RSSCategory: Meaning of Life

Checking out

March 9, 2010 | By | 3 Replies More
Checking out

Sometimes, after a stressful period digging through work, family, and community obligations, I find myself driving past a cemetery and telling myself a private joke. “Lucky bastards,” I utter in a serious voice. “They get to to have endless amounts of deep sleep.” I’m trying to be ironic at those moments (though I always do enjoy my own jokes!).

There is a serious point to this. Many people have had enough, and they do want to end their lives. It turns out that they do have some options other than an often gristly self-inflicted suicide, the type of death that leaves behind families that are horrified, angry and/or guilt-ridden.

Since 2002, Holland has allowed euthanasia to those afflicted with ‘hopeless and unbearable suffering’ certified by two doctors. But now, after 112,500 signatures were collected on the issue, Holland’s legislature is considering pushing the envelope even further. According to World News, the Dutch legislature is considering a measure that provides for this:

Assisted suicide for anyone over 70 who has simply had enough of life is being considered in Holland. Non-doctors would be trained to administer a lethal potion to elderly people who ‘consider their lives complete’. The radical move would be a world first and push the boundaries even further in the country that first legalised euthanasia. Supporters say it would offer a dignified way to die for those over 70 who just want to give up living, without having to resort to difficult or unreliable solitary suicide methods.


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Measuring subjective happiness

March 4, 2010 | By | 1 Reply More
Measuring subjective happiness

In the January 29, 2010 issue of Science (available online only to subscribers), Richard Layard considers whether subjective reports are valid ways of measuring the well-being of a population. After all, we’ve been hearing some rather extraordinary findings of studies over the years based upon subjective happiness. For instance, studies consistently show that higher national income does not increase “quality of life,” (defined by subjective happiness). In fact, based on studies relying on subjective judgment, there has been no increase in happiness over the past 50 years in the United States.

Layard asks a fundamental question: “Can subjective well-being really be measured well enough to be used in policy analyses?” Even though the science of measuring happiness is “very young,” Layard indicates that subjective measures of happiness are well correlated with at least five relevant sets of variables:

The reports of friends; the possible causes of well-being; some possible effects of well-being; physical functioning, such as levels of cortisol; and measures of brain activity.

There is good reason to be optimistic that we will get better at measuring happiness. “Fifty years ago, there was considerable debate on how to measure depression, but by now this has become much less controversial in all likelihood, the measurement of happiness will become similarly less controversial.”

As we fine-tune our methods of measuring of subjective happiness, Layard believes we will be better able to monitor trends of happiness, we will deal to identify problem groups within populations and we will be better able to determine why some people are happy and others are not. Better measurements will certainly allow us determine quality of life better than the many efforts to do so in terms of money.

What’s at stake according to Layard? As we leave behind our crude financial measurements of the quality of life and continue to develop better methods of measuring subjective happiness, “it will produce very different priorities for our society.”


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March 3, 2010 | By | 2 Replies More

There is no better way to teach a lesson than by telling a story. Here’s a beautiful and lesson-filled story a friend of mine, Dave Jenkins, has told about his recently deceased father.


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Framing the deaths of children

March 1, 2010 | By | Reply More
Framing the deaths of children

An article at MSNBC caught my eye. The title: “Doctors hastened dying kids’ death, say parents.” My initial reaction was that the doctors had done something bad. The article turned out to be more nuanced than the headline, but the opening paragraph suggested that some doctors were acting nefariously:

It’s a situation too agonizing to contemplate — a child dying and in pain. Now a small but provocative study suggests that doctors may be giving fatal morphine doses to a few children dying of cancer, to end their suffering at their parents’ request.

But then I thought, what if the opposite were true? And then what if the opposite headline read like this:

A provocative study suggests that some doctors are refusing to give enough pain-relieving morphine to children dying of cancer, thereby exacerbating and extending their horrific suffering.

My point is not just to be provocative. Before going further, I should disclose that I am the parent of two young (healthy) children, so this horrid situation is something that I find extremely uncomfortable to even contemplate. Nonetheless, what would I do if I had a a child who was writhing in pain, and who had only weeks or months before he would die? Would it really a bad thing to give that child more pain medication in order to lessen his pain, knowing that it would shorten his already terribly shortened life expectancy?

I am amazed at how Americans make simplistic cartoons out of so many moral dilemmas. We call it “mercy killing,” even when the aim is to reduce suffering. I would never criticize a parent for wanting to relieve a child’s suffering by giving pain medication when that child is dying of cancer. Maybe we need a new language to meaningfully discuss this situation. How about calling it “relieving the suffering of an innocent child.” Why call it “killing” at all? Why even call it euthanasia (literally, “good death”)?

When a child is being non-stop crushed with pain, what kind of parent enhances the pain by withholding drugs in order to attempt to display an incredibly shallow version of moral superiority to others in the community? Shouldn’t the whole focus be what’s best for the child? Is it better for the child to be in excruciating pain, every hour of the day, or to be given relief from the pain, even though it shortens his life? I know that many people disagree with me–they think that any wretched existence is superior to the end of one’s earthly existence. Ironically, most of those people believe in an afterlife. I don’t get it.

