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!

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.

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: 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.

A Slice of Unity

This is piece #2 of 21 in 21, a collaborative publishing project by husband-and-wife team Matthew D. Futter and Meredith Silverman, as we write about a series of 21 things we look forward to being different in 2021. (Read parts #1 here and also here if you missed them.) Throughout the year, we will publish pieces on the same subject, but from our own unique perspectives. You can find us both at the links above.

 

It’s hard to think of what else to say about our new President and Vice President that people haven’t already said for the last several weeks.

Since the election, which was called on November 7th (never mind that it was contested until January 6th), a lot of people have been writing their thoughts on the President, and I am far from the first to bring mine. There’s no need to rehash how his COVID-19 actions and plans date back to January of 2020. Or that a moderate President can be a truly transformative one. Or why I am much more confident about his experience than I am concerned about his age. Or that even if President Biden had to leave office after one term, due to health concerns – and he is transparent about his health and shows no significant signs of any decline – he chose a Vice President to accompany him to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, who is also experienced and impressive in her own right.

As the United States of America is (almost by definition) a patchwork of incredible diversity, so too has President Biden begun to build his own Cabinet and other leadership teams from a cross-section that represents more of this country than has any President who has gone before him.   

Many Presidents, and certainly our previous one, built their inner circles and installed department heads, almost entirely of white men. This is a new day. Joe Biden knows that we need something better. He stepped into office and immediately spoke of uniting the country. Sure, easier said than done. But he still stated his goal, and he’s working to build this team with transparency and diversity, and that is a plan that we can all get behind, and a team of which we can all be proud to be a part.

I am relieved and excited to have a President in office who speaks of the good of the country, not at the expense of the world, but as part of our global community. I am delighted that, in his first hours in office, he began to rescind some of the more alienating policies that his predecessor had implemented. America does not stand alone. We shouldn’t need to, and we shouldn’t want to.

The Americas, in fact, make up less than 30% of the planet’s landmass, and they only host around 13% of the world’s population on those two continents. For the United States of America, an even smaller piece of only one continent, to claim to stand above or apart from the rest of our planet, is arrogance of the highest order and unrealistic in the extreme.

The office of the POTUS has long been known as the most powerful leadership position in the world. So it brings me joy, hope, and no small degree of comfort, when the latest holder of that office sees leadership as a responsibility to those who follow, and not a mantle of might to wear at the expense of those around him.

Our President was never meant to be a dictator. He is, as Dave Kovic put it so well, only a temporary employee of the people. As the Chief Executive Officer of a company may have to answer to a Board of Directors, so does the President have to answer to the citizens. And if you install the right kind of person in that office for four (or eight) years, then you can have every reason to expect that they will serve the needs of the many and not just the one.

Joe Biden’s record of public service is long and transparent. I’m not saying the man is a saint — and as a good Catholic, he would never assume that title, either! He knows he is fallible, and so we can accept him as a man who is still learning at the age of 78 and will continue to learn throughout the remainder of his career in public service. That’s a sign of an excellent leader. Knowing what you don’t know is a sign of wisdom, too. Socrates famously said this centuries ago, and it remains true today.

Vice President Harris has not been in public service for as long as President Biden has, but that means she has even more years to learn and grow and help people. Help guide us to a better place. Help us build a better country than we have now. The work has already begun! And if we all keep an eye on this North Star together, we are far more likely to stay on course.

equality, equity, dignity, honesty, truth, transparency, courage, kindness
They all point us in the right direction.

A better world is well worth the work it takes to make it real. I’m honored to pick up all the tools I have and follow these two through the trenches to help build it.

Curbside Pickup Is Here to Stay… Right??

Welcome to 21 in 21: a collaborative publishing project by Matthew D. Futter and Meredith Silverman! This is the first in a series of 21 things we look forward to being different in 2021. From the mundane to the profound, whether global or local in nature, we will write about each item (same subject, separate pieces) and publish on our blogs throughout the year. You can find us both at the links above.

 

One of the simpler things that joined our common parlance in 2020 is the concept of curbside pickup at stores. I doubt anyone reading this in the United States even had to consider what that phrase means now. A year ago, it might have drawn frowns of disbelief or even confusion, but now this service is offered more places than it’s not.

