Monday, November 30, 2015

Positive Institutions

Positive Institutions

As Americans, the “pursuit of happiness” is an important concept. The branch of psychology called “positive psychology” introduced a focus on creating mental health. Positive psychology can also help us enjoy positive institutions. Of course, personal traits strengthen us as individuals, build character and help us to be happy. Positive institutions are also built on the strengths and traits of their organizing principles, their leaders, and others who are associated with them.

“Institutions” include much more than our schools, workplaces and governments. Families are one notable example of institutions. And so, we are actually talking about, not only family values, but the quality of all of the organizations to which we belong. We can also think of our cultural ideals of democratic group decision-making and personal access to free inquiry as institutional strengths that promote happiness.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Walking Out

Walking Out

John sat on his podiatrist’s examination table. You know the feeling. Bored. Anxious. Impatient. Resigned. He looked around the room, hoping to find something interesting. Anatomy posters. Jars of supplies. Latex gloves; size XL. A tube of lubricant. John shuddered involuntarily as his imagination kicked in.

John was a thinker and a dreamer. He was introspective and lived in his head. He had been thinking about the course of his life and, especially, his increasingly-submissive relationship to the authority of the medical establishment. It occurred to him that there was something about losing control of his choices, and even control of his own body, that was deeply disturbing.

John knew this large clinic and he knew examination room 4; he had been here before. He had also been in Room 2 twice and in Room 1 once. That was an interesting coincidence. He had committed to some minor surgery in this room last spring. They had wheeled him down the hall to an outpatient surgery room to remove a small itching growth from a place on his back that he could neither see nor scratch. It only took a few minutes but had cost a fortune.

John was still paying it off, $75 per month, and also still paying off earlier run-ins with medical care. He had been declared disabled and awarded access to Medicare, but his share of the costs of staying alive still seemed to persistently eat into his ability to have any satisfaction in life. He felt helpless and hopeless.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Cultural Heroes in Difficult Times

Cultural Heroes in Difficult Times

Thank you to those who told me that they missed my columns during the last few months. [Summer, 2012, ed.] We were getting into the last convulsions of some very bitter political campaigns. I felt strongly tempted to respond to the upwelling of political partisanship by fighting a battle of ideas in print. Lord, some of those letters to the editor got me steamed. Instead, I put a bumper sticker on my car that said: “You are entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts.”

I almost got sucked into arguing with the undoubting faithful from the other side. That has variously been compared to “confronting a shadow in a knife fight,” “grabbing the ears of an angry dog” and “throwing pearls before swine.” Nothing good can come of it.

On the other hand, I believe we should persistently doubt our own assumptions, opinions and preconceived notions. It’s like I used to tell my boys, “It’s okay to talk to yourself and it’s even okay to argue with yourself, but when you start to lose those arguments, it’s time to start asking new questions.”

Friday, November 20, 2015

Bobby's Down the Well

Bobby's Down the Well

Curiously, a female collie named Lassie appeared way back in 1859 in Elizabeth Gaskell’s book “The Half-brothers.” More recently, the TV show “Lassie” ran for 591 episodes, between 1954 and 1974. There were a few additional outbreaks of Lassie in the 1990s. The show featured a female collie named Lassie (played by at least nine different male dogs).

Timmy, played by Jon Provost, appeared as a runaway in the Miller’s barn in the 4th season. That same year, the actor who played George Miller bought the farm (pun intended). The show was reorganized and the Martins bought the farm (pun not intended). Evidently Timmy and Lassie came with the deal as the Martins adopted him and kept the pooch too.

Cloris Leachman (who, admittedly, has talent and continues to find work) initially played Ruth Martin. However, the very next season, June Lockhart magically showed up as Ruth. [I consider this to be an improvement; I once had a bit of a crush on June Lockhart.]

June eventually went on to fame and fortune as Mrs. Robinson in the iconic science fiction saga, “Lost in Space,” in which the Robot was a lot like Lassie except he got better lines such as “Danger Will Robinson,” which became a popular catch-phrase.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Understanding and Responding to Terrorism

Terrorism is a symptom of persistent social problems. It seeks to express resistance and create change by means of out-sized aggression. It uses “blind criminal violence” to motivate others to include the terrorist in their calculus of choices and behavior – or weaken themselves by reacting poorly.

Terrorism is usually a form of communication that is meant to produce powerful emotional responses. Whatever motivates any given terrorist, we are obliged to notice their act. Certainly, understanding terrorists’ motives is vital to designing an appropriate counter-terrorism response. Terrorism is not a single-issue problem and does not have a single-tactic solution.

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to discuss terrorism with James Hippensteel, a professor of history in North Carolina. He startled me with an observation that I remember as: “Terrorism is the last resort of the desperate and impotent to gain recognition of their grievances and prosecute their struggle against a superior and overwhelming power.” Dr. Hippensteel was careful to point out that he was not arguing that the use of terrorism was defensible but that, like smoke from a fire, it should be recognized as an indicator of an underlying unresolved issue.

Initially, I thought this “last desperate resort” observation on terrorism only applied to those who were oppressed and disenfranchised. These might include peoples experiencing genocide, slavery or subjugation. I thought of these as fundamentally sympathetic people, deserving empathy and active intercession. There are certainly many whose lives feel so hopeless that it becomes easier to choose to die than continue to struggle. And, why not die with honor, believing your death has meaning?

Eventually, it occurred to me that terrorism is also used by those who are very isolated and inflexible such as primitive tribes, authoritarian religions, and the politically indoctrinated. I thought of these people as deserving careful nurturing while they are encouraged to learn how to relate to their neighbors with greater maturity.

Later, I recognized that terrorists include some who simply seek to gain some advantage and have no compunctions about hurting others to get what they want. I think of these as sociopaths, deserving contempt and active prosecution to prevent their continuing aggression.

Finally, just when I was self-satisfied with my analysis and deconstruction, I realized that most terrorists fall under more than one of these categories. The world’s problems are complicated and any effort to resolve them requires well-informed, nuanced, manifold, dynamic and flexible responses.

Topics included below:
  • Terrorism Motives and Objectives
  • Counterterrorism Tactics  Methods and Options
  • Strategic Responses to Terrorism
  • Summary

Friday, November 13, 2015

The Awakening

The Awakening

A Fergus Johnson story of gender relations

Fergus and Julie are two kids just finishing high school. Fergus has always lived in this town; Julie moved here almost two years ago at the start of her Junior year. They will both graduate soon, but have not, yet, actually decided what they plan to do with their lives.

Fergus and Julie are not, in any sense, you know, “Fergus-And-Julie.” They have seen each other around and go to the same church. They have been in Algebra and Geometry classes together and, in their Junior year, were in the same Senior Class production of The Sound of Music where Julie had a leading part that involved singing and dancing.

Fergus is strongly attracted to Julie but hasn’t done much about it; he knows that he has his faults. He is not an athlete, nor very adept socially, and so is not popular with the “in” girls. He is, in fact, a little nerdy, but not so much that he is an actual dork. Yes, that about does it.

Julie is unusually short; not at all like the statuesque beauties with long legs that go all the way to the floor. She is whip-smart, moves with grace, and as you might expect, loves to sing and dance. She knows that she has her faults, but being Julie has always been a good thing.

Fergus likes to watch Julie, especially when she dances. Julie has noticed Fergus watching her, but Fergus has never noticed Julie taking any particular notice of him.

Monday, November 9, 2015

The Future of Unsustainable Development

The Future of Unsustainable Development

Most of us have heard the phrase “sustainable development” and perhaps a little about initiatives related to sustainable development such as Agenda 21 and the Earth Charter. Many communities are exploring these principles in the hope of heading off (or at least moderating) future catastrophes.

Critics of organized sustainable development describe it as a massive international conspiracy to deprive us of individual and capitalistic rights. Actually, ignoring sustainability could actually deprive us of freedoms. In fact, if we don’t start making better decisions and addressing important sustainability problems now, we certainly will lose many options that we currently take for granted. Either someone will step in to save us from ourselves, or abandon us to the consequences that we bring down upon our own heads. My bet is that several billion people will die in crisis and conflict before we adapt to the effects of our changing climate.

Since we started living in communities, part of the deal has always been that we can’t always do or take just anything we want. In America, our constitution grants generous freedoms and liberties, but civility and justice demand that our rights end in the vicinity of where our neighbors’ rights begin. The authority the American founding fathers wisely gave us to regulate ourselves through government ensures important protections to us all.

Some insist that all natural resources are given by God to man to own, subdue, and have dominion over (Genesis 1:28). Further, they argue that man was given the physical and mental powers to accomplish this dominion. However, this same scripture instructed him to be fruitful, multiply and fill the earth – with no mention of limits. This sounds to me like a command to exercise responsible, sustainable stewardship rather than a grant of free license to dig, build, spew, kill and destroy.

Frankly, America has thrived economically for centuries based on the exploitation of its abundant land, rivers, trees and mineral resources. However, Native Americans discovered how little that freedoms and rights mattered when private and business interests decided that, “they weren’t using it, so why not just take it?” Now that national and global resources are becoming scarce, who will be next to suffer from the greed of exploiters, and who will we depend on to stop them?

Do we personally exploit? Automobiles, the open road and cheap gasoline have been taken for granted as definingly American. A gas-guzzling vehicle is a public symbol of status and achievement. Free public roads are also taken for granted. We act as if we deserve the unlimited option to live, work, play, shop, commute, and just drive around at will.

However, continued, unrestrained and unregulated exploitation and consumption are not sustainable. We may think that only people we don’t know and don’t care about are going to suffer. The fact is that the vast majority of Americans are already experiencing the effects of unsustainability. Our children will certainly suffer profoundly.

Only the very rich have the resources to consume, waste and pollute conspicuously without immediate personal consequence. Believe me, they are fighting for every political edge to protect their place of preeminent advantage and control.

Do you care about your grandchildren? Start explaining to them now about the importance of sustainability. And, introduce them to the principles behind Agenda 21 and the Earth Charter.

David Satterlee

Friday, November 6, 2015

From a Distance

From a Distance

From a distance, all you hear is the persistent drone, barely audible, like somebody else’s mosquito. I guess that’s why they call them drones. They can linger up there for days, watching and waiting, probably relieving each other like on-duty patrol cops — like slow-motion tag-team wrestling — like owls, waiting for a mouse to make a careless move.

From a distance, the sound recedes into the background cacophony of fans running, children playing, dogs barking, and the shrill horns of motor scooters in traffic. It blends into the sound of life that reassures grandmothers that all is well when they wake momentarily from their afternoon nap. It is the sound of sudden and inescapable death — the thunderbolt of foreign gods thrown from heaven in retribution for unknown sins.

From a distance, remote operators watch, and guide, and drink Coca Cola, and decide who will live and who will die and when. You cannot know the faces of these nameless watchers. You cannot invite them to your daughter’s wedding or your uncle’s funeral.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Forgetting the Future

Forgetting the Future

I recently wrote about the important effect that our emotional approach to “now” has on our happiness. Guilt about our past should inform our choices, but not overwhelm our ability to enjoy a better life. “Now” is precious because it is our only opportunity to enjoy the moment, do something virtuous or make a decision to improve the future.

There are those in the new-age movement who seem obsessed with the current moment that is now. These people hold that, because the past and future cannot be directly experienced, they are no better than illusions — the only thing that can happen is happening now. This is true enough, as far as it goes.