When we’re dealing with the family pet, everyone knows the answer. We call it being “humane” to the pet when we choose to painlessly put the pet out of its misery. But somehow, when we are being “humane” to humans, we intensify and extend their suffering. What’s driving this upside-down logic? Are the critics merely having sport with doctors, most of whom are working extremely hard to give the families what they need and want?

This issue is not limited to dying children, of course. Hence the moral second-guessing when sick elderly adults choose to die in far off places like Switzerland.

There are many other ways to needlessly kill healthy children and to make them suffer and to deprive them of healthy minds, but we don’t use the word “kill” when describing legislation that does this. You know . . . legislation that cuts medical care, closes subsidized daycare, fails to fund nutrition education centers, or allows bad schools to continue to operate. Perhaps we should use the word “kill” in those situations, since that word often provokes people to take action.

But I also think that we need to jettison the “kill” language for those gut-wrenching situations where children are dying and parents are struggling to figure out what to do. We should start over when an entirely new language devoid of the word “kill,” because it is the disease that is killing such children, and the parents are trying to deal with the disease. Only with a new language with a more thoughtful version of causation is worth of such situations.


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More of my favorite quotes

February 25, 2010 | By | Reply More
More of my favorite quotes

I collect lots of quotes. Lots of bang for the buck. There’s a novel in every good quote. Here’s my most recent batch of favorites:

“Television is more interesting than people. If it were not, we would have people standing in the corners of our rooms.”
Alan Corenk

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
Michael Jordan

“Statistics are like bikinis. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital.”
Aaron Levenstein (Professor of
Management at Baruch College, City University of New York)

“I think it only makes sense to seek out and identify structures of authority, hierarchy, and domination, and to challenge them; unless a justification for them can be given, they are illegitimate, and should be dismantled, to increase the scope of human freedom.”
Noam Chomsky

“Some people are called to build the piano, some to carry the piano, and some are called to play the piano”
Darrin Patrick

“One of the most powerful teachings of the Buddhist tradition is that as long as you are wishing for things to change, they never will.”
Pema Chodron, Start Where You Are

“None of us are as smart as all of us”
Japanese proverb

“The average man does not want to be free. He simply wants to be safe”
H.L. Mencken

Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose
Bill Gates

Atheism is a religion like off is a TV channel.
The Godless Blogger

“There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that you just legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, that their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous their prosperity will find its way up and through every class that rests upon it.”
William Jennings Bryan at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1896.

“[T]he life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
Thomas Hobbes

“Remember, Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels.”
Bob Thaves, “Frank and Ernest”, 1982

“Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blind-folded fear.”
Thomas Jefferson


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It’s always a good time to appreciate good things

February 23, 2010 | By | 7 Replies More
It’s always a good time to appreciate good things

I had to work late tonight, and as I got into my car I was a bit frustrated that I was not able to get home earlier, so I could spend more time with my daughters. Poor me.

As I put the key in the ignition, however, it occurred to me that I was fortunate that when I turned a little key in the ignition, my cars engine fired up. I was lucky to be able to drive quickly home in a car that actually worked on a cold winter night. Not only does it work, it has a radio. As I drove through the streets of the city of St. Louis, I appreciated that there were well marked streets and that the people driving home around me were doing so carefully. I passed a Walgreens on the way home, and it occurred to me that I am lucky to live in a society where you can get quick relief for many medical ailments. Many people in the world have no access to aspirin when they get headaches. I shouldn’t ever take that for granted.

When I got home and saw my beautiful children, it occurred to me that I should always consciously appreciate how lucky I am when I get home and I find that my children are safe. When I see them smile I should give thanks for that too, because there are many people who don’t have a safe place to spend time with their smiling children. I could go on and on, of course. I live in a wealthy society where I can turn on lights with the flick of a switch, and where the interiors of our houses are usually comfortable. I live in a society where a magic Internet gives me easy access to more information from more diverse groups of people than I could have ever imagined. I live a life of luxuries that could make a King jealous.

As I dictate this short post, I am eating a delicious bowl of soup, sitting in a comfortable chair, knowing that my children (and now my wife) are safe and healthy and sleeping soundly upstairs. I am free to walk out of my front porch and stare up at the sky. I can somehow see one big round object that is a quarter million miles away, and I can see hundreds and thousands of stars. Because of the scientific work of many who have come before me, I know I live on a huge orb and that underneath my feet, way down past the Earth itself, there are billions more stars.

I am awestruck by the thought that several trillions of cells have somehow become highly coordinated to an extent that “I.” exist. The body is so complex that I don’t wonder why it sometimes doesn’t work–rather, I revel in the fact that it works at all. How is it that 10 billion of those cells have become self-aware? Indeed, how is it that this 3 pound brain is capable of generating endless representations of the real world inside of my own head? How is it that I am able to think about conversations I had it work while I sit home alone at home? this is all too amazing to understand.

