A life-long attitude adjustment

Decades ago I boarded a plane in New York returning to San Diego from a business trip. One of the last persons to board handed his suit coat and overcoat to the flight attendant. She hung the overcoat over the suit coat. The passenger shouted, "you should know better than to put a freshly pressed suit jacket under an overcoat!"

Just as I thought "what an asshole", hoping he was seated far away, he took the seat next to me. I cringed and looked out the window to avert a conversation cloaked in hostility. When the cabin service began, the flight attendant took breakfast orders and deliberately ignored him until all other orders were placed. He was upset that there were no choices left when she took his order. This launched a contest of authority which he, of course, lost. I silently applauded the attendant.

A couple of hours into the flight, I saw tears running down his cheeks. I asked him what was wrong. He quietly sobbed, then said: "My daughter just started college in San Diego. She was killed in a crosswalk by a hit-and-run driver last night. I can't hold it together. I still can't believe it's true. I'm not myself. I've been angry at everyone this morning like they had something to do with it and I can't blame them for striking back. I really need to pull myself together."

I didn't know how to console him but I tried. From that day forward, my attitude towards people who act like jerks changed.

Yes, 90% of people who cut in line ahead of me, people who cut me off in traffic, people who give me the finger are probably assholes. But there is one in ten who are late for something important, who are rushing to the hospital with an emergency, who just had a traumatic event in their life. I am happy to give the 90% a pass so that the 10% who deserve it get the benefit of my doubt.

Everyone occasionally fights invisible personal battles and we might encounter them at a bad moment. But they are, like you and me, humans with all of life's stresses and emotional reactions to personal affairs that may only be visible to themselves. Be kind. Give everyone some benefit of the doubt, and have some empathy for whatever may have contributed to their offensive behavior whether it be immediate stress or abuse experienced long ago.

Every day I am reminded of this important lesson. And to my benefit, it relieves me of unnecessary stressful reactions. That's a win-win in my life.

A Conversation with my son

Son (looking at the ground from a park bench): Dad, how do I know that's a brick?

Dad: Don't be silly, you know bricks when you see them.

Silence -- dad thinks about his interrupted business while waiting for the child's delayed medical appointment.

Branden: But every brick has different cracks, what makes a brick a brick?

Dad: All these bricks have different details we just know they're bricks because they look like bricks.

Long silence.

Branden: How do we know which car is ours?

Dad (impatient but starting to pay attention): I know you know the answer. What are you really asking?

Branden: If we changed the bumpers, then changed the doors, and then changed each of the other parts, it would still be our car. What makes it our car?

Dad (now sincerely curious): Why are you asking these questions?

Branden: My teacher told us that when we get older all the cells in our body die and are replaced by new ones. But my friend, Ali, will always be my friend Ali when all his cells are changed. What makes him Ali?

Dad: Wow, that's a really good question. And I don't know the answer. I need to think about it but I promise I will give you my best answer when I have one. [Note: a fact-check revealed that brain cells are not entirely replaced with age but that is beside the point of the conversation -- Ali is not just a brain, and our car is not just an assembly of its original parts]

Since having that conversation, I rarely dismissed kids' questions, however silly they seemed, and I learned that kids have much deeper thoughts than I had ever imagined. At the time of the conversation, my son was about 10 years old. I could easily have missed a great opportunity to get a deep appreciation for children's musings. A later blog post will explain the answer that finally satisfied me.

In Defense of Religion

I am now, and likely will remain, an atheist, a nonbeliever. Nevertheless, I am offended by a minority of atheists who disparage those who believe in God.

I use the word "God" to mean an entity that 1) is separate from everything, and 2) is capable of intervening in the natural course of the universe in general, and in human affairs in particular. The first condition prohibits equating God with everything that exists, otherwise, God's existence would trivially be true by definition. The second condition requires that the laws of physics (and nature in general) can be subjugated to God's will. (Note: I use the title God with the understanding that many religions use different names for the same concept, e.g., Allah, HaShem, Jehovah, etc.)

Humans have a strong innate desire to affiliate with a higher power. Indeed most societies throughout history have worshipped a creator and formed religions that gather others with common beliefs. There are scientific articles that propose humans, as a species, have a "religious gene" and/or have evolved with the benefit of a religious proclivity. It is not surprising that religions built around God have been so persistent in almost every culture around the world.

God is, in my belief system, a fantasy. But fantasies are beneficial to our collective well being. We enjoy fiction even though we know the emotions, the images, and introspection that fiction evokes do not describe real events in our environment. Fantasies can be even more powerful and motivating if we give them "life" by sincerely believing in them. Indeed stories and legends have been great motivators for as long as humans have had a spoken language.

In our family, we fantasize that our beloved pets die and wait by a river until we arrive to be guided across to a beautiful land that has no pain or suffering. It matters not that we know better, the fiction comforts us; it provides a soft landing for harsher realities. 

Religions that paint a bright image of glorious heaven (or a similar paradise) after death can be especially comforting to believers. It would be cruel to try to dissuade any person from a belief that brings hope and comfort in difficult times. It can be comforting as well to ask a higher power for help when one's own resources are impotent.

My quarrels with religion arise when it is used by religious authorities to manipulate people to perform self-serving acts that are harmful to others or unnecessarily destructive to nature, or when it promotes divisive exclusionary behavior that condemns the value of competing religions. Religion can be a powerful motivator and therefore a powerful manipulator, for good and for evil.

The personal benefits of religion are available to atheists like me. Although I don’t believe that God chose to create me or to preordain and protect my existence, I feel a reverent connection to nature and the natural forces that created life on earth.

I am very fortunate that an uncountable number of small events occurred over billions of years to bring about my brief time on earth. Every minute movement of every particle on earth, every accidental encounter of a man and a woman, every daily decision made by hundreds of thousands of my ancestors over hundreds of thousands of years, has determined that I fortuitously appeared here on earth at this time. I am elated to have a small slice of consciousness for a brief time in the history of the universe.

Every day I feel I won the greatest lottery of all. An important consequence of this is that I am in awe of nature on earth and the harmony that perseveres in concert with the natural rhythms of the universe.

Religion, put to good use, fosters an appreciation of the wonderful workings of nature and makes us all better humans. Atheism coupled with kind actions and a deep appreciation of natural forces can confer the same benefits. The end result is a kinder, more peaceful, and more compassionate world.

Life after death? Take your pick. For me, over 13 billion years passed with no life before life; I will simply return to no life after death. That makes my time on earth even more precious. Treasure whatever beliefs make your time on earth, or depending on your religious affiliations, 
your afterlife, most comfortable.