Archive for August, 2012

The Parsing of a Life

Mother and Son. 45 years ago today.

Most of us fortunate enough to live for a while have the experience of losing parents, not to mention friends and other relatives. Each is uniquely difficult, but when the last parent dies we’re soon thrown into a long and agonizing series of decisions — what to do with all the stuff. Assuming there are no disputes the big things are pretty easily and quickly sorted out. It’s all the little things that are killers. The stuff that nobody really has room for or truly wants, beyond the inherent sentimental value. Some of these things may or may not be worth actual money. That isn’t the point. The difficulty is they all have to be dealt with, whether it’s with a trash can, donations, an estate sale, or whatever.

In my (our) case it’s been all of the above, and we’re now down to the last waves of things being sold by an estate liquidator (a woman who happens to be a friend I’ve known since high school). It’s a bit surreal to see things things (click here for just one example) that had been around the house for decades trivialized and auctioned off like trinkets. Each has a story, a reason why it was important. They are just things, but in a way they’re each a little slice of someone’s life, now cataloged and objectified to the highest bidder — a bidder who in many cases owns a shop where the item will be marked up and sold again.

Next we delve into the piles and piles of photos. Each with a story that in some cases has been lost in the fog of time. All of the stories, and moments, add up. It’s like a trail of bread crumbs that communicate to us who a person was beyond our immediate and subjective awareness.

As I turn a year older today I will miss the annual phone call where I wait out the little bit of embarrassment as Happy Birthday is sung to me. Meanwhile…I can’t help but reflect on what all of the things I have and have done add up to. If I die tomorrow what sort of story will be told as loved ones sift through numerous obscure items strewn about or tucked away at my residence, my work, my studio, my hard drives, notebooks, etc?

One can’t build a true legacy by design. It happens organically, in the way a life is lived. That life provides the overarching context for everything else and gives meaning to all the artifacts. It’s important to discover what matters most to you and to set about making your daily life a reflection of those ideas, beliefs, and attitudes. Easier said than done, but one way or the other that’s what ends up happening.

Are You a Good Person?

I don’t know anyone who thinks s/he is a bad person. We all want to do good things, and we want to be liked and respected. Wanting to do good things is arguably not a very high standard to aspire to.

Are we really good? We all slip up and make mistakes from time to time. We sometimes allow ourselves to do things we know are wrong, or at least later realize were wrong. We may forgive or persecute ourselves depending, perhaps, not so much on what we did, but often based more on our self view and feeling of true accountability under the particular circumstances.

A recent post explored the relationship between intentions and accountability: wanting to be/do good versus actions that actually are good. How do we define actions that are good? Huge topic there (well beyond the scope of this), but one indicator is to look at the outcomes, the results. So can we can say that actions which produce good outcomes are inherently good? That’s tantamount to saying that the end justifies the means.

Religion, as noted in the other post (and an upcoming post), can provide clarity or contribute to confusion. It forbids us from taking certain actions, regardless of the outcome, and even imposes a set of rules to be followed that can disconnect us from some of those outcomes.

What do you think makes you a good person? Is it that your intentions are generally good? Or do you follow your religious beliefs to the letter? If not to the letter then how do you decide what parts to follow? Aren’t you back to intentions at that point? Or is it something else?

Lost Icons

It hasn’t been a good week for the Armstrongs. Two have gone down: one in a relatively peaceful blaze of glory and the other in ignominy.

We cling to these icons, as heros of a sort. Many of Lance’s fans refuse to accept, or even seriously entertain the idea that maybe he really did use PEDs. Not at all suggesting that the investigation and outcomes were all above board. And certainly not suggesting he did anything that most other riders weren’t doing as well. We’ll never really know the truth. And that gives us plenty of leeway to invent our own versions of what we believe.

Both he and Neil went on to do a number of great things after their moments of glory, but it’s still those moments that are etched in our minds, and it’s sad for us when they fall. We’re faced with the sobering reality that we’re just distant passengers riding on the good feelings we derive from their accomplishments. They may inspire us or they may just make us feel good. Feeling good is worth something, but I assert that to really honor them and to maybe pay them back for those good feelings we must do more than feel good. Don’t just be a passenger. Take the inspiration and do something with it. Make something positive happen.

