our own brains.

This is something I touched on here in an earlier post. We spend our lives gathering data, learning about the world, learning from other people, and building a model of reality. This unique view of reality becomes the lens we use to see the world. We are not reacting to the world so much as reacting to the model of the world we have in our heads.  I’ve heard this described as the ‘predictive brain.’

Your view through that lens may be accurate or distorted. It can guide you to do worthwhile work and help you to lead a happy life or drag you down a rabbit hole of conspiracy theories, fear, and rage. For the most part, the system has worked well for ‘normal’ people. And by normal, I mean people whose view of reality is good enough to be able to allow them to function in the world.

I’m not a neuroscientist or a psychologist so this is just my sense of things. But when I look at what is going on in the world it fits. Our brains have evolved over considerable time to function as they do. They help us to make sense of the world. To establish order. We make assumptions as to how the world works and when something violates those assumptions, we feel threatened and disoriented. Our understanding of the world may be shaken or even shattered. At this point, our brains may shift into a problem-solving or crisis mode as we try to find our footing or fend off a real or imagined threat.

There is more to unpack here but getting back to why I think we are victims of our own brains.

We live in a time when we are flooded by data. There are facts, alternate facts, information, and disinformation. We are exposed to charismatic and manipulative personalities whose views may appeal to us in ways we don’t understand, so much so that we adopt their views into our own models. Companies, political groups, lobbyists, and other powerful entities may hire psychologists who understand the way our brains work so that they can move us in a desired direction. Governments have long understood the power of ‘spin’ and use it to deflect blame, to hide the truth, sugar coat or demonize ideas. Hostile foreign governments are actively engaged in disinformation campaigns designed to mislead or to use the rifts in our societies to weaken us.

Our brains are absorbing all this data and trying to make sense of it. There is an old concept in computer programming known as GIGO – garbage in, garbage out. Our brain is a computer and, in this context, GIGO tells us that no matter how good you are at processing data, and how magnificent a model of reality you think you have, if the data is flawed, the output will be flawed.

There are a few things we can do to safeguard our minds and root out or correct errors.  The first step is the hardest and that is accepting the possibility that we are not necessarily right about everything. Then we need to reduce the barrage of data we are exposed to by limiting the amount of news and social media we consume.

Next, take a fresh look at your sources of information – are you blindly accepting information as true because it matches what you already believe (confirmation bias)? Or because you have been convinced that you are in imminent danger and some ‘evil’ group or individual is attempting to destroy your world (fear bias)? What is the basis of this belief? Do you have proof or is it hearsay, gossip, or a conspiracy theory popularized on a forum?

Don’t put anything into your brain unless you can verify it isn’t garbage. If in doubt, set it aside. Ask critical questions such as how likely it is that users on a forum or your friend Joe, discovered some massive government conspiracy by reading posts on that forum? Do the people making the assertion have an agenda? What is it about the statement that leads you to believe it is true? How valid is your reasoning?

Try to find a quiet place and let go of all the noise and chaos. Ponder, pray, meditate, play calming music. Take a walk in a beautiful natural setting. Do whatever you can to get to a place in your own mind where you aren’t driven by fear, or manipulation or your own biases.

Listen to people you disagree with. Try to understand where they are coming from. Ask questions without judgment. Be respectful. Consider the things you believe to be true, especially the ones that burden you, or anger you or cause you to be afraid.

No matter how clear the water in a river is, it can be difficult to see the bottom when the surface is agitated. Finding a quiet space in the midst of a chaotic world allows clarity. So go ahead, step down from Defcon 1 and take a breath. Go outside and enjoy the beauty of the world. Spend time with the family. Watch a funny movie.


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The Battle Nobody Wins

people arguing
Image Credit: Wallpaper Cave

If you think what I’m about to say is about you, it isn’t. I am speaking in general terms about the craziness in the world as I see it. We live in a time where posting an opinion on social media easily draws the ire of people who have become increasingly hostile over real and imagined offenses. Often the real offenses are magnified so much that something that should have been a conversation seeking a solution instead attracts swarms of e-warriors ready to do battle to the death. Nothing but total humiliation and destruction of our opponent will satisfy us. It feels like we are in a video game where people vie to score points against the cartoonish figures we create and label. We are good and right, and they are evil and wrong. Listening to people is too much work; instead we create our boxes and trim the people we disagree with until they fit in the box we have already prepared our arguments against. That’s what I hear when people say “the left” and “the right” and of course those who aren’t ‘left enough” or “right enough” are traitors.

When you don’t listen you don’t have to think. You make the people who disagree with your view fit in the box, then take your collection of rocks off the shelf and cast them at the enemy.

This seems like madness to me.

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How We Think

Despite what we think, we don’t usually react to the world around us. The ‘real world’. We react to the unique model of the world we have in our heads. Our experiences help build that model, as do any ideas and dogmas we adopt. We program our brains and then our brains react to events through that programming. This is the reason why people of different political persuasions can look at the same world and see it so differently, and why some believe in wild conspiracy theories that cannot withstand careful examination. We are, each of us, a world unto ourselves. There are some benefits to thinking as we do. We can process things faster without having to minutely analyze each bit of information in realtime. But it is critically important that we take care to evaluate ideas, especially those that appeal to our emotions, before accepting them, and if others have ideas which conflict with our own, we should listen and evaluate them to determine if we need to update our model.