Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Pros and Cons of Self-Reliance

 HS #71 2021.6.10


Pros and Cons of Self-Reliance


Nine score years ago Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote his American-spirited essay “Self-Reliance.” His thoughts echoed those of his soulmate, Henry David Thoreau who went off to Waldon Pond to live it out. 


Self-reliance was brought to mind recently when riding in an elevator. Pushing the “2nd floor” button brought back a memory of early childhood. As a young child riding the elevator in the Golds Department Store in Lincoln Nebraska, a lady sitting in the corner shut the steal gate door and pushed the button to the requested floor.


Remember others who helped us out?  Going to the filling station meant a young man pumping the gas and washing the windows. Dad was appreciative of those who removed all the bugs without leaving a streak. Dairymen brought our weekly milk and eggs. 


Banking became largely self-sufficient with the addition of ATM machines. Grocery stores followed suit with self-check-out lanes. When is the last time that you called a travel agent to buy your plane ticket for a trip?  I stopped going to the barber years ago – just as easy to shave my own head. Recent TV ads encourage even men with hair to do their own grooming. 


Higher education has long lauded the goal of developing “lifelong learners,” but it is only the last generation or so that has fully embraced that notion. I recently asked a college coed her plans for the summer. She had just bought an old school bus and was planning to refit it into a camper. How? YouTube. Everything you want to know is on YouTube. Increasingly we rely on ourselves – with the help of YouTube or Seri - for the answers.


But Thoreau and Emerson were envisioning something deeper than self-reliance in the mundane affairs of life.  The reason for self-reliance is to keep oneself uncorrupted from the depravities of society. Although Thoreau lived it, Emerson was pithier in stating their shared realization that “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members” and “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.” Once when I was feeling pressed to conform, I made a shirt with those two quotes. Wearing it was my silent rebellion against the system. 


That was tame compared to one of my heroes, the mathematician-philosopher Bertrand Russell who was imprisoned at age 89 for his anti-nuke protests. Although an atheist, Russell lived his life according to a Bible verse he found highlighted in his grandmother’s Bible, Exodus 23:2: “Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil.” 


Or consider Russell’s kindred spirit who hailed from Hope College.  A. J. Muste, who also spent time in jail at age 74 for climbing over a 5 ft fence into a missile construction site, was once asked by a reporter, “Do you really think that you are going to change the policies of this country be standing out here alone at night in front of the White House with a candle?”  Muste replied, “Oh, I don’t do this to change the country. I do this so the country won’t change me.” 


All of these were self-reliant. They had their own moral compass and lived accordingly. However, did any of these visionaries of independent thought see the downside? 




Reliance on others instills a sense of humility, an appreciation of community and a deference to those with knowledge and authority. In contrast, self-sufficiency facilitates a disdain towards authority which started with The Enlightenment. 


Just one example. For the first time since polls were taken, less than half of Americans attend/belong to a church. Sunday morning sermons, at the very least, provide a stabilizing influence in society by being mortar which holds individual bricks together, building a common structure. Even if the sermon is dissected on the way home, at least all are pondering the same ideas.


Is there an Aristotelean Golden Mean which melds rugged individualism with a respect for the views of others? Perhaps the proper balance between self-reliance and blind submission was best articulated by one whose life overlapped with all of those above: Rudyard Kipling. In his inspiring poem “If” (which every teenager should read), he sages invaluable wisdom:


If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, but make allowance for their doubting too. 

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you, if all men count with you, but none too much – 

Yours is the earth and everything that’s in it, And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son. 


Friday, May 21, 2021

Living in a Finite World

 HS #70 2021.5.13


Living in a Finite World


I remember it vividly. I was a first grader walking to Randolph Elementary school in Lincoln Nebraska with two 5thgrade neighbors when we passed a 7-Up bottle by the curb. They challenged me to smash it. “Heck – it’s outside, what’s the big deal?”  So I heaved it against the curb shattering it to bits. Got a feeling of satisfaction for a job well done, and my companions laughed in hearty approval. Continuing on, we passed four more opportunities for fun and, encouraged by my mentors, I took advantage of each of them.  How neat! – I had discovered a new pastime with a steep learning curve, and was impressing and entertaining my 5th grade idols who for some reason were chicken. A win-win!


