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Weekly Commentary - january 17, 2022

We are the ones we've always been waiting for

Nobody doubts that these are difficult times for humanity. In fact, they are so difficult that one does not know if it is a change from one historical epoch to another or if we are approaching the end of humanity. And there is no doubt about the inability of leaders and experts to do anything to change and improve the situation.

Faced with this situation, in this moment of high volatility, constant uncertainty, maximum complexity, and infinite ambiguity; in this historical moment in which we no longer know who we are, what to do. or where we are going, seeing the inexperience (and, sometimes, the stupidity) of leaders, it's up to us to become the ones we've always been waiting for.

In other words, this is the time to become who we really are, to bring into the present our best future version, to rise to the level necessary to respond to the challenge, to change our perspective and broaden our historical horizon in order to co-create a new future.

Every day we see again and again that leaders (be they politicians, scientists, educators, or whoever) seem to be constantly improvising without ever coming up with answers to our problems. The reason is simple: they cling to a world that is dying and, therefore, they cannot make room for the world that is being born. 

However, the speed of change – be it societal, technological, generational, educational, or even planetary change – is so rapid, overwhelming, and disorienting that the time for improvising solutions is long past. In fact, the time of repeating the past and perpetuating the present is over.

We must even say that the time of solving problems is over: we are now in the time of changing systems. However, the death pains of the old system and the birth pains of the new system are so great that clearly the transition will be very difficult, perhaps even terrifying.

For this reason, to those of us who live in this era in which the pandemic adds to the constant threat of the total destruction of the planet (whether by nuclear war or global warming, or whatever), and in which artificial intelligence threatens to replace and displace humans, it is up to us, ordinary people, to respond to a challenge seldom, if ever, seen in human history.

In other words, it is our responsibility to transform ourselves into those we always hoped would come to help us. We are those "helpers" and now we have the responsibility to implement creative and innovative solutions for the benefit of everyone and everything: all people and all living beings on the planet, including the planet.

It is even possible that -as NASA recently hiring theologians shows- in a short time we will meet intelligent beings from other planets. In that context, as the rabbinical sage Hillel the Elder said: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now when?".

 

 

The tree is to blame for not having grown enough roots

I recently read a report prepared by an electric company about a falling tree in a city near Denver. After a storm with strong winds, the tree in question, already high, fell on the power lines and started a small fire. Ten days later, the official report indicated that the culprit had been the tree for not having enough roots.

Although fortunately nothing happened in this case, in other similar incidents a tree falling onto power lines caused serious fires or property damage. But I honestly don't recall the tree being ever blamed for causing such an unpleasant situation.

In this case, however, the tree was accused of having fallen for not having roots, as if throughout the 50 years or probably 60 years of the life of this tree, the tree, for a matter of reluctance or laziness, would have decided on its own to have as few roots as possible, without thinking that one day a wind might come and knock him down.

In addition to the intense animistic flavor of blaming the tree (like hitting a table because you hit your foot on the table leg), it is incredible that the tree is the culprit and not any of the many human beings who interacted with the tree over many years. It is clear that by declaring the tree “guilty” all those persons evaded their own responsibility. 

For example, shouldn't the person who planted the tree so close to the house be held responsible, knowing (obviously) that the tree was going to grow as it actually did? And what about those who installed the cables in such a way that they were close to the tree? Or those who over time did not cut the branches of the tree to prevent them from touching the cables?

And what about the liability of the countless neighborhood inspectors who should have spotted the problem and didn't? And what about the "experts" from the electricity company who, after analyzing the issue for ten days, concluded that the tree was the culprit?

I wonder if it is possible that this was an isolated incident or if, on the contrary, this unacceptable level of thinking and analyzing reality is something widespread in our society. I must say that, unfortunately, everything indicates that the second option is the correct one.

In other words, we live in a world in which the desire to evade our own responsibility is so great that, for that very reason, we spend our lives looking for scapegoats, even trees, when something does not work as it should or as we would like it to work. 

But that attitude of constantly looking for scapegoats is dangerous because that attitude is the basis of the social field of negativity in which, when scapegoats are found and that’s not enough, people resort to deny the rights of others, even, if that is not enough. They try to destroy the others. Let’s open the field of positivity opening our minds and hearts.

Becoming addicted to one’s own ideas is both dangerous and paralyzing

I recently read the story of a woman who had to travel to New York for business reasons for three days and, therefore, used the services of a well-known short-term rental company. But when she got to the apartment she had rented, she found that it was nothing like what she saw on the web page promoting that place.

To her great amazement, the apartment she rented was next to a restaurant and one of the apartment windows was also a window for the restaurant, so the woman had to cover that window to avoid being seen by the diners. And while she tried to sleep, a few inches on the other side of the wall people could be heard eating.

The woman took numerous pictures of her challenging situation. and she posted the images in real time on social media. Then, after leaving the apartment, she filed a complaint with the rental company, asking for her money back for those three nights at the apartment.

Only then the woman discovered that she had mistakenly gone to the wrong apartment. The apartment she had rented was only one door away from where the woman entered. Seeing her arriving late at night and tired, and asking for a place to stay for a few days, the owners of the restaurant decided to give her a place to sleep without asking any questions.

The strange thing about it is that despite the fact that the apartment next to the restaurant was undoubtedly different from the one she had rented, the woman never thought that she had been wrong and that she had gone to the wrong place. Even more, she was so angry with that place that she ignored the messages sent by owners of the apartment that she had actually reserved.

In other words, the woman was so sure of the authenticity of her own actions that she never doubted of her actions, preferring to blame others for her situation, despite having numerous indications and even undeniable proof that she was wrong and at the wrong place.

Clearly, the woman had become addicted to her own ideas, so addicted that this addiction prevented her from seeing reality. And although in this case and happily for the traveler everything ended well, in many other cases the addiction to one's own ideas (the most serious of all addictions because it is the one that is least seen) leads to catastrophic circumstances.

For example, a few months ago a man went hiking alone in the Colorado Rocky Mountains and got lost. Rescue teams found him 24 hours later, safe and sound. They had been calling him on the phone the entire time, but the man did not respond to calls because, he said, he does not respond to numbers he does not know. Had he answered, the rescue would have taken less than an hour.

This is yet another example of how dangerous and paralyzing is to become an addict to one's own ideas.

Confusing the map with the territory simply means not knowing at all

I like that mental exercise, presented many times and in many ways, in which someone, let's say a man, knows all about colors. For example, the man in question knows the wavelength of each color and can anticipate the psychological impact that each color will have on the person looking at it.

But (and this is what this thought experiment consists of) the man who knows so much about colors has lived his whole life in a totally dark room, never having seen a single color. So how much do you really know about colors if you've never experienced a color?

This exercise and similar ones seek to separate propositional knowledge (that which is acquired, for example, by reading books or attending classes) from existential knowledge (acquired by experiencing what one wants to know.)

For example, you don't learn to swim by reading swimming books. You can only learn to swim by swimming in water. Everything one knows about swimming (history, statistics, styles, etc.) is useless when swimming. And you don't learn to drive a car either by memorizing the car's user manual.

In other words, as Anthony De Mello suggests more than once in The Song of the Bird, no one will get drunk by reading the definition of "wine" in the dictionary, and no one will increase their bank account by learning to define "salary."

In that same book, and using his always powerful stories, De Mello suggests that it is better not to give a "map" (propositional knowledge) to those who really need an experience (existential knowledge) for their life, because there is a risk that Someone believes that, by knowing the map, they have already had that experience.

This warning takes on a new urgency in our time in which everyone thinks they are "experts" in colors, even if they have never seen one in their life. And although such a claim is absurd, other examples illustrate the point we seek to underline, such as the case that someone, after watching a video on YouTube, already thinks they are a real estate agent or financial advisor.

In this context, it is useless to be really an expert (that is, to have dedicated time and resources both to know and to practice that knowledge), because suddenly everyone thinks they are experts in everything, by confusing access to information with wisdom.

And at the bottom of that scale of confusion I place those who, when presented with a topic of conversation, begin their response with “Yes, I know. I saw it in a movie”. It's like having a copy of a copy of a copy of the original map and, therefore, believing yourself to be a true explorer.

Be that as it may, in this time of profound, sudden and irreversible change, when even our own future existence as humanity is in doubt, we need not only knowledge, but wisdom, which is not acquired by reading a dictionary, watching a video, or searching for the answer on Google.

How much is left of us if we increasingly delegate more and more decisions to technology?

It has been said and repeated that technology is neither good nor bad, but it depends on how it is used. In fact, although repeated again and again, the only thing that this idea achieves is to hide the essence of technology behind a utilitarian approach: if the results are good, then the technology is good, confusing two meanings of "good" in the same sentence.

Furthermore, too often technology is understood only as technological machines and artifacts, but technology itself is no such artifacts, in the same way that a tree in itself is not a forest. And technology is not the collection of all those artifacts, in the same way that a set of trees is not a forest.

Obviously, this is neither the time nor the place to try to define what technology is. Such a task far exceeds the limited aspirations of this column and further exceeds our limited ability to think and perceive technology beyond its manifestations.

We will only say, then, that technology is a way of thinking, more specifically, that way of thinking that serves as a foundation and fertile ground for the creation of technological artifacts. And one of the elements of that way of thinking is to delegate to technology activities and tasks that until not long ago were reserved only for human beings.

In that context, the advent of smartphones, smart homes and the Internet of Things means that elements and artifacts that were previously separate from each other are now interconnected and, as a consequence, one can regulate them. For example, an app on the smartphone can be used to regulate the temperature of the house. 

But new technology goes far beyond allowing us to adjust our environment. Smart thermostats, for example, learn to anticipate the needs and desires of a home's residents and, as a result, automatically adjust the home's temperature based on whether or not the owners are there and based on the time of day.

Simultaneously, smart refrigerators detect, for example, that more milk needs to be purchased and, if programmed to do so, the refrigerator will buy the milk. But that same fridge can also determine if the persons in question are eating foods or ingredients that, for their health, they should not eat. And the refrigerator can contact the doctor.

In short, we no longer have to worry about the temperature of the house because the thermostat takes care of that or the food that has to be bought, because the refrigerator takes care of that. At the same time, Google makes sure that we think we are wise because there we find the information we were looking for. And Facebook makes us believe that we have many friends.

The key point is that, intentionally or not, we have delegated so much in technology and so much more we continue to delegate that in no time we will not even have to think. Since we think the future (Enrique Santin), we won’t have a future. 

Connecting with our inner universe and the outer universe brings light to our mind

To speak of a universe within each one of us and of another universe outside of each one of us is undoubtedly improper, since in reality there is no "inside" or "outside", much less two separate universes, although the idea of a microcosm connected to a macrocosm seems to bring us closer to the thought that we would like to share.

I recently came to this thought when rereading De Rerum Natura (On the nature of the universe), the well-known work of Lucretius (1st century BC) where the universe is analyzed from the point of view of the philosophy and science of the Epicureans of that time.

But you don't need to be a follower of Epicurus to understand this thought that Lucretius shares in Book 3 of his work:

"The terror and darkness of the mind cannot be dispelled by sunbeams, the shining shafts of day, but only by the understanding of the outward forms and the inner workings of nature."

As Lucretius emphasizes, children, when they are in the dark, are afraid of everything and that fear sometimes persists even when those children are in broad daylight. In other words, the imaginary horror felt in the darkness accompanies them when they are in the light because the darkness has now moved to their minds.

The teaching is clear: we live (regardless of our age) with darkened minds, dragging every day real or imaginary horrors and fears that we accumulated in the past when our minds were, due to our young age ignorance, even more darkened.

We live as adults following the way of thinking and seeing the world that we had as children. And, according to Lucretius, the way to overcome that perpetual childhood, that Peter Pan syndrome, is to study the world and ourselves until we discover not only how things work, but that we are one and the same with whatever we have reified to be studied. 

We remain children as long as we do not understand the meaning of "I and the Father are one."

Obviously, we are not talking here about a chronological childhood, but an existential one, something that could also be described as "living asleep", as Heraclitus said when expressing that "we should not act or speak as if we were asleep", comparing that way of behaving with "behaving like the children of our parents” (fragments 73 and 74).

For his part, commenting on those sayings of Heraclitus in his Meditations (IV 46), Marcus Aurelius (Stoic) correctly affirms that this means that we should not behave as adults in the same way that our parents raised us as children. Wisdom, maturity, then consists in knowing when to stop being children, something that many people never learn.

That "stop being children" is what Father Richard Rohr describes as reaching the "second half of life", which is not a chronological event, but an existential and spiritual one. What a paradox! Now that we face overwhelming global challenges, we are more immature children than ever.  

Extraterrestrials, dead people, dinosaurs, or zombies: which invasion would be the worse?

