Lisa Rokusek often writes for Dangerous Intersection. She also writes for her own website, The Rhino and the Buddha. Lisa and her partner have made a cottage industry of reaching out to help others, including cats, and dogs, but mostly to other human beings.
Lisa is a good friend of mine and she never ceases to impress me with her willingness to keep trying, sometimes against all odds. I’m not trying to embarrass her by saying this, but merely indicating that some of Lisa’s bouts of empathy are endeavors that I would be hesitant to attempt. Framed with quotes by Pema Chödrön, Lisa’s most recent post, “No Guarantee,” is a charmingly well-written but less-than-satisfying episode that ends with several important observations:
Sometimes we sow seeds we don’t get to see grow. Sometimes we expend effort and it has no impact. Sometimes little things we do without noticing make all the difference.
The linked video is an example of a father (John) having a romantic relationship with his own daughter (Jenny) and having children with her. The documentary also introduces viewers to a romantically involved half-brother and half-sister.
But doesn’t nature rig close relatives so that they are sexually repulsed from each other? Yes, but only if they live in close proximity during a critical early developmental window. This potential desensitization to sexual attraction is referred to as the Westermarck Effect. In the case of John and Jenny, the daughter had essentially no contact with her father for the first three decades of her life. Same situation with the half-siblings. Without the Westermarck effect to pull back on the reins, “genetic sexual attraction” kicks in to supercharge the romance.
Notice how the moralistic and legalistic discussion in this documentary runs orthogonally to the biological research. Not once is the Westermarck Effect discussed, even though it sheds substantial light on these situations. It often occurs to me that we’d be better off analyzing social situations in terms of evolution and ecology in addition to legality and morality, but that would deprive us of so many opportunities to engage in angry finger-pointing and judgmental barking.
To consider the science would admittedly require some effort, something that many of today’s self-assured people are unwilling to do. If people did take the time to think things through more rigorously, however, they would likely see that this “father” and this “daughter” are dramatically unlike prototypical fathers and daughters in dramatic ways that correlate to solid biological and psychological research. If they took the time to understand this situation using (easily available) science rather than simply folk-morality, even the harshest critics of these couples might have the following thought: If I had been in that situation, these same sorts of powerful attractions might have overwhelmed me too. A perspective infused with even a bit of science would have set a different tone for this entire documentary. A bit of scientifically-informed self-critical thinking might even open the door for a more empathetic perspective.
It’s a new multidisciplinary world out there with regard to “morality,” as psychologist Jonathan Haidt eloquently explains at Edge.
[Note: This is Part II of a series of posts being the title “Mending Fences”]
When Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and the other “new atheists” first launched their attacks on religion a few years ago, I was delighted. After decades of relative silence, the mass media was finally giving some atheists a chance to present my view that virgins don’t have babies and that dead people don’t regain consciousness. Harris, Dawkins and other new atheists dared to argue in public that there is no sentient version of God; they reminded believers that all believers were atheists regarding Zeus, as well as all of the purported gods other than their own God. The writings of the new atheists energized considerable discussion, much of it thoughtful. Even a cursory review of the many websites and YouTube videos considering religion makes it clear that many teenagers and young adults have actively joined discussions triggered by the new atheists.
In the wake of this energized discussion, many of us became proficient at pointing out the hundreds of contradictions and absurdities in the Bible. We repeatedly called foul whenever we spotted theists cherry-picking the Bible (none of you are wearing clothes made of linen and wool, I hope!). We repeatedly reminded believers of Carl Sagan’s caveat that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. Many of us dug even deeper, studying the philosophy of science, so that we could clearly explain to believers that to be meaningful, claims had to be falsifiable. Not that these arguments actually convinced believers (at least, not in my personal experience), but they did serve to announce our view that religious claims must no longer be privileged—they shouldn’t be assumed to be true and that they must be put under the microscope (as Daniel Dennett urged in Breaking the Spell) like every other natural phenomenon. We made it clear that we weren’t convinced when believers attempted to explain their beliefs by reference to ancient apocryphal supposedly-sacred writings strewn with ambiguity and self-contradictions. Thanks to the arrival of the new atheists, all of these important issues started receiving unflinching media attention.
These past few years have been emotionally and intellectually exhilarating for skeptics of all stripes. Those of us who have maintained skeptical websites have become further energized and intellectually sharpened by reading each others’ posts and by carefully re-reading the Bible and the Koran armed with scalpels rather than intellectual queasiness. The books and media appearances of the new atheists, as well as the many websites by hundreds of newly awakened atheists, have created a community where there had previously been only isolated individuals. The work of the new atheists thus revealed to each of us that none of us was alone in scrutinizing and criticizing the supernatural claims of religions. Many energized atheists have boldly stepped out of their closets and started becoming vocal as a group, especially when believers callously asserted that all atheists are ipso facto immoral and hell-bound.
[More . . .]