The next day I discovered a Coke bottle in the front-yard curb and put another star on my helmet. When mom, who was watching out the window, came running outside, I proudly showed my accomplishment.  But watching her sweep up the mess, my perspective changed. A new revelation: Even the outside needs to be kept clean. Who would have guessed? I didn’t just “go away” on its own? Twas a new insight for a six-year-old.


What was the insight? I thought there were “inside rules” and “outside rules.” Inside, where we lived, had limited space, so was kept clean and tidy. In contrast, outside was expansive – essentially infinite. Things took care of themselves. Unlimited space and unlimited resources. 


Growing up, my perspective continued to evolve. My 7th grade science teacher took advantage of the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970 to raise our awareness. But I also discovered that many adults hadn’t yet learned the lesson.  


Evidence abounds. 


In 1800 there were 30 million bison roaming the western plains. Hunted indiscriminately - even shot from passing trains, a century later the number was 300. Gladly we learned our lesson just in time. With conservation efforts, today there are half a million. 


The carrier pigeon wasn’t so fortunate. In that same time period, due to hunting and loss of habitat, carrier pigeons went from 3 billion to zero. 


In the 1967 movie “The Graduate,” Ben (Dustin Hoffman) gets advice, “One word – ‘Plastics’ – there’s a great future in plastics. Think about it.” Unfortunately, few of us did. Consequently, enough plastic to fill 110 train cars flows into the Great Lakes each year, and a region of the Pacific Ocean about twice the size of Texas called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch has 2,000,000,000,000 pieces of plastic. Plastic doesn’t goes away – it breaks into smaller pieces and if not ingested by turtles and fish falls to the bottom of the ocean. Gladly, in 2013 The Ocean Cleanup initiative was begun. Mom would be pleased. 


We are also polluting space. Just as neutrons smashing into atomic nuclei release more neutrons leading to a nuclear explosion, so also pieces of space junk smashing into satellites is creating an exponential explosion of debris which threatens satellites and humans. The recent SpaceX flight to the International Space Station passed a piece going 17,000 mi/hr. Totally foreseeable problem, but ignored.


In the five minutes it takes you to read this, 7600 acres of tropical rainforest – the most biodiverse area on earth and potential source of medicine - have been destroyed.


The earth is finite. The sooner we realize it and live accordingly, the sooner we will have a good home. How many people can the earth support? According to a BBC article, if everyone on earth lived like Americans, we would need four earths to accommodate us.


What about West Michigan? Louisiana, even with the mighty Mississippi rolling through, is losing 350 million gallons of water daily from its underground aquifer. It is replaced by salty sea water. We in the Great Lake State brag about our “Lake Michigan – Unsalted,” but due to the population growth in Ottawa County (20K to 45K in 30 years) and our affection for manicured green lawns, the underground water level has dropped 40 ft in the last forty years. Wells are drying up and crops are being threatened with irrigated saltwater.  Are homeowners willing to sacrifice lush lawns for the greater good of a healthy agricultural economy? 


Space is also limited. Those who live in Holland have a similar question to answer regarding possible rezoning. What are we willing to sacrifice to live in a city which actively accommodates the needs of others? Questions for each to answer. We all live together in a finite world. 




Friday, April 9, 2021


 HS #69 2021.4.8




Due to COVID-19 we’ve been surrounded by it this year. Yet even in its midst, there is something horrific about an automobile collision taking the life of an exceptionally productive, engaged and giving 48-year-old woman of our community. 


Modern automobiles are constructed to collapse – to absorb the energy of impact in order to save the life of the occupant. Airbags provide additional protection. 


So to kill a lone driver on a bright Sunday afternoon at a well-known intersection in the middle of Holland requires a precise confluence of timing.  It requires someone passing through the red light at considerable speed – a rare event. But it also requires every single detail that day in the life of the victim to have worked together to put her in the intersection at that precise time. An impact a quarter of a second sooner or later would have missed the driver.  A half of a second difference would have missed the car completely – barely something to call home about. 


A half of a second. That’s a stumble on the driveway while walking to the car. It’s the time to brush hair out of one’s eyes because of a tousling puff of breeze. It’s pulling the door shut a second time because it didn’t quite latch the first time. 