Not long ago, I saw a meme about Aldi, pointing out ways that they have been “working in the future” for years now. Five points were listed, including renting carts (for a quarter you get back when you return it) to keep employees from having to chase them down all day and night, to giving cashiers a stool to sit on while they ring up groceries (industry studies have actually shown that cashiers are more efficient while seated). While of course Aldi has also introduced curbside pickup as a safety measure, it’s no wonder why they waited until there was a solid need for this update.

Curbside pickup undoubtedly costs retailers plenty (in upfront costs and lost business from impulse buys, at least). But the overall advantages may keep it around for the long term.

Let’s consider five points of our own about why curbside pickup is SUCH a good idea, hopefully one that remains in the new equilibrium we are all still working to find.

  1. Shopper safety

Obviously physical distancing, along with some new in-store practices, helps limit everyone’s exposure to each other, limiting the spread of common infections as well as a novel one that has dominated headlines for nearly a year now. Taking this to the next level — preventing shoppers from needing to enter the store at all — naturally extends this gain even further.

Employees have less contact with shoppers this way, so they benefit, too. Healthy employees can continue to work, and healthy shoppers can continue to buy. Everyone wins!

  1. Disabled shoppers are on more equal footing now.

Almost every storefront I have seen, large or small, has extra parking close to the doors, designated for people with limited mobility. This is a design feature with which I grew up, and it just makes sense.

Curbside pickup, where shoppers need not exit their vehicles at all to receive their purchases, brings even more equity to this process.

My father suffered ten years of continually-declining mobility at the end of his life, due to a disease that slowly and inexorably atrophied his muscles. He kept a balanced view of this at most times, simply adapting to whatever new cautions or limitations were necessary to keep going.

Long before the current pandemic developed, my father LOVED curbside pickup! Not all of the stores he once frequented offered it, but those that did earned ever more of his business, because they made it so fast and easy for him to get whatever he needed.

Between better digital ordering and pickup in their own cars, I hope that more shoppers are able to access a wider variety of stores these days, and more easily, too.

  1. A little more exercise is good for staff, especially in a country where we don’t usually let cashiers even have a stool (except at Aldi, of course, on their well-researched European model).

This one might sound strange, but I have a reason for it. Really.

I have been in the workforce for decades. During that time, I have worked in a grocery store (on my feet all day), in an office (seated all day), in a warehouse (moving 75%, driving/sitting 25%), and in the office of a factory (sitting 80%, moving 20%). In those four positions, I learned that standing still all day can be difficult and dissatisfying, while sitting all day is exhausting for other reasons.

My best balance comes with less sitting and more walking. Happily, I have this at my current company, with a convertible standing desk and lots of zipping about in my work (almost all on foot). This keeps me limber while avoiding fatigue, and I imagine the best case for most retail employees probably falls along the same lines.

Moving in and out of the store, either with carts or carrying only lightweight packages, helps keep the heart and lungs in shape. In decent weather, sharing time between conditioned air (and comfort) to natural air (and health) is probably beneficial overall. And in worse weather? Well, that’s what coats, hats, and umbrellas are for… and every curbside employee is probably wearing some sort of gloves these days already, so there’s that, too!

  1. Introverts win!

Okay, now you MUST think I’m joking. Unless you are an introvert yourself, in which case you know I am completely serious, and you’re probably grateful someone else gets it.

Introverts, by their nature, are drained of energy by interacting with other people. Going to a store might involve a greeter, countless other shoppers, employees asking if they can help you, a cashier, a bagger, and even security personnel. That is a LOT of interactions for just a single shopping trip, and it can wipe out an introvert for hours if not all day.

Extroverts may not understand this at all, feeling energized by engaging with more people. But introverts have the opposite experience.

Limiting contact to just one store employee, maybe through a car window and a smartphone app, can save an enormous amount of energy for introverts, giving them more to use on the rest of their day. Yes, I know, humans are social creatures by nature, and we do need each other. But certain patterns are draining for some people, and this is one shift where introverts are more likely to celebrate the new format than to mourn the time and energy that was once lost with a simple shopping excursion.

  1. Opportunities for stores to show off improved service and win greater customer loyalty

Let’s bring this back to the first question of cost and benefit for a moment. Curbside costs stores more, at least up front, right? This is where we get to the stores’ less obvious gains.

In dealing with a large company or store chain, customers often feel like they must take the services offered or leave them, going someplace else if their needs are not being met. While some people like the challenge of getting a retailer or a service provider to accommodate their demands, plenty of people simply don’t have the energy for those battles, and they are used to accepting the offer or doing without, at least until they can find another company who does things differently.

