Can People Learn to Think?

Can People Learn to ThinkSince we teach structural thinking, our answer is a definitive YES.

For more than thirty years, we have been teaching structural thinking. In one way, it is a simple process to learn. Structural thinking has to do with understanding structural relationship, how elements combine in a structure to give rise to consistent patterns of behavior. For example, hunger gives rise to the behavior of eating. What causes hunger is the contrast or difference between the actual amount of food in the body and the amount of food the body desires. The difference creates a tension, and tensions seek resolution. When you eat, you resolve the tension of the difference between the desired state and the actual state. The desired state and the actual state are now equal to each other.

The tension we are talking about is not a metaphor. Rather it is dynamic; a force in play both in the physical and non-physical world. For example, a jet airliner is able to fly because of something called the Bernoulli effect. This is when there is a difference between the air pressure on one side of the wing and the other side of the wing. To resolve the tension, the airplane is lifted up into the air.

Back to thinking. Most people do not think structurally. They think situationally. We have learned to react or respond to the situations we find ourselves in. We have little understanding of what causes these situations because of our usual explanation of how and why things turn out the way they do. This is called “event causes event” thinking. Why did you do that? because of what happened before that. Why did that happen? Because of the situation that came before that one. And back and back it goes.

Some people see the overall patterns that these situations cause, and that is a step forward. But while that is a better vantage point with which to view reality, we don’t have a clue about cause and effect from a structural point of view.

It is critical to know that tension will always seek resolution. This is because of physics, the principle being that structure seeks equilibrium. Whenever there is a state of “non-equilibrium,” the dynamic within that structure will change and move until equilibrium is established. But not all structures are able to accomplish equilibrium.

For example, if you are hungry the tendency of behavior is to eat. This is a simple tension-resolution system. Sometimes, the structure is more complex. There are two competing tension-resolution systems that create an oscillating pattern. You are hungry, so you eat. But, let’s say you are overweight, and another tension is formed by the difference between your desired and actual weight.

Here is how that structure works:

You are hungry, so you eat. But then you become overweight, go on a diet and eat less then your body desires. Once that tension is resolved and you lose the weight, you begin to eat again, and gain the weight back. There is more to this structural dynamic, but this example should illustrate the point. Sometimes, in this structure, it is easier to eat, and sometimes it is easier to diet. In fact, more than 80% of people who go on diets end up weighing more AFTER the diet than they did before they went on the diet.

Most people who have such patterns think they are weak-willed or have a character flaw. But what is going on is that they are up against an oscillating pattern caused by an oscillating structure. Like a rocking chair, movement in one direction induces movement in the other direction.

If you think situationally, you will never understand the structural dynamic in play. You are left with speculative theories, some about your relationship with your parents, some about how you think you don’t deserve love and so you keep love interests away by adding on the pounds, some about your birth trauma (if you happen to have had one.)

Your mind likes to resolve tension ASAP. Any question will demand an answer. However, your mind is a sucker for any pretty answer that comes along. It doesn’t matter if it is true or false. Any old speculation will do the job. And that lack of rigor, precision, accuracy, and quest for the truth will provide a sense of easy resolution for your mind’s bad habit.

There is a group of prefabricated answers that people carry around with them at all times. These are their concepts and beliefs. Think of concepts and beliefs as your personal thesaurus of answers designed for the mind to quickly and synthetically resolve unanswered questions, mysteries, puzzles, or any other types of tensions it experiences. Remember, tension always seeks resolution, and your concepts and beliefs can be plugged in at a moment’s notice to do the job. This doesn’t mean you have the right answer, but structurally, any answer will make you feel better, and give you the impression that you actually know something. The so-called “Ah-ha” experience is usually people thinking they have THE answer. Trouble is, THE answer is almost always consistent with their preconceived concepts and beliefs. Another way of describing the “Ah-ha” experience is that you “discover” what you thought was true, was true after all. Well, not usually actually true, but it sure feels that way.

Substituting one set of concepts with another does not change how people think one bit. That’s just a new database with which to compare reality. While new conclusions may be reached, the process of “thinking” is still a matter of comparison. People free associate, bias their viewpoints, insist that they are right, fight with each other about it, all the while trapped in a thought process that is incapable of new, accurate and original thought.

Changing your way of thinking takes training. Like all disciplines, it is not natural. It is counter-intuitive and counter-instinctive. But so are so many other disciplines we value. Reading, writing, playing the cello, and making a soufflé are also counter-intuitive and counter-instinctive.

Structural thinking is a very special realm. Very few traditions demand it, so very few have it built into the thought process. The traditions that do require structural thinking are music, architecture, screenwriting, mathematics, and some forms of engineering. Yet, even if you were raised in those traditions, you seldom think structurally, except when addressing those specific areas.

Thinking is one of THE most critical abilities you have. It is the major factor in how you make decisions. Your decisions will determine most of your life’s path. And yet, most people make their most important decisions without knowing and understanding the structural forces in play that will make the difference between success and failure.

Since we all think, we assume we know how. That is a faulty assumption. Know there is something to know that you have not learned in your education. Know that your mind, without proper guidance and discipline, will run wild with theories, conjecture, speculation, and walks down memory lane of past experience. Your mind is filled with clutter, so naturally clarity is a rare commodity.

For more information about structural thinking, read about the FST (fundamentals of structural thinking) in Vermont, June 2-5

Two Roads…

Two RoadsBy now, everyone knows the famous line from Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken,” which is: “The road less traveled.” This line has come to mean doing something different from everyone else, going your own way, finding and exploring paths that others haven’t discovered. Yet that is not at all what Frost was getting at.

Like another one of his lines – “good fences make good neighbors” – people’s interpretation is opposite to what he meant. In “Mending Wall,” the good fences line is said by a rather dull neighboring farmer. He says it out of ignorance and an inability to understand that the character on the other side of the fence is mocking the need for a fence. “My apple trees will never get across/And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.” That’s when he says the good neighbor line. Frost doesn’t leave it there. Frost writes:

“Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows?’ But here there are not cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”

Now, when you read the actual poem, you can’t miss the meaning. Anyone who understood the poem would never cast themselves as the dull farmer repeating an old cliché. Yet, people have come to think that there is wisdom in the good fences line. As I said, quite the opposite of what Frost was saying in the poem.

And the Two Roads thing, again something twisted from its original meaning. The situation in the poem is that the character is describing walking through the wood, when he comes across a fork in the road. He looks down one as far as he can, and then takes the other one, the so-called road less traveled. BUT, according to the poem, there isn’t a lot of difference between the two roads:

“Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.”

In other words, the road less traveled was NOT the road less traveled, given they were equal. After years of glorification of the road less traveled, Frost told the story of how he came to write the poem. He said he had a friend that, no matter what he did, would regret he didn’t do something else. In other words, the protagonist of the poem is actually complaining about having taken the road he had taken. Hard to glorify the “road not taken” once you know it is said with the irony Frost describes this way: “I shall be telling this with a sigh/Somewhere ages and ages hence:”

As Yogi Berra said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

Who Are You?

This is another longish blog that focuses on issues of identity as Dr. Wayne Andersen and I work on our new book Identity. Yes, a little long, but worth the read. Enjoy…

Who Are YouHow do you define yourself? There are many types of answers from the toothpaste you use to the car you drive to where you live to how much money you make to how well your kids did in school to your politics to your religion to your profession, and on and on it goes.

At a dinner party, two of the guests were economists. One of them began to make the assertion that the worth of a person was directly tied to how much money he or she had made. As it so happened, the other economist was an academic who did not make a lot of money himself. In exploring the first economist’s idea, he became more and more entrenched in his belief that worth of a human being was directly connected to earning power, inadvertently insulting his colleague. His position was, to say the least, extreme. But often the extreme viewpoint makes it is easier to see a concept for what it is.

When the concept is expressed with more subtly and nuance, it can be harder to observe. Yet the basic thought is still the same. Too many people, worldly success is the standard by which others, and even themselves, are to be measured. There is a name for showing off all of your expensive toys to the world: conspicuous consumption. This is a theory that was developed by economist Thorstein Veblen. His idea was that much spending by the affluent is motivated primarily to display wealth and status to others rather than from enjoyment of the goods or services themselves.

“Who are you?” some say, is the most important question you can ever ask yourself. Why is it important at all? The question is truly unanswerable. But, but if you have to answer it, ask, “Who wants to know?”

Let’s use a little logic for a moment. We cannot BE what we possess. If you HAVE something, you can’t BE the thing you HAVE. Who is the YOU that has it? Therefore, anything you HAVE can’t be you. So you can’t be your car, your good looks, your mind, your spirit, your soul, your membership in a political party, your citizenship of a country, your creed, beliefs, religion, possessions, accomplishments, failures and successes, or your bank account.

Think of the ways you may have defined yourself in the past. Was it your accomplishment, failures, education, groups you belong to, ideas you held, your politics, sex appeal, intelligence, moral code, spiritual precepts, or other such things? It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking what you have or fail to have somehow defines you.

We often identify people with their professions. A doctor has achieved certain medical knowledge and skill that can be used professionally. A pilot has another set of skills and knowledge that can be used in the field of aviation. A musician has yet another set of skills and knowledge, as does a taxi driver, deep-sea diver, computer repairperson, etc.

These types of definitions are based on facts. There is an objective reality to each of them. However, they are not able to define the essence of a person, only his or her abilities, knowledge, talents, skills, and professional qualifications. Some professions demand certain levels of aptitudes, innate natural abilities, or the capacity to learn. And we may have high regard for what it takes to reach the distinguished levels of achievement to qualify for those professions. But these professions fail to answer the question, “Who are you?” You cannot be what you possess. You are not your accomplishments or skills anymore than you can be your car.

It is easier to say what you are not than to say who you are. Yet, the world is filled with answers that commonly follow a worldview. From a spiritual point of view we could say that you are spirit that has entered into matter. Or you are love. Or you are a sinner that needs to be saved.

From a psychological point of view, you are your pathology, your hang-ups, your problems, your repressed areas of consciousness, your past traumas, your gestalt.

From a communist point of view, you are the proletariat (workers), or a capitalist (those who exploit the proletariat), or the bourgeois (tools of the capitalists.) According to Karl Marx, these roles lead to a class struggle. Communism, as most isms, tries to appeal to identity. Those who are adherents, the good guys, and those who do not follow the party line, the bad guys.

From an Eastern philosophical viewpoint, you are your higher-self obstructed by your illusions and karma. And, the ideal is, that once you reach Enlightenment, you will finally know yourself in the ultimate sense, something that is seen to be impossible until then.

You may have various deeply held beliefs, but you cannot be your beliefs anymore than you can be your kitchen stove because, as we said, you cannot be that which you possess.

Which leads us to a very useful insight: anyway you try to define yourself is futile and misleading.

You do not have the ability to say what you are. Nor does anyone else. There is no right answer to this question because there is no accurate answer to this question.

Yet, people love to define themselves. It gives them a feeling of place, of belonging, of knowing where they stand in relationship to others. I’m a Aries with Gemini rising, I’m a obsessive/compulsive, I’m a type B personality, I’m a vegetarian.

On the one hand, functional definitions such as pilot and doctor are useful. But, these definitions are not able to penetrate the deeper essence of who we are. They simply tell us what we do.

Some people claim that we are the sum total of all we have experienced, learned, thought, done, and known. Yet, you are the very same person before you had all of these experiences and develop skills or had the accumulated learning. If you are working toward building a new career, it is you, before entering into the career, still you, while you are learning what you need, and finally, you, even when you become a veteran in your profession.

