Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Dear Almighty Follow-Up Letter

Dear God or Powers that Be or Whoever Else is in Charge,

Man with drill and welding mask
Yes, it is me again. Remember I wrote you an open cyber letter about two and a half years ago on June 2, 2011 to be exact? It was desperate times then, and my humor was a fool's cap hiding my tension, distress and anxiety. I was in dire straits to say the least, see the picture on the left for a re-enactment thereof (photo is courtesy of Chris Koelbleitner).

Then one Thursday evening I felt the weight of helplessness turn into pure and seething frustration. I had not found the stable job I was looking for and, in fact, the most recent gig had fizzled into thin air. It turned out that I had merely embarked upon an already sinking ship. So in this mood, I entered a drug store that Thursday evening and out of the blue I received a call for an interview for the following day and was hired a mere few hours after the interview! My life changed in a flash!

Things thanks to you improved drastically thereafter. I got to teach subjects I loved the most; I enjoyed the work environment and got along very well with my boss, co-workers and students, and I had the relatively stable income I had been looking for. So the following month I bought the wished-for and promised iPad for my son's third birthday. And I also ended up buying the flat-screen TV and the Blu-Ray player mentioned in my previous letter. Taking out my family for lunch or dinner became a more regular pastime as I did not have to worry about making next month's rent.

(True, a good chunk of my savings then went towards my son's dental surgery, but again thank you for making him come out of it just fine! Those were anxious and tear-filled two hours, but it is now a thing of the past, and I am grateful for it!)

So as we both can see you have fulfilled everything I have asked of you! It has been even beyond my expectations and only reinforces my belief in asking and thou shalt be given. I asked with an open and honest heart, and you indeed blessed and showered me with all those gifts. My gratitude knows no bounds.

In fact, if I look at my checklist of things I would like to do, it has become much smaller now. My blog was published as a book (although not a bestseller but still), and I have been involved with some level of film-making (this Halloween our student film club made an interesting short film: Zombie Zone) as well as the occasional book review (whenever I get some free time).

This year of 2013 has been very good to us. It has not had the ups and downs of previous ones, but that is a good thing. The summer was amazing, and we got to do many things. There was also enough time to catch up on movies and TV series. I had a rather sick Christmas (not in the slang sense of an awesome one, but I was actually sick myself and so was my family). But thank goodness again nothing too serious, and we are all on the recovery road again.

So what am I asking for now? The continuation of how things have been both job and health-wise, again if possible and if it so pleaseth you. Of course, being a petty human who is never fully satisfied with what they got, I would like to have a little bit more fame (perhaps a rush of visitors to my blog?) and also be able to afford my own home somewhere down the misty lane of life. But again, no rush.

On the good side I have reached a steadier and calmer outlook on life. I realize that I am generally happier with who I am and where I find myself. And I find myself closer to the spiritual world. I will try to practice this and not let it escape my grasp; I am also aware that one cannot grab things, but must learn to let things go, to simply be and roam freely. So again my constant plea remains that if possible give me the necessary shove here and there so I do not stray from the Path.

One thing I have realized lately that it is important to be good and serene within, but that one must also act out those good intentions. I will try to be so, more in acts than faithful words. One of the things I have started, which again you already know, is to read the Bible. I am trying to comprehend it and read between the lines to understand what it is you or your spokesperson is asking of us humans. Though at times I get more confused, but I blame this on religious spin doctors and not on your Word or Truth. In the meantime, I continue to read and reflect upon philosophy to sharpen my mind and soul and to be better at grasping or recognizing some bit-sized truths on existence should I stumble upon them.

But for now, I am happy as ever and wish everyone a very happy new year. May 2014 bring us all blessings and perhaps a little bit more peace and tranquility within and without.

