Challenge Makes Us Stronger

I just finished reading The Coddling of the American Mind, an excellent book by lawyer Greg Lukianoff and psychologist Jonathan Haidt. The subtitle is How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure.

The book’s main thesis is that children born in and after 1995 (“iGen”) have suffered from over-protection, over-scheduling, and over-control by parents and schools.

Those excesses come from a culture of “safetyism” that tries to guard them not only from physical danger, but from anything that might upset them. Safetyism teaches them what the authors call “the Three Great Untruths:”

  • The Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.
  • The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always trust your feelings.
  • The Untruth of Us Versus Them: Life is a battle between good people and evil people.

Like most Americans, I’ve been mystified by recent outbreaks of hysteria on college campuses. Could a large number of students be so fragile that they need fluffy toys and “safe spaces” to protect them from hearing speakers they don’t like? Could they be so confused that they think disagreement is equivalent to violence?

Frankly, I’ve found it hard to believe that they’re serious. But after reading the book, I suspect that they are.

It seems that they are more emotionally fragile than young adults should be. They also have wildly exaggerated perceptions of danger. But neither of those problems is their fault. They’ve been over-protected so much that they have no idea of how resilient they really are or what “dangers” they could easily survive.

I was going to start with a story about myself, but my grandmother is an even better example. She was orphaned at age five and adopted by a couple who treated her like cheap labor.

Life hit her young, and it hit her hard. So she got tough. When she was a teenager, she went out on her own.

By the time she was in her thirties, she had started her own business, which later went national. She ended up owning the business, a lot of real estate, and several theaters. That was in the pre-feminist 1950s when women supposedly couldn’t do things like that. She could, and she did. She never let anyone tell her what she couldn’t do; she just went ahead and did it. She was a very kind woman, but she was fearless.

I think she was fearless because she saw at an early age that she could either get tough, or else let life beat her down into a whimpering puddle of goo. She got tough, and she made herself into a remarkable person.

Now for my story. It’s not inspiring like my grandmother’s, but it teaches the same lesson.

When I was in college, I had some of the same problems as other students. Yes, reasons: I was the second-youngest student in the school, and I was pretty weird anyway. Compared to the problems of real life, mine were trivial, but they seemed serious to me at the time. So I went to the university’s counseling center and saw a therapist.

I won’t tell you his name because he’d probably lose his license. But what he did was brilliant. I owe him.

After a few sessions of listening to me whine about my problems, he let me have it with both barrels:

“Help me, help me!” he squeaked in a high voice. And he laughed.

I was stunned. I was angry. I had been looking for sympathy, and he had mocked me. I left and I never went back.

He hadn’t given me what I wanted. He had given me what I needed: a hard kick in the backside.

It wouldn’t have worked for everyone, so I don’t recommend it as a general practice. But it worked for me.

My therapist knew that I wasn’t fragile, and that I could solve the problems on my own. But I didn’t know it yet. So he forced me to do it. He shamed me for my weakness and self-pity. He goaded me into solving my own problems just to spite him.

My grandmother’s and my experiences disprove the untruth of fragility: What didn’t kill us made us stronger, not weaker.

However, even steel has a breaking point. To get stronger, members of iGen need to be challenged: hard enough to make them uncomfortable, but not so hard that they break — and of course, not to the point of serious physical danger.

The book recommends a good first step: Schools should adopt and follow the University of Chicago’s 2014 Report on Freedom of Expression. Paraphrased, it says:

  • Freedom of speech is essential to discover the truth: “The cure for ideas we oppose lies through open discussion rather than through inhibition.”
  • Students aren’t children, and the university isn’t their mommy: “It is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.”
  • The university isn’t a five-star hotel: “Education should not be intended to make people comfortable, but to make them think.”

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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We Can Have Unity Without Unanimity

Winston Churchill (1874-1965) was Prime Minister of England during World War II. He rallied his people to fight back against Nazi Germany even though some of them advocated surrender.

Faced with such disagreement, Churchill said something that’s still relevant in 2018:

“National unity does not require national unanimity.”

In other words, people can stand together as a country even if they disagree.

But that kind of unity isn’t automatic. It requires a few things:

  • The desire to stand united. People have to want it. If different groups hate each other so much that they’d rather die than work together, then they probably will.

For England in World War II, the choice was clear: people could either unite to defend their country or be conquered by Germany. Even the advocates of surrender loved their country and its people. They joined with the majority to defend them.

  • The ability to stand united. People must either agree or they must be rational enough to set aside their differences for mutual benefit and the common good.

Hysterical mobs cannot do that. Their emotions have overpowered their reason. They have become, as the Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides said in another context, “like beasts of prey.” (The Guide of the Perplexed, Part II, Chapter 36)

  • The belief that it’s worth the cost. People must want the benefits of unity more than they insist on getting their own way. That means compromise.

Nobody likes compromise because we’d all prefer to have things our way, all the time. But setting priorities can help. Some values are so basic that they’re not open to debate. Other values are matters of opinion and feeling about which reasonable, morally conscientious people disagree. The tough part is to know the difference.