We can say things about ourselves. These things do not tell us who we are. We can say what we like and don’t like. We can say what we fear and what we love. We can know our values and aspirations. We can know our good and bad habits. We can care about the people we love. We can hold religions and spiritual beliefs. We can know our history. We can know many things about ourselves, but we are not the things we know.

In fact, it is good to know things about yourself, your values and aspirations, your patterns, your likes and dislikes, all valuable information in your life-building process. But, don’t confuse this useful knowledge with the more profound question of who you are.

Here is the lesson in a nutshell: Give up the question of who you are. Free yourself from such existential mysteries. We don’t and can’t know. Don’t be fooled by others proposing answers to you. They may be sincere but they won’t be very helpful, given no one has the answer. These fallacious answers might make you feel a sense of peace for a moment. But, like all nice sounding untruths, their comfort will run out pretty fast.

YOU DON’T KNOW WHO YOU ARE AND THAT DOES NOT MATTER IN THE LEAST.

David Bowie

David BowieIt was sad to hear of the passing of David Bowie, one of the most creative and talented artists in music and film. This blog is not a eulogy, and there are countless very good ones we can read. I wanted to talk about Bowie the artist, and how he positioned himself to become a true master of the creative process.

He began his pop career creating a zany character, Ziggy Stardust. He had said that he was essentially a writer and songwriter, and that he was hoping others would perform his songs. When they didn’t, he created a series of personas that would perform his material. The reason for using various characters was the simple fact that he felt uncomfortable performing on stage. By inventing these characters, he could be like an actor playing a role so he could better perform his own material.

What led Bowie to such clarity between himself, as creator, and his creations? His ability to separate himself from his work. This is a major principle for all artists to learn. That you are not your work. That your work is not a representation of you. That your work is an invention, and not a factor of identity.

In fact, Bowie said, “I didn’t try to identify myself or ask myself ‘Who I was?” The less questioning I did about who I was, the more comfortable I felt. So now I have absolutely no knowledge about myself and I’m extremely happy.”

Of course, as Dr. Wayne Andersen and I are working on our book Identity, David Bowie became a very good illustration of the principles we have been writing about.
Not only was Bowie a singer-song writer, but also an incredible actor. He knew how to play a role, partly because of his enormous natural gifts and creative discipline, but also because he knew the job of an actor, to play someone else, rather than to play oneself.

Here is a short example of his power as an actor playing Pontius Pilate in Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ

How sad that we have lost such a man, artist, creator, and unique human being. But we can celebrate the fact that there was a David Bowie and that he shared his art with the world.

In Search of Civilization

CivI have a sort of nostalgia for the Age of Enlightenment, also known as The Age of Reason. I can imagine the excitement that many of the greatest minds of that age had when they discovered reason, science, considered thought, and freedom of the individual, as a civilizing force. What hope for the future there must have been as a new door opened to them: which was the idea that progress moved in a straight line, and that the intellectual and artistic direction of the world could get better and better. This must have inspired the greatest faith in the development and evolution of humanity. But history doesn’t move in a straight line. In fact, it oscillates.

There is the long wave theory of history and economics. I am not doing it proper justice in this blog describing it, but, in essence, history moves in an oscillating pattern. Classical periods are followed by Romantic periods, and then back as the pendulum swings. If you back up enough, this patterns becomes pretty obvious.

From The Age of Reason back to a less reasonable age. I can’t wait for the next swing of the pendulum back to reason and enlightenment. I think we could call our current age The Age of Belief. Belief Vs. Reason. Science Vs. Religion’s dogma.

My point of view is not against religions belief itself. Nor was the Age of Enlightenment against such beliefs. Rather, it was against belief as an organizing principle for society. Freedom of the individual respects individual belief as a personal and private matter. There is no place for it in politics. Thomas Jefferson, a true son of the Age of Reason, wrote some of the most brilliant and profound works on this principle:

“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.”

Thomas Jefferson

If only we had listened. Now, in what I am cynically calling The Age of Belief, that wisdom seems far away, a bit like how things might have seemed to people in the Dark Ages when they thought back to the more brilliant ages of Greece and Rome.

How did the Dark Ages come about? In his excellent book A History of Knowledge, Charles Van Doren describes the Dark Ages as God Obsession. The idea was that Christ would return in the year 1000, so what was the use of trying to build anything substantial? Belief was central, which, of course, led to wars, strife, injustice, and the dark side of humanity acting badly in the name of good. The star of the show was various beliefs that people were happy to die over. In those days, Islam was the most open religion, respectful of different religions.

The Christians were doctrinaire, authoritarian, and dictatorial. We had the Inquisition, which gave people a choice between adhere to the party line, or be exiled or torched. Then there was the 30-year war between Protestants and the Catholics. After all of this, the Age of Enlightenment must have seemed as if it were coming out of a long nightmare, a trance, a painting by Hieronymus Bosch showing the horrors of Purgatory.

And here we are again. The Age of Belief would love to pit one belief system against another. Sunni Vs. Shiite as the Middle East falls apart fighting it out as to who has the real Truth. Or West Vs East, as if the Crusades were on again. As I said, nothing wrong with having personal religions beliefs. But when some try to impose their beliefs on everyone, spare me from those who are “Holier than Thou.”

To get back to the idea of civilization for a moment, Jefferson was so right. Freedom of the individual is impossible when belief is imposed on any social order. For many, there is a built-in conflict between the value of freedom, on the one hand, and belief doctrines imposed on everyone, on the other.

Do we think that the leaders of the Age of Enlightenment did not have their own powerful spiritual experiences? Many of them, as it turns out, were mystics, meaning, that their foundation for their spiritual knowledge came from their direct higher experiences rather than belief, which is always secondary. That is why often the best part of any religion is found in their mystical traditions. This is why the radical Islamist terrorists hate the Sufis, who have one of the most mystical expressions of Islam.

Civilization is a human invention. It is not a natural organizing principle of nature. One day, maybe far into the future, the whole world may join together to create a new Age of Enlightenment. This age will not negate God, or personal belief, or organized religion. In fact, the richness of those thoughts, instincts, and institutions will be much stronger when they are a matter of choice rather than obligation. And, together, we can support the arts, commerce, science, exploration, and true evolution of progress, while also supporting beliefs as a personal matter.

So, just for now, I’m waiting for the pendulum to swing in the opposite direction.

To Resolve New Year’s Resolutions

newyear15New Year’s are a moment in time to both reflect the past and imagine the future; perhaps the most thoughtful time of the year. As we all know, this is the time that people make New Year’s resolutions. “I’ll eat better, exercise, accomplish more, be more green, learn a new language, write a novel, keep up with relatives…” And on it goes. Of course, most of these well meaning declarations of being a better person fail, often within days after they are made.

It is human to have good intentions. It is also human to ignore them, even while they are made sincerely and with great commitment. But why?

There are a few things. All of them are structural. In other words, the reasons why they fail have to do with the structural dynamics that are driving the process.

  1. The resolves are about fixing yourself. Therefore, they are problem or conflict based, and not true desired outcomes. The underlying assumption is that you’ve been bad, and now you better get your act together, straighten out and fly right. The motivation is to get rid of something you don’t want, which is not sustainable over time.
  2. Too often, the resolves are about process and outcomes.
  3. The resolves are not based on the creative process, which is history’s most successful process for accomplishment, but rather a reaction to bad habits and sloppy behavior.
  4. There is little understanding of why you had bad habits or sloppy behavior in the first place. If the structure remains the same, even with all your good intentions, you will revert to the original behavior because that is the path of least resistance. You can’t fool Mother Structure.

These are just a few things. There are more. But, there is something good when you reflect on your life, see how you would like it to change, and generate a strategy to accomplish the change. Your instinct is good and proper. Your approach may be flawed.

