Half-Brained Things, Trying to Make the World a Little Better

(Another in the continuing series of quotes to start the week.)

Today is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s birthday (22 May 1859 – 7 July 1930). The creator of Sherlock Holmes, Doyle has been celebrated by fans and writers for decades, so of course starting the week with a quote from him would be appropriate.

To follow on the heels of last week’s entry, L. Frank Baum’s quote about “the betterment of the world”, consider these two 1894 quotes from Doyle. First, an admission that we as human beings may not be all we think we are:

What can we know? What are we all? Poor silly half-brained things peering out at the infinite, with the aspirations of angels and the instincts of beasts.

And second, a bit of his desire to improve some small part of the world simply by being a person of good character:

I should dearly love that the world should be ever so little better for my presence. Even on this small stage we have our two sides, and something might be done by throwing all one’s weight on the scale of breadth, tolerance, charity, temperance, peace, and kindliness to man and beast. We can’t all strike very big blows, and even the little ones count for something.

Your beliefs don't make you a better person, your behavior does.
(Image: “Your beliefs don’t make you a better person, your behavior does,” by SoniaT 360., from Flickr under Creative Commons.)

Even though very often I feel both “silly” and “half-brained,” I do hope that I can do more to improve the world than to harm it. I hope you can, too.

Have a great week!

Facebooktwitterpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Imagination, Daydreams, and ‘the Betterment of the World’

(Another in the continuing “Monday Morning Insight” series of quotes to start the week.)

Today is L. Frank Baum’s birthday (15 May 1856 – 6 May 1919), and it won’t surprise anyone familiar with his novel The Wizard of Oz to find that he had something to say about imagination. In 1917, in the introduction to The Lost Princess of Oz, he wrote (emphasis added):

Some of my youthful readers are developing wonderful imaginations. This pleases me. Imagination has brought mankind through the Dark Ages to its present state of civilization. Imagination led Columbus to discover America. Imagination led Franklin to discover electricity. Imagination has given us the steam engine, the telephone, the talking-machine, and the automobile, for these things had to be dreamed of before they became realities. So I believe that dreams — day dreams, you know, with your eyes wide open and your brain machinery whizzing — are likely to lead to the betterment of the world. The imaginative child will become the imaginative man or woman most apt to create, to invent, and therefore to foster civilization.

(Image: “Daydreams,” by Thomas Couture, from Wikimedia Commons.)

If you didn’t know, Baum’s imagination wasn’t limited to the Oz novels (of which he wrote over a dozen). He wrote over fifty novels in total, including additional fantasy novels, plus short stories, poems, scripts, and other things. And if we follow his example, and that of other creative people we admire, we won’t limit our imaginations nearly as much as we usually do.

I hope this week you can let yourself daydream a little! See what you can imagine, and what you can create, to make your part of the world a little better.

Have a great week!

Facebooktwitterpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Writing Revitalizes

(Another in the continuing “Monday Morning Insight” series of quotes to start the week.)

Yesterday we held our first meeting of the Research Triangle chapter of The Writers Coffeehouse. I wasn’t sure how many people to expect, and said I’d be happy with a half-dozen, but we ended up with eleven people total! So, I’m pretty pleased by that for a first showing, and that most people indicated they were interested in coming to future meetings.

Just Write
(Image: “Just Write,” by Sean MacEntee, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

In honor of the first meeting going so well, here’s a quote from a master of the writing art, Ray Bradbury, offered without commentary because I have a blazing headache:

And what, you ask, does writing teach us?

First and foremost, it reminds us that we are alive and that it is gift and a privilege, not a right. We must earn life once it has been awarded us. Life asks for rewards back because it has favored us with animation.

So while our art cannot, as we wish it could, save us from wars, privation, envy, greed, old age, or death, it can revitalize us amidst it all.

Have a great week!

Facebooktwitterpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Healthy Thinking, and Virtue

(Another in the continuing “Monday Morning Insight” series of quotes to start the week.)

We have a trifecta of quotes today, from the prolific British essayist and poet Joseph Addison (1 May 1672 – 17 June 1719). Addison was a contributor to his friend Richard Steele’s 1709 journal The Tatler, then in 1711 he and Steele founded The Spectator. Addison contributed the majority of the brief essays in The Spectator.

In addition to his essays, Addison’s play Cato, a Tragedy became very well-known both in England and in the Colonies, where it remained popular for many years after Addison’s death. When Nathan Hale said before his execution, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country,” he was paraphrasing from Act IV, scene iv:

How beautiful is death, when earn’d by virtue!
Who would not be that youth? What pity is it
That we can die but once to serve our country!

