It’s Been a While

Posted October 23, 2014 by danielblumberg
Categories: Uncategorized

Someone asked me a few months ago why it’s been so long since I posted something. It certainly isn’t because I haven’t had anything to say. Another dear friend mentioned that she missed my writing. Looking over past posts, it took me quite by surprise that it’s been nearly a year since the last one.

Two theories are worth considering. The first is that my ambivalence about social media overpowered the therapeutic value of the writing. There’s some merit to this, because that ambivalence has grown during the past year into outright antipathy. It’s disturbing to see how many more outlets have appeared for people to share their every thought, feeling, and selfie with the world. We’re living in a celebritocracy in which people make videos, which they hope will go viral, rather than spending time actually making a positive contribution to the world. Even terrorist organizations use social media to promote their political agendas and recruit new members. However, I don’t need social media to keep writing. As mentioned in my first entry: “Merely sitting down to write is a valuable component of a comprehensive wellness program.”

The second theory, then, is that I no longer needed the stress management outlet, which writing provides. Did I replace writing with something else? Or, was there simply much less stress to manage? The answer is “Yes” to both. In the past year, walking and listening to music (not always at the same time) became far more active, engaging methods. At the same time, some lifestyle and attitude adjustments proved extremely successful in reducing my subjective experience of stress. And, this year presented me with far fewer objective stressors than in years past.

Writing is still a very beneficial endeavor no matter what one’s level of stress. We can all use the creative and therapeutic outlet. However, I’m just not sold on the value of writing for the benefit of those in cyberspace. Too many blogs, too much rambling, too much information overload, and not enough actual connecting with each other. To paraphrase Andy Dufresne in Shawshank Redemption: Get busy living or, get busy posting to social media.

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Love and Compatibility

Posted November 11, 2013 by danielblumberg
Categories: Uncategorized

Why are humans so obsessed with love? Throughout history, love has been the inspiration for art, the impetus for war, and the essence of religious doctrine. People have done very great and very tragic things in the name of love. However, as an emotion, love has to be our strangest, most indefinable one. It just means too many different things in too many different contexts.

We’ve been overly passionate about using the same word to describe what are, essentially, different feelings. For example, the emotion parents feel for their children is not the same emotion we feel towards a dear friend or our life partner. We’re so articulate about so many things, yet we get stuck when it comes to love. Commonly, people attempt to differentiate between feeling “love” and feeling “in love,” but this just reinforces the idea that we don’t have enough words to properly express our true feelings.

Here’s a radical notion: Despite love’s role in the trials and tribulations of the human experience, if we can’t adequately define it and if we don’t have enough words to adequately describe it, maybe it’s not as important as we think it is.

In essence, love is a word to convey an internal emotional experience. Like all internal experiences, we may use a common label for it, but there is no way to know if I am actually experiencing what you are feeling. “But I love you!” “If you loved me, you wouldn’t _____ (fill in the blank).” There’s just too much conjecture and not enough consensus. Therefore, instead of being overly concerned with one’s own internal emotional experience, it would be far more beneficial on the small scale of a romantic relationship and on the large scale of world peace if we also focused our attention on the internal emotional experience of the other person. In other words, when I love you, but emphasize your feelings instead of mine, I will do whatever it takes to keep you loving me.

Although wonderful in songs and movies and other creative expressions, the concept of love in a romantic relationship is just too subjective, and frankly, too nebulous to be of much value. Not uncommonly, people commit to a relationship before they know the other person very well because of the intense, albeit ethereal feeling of love, which certainly is no guarantee for lasting success.

Rather than focusing on something as idiosyncratic as love, the emphasis can shift to something objective and measurable. And that brings me to compatibility. The dictionary defines this as an ability to exist harmoniously. An appropriate synonym is like-mindedness. It sounds obvious perhaps, but effort is needed to discover in what ways two people are alike. We’re talking about specific values and interests and goals. This is fairly easy to assess in relation to concrete things like tastes in music and food or preferences in recreational activities. It’s quite a bit harder when evaluating compatibility in things like personality, political views and religious commitments, and financial responsibility. While opposites may attract, they don’t generally lead to harmonious coexistence.

