Maybe we should be more compassionate

At the end of April I posted on Facebook that I was worried we were losing compassion for folks during the pandemic. That people will need to allocate their risk budget and make tough decisions.

I feel like this has become more and more challenging. This isn’t to say there aren’t people who are doing really stupid stuff like going on a pub crawl after getting tested. But for most people, many of these decisions aren’t so easy. It seems some of the judgement is directed at people who are socioeconomically more vulnerable. Those who can’t take days off, who need to take public transit, who can’t get curb side pickup etc.

Some of it is also directed at people who we don’t understand, people who are afraid of the vaccines for example. While it’s easy to scoff and look down or to want to just say fuck it, I think we should try (as much as one can given everyone’s energy is quite depleted with everything going on) to be compassionate. To understand where it’s coming from. We might uncover something. We may not be able to convince them to change their minds, but maybe we can start by understanding.

“Compassion is the radicalism of our time.”

Dalai Lama

It’s easy (or easier at least) to point to others and to tell others to be more compassionate. Dealing with our own lack of compassion…. that’s always tougher. We always have reasons. They hurt us, they made bad decisions, they are unworthy of our compassion because of their privilege, wealth, status.

I’ve been trying recently to let go of some of that frustration and anger towards others who wronged me in the past.

One thing that’s helped is to detach the compassion from the “being right” part of it. They were perhaps hurtful, they were perhaps wrong, they are perhaps unaware of their incompetence, but none of those things mean they are not worthy of compassion.

To the contrary, it may mean they are even more worthy of compassion, for, like all of us, they are in pain. Be it pain from past events, circumstances, attachment, loss or even more common in pain from the existential need for “more” that it seems our genes has given our species. This insatiable appetite which makes every moment feel lacking if it’s not somehow “better” than the previous ones.

I don’t think I’ve succeeded yet…. And perhaps I never will…. But sometimes I catch myself, and I try to be more compassionate.

Linear Solutions to Exponential Problems

Humanity is facing many problems, immediately there’s COVID, longer (but not that long) term there’s Climate Change.

“Compound interest is the most powerful force in the universe.”

Probably not Einstein, but it sounds smarter if I say it’s Einstein

Ontario has decided to reopen, even if the projections are bad. It seems we keep closing and reopening and hoping that we can keep things under control. It’s easy to shit on the the people making these decisions, but regardless I plan on doing it here.

The challenge we have with COVID is the same as climate change. It’s that our linear thinking, that if we close down X or we lower Y doesn’t match up to the exponential world.

An easy way to visualize this is with regards to speed in relation to deaths in car accidents. Kinetic energy is equal to ½mv² with the v² being the important part here. So take a look at the chart below.

Basically, a small change in speed, causes a huge fucken change in probability of death. Now before you think this is just because of some correlation between humans dying and some magic speed. Spoiler it’s basically the same as just x²

By now you’ve probably surmised that COVID and climate change are exponential problems.

And while I’d love to try my best to surmise why humans are bad at it, many people have done it far better than I ever could.

“The greatest shortcoming of the human race is the inability to understand the exponential function”

Al Bartlett

There’s a good video, it’s long and not the best produced one, but it’s by Al Barlett and he does a really good job of explaining why we’re fucked.

His main focus is overpopulation, but even if you just stick that lens and not carbon emissions is pretty easy to see that population growth and it’s inability to keep going up will mean massive changes for how we live. We take for granted now that we can have children, as many as we want really, but that’s going to change, and it’s going to change quickly.

The same will happen with climate change and the same is happening with COVID. It’s nothing and then all at once.

At least from our limited ability to perceive the “nothing” that becomes this “all at once”

Angsty songs & maybe we should change schools as kids

There are many songs that just scream teenage angst, and I feel like Lazy Eye by Silver Sun Pickups is one of them. And I don’t mean angsty in a bad or derogatory way, just in a, this captures the feelings well. Even the music video feels like exactly what as a 15 year old you think 18 year olds do.

It often felt like during my school years I was just waiting for time to pass by. To finally finish school to go to the fun parts of life. It’s interesting in a way how we portray schools. I wanted to change schools and I think many people often are stuck in shitty situations at school. Bullying, boredom, bad teachers, etc etc. But the common answer is that you need to suffer thru it. I think it has a perverse effect later in life where people don’t leave bad jobs or bad relationships because well, all they know is that they need to suffer thru this.

In reality, if you’re in a bad situation like a bad job, a bad relationship, toxic friendships, etc. you should just leave it. You don’t need to stay and suffer. I worry we’re often teaching kids they need to suffer thru things. Oh sure there’s a certain amount of “grit” that you need. You shouldn’t just drop everything once you face a simple challenge, but it almost feels like it builds in learned hopelessness. Like the elephant that could rip out the stake holding him down but doesn’t because he “learned” that he was powerless at a young age.

In a way, right now feels like that. We’re helpless in that (most of us anyway) can’t impact COVID 19. We can’t work on vaccine distribution or fixing the clusterfuck that is federal and provincial co-operation(1)or lack thereof. Sure we can do our part in staying on the couch. But it’s not the same.

And so in a way, the “learned helplessness” is not always a bad thing. If we reframe it as “acceptance”, well that changes everything doesn’t it? We need to accept the current circumstances and our ability (or lack thereof) to influence it.

So like most things:

“The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.”