Yes, we live in a world where many things could be better than they are, but I try to remember (though not often enough) that I am an extremely fortunate person living among extremely fortunate people, and that there should not be any whining in a place like this. And just after I had reminded myself about how wonderfully mysterious life is, I stumbled upon this YouTube video featuring Louis C.K., who passionately summed up what I I have been feeling tonight.


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Would a king from the Middle Ages willingly swap lives with an average American?

February 13, 2010 | By | 7 Replies More
Would a king from the Middle Ages willingly swap lives with an average American?

Sometimes I try to imagine what it would be like to be a great and powerful king from the Middle Ages. I’m talking about kingly kings—those who would be deemed successful by other kings. If you were one of those top 25 percentile kings, just think of all the people waiting on you, and imagine all of your privileges, including your own court jester to entertain you, and lots of soldiers that you can use to expand or defend your territory. You would get to live in a beautiful big castle, and people from all around would seek your attention and bestow complements and gifts upon you and your family. Some of those visitors would come from far away and they would tell you stories from distant lands. If you got sick, the wisest doctor in the area would come to your service to give you the best health care available in the Middle Ages. Could there possibly be a better way to live than being a successful king?

I then wonder how being a king would compare to living the life of an average American in modern times. Consider that the median household income for an American family in the year 2007 was about $50,000, and that this can buy you a lot of things. The average American has access to foods from all around the world by visiting the local grocery store. American families typically own automobiles that can go much faster and much farther than the horse of any king. The average American can use a television or computer to hear news from anywhere in the world. Using the Internet, the average American has a “library” thousands of times bigger than the library of any king. Americans don’t have to imagine what it would be like to walk on the moon. They have photos and movies of people walking on the moon. They don’t have to wonder what Mars looks like, because they have king-in-mini-cooperstunning photos. They don’t have to wonder what stars actually are, or how big the universe is — they have scientific answers to these questions and answers to many other questions that Kings wouldn’t even know how to ask. The average American family has the option to stare at a large colorful television screen in their own home in order to be entertained by images and sounds that could not even be imagined by a king. When Americans get sick, they can go to hospitals that offer them stunningly effective cures for many maladies. The houses of average Americans are always kept warm in the winter and cool in the summer. A couple times each year, many Americans get to step into large silver machines that fly them to faraway places, traveling hundreds of miles per hour, where they capture incredible images with digital cameras. And then they share them with their Facebook kingdoms of hundreds of “friends.” You get the idea.

Now let’s assume that you could transport a Middle Ages king to modern times, and let him live the lifestyle of an average American for a few weeks. Here’s my opinion of what would happen:

[more . . . ]


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JK Rowling discusses the “fringe benefits of failure”

February 10, 2010 | By | 1 Reply More
JK Rowling discusses the “fringe benefits of failure”

In June 2008, J.K. Rowling gave this delightful and insightful commencement speech recognizing the upside of failure.

J.K. Rowling Speaks at Harvard Commencement from Harvard Magazine on Vimeo.

How is failure essential? Rowling told the audience that it “strips away the unessential” and sets us free to see what really matters. Rock bottom can become “a solid foundation.” In fact, she urged that it is “impossible to live without failing at something.”

Rowling’s 20-minute talk is filled with nuggets of wisdom, and illustrated with stories about people with the courage to freely think and act, as well as those who dared to value empathy more than “rubies.”


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The consequences of de-sensitizing ourselves to torture

February 8, 2010 | By | 2 Replies More
The consequences of de-sensitizing ourselves to torture

I wonder about those who argue that waterboarding is not torture– can they really believe it? I suppose so. Otherwise, how could this happen? Joshua Tabor, a U.S. soldier based in Tacoma, Washington, allegedly waterboarded his 4 year-old daughter because she refused to recite the alphabet. He chose the CIA-approved technique because he knew that his daughter was afraid of water, a phobia that will surely be an ongoing issue for the poor girl. If Christopher Hitchens is to be believed, she’ll wake up with nightmares for quite some time. Hitchens was a supporter of the torture technique, at least until he underwent it. His column at Vanity Fair following the experience is titled, “Believe me, it’s torture.” See for yourself, if you’ve got a sadistic streak:

There seems to be little doubt that Mr. Tabor has some other issues, as neighbors reported seeing him wandering the neighborhood wearing a kevlar helmet and threatening to break windows. But I can’t help but think that our collectively cavalier attitude towards the use of torture, even on innocent women and children, has had a de-sensitizing effect on us. Note this paragraph from Fox News:

“Joshua did not act as though he felt there was anything wrong with this form of punishment,” the police report said.

And why would he? We, as a people, have not felt that there’s anything wrong with it. If it’s good enough for innocent Muslim women and children, why not use it on our own children? My heart hurts to think about the shock, the pain, and the terror that was inflicted on this poor girl at the hands of her own father. It’s painful to me to think about all of the people that we have tortured, and I can only hope that this incident brings us closer to the point where we can unequivocally say, “Torture is wrong”.


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