Intentions, Results, and the roll of Fate

As a teenager I remember once declaring, “If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say, ‘if it’s meant to be it will be,’ I’d be able to afford a better car.” I was and remain puzzled at the way some people put so much stock into fate, and other mystical forces they seem to believe govern our lives. Most people I hear say things like this are to some degree religious. It has always felt to me like deferring responsibility for outcomes. I have tried it on occasion, nearly always with disastrous results. Yet many of those people who speak as if it’s up to divine intervention or a guiding hand will still either attempt to assume control of their outcomes in certain situations, or in some cases can be quite judgmental or at least lacking in real compassion toward other people about the outcomes they have been dealt. Or did they earn them? Which is it?

I’m not referring so much to the cut and dried, day to day things (although they do add up). I’m referring to the big, difficult to navigate things that we all struggle with from time to time.

We often hear assertions that it’s not what your intentions are that matter; it’s about what the results are. I preach this at work quite a bit myself. Accountability.

But wait. If you happen to be someone who puts your fate in the hand of God, or in destiny, or whatever…then isn’t it really mostly about JUST your intentions? The belief is, as I understand it, that the outcomes are not really under your control. You have your intent behind what you do and you can try to control your reaction to what happens. You do the best you can. The rest is up to something or someone else.

I accept that in life we must manage our attitudes as there are many things that can be beyond our direct control. Whether those things are just random or by design matters to the extent that it informs us how much we should accept responsibility for them and at least influence, if not try to control them. If I put my faith in someone or something else, as I have done on occasion, then I no longer inherently feel the same responsibility for the outcome. I am deferring. This is part of what religion has us do. Put your faith in God and it will all work out according to a master plan. And if some misery comes your way you just have to accept it’s part of His plan for you and handle it the best you can.

It feels irresponsible to me. Most people I know, no matter how religious, operate somewhere along the continuum between accepting responsibility for some things and deferring responsibility for many other things. It may often be as simple as choosing what’s convenient: control (and therefore responsibility) when it seems important enough and attainable, or acceptance when it isn’t. Then intentions are good enough and we just have to accept the outcomes. Double standard?

There are a lot of gray areas in life. This is a big one. All I know is I drive a much better car these days…

Religion’s Sword

Religion is a doubled-edged sword. It is sometimes used to help heal, and sometimes used as a weapon. It can be the cause of great harm or great help. Wars have been fought over it, and lives have been saved by it. Sometimes people or groups are made to feel ‘less equal’ (see gay rights, the Chick-Fil-A debacle, etc.), while some people feel great love, and are able to use their beliefs as a way to reconcile almost anything that happens to them.
The tragedy in Wisconsin prompted many to look into Sikhism. Though it’s an awful tragedy, one of few bright spots is that people who care enough to know and understand more about the world’s religions will endeavor to do so.
About 86% of the world’s population claims some sort of religious belief. Of course some of these religions disagree vigorously on basic concepts, which can be a significant problem at times, but many of them are relatively tolerant of one another. Many of those who do claim a religion don’t practice it, so the statistics for those who actually adhere to their religions is no doubt much lower…but it’s still a very significant number, especially in the United States, as well as a number of other countries around the world.
Given this data it makes sense to learn about and understand at least the basic beliefs of many of the worlds religions. This is part of their culture, of who they perceive themselves to be. If we would reach out and try to respectfully meet them on their terms of understanding it’s probable that a great deal of peace could be restored in the world. If you have a religion you believe in it makes sense to try to understand what other’s believe. The assumption that you’ve got it right and have it all worked out without some due diligence on your part seems naive, or even arrogant. Even if you hate religion and believe it to be the cause of many of the world’s problems (an assertion that can be effectively argued) it still behoves you to have a deeper understanding of it. If you ignore that it’s a big part of many people’s lives then you’re at a disadvantage when dealing with those people and it’s likely your relationships with them will be degraded in one way or another.
No matter whether you agree, or love it or hate it, the fact is religion is a powerful force in our culture. Deal with it.

Bono For President

Picking a leader is serious business. Most of us aren’t truly qualified. Thus, the characteristics that are required for being effective get skewed to appeal to the masses.

It reminds me of what bands go through finding a lead vocalist. Having been through that process a few times it boils down to ability in three main areas:

  1. Must be a great vocalist (actual singing skill and/or a good voice is a plus, but there is more to being a good vocalist than that)
  2. Must be a good frontman (or woman) — A good entertainer
  3. Must be a good band member — this gets to character, working with others, etc.


These mirror similar characteristics we inevitably triangulate on for choosing our politicians.

