Decluttering Our Actions

It’s important to declutter our actions by doing what know know to be the right things.

The things we do, the actions we take, are expressions of our identity. Other people only evaluate and, yes, judge our minds and our hearts by what they see us doing. They take stock of how closely our words align with our deeds. How we feel about ourselves is often based on what we did or didn’t do, and how well or how poorly we did it. That’s why it’s important to get rid of the pointless tasks and meaningless activity in our lives, to make more space to accomplishing the most essential and important things and to do those things as well as we possibly can.

Too often we prioritize our actions based on outside influences, rather than our own understanding of needs and wants, our own moral compass, or our own sense of ethics. It’s frustrating when the boss, or the client, wants something that you know is wrong, or wants something done in a way that you know is going to waste resources and still yield a poor result, but we learn to live with that. We only have so much influence there, and hopefully over time we can get those people to trust our judgment and expertise. Where we run into real problems is when we cave to influences that we do have control over.

We do the wrong things for the wrong reasons, which boil down to discomfort and fear. By being different, we risk ridicule and opposition. It’s easier to move with the herd, to let other people make plans and decisions, even when you know that it’s wrong or ineffective. We don’t stand up for ourselves, our ideas, our beliefs. We don’t stand up for other people, for the rights and dignity of those who are different or out of step with the zeitgeist. We go along to get along, and we deprive the world and ourselves of our voice, our creativity, and our basic humanity.

The actions we choose are often based on scarcity of resources. We don’t always seek the fast and easy way because we’re lazy, but because we have too many other things to do. We try to multitask, because we’re expected to or because we honestly think we can do several things at once with any degree of accuracy and effectiveness, short-changing everything. We don’t use the best materials or ingredients, we don’t hire the best help, we don’t put forth all of our energy, because we approach everything as a zero-sum game.

The key is to do fewer things, more effectively. Cut out the things that don’t matter, even if other people insist that they do. Focus on the things that are actually important, not the things that other people are focused on at the moment. Know your own mind, and set your own priorities. It’s important to declutter our actions by doing what we know to be the right things.

Decluttering Our Speech

It’s important to declutter our speech by saying the right things.

If we’re realistic, we know that we’ll never have all of the information on any given topic. That means it’s sometimes difficult to know when we have enough information to make a wise decision or express an informed opinion. If we’re honest, we’ll accept that limitation and do the best we can with what we have, but remain willing to learn and grow and change our stance when we have more and better information to work with.

This becomes harder when nearly every issue you can think of is somehow a divisive issue. Getting your facts wrong will not only cause you to lose an argument, but can serve as fodder by the other side to dismiss everything you’ve ever said out of hand. If you were wrong about one thing, after all, what else might you have been wrong about? On top of that, changing your opinion based on new evidence is somehow viewed as a weakness, a lack of conviction or resolve or ideological will.

There is a point where ego enters into our speech, because we have an instinctual need to protect ourselves. We need to speak factual truth not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because we don’t want to look foolish. I understand that there are people out there whose definition of idiot begins and ends with either “anyone who doesn’t think as I do” or “anyone who doesn’t agree with me” and to those uncritical people I will always be labeled an idiot. What I mean is that I do not want to express opinions as facts, or say things when I have not done even some basic research to back up my opinions. In short, I don’t want to run my mouth when I don’t know what I’m talking about.

We need to start insisting on reasoned discussions, fair debates, and fact-based conversations. We need to devote ourselves to finding and serving the truth. We need to set the standard and serve as an example of how this can be done. The way to do this is to stop characterizing the other person as wrong, especially when they’re arguing from emotion or belief rather than fact. They’re not going to be swayed by insults any more than you are. We need to acknowledge that we’re talking about apples and oranges; “I understand that your opinion is based on this belief, but I disagree because my opinion is based on this fact, that fact, and the other fact.” Then we can try to find common ground and establish some ground rules, rather than talking in circles and creating nothing but more ill will.

