Weekly Photo Challenge: Transformation

“The universe is transformation; life is opinion.” — Marcus Aurelius

Weekly Photo Challenge:

Transformation

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The brain and the concept of evil

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“Why did evolution invent conscious experience and pain if we are machines, in principle no different from cars?”  — Henry Marsh, Robert Sapolsky’s Behave is tour de force of science writing. 

I have finally found a book that articulates what I have been thinking about for the last couple of years. (I haven’t read it yet, but I will very soon as I’ve already ordered on Amazon.)

In his review of the book, Marsh says, “Sapolsky uses the analogy of a car with faulty brakes to describe antisocial human behaviour. A mechanic will not accuse the car of being evil but instead will explain its bad behaviour in terms of its malfunctioning parts. Human behaviour is no different – it is determined by the mechanics of our brains. The difference is that we understand very little about them and so we invoke the mythical concept of a controlling self (which Sapolsky describes as a homunculus) located somewhere in our heads. Concepts such as ‘evil’, he argues, have no place in the modern world of scientific explanation. If people behave badly, it is because of the neurological, genetic, hormonal and environmental determinants that shaped their brains, not because of any evil nature. He concedes that punishment may be necessary as a deterrent but is adamant that it should not be seen as a virtue.”

Last year I wrote about my thoughts on people’s lack of control on their negative behavior as it may be determined by a malfunction in their brains (On Compassion, Forgiveness and the Brain ) Today, I came across Marsh’s review of Sapolsky’s book, and I am so happy that a renowned neuroendocrinologist and author from Stanford actually wrote about how the concept of “evil” has no place in the modern world of scientific explanation.

I can’t wait to read this :

Robert Sapolsky, Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst 

 

Daily Prompt: Grit 


By understanding the enemy and yourself, you can engage in a hundred battles without ever being in danger.”   Sun Zi 孙子

This is good advice not only for those who have enemies but also those who battle challenges, temptations. Some of us don’t have enemies, but on a daily basis we are confronted with situations that test the firmness of our character, our grit.

As important as knowing what we are up against is knowing what we are and what we are not capable of doing. We need an honest assessment of ourselves and work from there. If we truly understand who or what we are up against, and we truly understand our strengths and weaknesses, we can be confident of not being defeated.

You can play with fire with the confidence that you won’t get burned. 😁
T.
(I’ve been rereading Sun Zi’s Art of War. It’s always an interesting read.)

Easter Thoughts on “The Young Pope”

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          Even if you are not Catholic but like stories that are character/theme-driven and thought-provoking and makes you pause and reassess your faith or values or both, then you would probably like this TV series.

          I agreed with this CNN review of The Young Pope when I watched the first half of the first season. I thought the development was too slow, and it was almost painful to watch. But my friend was certain I would like it (and you have to trust your friends, right?) Indeed it turned out to be one of the few TV series that I truly enjoyed not because it’s entertaining (I don’t find it entertaining) but because it has a cathartic effect on me as a viewer (me being raised Catholic, a woman and mother). I find the dialogue quite well-written and added to the picturesque shots of the Vatican, the show seemed to me like a literary novel with sound and imagery.

This is perhaps the only TV series that made me grab the tissue so many times in its last 4 episodes, not because it is sentimental but because the characters, finally fully developed in the latter half of the season, are shown to be all broken people who try to be whole. What truly resonates with me is the mother-child motif which is central to the story. (As a mother who works in another country and only gets to embrace her son 2-3 days a month, I am easily moved by scenes of children missing their parents, their feeling of being abandoned, unloved.) The feeling of being abandoned, of being unloved by the very people you expect to love you because they brought you into this world, is ever present in the young pope.

Watching this show where characters deal with memories of their painful childhood, infertility, broken dreams, faith crisis, etc. – all part of being human, can purge a viewer of the pain and pity and fear that these sufferings evoke. That is what it did to me anyway, not because I went through all of these things myself (I didn’t), but as the characters are fully developed, there is empathy for what they have been through; and, I may not like what they did but understand how and why they became who they are.

         (Spoiler alert: Stop reading if you don’t want to know details of the show!)

