Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Confucius said...

Ancient proverbs carry with them a unique moral and intellectual mentality, and I became influenced by that mentality as a kid, when Dad would read from the biblical book of Proverbs during breakfast.

I think the power of proverbs is this: they're easy to remember, and poignant enough to stick in your head, and usually applicable in a real-world sense at some point in your week.

Thomas Cleary's fantastic little book, The Essential Confucius, provides a great collection of another insightful source of proverbs: The Analects of Confucius. It seems like these proverbs ought to have more of a place in our mass culture, because they make so much sense. A new packaging of Marcus Aurelius' Meditations, his ancient Roman sayings, was published a few years ago. Despite my qualms with some of Stoic philosophy, perhaps the fact that a publisher chose to take on yet another edition of the classic sayings is a sign of hope.

Here are some of Cleary's selections, with my comments in paranthesis:

Confucius said, "Study without thinking, and you are blind; think without studying, and you are in danger."

(Think without studying -- that explains celebrity actors commenting on current events.)

Confucious said, "Enliven the ancient and also know what is new; then you can be a teacher."

(It's the old stories, poems and dramas that still provide structure and subterranean sources for today's novels and movies.)

Confucius said, "There are those who act without knowing; I will have none of this. To hear a lot, choose the good, and follow it, to see a lot and learn to recognize it: this is next to knowledge."

(Enough said.)

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Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Car: An Ethical Inquiry

It always seems a little strange to pull up behind a Hummer or BMW and see the little Christian fish symbol. Realize: many generations of the human race have survived without the benefit of luxury cars. Now with heightened awareness of the AIDS crisis in Africa and new charitable humanitarian programs starting to help out, it seems like cynicism about the modes and effectiveness of charitable giving would have less warrant, and new means of assisting others would naturally preclude conspicuous luxury.

Yet there is no divine sliding scale for the possession of luxuries. In the years before the Protestant Reformation, members of Roman Catholic monastic orders and popes debated whether the Apostles owned property individually or held all material goods in common. Somehow a defense of individually held property won the day, while some monastics held things in common. Today it's easy to raise a holier-than-thou eyebrow at the Hummer and BMW when there is often hunger in our own towns. although many more automobiles, less expensive, also could be judged equally unnecessary.

However, some thinkers, far better than I, have pointed out that the consumers of these high-end autos aren't the only people in the equation. Expensive cars and yachts are built by crews of people who don't necessarily earn hundreds of thousands (or millions) each year. The demand for expensive cars and yachts creates jobs. The demand for lattes, another unnecessary consumer good, creates jobs. Between Hummers and lattes, there might be a difference in price and a difference in status, but when it comes to basic human needs, they're about the same. Yet as humans, we invent and create and express ourselves, working from the given materials of Earth . Sometimes what we come up with is enjoyable and frivilous, like prime-time television, and other times what we come up with is expensive, decadent, and unnecesary, like prime-time televsion, Hummers and Beemers. This is all OK.

No, this is all inevitable. We are born into an environment, as Walker Percy has pointed out, and then we enter a world only as we grasp the words and symbols that correspond to parts of the world around us. As we enter into the world, we appropriate words and symbols in a generally uniform fashion (we all eventually understand the "stop" sign), and yet we subjectively appropriate these words and symbols according to our own complex genetic and environmentally impacted personalities. One person is mostly impacted by the red of the stop sign; someone else barely registers the color while noticing the sign's uncommon shape. And that's just the beginning of our subjective appropriation, which eventually spins itself out into individual contributions of new works of art, new products, new scientific breakthroughs. Or, just a quaint table setting. Then again, maybe something like a Hummer: art and science and entertainment and practicality. We shouldn't stop creating just because we might dream up a luxury item.

Lastly, I remember wondering, as I pulled up behind an expensive car with a Christian fish one evening, what if the person is extremely wealthy and extremely charitable? Maybe she has given millions away, maybe even more than half her income, and this fun luxury car is just her little hobby.

If that's the case, then good for her.

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Monday, December 4, 2006

One size fits no one

I'm always learning more about my daughters, and the differences require Kristi and I to tailor their circumstances and opportunities to fit each one best. That would sound oppressive if they were older, but we're talking about little girls who are 6, 4 and 17 months old. Obviously we see things in them they cannot yet see in themselves. For example, Kristi is ADHD and dyslexic. Having struggled with, and researched, those two related matters, Kristi was able to identify the tell-tale traits early in the life of our oldest daughter.

