Saturday, April 26, 2014

The World Has Changed. Stop Arguing With Poorly Informed Idiots.

As a well educated person who came to my mostly liberal point of view after years of careful consideration, I appreciate opinions of others that are expressed in a way that shows they have given careful consideration of the issues at hand, done research of reputable sources to find out more about the issues, and can support their replies with facts and logical conclusions.   At the very least, if someone is expressing pure opinion, I'd love to hear them admit that it was that, and not try to pretend that it comes from anywhere but their own gut.  

With the rise of the internet and opinion masquerading as news (both online and on TV), I've grown increasingly frustrated when engaging people in conversations about issues.   In a time when we have billions of pages of information at our disposal to review and digest, people seem to have gotten dumber.  

What I failed to realize is that people have always been this way.   In the world that I grew up in, there were a few primary sources of information that most people consumed, TV news and newspapers.   For the most part, the integrity of these sources was considered important by the companies that ran them and their mission to serve the public.   Journalists were confrontational, concerned about collecting the facts and validating them, and often unafraid of offending the businesses or politicians they covered.    The result was that we had a news that truly comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable.   Even the least educated among us got a mostly fair critical representation of government, politicians, businesses, and the important issues of today.

Fast forward to today.  "News" is truly infotainment.   The companies that cover the news treat it as a profit center, a place intended to make money first, serve the public interest second.    Advertisers are not to be offended.   Politicians are not to be too strenuously questioned, lest they deny your network access to them in the future.  And rather than present a nuanced position of issues, journalism is now a simple see saw, where "balanced" reporting is giving equal weight to both sides of an issue, even if you have to put ten pounds of facts on one side of that see saw, and ten pounds of industrial grade bullshit on the other side.  All the better to turn information into a team sport for people to pick sides than actually provide useful facts.   And if you don't like the point of view espoused by reality based press, you can find any number of propaganda outlets online and on cable that will provide you with a point of view about the world that more closely aligns with yours, facts be damned.  

Unfortunately, I have been too stupid to acknowledge this reality online.   For more than a decade I've engaged in "discussions" with people who bring no facts or real knowledge to a situation, have no grasp of history or quality journalism, and who would rather argue a point with fiction and illogical thinking than to concede a point.   Trying to convince them or have them provide you with information about their viewpoint that supports its validity, in short, is like shouting at a brick.  

Because of this, I've started stepping away from internet arguments.   I'll make a statement supporting my own view with sources, but I've realized there is no point in engaging with idiots who will go after your point of view without even reading it first.   it's best to allow them to make an ass out of themselves without them dragging you down to your level.     You're not going to change their minds, or the people who feel they're right, and you're just going to irritate the people who may agree with you but get tired of the verbal fisticuffs everywhere you turn online.  

Saturday, April 19, 2014

A post for Maddie Yates and the People She Left Behind

I do not know Maddie Yates.   But reading her twitter feed, I could have been her 25 years ago in high school.  Mentions of school work, the ACT, her score, a 30, almost identical to mine.   She shares her worries about getting into the Kentucky Governor's Scholars Program, a program I was in that was a sort of dry run for college offered to exceptional students in the state of Kentucky between Junior and Senior year.  

But reading further, she could be my daughter.   Pictures of her show a happy, pretty girl, who appeared to have a lot of friends.    Other similarities are sprinkled throughout.    The picture shared of a "minion" from Despicable Me.  The Girl Scout cookie sales.   The silly jokes sprinkled throughout.   The in jokes and messages to friends.

I think of these things as I ponder Maddie Yates, who earlier this week. took her own life.  I cannot speak to the reason why things were to hard for her to bear, and it's not my place to.   But as someone who often felt alone, stressed, sad, and depressed during high school, I'd like to offer some thoughts to teenagers as I  look back on high school 25 years after I graduated.

First.  Rumors, lies, and mean comments about the situation help nobody.  They dishonor the dead and hurt the living.   Don't create them or spread them.

Second.  If you want to help friends and family who are grieving, lend an ear.   Listen.  Put yourself in their shoes and imagine how they'd feel and what they'd want to hear.    Let them grieve at their own pace.

Now some things to think about when you're feeling sad, or despairing about life as a teenager:

  • Tomorrow is another day.  No matter what happens today, it seldom looks as bad tomorrow, and almost never looks as bad six months or a year later.    The key is to understand either the event or your ability to handle it will get better.  
  • Even if you feel like nobody loves you or cares, know that someone does.    
  • If you need help, ask.  Talk to your parents, friends, counselors, teachers, minister, or call one of the many hotlines available to you to talk to someone.  
  • Parents are doing their best based on how they were raised and what issues and problems are going on in their lives.   They love you, even if they sometimes aren't equipped to show it in the way you need at the time.   
  • Middle and high school are NOT the rest of your life.   The class prom king and queen will age badly. The odd looking geek will grow into a good looking adult.  The person most likely to succeed will stumble, and that kid you thought wouldn't amount to anything will become a successful business owner.  And at some point you'll find out that the people you thought had everything going for them had the same insecurities and issues you had.  We do not know our futures, and many times we don't even know someone else's true present.    
  • While religion and faith can be good things, they should never make you feel like a horrible human being because of who you are, or that you're beyond redemption because of something you've done.  If your church tells you that you're going to hell because you're gay, had premarital sex, or are struggling with other issues the church feels are taboo, they are simply wrong.   Let living the golden rule be your guide, and if your faith makes you feel like less of a person, seek out a new one as soon as you are able.    
  • Remember social media is not real life.   It's far easier to be mean and evil when your cannot see the results your words have on other people.    If people are making you feel terrible, hide them, unfriend them, or get off social media altogether.  Mean people suck.  Don't let them take over your brain  
  • Not getting picked for the team, play, band, honor society, summer program, or other organization is not the end of the world, even if you deserved it.   Sometimes life is unfair.    You may remember the sting five or ten years later, but trust me, you'll realize how trivial it is.    
  • A grade of B, C, D, or F is not the end of the world.   A lower score than you hoped on the SAT/ACT is not the end of the world.   Not getting into the school of your choice is not the end of the world.    Try your best and accept that you tried your best.   Live for today and make the best of it.   
  • If you feel socially awkward, that you'll never fit in, or that you will never find a girlfriend or boyfriend, realize that some day you will find the people meant for you.   Perhaps you already have them in your life and you just haven't given them the time.    Don't be afraid to embrace those who share your geekiness, awkwardness, or your passions, just because they are different from others.   Your friends and first love, and keys to who you become in the future might be there for you.    If nothing else, have a laugh at  this tweet by highly successful actor and comedian Patton Oswalt.  
  • Remember that suicide is a permanent solution to temporary pain.   There are people who love you, people who can help you feel better about life, and decades of life ahead of you to learn and embrace what is good about people.   As much hurt as you feel now, it doesn't compare to the hurt that others feel when you're gone, and the ripple effect it has on family and friends.   Even in the darkest days, there is always hope.  
To the friends and family of Maddie Yates, my deepest sympathies.   I hope that there will be some good to come out of this tragedy and that in some way you can come to grips with your sorrow.   