This show also makes use of dichotomies, the ones most obvious to me are the following:

Free versus Determined
Cardinal Gutierrez and Cardinal Kurtwell were both abused as a child, but their respective responses to the abuse were quite different. Both are homosexuals, but Gutierrez is strongly against sexual abuse whereas Kurtwell insists that what he has become (preying on the powerless, especially young men) is a result of the abuse he suffered as a child. The Pope praised Gutierrez for turning his fear into anger and becoming an advocate for victims of abuse.

What this dichotomy made me think is the idea of free will and determinism. Are we truly free to steer our lives into a particular direction, like Gutierrez did, choosing NOT to be an abuser like Kurtwell, but defending those who are being abused as he once was?

One may say Kurtwell was simply making the abuse he suffered as a child as an excuse for what he really wanted to do as an adult – abusing young men. But then again, how much of what we do is dictated by our inner desire, and how much of this desire is brought about by the many different factors that influence our everyday lives?

Will a child born into a violent family but grew up with a loving and gentle adoptive family become violent as well? Nobody knows for sure because there are other factors that will determine his personality later on, one of which is genetics.

And then there’s the brain. (Please click on the link to understand what I mean.)

Old versus young
The title is deceiving. The pope may be young but he feels and sees himself as old. In one scene, he refers to Sofia as being one of the young people, to which Sofia replies that they are the same age. Yet the Pope tells her, “We used to be the same age.” As he is now the Father of millions of Catholics, his “age” accelerated with the many responsibilities that go with being pope.

The Pope also adheres to the old practices of the old church when the Roman Catholic Church exerted enormous influence in people’s daily lives. (Not unlike Trump, he’s willing to build a new and stronger wall to keep out those who do not agree with him.)

In his last conversation with his friend Cardinal Dusolier who asked him, “When are you gonna grow up?” the Pope answered, “Never. A priest never grows up because he can never become a father. He will always be a son.” Later when Dusolier expressed his desire to go back to Honduras because he could no longer bear being in the Vatican after a young man who had wanted to become a priest jumped to his death from the very spot where they were standing because the Pope’s new directive disqualified him from entering the seminary, the Pope answered him in words that may seem very heartless, insensitive but to me are very reasonable and so true: “If you give up now, now that you’re faced with the burden of responsibility and your own guilty conscience, when will you ever grow up?”

What does being grown up mean? Does it mean pretending not to be hurt by the painful past? Or does it mean acknowledging that same painful past while facing the present with all its challenges?

Imagination versus Reality
In his conversation with the Prime Minister, the Pope mocked the Prime Minister who had just given him statistics (reality) on the unpopularity of the church (particularly the Pope) and his (the Prime Minister’s) growing popularity among the Italians. He said the PM lacked imagination of which he (the Pope) and God have so much.
To me what best exhibits this dichotomy is the story between Lenny (before he became a priest) and the young woman he met in California. They spent a week together, and he had a wonderful time with her. The young woman told him he could touch her legs, but he never did. Yet the very fact that he didn’t, made this non-event even more firmly implanted in his memory. If he had touched her legs, most likely he would have forgotten whatever happened between them before that “event”! But because he didn’t, the scene is like frozen in his memory (think: Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn!)

Imagination is more powerful than reality.

Lost versus Found
In an unsent letter to the young woman he met in California, Lenny recalled the time the young woman told him he could touch her legs, but he didn’t and wrote, “There, my love, is love lost…And you shining gleam of my misspent youth, did you lose or did you find?”

The Pope, his childhood friend Cardinal Dusolier, Sister Mary were all orphans, abandoned by their parents. Did their parents lose them? Did they lose their parents? Or did they find each other and became, the three of them, a family?
          Perhaps when we lose something or someone, we only have to look and realize that something or someone else has found us.

Happy Easter!

the young pope

On Reality

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When I was still a child, I often heard my mother tell people about how I liked to look up at the sky —  wondering, (over)thinking, imagining, which was why she didn’t let me wash the dishes. It took me forever to finish.

These days I find myself doing the same thing — taking some time to finish washing the dishes because I keep looking up at the sky from my kitchen window and wondering, “Is there somebody up there watching us live our lives here below?”

