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.

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!

Better Manners of Getting Things Done

Today I found myself in line at a big hardware store to return something that had arrived broken. Not the end of the world; it was just something that I’d hoped I could get without an involved trip to the store, but I wouldn’t have ordered a replacement to be shipped when I had weekend time to resolve it more safely. There was only one guy in front of me at the Returns line, and he was FURIOUS. But he didn’t know how to handle the problem he was facing.

If you go to Returns for something large and heavy in your vehicle, and they ask you to have the Pro Desk (at the other end of the store) unload it first – sensibly, so you don’t get a refund and then run away with it – fine. If the Pro Desk then sends you back to Returns, you don’t need to go to Returns and throw a swearing tantrum, threatening to dump your return in the middle of the parking lot and blow off your money before storming away without a resolution. Of course he did just that, which got me thinking. I’ve been in the same type of situation before, and you may have, too… at the store, at work, or anywhere else.

What you CAN do in this situation is much simpler. You thank the first person and assume they’re right until you learn otherwise. Then you get the name of the second person who sent you backward and take it to the first person or place. If the first place sticks to their story, you calmly tell them that Ron at the Pro Desk (for example) insisted on the Return being done before the unload, and you calmly ask Lynn at Returns (for example) to get hold of Ron by phone or radio and sort this out. You calmly explain that they (not you – you’re being calm and civil) have a misunderstanding and that they (not you) need to straighten it out before you go back and forth and waste any more of THEIR (not your) time. Then you smile expectantly and stand calmly and quietly in the way until Lynn reaches Ron or gets him to come to you. Once both people are in the same place or at least on the same page, you get a straight answer and have a firm plan on who will help you first. That’s all it takes.

We’re all going through a lot right now, but yelling at people who just need a little guidance and respect doesn’t really solve anything, and it can darken everyone’s day.

Manners and diplomacy aren’t taught in most schools in the USA. Perhaps they should be. There is almost always room for a better manner of getting things done.

Musings on a Darkened Day

For several months now, I have lived my life in daylight (fortunate to have one of those day jobs that can sometimes be done from home), and I have hardly used my headlights at all, except as a safety precaution in early morning or late afternoon. But I have never once needed them to SEE.

So today, as I left work at the same time as always, but this time in the dead of night (by all appearances), my headlights hardly seemed enough. No gradual transition, this Daylight Saving Time conversion! No, this is throwing a switch that kills the circuit and turns off all the lights at once. The difference in one hour around noon can seem almost like nothing. One hour at night can seem almost eternal. But one hour around dusk? Day literally becomes night.

Swiftly I recalled one of the first lessons my mother taught me when she was showing me how to drive: if someone is driving toward you with lights so bright that you can barely see anything in front of you… focus on the line to your right. If you focus on that outer line, just for those last few seconds, it is easier to maintain your place in the lane and control your speed and your steering. Plus it helps to keep your night vision intact.

I was surprised at how easily that old lesson came back after months of disuse, though of course I’ve been practicing it as needed for decades now. Much how catching a baseball (for those coordinated enough to do so) involves complex physics and mathematical trajectories that we anticipate without having to calculate the actual numbers, this skill was suddenly at the forefront of my mind without any words. My eyes glanced slightly away from the onrushing vehicle and its blinding glare, and I focused on that dim little white line, softly illuminated by my own headlights.

Worked like a charm, of course! I found myself maintaining a perfectly still position in the lane; I continued slowly forward, until the other driver had passed; and suddenly, my own headlights mattered again, and I could once more see a little bit of the road in front of me.

How reassuring to have these rarely-needed skills rise back up so easily when the time is right.

My mother was an excellent defensive driver. She could make good time on long road trips, but she also taught me early on that you can only control what YOU do on the road, never what someone else does. So if you want to be safe, act as though everyone else is paying less attention than you are and might miss things like turn signals, red lights, stop signs, oncoming cars, drivers in a blind spot, debris in the road. And you leave a little extra room, and a little extra time to respond, if that happens.

Driver in front of you didn’t see that board in the road? Might be nothing. Might have nails in it. Might flip up as they drive over it and thump their car, or come at yours. If you see it before the other driver, though, you can slow down, space out the cars a little more, and be prepared to respond safely.

I have driven a great deal in my years so far, and I have long ago lost track of the number of times that her advice saved me trouble, saved me from damage, and may even have saved my life.

Years ago, The Moffatts wrote a charming, age-appropriate song called, “Mama Never Told Me ‘Bout You”, where the lead singer recites many good lessons that his mother had taught him, but he was still blindsided by falling for this cute girl. Well, mothers may not automatically know everything, of course, but the wisest ones continue to learn as they go and impart their distilled wisdom into their children’s minds and hearts whenever they can, to set the best examples they can possibly do, and – ideally – to raise thoughtful, attentive, curious, compassionate, and kind-hearted children who grow up to be the same kind of adults.

My mother made mistakes – everyone does – but she got a lot of things right, too. In tricky situations, with a lot of variables in play, like driving and so many other things, one wrong decision in one instant can mean the difference between life and death, or any stop in between.

Strong wisdom and good teachings provide no guarantee that anything will go right in one’s life, but it seems like they lean the odds just a little bit in your favor, and I am grateful to have them on my side. Might have made all the difference a few hours ago. I’m glad we’ll never know, but I’m glad to be able to tell you about it now.