  1. Must have something to say, and be articulate enough to say it clearly
  2. Must be able to perform, to deliver with impact and be credible
  3. Must be able to bond and work with others to form support and trust

Whether these are exactly the right characteristics we should be basing our elections on is highly debatable. Look at someone who is an effective business leader: There is a clear track record of good actions and judgement. People rally around them not just because they are charismatic and make us feel good, but ultimately because they have a proven history of results. We rally not just because we happen to agree with them on some social/moral opinion, but because we believe that if we commit to them and put forth an effort things will turn out well for us.

We have to choose our leaders differently than band members. Otherwise I say let’s elect Bono.


The brainwashed do not know they are brainwashed. If you use a broad enough definition of the term one could argue we are all brainwashed to a degree, by parents, the culture of our surroundings, or even things we voluntarily subject ourselves to, such as church, media, news, etc. (For clarity it’s important to note that real brainwashing involves the systematic use of unethically manipulative techniques to modify one’s thought processes for the sake of having him conform to ideas and actions he would not normally agree to.)

While we may not have been brainwashed intentionally, it is fair to say that we are so influenced by our surroundings as we grow up that we never really had a chance to view the world objectively. We have free will and can make our own decisions, but the overwhelming majority of information we are supplied with to make them is biased, and as such our perception is inherently skewed. This becomes apparent when a person of one culture visits a dramatically different culture, or when you see a person grow up taking on the religious and political sensibilities of his parents.

We aren’t objective. We are biased (brainwashed), unable to see the reality others perceive. We shouldn’t judge them or think harshly when they believe things and take actions (according to those beliefs) that we find incomprehensible. Instead we should engage them as best we can in a thoughtful discussion designed to test the grounding behind their thinking, as well as our own. We aren’t inherently right any more than they. Thus, if any meaningful thought transactions are to occur we MUST MEET THE OTHER PARTY HALF WAY.

It is not a negotiation. Taking an extreme position in an effort to offset seemingly outlandish claims isn’t productive. No, we must start at least half way to the other party’s point of view and work together to see what will hold up.

Try it. Be genuinely open to an opposing point of view. Remember it is their reality. They are brainwashed and they don’t know it. So are you.


Influence versus Manipulation

We routinely influence and are influenced by others. While we also at times manipulate and are manipulated by others the term manipulate has a much more controversial connotation to it. What is the difference?

They are in most respects two sides of the same coin. Both are used by people attempting to initiate some change in others. The differences boil down to two related parameters.

  • Free Will — The power of acting/choosing without the constraints of necessity or fate. If the subject retains an ability to act at her own discretion then she is said to be exercising free will. Influence does not negatively impact free will, while manipulation does.
  • Intent — Is the change agent’s intent to subjugate free will? If so it can be considered manipulative.

Influence comes in many forms and is vital in a functioning society (or family, or any institution). It is the basis upon which a culture is built, and how knowledge is shared. Influence doesn’t mandate the sharing of knowledge, but the receiving of knowledge does by definition constitute influence.

Manipulation is often considered a more extreme version of influence. It comes in two major forms: deception and bulldozing. It may not involve a knowledge transaction because it isn’t necessarily based on information, only achieving some result, an action, where understanding may not be relevant.

The term ‘manipulation’ has a distinctly negative connotation to it. It is thought to be sinister, unethical, or morally corrupt. I’ve already shown examples of ways that manipulation can be good. However, according to these definitions those examples appear to be more closely related to influence than manipulation.

Therein lies the rub.

The point at which influence becomes manipulation isn’t so clear. And even though there is some point beyond which it’s pretty clearly manipulation it can still be for a good outcome and therefore not be ethically corrupt.

We (like to) think we act in a manner using more free will than we really do. If our emotions are triggered in the right ways we will believe or accept things we might otherwise not. This is, for lack of a better word, manipulation. It may or may not be intentional, or by design as part of some activity, but it happens to us often. We make decisions and sometimes later can’t connect them to a rational thought process. We acted of our own free will, or so we thought, but we still wound up doing something we regret (if the outcome is perceived negatively), or at least question in terms of how we got there. Many times we don’t recognize it or question it at all, especially if we enjoyed the outcome and there weren’t any negative ramifications. But it could have still been manipulation.

Free will is overrated. The perception of free will is very important, but the actual responsibility that comes with true free will can be pretty daunting. I’m perfectly happy to be manipulated toward a good outcome. I can believe I decided on my own if that makes me feel better (manipulating myself).


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