Here are a few suggestions to actually use the New Year as a focal point for a better life:

  1. Think in terms of final desired outcomes.
  2. Know your current reality in relationship to them.
  3. That will form structural tension, the best dynamic for real and lasting change.
  4. From that, create an action plan with due dates.
  5. Don’t have too many “resolutions” because that will lead to overwhelm.
  6. Choose a few that can be created quickly, within the first few weeks so you can generate some momentum.
  7. Manage the process directly.
  8. Learn, adjust, learn, adjust, learn as you engage in the process.
  9. Don’t take it personally, this is not about you but about the end results you are creating.
  10. Build foundation. The more you create, the more you are able to create.

Best wishes for this New Year!

Robert and Rosalind

Pope Francis’s Deeper Insight

Pope Francis in KenyaIn Kenya last week, Pope Francis asked a stadium of young people to stand up and hold hands. A simple gesture. But the deeper message was about the destructive force of tribalism and the generative force of alignment with all of humanity. Historically, Kenya has had trouble with tribalism as recently as less than 10 years ago. But tribalism is not limited to the developing world. It is a world predicament.

One of the biggest issues in our modern times is not terrorism as such, but the roots of it: tribalism. That word has a certain primitive connotation. We think of the jungle, and people with spears running around trying to protect their area in some tropical rain forest 10,000 years ago.

But, in many ways and in spite of modern civilization, tribalism, called by other names, still plagues us. Some of the other names are nationalism, chauvinism, xenophobia, and intolerance.

Not all nationalism is tribalism. There is a pride one can take in the unique cultural virtues of a country. French cuisine, American rock and jazz, German engineering, Japanese design, and so on. We can share in these wonders, even if we are not members of the country. In fact, the whole world benefits from the cultural richness of many countries’ unique gifts. But the ugly side of nationalism comes in the form of denouncing other groups who are not members of the nation (tribe.) A “we against them” mentality. The notion of one group’s superiority and another group’s inferiority.

Issues of group identity have been with us since our earliest beginnings. Yet, the dilemma is that they are as powerful a force now as they have ever been. And this may be a flaw of the human psyche. Our basic nature is to collect around a group of similar people. We are social animals. We seek connection with others. On one level, with the globalization of technology, that could be a good thing. People can connect with others who are not in their immediate “tribe.” Differences enrich the larger sense of community, as people get to know each other and find that they have a lot in common. Unusual for a Pope, Pope Francis told his young gathering in Kenya to go on line, meet others through social media, connect with the broader world. He understands this as an antidote to radicalization. If the whole world joins together in friendship it is hard to become radicalized.

Those who become radicalized have one thing in common. Individually, they feel insecure. They, by themselves, think they are nothing, or nothing special. They seek to bolster their identities by group membership. The leaders of cults and radical movements understand this well, and are very clever at offering something these individuals lack and desperately seek: glory, glamour, and praise. It is easy to grab a gun and kill innocent people as they go about their business. It is counter-instinctive and hard to die for such an event.

The glory, the promise of a type of stardom, the rewards in heaven or paradise is compelling, but, by themselves, not enough to overcome the instincts of survival built into the human condition. There has to be another factor to compensate for the powerful dynamic of the survival instinct: that other groups are not only evil, but also threat to the survival of the tribe. It is easy to unite people when they have a common life-threatening enemy.

To accomplish this, the enemy must be seen as an existential threat. It takes ignoring reality to buy the party line because human beings have more in common than differences. Culture, when transposed into identity, robs culture of its richness. Everything becomes symbolic. That means, reality is not seen or understood for what it is, but becomes a symbol for whatever is assigned to it. For some, it may be adopted in the name of religion, or politics, or ethnic origins. It will always be about identity and tribalism.

In the West we often hear that we need to have a better message to counter the ones that Isis and al Qaeda have through their mastery of their propaganda machines. Given the nature of the messages, there is no counter message that can compete. You can’t fight one appeal to group identity with a different appeal to group identity. The basic premise of identity itself needs to be revealed as the charade it is.

