Agnostic No More?

It’s funny how connotation works, isn’t it?

You immediately think you know what that word means here, and you might be right. But as with so many things in life, it carries another meaning that also applies.

Most people see “agnostic” and think it must mean a belief, or a lack of belief, in a deity or a doctrine. I’m an etymologist, though. Not one with a degree, just a passion.

As an avid reader, I love to discover new words, but I am always on guard for alternate meanings.

As a writer, I constantly work to choose the best words — the most precise for what I am trying to describe, or the one that purposely has a dual meaning, to convey both at once, where appropriate. This is a perfect example of the latter use.

Years ago, I described myself as an agnostic in its modern sense: someone who distinctly does NOT know all the answers about a deity or the world(s) beyond our five most common senses and our three-dimensional environment. Most people know this meaning today.

However, as an explorer of science, medical discovery, applied psychology, and general self-development (I mean, really: can’t we all learn to do something better today?), that would seem to make me an agnostic in other ways, too.

The word agnostic comes into English from gnostic, which derives from the Greek for “known” and is related to the Latin “know”, according to Oxford Languages. Agnostic literally means “not knowing”, in its simplest form.

etymology of the word gnostic
I don’t know all the symbols to type this out myself yet. 😉

If you are certain you know the answers to something, people might say that you have faith, which Merriam-Webster defines as “firm belief in something for which there is no proof”. However, I suspect that most people with a powerful faith believe what they believe either due to evidence they’ve witnessed (ideally) or from simple indoctrination, where beliefs are pounded into someone’s head through repetition (and sometimes punishment) without any evidence.

Most people who profess faith in a religious doctrine might point to holy texts, or even to a spiritual experience they’ve had which reinforced what they already suspected or believed or learned, and which left them with even stronger faith in their existing beliefs or hopes. This is evidence-based, even knowing that our minds are subject to bias and error and all manner of struggles, and that seems like a better reason for believing in anything.

This is why I support the scientific process all the time, too. Scientists are constantly discovering evidence that tests their hypotheses and forces them to evolve new theories, which often lead to more discoveries. This is how the human brain seems to be wired: constant feedback and growth is how we learn about our environment, and it is literally key to our survival in the world around us.

We’re not straying from the point, by the way. Quite the opposite.

Knowing what you don’t know gives you room to learn and even helps light the way. Anything that you study, with critical thinking and an open mind, can lead you to incredible discoveries: both the work others have done before you looked, and of course the ground that you break as well. And anyone can develop a new theory of how the world works, or how people think, or how to solve a previously-befuddling problem in astrophysics, psychology, medicine, theoretical mathematics, or almost anything else.

Artists constantly reinterpret and even reinvent the world around them, and such a new vision can enlighten, dishearten, inspire, anger, or simply teach. Artistic expression is crucial to our growth as a species, because while scientific curiosity can open many doors to knowledge, artistic curiosity can open doors to mysteries. And mystery itself can be frightening or exciting, depending on your perspective, which of course can change and grow anytime.

Also, doesn’t every mystery invite exploration? How better to keep us seeking a deeper understanding, and more knowledge — and even theory — of the world (or worlds) around us? Maybe we’re wired for curiosity as well. Maybe it’s what we need the most in this life.

What do you think you know the best? What are you working to discover about yourself, your world, or the life around you? Please comment below and share your thoughts!

Remember to Cry

Amid the pandemic, some of us may not have as many close, personal interactions with other people as we did in years past. For extroverts, it may be easy to empathize with people when you can look into their eyes and see their emotions so plainly.

I wouldn’t know about that part; I’m an ambivert, and I’ve always related best to introverts.

A few days ago, I received a beautiful card from a dear friend. Their words moved me to tears, and I could feel in those words the ache of being so far apart from so many that we love, and for so long now. It’s easy for me to read emotions on paper, and my friend’s pain and hope and love and fear all came through clearly.

