Friday, February 22, 2013

Relativism and Absolute Truth

I see the world, as does everyone, through a lens that is the center of a vin-diagram of myriads of categorical sub-groups and cases.  My father once told me that two people, standing on the edge of the same forest, will choose entirely different ways to traverse it to a point on the other side.  Based on their respective vantage points, the two will need to mount different knolls, round different stumps, step over different roots, and cross different streams.  If one of the travelers should encounter wildlife of certain ferocious sorts they will change pace, alter direction, or curl into a ball with their fingers interlocked over the vital nerves and connections in the back of their necks.  Even if we all had the same goal, our life experiences, based on our individual reactions to the eventualities we encounter, would be quite different.  Some would believe this to be a case for relativism—the belief that everyone’s perspective and everyone’s reasoning is equally true.  In other words, a case for the non-existence of truth.  Those who say there is no absolute truth claim that everything in the universe is simply a matter of opinion.  Though we have different experiences in the forest, does this mean the trees do not really exist?

To deny that there is concrete truth—that some things are always and absolutely true—would leave me standing amongst those who cheat themselves out of their own existence and make the case that whatever they do with their life is of no consequence at all.  I pity them.  And while some are comfortable with that conclusion—that they don’t actually exist or that their existence doesn't actually matter—I could never be, for in doing so, I would offend my creator, who I also know, actually exists, and refuse to acknowledge the reality of the gift that is my life.

The problem with this is that everyone might feel that they are the keepers of this absolute truth.  What about when those absolute truths decided upon differ?  This is why perspectives are important.  Every single person’s perception of the world, based on their individual glimpses of realities along with imagined ones, we feel is truth.  Because we each act upon our assumptions, we should attempt to become familiar with other’s assumptions so that we may have effective and positive interactions—hence “cultural awareness” has an immensely important role.  We may believe this and at the same time know that truth still exists outside of one’s ideas.  This distinction must be made.  We refer to this person’s perception as “their truth.”  Does this make them unaccountable and untouchable to the actualities of the absolute truth?  No!  One who denies the existence of beavers might someday encounter one and be quite shocked.  Opinions only take us so far.

Many today feel, however, that all we have access to is opinion.  I disagree.  I believe there are ways of knowing things in this life.  And that one of the main reasons for our mortal existence is to grow through seeking and acquiring knowledge of the truth, which therefore, must be within our reach.  How then do each of us embark upon and continually fuel our quest for truth?  I would answer, with an exploration into the experiences of my life, the reasoning of my able mind, and sincere petitions for answers from divine sources--consider, if no one was listening, no one would answer, yet answers have come, again and again, to me and to men throughout the ages.  These things have led to my discovery of some basic truths, ever ongoing, and I invite you to embark on a similar life-long quest.  Your opinion might be that the truths I have discovered are merely opinions, and if that ends your quest, so be it.  No one can force knowing.

Readers might be thinking, "Oh, so what I think is opinion and what you think you know?"  My response to that would be, "I don't know.  What do you think?"  and then, "Have you been actively engaged in seeking answers to questions concerning what is really true?"  Do you think all experiences have equal value--that shopping online, texting pointless messages, video gaming, etc. will do as much to bring you understanding of enduring principals and real truths as observing nature, pondering things deeply, reading good books, discussing things of eternal significance and practicing and experimenting upon those things learned?  I don't.  
(I am not the prime example of always making the most of my time and recognize there is an immeasurably vast amount things yet to learn.  Every piece of wisdom I claim in this blog, I write mostly for my own benefit and reminder.  Please don't think I think I have it all figured out : )  If I thought that, it would be an end to learning.)

Socrates is famous for saying that the “unexamined life is not worth living.”  Though I halt at determining whose lives are worth living, and would think to say all lives are worth living, I like this statement.  I feel it is extremely important to determine some basic truths, to clear the lens with which we examine our lives so that the act of "examining our lives" is effective for coming to conclusions that will truly help us become better.  Our perceptions are not just something thrust upon us, but are chosen.  We should therefore begin this quest for truth so that we may chose the best lens through which to examine our lives. 