Freedom of the individual within the context of a healthy and productive community is a more sophisticated social structure. It is more complex to manage. It requires more than a tolerance of differences. It demands an appreciation of differences. It calls for the deep human desire to join together with others to build something we cannot do on our own. Such a structure brings out the best in everyone, not as some utopian ideal, but as a highly workable social order, which itself is an invention of humanity and well beyond a tribal mindset. And Pope Francis understands this well as he asks people of all nations, beliefs, ethnic groups, and cultures to join hands as an act of our common humanity.

Again in Paris

Below is a blog I wrote about the previous terror attacks in Paris. It is sad that these words are more relevant than ever, and, again, our hearts go out to the people of France, of Europe, of the world.

Terror’s Grand Strategy

Paris AgainSo, yesterday, there was another example of the tactics extremist use to break hearts, limit free thought, and, because it is terrorism, terrify us. The world becomes focused on the horrible event, as it should. More and more of these destructive acts are developing throughout the world. Has the world gone crazy?

There is a grand strategy behind this. It was developed by Osama bin Laden and is one of the al-Qaeda’s founding tenets. It is to polarize, to generate a reaction of the West to abhor the East, to hope that the West will overreact and reject innocent Muslims unfairly, who, will then in turn, react against the West and join the extremists.

Unfortunately, too often the strategy is working. There is more and more Islamophobia in the West. In Europe, the radical anti-Muslim right wing is gaining political strength.

The grand strategy is designed to lead to prejudice, hate, polarization, separation, suspicion, mistrust, skepticism, and cynicism. It is designed to generate unfair criticism. Those who fall into this orientation are supporting bin Laden’s grand strategy. The French Muslim Council said, “This extremely grave barbaric action is also an attack against democracy and the freedom of the press.” This group represents France’s Muslim community, which is Europe’s biggest and estimated to be between 3.5 and 5 million people.

In light of such a horrible terror attack in Paris, we want to do something because we feel such a sense of lost, pain, and powerlessness. What can we do? There is one thing, actively reject the grand strategy. Reject prejudice. Support truth. Avoid the propaganda on either side to villainize the other side. Non-Muslims, avoid those who want to paint 1.6 billion people with the same brush. Muslims, avoid those who want to paint 5.23 billion people with the same brush. One thing we have in common is that we are human beings.

Our hearts and prayers are in France today, as is all the world.

The Illusion of Perfection

PearlRichard Bach stated a typical New Age notion this way, “There is such a thing as perfection… and our purpose for living is to find that perfection and show it forth…”

Is that really our purpose for living? Many people have adopted this concept without question. But there are built-in assumptions here that need to be questioned. For one, we have a job in life and that job is to be better than we are. It reminds me of what Lucy said to Charlie Brown when he told her that we are here to help others. “What are the others here for?” She asked.

People come by the goal of perfection honestly. It has been with us well before the ancient Greeks first invented the Western notion of perfection that they saw as one of life’s highest aspirations. Plato wrote that to reach perfection, one had to transcend the imperfection of reality and strive for a perfect state in which such things as beauty, justice, or goodness are in an ideal or complete condition. Plato thought that philosophers’ had the job of contemplating the nature of the “good,” and by doing so, perfected themselves.

Predating the ancient Greeks, Eastern religions such as Hinduism saw perfection as its primary spiritual goal. In their tradition and teachings, perfection means to make the “soul the real master of oneself,” to be above the senses, passions, and worldly concerns. By overcoming ignorance and ego, one can reach “enlightenment,” which is seen as a perfect state of being, knowledge, and understanding.

Aristotle thought of perfection as potential being fully realized and expressed. Later, St. Thomas Aquinas, who was deeply influenced by Aristotle, concluded that perfection should be one of Christianity’s highest goals. To both Aristotle and Aquinas, their concept was this: that we contain certain potentials that have the possibilities of being developed in the future. They believed that the purpose of potential was to seek fulfillment. The stronger the potential, the more intensity its fulfillment. Therefore, potential was a dynamic force that had its own unique purpose, that of reaching the full expression and realization of what was possible.