I once had a boss who proclaimed every new task to be “top priority.” He rushed into my office every morning, seemingly in panic, waving his arms and jabbering that we had to drop everything else and do this or that thing right away. It never seemed to occur to him that at any given moment, only one task could be top priority.

If everything was top priority, then nothing was top priority: our tasks all had equal priority.

Likewise, some people thoughtlessly assume that all viewpoints and values are “top priority,” and that anyone who thinks otherwise is a devil. That’s a profoundly destructive attitude.

Social life, like marriage, requires compromise; and we can’t compromise if we think that all of our beliefs are non-negotiable divine mandates carved in stone. A few of them are, but most of them aren’t.

Before we refuse to discuss or cooperate on an issue, we should think carefully to make sure it really is something so important that we just can’t budge about it. If it’s not, then compromise is possible. We can have unity without unanimity.

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. One reader said “It’s quite a feat how this book bridges the gap between the ancients and the moderns.”

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Give Thanks for Thankfulness

On the American holiday of Thanksgiving, we give thanks for a lot of things.

In developed countries, we’ve got food. We’ve got shelter. Even the poorest among us have access to resources and luxuries that were unimaginable only a hundred years ago.

Regardless of material wealth, most of us also have what’s more important: families, loved ones, and friends with whom we can share our journey through life.

But there’s one more thing for which we should give thanks, if we’re lucky enough to have it: an attitude of thankfulness.

Thankfulness means more than just appreciating the good things we have. It means looking for the hidden blessings to which we seldom give any thought:

  • We have life. Whether we use it wisely or foolishly, for a short time or a long one, it’s our opportunity to experience and create joy. We can make a difference in the world. Every day that we’re alive is a new beginning; a new chance to do something amazing, something good.
  • We have a wonderful world. Yes, the world has its dangers. But it also has beauty that invites us to enjoy it, explore it, and understand it. The dangers are part of the package. They challenge us to learn and to grow stronger. Without them, we would stagnate in mediocrity.
  • We have each other. Nobody has to face life all alone. Yes, other people are often distracted or afraid of rejection, but we’re all here to help each other. If you believe in God, then you’re already ahead of the game: God is always with you, prepared to give you strength when you need it.

That’s how the Pilgrims celebrated the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth Rock in 1621. They thanked God for the good harvest and for the survival of their colony.

They knew that life could be hard. But they also knew that life was worth the hardship.

So be thankful for both the good things and the challenges in your life.

And give some extra thanks for thankfulness itself.

Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it “impressively nuanced … surprisingly accessible.”

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It’s What You Don’t See That Misleads You

Often, it’s not what you see that misleads you. It’s what you don’t see.

In economics, it’s called “the broken window fallacy.” Broken windows create jobs for people who replace windows. Therefore, the fallacy concludes that broken windows are a good thing. They create jobs. We should break as many windows as possible.

It’s a fallacy because it ignores the hidden costs of repairing broken windows. Such repair eats up time, labor, and money that might have been used to make other things. Those things don’t get made. Instead of adding new value to the economy, we’re just repairing something so that we don’t lose value.

(In economics, other factors sometimes complicate things, but they’re not relevant here.)

French economist Fredric Bastiat (1801-1850) called it the problem of “the seen versus the unseen.”

Our preference for the seen over the unseen misleads us all the time. What we see feels real to us; what we don’t see seems unreal, even if we know about it on an abstract level.

Maybe we’d end up making the same decisions anyway. But since the unseen seems unreal, we barely consider it — if we even consider it at all.

A lot of social discord results from people seeing, and not seeing, different things:

  • Corporate CEOs see the money they can save by firing thousands of workers and offshoring production or importing H1-Bs. The CEOs don’t know any of the fired workers and never see them, so their suffering doesn’t seem to matter.
  • Apple customers see shiny gadgets and a politically-correct CEO. They never see the abused workers in Apple’s third-world production facilities, so their suffering doesn’t seem to matter.
  • Open-borders activists see poor people from crime-ridden countries who might be better off in America. They don’t see the costs and hardships imposed on American people and communities, so their suffering doesn’t seem to matter.

So it’s often helpful to ask: “What am I not seeing about this situation?”

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Foreword Reviews called it “intriguing and vital.”

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Is the Bible Worth Reading?

Is the Bible worth reading?

I think it is, but you can find intelligent, moral people on both sides of that question.

American novelist Mark Twain, best known for Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, had a low opinion of the Bible:

“It has noble poetry in it; and some clever fables; and some blood-drenched history; and some good morals; and a wealth of obscenity; and upwards of a thousand lies.”

On the other hand, the Bible provides:

  • Some good moral instruction, as Twain admitted.
  • Stories that pose moral dilemmas and challenge us to think about them.
  • Knowledge required to understand Western civilization, much of which is in response to the Bible. Even Islamic civilization looks to the Bible, though Muslims interpret it in their own way.