Monday, February 18, 2013

Following the Curves

As I sat, a senior in high school, bent over the Tlinget carving I was working on as an apprentice to a master in the Northwest coast native art forms, tracing the smooth curves he had helped me transfer to my piece of spruce with the blade of my simple carving tool, deepening the grooves with angles and then scooping out curls of wood as I beveled in the depressions in my design, I thought of how the motion, when I caught the feeling of it and did it correctly, was so similar to dancing, and to driving, and to writing.  

I thought of dancing because it was something I had done since I was young, and though hard to describe, the feeling of holding the tool and applying just the right amount of pressure and using the grain and pushing into the wood and finding it do just what I wanted, a softness and compliance, a motion that made me feel as though the wood was expecting and wanting me to do just what I did, as I was doing it—this feeling was so different from when I got it wrong, from when I opposed the grain for a moment and there was discord and the wood and I did not listen to each other, resulting in a small chunk breaking out that I had not wanted.  

Sometimes when you dance—more often, if you are any good—you catch the groove, you find the grain in the music and it feels like there is no forcing, but without effort your body does what makes sense and it seems the music was expecting just what you did, as you were doing it.  There is a logic—not hard like math logic, but soft and fluid.  I was, then, just learning how to be a good driver.  Driving had not come naturally to me, and I had to learn to apply these same principals in that sphere.  As I drove home from these carving sessions, I would imagine I was carving the road with my car—following the curves that were so natural, anticipating what motions the road ahead expected. 

As mentioned, I thought too about writing—about the disconnect, the jagged edges that are created in writing, when the curves are not followed and, divergently, the way you encounter words scooping like water around a bend or a bevel through a piece of spruce when you allow them to.  It all takes a stepping back, a softening of focus while seeing beyond, a giving in.

In one of my anthropology classes, Cultures of Asia, I thought back to this idea again as we read a Japanese parable in which a man becomes a butcher, but is unsuccessful.  He tries so hard to carve the meat correctly—to make the perfect cuts, but the jagged, sloppy edges are offensive compared to the flawless cuts the other, more experienced butcher in town.  He finally asks the other butcher what it is that makes his meat so perfect.  The good butcher tells him that he doesn't make the cuts at all, that they are already in the meat—his job is to find the cuts that are already there.  When going with the natural grain of the meat, almost effortlessly, the knife blade glides through the seam and produces the cut of meat that was meant to be produced. 
In Taoism, the following of this principal is called Wu Wei—"doing nothing" or "non-striving."  In Christianity we refer to this as not "kicking against the pricks."  From California in the 80s, came the phrase, "Go with the flow."  This does not mean to be idle or lazy, but to find the natural creases and flow like water within them.  As you act, live, move in this way, you find something beautiful being created before you, opening before you, in a way that seems almost effortless and feels as if your very life expects your motions, as you move, as you live it.

Sunday, February 17, 2013


Something which I understand is no uncommon state for humans, greatly troubles me at times.  Hypocrisy, defined by as "a pretense of having a virtuous character, moral or religious beliefs or principles, etc., that one does not really possess," seems to be rampant in political-social groups, as I see it.  This thought crept back into my mind and began irking me all over again the other day as I was flipping through the "Sundance" catalog that had just shown up at the house.  I was thinking about the people the products were designed for, the eyes that were meant to see and tastes meant to tingle with desire in response to the images.  The images sport middle-age, athletic, outdoorsy looking women clad in earthy tones and natural textures.  The jewelry is many variations of the hammered and worn, "ethnically-inspired" combinations of gems and metals meant to look like they were picked up at a flea market in ancient Tenochtitlan.  Then the eye searches for and finds the $857 price listing for the leather wrist band and the realization and quiet shock comes that enough people are comfortable with that to continue the trend.

Obviously there is nothing overtly evil in purchasing these products, or wearing them, yet my stomach knots up when I think of the message the wearing of these products are meant to send and the reality behind it.  In Hawaii, it would be said this schism of reality and portrayal is not pono--it is not balanced, not right.  Using our cultural markers--our symbols--these styles, textures, designs are meant to represent values that the wearer must have, at least obviously they wish to portray.  Those values might include simplicity in life, concern for and closeness with the Earth, an active interest in other cultures and peoples around the world.  The products are targeted for upper-middle-class folk who probably cavort in circles that shop primary at high-end health food stores and talk about the threat global warming at their fancy vegan dinner parties. 