Let’s take a moment to explore the underlying assumption of this concept. Your gifts, such as talents and natural abilities, are your potential. Potential, according to Aristotle, has a built in dynamic, that of striving to be fulfilled. If you have certain gifts such as talent or great intelligence or mechanical ability or mathematical aptitude, are you obliged to fulfill these attributes? Does the very existence of aptitudes form your life-direction, mandate a life-purpose that is ordained, in which there is no free choice?

It is important not to confuse perfection with excellence. That which is perfect is without flaws, excellence simply means “the state or quality of excelling or being exceptionally good; an action, characteristic, feature in which a person excels.” The irony is that one can be perfect and not be excellent, and one can be excellent at something, and not be perfect. These two conditions are vastly different and independent from each other. Excellence usually includes a high degree of imperfection that is an aspect of reaching excellence.

If you have the talent to become a barber, do you have to spend your life cutting hair? If you are good at math, do you need to become a mathematician, or scientist, or engineer? If you excel at playing the piano, do you need to become a professional musician? To what degree do you have to forge a life based on your natural talents? To what degree must your talents govern your destiny?

Schools give their students aptitude tests designed to measure their abilities. Then, guidance counselors sit down with these students, and give them advice. Their advice usually suggests pursuing a career based on their aptitude. If the student is good at math, become an engineer; if you are organized, become a manager; if you are artistically talented, become a graphic artist; if you are good at communication, become a journalist. For many, by following their guidance counselor’s advice, they find themselves in careers they never cared about, and, once they get to middle-age, they are ready for their midlife crisis. They know there must be more to life than they have experienced, but they are unable to reach something better through the compromises upon which they have built their lives. This is because they have based their lives on their attitudes and not on their true desires. They thought they were obligated to develop their talents and abilities independently from their own aspirations. For many, their life-direction was determined by some talent they had when they were 14 years old. This is the dark side of Aristotle’s notion of potential seeking perfect fulfillment.

Of course, the deeper basic premise is that people cannot learn and develop unless they already have gifts built into the circuitry. According to this mentality, you should base your life on your aptitude rather than your true desires. Therefore, your actual questions of true desires go unanswered. These true desires don’t go away simply because they are unaddressed. They go underground, waiting for a full-fledged midlife crisis to set them free.

Here is a basic, yet profound, question: if you have talent and abilities, are you obligated to develop them? Or, are you free to live your life the way you see fit, pursuing your own aspirations, independent of your talents and abilities? Many people think their job in life is to develop their gifts. Often, this notion is seen as their life purpose. Furthermore, they see their purpose as connected with their sense of themselves, their identity. They think that once identity is tied with purpose, how well they develop their gifts defines them. But this is a no-win situation. There can be no final success since there is no way to reach the ideal of perfection, no matter what your gifts are. An unwinnable game like this leads to obsession. This, in turn, leads to constant frustration and dissatisfaction with oneself, with life, with the world in general. Nothing is ever good enough and each success is tainted with the innate demand to do better and be better than is humanly possible.

Does the person who has fewer gifts have less responsibility and obligation in life? Are they freer than someone who has great talent and abilities? If that were so, then many people would wish for fewer gifts because your talents and abilities control their fate. The underlying assumption for a majority of people is that they must use and develop their gifts. That is why you’ve been given them in the first place. So if you have talent for drawing and math, and your brother has talent for athletics, you should become an architect, and he should be a football coach, no matter what you might want personally. Your wishes don’t count. At least not if you assume that you must honor your own potential by pursing a life built around them.

Must all potential seek its perfect realization?

Do you have to use your gifts?

If your Aunt Sally gave you a horrendous pair of pajamas for Christmas, do you have to wear them?

If you have a gift for playing the harmonica, do you have to play the harmonica?