I wonder while I wander

…musings about this wild and wonderful world


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One more step towards global eradication of polio

‘If a country’s population could give a sigh of relief, the sound from India on Jan 13, 2014, would have been deafening. On that day, India celebrated 3 years without a single case of polio caused by the wild polio virus, thereby meeting WHO’s criterion for polio-free certification and becoming the last of the 11 countries of WHO’s South-East Asia Region to do so. On March 27, 2014, a meeting in New Delhi of the regional Certification Commission is expected to declare polio officially eradicated from the entire region, which will then join the three other polio-free WHO regions—of the Americas, Western Pacific, and Europe—leaving Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean to finish the job and cast the polio virus into the same chapter of history as the smallpox virus.’

To read more about global efforts to eliminate polio and the current obstacles to reaching that goal, read the whole article at The Lancet.


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The universe is in us all

‘The knowledge that the atoms that comprise life on earth – the atoms that make up the human body, are traceable to the crucibles that cooked light elements into heavy elements in their core under extreme temperatures and pressures. These stars- the high mass ones among them- went unstable in their later years- they collapsed and then exploded- scattering their enriched guts across the galaxy- guts made of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and all the fundamental ingredients of life itself. These ingredients become part of gas clouds that condense, collapse, form the next generation of solar systems- stars with orbiting planets. And those planets now have the ingredients for life itself. So that when I look up at the night sky, and I know that yes we are part of this universe, we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts is that the universe is in us. When I reflect on that fact, I look up- many people feel small, cause their small and the universe is big. But I feel big because my atoms came from those stars.’    ~ Neil deGrasse Tyson

Neil deGrasse Tyson ticks a lot of boxes for me.

First, he is clearly brilliant. No need to elaborate there.

Second, the way he describes space, matter, stars, physics, life and the potential for life in the universe… he makes it so accessible, even to people like me without much background knowledge in these topics. In fact, he makes me eager to learn so much more!

Third, his enthusiasm is absolutely infectious! I really didn’t enjoy any science classes when I was in school, but have become a fan of ‘popular science’ as an adult. Reading about biology, chemistry, evolution, genetics, and cosmology – it’s a challenge for me, but I also find it intensely rewarding because it forces me to look at the world and the universe in such a different way than I normally do. For one thing, it encourages me to see things from a non-anthropocentric perspective, and I enjoy the way it reminds me of my place in the universe.

It helps me to remember I am not the centre of everything. Not only that, but humans as a species aren’t the centre of everything. We share a kinship with all the creatures on our planet, with the plants, with bacteria, with stones and seas and the clouds in the sky… as Neil deGrasse Tyson points out, we even share a sort of kinship with the stars. Not in a sort of magical airy-fairy way, but in a real, chemical, atomical, physical way; we are all inter-connected. We are all a part of each other, and there is something beautiful and humbling about that reality.


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Mirrors in which we see our true selves – reflections on Otherness

In a previous post, I shared a TED Talk given by photographer Jimmy Nelson, creator of the Before They Pass Away project. This stunning photo collection documents 29 of the world’s last indigenous tribes. The photos themselves are amazingly beautiful and highly artistic, capturing iconic images of indigenous peoples and the landscapes where they live throughout the world.

These cultures are under threat from the encroaching modern world, and this ambitious project is one man’s attempt to not only document their existence, but to spark conversation about the diversity of human culture and the preservation of these last tribal cultures.

Samburu tribe in northern Kenya. Image by Jimmy Nelson, beforethey.com.

Samburu tribe in northern Kenya. Photo by Jimmy Nelson at http://www.beforethey.com

As I looked through the photos and read the captions about each tribe I found myself wondering what it is that interests us about these Others. What do we find so enticing about these images of distant and exotic foreigners? Is it simple curiosity? A desire to learn? Is it a craving for something new, a search for novelty?

It seems that interest in such exotic Others often leads us in one of two different directions.

In the first, we can be fascinated by difference because we see it as something strange, freakish, frightening and yet at the same time tantalizing. There is something dangerous about these Others, something taboo about the way they live. Perhaps by looking at their images and reading descriptions about their customs, religion or beliefs, we can vicariously experience an alternative to our own culture, albeit in a safe, controlled and distant way.

When we approach the Other in this way – as an oddity, as one who defies our sense of what is normal and acceptable – perhaps our response is one of self-affirmation. We see the strangeness of this Other, the backwardness of his (or her) ways, the perversions of his culture, his ignorance of proper morality, and it makes us feel more secure in the fortress of our own worldview and way of life. We can feel smug and self-satisfied because our way is superior, and we can thank our lucky stars that, at the end of the day, no matter our personal or cultural flaws, at least we don’t live like those Other people. Our ego and sense of self is re-affirmed and we can happily go on with our lives.

Alternately, we can approach the Other in a more positive way. We can admire the Other’s beauty, their interesting clothing and appearance. We can see valuable aspects of their spirituality; their simpler, less materialistic way of life; their close community ties; their deeper connection to nature. We may view the Other’s culture as more authentic, more innocent, less corrupted by the negative influences of modernity. We may see them through the lens of nostalgia, as remnants of the past, historical relics from the proverbial garden of Eden. By learning about these Others and their way of life, we express our longing to escape the complications and restraints of modern life, our desire to return to a state of childlike innocence and simplicity.