Yes, keeping her from being in that intersection at that precise moment could have been done a million different ways. But arranging things so that she WAS there at that precise time would have required exquisite planning as if from an omniscient physicist. 


Or perhaps no planning at all. Rare events happen continually – many of them are deadly. Our world is entirely different from what it was 16 months ago because of a chance encounter between a wild animal and a human on the other side of the globe. 


Is it exquisite planning or no planning? Neither answer is satisfactory. Reality is awful. How do we make sense of it? 


One way is not to try. Accept the world as it appears – a mixture of intention and randomness much like the feather floating in the wind that begins and ends the movie “Forrest Gump.” Things happen - run with them. Nothing to question, just run with them. 


The other option is to overlay this haphazard world with a blanket of meaning. “What is your only comfort in life and in death? That I am not my own, but belong – body and soul, in life and in death – to my faithful Savior . . . “ Keeping such a blanket mended and in good repair takes constant attention – the attention of annual celebrations of victory over death and of life beyond death. The attention of Easter Sunday. 


Perhaps the inclination and ability to seek for meaning is unique to humans. In Robert Bolt’s play,  “A Man for All Seasons”  Thomas More declares, “God made angels to show Him splender, plants for simplicity, animals for innocence, but man to serve Him in the tangle of his mind.” Humans are blessed and cursed with the desire to seek out meaning. We wonder. We wrestle. We ask “why?”

Mathematicians often seek truth by looking at limiting cases – by taking things to the extreme. If there is an omniscient omnipotent creator God, what choices would God have? One extreme would be no involvement in the world at all -  a Deity who watches but with no control or influence.  The other extreme is a helicopter deity who hovers and removes the consequence of every misstep. This would reduce human existence to one of no responsibility and consequently no meaning. 

Between those two extremes there is only one logical alternative – to allow some consequences of human action. Perfection is precarious – a boulder on a precipice. It’s easy to do harm. But to contribute to a better world requires assiduous effort and intention such as that given by my former colleague. Thus we mourn our loss.  This is the world we live in. This is the rich existence we want. This is the world we have to accept even when the results are heart-breaking. 

Significantly, C.S. Lewis, who tackles many such questions demurs on this one.  In the preface to “The Problem of Pain” he writes, “Nor have I anything to offer my readers  except my conviction that when pain is to be borne, a little courage helps more than much knowledge, a little human sympathy more than much courage, and the least tincture of the love of God more than all.” Indeed. 



Thursday, March 11, 2021

Are Humans Good?

 HS #68 2021.3.11


 Are humans good?



Are humans good? Seems like a good-hearted assumption, but this idea, advanced in two books I’m presently reading, is contrary to my Christian upbringing. Perhaps you too were taught that humans were made good but now fallen, at war with self (Romans 7), even good works are dirty rags, and in need of a new nature.  


There is certainly a case to be made for a fallen nature. Consider the “terrible twos.” As soon as a child gets a will, trouble begins. Children must be patiently taught to be polite, to express appreciation, to share their toys, to bend to authority of parents.  Most of us were successfully socialized, but what about our inner self? “Schadenfreude” is the German word for that (scientifically confirmed) inner pleasure we sometimes feel upon hearing of the misfortune of others.  What better evidence for an evil nature! 


When C.S. Lewis wrote “Screwtape Letters” theologians praised him for the research he ostensibly put into understanding the human condition. Lewis laughed it off. He explained that all he had to do was to look inside himself.  Interestingly, Raymond Smullyan (“The Tao is Silent”) did the same – looked inside himself - but he came to the opposite conclusion. Then generalizing to others, as did Lewis, he concluded that others must also be basically good. 


Smullyan does not claim to be faultless. He just observes that his deep wish is to do good and to be good. The fact that he doesn’t always live up to his aspirations only shows that other things get in the way. But he takes his desire for goodness to be indicative of “his real self.” Indeed, if you, like me, sometimes experience Schadenfreude, then you may also, like me, experience shame at feeling it. So at our core, perhaps we are good. 