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Lost in the "Culture War" -- Greed Masquerading as Faith

I grew up Catholic.   As a Catholic, I learned that one of the most important things we can do is be charitable and good to others.   While it has been awhile since I've graced the church's doors, the lessons of the golden rule have stuck with me, even if I often fail to live up to them.

While the Catholic Church has a rigid hierarchy with a powerful male at the center, I've found many of the priests and members of the faith are not afraid of education, learning, and questioning our faith and God's role in a person's life.   And perhaps it is for that reason that I've never really understood evangelical faiths.

In recent years I've been fascinated by a large local church that has managed to gain a following among the city's movers and shakers, including Fortune 500 CEOs and their families.  The church was headed by a very influential pastor who still holds sway over the church and posts weekly messages of faith to his blog.   As I've read these messages, I've noticed the following traits:
  1. The pastor freely shares his beliefs with you, but desires no questioning or direct interaction with you on the social media sites where he posts them.  
  2. The pastor spends in inordinate amount of time railing on homosexuality, liberals, "cultural wars", and typical far right bugaboos. 
  3. The pastor appears to be quite comfortable in his retirement, taking golf trips, vacations, and retreats.
  4. The pastor doesn't shy away from name dropping.  
  5. The pastor likes to rail against the world, but only in ways that comfort the comfortable.  Gay people, the media, single parents, public education, TV, music, video games, and other safe targets get attacked.    The idea that people should be more charitable, forgiving, loving, and should go after greed and corruption is not.   
  6. Thought and questioning are discouraged.   Science is evil.  This world is not one to worry about.    
  7. Minorities and communities without money are an afterthought when it comes to church outreach or expansion.  
  8. Greed gets a pass.   To question greed is to question yourself, question your political beliefs, question the people who build the running tracks, gyms, and pay for the season tickets to sporting events.   
What is clear is that evangelical leaders are simply a kinder gentler form of cult leader.   There is no real interest in sharing spirituality beyond a flashily presented service with a nicely scripted sermon.  These men are interested in building up their own personal, professional, and financial fortunes through a combination of easy spirituality (dunk 'em, born 'em again,  and collect their tithe), railing against "the other" (in the form of liberals, other religions, gays, etc.), and the planting of fear and doubt in anyone who might turn them against the pastor.   They've turned religion into a timeshare, luring you in with a sales pitch of fancy church buildings and programs, and giving you the hardsell until you fork over money for things you don't really need or want, while encouraging you to bring your friends and family, while rejecting those who aren't inclined to join you.  

Call me crazy, but I prefer the clergy and religious people who want to make this world a better place, who try to love everyone, regardless of race, color, creed, religion, or sexual persuation, and who are open to thoughtful discussion about faith, not someone who runs a country club that required unquestioning faith and 10% of your income to join.  

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Review: 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works - A True Story

10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works - A True Story
10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works - A True Story by Dan Harris

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

10% Happier is one of those books that hits the right person between the eyes. I happen to be that person.

Dan Harris is a newsman, and as such, appears to be a natural skeptic with an eye toward puncturing the overinflated balloons of those who make great claims for spirituality or meditation. But Harris is also someone who wants the benefit that meditation provides, having spent most of his life with a restless mind, high anxiety, and bad habits that forced him into a very public (although thankfully not too horrible) breakdown.

10% Happier is a journey as Dan Harris takes an undesired assignment to cover religion and spirituality and turns it into a personal quest for something meaningful. Along the way he writes some incredibly funny zingers about the people he meets and himself, tries to untangle the practical aspects of the teachings he reads from the mystical crap that many of our modern spiritual gurus spout. While he's obviously skeptical, he gives a fair and nuanced assessment of Eckart Tolle, Deepak Chopra (who he seems to find questionable in his assertions), and even disgraced minister Ted Haggard, who Harris found rather refreshing in his take on the problems with evangelical religion.

The great thing about Dan Harris' book is that his journey seems authentic. There is no great mystical change in Harris. He still finds a decent sized chunk of the spirituality movement on the edge of ridiculous. But by seeking out and explaining the real and tangible benefits, discussing his own misconceptions and issues with his attempts at meditation, and explaining what his own trial and error told him about what meditation is and what it isn't, he's provided a great blueprint for the beginner and the skeptic to seek out what meditation provides. It's a quick and funny read, and definitely recommended.

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