Unfortunately, neither of these views does the Other justice. Both are too narrow and simplistic. Any single culture is so complex that to truly understand it could take an outsider a lifetime of study, and would require living within the culture itself, among the people being studied. Even then, we would still see the Other through the filter of our own culture, our own biases and way of life.

That isn’t to say we shouldn’t try to learn about those who are different from us. It just means we must be realistic in our expectations, realize the limitations of our own understanding and remain constantly vigilant against our tendency to oversimplify, to make hasty judgements, to create false comparisons. The path toward truly understanding the Other is fraught with intellectual, moral and philosophical pitfalls, and we must be careful how we tread.

So, if we cannot hope to get a very accurate understanding of these distant Others from photos and books – from our gazing at a distance – what is it we hope to gain from the experience of looking and reading? What is our goal?

Perhaps it is an opportunity to be shocked out of our complacency. By seeing images so starkly different, we are shaken out of our usual dullness. We are forced to look deeply, to pay attention. It is hard for us to look away. We begin to see ourselves and the world around us in a new light. Things are turned upside-down. The ground feels different beneath our feet and the air tastes different when we imagine the roads that the Other walks on and the bright empty sky that hangs above the his head.

And then…

We begin to ask questions.

First, if we are brave, we may ask what makes this Other tick. How does he feel? What does he truly believe? What does he love? What does he fear? What are his desires? How does he interpret the world and his place in it? How does he create meaning in the experiences of this life?

While we can ponder these questions, we cannot really answer those questions about or for the Other. That is something only he can do.

And so, if we are even braver, we then begin to ask those questions of ourselves. We realise that we too are an Other in someone else’s eyes. Our culture, way of life, beliefs – none of these are to be taken for granted. There are countless ways to be human, and our way is just one of many. 

Perhaps that is why we feel such an irresistible pull towards the Other, why we seek these encounters with those who are distant and different. They offer us something immensely valuable – a mirror in which we can more clearly see our true selves.

*  *  *

To learn more about the Before They Pass Away project and to view the amazing photos of indigenous societies around the world, click here.

To visit the Before They Pass Away Facebook page, click here.

To read the first part of my ongoing series on Meeting the Other, click here.

To watch Jimmy Nelson’s TED Talk, click here.


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Set the people free!

As it turns out, 16 March was Open Borders DayAlex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution sums up the point of this day nicely:

‘[Open Borders Day is] a day to celebrate the right to emigrate and the right to immigrate; to peacefully move from place to place. It is a day worth celebrating everywhere both for what has been done already and for the tremendous gains in human welfare that can but are yet to be achieved. It is also a day to reflect on the moral inconsistency that says “No one can be denied equal employment opportunity because of birthplace, ancestry, culture, linguistic characteristics common to a specific ethnic group, or accent” and yet at the same time places heavily armed guards at the border to capture, imprison, turn back and sometimes kill immigrants.’

I’m obviously a bit behind in commenting here, but better late than never!

The issue of immigration is a big one for me, partially for personal reasons, but for much larger ethical and moral reasons as well. I myself am someone NOT living in my country of birth, which I suppose makes me an immigrant. I don’t often think of myself that way though, probably in large part because a) I am white, b) I am a US citizen, and c) I have a university education – in other words, I come from a very privileged background. I don’t fit the ‘immigrant stereotype’. I didn’t leave my home country to escape poor living conditions or lack of economic opportunity. And because I am white, educated and American, I get preferential treatment when it comes to living and working abroad, although there are still limitations regarding my rights to live and work where I choose.

However, most people on the planet who would like to live and work in a country other than the one they were born in face far greater challenges that I can even imagine. They want to better their lives, earn a decent living, provide for their families, give their children the opportunity to gain an education and a better standard of living. They want to escape poverty, economic stagnation and hopelessness. They want to contribute to society. They want stability, safety, to have adequate food, water and shelter. They want to be treated like people, to be respected as humans, to make choices about their own lives.

I’ve done a bit of browsing around the Open Borders website and I am so impressed with this informative and well-balanced project. The site addresses a huge number of different objections people voice against immigration and the concept of open borders, where, in theory, people would have a much greater degree of freedom to migrate than in the current world order. They look at a wide variety of arguments for and against open borders – political, ethical, theoretical, economic, etc. – and discuss in a very detailed and nuanced way the real-world implications of free movement of people. If you are looking for fact-based and balanced information and discussion of immigration issues, this looks like a great place to start.

I highly recommend exploring this site. There is so much to think about here!

As part of my on-going reflections on Otherness, I look forward to returning to the themes and ideas explored in Open Borders. More coming soon…


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Fascinating insights into elephant intelligence and culture

Her’s an interesting piece of reading for the day. The capabilities of animals never ceases to amaze me!