Let's contrast this with an example from the other end of the spectrum of hypocrisy.  My husband's grandparents, KH and SH of the Teton Valley, are some of the least hypocritical people I know.  The values they claim, they live in every observable facet of their lives.  They do it quietly, out of conviction in and love for their principals, and not for show.  These are probably the most politically conservative people I have ever had the joy of knowing and this is how they live:  KH was a widely-loved and respected doctor, at one time, the only one in the entire valley.  He saw patients with ailments and accidents of a tremendous scope.  Often, when people couldn't pay, he traded them his services for bags of potatoes, paintings they had done, wheat, meat, or anything they did have.  They live in a simple, pleasant log cabin they began building in the 80s so their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren could stay there on visits.  They decided, however, to sell their house and live in the cabin full time as they preferred the peace, quiet, and simplicity it offered.  It was enough.

Grandpa, though 80 years old, chops all of his own firewood.  They heat with the wood stove, paper waste is separated and burned, and have a wonderful productive garden from which they get almost all of their vegetables.  They make wonders like blackberry jam, choke-cherry syrup, and grape juice--self-picked, canned, preserved goods fill their pantry and spill over to friends and family.  They eat nothing but homemade bread and delicious, hearty and healthy home-cooked meals.  They buy locally, for the quality, the things they cannot grow--like meats from butchers in the valley.  It seems that nothing is thrown out that can be used again, containers are always re-used for instance, and they frown when grandchildren or great-grandchildren throw away any food.  Though comfortable financially, I have noticed that they are completely content with the clothing they have had for many years.  Grandma wears a sweater with patches over the holes in the elbows.  I don't know if that would embarrass her, but to me, it summarizes the most beautiful things about her soul.  It is enough.  For Christmas, they ask that their children, etc. get them nothing, and instead make a donation to one of a few charities that helps orphans or other struggling people.  Throughout their marriage, they have accepted numerous vagrants-of-sort into their home as needed and have loved them and still talk about them as a part of the family.  Downtime at the ranch is spent reading enlightening literature, watching educational films, or having in-depth discussions about important topics.  They work, teach, love with their whole hearts.  They live what they are and claim to be nothing different.  These aspects of their lifestyle I mentioned are not, to them, part of a political agenda or an effort to appear "globally conscious" or "reduce their footprint" (I have nothing against these endeavors themselves, but with some applications of them).  They grew up in a world--unlike our disposable, commercial, counterfeit one--that did things because they were practical, they made sense, they were good for the body and soul, they required less and their profits--materially and otherwise--were more.  This is pono.  They are what they are.  They are the salt of the Earth.

It is my dream to emulate this second example and seek to never be deceived and fall prey to the follies of the first. 

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Perfect Partnership

I love to dance and am currently helping to teach a Latin dance class at the Community Center in Sitka, where I live.  Yesterday I was thinking about how ballroom dancing, basically any style, is the perfect portrayal of an idea I believe so strongly in--the different, but equal roles of men and women.  To watch partners dance who fluidly work together as a team is a beautiful thing.  With the slight, gentle, but steady motions of the man's hand, or arm or positioning of the body the woman takes cue and, following his lead, moves in confidence and grace so the two seem to move as one.


Now, many would have a negative emotional response toward my suggestion that the woman should follow the man's lead.  Let's be logical for a moment--anyone who has worked on a team or been in any kind of partnership knows that one must lead for the team to be successful.  Decisions can/should be made together--with equal weight in it, but there still must be a spokesperson of sorts.  People who take issue with this notion probably haven't been part of very many successful teams.  In a dance partnership, when both partners attempt to be the leader the result is painful to watch.

Does it work just as well when the woman leads and the man follows?  Not so much.  Not only in Western cultures, but in cultures around the world, the men are the protectors.  They are physically built to be able to defend and provide physical sustenance for a family.  For this reason, males of  species wild and domesticated :) exude strength to catch the eye of a potential mate.  Woman are not hardwired to be attracted a man twirling around and acting too soft and... dainty.  Females, in most cultural dances around the globe, dance to exude grace and fluidity, confidence and poise to attract a mate, not control of the other and strength over him.  In other words, it is less appealing to watch.  Though physically and mentally capable of leading, a female attempting to lead in dance makes the man appear and feel weak--not a good mental state for a protector. 