This has me thinking about parenthood and education. When I was growing up, the adults in my religious community had a single use the biblical proverb "train up a child in the way that he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it." All that meant was to make sure the child is moral and to sufficiently punish him when he does wrong. However, that proverb means nothing of the sort. It means, "identify the aptitudes, competencies, personality traits and desires of that child, and make sure she gets a good training in them."

Recently I looked at my youngest daughter banging on a piano keyboard, and for the first time in daddyhood, I felt no guilt or shame for having the idea that I would tell her she loves piano and strongly encourage her to take lessons early on. Well, it's me saying that, and I know I would watch closely to see if my child was miserable, and if she was, I wouldn't argue with her about discontinuing the lessons. Still, what's wrong with proactive guidance? Plenty of people at Tiger Woods' age are still trying to "find themselves," while the young pro golfer has enough cash to find whatever he wants, whenever he wants. At some crucial point, in some subtle yet essential way, Woods' dad decided his kid was going to be a golfer, "and that has made all the difference" (apologies to Robert Frost).

If our daughter plays the piano extremely well, and cannot pass science courses in school, what good does it do to drag her through 12 years of compulsory state education with science class after meaningless science class? I can assure you, the world has received no benefit from my time in biology lab, chemistry lab, or botany lab.

In home schooling our oldest daughter, we have overwhelmed ourselves, but we've also monitored her growth very closely. We know her better than we would if she was going to a school building most of the day. We can allow her to take her time with some subjects while forging ahead in other subjects. We can save her from being forced into the stiff, starched shirt of regimented education. That shirt is tailored for averages and curriculums and test scores -- it's not tailored for human beings. One size fits no one. Viva la parents.

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Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Mind-Brain problem gets an EEG

Despite my old-school, Christian-Platonic presuppositions about the mind and soul, I'm realizing just how much we are predisposed (not predetermined) to certain traits due to the wiring in our brains.

And yet there is hope for some of the problems through neurofeedback.

My daughter, like both of her parents to some extent, has met the diagnostic criteria for having attention-deficit disorder (ADHD) and probably its incumbent dyslexia.

We gave neurofeedback a try. Our daughter improved dramatically in matters of mood as well as attention. My wife was also going to neurofeedback sessions, but her assessment, not to get myself in trouble, hasn't meant as much as my observations of my daughter. My daughter is 6, and six-year-olds don't have agendas and presuppositions in clinical settings. Adults will either be skeptical or wholesale believers or something in between, and their beliefs will impact their assessments of their clinical experiences. A child is less self-conscious of her behavior, and in my daughter's case, her moods and abilities to concentrate improved.

The idea behind neurofeedback is that people will self-correct the unproductive concentrations of electrical currents in the brain. My own recent, personal experience with neurofeedback went like this. I had a wire clipped to each ear lobe, and another wire stuck on my head. I looked at a TV screen that displayed a race car on a race track, like a video game. When my attention was relaxed and focused on the screen, the car began to move. The more focused, the faster the car moved around the track. When I was distracted, or became self-conscious, or my thoughts turned inward, the car stopped.

University researchers in Germany have recently added to the research that suggests neurofeedback is highly effective in addressing ADHD. This apparently was the first study of neurofeedback in which the researchers tracked progress with electroencephalographic brain imaging (EEG). Read about their findings here:

Perhaps neurofeedback will increasingly become the cure for the kid about whom it has been said: "He's got a good mind. Why doesn't he use it?" Maybe many kids just need a little help in moving more of their brains' electrical activity into their frontal lobes.

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Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Hearts & philosophies

The philosopher Charles S. Peirce wrote, "Let us not pretend to doubt in philosophy what we do not doubt in our hearts."

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, in his Nobel Lecture on Literature, wrote, "It is in vain to affirm that which the heart does not confirm."

So what do we make of our hearts?

Blaise Pascal so famously said the following, it's almost cliche to bring it up: "The heart has reasons that Reason cannot know."

The evangelical apologist Ravi Zacharias wants to reverse Pascal's flow: "What I believe in my heart must make sense in my mind," Zacharias once said.

The problem here might just be the idea of a flow between heart and mind. What if the human being was intended to be an integrated whole, not an assembly of competing parts?

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Tuesday, May 2, 2006

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Monday, May 1, 2006

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