Saturday, August 28, 2021


Rogier van den Weyden: St. Michael Weighing the Souls, from the Last Judgement, C.1445-50


The moon is the thinnest
crescent tonight.
The guards wait for me,
idly thrusting their lances
into the helpless ground.
It’s a dance we’ve learned by heart:
I do what I know is right.
They follow orders.

There is no sign from heaven.
I sprinkle water and dirt
over my brother’s gaping
mouth, and mumble sacred words.
Sometimes the cry of crickets
pierces the night with such
pure prayer that I want to
live forever. . . but no, I must.

My practical uncle dislikes
the unpleasantness of an execution.
He’ll talk to me again
about the changing times,
how there is no such thing
as a “higher law.”
“You’re a smart girl. Why
throw away your future? Why?”

I'm dangerous to the state.
The stream in the ravine
glistens like black sun.
Even to my sister I won’t
say how something within
cries Despair! Despair!
And daily something replies,
Truth cannot be defeated.

~ Oriana

We studied Antigone in high school. I was astounded that the Polish Ministry of Education would let us. Didn't they see how the play encouraged resistance against the morally wrong laws of a dictatorship? Or perhaps someone in the Ministry was secretly a kind of Antigone?



~ Two newly coined words dominated Russian discussions in the early 1860s: intelligentsia and nihilism. The first referred not to educated people generally but to those professing a new radical ideology formulated by the critic Nicholas Chernyshevsky. The “new people,” as Chernyshevsky called his young followers, advocated materialism, determinism, utilitarianism, free love, and rude (they said “frank”) manners. In his great novel Fathers and Children [more often translated as “Fathers and Sons”], Ivan Turgenev called them “nihilists.” Although many young radicals first deemed this term slanderous, they soon adopted it with pride. When the assassin and writer Sergei Stepniak published a novel in 1889 celebrating terrorism, he entitled it The Career of a Nihilist.

Even Dostoevsky, who cherished a lifelong hatred for Turgenev, regarded Fathers and Sons as a masterpiece. Turgenev had perfected the novel of ideas, the genre that, over the next two decades, was to include not only all Dostoevsky’s greatest works, but also Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Karenina as well as two more important Turgenev novels, Smoke and Virgin Soil. The glory of Russian fiction, this genre later inspired works by Pasternak, Grossman, and Solzhenitsyn reflecting, like their nineteenth-century predecessors, on the ultimate questions of life. [Oriana: Vasily Grossman isn't as well known in the West, but his novel Life and Fate is regarded as a masterpiece.]

Many Russian novels of ideas have adopted Turgenev’s device of describing intellectual dispute as a conflict of generations. Turgenev’s “fathers,” represented by the brothers Pavel Petrovich Kirsanov and Nikolai Petrovich Kirsanov, profess liberalism indebted to British politics, admire refined manners taken from French society, and adhere to the misty, sentimental idealism of German philosophy. Though living far from society on his brother’s estate, Pavel Petrovich dresses to perfection while surrounding himself with evidently useless symbols of enlightened Western ideas. Nikolai Petrovich recites Pushkin’s verses, plays romantic music on his violincello, and indulges in nostalgic reveries while admiring the beauties of nature. The young nihilists, for their part, scorn all high ideals and abstract principes (Pavel Petrovich uses the French term) as so many empty words accomplishing nothing. “Aristocracy, Liberalism, progress, principles,” declares the novel’s nihilist hero Evgeny Bazarov. “No Russian needs them, even as a gift.” Turgenev appreciates that the nihilists’ scorn is no less rhetorical than the idealists’ poetic flourishes.