In ballroom dance, almost all movements are designed to display the female--the male shows off his partner to the onlookers.  In the most successful marriages I have witnessed, it seems this arrangement is present.  The husband, proud of his wife, treats her with gentleness and respect.  He finds opportunity to give her a highlighted position--"put her on a pedestal."  So sweet are those moments when you see a man quietly give his wife the best seat and pull it out for her, ask and acknowledge her desires, sometimes, when appropriate, publicly honor her.  In the best marriages, I believe, the wife treats her husband with dignity, she "takes his arm"--literally and figuratively--she lets him guide her.

This, however, only stands so far as he treats her with meekness and love. Any man who is using harsh movements and "jerking" the female partner around is not a good dancer.  I avoid that type of partner as soon as they are identified, often through an unpleasant dance experience.  Onlookers can see this, even if unfamiliar with dance--something isn't right.  Only a man who leads with respect and in a loving way is suitable.  Any woman, or man, in an abusive relationship should find a new partner.  A dancer who acts timid and with low self-esteem does not draw a crowd.  A poised, confident dancer with head held high and smile bright makes those around fall in love with them.  Dancers be ware, if respect is not shown the partnership will never be successful or beautiful and your partner may just opt out of dancing again.

Because of women's experiences, perhaps, dancing with the wrong kind of partner or being the wrong kind of partner, it has become quite common for the idea to be rejected that men and woman have different roles, roles best suited to the gender of each.  As I follow one who leads with respect and honor for me, his partner, in dance and in marriage, I feel like the best version of myself--confident, graceful, beautiful, valued by him.  I am happy to be that flower on the branch he extends and I cherish my role as a woman.  The feeling of moving as one--and others can see it too--brings a joy beyond my ability to describe.  In my mind, this is the goal of marriage.  And no one, watching a successful dance partnership or successful marriage--think back to the times you have--would feel that the woman's role is any less or lower than the man's; if anything--it is the focus. 

A female's flourishes and twirls in dance--really the point of it all--would, in this analogy, be a woman's noble and important actions as a mother and the things she does to hold the family and household together.  In dance and in marriage, the man creates the frame wherein this is possible.  He holds her up and steadies her; he leads with a gentle touch.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Four Experiences

(Something I wrote in August of 2008--quick content so my blog is not boring right off the start! :) )

I am moved upon to write about four experiences I’ve had which to me seem somehow linked.  I think they say something about the state of humanity and something else about our divine tendency and desire to "mourn with those that mourn and comfort those that stand in need of comfort."  I am from a small town.  When one from a small town walks around cities that are big and in bloom with chaos and beauty, light and dark, madness and genius, humanity and inhumanity on every corner one is able to notice--can't help but notice--things which cause them to perk their ears and listen through the sound of commotion to these quiet personal moments played out in front of a distracted audience.  In a small town one gets used to noticing.  At the time these events were witnessed, I knew nothing of Siddhartha Gautama—how at a young age he left the protected paradise of his wealthy home and explored the world outside his confines.  The types of suffering he witnessed shocked and moved him so much he began a quest to discover the root and cure of human suffering, which search ended in 49 days of meditation beneath a pipal tree, and the birth of a new world religion.
The first event occurred in New York—Times Square.  I was 16 and walking through the crowded streets at night, looking up at the flashing words and pictures the size of buildings and trying to take in the rushed pace, close quarters, and the warm, damp smell of the city, keeping my mom close to avoid separation.  We passed Spongebob—someone on the sidewalk was wearing a huge Spongebob costume (big square yellow head with a dopey smile) and there were a few kids having their picture taken with him.  As we passed by I jokingly said, “Mom, we should take our picture with Spongebob.”  Not accustomed to street vendors, I noticed the collection plate nearby and said, “Hah! Never mind, I don’t want to pay for it.”  We explored some of the downtown shops and headed back to the apartment where we were staying for our vacation.  As we passed back by Spongebob’s sidewalk domain, I saw something that made me deeply regret what I had said earlier.  “Spongebob” removed his yellow, wide-grinning slap-happy head and I saw an Arabic woman in tears who went over to the cement steps and embraced her husband who held her, and then sat with her on the steps as they cried.  As we walked away tears were falling down my face and I had a hard time explaining to my mom. 