There is no single criterion to determine like-mindedness. So the first challenge if two people would like to determine the extent of their compatibility is to identify what’s most important to them. They should spend time getting to know each other by learning about their specific beliefs, values, and priorities. Research has shown that the more similar two partners are in many key areas (e.g. age, education, religious and political beliefs, socioeconomic status), the happier they will be. And, if mutual attraction and sexual compatibility are important, by all means this should not be ignored. Once you are certain that there is great compatibility in many other critical areas, that first kiss can seal the deal!

The feeling you have when you are with someone with whom there is great compatibility is stronger than love. It provides a level of security unavailable by love alone, because the components of compatibility are not transitory; those interests, values, activities, beliefs, and history are what make us who we are, and they aren’t going anywhere. Compatibility, then, allows you to simultaneously keep your feet on the ground and your head in the clouds.

Parental Faith

Posted September 27, 2013 by danielblumberg
Categories: Uncategorized

They asked, “Aren’t you worried about his safety?” My 21-year old son was heading off to Israel for three months as a research assistant in a lab at one of the world’s most prestigious science and technology universities. Tensions were rising in Syria and Egypt. The rhetoric from Iran was troubling. But, I said, bad things can happen anywhere. After all, as a parent of two extremely independent and active boys, I’ve had lots of practice holding my breath and crossing my fingers for long stretches at a time.

The summer flew by. I enjoyed hearing updates from the lab and about his weekend excursions around Israel. I remained calm when told of the mountain bike accident (sans helmet), which left only a few gnarly scrapes and bruises. Our Skype visits helped me feel that he wasn’t alone on the other side of the planet. And, I secretly rejoiced when he agreed to my suggestion to come home a week early after his work in the lab had finished.

We had a great couple weeks at home before my world traveler returned to Boulder for his senior year at CU. And then it began to rain. And rain. And rain. And flood. They had to leave his home and spend a night in a YMCA shelter, but returned to find things were not damaged—unlike some friends who were, quite sadly, displaced by the storm. He said that he didn’t feel as worried as some around him who hadn’t been through anything like that before, as he recalled a few San Diego wild fires that had come pretty close.

Parenting is an exercise in letting go while holding on for dear life. Nothing we do takes as much faith; faith in our children’s ability to make safe decisions, and faith in our ability to endure if they don’t. But this belief does not magically appear one day like a baby’s first tooth or a teenager’s first whiskers. Faith is cultivated from the beginning when parents see how resilient their children can be. It is nurtured over years of witnessing your children recover from scrapes and bruises, upsets and disappointments, and too many close calls to count.

And perhaps most importantly, faith is required from the first day you bring that baby home from the hospital. You have to believe in your own resiliency. We can’t always be there to protect our children from international tensions or natural disasters. But, in order to have confidence in our children’s ability to navigate those dangerous waters as adults, we have to allow them to develop autonomy as toddlers. If you give them the space they need to pick themselves up when they fall in kindergarten, they will make you so proud of their ability to take care of themselves during crises in college.

Conservative Hypocrisy

Posted January 31, 2013 by danielblumberg
Categories: Uncategorized

As much as I prefer to avoid being sucked into the frustrating futility of political debate, there are times when I fear that remaining silent will cause my head to explode. Don’t get me wrong, I like a good verbal wrangle as much as the next overly opinionated guy. But political debate has drastically changed over the last few decades. In the past, ideology drove the discourse. When that happened, there was consistency among one’s viewpoints. You could pretty much tell where someone stood on a particular issue by knowing their position on a different topic. For that matter, if you understood their ideological beliefs, you had a pretty good chance of knowing their views on most issues. You could disagree with those who didn’t share your perspective, but you still respected them, primarily for staying true to their principles.

These days, so many people abandon ideology and, instead, cherry-pick their position on this topic and that topic without any concern for sounding like a total hypocrite. How can anyone respect someone whose core values seem so arbitrary or contradictory? Yesterday, a perfect example of this testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing on violence. Gayle Trotter, who is reported to be a lawyer and gun rights advocate, believes that women should have the right to choose to arm themselves with assault weapons. Without providing any evidence of actual incidents in which such weapons were crucial to the survival of a woman and her children, Ms. Trotter attempted to appeal to the Senators’ emotions. She was championing the cause of vulnerable women. However, in her blog from April 2012, Ms. Trotter conveyed her opposition to the Violence Against Women Act. You either support causes to protect vulnerable women or you don’t.

