Friday, 31 July 2015

Shallow Minds Die Without Character

The background behind this quote came from a secret promise made to myself on my birthday. The duty was to finish 4 books, and after 3 months, I have enjoyed undertaking the literary adventures of the following titles in order:

1) The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains
2) The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
3) Move your DNA: Restore your Health Through Natural Movement
4) The Road to Character

But this is not going to be a literal book review for four different books. Looking up on Amazon and other book review titles will do that job nicely; instead to answer a friend's question of "what's the purpose of reading all these", my purpose is to extract the essence of the narrative, to understand the meaning behind these stories and relate it very intimately to our sense of life or the world. And in my endeavour, I have come to see how reading about the internet, extinction, movement and building character can connect so beautifully about the state of the world we live in right now.

- We are Not Neutral Beings and Nothing We Create Ever Is - 

It is a tempting sentiment to regard an object, e.g. a fork, computer, house as a non-living being and an extension of a tool, subject to our control and will. After all, just as easily we created our chairs, mobile phones and televisions, we could easily remove them right? Unfortunately, this illusion of power and control which we are inclined to think of ourselves is quite sadly mistaken.

"What both enthusiast and skeptic miss is what McLuhan saw: that in the long run a medium’s content matters less than the medium itself in influencing how we think and act. As our window onto the world, and onto ourselves, a popular medium molds what we see and how we see it—and eventually, if we use it enough, it changes who we are, as individuals and as a society. “The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts,” wrote McLuhan. Rather, they alter “patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance.” The showman exaggerates to make his point, but the point stands. Media work their magic, or their mischief, on the nervous system itself." - Carr, The Shallows

As an individual, yes it is perhaps possible to remove certain necessities, e.g. eat without forks and spoons, don't buy a television. But if you think further ahead, you will realise that it is almost impossible to relegate to a far more basic standard of living. If you work in an office, you have to sit on a chair almost all day. If you need to read the news or stock market, you have to log onto the Internet which is becoming more convenient through phones, televisions, watches. In fact, a by-product of the availability of online news had led to more and more newspapers are shutting down. As strongly argued in "The Shallows", it is important to recognise that our ways of behaving, mode of thinking, and I'd argue character can undergo mass changes due to the change of the medium. "The medium is the message" was that crucial message repeatedly emphasised, as Carr explains how our habits of reading and understanding information have morphed and evolved (or de-evolved sadly) as we "progress" from scrolls, books, tapes, televisions, internet articles and other forms of hyper or social media. With every introduction of a new technological tool utilised for spreading information, there has a corresponding effect on how the human population interprets and understands the world around them.

Much as how "The Shallows" illustrated the powerful effects of the Internet on thinking, "Move Your DNA" also points out that living in modern urban environments has had the same deleterious effect on our movement repertoire. By citing the example of the Orca whale who develops a deformed dorsal fin by living in the Seaworld environment, we are likewise living in an encased environment (built by ourselves ironically) that continues to castrate our movement potential. Sitting on chairs impairs our hip mobility, walking on flat surfaces in flat shoes (or high heeled shoes) restrict our foot sensory hence weakening our ability in overcoming rough terrains, and typing on keyboards makes our grip even weaker than our domesticated cats.

We truly do realise very little of what we create and have done to ourselves, and by the time we may have developed some hindsight, it is usually a little bit too late.

- Death Will Come to Every One of Us but It Matters If It Is In Spades - 

Death is the one sober truth which frightens all of us to our core. A universal tragedy is witnessing the extinguishing of young life, whether it be children or young adults who we know deserves a priceless chance to live through his/her natural life. But any species' life-cycle is ever dependent on the sustainable conditions of the environment. Live 500 years ago and human lifespan drops to the middle ages, live in a poor undeveloped country and you'd be lucky to live past 40, and afflictions of all kinds (from diseases, earthly disasters, presence of predators) will regulate the survivability of a species.

We are, without doubt, a very unique species, and it stands to chance by now, that we may become the ONLY living species in this planet in a couple of generations to come. Yes, there will be the pests from cockroaches, rats and mosquitoes, but almost all other kinds of animal lifeforms are and will face massive extinction. "The Sixth Extinction" has documented in scary detail the continuous extinction of frogs, bats, birds and even coral reefs. It wouldn't even matter whether each species' extinction is directly correlated to human action or not; the fact still remains a lot of them are emptying their pages out of the book of Earth history.

We will probably live on for a good longer period of time, but something still seems amiss. There is no victory in being the sole survivor here. Like fighting for your own survival in a zombie apocalypse, is there really any honour in coming out on top? And does death have any meaning when we all recognise each of us will perish one day? Reading the "Sixth Extinction" was a sobering read (in fact I recalled losing any interest in my personal pursuits while reading it) because life all seemed meaningless. To know that all of us will become fossil fuel one day shows that life and death has its ironies.