It’s interesting to me that the sentiment from Addison’s play was later used by Hale, but that’s not the primary quote I’d like to focus on this morning.

(Image: “Virtue,” by torroid, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

The focal quote is concerned with developing virtue, and comes from issue 147 of The Tatler. Addison wrote,

Reading is to the mind, what exercise is to the body. As by the one, health is preserved, strengthened, and invigorated: by the other, virtue (which is the health of the mind) is kept alive, cherished, and confirmed.

As someone who tries to write things he hopes will be read — even little blog posts like this one — I appreciate that idea of reading as mental exercise that improves “the health of the mind.” One might argue whether or not Addison was correct in identifying that health with virtue, but I come down on Addison’s side on that. Why? Because a modicum of virtue is necessary to success, especially in a complex society where we must work together with other people to succeed in any endeavor. Without some measure of virtue, we are unlikely (for instance) to show ourselves to be trustworthy or reliable enough for others to work with us. The kind of virtue we need to develop begins and indeed resides in our own healthy-thinking heads.

And that leads to considering another quote in which Addison mentions virtue. This one, from The Spectator Number 243 (8 December 1711), seems to capture some unfortunate tendencies in our political discourse today:

A man must be excessively stupid, as well as uncharitable, who believes that there is no virtue but on his own side, and that there are not men as honest as himself who may differ from him in political principles.

Does it not seem, in our current Internet-and-social-media-age, that many people are quick to discount any contrary opinion about any available subject, and in so doing to heap scorn and derision upon the other side? Do they not seem to discount even the possibility of virtue in people on the opposite side? To borrow from Addison in describing the fragmentation of our polity, it seems to me that we live in an age of uncharitable stupidity, and I hope we grow out of it.

This week, then, I will take care to be more charitable and try to be less stupid, by reminding myself that my side (of whatever argument) does not have a monopoly on virtue and that “friendly opposition” in our internal politics is not only possible, but preferable. Anybody else up to that challenge?

Have a great week!

Facebooktwitterpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Reaching the Utmost Limits

(Another in the continuing “Monday Morning Insight” series of quotes to start the week.)

Twenty-seven years ago today, the Hubble Space Telescope was launched aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery on mission STS-31. I worked that mission as part of the Air Force Flight Test Center recovery crew: I stood alert on the flightline during the launch on the 24th, ready for the possibility of an “abort once around,” then greeted the vehicle on the lakebed when it landed on the 29th. In between, of course, the famed telescope was deployed.

STS-31 mission patch. “Bolden” refers to USMC MajGen Charles Bolden, who eventually became NASA administrator. (Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

(I know, I know: This post is supposed to be about a quote, so get to the quote!)

You probably know that the telescope’s namesake, Edwin Hubble (1889-1953), was an influential astronomer. He demonstrated that other galaxies exist beyond the Milky Way — showing that the universe was even more enormous than we thought until then — and also correlated the redshift (the degree to which light is shifted toward the red end of the spectrum) with distance to show that the universe is still expanding.

So here’s the quote to start this week: in 1936, Hubble wrote,

Eventually, we reach the utmost limits of our telescopes. There, we measure shadows and search among ghostly errors of measurement for landmarks that are scarcely more substantial.

That quote brings two things to mind for me.

First, that the Hubble Space Telescope has shown us that far more exists at “the utmost limits” than most of us ever imagined or perhaps even can imagine. It turns out that besides our own vast galaxy there may be anywhere from 200 billion to as many as 2 trillion galaxies in the universe, each with billions of stars. Even as we build more and more powerful instruments to probe the depths of space, I feel sure that we won’t reach “the utmost limits” of what’s out there in many lifetimes.

But the second thing I thought of when reading that quote is that it could apply not only to telescopes and understanding the universe but also to thought. I imagine a similar sentiment describing all knowledge, not just astronomical knowledge: Eventually, we reach the utmost limits of our reasoning. There, we study shadows and search among ghostly errors of imagination for truths that are scarcely more substantial.

And if we reach those utmost limits, what then do we do?

Facebooktwitterpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

A Daily Baptism?

(Another in the continuing “Monday Morning Insight” series of quotes to start the week.)

On this Easter Monday, it seems appropriate to recall one of the seminal events in the development of Protestant Christianity: on this date in 1521 Martin Luther appeared at the Diet of Worms — an assembly (“diet”) convened in Worms, Germany, from 28 January to 26 May 1521 by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V — to answer the charge of heresy.