But the bad news plays non-stop these days, and it’s all too easy to grow numb. To survive, sometimes we must harden our hearts just enough that we don’t bleed our emotions all over everything we touch. It seems that most people only have so much to give before we are exhausted. Without some good things happening around us, the one-sided cycle can build up enough momentum to crush the fragile hearts of all but the strongest among us.

Of course there is still beauty to be found — or made — in these sometimes endless days. Even with a pandemic raging across the burning planet of struggling people, there is still some good news. But you must dig for it, or for the peace to create some of it yourself. And how do you do that when your heart is growing numb?

Luckily, the answer to that is easier to find than it may seem: CRY. Yes, I can explain.

Cry. Not with helpless rage. Not in rolling fear. Help yourself to cry again. Find a song, a painting, a sculpture, a photo, a portrait of someone you love (and perhaps lost), a poem, or some prose. Anything that can soften the frozen barrier around your heart can save you from apathy and the terrifying disconnect that can creep over even the greatest empathizers when the world becomes too much.

For me, I keep close a small collection of poems and cards, some long messages with friends, and a short, specific playlist of songs. Any one of these might help if I’m just starting to slip, but sometimes I have to run a gauntlet through them to crack the shell I didn’t realize had grown so thick.

I consider myself pretty self-aware, and I can usually tell when I’m getting overwhelmed. Detecting when I’m growing disconnected is harder, but I can pick up the signs for that as well. Once I recognize the disconnect, I have to carve out at least a few minutes to immerse myself in these memories and works of art. Not just the most painful memories I have, but those specific mementos I keep to evoke a nostalgia of someone I love who is too far away, or a poem or song by an artist I love that expresses their pain. Really swimming in that, I can usually let myself get carried completely away into the art or the memory. With some of these experiences in succession, eventually I start to cry again.

Have you heard the advice that the best way to forget your own problems is to get involved in someone else’s? The reason that works is that it invokes your empathy. It opens your heart to someone else’s struggle. When their trouble is not the same kind as yours (or at least not currently), it can stir a rush of selfless love that refreshes those cold, drained channels inside of you. And that compassion can give you the courage to face their pain with calm dignity and the strength to lend your aid in whatever way you are able.

When you find a way to draw out your own empathy, whether the subject of your unconditional love is at hand or not, you gain a perspective that is just outside of your own struggles. Even that small distance can make yours seem more manageable, and that can mean the difference between wandering listlessly through your day, cold and detached, or engaging fully with everything you do, bringing even a little bit of hope and light to all you touch (distantly or not).

That difference is as tangible as life and death, or daylight and the darkest night. And it can save you from yourself when you question how you can continue to work effectively, connect with the people in your life, or maybe even get out of bed on the most difficult days.

For most of us, the highs can outweigh the lows, whether you love to mix with people, or whether your plants and your pets are the only ones you want to see most days.

Open your heart as much and as often as you can, and I promise you, life will be more rewarding because of it. More difficult? Certainly. But far more worthwhile.

Just remember to cry, and you will know you are truly alive.

Briefly: A Symbiotic Wonder of the World

The Living Root Bridges of Meghalaya, India are a fascinating wonder to behold! Grown naturally and yet carefully cultivated by the trained Khasi and Jaintia tribes who live there, these bridges can withstand the monsoon season. Of course they also avoid rot! Most bridges built from traditional materials would deteriorate swiftly in such a wet locale.

The eleven Living Root Bridges in place today are nearly 180 years old, though the roots are known to last up to 500 years once fully established. As some roots in the bridge age and weaken, the trees are constantly growing others, which can take their place and keep the bridges strong enough to support around 50 people at one time.

Another daily screensaver image led me to this beautiful discovery. There is even a double-decker bridge over one stretch of water!

Update: there may be many more of these beautiful, growing structures in place. A three-year study from 2015-2017 apparently examined dozens of them (and their history), considering applications in modern cities around the world. More ecosystems than simple structures, these Living Root Bridges demonstrate harmony and care that could provide even more obvious benefits to urban areas than the greenery alone, if such a concept could thrive elsewhere.