The Apostle Paul made a similar, but different, argument in chapter 7 of Romans. He claimed that “his members” were at war not with his basic good human nature, but with his new nature in Christ. That seems presumptuous. Did Paul think that those without “the new nature” do not have similar conflicts? Did Paul not have the same conflicts before his conversion?  Of course he did. 


But perhaps the conflict is not between a new/good nature and an evil nature, but instead is simply a conflict between two Darwinian drives. If we are wired both for self-preservation and preservation of our group/species, then the conflict that arises between these drives may be what we interpret as good versus evil. 


Let me explain:  Notice that the drive to preserve oneself leads to behaviors we condemn as bad/sinful: selfishness, cheating, lying, stealing, coveting, hoarding, promiscuity, materialism.   These are actions and tendencies that serve the individual at the expense of the community. 


On the other hand, our drive to preserve our species leads to behaviors we praise as desirable/good: charity, recycling, volunteering, kindness, self-sacrificial giving, honesty (so others can trust you), caring for the earth and wild animals (for the benefit of future generations). 


If our behavior results from competing genetic drives, how did we come to condemn one set of behaviors as “bad” while praising the other as “good”?  Perhaps we are just selfishly encouraging others to behave in a way that benefits us, so we label their self-centered behavior as bad because it doesn’t benefit us. How ironic! We selfishly encourage others to be unselfish. 


Do humans in fact sacrifice their own happiness for that of others, or do we just gain happiness from helping others? Also, is this inner struggle between drives uniquely a human phenomenon? My father once observed that no guilt-stricken dog ever returned a stolen steak back to a butcher.


Patricia Churchland’s, “Conscience: The Origins of Moral Intuition” provides helpful insight to these questions. She observes that only some animals – mammals in particular – have this double devotion to themselves AND to their group.  Why? The warm-bloodedness of mammals provides advantages such as moving at night and greater territory to live. But there are significant disadvantage too. In particular, it takes ten times as much energy (i.e., food) to live. Acquiring that food requires greater intelligence – hence a larger brain. And a larger brain means that infants must be born more premature – thus requiring the care of a mother and often a group. It takes a village. 


Hence many mammals, primates in particular, are wired to preserve both the individual and the group giving rise to the conflicting urges we label as evil and good. How interesting!

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Finding Common Truth

 HS #67  2021.2.11


Finding Common Truth


Did last fall’s election lead to the wrong candidate being inaugurated? Is it safe to take the COVID vaccine? Is there even a pandemic? Is global warming occurring and produced largely from human influence? Is the earth only 6 thousand years old rather than 4.5 billion? 


These questions share several things in common: i) there are committed people on both sides of each issue, ii) answers are given with a toggle switch rather than a dial; that is, no middle ground, iii) there is an established position and a sizeable minority opposition. 


How do we find truth in such situations?


First, there must be agreement that truth exists. With sympathies to Kellyanne Conway, there are no “alternative facts.” Patrick Moynihan, statesman and senator from New York, observed, “You are entitled to your own opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.” 


President John Adams went a bit deeper: “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” 


Indeed, that gets to the heart of it. Apparently in Adam’s time as well as ours, people believed alternative facts. Easy to understand. Ever see a coach protesting a ref’s call that was in his favor? We see what we want to see. We believe what we want to believe. 


Given that we all have that tendency, how do we determine whether or not we are the one in error? Is it enough that we are in the majority? Is it enough that we are in the counterculture? As President Lincoln said to his cabinet when he found himself outnumbered, “Seven ‘no’ and one ‘aye’, the ayes have it.”  Numbers alone (or lack of them) do not determine the truth. 


Can’t we just look at the evidence? That might have been enough for our simple-lived ancestors when the question was, say, whether putting a fish with the planted seed helped the corn grow. Each planter could experiment and determine the truth. 


But modern questions rely on the research and experience and expertise of others. Who among us have personally counted ballots or measured the ice at the poles or given vaccines to research volunteers? The tough nut to crack – the real problem to solve – is determining “Who do we trust?” 


My own answers:


1)    I look at the motivations and passions of the source. Given that we all tend to believe what we want to believe, what sources don’t have a dog in the fight? Of course everyone does to some extent, but a main source for U.S. political news is BBC – at least it’s across the pond. 