If you’re not reasonably sure that you know what you’re talking about, don’t talk about it. Think, and research, before you speak. If you think what you’re going to say has the potential to do more harm than good, don’t say it. Know your audience, and know why they’re saying what they’re saying. Speak less, but speak better. It’s important to declutter our speech by saying the right things.

Katie In Finland 21: Driving in Finland

In this episode, Katie and Berin talk about getting Finnish driver’s licenses, renting cars, and surviving without a car.

Minimalism vs Extremism

We need to let go of ideas that don’t work to make space for objective truth.

Over the past couple of decades I’ve noticed that not only have personal, political, and religious opinions become more polarized and divisive, they’ve become more extreme and irrational. I concede the point that this is a problem that has plagued mankind throughout history, but we seem to be nearing a peak in some diabolical cycle. What’s particularly frustrating is that we live in an age where we have unprecedented access to clean, objective data. We have astonishing fact-checking resources at our fingertips. We seem more interested in being intellectually lazy and ideologically pure than factually correct.

It boils down to a basic formula that manifests in a myriad of ways. You begin with a sincerely held belief founded in a real problem or legitimate concern. You pick your position, rather than seeking truth, and locate data that confirms it. You then ignore any evidence or new information that seems to contradict that belief. You militantly defend your stance, to include justification, marginalization, and denial of any suffering your belief is inflicting on yourself and others. In some cases, you leverage the harm to further your own cause, usually through the manipulation of other peoples’ fears.

Extremism: Belief – Facts + Fear = Suffering

  • Iraq had weapons of mass destruction
  • Childhood vaccines cause autism
  • Obama is a Kenyan Muslim
  • Gluten is a toxin
  • The Islamic State represents mainstream Islam
  • Climate change is a hoax
  • All Muslims are terrorists
  • Homeless people choose to live that way
  • Scientific theory is the same was a working hypothesis
  • Syrian refugees are fifth columnists
  • Most of what Planned Parenthood does is perform abortions
  • The answer to gun violence is more guns
  • People living in poverty are lazy and lack ambition

I could go on, but you get the point. All of the above statements are refutable, but at their core they all represent some legitimate concern that has been warped by fear and disinformation. Present a fact that challenges any of the above and you’re likely to be ignored at best and threatened with bodily harm at the near-worst. You can consistently count on being called names, as if a good insult is all that’s needed to invalidate you data, your opinion, and your value as a person.

At a certain point I stopped having these sorts of discussions altogether, especially on the internet. The people who already agreed with me would just take anything I said as additional confirmation bias. The people who disagreed would dismissively call me a name and either describe what they planned to do to my mother or tell me how badly they were going to kick my ass. It became tiring and pointless; there are better ways to use my time than to shout into the void.

Recently I hit a tipping point, though, and don’t feel like I can keep quiet any more. It’s not that I suddenly feel that I’m going to change anyone’s mind about anything — I don’t. It’s not that I think people are going to suddenly develop a sense of decorum and behave with class and civility – I don’t. It’s not that I have a sudden desire to join the ranks of raving lunatics already cluttering the internet — I don’t. It has to do with the erosion of my own sense of self, and the impact that loss of identity has on the world.

By keeping my mouth shut, I have over time begun to feel less than. If I’m simply saying the same things that everyone else is saying, then my opinion has no value. If I’m just going to be screamed at but not heard, then my voice has no weight and I am making no contribution. Speaking up then, becomes an assertion of identity — I exist as an individual, and I am not merely a piece of clay with no will, waiting to be shaped by the zeitgeist.

The second reason to not keep my mouth shut is to not allow the irrational people to win by default. No, I don’t think I’m going to win over any hearts and minds when they’re entrenched in a fact-resistant lifestyle, but they need to be aware that resistance exists and that they don’t automatically win because they’re willing to be bullies and I’m not. Maybe if they’re challenged just one more time, they’ll learn to think before they speak.