As the novel begins, Nikolai Petrovich has been waiting five hours at the station for his son Arkady, coming home from the university. Lonely since his beloved wife died, and a devoted father, Nikolai Petrovich has spent months in the capital attending lectures and keeping up with new ideas so as to be close to his son, but all in vain. When Arkady arrives, he has brought his friend Bazarov, whom he idolizes. One of the new people and the son of a poor local doctor, Bazarov not only lacks aristocratic manners but despises them, to the immense irritation of Pavel Petrovich. “This son of a medico,” Arkady’s uncle thinks, “was not only unintimidated; he gave abrupt and indifferent answers, and in the tone of his voice there was something coarse, almost insolent.”

As Nikolai Petrovich sadly recognizes how distant his son has grown, he voices one of the book’s key themes, the tragedy of passing time. Against the backdrop of social change and the progress of generations—as fathers yield to children who will soon suffer the same fate—people learn what it means to survive into an estranging future. Blink and you are passé. The ones you love the most no longer understand you, and the loneliness of outdated beliefs overwhelms you. It doesn’t matter whether those beliefs are truer or better than those that have replaced them.

Lingering in the arbor, Nikolai Petrovich overhears Bazarov tell Arkady: “Your father’s a nice man . . . but he’s behind the times; his day is done. . . . The day before yesterday I saw him reading Pushkin. . . . Explain to him, please, that that’s entirely useless . . . what an idea to be a romantic these days!” Reporting this conversation to his brother, Nikolai Petrovich regrets the futility of the liberal reforms on his estate and of his strenuous efforts not to fall behind. The very emotions that prompted him to those efforts, his idealism and “sentimentality,” testify to his outdatedness. “Do you know what I was reminded of, brother?,” Nikolai Petrovich asks:
I once had a dispute with our late mother; she shouted, and wouldn’t listen to me. At last I said to her, “of course, you can’t understand me; we belong,” I said, “to two different generations.” She was dreadfully offended, while I thought, “it can’t be helped. It’s a bitter pill, but she has to swallow it.” You see, now, our turn has come, and our successors can say to us, “You are not of our generation; swallow your pill.”

Turgenev himself belonged to the older generation and represented its values, as Chernyshevsky insisted in his influential essay “The Russian at the Rendezvous,” a review of Turgenev’s novel Asya. In reply, Fathers and Sons examined Chernyshevsky’s views by giving them to Bazarov and Arkady.

The very fact that Turgenev replied in a novel was itself an ideologically charged act, because the “new people” rejected not only romantic poems like Pushkin’s but also realist novels like Turgenev’s. As both sides recognized, literary genres embody philosophical assumptions. As epics take for granted the value of glory and heroism, and saints’ lives the existence of holiness, so realist novels presume the complexity of human psychology and the uniqueness of each individual. That, after all, is why so many novels—Effi Briest, Anna Karenina, Père Goriot, Jane Eyre, Doctor Thorne, Asya—are named for a hero or heroine. The radicals, on the other hand, insisted that psychology was simple and denied that individuality exists at all. In their view, the interchangeability of people is precisely what makes possible a hard social science, which Chernyshevsky thought already existed. A few simple laws, based on “physiology and chemistry,” explain everything needed to understand and reconstruct life. So-called individuals, Chernyshevsky explained, are “only special cases of the operation of the laws of nature.”

Look closely, Chernyshevsky instructed, and you will discover in each landowner or merchant “all the shades of thinking appropriate to his class.” As with cedars or mice, he continued, the differences within the human species are too trivial to matter. “You have practically reached the limits of human wisdom,” he concluded with absolute confidence, “when you become convinced of the simple truth that every person is exactly like every other one.”

Bazarov echoes these views: “Studying separate individuals is not worth the trouble. All people resemble each other. . . . [E]ach of us has brain, spleen, and lungs made alike; and the moral qualities are the same in all; the slight variations are of no importance. A single human specimen is sufficient to judge all the rest . . . no botanist would think of studying each individual birch-tree.” Even the differences among species don’t matter much. Bazarov dissects frogs to show how closely they resemble people. So influential did these fictional dissections become that countless real frogs lost their lives to young people proving their nihilist credentials. “In the splayed frog,” the radical critic Dmitri Pisarev famously declared, “lies the salvation of the Russian people.”