So Mel Gibson has been exposed (once again) as an intolerant, sexist, abusive person. A recording of a phone conversation with his former girlfriend is now Out There on the internet and one can listen to Mel spill molten verbiage into her earpiece while she calmly refutes his charges.
All I can wonder is, So what?
What business is this of ours? This is private stuff. People lose control. Between each other, with strangers, but more often with those closest, people have moments when the mouth ill-advisedly opens and vileness falls out. The question is, does this define us? Are we, in fact, only to be defined by our worst moments?
That would seem to be the case for people like Gibson. The reason, I think, is that for most of us, the Mel Gibsons of the world have no business having shitty days and acting like this. For most of us, there is just cause for having these kinds of days and attitudes, because for most of us the world is not our oyster and we do not have the luxury of squandering time, friends, and money. Mel Gibson is wealthy and famous and, at one time, admired. He ate at the best restaurants, appeared on television, gave interviews, has his picture on the covers of magazines. Is seen with other people, regularly, who fall into that category of Those Who Have It Made.
I am the lucky father of two young ladies, aged 10 and 11. Though I have worked hard with my wife to raise these two girls for more than a few years, this work doesn’t qualify me as any sort of expert. I am a father like most other fathers, without any specialized training or insights regarding parenting.
I think about my daughters every hour of every day, and that is no different than most other fathers. I am far too often away from home at work missing my daughters, often painfully so, but this is unfortunately typical in our culture. I want the best for my children, and in that regard, I am no different than any other father. I can’t imagine not having become a father, and that is another thought that occurs to virtually every other father.
Though extolling fatherhood in writing is not something that all other fathers do, I am far from unique in this regard too. I work hard to respect the privacy of my daughters . It is not my right to freely disclose details about my relationship with either of my daughters to a large online audience. It is for this reason alone that you won’t read much about my relationships with my daughters (though here is a rare exception). I’m tempted to share thousands of joyous moments on this site, because these sorts of powerful moments happen every day. I don’t write about these private happenings, however, because it wouldn’t be fair.
These privacy concerns won’t stop me from writing about fatherhood in general. Here I am, writing on “Father’s Day,” knowing full well that for all committed fathers, every day is Father’s Day. Every moment one sees one’s child beaming a smile, it is Father’s Moment. As I sit here tonight, I find myself thinking that this is an appropriate day for re-considering what it is that I’ve been trying to accomplish as a father. This sort of contemplation exercise was encouraged by the authors of a child-raising book called The Manipulative Child: How to Regain Control and Raise Resilient, Resourceful and Independent Kids, by E.W. Swihart and Patrick Cotter. These two authors encourage parents to periodically set aside the time to draft a concise statement of what it is that they are trying to accomplish as parents.
We live in a scary world, and the ubiquitous dangers frame my views on parenting. I’m like most parents in that I constantly struggle to walk a fine line with my children. I want them to feel safe, but I also want to prepare them for the real world. It is in this context that I define my goal as a father something like this: When my daughters grow up to be adults, if they are still relying on me, or tending to my wants, putting me on any sort of pedestal or trying to please me, then I have failed as a father. When my daughters become adults, what I seek is a genuine friendship with each of them. In my view, a loving friendship is the sort of relationship that results between a parent and a child if the parenting has been successful.
My hope is also that my daughters, once grown, will have developed the wide array of skills necessary to allow them to compete well with the global workforce, not merely the American workforce. I want them to also have the social skills (emotional intelligence) to allow them to confidently thrive both within and outside of groups. I want them to feel comfortable around many types of human beings, including those who have very few material resources. Nor do I want them to feel any obeisance when they find themselves in the company of people who have greater notoriety, power or material resources. I want them to be self-critical, such that they will want to repeatedly revisit their own most cherished presumptions (as well as those of others). And as my own mother told me, I want my daughters to be kind-hearted.
Without going into any details, I am celebrating on this Father’s Day because I live with two kind-hearted, hard-working, self-critical, independent-minded daughters. There is a lot to celebrate today. My hope is that my beautiful daughters will continue their impressive journeys out into the world in order to make the world a better place, and to discover who they themselves are in the process. That is my Father’s Day hope.
Parents wonder how their kids will grow up. Will they be kind, smart, generous, or axe murderers? In my experience, the surest way to make sure your children develop compassion, empathy and generosity is to get them a cat.
“Daddy, Daddy!” the kids chorused. “Mommy said we could get a kitty!”
“I told them that if they did chores for 10 days straight,” she said, “each of them could get a kitty.”
We were having difficulty getting the kids to do their chores. My wife had solved both our chores-problem and the kids’ desire to have a pet in one stroke. The kids had wanted another cat since loyal friend Nat King Cat had died.
“Now you guys understand that YOU have to take care of your kitties,” said my wife.
As the result of the “deal,” my kids became chores maniacs. The whole thing smacked of bribery, but the house and kids were cleaner and the kids were happier.
The kittens would stay in the kids’ bedrooms for the first 10 days. After day eight of the chores marathon, we went to find kittens.
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