            The next three episodes took place in Anchorage, Alaska and in one day.  My friend Misty and I were staying at a Hilton for an Association of Student Governments conference—we were 17.  In the time we had off, we decided to strike out in our scarves and hoods to explore the city in the cold winter air.  We were meandering down a center street, with high gleaming office buildings rising up on either side.  As we passed one building, the doors were pushed open and we looked ahead of us to see a slender, dark-haired young man in a business suit come flying down the steps.  His face was twisted in pain.  He stopped at the bottom of the steps and yelled—a cry from deep inside like a wild wounded man as he crushed a manila folder in his hand, looking up at the black windows.  He crumpled down to a squatting position wringing the manila folder and crying.  I wondered what dream of his had just ended.  We looked at each other unsure what to say having witnessed this personal moment of pain.  One of us made a joke like, “Not a good day for that guy,” and we continued on our way. 

            A few streets over, another scene made us stop our conversation and pause to contemplate what was before us.  A white picket fence and a frosted lawn separated us from a small shrine where the Virgin Mary stood under an awning with outstretched arms.   A Hispanic man in uniform was kneeing on the cement walkway leading up to her, his hands clasped in front of him and his lips moving as he uttered a plea.  His custodian’s cart was parked inside the fence—the bottles of Windex and toilet bowl cleaner gathering frost.

            Moved and a little emotionally jarred, we walked only another block when a bearded man approached us.  He was obviously mentally impaired and we tried to make friendly conversation although we were getting nervous.  He asked us, from close proximity, if we wanted to go to the “radio store.”  He said it was really close, just around the corner.  We said we were headed back and needed to be on our way, but he persisted.  Finally, Misty said “Let’s go,” and grabbed my arm as we ran across to the other side of the street.  The bearded, wobbling man kept on his course as we walked down opposite sides of the road and I could see his breath in the air as he talked to no one. 

I wasn’t sure what to make of these things then, as I am not sure now.  Perhaps I need to meditate for 49 days beneath a tree.  What did the Arabic woman in the Spongebob costume, the wailing young business man, the Hispanic custodian praying on the frozen ground, and the mentally-ill man in need of a friend have in common?  Humanity, and suffering therein.  They shared pain—pain which no one else seemed to notice or care about, let alone, attempt to alleviate.  I noticed—yet did not know how to stretch my humanity out to them in those moments.  The question rings on in my mind, what could I have done?  For those suffering now, What can I do?

Thoughts on Stars

(Prosey-- something I wrote in 2009)

I wonder, if the stars in the “Big Dipper”
know they are in a relationship with one another.
They are so far from each other.
They shine independently out into the darkness.
They each think they are just a star.
Do they know how many people here on earth are
watching them?
Do they know how many they have pointed towards
home through perilous nights?
Do they know they work together for the benefit
of strangers?
Or do they just shine?
Does God look down and see me in a relationship
with people I do not yet know?
Is there a configuration I cannot see?
Am I shining into the darkness unaware that
I am really part of a shape that he so clearly sees?

Children and Adventure

Hmmm, hard to start off this blog, but I will do so with something I was thinking about while on an airplane last week while listening to the goings on around me.

I propose that children (of any sort) need four things in order to have a joyful and productive life--not from any experience raising children know I this, as anyone who has most likely feels their methods are best anyways--but from being one once and growing up and from watching my fellow children among family friends grow up and witnessing others come up after and guessing about the childhoods of adults I know--the four things being physical needs met, learning, love, and adventure.  Many kids are raised without this fourth need met these days, where it was in abundance in days past.  I believe that a child raised without a healthy dose of adventure will grow up to be a small-minded adult--lacking in imagination and courage, more likely to be self-pitying, entitlement-demanding, and shallow.  Harsh maybe, but I strongly feel that small steps ever into the wild and unknown (guided by their loving guardians or, if mostly safe, exploring and discovering on their own) will teach a child to be creative, brave, self-reliant and to seek a life more meaningful.  May the shallow children makers find adventure themselves and so gain the depth, fortitude, and desire to pass these lessons on to their offspring.

Me with my Grandpa, leaving for a camping trip-- so grateful to have known a life full of adventure and to have gleaned the lessons it has had to teach.