As usual and always with love,

Your humble servant A

Sunday, December 29, 2013

We are what we believe: A Book Review of Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations

Book Cover with a Pillar and Clouds

Well, first things first: I really loved this book! Sorry, but I had to unabashedly get this off my chest. Here is the erudite philosophical self-help book that I always intended to write, but was beaten to it, and then some. Its full title is even longer than (yet quite similar to) my own blog address: Philosophy for Life and other Dangerous Situations: Ancient Philosophy for Modern Problems. And its author Jules Evans is uncountable steps ahead of my idea to start a philosophy support group that cherishes life's joys and mysteries. All said and done! To make matters worse, he is the same age as me (actually I believe he is younger)!

But the similarities do not end there. Here is an excellent and resourceful book that examines the history of ideas with a focus on ancient Greek and early Roman philosophers and relates it all directly to the practice of modern daily life. All of this is done with a healthy sense of humor that does not distract but only adds to its philosophical weight and significance.

The journalist-philosopher Jules Evans treats philosophy very seriously and with passionate enthusiasm. When he claims that philosophy is for life (both crucial for one's existence and as a lifelong practice), he really means it. Philosophy has, if not saved his life, at least given him purpose and direction for his own existence. The practical aspects and emotional benefits of philosophy are examined by looking at how it has influenced psychology and how there are a number of direct offshoots of the Socratic method, including CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) and Positive Psychology to name a few.

In fact, CBT functions on the following assumptions that go back to the great Greek philosopher Socrates. The first step is to try to know oneself through vigorous and relentless questioning of one's core beliefs. Once our automatic, subconscious and irrational beliefs come to the foreground, they are rationally analyzed and if valid, accepted; if not, they are discarded and replaced with a new way of thinking. The final step is to continue this new behavior until it becomes automatic and part of one's core identity.

This seems rather simple, but it is very difficult to do as we may lack complete honesty, resolution and / or discipline to follow through. For example, let us say that you are socially anxious and think that people are always thinking negatively about you. Then, you would check this belief for its validity. Is it true or it is merely your own fear or your own lack of acceptance of yourself projected onto others?

If it is true, then you might need to evaluate reasons why you are not liked or accepted and perhaps adjust your behavior accordingly. If it is all in your head, then you might want to change your negative ways of thinking and replace them with a more positive and, of course, more realistic outlook of how things are (it is indeed quite unrealistic and counterproductive to want to be liked by everyone!). Many focus too much on their failings and let their many successes go by unnoticed or simply shrug them off as matters of sheer luck, which only fosters negativity and low self-esteem.

All of this seems most useful for those who are suffering from depression or have had traumatic experiences in the past. One of the things that one learns is to see the world from a different and more rationally balanced perspective. For instance, there are things that we are responsible for, mistakes we have made in the past, both big and small. Sure, but that does not mean that one should club oneself over the head for the rest of one's life. At some point, one has to accept it, try to rectify it (if possible) and then move on.

The strange thing about the past is that it is not real. It is emotional baggage that we carry around with us, and it is to a large part our own choice and decision, whether we realize this or not. However, unless we deal with it effectively, it will always come and haunt us and become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you have had your share of abusive relationships, it is important to focus on the opportunities of the here and now instead of harboring on your negative experiences of the past.

In this book, there are real life examples of people who have been sexually abused as children. This is a horrendous experience that I think must be rather impossible to shake off. But this is not about repression or denial. What happens is that victims tend to internalize the blame and see themselves somehow responsible for what has happened to them.

This goes hand in hand with the belief that everything that happens to us is our own doing or rather undoing. But that is definitely not true. There are many events and setbacks that are completely out of our control. For example, it seems silly to think that we can control the weather, that we can make it rain or shine. It is equally absurd to believe that we are responsible for today's thunderstorm. Along the same vein, the child did not seek sexual attention, but was abused by others. That child is not responsible for those horrible experiences and must not believe it to be so.

I think the fact that we can let go of the past and not be too obsessed about the future can give us a tremendous amount of legroom and freedom. It is breaking the karmic cycle, the negative loopy prison we have gotten used to and caught up in. We can start anew, at anytime, but especially right now. Of course, we cannot create miracles, but we can eventually get somewhere one thought at a time.