Now every company is getting the chance to show people that shopper safety matters; that their convenience matters to the store in the form of dollars spent and time saved.

Stores that step up to the challenge, making online ordering easier and curbside pickup possible, are showing their customer base that they care about these things. And customers who appreciate being able to protect their own health (and that of those they may live with) AND shop more quickly, are customers who will keep coming back to those stores, virtually or physically.

Once the pandemic is under control (however long that takes), I am far more likely to remember the stores who made it possible for me to support them safely during these times. Those companies will get a lot more business from me for years to come!

One retailer I had hardly used for several months prior, transformed their game so completely in response to these challenges, that I now patronize them almost weekly. A number of my favorite stores have improved their responses, and so I always look there first for whatever I need. Of course there may be great deals elsewhere, and I do still comparison shop, but when I don’t have the time or energy to do that, I feel confident in supporting these companies that I know are spending their time and money to help keep ME safe and happy. This way of doing business can earn dividends that far outlast the troubled times we are working our way through right now.

In summary…

These points begin to show what a huge benefit curbside pickup is for many people with different preferences and needs. Why fight your way through a crowded store when you only have to go in for a few things? Why spend hours shopping when you could spend minutes instead?

Whether filling your car for a month or scooping up that one thing that you have to replace suddenly, a safe and easy pickup is good business for everyone involved. I do hope that curbside pickup is here to stay.

The First Medical Specialization

Medical specialties may have their place, but sometimes they baffle me.

While training with my punching bag two days ago, I struck with my left hand at a bad angle and instantly felt a searing pain shoot through my wrist and into my arm. Whatever reminded me of it today, I am unsure, because it doesn’t hurt anymore. Right after this happened, I stripped off my training gloves, quickly grasped my left hand with my right, pointed my elbows outward at chest height, and pulled my hand away from my elbow, gradually increasing the pull until I felt everything click back into place.

Now, I am not a chiropractor, though I visited one when I was very young. He helped remove my chronic earaches by adjusting my neck. Obviously there can be more to medicine than some of us learn. But human bodies are extremely complex and interdependent systems, and without caution and insight, specializations can become a black hole that bury everything else.

Ask an oncologist how to treat your cancer, and you will likely be told that chemotherapy is the only logical choice. A radiologist will most likely suggest radiation first. A surgeon will want to remove as much of the tumor as possible. A holistic doctor may suggest something else entirely. All of these positions can have merit, and all of them might help, but you are still your own best advocate. Only you know your body and your responses to treatments over the years better than anyone else.

Comedian Eddie Izzard once joked that no matter what is ailing you, a chiropractor will always suggest that they should “crack your bones” to make you feel better. His delivery in that show was hilarious, and he still makes a very good point.

I recently heard of “ozone IVs” for the first time. If your medical specialty is infusing ozone to enrich the blood’s oxygen content and cleanse and energize cells throughout the body, you may know well what conditions this can help. You will be quick to sing the praises of the ozone IVs, and you will tell everyone why they do such good. You may even say that there can be no harm in them, so everyone can benefit, whatever their condition. And you may be right. But so may be the homeopath, the acupuncturist, and even the pharmacologist, who thinks that the benefits of the drug of the month will far outweigh the risks, if you feel you need help.

The point is never to overlook either the advantages or the disadvantages of a treatment – of any treatment – and never to close yourself off from something that can help you. I take very few medicines, even for my occasional allergies, because I find that everything else works better day and night when I have fewer medicines in my system. I know people who take 12 a day, and they cannot imagine skipping any of them, because of the benefits they provide to those people. Everything works differently on everyone, and this must be kept in mind to treat anyone successfully, with any discipline.

I would visit a biontologist monthly or even weekly if a reputable one were close, because I believe from my studies that this is something that has no downside and can only help realign all of your systems to function at their maximum efficiency. And there is science to support that; hence my studies. But I also think that it only makes sense to consider all options, and what they can do right and wrong, and take whatever treatments you may need at any given time to help your body heal itself.

The danger in all of this comes when any specialization, or any evangelism toward a specialization, blinds you to other possibilities that could help you more, or help better, or do more good or less harm in the first place. The right answer to anything in life is rarely so cut and dry.

Real life is messy, and we live in the gray areas every day. Be vigilant, question everything (even yourself if you seek wisdom and improvement), and learn all you can. If you have friends, relatives, and trusted medical advisers, so much the better. But whether you do or not, you are still your own best advocate, first and always.