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Wednesday, December 29, 2004

My Dad Is A Stoic

My Dad runs a soup kitchen out of his church, which serves the poor in the lower income area of his home town. Recently he was telling me about all of the different people that come through there. Included are several good people who are simply poor or can't care for themselves, etc. But there are also many drug dealers, pimps, prostitutes, and so on.

They often tell him their problems and seek his advice, but he never actively tries to reform them, or tells them they need to straighten up, or tries to encourage them to get a job, or any of that. He just gives out some coffee and doughnuts each morning. But apparently, this is improving the lives of these people and their neighborhood more than one would think.

One older lady tells my Dad about how she has to prepare things for her passing because she's about to have a hip surgery, and at her age surgeries are harder to come out of. My Dad says, "Yeah, that's good that you're preparing for that. At your age that surgery could be it." Expecting words of encouragement, the lady is taken aback. But his calm and light attitude about the whole thing seems to shift her perspective abruptly and they are soon laughing.

Another lady is complaining about how her grown son always takes advantage of her, and how she has to do everything for him. My Dad says, "If you've been doing that all these years he's not ever going to change, and you're not willing to change, so what good does complaining about it do? Just accept it." She hasn't complained since, and more importantly, it has freed up her mind to focus on more important or productive things.

One man has recently had a heart attack, and according to his wife, had been sitting at home doing nothing, waiting to die and certain that all is hopeless. My Dad eventually gets a chance to speak with him and the man moans, "I'll probably get hit with another attack. I could go at any time - it's all pointless." My nods and says, "Yep, you really could go at any time. I felt the same way after my heart attack. But you know, eventually all that sitting around got old. I figured, well dying or not, I've gotta get up and go do something because this is just boring." A few days later the man came into the church and looked brighter, "Well I'm up and around." he told my Dad, "You were right, that sitting around got really boring."

My Dad started out serving everyone in there, cutting cakes and pouring coffee. One man was deeply depressed, had attempted suicide in the past, and said that he felt he had no reason to live. My Dad listened calmly while he worked, only appearing to be offering half his attention. He said, "uh-huh... Say, could you hand me that cup over there?" The man handed him the cup and continued his depressed rant. My Dad, with his hands full, again interrupted, "Could you pour this for those guys over there while I get this food?" Before long, the man was working the room. At the end of the day, my Dad asked if he could help some more. Before long, the man seemed to have something to live for and enjoyed helping the others. Now he is an important part of the soup kitchen and the church and seems much happier.

That's happened with many of the folks that have come in. Where my Dad used to serve everyone, he doesn't do any of the serving anymore. Now the homeless and poor are pouring drinks and serving each other. As a result they are also getting to know one another. Where lone figures once walked up and down the streets of that part of town fearing one another, they now wave. It appears the neighborhood is becoming a friendlier place than it had been. And, with simple listening and the mere example of the right attitude, many of these people are now working to improve their lives.

My Dad has never read much philosophy and didn't know what Stoicism is, but I said to him, "You know, you're a Stoic." I told him that stoics were careful to divide that which they cannot control from that which they can. They knew it was pointless to fret about things they can't control and instead found ways to deal with those things, accept them, and move on.

My Dad knows that these people don't want someone trying to lecture them so he mainly just listens and reacts. Without knowing it, he has managed to spread a little stoic philosophy in one of the last places one would expect to find it, and the results seem quite positive.

Sunday, December 26, 2004


The things some people will try. It's unfortunate that scams work on some poor people, but one telephone scammer made the mistake of calling my brother, who relishes confrontation. I'll try to recount, as best I can remember, how my brother described the call to me...


Brother: (answers) Hello.

Dude: (in very thick Indian accent) Hello, this is Joseph Smith with the United Bank of America (or whatever bank my brother uses - I forget).

Brother: Smith?? Your last name is Smith? I doubt that.

Dude: Yes, I know, it is a common name but it is indeed my name, Sir. It seems we are having questions about your account and I need you to give me your account number so I can verify it is you before we proceed.

Brother: I'm not giving you my account number.

Dude: But you must tell me your account number so we may verify it is you.

Brother: I don't even have a way of knowing if you are really the bank.

Dude: Ok, here is what we can do.

Brother: Ok. (waits)

Dude: Get out your checkbook.

Brother: Ok. (gets out the checkbook)

Dude: The first part of your account number is (gives the first few numbers, and then a few more very quickly and difficult to hear). Now, you tell me the rest.

Brother: That's the part that just identifies the bank - anyone could get that number. I don't think this is the bank, and by the way, I can hear the office sounds in the background have looped! You're not even really in an office!

Dude: Umm, yes, Sir. There are... people... all around me.

Brother: Then let me talk to them. I want to talk to your manager!

Dude: Umm... hold on one moment.

(Some time passes. A person with a thick Indian accent, trying to make it sound more English and deeper comes on the phone)

Dude: Yes, this is Michael Jacobson, the manager.

Brother: This isn't Michael Jacobson - this is Joseph Smith! And you're not even Joseph Smith!!

(The dude hangs up)

Monday, December 20, 2004

Merry Consumas

I only recently discovered when my wife informed me, that Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reigndeer was an invention of Montgomery Wards as a promotion back in 1939. It's amazing to me that something so commercial could become an ingrained part of our culture, especially in such a short period of time. This really ties into two thoughts, one of which concerns the ability of corporations to shape culture (which I'll save for a future post) and the other I'll mention now since it's more relative to the holiday season...

