Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Bucket lists and happiness types

Yesterday I was listening to a podcast, and a discussion about light pollution mentioned that most city dwellers never see the Milky Way or a good dark night sky full of stars. I said, "I'll add that to my bucket list", and I do plan to spend a night star gazing in a dark place one day.

This got me thinking that I don't really have much of a bucket list. This is a list of things people aim to do, and it usually includes exceptional experiences or achievements that would not happen in the course of everyday life, unless you make a special effort. The list can have several categories, such as personal achievements, travel, and hobbies. Here's what I think of as my bucket list:

  • Personal achievement: Write and publish books that I believe might contribute to change in the world through changing the thinking of some readers.
  • Travel: There are many places I'd like to visit or revisit.
  • Social: I have many friends and relatives living abroad whom I'd like to meet or re-meet.
  • Music: I'd like to hear some more of my favourite artists perform live.
  • Experience: I'd like to be able to live in London for a few months, without having to worry about making an income, and just explore the city, take photos, and write.
  • Hobbies: I want to spend more time on crafts and decorative hobbies, such as cross-stitch, sea glass, and colouring books.

Looking at this list, it doesn't seem as impressive as some people's lists. This is partly because I don't feel the need for some extreme experiences. I don't dream of skydiving or running a marathon. I feel no desire to meet celebrities, even writers or artists I admire. I also think I'm quite realistic about what I aim for. I am actively working on writing books and on my hobbies. Most of these list items are likely to happen over the next few years, perhaps apart from living in London, which seems to depend on money and the right circumstances. Travel, meeting people, and going to shows also depend on opportunities arising, but are within the realm of feasibility.

Part of the reason for my not really thinking about having a bucket list is the different types of happiness. There is joy, which is a passing sense of pleasure resulting from a short-term experience, and there is contentment, which is a state of general satisfaction with one's life. I have always focused more on finding contentment. For me, this involves having stability in my life. I have a happy marriage, work I usually enjoy, a comfortable home, a cat, my creative projects (including this blog), and my life tends to be calm and fulfilling. Now and then there are good experiences that give me joy, in addition to the general contentment. But I don't feel that I'm missing out if I don't travel for a few years, or if weeks go by with my usual routine unchanged.

Perhaps this is partly because I'm an introvert, and so it doesn't take much stimulation to satisfy me. Perhaps it's partly because some of the extreme experiences in my life have been negative, such as living through a few wars and the constant threat of terrorism. I don't feel that I need to have positive extreme experiences to balance out the negative ones, just a stable, calm routine is good enough for me.

Maybe my bucket doesn't need to be filled with a long list of short-term experiences because it's already full up with contentment with my everyday life.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Universal values against hate crimes

During the past few days I have been thinking about how to respond to the recent hate crimes committed here by extreme religious and nationalist attackers. A knife attack on the Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade ended with the death of a 16 year old girl and the injury of 5 others. This murder was carried out by a man who had recently been released from jail after serving 10 years for a similar previous attack, and he had stated his intentions to attack again. Shortly after this, a Palestinian home was set on fire, presumably by settlers, and a baby burned to death, while other family members were seriously injured. These attacks follow other hate crimes committed in recent months, including the burning of a church and a Jewish-Arab school that promoted co-existence.

Apart from the shock caused by these crimes, I am also upset by the attempts of religious and settler groups to distance themselves from the attackers. Of course, people who commit horrific crimes are probably psychopaths or at least very unbalanced. However, where there are hate crimes, there was first an atmosphere of hate and dehumanization of the victimized group. When I look at the evil that has been done in the world throughout history, two things seem to motivate it: individual desire to profit at the expense of others, and groups dehumanizing members of other groups. Hate crimes can only be attributed to the latter type of motivation, and the attacker's group has to accept some degree of responsibility for the hatred that led them. At the very least, if they sincerely want to prevent such crimes from being committed by their members, they should reconsider their education and public statements in light of the way these attitudes can be put into action.

Because these recent cases involved Israeli Jewish criminals, this is the main group I will be addressing here. However, similar things can be said about other religious and nationalistic groups in other countries and cultures.

There is a spectrum of human compassion. Most of us naturally care about ourselves, our family, our friends, and the group we perceive as "like us". At one end of the spectrum there are those who try to extend their compassion, or at least tolerance, to the entire human race, and also to animals and our environment. These people have universal values, seeking to treat everyone well, no matter how similar or different they are. They don't see the "other" as less deserving than them. At the opposite end of the spectrum are those who have a narrow, rigid definition of their own group, which they treat well, while all other groups are considered somehow less than human, or even as enemies.

Religions, by their very definition, see themselves as the superior group, and their way of life as the only acceptable one. In the case of Judaism, which is both a religion and an ethnicity, religious Jews generally consider themselves the "chosen people", and believe that everyone born Jewish must obey the commandments and adopt a religious lifestyle, according to their interpretation. Other religions, such as Christianity and Islam, tend to believe they should try to convert every human being to their beliefs. Sometimes this is attempted through persuasion, and at other times it is "convert or die", or "convert or be enslaved". Extreme nationalist or racist groups employ similar ways of thinking to extreme religious ideologies.

When a group teaches its members that "others" are less worthy, it is a slippery slope to some group members deciding to punish them. First there is the tendency to keep a distance from them, then to discriminate against them, and eventually some unbalanced individuals may feel righteously justified in attacking them. The group cannot then claim that they don't support violence, since the choice of target is directly related to the teachings that treat the "other" as inferior. Saying "we didn't want them to be killed" leaves out the implied part "... but only discriminated against and marginalized". Discrimination and marginalization often lead directly to legitimizing violence, as can be seen throughout history.

What is most disturbing to me is the way religions habitually claim the moral high ground, while in fact they cannot avoid dividing the human race into "us" and "them", and considering their in-group to be superior to the "other". In fact, the opposite is true. It is people who hold universal values rather than group values who are truly more moral. Those who don't think they belong to a superior group, and actually consider all human beings equally deserving of compassion, are more moral than most religions. 

The way to prevent hate crimes is to educate people not to hate. This means everyone should be taught compassion and tolerance, to accept the other as different but equally deserving of respect and consideration, and to be able to take pride in whatever groups they belong to without having to degrade or dehumanize other groups. This means dealing with "others" as equals, and sometimes reaching compromises or "agreeing to disagree" rather than striving to achieve your own objectives at any cost, even at the expense of others' interests.

If you believe that hate crimes cannot be justified, it is time to think about any opinions and attitudes you have that might be just a bit higher up the slippery slope to violence. Most of us have some prejudices and few of us are truly egalitarian to all groups. We can all work on increasing and spreading compassion and tolerance, encouraging equality and inclusion of "others", and placing less emphasis on our narrow group identities and more emphasis on ourselves as part of the human race as a whole.