Wisdom and Suffering

“Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair, against our will,
comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

 Robert F. Kennedy citing Aeschylus on the night of Martin Luther King’s assassination

 

A few days ago the town manager of Billerica Massachusetts, John Curran, wrote a courageous essay about the online abuse he has received. Curran has a self-described “very rare and significant facial abnormality” known as hemifacial macrosomia, but he added that he had not been mocked for it for a very long time. That is, until the last few years.

Norms seem to have changed, he observed, where cruelty – particularly online, anonymous cruelty – has become more frequent. Curran also wrote that his childhood was not easy, and that he encountered a lot of adversity due to other children mocking him. However, he concluded on a positive note:    

It saddens me that I still have to deal with this from adults at 53 years old, but I would like to say to any young people that are different and happen to read this not to despair.

Your challenge will make you stronger, too, and you are better and wiser than anyone too ignorant to understand how to be civil and kind. Hang in there. It gets better.

Like Curran, I too think that kindness goes a long way. As a species, humans would not have gotten very far without it. And the notion that we are strengthened, not weakened, by our challenges in life is an interesting, though controversial, one.  

Borrowing a term from Nassim Taleb, the psychologist Jonathan Haidt likes to say that people are not just resilient, but “anti-fragile.” This is the idea that we don’t merely weather storms and adversities; rather, we grow from them, in terms of character and learning, as well as physiologically such as building aerobic capacity or muscle from repeated exercise. Haidt cites people like Friedrich Nietzsche (“that which does not kill me makes me stronger”) and Mencius about gaining strength through suffering, noting that:

“it’s not always true; there is PTSD. There are some things that can damage you, but for the most part it’s true… You cannot be a great man or woman unless you have suffered, faced adversity, been banged around, failed and come back, gotten back up fifty, a hundred, five hundred times. That’s the only way to greatness.”

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Sixteen Anti-War Songs

“Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.” — UNESCO

 

I made a list of sixteen anti-war songs that have meant something to me for a while, including a few lyrics from each and then a brief description. It would be too cumbersome to include all of the lyrics, or to make a comprehensive list, though you can find one here. Most are in English, so this will be limited in scope. I guess the songs are sort of “ranked,” but it’s not meant to be scientific; it’s just a list from which I find some meaning. Originally I sought to create a top ten list; however, it just kept growing.

Perhaps you have your own list, and it’s likely different than mine. We probably have different tastes, and that’s OK. I’m not going to fight anyone over anti-war songs. Maybe this list will do some a tiny bit of good, at a time when divisions appear to be growing.

 

 

16. Radiohead – “Harry Patch: In memory of” (2009)

Give your leaders each a gun and then let them
Fight it out themselves

 

This is Radiohead’s tribute to Harry Patch, the World War 1 veteran who died at age 111 in 2009. Patch once said that “War is organised murder and nothing else….politicians who took us to war should have been given the guns and told to settle their differences themselves, instead of organizing nothing better than legalized mass murder.”

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Thinking of California

I’ve been watching the news on current events around the world, including the massive wildfires in California that so far have killed at least thirty people and displaced hundreds of thousands. I know a number of people in the area, and even though they are not in the direct path of the fires they’ve been on my mind for the past several days. We’re still due to arrive in San Jose in just a few days for an anthropology conference, but it seems surreal to travel so far to talk about anthropology while there are many people suffering not too far away. From what I understand the smoke has traveled far and wide across the state. In fact, we just got an email from the American Anthropological Association reaffirming that the conference will proceed as planned, but also warning us that the air quality may not be suitable for older adults, young children, and people with health problems. Maybe that’s what we’re supposed to do—try to live life as normally as possible in times of stress. I’m not sure that it feels totally right, but I also donated to help some of the people affected (some suggestions here ).

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R.I.P. Dolores O’Riordan

“You’ll always be special to me.”