It is routinely attributed to Stalin that he said, "A single death is a tragedy, but a million deaths is a statistic". And as "The Sixth Extinction" shows, we are strangely indifferent to the concept of mass deaths, be it other living beings or our own. We still don't act decisively to "save the Earth" (reality is, the Earth will survive, it's us that will perish), and we know we are powerless against our own death so what more for others? But I'd argue that there is a beautiful, uniquely human quality, if we recognise and undertake an explicit understanding that death matters, and MASS death even glaring matters more. Perhaps we no longer have the power to prevent our own extinction (an inevitable phenomenon such as ocean acidification will make it inhabitable for almost all marine life, which in turns affect our survivability), but the meaning of our existence will not be for naught if we do not completely surrender to the absurdity of our existence.

"If you ask me what’s going to happen in the future, I think the strongest evidence we have is there is going to be a reduction in biodiversity,” Riebesell told me. “Some highly tolerant organisms will become more abundant, but overall diversity will be lost. This is what has happened in all these times of major mass extinction.” Ocean acidification is sometimes referred to as global warming’s “equally evil twin.” The irony is intentional and fair enough as far as it goes, which may not be far enough. No single mechanism explains all the mass extinctions in the record, and yet changes in ocean chemistry seem to be a pretty good predictor. Ocean acidification played a role in at least two of the Big Five extinctions (the end-Permian and the end-Triassic) and quite possibly it was a major factor in a third (the end-Cretaceous). There’s strong evidence for ocean acidification during an extinction event known as the Toarcian Turnover, which occurred 183 million years ago, in the early Jurassic, and similar evidence at the end of the Paleocene, 55 million years ago, when several forms of marine life suffered a major crisis. “Oh, ocean acidification,” Zalasiewicz had told me at Dob’s Linn. “That’s the big nasty one that’s coming down.” - Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction 

- Life is Not All About You, Character Is - 

Out of all the books, David Brooks' The Road to Character probably had the most significant impact on me. The book is essentially a lengthy exposition of an essay previously on The New York Times, "The Moral Bucket List". I was very much taken by the essay, as it had elucidated something which I felt I couldn't express in words. That life is more than just garnering accomplishments or external goods, but a measurement of your character and what it stood for in your lifetime. There is nothing wrong with having a bucket list of achieving certain things, e.g. travel around the world, do sky-diving, but just like in the movie "The Bucket List" (played by Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman), the intrinsic pleasures and satisfactions of life are truly attained by the quality of our bonds to the loved ones around us.

"One book that has helped me think about these two sets of virtues is Lonely Man of Faith, which was written by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik in 1965. Soloveitchik noted that there are two accounts of creation in Genesis and argued that these represent the two opposing sides of our nature, which he called Adam I and Adam II. Modernizing Soloveitchik’s categories a bit, we could say that Adam I is the career-oriented, ambitious side of our nature. Adam I is the external, résumé Adam. Adam I wants to build, create, produce, and discover things. He wants to have high status and win victories. Adam II is the internal Adam. Adam II wants to embody certain moral qualities. Adam II wants to have a serene inner character, a quiet but solid sense of right and wrong—not only to do good, but to be good. Adam II wants to love intimately, to sacrifice self in the service of others, to live in obedience to some transcendent truth, to have a cohesive inner soul that honors creation and one’s own possibilities. While Adam I wants to conquer the world, Adam II wants to obey a calling to serve the world. While Adam I is creative and savors his own accomplishments, Adam II sometimes renounces worldly success and status for the sake of some sacred purpose. While Adam I asks how things work, Adam II asks why things exist, and what ultimately we are here for. While Adam I wants to venture forth, Adam II wants to return to his roots and savor the warmth of a family meal. While Adam I’s motto is “Success,” Adam II experiences life as a moral drama. His motto is “Charity, love, and redemption.”   - Brooks, The Road to Character

Another reason why I was genuinely surprised by the impact of this book on me, was also due to the diverse array of historical figures Brooks had used to elucidate his points on humility. From civil servants (e.g. Frances Perkins, the first female US Secretary of Labour), government figures (e.g. General George Marshall), civil rights activists (e.g. A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin), novelists and other older century figures (e.g. George Elliot and St Augustine), Brooks describes the personal weaknesses of these people in excruciating details and their challenges in meeting up to their vocations. There are many consistent themes which Brooks touches upon, such as being in service to a grander purpose, practising stoicism in character so as not to broadcast (and justify) one's own dirty laundry, and distrust of one's own "altruistic" intentions so as to honour a noble cause.

It is a sad truism that we will be able to rationalise easily that we are too busy and occupied with our own struggles to pursue a greater good. Between paying for our bills, ensuring our children receive a bright education, and that we are getting ahead in our careers, who has time to contemplate and act on uplifting the health of other people or the environment? But as argued by Brooks, much of the figures in his book found ways to look beyond their own occupations, and chase after an intangible quality which has demonstrably positive effects on others (and not necessarily themselves). Pursuing happiness for themselves is not the goal, making yourself feel less guilty even in the spirit of philanthropy and charity is still self-directed hedonism, and the worth of a character is at most times, determined by how much you have done for others than for yourself. Hence, we need to rethink very critically this pervasive notion of "My happiness matters more than others" mentality, and ask more of "what can I do to improve the quality of life for those around me?".