This is where Stoicism becomes quite relevant. I have previously blogged about how stoicism can change our life, and Jules Evans not only agrees with me but puts it into clearer perspective. His journalistic quest gives us ordinary people from different walks of life (including soldiers, gangsters, astronauts, and anarchists to name a few) for whom stoicism has made a substantial impact.

Again, we may not be able to control our environment or things that happen to us, i.e. our fate or destiny, but we can channel our reactions towards them. Evans gives us examples of resilient war prisoners who have even endured torture. Their core beliefs in Stoic philosophy has given them the strength not only to withstand the pains and pressure, but to survive these experiences. They did not break down mentally; they did not let the enemy get inside their heads, and despite all the traumas they came out as victors.

One may think of examples of martyrs who withstood pain and death to the very end without giving up or renouncing their beliefs and ideas. It is true that Christianity was strongly influenced by and consciously embraced philosophical strands of Stoicism. In fact, Stoics believed in a kind of unalterable fate ruled by a mysterious Logos and that whatever happens to us needs to be accepted without complaint, just like Job had to go through numerous slings and arrows of misfortune and somehow made it through them all.

But this insightful book does not merely look at the Socratic method or Stoicism (they are merely appetizers here), but it comes as a complete menu that includes delightful dishes, including Epicureanist, Platonist, Aristotelian and Cynic morsels, flavors and spices. Jules Evans also successfully made me see that Heraclitus is not the material philosopher I took him to be, but that he was actually rather mystic in his views.

We also meet the Skeptics, and their current growth and offshoot linked with atheism and based and fed on by science. They fight against religion with rather crusade-like fervor and with at times equally dangerous dogma. One thing that science must have learned from its history is that facts do no always remain facts but can easily be replaced by other facts and that our knowledge is tentative. Hence you cannot be completely sure of anything and real skeptics ought to be skeptical of that and subscribe more to its agnostic sibling instead of dismissing religion as a whole.

Rarely has philosophy been so much fun and easy to follow (just like Arash's World?) and it is amazing how much information is condensed and distilled in these 200+ pages. In fact, Evans has done his research, and he also aptly and suavely references current pop media and film (anywhere from Star Wars to E.T. to Memento) as well as politics. He summarizes the beauty and magic of ancient Greek philosophy without dusty jargon but with pulsating lifeblood. He is not spoon-feeding you philosophical opinions and does not have hidden agendas (except perhaps to make you appreciate philosophy more).

In fact, this book gives you the option to choose to set your own moral compass or dance to your own philosophical tune with whoever is to your liking. At the same time, Evans scrutinizes and evaluates each branch or movement in an unbiased and balanced manner and gives each philosopher a fair hearing. There is much to be learned and commended by this. It is a book that poses the question how one should live and offers different viable interpretations to select from. It is a book of enormous value in a world where values need to be valued more than ever.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Teaching and the Difference between Being Educated and Having an Education

Picture of an empty sidewalk with brown leaves
What does it mean to have an education? And how could it be different from being educated? Are the two not one and the same thing? Should they be?

That depends on one's philosophy for teaching, which, in turn, strongly affects the method of teaching. Throughout Western history (with some notable exceptions during ancient Greece), the role of the teacher has been predominantly to instruct and provide knowledge by instilling, ensuring and maintaining discipline. 

Students in this view were seen at best as tabula rasa, empty vessels or blank sheets of paper that needed to be filled or written upon. This is what is commonly referred to nowadays (at times in a derogatory manner) as lecturing (something that pretty much every teenager abhors).

Indeed that is how lecturing works. The idea is that the teacher has knowledge that they will impart upon or transfer to the students in order to instruct or correct them. Knowledge is regarded as something that can be possessed alongside with the framed document that goes with it; you will find that the particular student mentioned on the diploma has managed to reproduce (or regurgitate) knowledge in a satisfactory manner.