This only underscores how commercial Christmas has become. And, really, all of the winter Holyoke are being brought along with it (Hanukkah, Quanza, winter solstice, etc.). Many people seem to be feeling this of late. One Christian group in Australia has turned to calling what most celebrate during this time of the year as "Consumas" and I'm inclined to agree with the label.

But then we are all torn by two influences to the opposite. One, we don't want to seem like grinches and not get others gifts, and two we like to get gifts.

What I would prefer to see is a holiday where people give one gift to those close to them, and that gift be something that they created themselves - something they couldn't simply buy. Unfortunately I didn't plan far enough in advance this year, but maybe I'll try that next year (which brings up another issue about our busy lifestyles and how that encourages simple purchases over gift-making).

In addition, I would think it better to emphasize to children the giving rather than the getting in children. Instead of asking a child, "what do you want for Christmas?", how about asking them, "What are you going to give others for Christmas?" Seems to me that children should be taught to create something special for others, and not to expect more than they give. Maybe even having them donate some of their older toys to more needy children would be a good lesson. I've heard of parents that do things like this and it seems a great idea.

But then there's another thing holding us back from these more noble thoughts about the season, and that's the fact that many of us enjoyed the tradition of Consumas as kids. It seems somehow wrong, or at least hypocritical, to say that about kids today when we remember being surrounded by consumer goods on our Christmases.

So then we remain torn between wanting a more genuine holiday and the greed, tradition, and guilt of the consumer rat wheel. There's another thing working against us too, and that is the many companies that want us on that wheel. They've got millions, if not billions, to spend on public marketing campaigns, which have tremendous influence to establish what the "normal" perspective on things is. But that's an issue for another post!

In the meantime, here's wishing everyone a happy Consumas, and hopefully a little something more :)

Rudolf origin:


Friday, December 10, 2004

Poor Kitty

My wife just showed me her new textbook for her next class in Quantum Mechanics. She said, "Look, it's got a kitty on it!" and it had a cartoon drawing of a cat on the cover. She turned it over on the other side and said, "And on this side he's sleeping."

I asked what a cat has to do with Quantum Mechanics, and immediately after asking I remembered Schrödinger's thought experiment. This is a famous thought experiment concerning quantum mechanics in which a cat could simultaneously be considered both dead and alive (it's a long story). Anyway, realizing the connection to the experiment, I pointed out that the cat on the back must be dead and not sleeping.

Never tell your wife a picture of an immobile cat is dead and not sleeping.

Tuesday, December 7, 2004

Virtual Virtue: Your Online Self

The internet is one place where you can find someone willing to say just about anything. In a way, that has lead to a flood of some of the most frank information one could ever get (which can be a good thing). But log on to just about any forum or chat room that isn't strictly moderated and you'll find some of the worst vitriol out there - generally far worse than anything you'd see exchanged between people face to face.

No harm no foul right? After all, it's much easier for people to be direct and up front when they don't have a real identity and, perhaps more importantly, when the other person can't punch you in the face!

I have been posting on this forum or that for several years now, and after a time I noticed myself behaving this way. Actually, it was other people's reaction to me that I noticed. I would post something, fairly straightforward and not meaning to be overtly hostile. But then I'd be taken aback by the response: as if I were just this incredible jerk. "Strange" I thought. No one has ever thought of me as a bad person in my real life, and I generally get along with people very well. Then I thought that maybe this jerk on the forum isn't thought of as a jerk by his friends and family either. What's going on?

So I started to really think about what I was saying, and how I was saying it when I would post online. I found that I had indeed become something I wasn't in real life, and I didn't like that person much. After a nasty exchange with another person I would think, "Well, no big deal. I don't even know that person and will never have to interact with them again." But after finding myself dwelling on it repeatedly for an entire evening I had to start wondering if maybe it was a big deal.

Whenever we respond to something we disagree with online, it is so easy to snap back with an overt harshness that we would never use in real life. It's also easy to forget that there's another person on the other end of that computer. As moral agents, it is our responsibility to spread good in the world, and that includes through the internet. Furthermore, what good is accomplished by angering someone you disagree with? Will this make them listen to your point?

So I began to ask myself, "What if I decided to be more civil and considerate in my virtual life?" What if I treated others like I would a friend or family online? What if in debates I tried to be as sensitive as possible to the concerns and ego of the other poster/chatter? What if I took special care that I didn't hurt feelings or make people feel stupid in the wording of my responses?

I was thrilled with the results. It took a surprisingly short time to begin to reach a real understanding with others online, and for them to begin listening to me because they trusted me to be fair and reasonable. Posters that started off seeming like jerks changed their tune and became reasonable people. The debates themselves took on a whole new life and real communication was achieved - even where we didn't end up convincing one another. And best of all, I didn't walk away from the computer full of stress and trying to convince myself that I didn't care. Instead I walked away with a feeling of contentment.

That's when I decided that from then on, I was going to try and behave in such a way online, that I would feel completely comfortable meeting anyone I interacted with in real life. No longer would I make easy jabs from behind a digital mask. I still have to work at it sometimes because falling back into that knee jerk reaction to people is awfully easy. But the benefits of good online compassion show yet again how virtue is its own reward, even in a world with no physical retribution or consequences.

If you find your avatar surrounded by a bunch of virtual jerks, try leading by example. If you try it, I think you may find your virtual life much more fulfilling.