On the 17th, Luther was presented with a list of his own writings and asked if he would recant of the heresies they contained. He asked for time to consider how to respond to the charges, and was granted a day to think it over. On the 18th, he spoke. He differentiated between the various works, left open the question of recanting if he could be shown his error, and apologized for the harsh tone of some of the works, but in the end Luther said,

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.

What does that have to do with baptism? Nothing in itself, but it does illustrate the confidence Luther had in his Scriptural interpretations. And that leads us to something he wrote about baptism ….

St Patrick’s Cathedral
Interesting fish-eye view of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, founded near a well where Saint Patrick is supposed to have baptized converts. (Image: “St Patrick’s Cathedral,” by Jennifer Boyer, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

In a treatise on infant baptism, Luther presented an idea I find very interesting. He wrote that baptism

… is nothing else than putting to death the old Adam, and after that the resurrection of the new man, both of which must take place in us all our lives, so that a truly Christian life is nothing else than a daily baptism, once begun and ever to be continued.

I don’t think Luther’s point is that we need to be baptized anew every day (though most of us benefit from bathing regularly). Baptism is a living metaphor, and not one we actually need to go through again and again. It seems to me that what Luther calls a “daily baptism” is the daily personal exercise in living out the faith. In other words, following Christ involves living every day in light of the two central facets of our faith: that Christ died, and that our “old man” died with him; and that he rose again, and thereby we also have new life. Baptism is the experience that represents those facets of the faith.

It is a remarkable thing to consider. But it’s not as easy to do as it is to consider, or even to write about.

Facebooktwitterpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Truth and Offense

(Another in the continuing “Monday Morning Insight” series of quotes to start the week.)

Today is English writer William Hazlitt’s birthday (10 April 1778 – 18 September 1830). He was a poet, a painter, and a philosopher, and made a number of interesting observations about life. In fact, I found so many interesting things online that it was hard to settle on a quote to examine today. But in an 1823 collection called Characteristics, item 387, Hazlitt wrote:

An honest man speaks the truth, though it may give offence; a vain man, in order that it may.

I compare this to Saint Paul’s instruction that we should “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15) — if we do so, we may offend the listener but our intent clearly is otherwise. Any offense is incidental, if not actually accidental. But if instead we speak the truth in order to offend, then the love we exhibit is more clearly love of ourselves, and that is vanity indeed.

After all, we shade the truth when we care for a person and wish not to hurt them. Surely you have done so at one time or another: that suggestion was excellent; you did that very well; I would love to go with you to do that thing you want to do; and so forth. The more deeply we care for someone, the less likely we are to tell the bare, unvarnished truth.

Our capacity for speaking harmful, offensive truth is inversely proportional to how much we care for the people with whom we interact.

Does the truth offend you? (Image: “Truth,” by Tim Abbott, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

Thus, particularly in so-called “social media” where we interact at a distance with people who are very nearly strangers to us, speaking some manner of truth — perhaps objective truth, perhaps only perceived truth — in order to offend, in order to provoke, in order even to antagonize, has become something of a diabolical art. I struggle against the tendency myself, and have given in to it more often than I care to admit, but I’m trying to get better.

It’s not easy sometimes to be both truthful and kind, but I hope we figure out how. Have a great week!

Facebooktwitterpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

The ‘Endless Mazes of Literature’

(Another in the continuing “Monday Morning Insight” series of quotes to start the week.)

Today is Washington Irving’s birthday (3 April 1783 – 28 November 1859). Irving is best known for the 1819 short story “Rip Van Winkle” and the 1820 short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” both of which appear in the collection The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. The collection also includes the comical story “The Mutabilities of Literature,” in which Irving wrote a long passage that perhaps applies even more to our literary world than it did to Irving’s. With emphasis added:

Language gradually varies, and with it fade away the writings of authors who have flourished their allotted time; otherwise, the creative powers of genius would overstock the world, and the mind would be completely bewildered in the endless mazes of literature. Formerly there were some restraints on this excessive multiplication. Works had to be transcribed by hand, which was a slow and laborious operation; they were written either on parchment, which was expensive, so that one work was often erased to make way for another; or on papyrus, which was fragile and extremely perishable. Authorship was a limited and unprofitable craft, pursued chiefly by monks in the leisure and solitude of their cloisters. The accumulation of manuscripts was slow and costly, and confined almost entirely to monasteries. To these circumstances it may, in some measure, be owing that we have not been inundated by the intellect of antiquity; that the fountains of thought have not been broken up, and modern genius drowned in the deluge. But the inventions of paper and the press have put an end to all these restraints. They have made everyone a writer, and enabled every mind to pour itself into print, and diffuse itself over the whole intellectual world. The consequences are alarming. The stream of literature has swollen into a torrent — augmented into a river — expanded into a sea.

