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.

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.

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.