In novels, love unites unique souls, revealed in their essence through the intensity of emotional experience. But for Bazarov, there is nothing to reveal. That whole view of love, he intones, is just so much “romanticism, nonsense, rot, artiness.” “And what of all these mysterious relations between a man and woman?,” he sneers. “We physiologists know what these relations are. Study the anatomy of the eye a bit; where does the enigmatical glance [described by novelists] come in there?” No novelist ever surpassed Turgenev in using fine shading of verdure to suggest the elusive shadings of feeling, but for Bazarov “nature’s not a temple, but a workshop, and man’s the workman in it.”

The plot of Fathers and Sons exemplified the pattern for ideological fiction to come. The works of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and European writers test theories not by logic, evidence, or counter-argument, as philosophical treatises do, but by examining what it means to live by them. Theories are subjected to two ironies, which I like to call the irony of origins and the irony of outcomes.

The first irony, directed primarily at Arkady, shows that, however certain we may be of ideas, we accept them not because of their cogency but, at least in part, because of their capacity to meet our psychological needs. Wanting to prove how grown up he is, Arkady experiences “that awkwardness which usually overtakes a youth when he has just ceased to be a child and has come back to a place where they are accustomed to regard and treat him as a child.” Voicing shocking views—art is bunk, everything should be destroyed!—becomes his way to demonstrate adulthood. He remains naïvely unaware that proving one’s adulthood is a childish thing to do.

Arkady “blushes with delight” when he shocks his father and uncle by rejecting idealism,
liberalism, the appreciation of nature, and anything else they might believe in. “You are aware of my views,” he tells his father, and Turgenev comments: “it was very sweet to Arkady to utter that word.” Looking at his authority, Bazarov, for approval, he rejects all authorities; but Bazarov appears to understand that Arkady has made a principle of denying principles and has adopted materialism for idealistic reasons. The condition of the peasants requires universal destruction, Arkady tells the old folk: “We are bound to carry out these requirements. We have no right to yield to the satisfaction of our personal egoism.”

This last phrase apparently displeased Bazarov. There was a flavor . . . of romanticism about it . . . . [B]ut he did not think it necessary to correct his young disciple.

Personal egoism is what a nihilist is supposed to satisfy, what he believes he cannot help satisfying since that, according to the new philosophy, is the only human motivation. It is the idealists of the previous generations who are concerned to overcome egoism. These lapses from nihilist doctrine indicate how much it runs counter to Arkady’s fundamental nature and the beliefs he really holds. We smile gently at his childish self-deception.

Turgenev subjects Bazarov’s views to a less forgiving scrutiny, the irony of outcomes. In this respect, Fathers and Sons exemplifies the masterplot of novels of ideas. They narrate the story of how life, presenting unforeseen consequences that cannot be gainsaid, demonstrates a theory’s inadequacy. In The Brothers Karamazov, for instance, Ivan maintains, first, that good and evil are mere social conventions, and, second, that even if evil does exist, it applies only to actions and not to wishes. Contrary to both beliefs, he winds up feeling intense guilt for a murder he has not committed, but only desired. In War and Peace, Prince Andrei’s experience of lying severely wounded on the battlefield and contemplating the “infinite heavens” proves to him the triviality of the “glory” he has lived for and the faith in military “science” that has guided his actions.

Turgenev sets the pattern by having Bazarov fall in the sort of love whose existence he has denied. Precisely because he denies it, indeed, a sophisticated woman can captivate him all the more easily, especially when she intoxicates him with the beauties of nature he has also dismissed. In the novel’s key passage, Turgenev describes his hero “tortured and maddened” by a feeling “he would at once have denied with scornful laughter and abuse, if anyone had ever so remotely hinted at what was taking place in him.”