Niels Bohr

In the meantime we can listen to angsty songs about waiting for the real world to begin (again):

[Verse 1]
I’ve been waiting
I’ve been waiting for this moment all my life
But it’s not quite right
And this ‘real’
It’s impossible if possible at whose blind word?
So clear but so unheard

[Verse 2]
I’ve been waiting
I’ve been waiting for this silence all night long
It’s just a matter of time
To appear sad
With the same ‘ol decent lazy eye fixed to rest on you
Aim free and so untrue

[Chorus]
Everyone’s so intimately rearranged
Everyone’s so focused clearly with such shine
Everyone’s so intimately rearranged
Everyone’s so focused clearly with such shine

Locked and loaded
Still the same ol’ decent lazy eye straight through your gaze
That’s why I said I relate
I said we relate, it’s so fun to relate

[Bridge]
It’s the room, the sun and the sky
The room, the sun and the sky

[Guitar Solo]

[Outro]
I’ve been waiting
I’ve been waiting for this moment…

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 or lack thereof

The First Noble Truth

In Buddhism, the first noble truth is that “all existence is dukkha” with dukkha usually being translated to suffering. But can also be understood as being incapable of being satisfied. That while there is the “common” suffering of old age, illness and death, there’s also this yearning or craving for more that we can’t satisfy.

“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.”

Albert Einstein

We keep having these expectations and these hopes. We expect that this new shiny thing will bring us happiness, a new game, a new car, a new “thing”, a new relationship, a promotion, a bigger house, a vacation, etc…

But it never does. We’re always wandering and craving for these impermanent things and transitory states that are ephemeral. We continually grasp at the shadow of happiness, and are left disappointed.

Bookshelves and what they tell others about ourselves

I used to have many physical books and bookshelves along with DVDs prominently displayed in my living room. A colleague mentioned their bookshelves recently and while there is a quote I like:

“We enjoy dreaming up a library that reflects every one of our interests and every one of our foibles—a library that, in its variety and complexity, fully reflects the reader we are.” Such a library is “an assembly of titles that, practically and symbolically, serves [to define us].”

Alberto Manguel (via Lucas Cherkewski)

Interestingly enough, that is in part why I gave away all my books and all my DVDs. While yes there was a practical reason to it, I never really re-read a book and the movies I had a copy on a hard drive. The real reason is that I was using it as a way of defining me to others.

At first blush there doesn’t seem to be anything sub-optimal with that, but I realized that for me, it was a vanity project. I wanted to appear erudite (smart, but like, for wankers), to show off my “depth”, how intellectual I was, how well read, how spiritual, how pragmatic, how emotionally mature etc etc.

And the problem with that, with culturing the image you want to project is that, for me anyway, it takes the focus away from being that deep, emotionally mature, intellectual person to giving that perception.

I don’t need folks to see my library, (I need to resist name dropping “smart” books here that would only serve the exact purpose as what the paragraph above talks about) for them to know who I am. They can figure that out relatively quickly.

I understand the appeal of signalling and it’s benefits. Yes it’s easier to know who you’ll have many things in common with. But does that actually grow my understanding of the world? Will it help me be exposed to new ideas and new opinions if I only interact with folks I think are like-minded.

I know that last paragraph is a bit of a jump, from the image we project with our bookshelves to getting out of our filter bubbles. But I think it’s related in that if we want to better understand the world, we need to let others better understand us, and that means not necessarily using simple signalling to categorize and simplify what is at it’s core an incredibly complex individual.

Edit: I realize this may seem like a hit piece against people who have bookshelves prominently displayed. That’s not my intention, if you have bookshelves that’s great, I just wanted to talk about why I no longer do, doesn’t mean I think you’re vain if you have bookshelves.

… That no one can take for us or spare us

I posted a quote a few days back. But I think I should of expanded on what it means to me. To explain why I find that quote appealing.

“We don’t receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us or spare us.”
“On ne reçoit pas la sagesse, il faut la découvrir soi-même, après un trajet que personne ne peut faire pour nous, ne peut nous épargner.”

Marcel Proust

There are a few implications, and they all stem from the last few words, “that no one can take for us, or spare us”.

The first is that it means that we need to accept that we cannot learn, we cannot become wiser, without adversity. We can read all the books, but we won’t find wisdom. We’ll find information, we may even find knowledge, but we won’t find wisdom.

That wisdom has a cost. It has an emotional toll. It has some painful introspection. It may lead to some self delusions that were protecting us shattering.

The second implication is that we cannot transfer wisdom. The corollary is then, that I can’t stop something that needs to happen. To do that is to rob that person of the wisdom it will bring. It’s often a bitter pill to swallow since we’d prefer to protect the individual from the inevitable pain that will accompany this, but at times it’s the only option.

Who am I?

Perhaps I am this stuff here, i.e., the ordered and chaotic collection of molecules that comprise my body and brain.

But there’s a problem. The specific set of particles that comprise my body and brain are completely different from the atoms and molecules than comprised me only a short while (on the order of weeks) ago. We know that most of our cells are turned over in a matter of weeks. Even those that persist longer (e.g., neurons) nonetheless change their component molecules in a matter of weeks.

So I am a completely different set of stuff than I was a month ago. All that persists is the pattern of organization of that stuff. The pattern changes also, but slowly and in a continuum from my past self. From this perspective I am rather like the pattern that water makes in a stream as it rushes past the rocks in its path. The actual molecules (of water) change every millisecond, but the pattern persists for hours or even years. [read more]

Ray Kurzweil

Approximate Answers

“I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I’m not absolutely sure of anything, and many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here, and what the question might mean. I might think about it a little bit, but if I can’t figure it out, then I go on to something else. But I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t have to… I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in the mysterious universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is, as far as I can tell, possibly. It doesn’t frighten me.”

Phillip Richard Feynman