Finally, I need to speak up because I might be the one that sets an example for someone else that’s also afraid to speak up. I might inspire someone else that’s been intimidated or feels like a faceless drone in the crowd to shout out a fact and lend their voice. And they, in turn, might lend courage to someone else, and so on, until we eventually tip the zeitgeist toward data-driven reality and objective truth.

Reality is not a democracy, where the majority rules. The world does not the way we want it to simply because we loudly and repeatedly declare it to be so. Surrounding ourselves only with people that agree with us and information that supports our opinions does not help us to grow and become better people, and certainly doesn’t make the world a better place. We need to let go of ideas that don’t work to make space for objective truth.

Finding Our Better Angels

Following the terrorist attacks in Paris on 13 November — which also happened to be my birthday — I found that I couldn’t focus to write. I had things to do, there were deadlines to meet, but my mind was occupied with other thoughts. Normally I try to avoid writing about tragedy, whether it’s a natural disaster, a mass shooting, or a terrorist attack, for reasons that will fill a whole other essay. But with Paris, I hit a tipping point with a myriad of issues that had been percolating in the corners of my mind for a long time. I needed to write about these things. I needed to clean out some emotional and intellectual clutter, to get it out of my head so that I could get back to the things that I need and want to be writing about.

The problem was that I had no idea what I could possibly say that would be meaningful or useful. I wanted to contribute something a bit more insightful to the conversation than changing my social media avatars and screaming “me too” into the void. I didn’t want to engage with people entrenched in bitter and violent ideologies, because from experience I know that it’s a waste of time to advocate for truth, present facts, and call for compassion when people are in thrall to fear and uncertainty. I certainly didn’t want to respond to other peoples’ strong emotional reactions with an inappropriate outburst of my own.

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

– Abraham Lincoln

We are all connected, because the world is small and seems to be getting smaller every day. We’re slowly realizing that we are one race, and one people, human, for better or worse, and what affects some of us ultimately affects all of us. Some people continue to fight this idea. Some people actively exploit this idea. This is when that connection, which should be a good thing, goes awry.

Yet we get to choose what we connect with, and on what level. Human nature tends to connect more easily to the negative, and drives us to respond in kind; again, this tendency is used against us. We get worked up, and then we speak and act before we have a chance to pause and think about what we’re doing. We want justice for the wronged, revenge against those who have done wrong, and easy explanations for what went wrong. We can’t undo what happened, so we want a speedy resolution, a quick fix, so that we can get some sort of immediate gratification posing as closure and move on. Life is rarely that simple; that’s why it’s important to simplify what we actually can, in order to give the complex things their due.

So I chose to disconnect for a while, getting off of the internet almost entirely, avoiding the news, filling my time and expending my resources on more constructive endeavors. I wanted to be sure that whatever I said was aligned with the practice of Right Speech, so that I wasn’t making the situation worse by intentionally or unintentionally adding to the vast wasteland of suffering that already existed. I wanted to make sure that any actions I took were aligned with Right Intention, that I was serving others and not my own emotional needs or my own agendas.

It takes effort to connect with the positive, certainly more than is required to connect with the negative. It can be hard to locate our better angels sometimes. But the answers are always found among the things that went right, and the things that are working. We spend too little time taking comfort in the continued existence of the positive, and clearing out the bad to make more room for the good. We do this because it is difficult, and it takes time, and it rarely offers the clean check-this-box solution that we crave.

One of the joys of living in an international community is that we are more closely connected with other parts of the world. Katie and I looked in on our French friends to make sure that they and their loved ones were okay, and to get their perspectives on things. We touched base with our Muslim friends, who we were most concerned about due to misguided threats of blind retaliation. There is a refugee center here in Jyväskylä, where Syrians fleeing the violence and horror of the Islamic State are being resettled in Finland, and I’m trying to find out if there is any sort of volunteer work that I can contribute to aid the cause. We all need to do more than to cave to the fear running through the zeitgeist or spout off on the internet. We need to disconnect from the negative, so that we can make more meaningful connections to the positive.