Bazarov used to wonder why “Toggenburg and all the minnesingers and troubadours had not been put into a lunatic asylum,” but now he cannot overlook that something “was taking root at him, something . . . at which his pride revolted.” Trying to banish all these shameful thoughts, Bazarov would “obstinately . . . try to force himself to sleep, in which of course, he did not always succeed.” The narrator’s favorite phrase “of course”—no explanation is necessary for those with experience enough to understand life—suggests the superior knowledge that he and the presumably mature reader share.

It would have been easy enough for Turgenev to rest content with this triumph over his hero, which is really the victory of novels over naïve materialism, but Turgenev is too self-aware for that. Refuting nihilism in a novel is like exposing sin in a saint’s life or discrediting cowardice in an epic: the very choice of genre renders the outcome almost inevitable. As they used to say in the old Westerns (and perhaps in some contemporary proceedings), “first we’ll give him a fair trial, and then we’ll hang him.” What makes Fathers and Sons a true masterpiece is how genuinely evenhanded it is. Turgenev also focuses the novel’s unforgiving lens on his own most cherished beliefs and brings their weaknesses into focus.

“I am Nikolai Petrovich,” Turgenev declared in one letter; and when Nikolai Petrovich measures himself against Bazarov, he recognizes that, for all the young man’s arrogance and naïve scientism, there really is something superior about him. For one thing, Bazarov has “fewer traces of the slaveowner” in him, by which Nikolai Petrovich means to suggest that his own way of life, dependent as it is on the labor of serfs, is morally compromised. That would apply to the wealthy nobleman Turgenev as well. Nikolai Petrovich also recognizes—and so does the novel’s narrator—that Bazarov has one quality they utterly lack: courage.

When facts refute our most cherished beliefs, most of us explain away the facts. Bazarov does not. After he falls in love, he recognizes that experience has disproved his theories. Surrendering his sense of certainty, he entertains doubts that are new to him. He becomes, in fact, something of an existentialist facing a meaningless universe. He echoes the thoughts that led Pascal to faith.

Lying on a haystack with Arkady, Bazarov reflects, as he never would have before, on his insignificance:

The tiny space I occupy is so infinitely small in comparison with the rest of space . . . which has nothing to do with me; and the period of time in which it is my lot to live is so petty beside the eternity in which I have not been, and shall not be . . . . And in this atom, this mathematical point, the blood circulates, the brain works and wants something . . . . Isn’t it hideous?

Bazarov now calls the shocking things he used to say “reverse commonplaces”: claiming that education is beneficial, for instance, is a commonplace; claiming that it is injurious, “that’s a reverse commonplace. There’s more style about it,” but it’s just as shallow.

Bazarov turns the logic he has applied to others—their beliefs are the product not of serious reflection but of chemicals in the brain—on his own convictions. It’s as if a Marxist at last recognized that Marxism, too, is just another ideology serving class interest, in this case, of the intelligentsia professing it. When Arkady marvels at Bazarov’s refutation of his former views, Bazarov replies forthrightly: “If you’ve made up your mind to mow down everything, don’t spare your own legs.” If honesty is, as he has said, only a “sensation,” it is one that shapes his deepest self.

Bazarov faces his untimely death from typhus with courage—more courage, indeed, than Turgenev, for whom his hero’s end is almost too tragic to bear. The novel concludes by describing the intense grief Bazarov’s parents suffer as they frequent their son’s grave, “where they seem to be nearer to him.” In his closing lines, Turgenev focuses not on their sorrow but on his own tormenting doubts:

Can it be that their prayers and their tears are fruitless? Can it be that love, sacred, devoted love, is not all-powerful? Oh, no! However passionate, sinning, and rebellious the heart hidden in the tomb, the flowers growing over it peep serenely at us with their innocent eyes; they tell us not of eternal peace alone, of that great peace of “indifferent” nature; they tell us, too, of eternal reconciliation and of life without end.