I shared this thought with my husband, who simply laughed and said, “Oh, yes! And they are looking down and saying, ‘Oh look at this cute little girl bravely asking such questions!” (Let me be clear on this one: No one else thinks I’m cute except my husband. That’s why he’s my husband.) 

Ever since I read Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” Marquez’s “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World,” and Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” over twenty years ago, I’ve always wondered about the nature of “reality.” I remembered asking the question, what if there was another world where their idea of reality is different from ours?

It was a few years later that I read Bradbury’s stories, and watched “The Matrix” and my idea of “reality” was further changed. Two years ago I watched “Interstellar” and the scene where Cooper was finally able to communicate with Murph (they once thought there was a “ghost”) made me think of what we think is “real” or “imagined.”(Some of my friends who are into science fiction weren’t very impressed with “Interstellar,”  but I’m not a big sci-fi fan, so it was very impressive for me.) 

These days there are more and more people talking  about the simulation hypothesis and consciousness and how human beings can suddenly change because of some damage to the brain. Reading about the brain and consciousness and theories on reality and our existence makes me even more eager to know the truth about our existence, our reality.

Just yesterday I started watching the HBO TV series, Westworld, and perhaps this is the reason at 11:31 in the evening I am still up writing this. Hopefully with the popularity of this TV series, more people will be asking questions about our existence and actively seek answers to these questions.

Who are we?

I really want to know.

 

On Compassion, Forgiveness and the Brain

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Have you ever been extremely angry with somebody that you imagined you were Daenerys riding Drogon which was breathing fire on to your enemies?

(Fortunately for me, I have not been that angry with any one person in a long time, but only with a group of people terrorizing my beautiful island of Mindanao, oh yeah. I was so angry that in my imagination, I didn’t even have to be Daenerys. I was happy just to be Drogon!)

Don’t you find it exhausting when you dislike this person so much, but this person just can’t disappear from your life? You hear people talking about him/her, and it’s worse when he/she is doing so well while you aren’t?

For us, humans, anger towards somebody is most often accompanied by its best friend, jealousy. Those two are perhaps the ugliest, meanest pair ever. They will keep you awake at night, make you lose your appetite, then your energy.

If you’re smart or meet the right people who can help you get rid of that ugly pair, then lucky you. If not, that pair will ruin your life.

A few months ago, I started reading Oliver Sacks’ An Anthropologist on Mars. For some reason I could not finish reading it, but a couple of weeks ago I picked it up again and read the chapter called “A Surgeon’s Life,” which is about Dr. Carl Bennett (a pseudonym), a surgeon who has Tourette’s Syndrome.

This chapter was truly an eye-opener for me, and I’m writing about this because I am hoping this can somehow also make my readers re-evaluate how we judge our fellow human beings.

Dr. Bennett is highly respected by his colleagues and patients, and despite his tics, is able to perform surgery efficiently as if he didn’t have Tourette’s at all. He said the outward expressions of his Tourette’s that most people see are not the worst problems he has to face. The real ones are those within — panic and rage. In his words,

                “It’s not gentle….You can see it as whimsical, funny — be tempted to romanticize it —   but Tourette’s comes from deep down in the nervous system and the unconscious. It taps    into the oldest, strongest feelings we have. Tourette’s is like an epilepsy in the  subcortex.; when it takes over, there’s just a thin line of control, a thin line of cortex,  between you and it, between you and that raging storm, the blind force of the subcortex.     One can see the charming things, the funny things, the creative side of Tourette’s, but there’s also that dark side. You have to fight it all your life.”

At home, Dr. Bennett can give expression to this rage, not directed at people but at inanimate objects around him. His wall, his refrigerator are witnesses to this rage. One wall is covered with knife marks.

Scary? I find this very sad. That a human being who does not want to be violent CANNOT CHOOSE not to be violent.

Dr. Bennett is fortunate enough to have a family that understands and accepts him and helps him deal with all of these. But not everyone is as fortunate as Dr. Bennett. I wonder how many people out there have undiagnosed neurological disorders, committing crimes which they could not help doing? They don’t even know why they are doing it, or perhaps they think they know why they are doing it; but do they really?

I wonder if a brain scan is required of every criminal, how many of these people we would find to have neurological disorders?

