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Archive for the ‘Morality’ Category

There’s been a lot of talk about water boarding, and I haven’t really brought it up. I’m not certain how pertinent an issue it still is. That said, for anyone on the fence about the “Is it torture or not?” issue, I recommend the following experiment. It’s really easy to do and I think rather effective, despite actually being a rather poor analogy for the actual interrogation technique.

The next time you take a shower, bring a washcloth with you. Make sure it’s really good and wet. Then lean your head back a little, as if you were looking up at the stars. Inhale. Lay the washcloth over your face, and exhale slowly. Feel the warm cloth billow out a little, filled with your breath. It probably feel pretty nice.

Exhale all the way, and then inhale deeply.

Then, draw your own conclusion: is it torture? Please comment.

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I have this hopeful, nostalgic idea that, sometime before now, people were moved by common decency to treat others well. I believe – or really, really want to – that at some point before our litigious, pre-nup signing, anti-social, isolated society, people had manners and showed hospitality. If nothing else, I choose to believe that people really did fear Zeus in ancient Greece, and showed good xenia.

However, it just doesn’t seem to happen that often anymore, and I’m not sure why. Do we really want to live in a society where the laws tell you not to offer people assistance in an accident, because it makes you liable? For that matter, in a society where you would sue someone for trying to help?

Ironically, it’s not just that our society doesn’t promote treating people well; people are actually confused by it. I love doing little things for my friends. One common one that never seems to go over smoothly is paying for dinner. (I don’t mean a big tab either!) I suppose a certain amount of politeness is to try to decline, but I think it’s better if it goes both ways, rather then not go at all. Whats mines is yours, whats yours is mine (with a please and thank you, of course).

I shouldn’t say it never happens, of course. In fact, Julio Diaz is an amazing example; he convinced his mugger to take his coat, some cash, and have a free meal on him, in return for surrendering his knife. It’s an amazing story.

And in case you need a selfish reason to be nice to others, how about this: according to a study conducted by doctors from Columbia and Harvard, generosity makes you happy. I’m sure at least part of that is payback from enriching your environment.

The (admittedly hard) part about this is to teach yourself how to decide what is fair. People do it all the time, but most don’t do it very well. Instead of fairness, they think of entitlement. “Well, it’s only fair that you do this for me.” But fairness is always a two way street, and you must give to receive. True fairness lies in saying, “Well, it’s only fair that if your going to do this thing that is really important to me, I will do this other thing that is really important to you.” I know, compromising is hard, but it’s precisely that it is hard to do that makes it so effective at building close, productive, and supportive relationships.
Keep in mind the – admittedly cliche – saying, “Trash in, trash out.” Put out generosity and compassion in your environment, and expect the same in return.

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Well, today marks my first day freed from my secular lent obligation to not eat fried food. (Technically, yesterday was, according to my official sources.) I feel good. Surprisingly, I’m not rushing out to buy a big plate of French fries.

My mom used to tell me that it takes three weeks to get into a new habit. I’ve been telling myself not to even consider fried food for about six and a half weeks, so I suppose the habit is pretty well established now. The biggest change I’ve noticed is that my list of food options has been reordered. Places I had never tried are now up near the top of my list.

Do I miss fried food? Yes, but not as much as I expected to. The first week or two was really hard. I wanted a nice plate of fries so badly, especially if someone else had them. However, after a certain point of ignoring a craving, it goes away. Or perhaps I was just learning to meet the craving in other ways (mashed potatoes, etc.). Either way, I’m not counting down the minutes till I can munch on fries again, but rather am wondering how much I want to go back to eating fried food.

I think I will, but more responsibly. Fried food, and fast food especially, wont be a go-to option. I want to limit my fry eating to places with really good fries, because eating nutritionally deficient fast food fries seems like a waste. As for other fried food, it will become reincorporated, but cautiously. I’ve felt a little better without it.

That said, I will be happy to leave behind the constant worry that I would eat something wrong. It makes me really appreciate the devotion of people who adhere to food regulations for religious or personal reasons. I can’t maintain that level of worry over food for very long.

With that project behind me, it’s time to start my next one. I’ve briefly mentioned the idea before, but here’s the plan:

From March 24th to May 8th (40 days by the Catholic method of counting, which does not count Sabbaths), I will abstain from lying and gossiping.

It sounds daunting. Luckily, I have some friends joining me. My parents and roommate, for sure. Possibly some others. If you’d like to join as well, I encourage it! It wont be easy, and probably we will all slip up some times. Come tell us about it! And I’ll do the same. Those are learning experiences.

I’m officially on the clock as Mr. Honesty. So far, a few hours in, I have to say… it doesn’t feel all that different. I expect that will change though.

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In considering and planning my upcoming abstinence from lying and gossiping, I’ve come across a few things that have me worried.

First, as soon as I started reading A.J. Jacobs talk about honesty in The Year of Living Biblically, I worried that if I did it, somehow people would know, and they would abuse the circumstance. Leave it to Jacobs to confirm my worries; near the end of the book, his wife begins to periodically tease him by asking “What are you thinking?” which he is now bound to answer honestly. The lesson: people are mean. Of course, I’m not helping myself by spreading the word about it, but I suppose dealing with that circumstance (if it arises) is part of the challenge. So bring it on (gently)!

Second, nagging questions about what constitutes “lying and gossiping”. I think lying, in this sense, is anytime you deliberately say something you know to be false, or you omit something with the intent to deceive. Gossiping is a little tougher. Is any sort of talk behind someone’s back gossiping? Or is it only gossiping if you speak poorly of them? Poorly by whose standards?