One of the Bible’s most important lessons is that moral choices aren’t always simple and obvious.

Consider Genesis 22‘s story of the binding of Isaac. Abraham thinks that God is giving him an order:

“Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering …”

That story demonstrates the two main reasons that our own moral choices can be agonizingly difficult.

First, we’re often not sure of the facts.

In the story, is God really speaking to Abraham? How can Abraham be sure? How sure does Abraham need to be, in order to justify following the order? Awfully darned sure, one would think.

Second, even if we’re sure of the facts, we still might not know the right thing to do.

If Abraham is sure that God is talking to him, should he obey the order? The order seems clearly wrong. As the Creator of the universe, God could zap Abraham into oblivion for disobedience, but that’s not a valid argument for following the order. Fear of punishment is not a substitute for logic.

Abraham decides to follow the order, but at the last minute, an angel comes to stop him. The best version of that scene comes not from the Bible but from Woody Allen:

“And so he took Isaac to a certain place and prepared to sacrifice him but at the last minute the Lord stayed Abraham’s hand and said, ‘How could thou doest such a thing?’

And Abraham said, ‘But thou said–‘

‘Never mind what I said,’ the Lord spake. ‘Doth thou listen to every crazy idea that comes thy way?’

And Abraham grew ashamed. ‘Er — not really — no.’

‘I jokingly suggest thou sacrifice Isaac and thou immediately run out to do it.'”

Some scholars think that the story marks the Bible’s rejection of human sacrifice, which was common in the Ancient Near East. Other scholars think it’s an intentional “Kobayashi Maru” problem to make us examine our own character.

But whatever it is, it shows how the Bible can shake loose our prejudices and make us think more deeply. People who don’t read the Bible don’t get those benefits from it.

Check out my new book, Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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Understanding Control and Perspective

It helps a lot if we understand two principles: control and perspective.

First, there are some things we can control and other things we can’t control.

When we get upset, it’s often because we mistake one kind of thing for the other.

Are you stuck in traffic? Frustrated? Getting frustrated has no effect on the traffic. You won’t get where you’re going any faster. All you’ll do is give yourself a stomach ache. Traffic is one of the things you can’t control.

Reframe the situation: you’re not “stuck.” Instead, you’re getting extra time to plan your day or listen to music. The traffic is only there to give you practice in being patient.

Are you stuck in life? Not where you want to be? Not who you want to be? There are things you can’t do about it, but there’s a lot you can do. You can choose your goal, then do what’s needed and possible to achieve it.

You can also choose your attitude: Are obstacles a barrier to stop you — or are they a challenge for you to overcome? You can control how you look at them.

And that leads to the second principle: perspective.

We had an election yesterday in the United States, and people on both sides are getting stomach aches about it. They shouldn’t.

Perspective dictates that when things are close to us, they look bigger than they really are. Applied to life, most things that happen are neither as good nor as bad as they seem at the moment they occur.

You should do what you can do to improve things. But you should also trust that the universe will unfold as it should.

Check out my new book, Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace.

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The Way to Go

“To every man there openeth
A Way, and Ways, and a Way.
And the High Soul climbs the High way,
And the Low Soul gropes the Low,
And in between, on the misty flats,
The rest drift to and fro.
But to every man there openeth
A High Way, and a Low.
And every man decideth
The Way his soul shall go.”

John Oxenham

The idea of individual responsibility came fairly late in human history.

In ancient times, individuals were seen only as part of their family, clan, tribe, or nation. The group bore collective responsibility for the actions of any of its members.

That’s no surprise, because it’s how our minds work. We use concepts to group similar cases together. Such generalization helps us think about them more efficiently.

We seldom realize how great an intellectual achievement that was. Nor do we realize how subconscious generalizations bias our thinking.

Numbers are an example. They’re a fairly late development. A number such as three covers related cases based on them having three items in each case. Ancient people, and some primitive tribes even now, lack a single concept for it. In one example, there are:

“… [seven] distinct sets of number words: one for flat objects and animals; one for round objects and time; one for counting men; one for long objects and trees; one for canoes; one for measures; [and] one for counting when no definite object is referred to.”

It took an intellectual leap to realize that “three” was the same idea whether it applied to flat objects, round objects, or anything else. We’re so accustomed to the general idea that it seems totally obvious to us, but it wasn’t obvious to our ancestors. When they finally saw it was the same idea in all those different contexts, they could think more efficiently. General concepts are now a fundamental way in which we understand the world.

Thus, our default reaction is to see people as group members rather than as individuals, such as Americans, Canadians, Jews, Gentiles, Republicans, and Democrats.

Often, that’s helpful. Generalizations help us make accurate predictions. They often enable our group and us to survive in a world that is at best competitive and at worst dangerous.

Sometimes, however, they bias our thinking in ways that can harm us and other people.

When we catch ourselves thinking in terms of “us” versus “them,” we should take a breath and make sure we’re thinking clearly. If we don’t get our facts straight, then we risk blundering into injustice.

Check out my new book, Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace.

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