In Ms. Trotter’s case, it is clear that her rhetoric in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday wasn’t about women; it was about opposition to gun control. If she was really a champion for vulnerable women she would support proposed bans on assault weapons, because, according to a recent study at Harvard, women are at greater risk of violent death in states that allow easier access to guns. Ms. Trotter doesn’t have the courage of conviction to take a stand on her conservative ideological beliefs against gun control. Instead, she obfuscates and pretends that no one will connect the dots of her hypocrisy.

The icing on the cake of my rant against conservative duplicity came on my drive home last night. I was behind a black Ford Explorer. The driver looked a little like Jimmy Buffet with a large Bluetooth device in his ear, loud Hawaiian print shirt, and full head of wavy, gray hair. He didn’t look like an idiot, but then he only had a brief moment to make an impression, which he unambiguously did with his moronic bumper sticker: “Liberalism is a mental disorder.” Of course, that is a perfectly reasonable sentiment for an ideologically-consistent conservative. This ignoramus, however, apparently fails to see what a hypocrite he is. The Explorer had “DP” license plates. For those of you unfamiliar with California’s Department of Motor Vehicles regulations, that stands for “Disabled Person.” Yes, the person who believes that liberalism is no different than, say, schizophrenia, benefits greatly from laws written and passed by liberals! Thanks to the tireless efforts of liberals who stood up for the rights of the disabled, this bozo gets a variety of benefits that his fellow conservatives would have denied him.

I’m sure that there are plenty of hypocritical liberals, too. However, data from recent research helps to explain some of this inconceivable hypocrisy. A study reported by LiveScience concluded that “Low-intelligence adults tend to gravitate toward socially conservative ideologies.” Perhaps so many of these folks don’t recognize the extent to which they continue to contradict themselves, because they lack the cognitive skills necessary for such insight. In any case, these findings help me to conjure up a little compassion for hypocrites who just may not know any better.

Morbid Curiosity

Posted December 12, 2012 by danielblumberg
Categories: Uncategorized

 

Not exactly the bleachers...

Not exactly the bleachers…

 

New Yorkers awoke last week to a gruesome photograph on the front-page of the routinely gruesome New York Post.  The picture and accompanying headline memorialized the tragic death of Ki-Suck Han who was unable to climb out after being pushed onto the subway tracks ahead of the oncoming train that struck him.  Public outcry following this awful incident was not about mass transit safety, most likely because such events are quite rare.  Instead, the uproar centered on the Post and the trend of smartphone owners to record everything, including the most horrific, gory human misfortunes.

Two days after Mr. Han’s death, USA Today ran a piece about the Post’s coverage and, more specifically, citizen photojournalists, which was headlined: Subway death photos—what do they say about us?  The story quoted the co-director of an institute for ethics and society who believed that “many people would be ‘morally offended’ to learn that others on the platform snapped pictures just after his death.”  The article went on to make a distinction between typical gawking at human suffering and the extent to which people go these days to record something horrifying for uploading on various social media sites.  Let’s take a closer look at the differences between these behaviors and examine how much we should, or shouldn’t, be outraged by such actions.

There are several ways in which we tend to react to human suffering.  What does it say about us that people are entertained by the pain of others?  Certainly, this is something that has taken place for centuries.  From the blood sports in the Colosseum to public executions in the old west, people turned out in droves to witness the deaths of other people.  Today we have mixed martial arts where combatants are given bonuses for the best knockout and best submission of the night; for the screaming crowds paying top dollar to watch, it’s the bloodier and more brutal the better.

Other reactions to human suffering have received considerable attention from social psychologists.  What does it say about us that people don’t get involved when confronted with someone else’s distress?  The bystander effect refers to the phenomenon in which the perceived presence of others deters people from helping someone in need.  Latane and Darley researched the bystander effect after Kitty Genovese was murdered in New York City in 1964.  Despite her cries for help, none of the dozen or more people who heard the crime occurring did anything; it apparently took twenty minutes for anyone to even call the police.  There are numerous more recent examples of this and many reasons why it occurs.