2)    I look at the personal history of the source. Have they proved themselves reliable in past accounts? I differentiate between those who don’t give “the whole truth” from those who intentionally give false accounts. There is no “whole truth” to give. Every source will leave out facts that are considered important to others. Likely, the facts left out (intentionally or not) coincide with the source’s own interests. So I check multiple sources. 

3)    I steer clear of sources that combine claims of what “is” with claims of what “should be.” Given that we see what we want to see, this makes the source suspect. 

4)    I give deference to the established position. Statisticians call it the null hypothesis. It is assumed true unless there is a preponderance of evidence against it, as with our courts where innocence is presumed unless/until proven guilty. Why give this advantage? Because that is how I live generally. Every time I open a cereal box, walk into a building, drive on roads amidst traffic, get advice from a professional, or look at a map or a book, I am trusting the establishment. And I’m still alive. Obviously and gladly, the great majority of the time, established truth is correct. So I don’t doubt it without clear reason. 


Finally, some introspection. I suspect that believing alternative facts is a problem not with intellect, but with character.  It suggests the lack of fiber to accept and tackle the truth head on. Certainly, for example, it is tempting to ignore global warming (as we ignore our mounting national debt), and leave it for future generations.


Instead, we should heed Thomas Paine, “If there must be trouble, let it be in my day, that my child may have peace; and this single reflection, well applied, is sufficient to awaken every man to duty.”



Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Letter from Prison

 HS #66 2021.1.14


Letter from Prison


This past year some have felt like prisoners in their own homes, and have described both positive and negative aspects of it. The negatives are obvious. One positive is the opportunity for contemplative silence needed for deep thinking. Perhaps that is why influential literature has come from the incarcerated: Martin Luther King Jr., Paul the Apostle, Adolf Hitler, John Bunyan, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Letters and Papers from Prison.”   


I became interested in the plight of the prisoner several years ago upon reading an article in GQ magazine about solitary confinement. On any given day, the U.S. has 90,000 people in solitary confinement. That’s double the population of Holland. 


My interest was rekindled recently by an article in Popular Mechanics.  It described how Christopher Havens, a 10thgrade high school dropout serving a 25-year sentence for a drug-related murder discovered the joy of mathematics, established a research relationship with mathematicians, and has recently published an article. Describing his research, he writes, “Continued fractions are beautiful and pure and they even have a pulse – they beat to the rhythm of a leaping arithmetic pattern.” That is poetry – it gives me goosebumps. 


Wanting to help other inmates experience the same, he founded the Prison Math Project. I wrote him to volunteer, and subsequently we have been corresponding by phone and email.  


He sent me his story, and I found it so moving that I want to share it with you. The following is Christopher Haven’s letter from prison: 


Our mission is not only to help inmates make positive life choices through the study and exploration of mathematics, but also to show them that a lifestyle exists where they can live in the pursuit of beauty and embrace their passion for mathematics. 


I once lived a completely different lifestyle to what I know today.  I began my sentence as another of the cliché "convicts" that media portrays the prisoner to be. After six months of this, I got into serious trouble and I ended up in what we call "the hole". The hole is an isolation unit, full of nothing nice. A prison within a prison. 


It didn't take long before I began passing my time solving puzzles. After months of this, the challenge was gone. All I had left was the noise of the screams and the yelling. I remember watching the scenery though a narrow window in my steel door. I picked out patterns among the scenery. I could predict when certain guards and nurses would walk through and which doors they opened first. I could predict the behavior of the other residents. One of these patterns was an older gentleman visiting a specific sequence of doors. He would pass envelopes through the doors, and repeat the process at a later date. This gentleman was distributing packets of mathematics. 

My door number was soon added. The math in the packets was basic algebra, but it was my first real exposure to mathematics. Man, I soaked it up like you wouldn't believe. For me, the computations were like little puzzles. Mathematics was like a seed in the fiber of my being. The isolated environment was precisely the condition I needed to finally slow down enough to realize that mathematics was what my life was missing. 


I spent hours and hours every day. I was hooked. The gentleman soon ran out of new material to give me, so I began buying books. That's when my questions really began! It was at just this time when I thought to myself, "I've got 25 years. I could become a mathematician."  

