Friday, March 1, 2013

Lasting Happiness -- Writer's Poke #426

I like to watch football, but I couldn’t tell you much about what happened last season. I do remember who won the Super Bowl, but that’s just because it happened a few weeks ago. Who won the past five Super Bowls? I don’t have any idea, do you? And how did all of the hours I spent watching football last season improve the life I’m living today? Unfortunately, I can’t honestly say that any of that time spent was an investment in my future well being. We all need our diversions, and I’ll continue to watch football. Nevertheless, I recognize that I need more in my life than football to be content. I need to engage in activities that have lasting value. When I spend too much time just “killing time,” I feel unsatisfied. In fact, more than feeling unsatisfied, I even feel angry; and I feel depressed.

Staying engaged in activities that matter takes some dedication; it is work to stay out of the rut, but ultimately, it’s much more fulfilling. This year I made it a goal to go to the gym at least twelve times per month; I’ve achieved this rather modest goal, and it hasn’t been easy. If I didn’t have a specific goal in mind, it would be all-too-easy to stay home and watch TV. Watching TV, however, won’t make me feel better once I turn it off. A good workout, however, does make me feel good when it’s over. 

One way to determine if an activity has lasting value, then, may be to gauge how it makes us feel not in the moment, but in reflection once the activity is over. If we want to be truly happy, we must pursue activities that have lasting value. Watching football is fun for the moment, but it has no lasting permanent value. 

What diversions do you like to engage in? Do these diversions keep you from pursuing lasting happiness? 

“The highest, most varied and lasting pleasures are those of the mind.” – Arthur Schopenhauer

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Accumulating Mental Wealth -- Writer's Poke #425

I found a quarter in the parking lot the other day, and I smiled as I picked it up. 

“Guess what,” I told my wife later that night, “I found a quarter today.” 

“Good for you,” she said, without any sense of sarcasm.

I had no immediate need or use for the quarter, and I threw it into the change bin in the kitchen. At some point it will contribute to the purchase of a cup of coffee, perhaps.

Obviously a quarter doesn’t mean much these days, but I suspect that most people still take the trouble to bend over to pick one up when they see one. The point is, the quarter has value even if it has no immediate use, and even if it isn't worth much by itself. 

Every day I go into the classroom, I feel like, metaphorically-speaking, I’m giving each of my students the chance to pick up a quarter. Heck, most days, I feel like I’m literally giving each of my students the opportunity to earn back the equivalent of one class period’s tuition. And yet, I don’t always feel like they see the classroom, or college for that matter, as a place for them to  accumulate mental wealth. 

“If I pulled out my wallet,” I asked my students today, “and handed each of you a dollar, would you accept it?” Most of them smiled, and all of them indicated that they would. In fact, I cannot imagine any person who would reject being given a dollar. “So why do some students reject being given a dollar’s worth of knowledge?”

I fully understand that teachers cannot “give knowledge” to students; nevertheless, students do have the ability to avoid picking up knowledge, just like I had the ability to avoid picking up the quarter. Honestly, though: Does learning in the classroom take much more effort that bending over to pick up a quarter? Does it take much more effort that accepting a dollar straight from the teacher's hand?

My contention is that the effort is approximately the same, and yet, some students have not learned to value all of the mental quarters and dollars that are just laying around waiting to be picked up. Each individual piece of knowledge might not seem to have much value, but students could do a lot with the collected mental wealth over the course of an entire degree.

But why should it even require them to think in long-range terms? When I picked up the quarter in the parking lot, I hadn’t even considered the quarter’s potential value. I was just happy to have the quarter. Why aren’t students, likewise, just happy to receive knowledge? Some are. I know that. But why aren’t all students?

What are your thoughts on accumulating mental wealth? Who do you consider to be mental wealth millionaires? Billionaires?

“Wealth is the product of man’s capacity to think.” – Ayn Rand

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Drawing the Face of God -- Writer's Poke #424

In his TED Talk entitled “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” Sir Ken Robinson tells the story of a little girl in art class. When an adult asked her what she was drawing, she said, “I’m drawing God.” 

“But how can you draw God?” asked the adult. “No one knows what He looks like.” 

“They will in a minute,” she replied.

What a great response, and how true. This little girl has just as much right to decide what God looks like as anyone else, and yet there are some people that claim the right to tell us what God looks like. But just as we cannot know what God looks like, we also cannot know what God “wants," although again, there are plenty of people that will try to tell us what He wants.

Why do we let them? The adult in Robinson’s story above does not give the child the worst response possible, as a far worse response would have been for the adult to tell the girl what God looks like. Most people have no real sense of God, other than what they’ve been told. Most of us might understand that God isn’t really a large white man with a beard, but we nevertheless tend to picture Him that way; more importantly, we also tend to picture God as being the sort of God we have been taught by our cultural traditions. 

Obviously not everyone in the United States views God in exactly the same way, but the point remains: How many of us assume the right to draw God for ourselves – not only his physical image, but also God in the larger “purpose” sense? Sometimes I wish people could take their engrained beliefs and erase them as though they were written on an Etch-a-sketch. Unfortunately, our learned beliefs often permanently imprint themselves on our brains, and it’s difficult to ever know exactly what we think, or what we might have thought without the unfortunate contamination of those who came before us.

Draw a word picture of your idea of God. How much of your picture is original, and how much of it is derivative? 

“Our society was utterly, ruinously derivative (although the word derivative as a criticism is itself derivative). We were the first human beings who would never see anything for the first time.” – Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl