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Archive for August, 2021

The unexamined life is not worth living. –Socrates

A few days ago I was visiting my favorite coffee shop and as I was meandering to my table I passed a table of four folks.  I had just passed by when I heard, ‘That’s not critical thinking…’  After settling in at my table I emerged this question: ‘What is critical thinking – what does it mean to think critically?’  I’ve been holding this question for more than three days now; yesterday afternoon a reply began to emerge and I made some notes.  I am not sure how many postings I will devote to this topic, but it will be more than one.  So, ‘What is critical thinking?’ 

Let’s begin with what it is NOT.  It is not something that only philosophers do; in fact, it is not something that only ‘well-educated’ folks do (if they do it at all).  It is not the same as ‘being critical’ of something (being critical of an author, a child, a friend, a play, etc.).  It’s not something professional ‘critics’ do (although there are elements that are present in both ‘being critical’ and in ‘thinking critically’).  I do have a sense that with discipline and the ‘right’ practice most of us can develop our capacity for critical thinking. 

Consider, Gentle Reader, critical thinking happens when we engage four steps:

Discerning and Naming Assumptions.  We all hold a variety of assumptions.  Some are easy to discern and name (‘I assume that if I travel this route I will reach my destination’); some are discernable with a bit of effort (‘I assume that if I follow my physician’s counsel that I will feel better.’) and some assumptions are deep tacit assumptions – we hold these to be ‘truth’ and we believe they are rooted in ‘reality’ (‘I assume that people are inherently trustworthy’).  The most difficult assumptions to discern and name (and own) are the deep tacit assumptions I hold (for they are ‘truth’ for me and who wants his or her truth challenged). The first step in thinking critically is to discern and name our assumptions – particularly our deep tacit assumptions.  As I think about it, most of the actions I take are rooted in the assumptions I hold to be ‘true’ (this, of course, is also an assumption I hold to be true).  Anyone who has attempted to discern and name his or her deep tacit assumptions knows how challenging it is to do so.

Checking Our Assumptions.  Once I discern and name the assumptions that inform my thinking, my perceptions, and that guide my choices and actions the next step is that I will take some time to check whether these are as ‘true’ as I believe them to be.  Are my assumptions valid and are they reliable; do they inform my thinking and my choices and my actions – are they ‘good guides’ for me?  Are my assumptions ‘situational’ and yet I apply them generally?  It is crucial, it seems to me, that we identify and assess the ‘convincing evidence’ for our assumptions (what validates them for me).  Sometimes the evidence is based in my experience (when I do ‘A’ this has happened again and again and so, based upon my experience, I believe that if I do ‘A’ then this will happen again).  Sometimes the evidence is based upon an ‘authority’ (a person we trust tells us it is so and so we assume that it is so – the person speaks ‘the truth’ and we trust).  At other times the evidence is rooted in disciplined searching and seeking – inquiry and research; we do the searching and seeking, it is not done for us. 

So, thus far, we have ‘Discerned and Named’ our assumptions (especially our deep tacit assumptions as in ‘life is a competitive struggle’) and then we have taken the time (sometimes a great deal of time will be required) to check our assumptions.  Next time we will explore steps three and four. 

To refuse to examine the assumptions one lives by is immoral. –Robert K. Greenleaf

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TWO POEMS

Yesterday, Gentle Reader, I was sharing some of my poetry with a good friend.  This morning I was, again, reading some of my poems and I decided to share two with you today.  The first poem emerged into my consciousness in 2010 and the second in 2020. 

CHARACTER COUNTS!

  • Care what motivates me
  • Hospitality, what welcomes you
  • Altruism, what transcends us
  • Responsibility, what challenges me
  • Awareness, what disturbs me
  • Compassion, what touches you
  • Tolerance, what honors you
  • Empathy, what connects us
  • Reconciliation, what heals us
  • Contentment, what nurtures peace
  • Openness, what connects hearts
  • Understanding, what opens possibility
  • Needs, what stimulates us
  • Trust, what frames us
  • Sacred, what defines us  

SILENCE – WORDS

SILENCE

  • He could sit in silence for hours, not meditating but listening.
  • He would inhale the words of others as if they were the very breath of life.
  • He would take on the countenance of one who was inviting them to speak – and speak they did.
  • He would gently lean in toward the speaker reinforcing his listening with attention and interest.
  • He would encourage others to speak by offering them an invitational nod and welcoming smile – and speak they did.
  • He would, like all great conductors, use his body as a baton and direct the speakers as if they were musicians in an orchestra – they followed his lead and spoke on cue.

WORDS

  • He could speak for hours, not conversing but expounding about himself.
  • He would respond to a personal inquiry, ‘How Are You,’ with a verbal litany that ran longer than the Nile River.
  • He would not invite, he would declare with the surety of the Pope when speaking ex cathedra.
  • He would assume the posture of the master not the conductor – he had become the orchestra and the director.
  • He was, indeed, like all of us, a living paradox… Excuse me, someone is asking me, ‘How Are You?’  I will be back in a bit.
  • …. 

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What have you done with the garden entrusted to you? –Antonio Machado

Greetings Gentle Reader.  For fourteen years I had the privilege of traveling to Singapore and working with some wonderful colleagues.  We continue to remain good friends and thought-partners; to me they are my second family.  Today I am a better person because of who they are.  In 2012 two of them, Mi Yin and Yim Harn, with the support of the good thinking of their colleagues, published a book titled ‘Tending Our Gardens.’  In their book they invite us to engage 31 topics.  These topics provide us an opportunity to embrace our personal renewal.  This morning I am going to invite you to engage one of their topics: #15: Thoughts and Emotions.  Each ‘Reflection’ is followed by two questions.  

Thoughts and Emotions.  Every day, thousands of thoughts go through our minds: thoughts that are happy, sad, judging, analyzing, worrying, thoughts of the past or the future.  Yet in our busyness, we often do not pay much attention to our thoughts.  Our minds tend to believe everything they think, so it is important that we are aware of the thoughts that are feeding our minds.  Is this thought helping me to get closer to what matters most to me in life?  Is this thought keeping me from moving forward?

Consider that behind every emotion lies a thought: when we get angry with someone, it usually starts with an angry thought.  Similarly when we are contented and peaceful, we are very likely holding a positive thought.  What we think determines how we feel and how we respond to our needs, situations, and others.  When we have a life-giving thought, we are more likely to produce responses and outcomes that nourish ourselves and others.  Thus the more we are aware of how our thoughts are shaping our lives, the more we can make choices that are life-giving to ourselves and others. 

GUIDING QUESTIONS:

  1. When you pause and pay attention to your thoughts, what do you notice about your thoughts?
  2. What sort of thoughts and emotions feed your spirit?  What sort of thoughts and emotions deplete your spirit?  How do you know?

We become our thoughts. –Aristotle

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SO TRUE IN SO MANY WAYS

Greetings Gentle Reader.  If you have been following my postings you know that I love stories and questions and poetry.  Yesterday I was re-reading and re-savoring some of my favorite poems – the poems that stimulate my thinking and that I find so true today in so many ways.  I have decided that today I will share one of these poems with you.  I also invite you to spend time with this poem and I invite you to identify a poem or two or twenty that, for you, are also so true today in so many ways. Here is today’s poem:

September 1, 1939

[W.H. Auden, Published on 11 October, 1939]

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
“I will be true to the wife,
I’ll concentrate more on my work,”
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

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CONSIDER – FRIEND OR FOE OR. . .

Longfellow wrote words that continue to give me pause: ‘If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm our hostilities.’  Recently I have, once again, immersed myself in seeking to understand the causes of war, what then sustains them once they have begun, and perhaps most importantly, how we manage to convince folks to kill one another (slaughter one another is more appropriate).  [AN ASIDE: Gentle Reader I invite you to read Barbara W. Tuchman’s powerful work, ‘The Guns of August’]

Consider that in war human beings have never killed other human beings.  Human beings have killed japs, nazis, gooks, pagans, unbelievers, papists, micks, huns, commies, etc.  We do not, it seems, fight people, we fight symbols or adjectives or appellations.  We view our foes as inhuman, greedy, immoral, sadistic and devil-like (if not the devil incarnate).  Each side must view the other in this way in order to kill, for humans do not kill humans (in fact there are many stories about enemies choosing not to kill the others because they ‘humanized’ them – A Christmas eve during WW I and again during WWII dramatically demonstrated this). 

Consider that all wars are ‘just wars.’  Each side believes that they are fighting for the ‘good’ and the ‘sacred’.  Every war, in the end, is truly a ‘holy war’ – a battle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness; don’t believe me?  Read a few of the ‘histories’ written by folks on either side and you get it (the ancient Greeks thought the Persians were ‘pagans’ and ‘heathens’ and the Persians thought the same of the Greeks and during the Crusades the Christians thought the Muslims to be ‘pagans’ and the Muslims the Christians to be ‘infidels’ and in the many ‘Christian versus Christian’ wars each side view the other as ‘heretics’ and non-Christian). 

It seems that just as we have needed to have friends we have needed to have foes – a mutual dependency appears to exist.  We embrace those who are ‘part of us’ and we fear those who are not; at all levels we are suspect of the ‘stranger’ and his or her motives and desires.  We will defend what we believe to be ‘sure’ and ‘sacred’ – we see ourselves as ‘light’ and we project our ‘darkness’ onto the other; our projections fuel and sustain our passions (this enables Christians to demonize and kill Christians and Muslims to demonize and kill Muslims, for example). 

Consider that if it were indeed the case that the world is composed of ‘friends and foes,’ of ‘good people’ and ‘evil people’ then we should expect that our enemies would be ‘constants’ through time.  But, of course, they are not – they never have been.  For example, at one time the Chinese were ‘good’ and then ‘evil’ and then ‘good’ again (now they are somewhat good).  The Russians were good, then evil then good again (now they are moving toward being evil again).  The Japanese were evil then good (they were ‘saved’) and once they became an economic powerhouse they became suspect again (now that they are struggling economically and are with us against the potential Chinese threat they are good again). 

There is hope.  As a by-product of many things the world is becoming more and more connected and we are, more and more, aware of the ‘others’ as being fully human.  If we do not destroy ourselves or our planet we might well be able to hold onto our view that all are human, that all have pain and struggles, and that we – as fully human beings – are truly our brothers’ keepers.  Although this is no simple challenge; the more we are able to see and engage the others as fully human the more difficult it will be for us to dehumanize the others and thus the more difficult it will be to see them as foes rather than as friends.  The more we can accept our own selves as living paradoxes of ‘good and evil’ of ‘light and darkness’ the less we will seek to name the others as ‘demons.’  The more we connect with the others, the greater the likelihood that we will establish, nurture and maintain healthy relationships with them. 

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