After my enjoyment began turning into a passion, something happened. I noticed that my thoughts were changing. My values were changing and my actions were being thought out instead of acted on impulse. I was changing, and I noticed it like the contrast between night and day. I'm not referring to a few changes. I'm talking about changes that made me question who I really was anymore. I won't go too deep into this story, but I want you to see that I was experiencing the transformative powers of mathematics.

Mathematics has led me to so many things that give my life meaning. It led me to taking responsibility of my life. This led me to empathy, which led to a complete restructuring of my practice of everyday life. I then learned to love things including myself. Self-rehabilitation was occurring, all through the lens of mathematics. This is how I define justice.


Friday, December 11, 2020

Advent: A Look Towards a Hopeful Future

 HS #65 2020.12.10





Last summer, returning to the Au Train beach from a Lake Superior kayaking venture, I came upon a wrestling camp in progress. A gung-ho military-styled coach was training a couple dozen junior high youth as their parents looked on from a distance. Having explained the necessity of being in top shape, he paired them with instructions for one to carry his partner on his back for 60 yards down the beach, then trade places for the return trip. As the coach exhorted and cajoled, all returned sweating and heaving, except one slightly built wrestler who was straining under the weight of his partner.


All could see the pain on the young face as he labored to keep his balance in the loose sand and grappled to keep the load from slipping off his back. It was clear that he was not going to make it. After a gallant effort, he approached the coach standing 20 yards from the finish line and prepared to drop his teammate onto the sand.  


But the coach would have none of it.  Seemingly blind to the pain of the faltering lad, he refused to let him stop, instead pointing to the finish line and bullying him onward. 


With no option but forward, tears of rage mixed with salt and sand covered his agonized face. I watched in anger, wondering if any parent would step forward to stop the emotional and physical abuse. Twice he hesitated, but somehow was able to command his wavering legs to take another step - then another - two more yards to go - then collapsed on the finish line to the cheers of his fellow wrestlers and the relieved parents. 


That young man will never be the same. I am sure of it. Heck, it was life changing for me just witnessing it. My contempt for the bully coach turned to profound respect as I saw what he had just given that boy - gave him a lesson that went far beyond wrestling or physical endeavor. 


I never met the coach, but I suspect that Holland has a statue in honor of a kindred spirit. Recently I read “With this Inheritance” written by Sara Michel and illustrated by Del Michel. It gives the account of Albertus Van Raalte leading the original group of one hundred Hollanders to Western Michigan. Jailed and fined in the Netherlands for disobeying laws regulating worship, Van Raalte met tough times head-on. Learning English while on the ship, he served as minister, translator, counselor, encourager, explorer, builder, teacher, host, and entrepreneur to the colony. He led them in hewing out a new settlement in a wilderness so thick with trees that corn and potatoes were planted between tree roots, the 70 foot windmill they constructed would not turn due to blocked wind, and new arrivers carried axes to mark trees when fetching their cows in order to find their way back home. 


He had no coach to encourage him as he encouraged others in the midst of hunger, illness and death. Instead, his motivation was “this inheritance from God’s hand and desire to attain God’s end.” 


Both of these individuals point us to Advent. They envisioned a future event with fervent hope, whether it was 20 yards away or “God’s nursery for eternity.” This is a tough hope rooted in truth and requiring action and sacrifice as opposed to wishful thinking rooted in passivity and cynicism.


It forms a stark contrast to those whose false beliefs align with what they wish to be true: dying COVID patients denying the reality of the pandemic, those who claim the recent election was fraudulent despite firsthand testimony and judgements to the contrary, and those certain that global warming is a hoax, avoiding “an inconvenient truth” thus keeping their present lifestyle with no guilt. As a former student of mine has noted, “the mind justifies what the heart desires.” 


Al Franken caught the contrast between easy belief and tough hope: “Some love America like a toddler loves their mommy - it can do no wrong. Others love America like a parent loves their teenager - they know it can do better.”


This year, even in the darkness of the presently increasing COVID death rate, we have opportunity to exercise tough hope – to celebrate Advent as we look forward with justified assurance to the end of the reign of the coronavirus with a vaccine provided by the arduous labor of scientists. It is an Advent built on grit, tenacity and truth.