Learning the Sum of Your Parts

So I was listening to ‘Dreamlover’ by Mariah Carey, and she sang, “Just want someone to belong to, every day of my life, always, so come and take me away.” And of course that set me to thinking.

It feels great to belong. It feels great to be needed. But if it’s your defining emotion, you might be codependent.

If you don’t feel like anything’s right until this happens, that might be the sign of a problem.

However, if you know who you are, and you relish that feeling, but it’s not THE defining characteristic of your life, then you understand the difference between an emotion and your core being. That’s a difficult lesson to learn in life.

Reading the Map

Emotions are powerful; they’re meant to be. And the amygdala actually releases brain chemicals when we feel emotions. It’s more than just a brain wave. It’s more than just a moment. You feel it throughout your entire body, good or bad. It can fill us with euphoria; it can flush us with dread; it can paralyze us with terror; it can make us angry and drive us to make things better when there’s an injustice. It can also make you warm and tingly, or incite passions. All of these things are real, physical reactions to emotions. Emotions are real, but they’re not everything.

You are more than the sum of your emotions; you are more than the sum of your body chemistry; you are more than just your thoughts. Your thoughts and those you choose to turn into actions are incredibly important. They may define how others perceive you, but they don’t define your whole self. You are more than the sum of all of your parts, inside and out.

So feeling like you belong to someone, or feeling like you are completed by someone; a fine line separates those two, and if you don’t understand the difference, you might be on the wrong side of it.

Feeling like you’re incomplete without someone – that’s the sign of a problem, too. If you felt incomplete before you met this person, then you had a problem before you met them, and meeting them has not solved it.

If you don’t think you’re missing any pieces in your personal puzzle, and then you find someone with whom you just “click”; someone who fascinates you, or who enriches your days and nights in any way; then you two could be a great fit!

A Brief Success Story

Meredith and I followed this last course. We were each doing well enough on our own when we met, and we had a couple of things in common from the beginning. “You know, I really liked the way you said that.” “Oh, that’s a very good point about kindness.” “Oh, isn’t that mutual friend great?” It sparked some interest. Once we really looked at each other, and we liked what we saw, that sparked a little more interest.

But then we started getting to know each other. And when THAT happened, that’s when we began to learn just how well we meshed.

Now, nobody’s perfect. But it was a lot like a zipper zipping up correctly. So many things lined up with our values and our humor and our thinking, that we’ve been together ever since, and happily so.

To Keep or Not to Keep?

Plenty of couples are simply mismatches. You may have some wild passion, or strong attraction; you may have this one cause that brings you together, but you just can’t agree on anything else…. You two are not meant to be together! You can spend time together; you can talk; you can exchange ideas; you can have great sex; just understand that this is not a relationship that’s gonna last forever and fulfill you both, if you don’t complement each other in a lot of ways.

Enough common interests to enjoy them together; enough shared values to believe that the same types of things are important in life (that’s a big one!); but enough differences to remain interesting to each other: THAT is a formula with the potential for a long-term relationship.

And I do believe in love that lasts forever. Don’t think for a minute that I’m saying anything else. It’s just that until you figure out who you are first, you’re not gonna know if you really fit someone else, or if they’re just shielding you from the things that you don’t want to face.

If all they do is keep you from being alone at night, because you can’t stand to get into a cold, empty bed – that’s another sign of a problem.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with taking somebody home if you want; if you trust them, you like them, and you know that there’s no commitment here, that’s fine (as long as you’re all consenting adults who feel the same way). But if you’re not actually talking about that, then how are you gonna know that you’re on the same page?

There’s nothing wrong with falling in love with somebody immediately, either. But you still should take the time to find out these things about each other. If you fall in love immediately, and you get married three days later – good luck! I don’t know how that’s gonna work out. I haven’t seen it work very often, but it certainly can.

However, if you fall in love immediately and then spend three months getting to know each other, and then you decide, “Hey, I’m gonna spend a lot more time with this person,” and then, six months after that, you get married? Congratulations! Married a year later because you know what’s right and you’ve checked all these things? That has a lot of promise. (Yes, I might know a little extra about this type of scenario!)