In this new era of post-truth, when it is said that the truth no longer exists, or is unknowable or unattainable, the truth has become so irrelevant that everything simultaneously becomes true and a lie, without (apparently) anyone caring to examine his/her own life to stop deceiving themselves, which is why all "knowledge" is diluted into mere opinions.

As the tango Cambalache (“Second-Hand Store”) anticipated: “An ignorant and a great teacher are the same”. 

In this context, post-truth manifests itself in unexpected places, that is, those places previously dedicated precisely to a search (serious search, I would add) for the truth, however it was previously understood or practiced.

For example, I recently tuned into a radio program that I listen to with some frequency because of the constant presence of scientists talking about new discoveries and the new future. In this case, it was someone who was going to speak about the intersection of quantum physics and modern medicine.

Almost immediately at the beginning of the interview, the interviewee indicated that she was born on a distant planet where everything is always pink (literally) and where the inhabitants are so wise and intelligent that they get bored because they know everything. Because of that boredom, she said, she decided to come to earth. (All this said in a program supposedly dedicated to "science".)

Then, in a podcast where people are interviewed because they have interesting stories to share, the guest was a retired spy who was going to share some details of his work for the CIA. But what he really shared was that he communicated with the dead and that the dead gave him information that he later shared with the CIA.

And in a popular science magazine (it seems that’s no longer the case), an article was published on the subject of the possibility of time travel, announcing that a new way of doing it had been discovered. The article in question, without giving further details, "revealed" that three teenagers used a T-Rex egg to open a portal and travel through time. (I don’t have enough imagination to make that up.)

Since I have neither the knowledge nor the tools to disprove the existence of beings born on a pink planet, or communication with the dead, or a time portal created from dinosaur eggs, I cannot claim or deny their existence. But I can say that all this looks more like entertainment and fun than serious dialogue. 

And the reason it looks like (and in fact is) entertainment is precisely because it cannot be disproved. At the same time, the ability to refute an idea or (supposed) knowledge is the basis of both critical thinking and modern science. Suddenly, opinions and conspiracies are truer than any truth. 

But at the time of the zombification of Western culture (and perhaps of global culture), there is little interest is any glimpse of truth. Un-forgetfulness (aletheia) is impossible when we have forgotten that we have forgotten, including who we really are. 

Those things that we don’t know we don’t know should lead us to be intellectually humble

There are things that we know that we know. For example, two plus two is four, and water is made up of two hydrogen molecules and one oxygen molecule. And there are things that we know that we don't know. For example, the exact number of stars in the universe or the exact number of grains of sand on the beaches of our planet.

But there are also things that we do not know that we do not know until we discover that we do not know. 

For example, NASA scientists recently announced that the Perseverance rover managed to open a Martian rock inside which "something never seen before was seen." In fact, it is not yet known exactly what was found in the rock, but it is believed that they could be signs of Martian microbial life from billions of years ago.

In other words, we did not know that we did not know that (if the finding is confirmed) there were traces of microbes on the rocks of Mars.

Also, we did not know that we did not know that in the center of the Milky Way there is a mysterious barrier that prevents half of the cosmic rays from reaching the center of our galaxy. But recently a team of researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences detected the presence of this barrier, surrounding the central molecular zone of the galaxy.

We did not know that we did not know that this barrier existed and until now we do not know what it is.

And according to the English scientist Michael Rowan-Robinson, of the Imperial College of London, he and colleagues would have found a new planet in our solar system, orbiting about 15 astronomical units from the sun (that is, 15 times the distance from the sun to the earth).

We did not know that we did not know that there could be a planet several times larger than the earth at that distance from the sun.

The examples could be multiplied, but the teaching is clear: we do not know what we do not know until we begin to know it. Meanwhile, everything we think, say and do is based on our ignorance.

There was a time, until not long ago, when we recognized that there are things that we do not know, but could know (for example, the exact age of the earth) and things that we do not even know that we do not know, recognizing those situations, we say, led to an attitude of intellectual (and existential) humility.

However, ignorance has now ceased to be the learned ignorance of which Cusa spoke to become an arrogant ignorance that falls into the dangerous trap of believing that it knows, but it does not. Believing that you know when you don't know is worse than ignorance itself.

Therefore, discoveries like those mentioned and like many other similar discoveries throughout history are a constant invitation to be cautiously humble about what we think we know.