Yesterday, it was reported that singer Dolores O’Riordan passed away unexpectedly at age 46. This one was a gut punch to me. I must have played The Cranberries‘ CD’s hundreds of times in college and graduate school, and I often had their songs on my playlist while traveling, including on a long, memorable bus ride through the mountains of Laos. Her voice and lyrics will be with me for a long time.

Somewhere between Phonsavan and Luang Prabang in northern Laos, 2009. I’ll long remember the breathtaking scenery, paired with the Cranberries’ music.

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8th Anniversary at a Crossroads

“The purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences.” – Ruth Benedict

“Imagine what seven billion people could accomplish if we all loved and respected each other.” – Anthony Douglas Williams

 

I just received notice from WordPress that it is the 8th anniversary for this site. To be honest, I have not been feeling too great about this site lately. Readership is down noticeably, and it has been harder to get the attention of my targeted audiences. I’ve even contemplated folding the tent.

Surely, part of that is me, as I’ve found it hard to maintain the volume of essays compared to prior years. Perhaps it’s merely the nature of today’s Internet. Eight years ago, there were fewer personal blogs and sites to compete for readers’ attention, and people seem to prefer shorter, more digestible, essays before moving on to the next item on their list. I understand. Time is finite, and we have things to do. 

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Time to Move On

I’ll get back to writing fuller essays soon. In the meantime, go in peace.

It’s time to move on, time to get going
What lies ahead, I have no way of knowing
But under my feet, baby, grass is growing
It’s time to move on, it’s time to get going
Broken skyline, movin’ through the airport
She’s an honest defector
Conscientious objector
Now her own protector
Broken skyline, which way to love land
Which way to something better
Which way to forgiveness
Which way do I go
It’s time to move on, time to get going
What lies ahead, I have no way of knowing
But under my feet, baby, grass is growing
It’s time to move on, it’s time to get going
Sometime later, getting the words wrong
Wasting the meaning and losing the rhyme
Nauseous adrenalin
Like breakin’ up a dogfight
Like a deer in the headlights
Frozen in real time
I’m losing my mind
It’s time to move on, time to get going
What lies ahead, I have no way of knowing
But under my feet, baby, grass is growing
It’s time to move on, it’s time to get going

AAA Meetings in D.C. & San Jose

I’m planning for the American Anthropological Association annual meeting in Washington, D.C. later this year, and it struck me as unusual to hold it in that city again since the meeting was last there only three years ago. Next year, it will be held in San Jose, which was the host in 2006. I then got curious when the last time the meeting was held in Boston or New York, since I can’t remember the meeting ever being held in the northeast. Just for fun, I wondered if the AAA has preferred particular cities over its long history, since its first meeting in Pittsburgh in 1902. So, I made a heat map.

According to the AAA website, the city to host the meeting most frequently has been Washington D.C. (22 times, including this year), followed by Philadelphia (13 times), Chicago (11 times), New York City (10 times), then San Francisco/ San Jose/ Berkeley (9 times). 

However, things have shifted recently, with some cities not hosting for decades. The original host, Pittsburgh, has not been home to the meeting since 1966, while New York last held the meeting in 1971. Boston lasted hosted in 1955, and Los Angeles in 1981 (coinciding with Fernandomania). Several cities hosted only once, including my hometown of Providence, R.I. in 1910.

By comparison, since 1990 New Orleans has hosted three times and San Francisco/ San Jose six times.

The midwest, aside from Chicago, and the southeast have been largely overlooked. Saint Louis is due to host in 2020. I’m curious why Florida has never been the host. I thought they grew convention centers there, not to mention the warm weather, since the meeting is usually in late November.

The meeting has also been held outside of the U.S. five times — Mexico City and Toronto twice each, and Montreal once. Vancouver, B.C. will host in 2019 for the first time.  

Anyway, this was all just out of curiosity.

Heat Map of AAA Meetings (the map is zoomed in too close to see Mexico City, which has hosted twice).