And if you decide never to marry anyone, but you simply cultivate terrific relationships throughout your life? Anything that fulfills you, that doesn’t leave broken hearts in its wake, sounds admirable and worthwhile to me!

You don’t have to fit into any mold to find true contentment or even overflowing joy. Just learn who you really are, don’t hurt anyone on purpose, and try not to hurt anyone by accident, and you’re on your way to a rich life of friends, family, or whoever and whatever you choose to fill it with.

Find yourself, forge your path, and enjoy.

Misunderstanding the Novel Coronavirus

Here’s what people seem to misunderstand about the novel coronavirus in 2021.

The Delta variant – just one of the newest variants circulating the globe now – sheds approximately 1000 times as much as the previously-dominant variant. Even vaccinated people, whose primed immune systems keep it mostly at bay, can carry this around for a time, freely sharing it among others they approach.

The more people who carry the virus around (in any variant), the more chances these viruses have to mutate yet again. The *longer* people carry the virus around, the more chances it has to mutate.

Vaccinated people’s bodies recognize and kill off the virus more quickly, limiting its life cycle despite the high shed rate of Delta. Isolating themselves after exposure, or upon ANY symptoms, or any suspicion, is the best way for even vaccinated people to avoid spreading it to others. And masks still help!

If a vaccinated person isolates for the life cycle of the virus, their body will typically overcome it fully. This means that even if a mutation developed during that time, it would be destroyed by the immune system without spreading to new hosts. But only if they don’t expose anyone else.

While Delta spreads the fastest and most aggressively, there are many other variants that are circulating around the world right now. There is a Lambda variant already, which means there are eleven NEW known variants of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

The original virus mutated to a more contagious version in 2020, before we started cataloguing the variants and giving them designations like Alpha, Delta, and Lambda. But this pandemic has been going on so long, and with vaccines still too few and far between, that eleven MORE variants have been discovered and identified.

All viruses mutate as they replicate. This one is no exception. But with its incubation time, the fact that some people can spread it without ever developing symptoms, and its extremely contagious nature, it has a longer reach and a greater footprint than many that came before.

Now we are tracking at least 11 new mutations, plus the previous dominant strain, that have all established their own successful chains. Every one of them will continue to mutate as it spreads. Every variant has the potential to spawn a new, worse variety, like the Delta variant.

The Delta strain has a shed speed that attempts to outpace even an inoculated immune system. While it may not overwhelm a body that is primed to fight it off, if it keeps ahead of the body’s defenses for a time, it can keep spreading, with more chances to find an unprepared host.

The only way we will overcome this virus as a species – the human species – is if we can all work together to survive long enough to get effective vaccines to everyone. On the planet. This means that we must help each other survive from a distance: Eat. Rest. Heal. Safely.

There is no “island” in our population where people can afford to turn away from this pandemic. When the former President of the United States denied the severity of the virus, and caught it, he doubtless had the best care money could buy, and he survived. Many more have not.

Every infected person creates the potential for a new variant to beat our existing and developing defenses. No one is safe until we are all safe. We MUST work together to succeed in this. It’s NOT “just a flu”. It DOES kill people. It CAN ruin a life even if the body survives.

This is serious. This is life or death for almost everyone. If you’re lucky enough to have immunity, you may know or love someone who doesn’t. For them, if not for you, PLEASE do your part.

This pandemic continues to worsen. We are literally running out of time, and no one knows how long we have left before a new variant emerges that might get around all of our existing vaccines. Starve the virus of prey by distancing, masking, washing, and paying attention.

Everyone has someone to lose. Don’t be that loss for someone you care about. And don’t lose anyone else you love, either. Wear a mask in public. Get vaccinated. Practice physical distancing, not social distancing. Keep in touch, but do it safely. It has to be now.

Right now.

Solving For X

I have been saying for years that with decent education, genuine health care and health advice, and perhaps a diet with less meat in it than most people in the USA seem to prefer, world hunger could be reduced and probably even eliminated. But there are countless other gains to be had from taking care of our fellow citizens, too.

The one part of my stance against which I always hear arguments is the cry over who would pay for the endless giveaways that some people think would result if we stopped fighting each other long enough to start caring for people who are suffering from hunger right now.

But here’s the simple truth: whatever we prioritize as a people, we find a way to address effectively.

Japan prioritized employment during a US-led currency war in the 1980s, and even though some companies suffered unbearable setbacks, one of those1 gave their employees a hard deadline of ten years to develop a new economic model with their suddenly-too-expensive technology. They tried a number of concepts until one succeeded, and no one at that company lost their job.

Canada and most of Europe prioritize health care as a human right, and those models, despite what US propaganda would have you believe, tend to result in a completely funded and completely shared structure that literally leaves no one behind. Plus, people don’t lose their homes or go into debt for years to pay for that care, because the system is built to work for everyone, not to isolate care to those with deep pockets, as we have in most of the USA. And that only considers actual health care; the US trails plenty of other “first-world” nations in many more aspects of a strong, healthy society.

Other systems work because people care about the results first, so human ingenuity and compassion combine to find a way. And this is the only way we will tackle national and global problems now. When we start with the results we want to achieve, everything else comes into focus rather quickly. These are heavy challenges to meet, and they demand a new mindset to resolve them, but sustainable, human solutions are all within our reach. We must begin to recognize this and act accordingly, if we are to have any measure of success.

 

Further reading:

  1. Journalist T. R. Reid wrote about NKK Steel’s ambitious and successful reinvention to keep everyone employed, in his 1999 book Confucius Lives Next Door (by Vintage Books, a division of Random House)

Briefly: A New (Old) Bridge of Languages

As a lifetime glottophile, I have long been fascinated by the various families of languages that modern cultures use, and of course some of their historical roots and changes over the centuries and millennia.

Today I learned of a few new groupings:

In 2014, a new research paper suggested a common linguistic ancestor between the first two families above.

I do love finding more ways to show how connected we are on this Earth, and common languages, however far back they may reach, can help light the way to a greater understanding of each other in the present.

We really do have more in common with our neighbors at home and abroad than many of us realize. And if seeing that helps anyone empathize a little better today, it seems worth sharing, too.

Briefly: Silvopasture

Silvopasture means that trees are left standing on grazing lands, and the balance is carefully managed. This hands-on practice leads to greater health for the trees, the pastures, and the animals, and is a solid improvement over clear-cutting trees for grazing turf.

My screensaver changes daily, and this beautiful cover image led me to my discovery. The USDA’s Forestry Center and of course Wikipedia both had more to add, if you’re as intrigued as I am and want to read a few more tidbits.

Expansive Thinking

Something fascinating happened to me today, and for once, I had the awareness to document the journey.

Older readers might remember actually browsing a dictionary or even reading an encyclopedia. Younger readers might never have held such a heavy hardback volume in their hands. But now, everyone with internet access can share in the joy of serendipitous discovery!

I started with a simple article on LinkedIn that looked interesting, on what COVID-19 has taught the IT industry.

After reading that through on a publication site, I found a link to an arresting title on the sidebar: Fusion Fuel Holds The Promise Of Limitless Clean Energy To Power The Planet. Not having read much on fusion lately, and then mostly just theory, the concept of new fuel research gripped me at once.

This second article referenced something else new to me: the AEC SNAP 10A reactor, a nuclear reactor that we apparently sent to space in 1965!

That historical overview filled me in and mentioned two new curiosities. Here’s where my tabs started to pile up:

I explored every one of those links in a single reading session, diving further into each until I either came to something that was so specific that I could not follow it at all, or until it made sense and left me without further inspiration (i.e. it closed the loop of my curiosity). This is one way that I love to learn, and I make clips of subjects that inspire me to return to them for writing or research later on.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to start a new reading tree with Gödel’s incompleteness theorems (a subset of the fascinating strange loop overview above). There are some terrific references to follow in the third paragraph alone!

Science fuels creativity!
Science fuels creativity!