This question led me to think how the human brain is very much like a computer. Just as computers have software-related problems such as viruses and bugs, the human brain can have chemical imbalance or viral infections. And just like computers that can have hardware-related problems such as overheating, a malfunctioning chip or a motherboard failure, our brain can also suffer from head or brain injuries.

When your computer is defective, do you try to save it or do you discard it, right away?

It seems computers are luckier than humans because we can easily see that our computer has a problem, and our initial reaction is to find out what caused it and how to fix it.

But with a human being, if his brain has a problem but it’s undiagnosed, we right away judge the person according to his actions without asking whether he has control over his actions or not.

What is worse is we label these people as crazy, nuts, wacko, lunatic, deranged, etc. without even knowing what caused them to become such people. Perhaps  you have heard or read about people who were known to be gentle or kind, and all of a sudden murdered somebody. People express shock or disbelief, saying it was totally out of character.

Here are some ways people can suddenly change:

Trauma to the brain can cause a drastic change in personality. 

Alcohol and drugs (medications) can change a person’s personality. 

Viral infections in the brain can cause a change in personality. 

Certain foods and food  ingredients like MSG can affect your behavior. 

Now, going back to my first question: Have you ever been extremely angry with somebody that you imagined you were Daenerys riding Drogon which was breathing fire on to your enemies?

If you have or you still are extremely angry with somebody, ask yourself whether it’s possible this person has a hardware or software-related problem in his brain, and perhaps he has no control over some of his thoughts and actions, just like, sometimes, you have no control over some of your own thoughts and actions.

And when you realize that we are all in the same boat, then you would hopefully understand your fellow human being, and perhaps forgiving will be a little bit easier (but, of course, be smart about it!)

I wonder if that is what prompted Jesus to utter these words when he was crucified: “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”

When he said those words, He became the epitome of compassion and forgiveness.

 

Note:

A couple of years ago a friend and I talked about whether human beings have free will or not. Back then I wasn’t really convinced that we don’t, but mostly because I did not have the time to think about it and read about it more. But now I think my friend may be on to something. 🙂 He wrote a book called Without Free Will. It’s well-written and thought-provoking. Check it out.

Stop. Look. Listen. Feel. Be grateful. Move on. 

   

Sunset at Dalipuga, Iligan, Philippines 


One of my favorite poems that I can recite by heart is Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. I kept reciting this poem to my baby when I was still pregnant, and even after my son was born. HBO’s Classical Baby The Poetry Show includes a reading of this poem by Susan Sarandon, and it is now my 5-year old son’s favorite part of the video.

A thought came to mind today as I watched my son give me the sweetest smile when the video clip began. A few months after our son was diagnosed with Autism, my husband wished Eli would not grow so quickly. Today, only for a moment I wished Eli would never grow up, so people can excuse his strange stimming habits, his speech delay and other autistic traits. Every now and then  I worry about whether or not he will be able to live independently, when my husband and I won’t be around to look after him anymore.

Frost’s poem talks about how we, once in a while, encounter something that make us wish could last at least a lifetime, but we all have other things to do — duties, responsibilities, roles to play in other people’s lives — so we have to move on, continue living our lives.

The speaker in this poem though was truly in the moment. He   noticed his surroundings: the snow-covered woods, the frozen lake; he heard the sound of the harness bells and the wind. He also used his imagination (“My little horse must think it queer…”), and was quite aware not only of the lack of danger (…He will not see me stopping here/ To watch his woods fill up with snow), but also of his responsibilities and of the life he had to live,   (But I have promises to keep/ And miles to go before I sleep/ And miles to go before I sleep.) 

Oftentimes I look at my son and wonder what life will be like for him. Will he ever be able to speak like a neurotypical person? Will he be able to read by himself the books that he loves for me to read to him? Will he be able to write down his own name?  But then I stop myself from doing this, and instead do things with him. Not much use wondering about the future when so much of it depends on the present.

What I liked most about Frost’s poem is the idea that though we can (and we should) live our lives — face our responsibilities, fulfill our duties, find our way in the darkness — we can stop once in a while and just enjoy what we have in our lives: food on our table, clothes to keep us warm (or cool), roof over our heads,  air we breathe, water we drink, family, friendship. And love. And faith that everything will be all right in the end.

Thank you. Salamat. 谢谢。