Let’s stop being addicted to our own incorrect understanding of reality

Decades ago, when I was still a philosophy student at the University of Buenos Aires, I overheard a conversation between two students at the university’s cafeteria. One of them told the other: “Last week, in Angola, a Cuban man gave me a grenade”.

Due to what was happening in the world at that time, I thought that, unintentionally, I was listening to a mercenary talking about what had happened to him a few days ago on the African continent. I imagined that the young man in question was in an armed conflict. After all, "Angola", "Cuban" and "Granada" allowed that interpretation.

The conversation continued and then it became clear that "Angola" did not refer to the African country of that name, but to a bar near the university, very popular with students. In that bar, one of the people in charge of preparing the drinks was a Cuban man. And "grenade" was one of the drinks prepared by the Cuban bartender.

In short, far from being a case of a mercenary with explosives, the young student was talking about how a few days ago he had gone to a bar in the area and tried a new drink. My mind had misled me, and this time I had the opportunity to obtain additional information to correct my self-deception. However, such an opportunity doesn’t always exist.

That event from decades ago during my time as a college came and went without major consequences. But other misunderstandings can lead to unpleasant consequences for those affected.

For example, recently a woman and a girl were detained and questioned when arriving by plane in Denver because someone from the airline had denounced that the girl was a victim of human trafficking and that the woman was responsible.

The facts were clear, one could even say unobjectionable. The woman was white, and the girl was dark. In addition, the tickets were bought at the last minute. The woman and the girl were the last ones to board the plane and, although they received separate seats, the woman asked to sit next to the girl. During the whole trip they didn’t speak to each other.

Uniformed police officers questioned the woman and the girl separately, convinced that they were rescuing the child from a tragic future. But someone had interpreted the facts incorrectly, to the point of distorting them. In reality, the woman and the girl were a mother and her daughter.

The skin color of mother and daughter differed because the daughter had the skin color of her father. The tickets had been purchased at the last minute because they had been notified of the death of a family member and were traveling to the funeral. That was why they asked to sit together and why they didn’t speak during the trip. It wasn’t human trafficking, but a family in mourning.

Getting addicted to our own interpretation of reality is very dangerous because eventually we come to believe that this is the only possible interpretation.

We need to open our minds and hearts to recognize when life is calling us to act

Recently, a man went hiking in the mountains in Colorado, USA and, as it often happens, he got lost. When the man did not return in time to the place where his family was waiting for him, the family alerted the authorities to begin the search. But before going out to look for him, the rescue team decided to call the man on the phone.

In fact, rescuers called several times, but to no avail. For reasons unknown at that time, the man did not respond. Obviously, it could simply be that the man was in a place where there was no signal. Or maybe the phone's battery was dead. The family, however, sensed the worst.

Finally, the next day and with some difficulty typical of the mountainous terrain, the rescue team located the lost man, and, to everyone's astonishment and relief, they found him in excellent health. Furthermore, the phone was working perfectly: there signal was strong, and device's battery still had enough charge.

They then asked him why he had not responded to the numerous phone calls since, had he done so, it would have brought peace of mind to the family and the rescuers would not have spent hours and hours trying to locate him.

The man's response was immediate and direct: "Because I did not recognize your phone numbers." 

Lost in the mountains, unable to find his way back, the man could have received complete and immediate help if he had simply answered a call from rescuers and said "Hello!" However, he decided to ignore those calls, giving priority to his fears and ignorance, and even the fact of remaining lost, instead of simply accepting saving help.

Let's be honest: we do the exact same thing in our daily lives. Here we are, walking aimlessly through life and living senseless lives (that is, lives without direction and without meaning).

And then, when those around us (mostly family or friends, but not necessarily) realize that we are lost and decide to intervene to help us, when that message of help reaches us, we simply ignore it again and again. 

"I was very busy," we say. Or maybe "I don't know that person or that group, so I better not let them help me." Or, even worse, "I've already gotten used to this situation of being lost and I don't know how to live any other way."

In other words, life itself calls us, asks us to act, offers us a call and a vocation so that our life will have meaning and purpose, and we do not even open our mind, our heart, and our will at least to say, “Hello there!" because we are probably afraid of transforming ourselves. 

And, contrary to what happened to the man in Colorado who was rescued so everything ended well for him, when we refuse to listen to the call of life, things rarely end well. In fact, we have the problems that we have for not responding to life.

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