Elephants recognize the voices of their enemies: African elephants can distinguish human languages, genders and ages associated with danger | NATURE

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Female African elephants


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Oops, I fell into the prejudice trap (again)

I recently wrote a post about the way we let our prejudices prevent us from honestly considering new ideas and alternate opinions; about how we assess potentially new information based on what we want to believe, rather than simply looking at the facts.

Lest you think I’m being preachy and just pointing out flaws in other people, I’d like to share an example of this type of biased and prejudicial thinking in my own life.

I watched a TED talk last week about the evolution of human sexuality which was really excellent and worth at least one post of its own, so I won’t go into details about it now. The speaker was very engaging, well-spoken and humorous. He said some things that chimed well with beliefs and ideas I’d already formed, and I very much agreed with his open-minded approach to the whole topic.

In fact, I found it all so interesting, I immediately had a look on Amazon for his book, so I could read more extensively about his theories and research findings. While checking out some reviews I came across another book by a different author, written as a direct refutation of the first guy’s work and proposing some different views and conclusions.  By further investigating on the internet, it seems these two thinkers have a personal dislike of each other as well as conflicting views on human sexuality.

What I found most interesting in all this was how strongly I reacted in favour of one author and how ready I was to dismiss the other. When browsing on Amazon, I read numerous positive reviews and a few negative ones about each of the books, so in this respect, they looked about even. However, because I’d had an enjoyable 14 minutes watching the first author present his ideas, and maybe even just because I actually came across him and his ideas first, I had already formed a prejudice in his favour. He was clearly ‘more right’ than the other author, and I also felt that I liked her a bit less, because she clearly had it out for this intelligent, funny man I had heard speak. Seriously, what was her problem?

All of this happened in the space of about 20 minutes.

(1) I had been introduced to an idea, (2) learned there was some controversy about it, (3) decided which anthropological study was more valid based on my judgement of the presenters perceived likeability, (4) discounted the opposition as irrelevant and false without actually knowing what her position was, and (5) was eager to share my new ‘expert’ knowledge and new ‘correct’ understanding of an incredibly complex topic with the rest of the world. My oh my, the brain works quickly!

What!? She came to overly hasty and irrationally biased conclusions again? Nooooo! Make it stop!

What!? She came to overly hasty, irrational and biased conclusions again? Nooooo! Make it stop!

Fortunately for me, almost as quickly as I formed all those thoughts and prejudices, I realised what I was doing, and could have a bit of a laugh at how hasty and unreasonable I was being. At least by recognising the conclusions my brain was jumping to, I could take a step back from my initial reaction and try to look at things more rationally. 

To cut myself some slack, I think we, as humans, are hard-wired to make hasty judgements about many things. I mean, if a lion is running towards you, you do NOT want to take a deep breath and try to make a slow and deliberate assessment of the situation, draw a chart outlining your options and the pros and cons of each, or sit and ponder whether or not you are judging the actions and motivations of this particular lion unfairly. You want to make a hasty judgement and get the hell away from that lion!

Even in non-life-or-death situations, if we really thought deeply and logically analysed every bit of information and every experience we went through in life, we’d have no time for actually eating, sleeping, performing a job, just living! It would be complete overkill and ‘ain’t nobody got time for that’ (as the saying goes)!

So, I’m saying it isn’t surprising that we do this. It’s no shock at all that we want to take mental short cuts, make hasty judgements based on what we already know and believe, and just want to get on with our lives. There are many situations where this tendency doesn’t matter too much, or can even be helpful.

However, there are certainly times when it is detrimental to making wise decisions. I know that in my own life it means I can be a bit (or sometimes very!) judgemental towards people who think differently than I do. It also means that during conversation I sometimes don’t truly listen to what others are saying because I’m not really interested in their opinions; I’m just waiting to say what I think and ‘save’ them from the error of their ways!

At the end of the day, I think that developing an awareness of our prejudices and the way our minds work is a necessary first step towards becoming more balanced and fair when seeking out facts and listening to the views of others. It’s a key move towards better communication and deeper understanding with our fellow humans.

One has to start somewhere, after all!


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Thich Nhat Hanh speaks about compassionate listening

Thanks to the wonderful bloggers over at Spiritbath for sharing this video!

Thich Nhat Hanh as been one of my favourite spiritual teachers for a long time – ever since I first read his book Living Buddha, Living Christ in high school. His messages are always inspiring. Simple but challenging. Practical and yet transformative.

Here he talks about the practice of deep listening – allowing others to share their suffering, to unload their pain; listening without judging, even when the other is speaking from wrong perception and incorrect understanding. We compassionately try to understand the other’s suffering first, and perhaps at a later time try to help them by giving advice or correcting wrong perceptions.

By truly listening, we can promote healing and better communication, and ultimately, create peace.

This is seriously challenging stuff, but I truly believe it is a worthwhile practice. We can apply this type of listening to our family members, friends, co-workers, even those we view as our enemies and who we feel bring suffering into our lives.

Who in your life is in need of compassionate listening? Can you be the one to help them find healing, allowing them to share their suffering with you, free from judgement?

For a daily dose of inspiration, check out Spiritbath.com!