How much more, today, have the computer and the e-reader “put an end to all … restraints” on publication and “made everyone a writer”? How much more has current technology “enabled every mind to pour itself into print”? How much more has “the stream of literature … swollen into a torrent — augmented into a river — expanded into a sea”?

Get Lost
Are the “mazes of literature” this difficult to navigate? (Image: “Get Lost,” by Tim Green, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

If our current electronic age survives the pressures and turmoil of passing history, our descendants may be “inundated by the intellect of antiquity” — that is, by what we pass off as intellect — and have their “modern genius drowned in the deluge.” We will be gone, of course, the “authors who have flourished their allotted time” however short that may be, so it will depend upon our descendants to ensure that they aren’t “completely bewildered in the endless mazes of literature.”

Something to think about, eh?

Thanks for spending a few minutes here, and I hope you have an excellent week!


Afterword: I find it interesting that, in addition to his literary pursuits, Washington Irving served as US ambassador to Spain (1842-46). I’d be up for something like that, if the government were to call upon me to serve in that capacity … hint, hint.

Facebooktwitterpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

What’s in the Details?

(Another in the continuing “Monday Morning Insight” series of quotes to start the week.)

Happy Birthday to my publisher, Kevin J. Anderson, and to Firefly leading man Nathan Fillion. And to you, if it’s your birthday!

Today is also the birthday of German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (27 March 1886 – 17 August 1969), who in 1959 was quoted in The New York Herald Tribune as saying,

God is in the details.

You might also be familiar with the saying, “The Devil is in the details,” so there seems to be some contention there. I poked around a bit and found that the van der Rohe quote could perhaps better be expressed as “God dwells in the details,” and I quite like the way that sounds.

As we look deeper, we see more and different details. (Image: “Details,” by Tom Magliery, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

I like to think of it in terms of systems: as we pull a system apart into its subsystems and components and parts and materials, we uncover additional details about it and hopefully come to understand it better — but in some ways the system becomes even more mysterious the deeper we go, the way the subatomic quantum world is stranger and harder to fathom than our everyday world. But there is still order and beauty there, and where we struggle with the details as we try to create (or re-create) something orderly and beautiful we begin to find God, the creator of order and beauty.

But we can get trapped in the details, too, which is where the Devil whispers to us that the details are all there is and we’ll never get the details right. So it’s important to back away sometimes, to once again try to apprehend how all the details work together in the whole.

I guess I would say that God dwells in the details and permeates the whole. But when we focus too much on the details and lose sight of the whole, we can also lose sight of God. It’s a matter of perspective.

I hope you have the chance to see God in your world this week!

Facebooktwitterpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Political vs. Personal Priorities

(Another in the continuing “Monday Morning Insight” series of quotes to start the week.)

It’s been said that “politics makes strange bedfellows,” and over the last few years we’ve been treated to some evidence of that. It’s also been said that “power tends to corrupt,” or (if you prefer) that power “is magnetic to the corruptible,” and I daresay that’s been evident from time to time as well — on both ends of the political spectrum.

But no matter where we are on that spectrum — left, right, or center — it seems prudent to remind ourselves that politicians’ priorities rarely match ours. As Thomas Sowell said,

No one will really understand politics until they understand that politicians are not trying to solve our problems. They are trying to solve their own problems — of which getting elected and re-elected are number one and number two. Whatever is number three is far behind.

Can you think of very many politicians who pursue causes that are independent of their reelection prospects? How many would risk losing their positions in order to achieve something on behalf of someone else?

(Not The Anti-Candidate, that’s for sure.)

Political Guide
Instead of “new ideas,” I think “different ideas” would be more fitting, but in general this seems to hold true for many people, much of the time. (Image: “Political Guide,” by Jason Nelms, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

If Mr. Sowell is correct, and the evidence suggests that he is, maybe we’re better off taking care of our own priorities ourselves, and helping our friends and neighbors with their priorities when we can, instead of entrusting them to and relying on politicians who clearly have priorities of their own.

Something to think about. Hope you have a great week!

Facebooktwitterpinterestlinkedinmailby feather