I may not jump in to help if I think someone else will.  I’m even less likely to get involved if I think someone with more experience or expertise is going to intervene.  When there clearly are others around, diffusion of responsibility allows me to think that my help won’t be necessary.  Also, we may not get involved if the situation is ambiguous or if we aren’t positive that the other person is actually in distress.  At the same time, there are plenty of examples in which jumping in to help a person in need did not turn out very well for the helper.  It seems reasonable that many people would be reluctant to get involved if in doing so something bad could happen to them, e.g. drowning while attempting to save someone else who is flailing in the water.

There are times, of course, when providing assistance isn’t necessary or possible.  Nevertheless, people continue to gawk at the suffering of others.  Rubbernecking is a routine occurrence on the highway, as passing motorists hope to catch a glimpse of an accident victim being tended to by first responders.  Some argue that these incidents, and the tendency to stare at them, serve to reassure us that we are okay; there but for the grace of God…  So, what, then, is the difference between old-school gawking and the current trend to use smartphones to record these incidents of despair and death?

I disagree with those quoted in the USA Today story who suggested that the moral difference is “trying to capture something for yourself or social media.”  They miss the mark by blaming social media sites “where everyone has to parade their own dubious accomplishments in front of the world.”  The technology may have changed, but the fascination with others’ misfortunes and the desire to share what we witness with our friends are nothing new.

No, the distastefulness of the current trend to record and upload the suffering of others stems from something else.  The moral outrage is not in our morbid curiosity.  The real offense is that so many people are looking to profit from these photographs and videos.  With smartphones ready, witnesses to life’s traumas see through the human suffering to the potential of a large payday.  The technology has made it possible for anyone to become the next Zapruder if they happen to be at the wrong place at the right time.

However, we have to be careful not to overgeneralize the prevalence of this problem.  The availability heuristic is a mental shortcut that may leave us assuming that everyone is looking to profit from the misery of others.  We see so many examples of people hawking their recorded gawking that it’s easy to assume such reprehensible practices are more common than they really are.  In the end, not everyone’s first move in a crisis is for their smartphone.  Just as plenty of folks stayed home from the Colosseum and MMA is not everybody’s cup of tea today, there have always been and always will be Good Samaritans.  As Will Rogers said, “We can’t all be heroes, because somebody has to sit on the curb and applaud when they go by.”  While some condemn the citizen photojournalists, let’s not forget to appreciate those who are willing to get involved even at risk of great personal peril, simply because it is the right thing to do.  And, that says something good about us, too.

 

 

Us versus Us

Posted November 22, 2012 by danielblumberg
Categories: Uncategorized

Israel and Hamas agreed to a cease-fire today.  This morning, India executed the final gunman from the 2008 attack in Mumbai.  Earlier this week, the FBI thwarted a “very serious” terror threat in Los Angeles.  People from numerous states continue to circulate petitions to secede from the U.S.A. simply because they were upset after the reelection of President Obama.  The list goes on and on and, sadly, probably always will.

We live in an Us vs. Them world.  For decades, researchers have investigated the nature of intergroup dynamics and prejudice.  Muzafer Sherif and his colleagues demonstrated in the 1950’s how easy it is for animosity towards “Them” to develop after middle-school aged boys were randomly assigned to one of two groups at an Oklahoma summer camp.  While competition between the two groups quickly led to strong prejudice against campers in the other group, Sherif showed that the mutual hatred could be overcome when the two groups were forced to cooperate to accomplish superordinate goals; the boys from both groups had to work together to solve problems that impacted all of them.

This is a fairly common plot in science fiction films.  When faced with a threat to Earth’s existence, such as an alien invasion or planet-crushing comet hurtling our way, humans—at least in the movies—are able to ignore group differences and rally together to solve a common problem.  The old “Them” becomes the new “Us,” as the aliens are the new “Them.”  The superordinate goal shifts to the very survival of the planet and away from what, in comparison, can only be seen as trivial group differences.  Once the superordinate threat is removed, however, we appear incapable of maintaining the happy Hollywood ending.

Why do people revert to old Us vs. Them distinctions?  The Sherif studies also show us that intergroup conflict is inevitable when people perceive unequal levels of power between groups.  Animosity increases as people feel unfairly treated by “Them.”  But this doesn’t happen simply as a result of intergroup dynamics.  As recently spotlighted on 60 Minutes, research by Dr. Karen Wynn and her colleagues at Yale University led to the conclusion that “infants prefer those who harm others who are unlike them.”  Lesley Stahl summarized part of this groundbreaking work: “We want the ‘Other’ to be punished.”  Therefore, superordinate goals may not ever be enough to eradicate the destructive consequences of prejudice.  Likewise, it seems pointless to attempt to expand our definition of “Us” (e.g. Earth dweller) in the hope of creating less intergroup conflict, since there will always be disparate levels of power between various groups.

Instead of attempting to eliminate Us vs. Them thinking, it would be more fruitful to work towards greater acceptance of and appreciation for “Them.”  If the Yale research demonstrates that humans are predisposed to prejudice, then considerably more effort needs to be directed towards teaching its opposite.  One group that is valiantly doing this is Interactions for Peace, a small non-profit organization with a global reach (www.InteractionsForPeace.org).  Through a variety of programs that begin with pre-school children and continue through high school and into the community, the organization’s mission is to educate and create life-long peaceful problem solvers by teaching self-awareness, self-confidence, cooperation, and communication.

Differences between groups will remain.  What must change (to accomplish the superordinate goal of avoiding World War III) is how Us and Them confront our problems.  We are all, as they say, in this together.  As hyperbolic as it may sound, our future depends on people learning how to become peaceful problem solvers.

We, the People

Posted November 6, 2012 by danielblumberg
Categories: Uncategorized

Not exactly the bleachers…

I’ve never been a fan of politics, which is due entirely to politicians.  It’s been said time and again that the most qualified person to hold office is usually too smart to run!  In theory, the electoral process is completely brilliant.  People—all of us over the age of eighteen—can have a say in who governs.  And, in theory, those seeking office have a deep commitment to govern their town or state or country according to a coherent ideological vision of what is best for their constituents.  But it is also people who turn a great idea into something quite distasteful.

In the past week, several friends said, in my presence, that they would leave the country if their presidential candidate lost today.  I heard similar threats in 1968, 1972, 1980, and 2004.  Others have said to me that the country is heading towards a revolution as the gap widens dramatically between those who have (more and more) and those who have less (and less and less).  Does it all boil down to fear or greed?  Some fear that they will lose what they have, while others fear that they will never have enough.  At the same time, there are far too many who really don’t have enough!  With so much at stake for everyone, why does the repulsiveness of politics leave many to turn away and become apathetic, non-voters?

I try not to be too cynical, which is often quite difficult.  Nevertheless, this brings me to why I’m writing about this polarizing, emotionally charged topic.  I watched transfixed as people stood in early voting lines for two, five, even eight hours to cast their vote.  I’ve never experienced anything like that nor heard such a thing happening here in California.  Am I naïve or oblivious?  What prevents these states from emulating what the most populous state in the Union does to prevent such voting chaos?  Some will argue that this is all part of a larger scheme to make it more difficult for voting to occur if those forced to stand in never ending lines are expected to vote for candidates other than those the election officials would like to see elected.  Let’s hope our founding fathers (and mothers) would be appalled and embarrassed if that’s what is actually responsible for these outrageous voting conditions.

In some democracies, Election Day is a national holiday, while in others it takes place on a Saturday.  People don’t have to choose between voting and going to work.  These countries strive to have huge voter turnout and do what is necessary to achieve it.  Yet in our country, despite all the efforts to make it more difficult to cast a ballot (and there are far too many to describe here), people stand in line for hours and hours, miss work, and brave the elements just to exercise their constitutional right to vote.  The dedication of these voters and their commitment to our democratic process is, to me, as heroic as our nation’s willingness to pitch in after a natural disaster.  When push comes to shove, a whole lot of us still strive to do the right thing.