I’m also deeply worried, with no good reason, that I’ll face a situation where being honest would require gossiping about someone, which is just confusing.

Either way, the project starts Monday, when I’ll say a little something about my secular Lent experience and the new project. Tomorrow is Fun Friday, and then enjoy the weekend!

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In The Year of Living Biblically, A.J. Jacobs mentioned a book called Radical Honesty, which, it turns out, is part of a larger site and organization. In the book, he quoted them on the thrill of being completely honest (worthy of an amusement park ride). I don’t have first hand experience with the level of truth telling they mean, but I’m sure they’re right. On top of that, honesty seems like it should be good for you in many ways; building more open relationships, less stress, avoiding the repercussions of being caught in a lie.

I’m currently in the middle of a secular Lent (fasting from fried food), but I’m considering giving up lying (as well as gossiping) for a while after Lent ends on the strength of Jacobs’ story. (Amazingly, I’ve gotten a handful of people to join me to varying degrees, but more on that closer to Easter.) However, as with my fried food fast, trying to remove something from my life raises a lot of questions, some of which Radical Honesty has tried to answer.

My first response when I started to consider the project was, “I don’t really lie that much,” but the more I think about it, the more I catch myself doing it. A.J. Jacobs had the same experience; once he had to stop, he found he did it constantly.

We are always telling some kind of story, building a case for ourselves and trying to put on a best face… in a nationwide survey titled “The Day America Told the Truth,” 93% of Americans admitted that they lie “regularly and habitually” at work and 35% admitted they have had or were currently having an affair which they were keeping secret from their mates. -Radical Honesty

What exactly then constitutes lying, for those of us who would like to quit? Radical Honesty takes a pretty extreme approach; they suggest more then just truthfully responding, but actively speaking your mind, even as far as telling an ugly person they are ugly. He suggests this is a chance to start a deeply open conversation, I suspect it’s a good way to get a black eye. Jacobs takes a less stringent approach, and one close to my own thoughts. Flat-out lying, big or small, is wrong. Lies of omission, when done to deliberately mislead, are wrong too (but no one will call you a lier if you forget a little detail of a story by accident or because it really doesn’t matter).

Of course, the important thing is the effects of being honest. Radical honesty promises a lot. Maybe they can deliver, I’m not sure. I do believe, though, that it can lead to better relationships (even when those relationships fail, but thats for another post), and a general sense of having done the right thing. Don’t most people feel at least some guilt when they lie? Besides, as Radical Honesty points out, the consequences of honesty are often less frightening then we imagine.

People can actually get furious at other people and get over it in 15 or 20 minutes. People can avoid being angry at someone else for 10 or 15 or 20 years, and if they actually got angry at them, they’d probably get over it in half an hour. -Radical Honesty

A friend of mine gave me similar advice about small children: it’s hard but sometimes you have to make them angry for their own good, but don’t worry, because they get over it. I think Radical Honesty has a point here. In the long run, it’s better to be honest and make them upset. If the relationship someone doesn’t mend, then it probably wouldn’t have been worth the effort of holding it together with a million white lies. At the same time, the possibility exists to have a much more open, beneficial, and ultimately strong relationship without the need to posture, exaggerate, and lie. And that seems like the sort of relationship that would make you pretty happy, at least most of the time.

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Lately I’ve been reading a book by A.J. Jacobs called The Year of Biblical Living, a complex book which I have a lot of mixed feelings about. However, there are three related concepts that I wish I could take from it; avoiding gossip, honesty, and compassion.

Let me back track a little. Last Friday, I was in my dorm when I came across a clearly intoxicated girl in our (men’s) restroom. She was giggling and being silly with a friend. About an hour later, though, I went back into the hall and she was sitting against the wall, alone, and gently sobbing. I passed her and didn’t say anything. What sort of person does that make me?

True, she probably didn’t want my help. There probably wasn’t anything I could have done, either. But I should have tried, right? What really bothers me is, I want to be the sort of person who would help a stranger. I always say “next time, I’ll do the right thing,” but every time I get a chance, I put down my head and pretend I don’t see, just like everyone else.

So I need to change. How? I’m not sure. Practice, I suppose. Put myself in scripted situations (volunteer work, etc.) where I help strangers. I think it would help to work on related (and equally biblical, apparently) notions of honesty and gossip avoidance. Both are fundamentally about being good to others; basically everyone, all the time. It’s also about trust among members of a community. Would most people know that I will tell them the truth, or that they can trust me with their secrets? Probably not. Some might though. And maybe, in a karmic way, it pays dividends.

I think I’d like to try (maybe with another Lent-like forty day experiment?). It’s going to take a lot of work, but I think it’s worth it. What does everyone think? Honesty, gossip avoidance, compassion? Are they always worth the effort, the practice, and the self control? Or is that too morally absolute?

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This is the first of four posts in a series this week. Think of it as a way to get things started around here, taking a broad look at some common topics I expect to come up. Of course, happiness is never that simple, but it will give us a place to start.

What does it mean to be a good person? What should be our aim in life? These are ancient and exceptionally difficult questions; I don’t claim to have answers to them. However, I do think, for most people at least, looking for and finding some partial answers to these questions is important.

Some people take their meaning from religion, others in secular concerns both selfish and selfless, some find a sense of purpose in their family or work, or in self improvement.

What works for you? I think this subject, more then most I’ll touch on here, needs to be a discussion. No one has all the answers. I hope, though, that I might be able to occasionally challenge you in just the right way to get you thinking about something new, or else provide some practical piece of advice that makes the process a little easier. The search for purpose, morality, and fulfillment, like the search for happiness, is a complicated lifelong journey.

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