The extreme form of such a type of learning is the imposing headmaster at his pulpit threatening with sticks and other forms of punishment. Students then are to memorize the works of famous learned people, and in this way they would be able to reproduce and demonstrate anytime and anywhere the information they have received. Such students are often referred to as walking dictionaries. They can give you the facts, dates, and numbers on merely any event. They live under the maxim that knowledge is indeed supplying power to them.

Yet they do not really have power. Put them in a difficult situation, and it becomes apparent that they are lost even with all their knowledge and information in their heads. In current times, they are easily replaceable with a smartphone that can do what they do and with much more accuracy and detail to boot. Knowledge for knowledge's sake is rather useless since it is rigid and inflexible and cannot be applied to different fluid and complex situations.

If we look at teaching, it does, more often than not, follow that sort of scheme even today. We give our students certain facts and expect them to be able to recall them in oral or written exams. If they differ from what we deem right they are often penalized and denied a passing grade. They would have to repeat the motions until they satisfy the teacher who is a kind of gatekeeper, while the student may be at times as bewildered and desperate as Kafka's Josef K.

Certainly, there are more and more movements in education toward applying critical thinking and other types of skills. The students are expected to fulfill a list of learning or performance outcomes to show that they have learned what has been taught to them. It is better than merely learning by heart as they are given the opportunity to apply their knowledge.

This can be best illustrated by giving the example of mathematics. There you may memorize the formula, but you need to use it under differing circumstances. In that sense, the knowledge or skills are the magical formula supposed to help you attain good worthwhile jobs and, more importantly, to get you through life.

The benefit of this method is that there is at least some direction in accepting that students are not as “empty-headed” as first assumed. In fact, we are building upon or refining some of their skills. A more student-centered approach will also give them some leeway to express their skills in more unique or creative ways instead of prepacked and fabricated chunks of information.

That is, of course, as anything of value, easier said than done. As instructors we still have an image of the exemplary student in our minds and whether subconsciously or not we do compare our actual students with our mental notes or prototypes of them. The danger is that while we may assume students did not learn a thing, they might have done so in their own ways. Furthermore, it could turn out that our methods of evaluation may turn out flawed or distorted. A student may have anxiety of exams and hence not do well on any of them.

But that is not all there is. Education is not just about knowledge or skills that can be acquired or possessed. The problem is, in our materialistic world, we are so obsessed with possessions that if something does not give tangible results, we automatically assume it is a failure. For example, if a person lacks wealth or a good job, many of us will deem that person a failure. But money on its own or the possession of knowledge does not immediately signify success.

Let me give an example. There are people who are very good at jumping through the hoops of education. They can provide the answers their instructors are craving to hear, and they are very good at giving the impression that they are indeed educated. But it may turn out that it is more about appearance than true education. They are not ignited with the passion for learning. Education is not something that ends with your degree; in fact, that is only the starting point.

My take on teaching is that our message as teachers needs to vibrate within the soul of our students. Something must click within them or at least partially open their eyes to the world and themselves. They must learn to ask questions instead of following authority blindly albeit respectfully. They should gain curiosity about the subject that they did not have previously. Education then is like sampling food making you want to eat the whole dish.

In fact, food is a great and fitting metaphor here. Education should be like the wafer of the body of Christ that is assimilated and resonates with one's whole being. It should not be confined to the classroom or the duration of one's degree. It has to be woven intimately within the fabric of one's essence and being.

Critical thinking and curiosity are two things that need to be practiced at all times. While as teachers we may end up teaching our students discipline, it is up to them to eat and drink up our own passion for knowledge. In other words, being educated means that they have got the message and that they have changed through this contact. It is intellectual, emotional and also spiritual.

The student develops and starts paving and carving his or her own path. And whether they passed the course with a high grade or not is of lesser value here. In fact, it is our materialistic thinking again that focuses and places too much value on grades. If the course has changed your way of thinking or touched you in a unique way, it has been successful. A degree should not be just a piece of paper; it ought to be engraved deep within your heart.