"As I looked around the popular culture I kept finding the same messages everywhere: You are special. Trust yourself. Be true to yourself. Movies from Pixar and Disney are constantly telling children how wonderful they are. Commencement speeches are larded with the same clichés: Follow your passion. Don’t accept limits. Chart your own course. You have a responsibility to do great things because you are so great. This is the gospel of self-trust....

This self-centeredness leads in several unfortunate directions. It leads to selfishness, the desire to use other people as means to get things for yourself. It also leads to pride, the desire to see yourself as superior to everybody else. It leads to a capacity to ignore and rationalize your own imperfections and inflate your virtues. As we go through life, most of us are constantly comparing and constantly finding ourselves slightly better than other people—more virtuous, with better judgment, with better taste. We’re constantly seeking recognition, and painfully sensitive to any snub or insult to the status we believe we have earned for ourselves. Some perversity in our nature leads us to put lower loves above higher ones. We all love and desire a multitude of things: friendship, family, popularity, country, money, and so on. And we all have a sense that some loves are higher or more important than other loves. I suspect we all rank those loves in pretty much the same way. We all know that the love you feel for your children or parents should be higher than the love you have for money. We all know the love you have for the truth should be higher than the love you have for popularity. Even in this age of relativism and pluralism, the moral hierarchy of the heart is one thing we generally share, at least most of the time. But we often put our loves out of order. If someone tells you something in confidence and then you blab it as good gossip at a dinner party, you are putting your love of popularity above your love of friendship. If you talk more at a meeting than you listen, you may be putting your ardor to outshine above learning and companionship. We do this all the time." - Brooks, The Road to Character

- Why Shallow Minds Die Without Character -

So here it comes, the concluding point of my readings. We face unavoidable truths: i) We all will die. And it matters how. ii) We all have character. And as much as you like to think of yourself as someone great, the persons attending your funeral will determine your character. iii) To have some accurate assessment of your character, it is, contrary to what you may presume, less about what you think and achieve on your own, but how far you have acted accordingly within your own means and with others. But unfortunately, in recounting all these, there is this little quote about accurate self-assessment which I'd like to share from another fine book:

"There is in fact a category of people who get unusually close to the truth about themselves and the world. Their self-perceptions are more balanced, they assign responsibility for success and failure more evenhandedly, and their predictions for the future are more realistic. These people are living testimony to the dangers of self-knowledge. They are the clinically depressed." - Fine, A Mind of Its Own
My argument shouldn't be construed as a necessary pre-requisite to suffer a mental illness to build self-character. However, it seems especially unlikely to build many admirable aspects of character (e.g. fortitude, grit, self-discipline, virtue, selflessness, etc) without some degree of hardship. Living a comfortable life, where it's easy to lie down on a cushy bed at the end of a day, is very different from contending serious challenges (not just going to work on time) on a long-term basis. I believe we try to externalise such yearnings subliminally through popular media (especially from super hero films and drama television programmes) knowing that we can't ever get on a horse and ride with an army taking down an evil king. But our enemies don't just come from the outside world; it can come from the laziness of our minds, as it shifts and opts to accept everything in our lives uncritically, and without investigation for the consequences of our daily behaviour. Our challenges can come from confronting the easy acceptance of our flaws or sins, in which we rate ourselves each day on a lower and lower scale of mediocrity, until we are just passing by our lives, leaving no significant mark on the people around us, or even the future generations after us.

I want to cite an example from The Road to Character book, General George Marshall, a man whom I had the hardest difficulty of relating to (i.e. I'm not an admirer of civil and military figures generally). Though I was tempted to disregard any meaning in extrapolating the character of this person, I found a poignant redeeming quality in the way he instructed the end of his life:

"He died on October 16, 1959, just shy of his eightieth birthday. General Tom Handy, his old deputy chief of staff, had once asked him about the arrangements for his funeral but Marshall cut him off. “You don’t have to worry about it. I’ve left all the necessary instructions.” These instructions were opened after his death. They were remarkable: “Bury me simply, like any ordinary officer of the U.S. Army who has served his country honorably. No fuss. No elaborate ceremonials. Keep the service short, confine the guest-list to the family. And above everything, do it quietly.” - Brooks, The Road to Character

I believe, due to the power of the Internet, we are now conditioned to be very worried and anxious of not living a LARGE enough life. If we didn't have many highlight reels on Facebook, it feels like we lived a minuscule existence. If we didn't travel to all the corners of the world, if we didn't show countless pictures of us conquering an external goal (at this point, I find it almost incredulous to count a Back Squat PR as constituting a significant life triumph), it feels like we were insignificant in the great scheme of things. But how possible is it for most of us to devise a cure for AIDS, to save the animal population, and become Batman? If you wish to live the life of a superhero, then expect to contend with one essential quality of it: Expect no gratification or return of favour for being one. But continue serving for others because you must.  

Most of us will experience our lives quietly without the rest of the world knowing or missing us. Nonetheless, silence does not imply shallowness; it is entirely possible to refine a sword of a character without noise and attention from others. It dictates sacrifice, sometimes of the things which we hold dear; it demands a holistic mindset to re-imagine the world marked behind by your presence even after you're gone; and it calls upon us to regard our character as an important bearer of our history which we should treat as more priceless than our own prized possessions.