“Oh, no!” the narrator says, as if he lacks the moral strength to accept what he knows to be true. One imagines how the bravely dying Bazarov might have responded: prayer is not all-powerful; flowers say nothing unless we supply the words; and the only eternal peace is endless silence and death without end.

The greatness of this book lies in the way it goes beyond most novels of ideas, whether by Joseph Conrad, Henry James, or even Dostoevsky. It refuses to exempt the presuppositions of novels from unwelcome scrutiny and concedes that the wisdom of the most sophisticated novelists—like Turgenev himself—may exact a moral price. The wisest people may not be the best. Instead of refuting opposing values, this novel initiates a dialogue with them.


Dostoevsky regarded Turgenev’s moral shortcomings as much worse than he allowed. Even Turgenev’s willingness to question his own assertions served, in Dostoevsky’s view, as just another way of demanding praise. No matter the topic, for Turgenev it matters less than his own reactions to it. A moral weakling, Turgenev was for Dostoevsky one of those limp liberals prepared to succor revolutionaries to win their favor. The danger of such self-congratulatory thinking shaped the plot of Dostoevsky’s The Possessed, which, as if to answer Fathers and Sons, also examined the ideological bases of generational conflict. The liberal parents in Dostoevsky’s novel engender, literally and figuratively, the terrorist children dedicated to destroying them.

No reader could have missed the remarkable resemblance between the novel’s most repulsive liberal, the “great writer” Karmazinov, and Turgenev. As Joseph Frank has observed, “the takeoff on Turgenev’s literary mannerisms and personal foibles could not have been deadlier and it enriches The Devils [i.e. The Possessed] with a dazzling display of Dostoevsky’s satiric virtuosity.”

Looking for alternatives to Tsarist and Bolshevik repression, critics often idolize Turgenev, who professed Western liberal values. To these critics, Turgenev represents the path that was not, but could have been, taken. That may be true, but Turgenev also illustrates the weaknesses of Russian liberals that, in the decades preceding the revolution, ensured their failure. Like Karmazinov (whose name comes from the French word for “crimson”), they were ready to justify anyone to their left, even terrorists who killed thousands of officials and bystanders, threw bombs laced with bullets and nails into crowded cafés, and mutilated victims’ faces with sulfuric acid.

Not once did Rech’, the newspaper of the liberal Kadet (Constitutional Democratic) party, denounce terror, and when the Tsar issued an amnesty for political prisoners, Kadet leaders demanded it include terrorists who pledged to continue killing. In an article extolling the imprisoned killer “Marusia” (affectionate for Maria) Spiridonova, a columnist in Rech’ intoned: “her life [zhizn’] has ended, her saint’s life [zhitie] has begun.”

“Condemn terror?,” exclaimed Kadet leader I. Petrunkevich. “Never! that would mean the moral death of the party.” Why did these liberals not understand they were playing with fire? Within a few weeks of their takeover, the Bolsheviks declared the Kadets “outside the law”—meaning anything could be done to them—and a mob promptly lynched two hospitalized Kadet leaders. Even Bolshevik attempts to annihilate the Kadets entirely did not convince most leaders who had escaped abroad of their error in sanctifying terrorists.

Would Turgenev himself have praised terrorists? The fact is, he did. Revolutionaries routinely cited one of his last works, the prose poem “The Threshold,” as admiring their violence. Written in the midst of Russia’s first major terrorist campaign, it pictures a young woman about to cross the threshold into a life of terror. “Do you know what awaits you?,” a voice asks. Do you know you face “cold, hunger, hatred, mockery, scorn, resentment, imprisonment, even death? . . . Are you prepared for any sacrifice . . . to commit a crime,” and, perhaps, “realize that you have deceived yourself and destroyed your young life in vain?” Yes, she answers to all questions, and crosses the threshold. The prose poem ends:

“Fool!” someone shrieked from behind it.
“Saint!” came from somewhere in reply.

Oddly enough, the first voice, though accusing her of folly, omits questioning her readiness to sacrifice not only her own life but also those of others.


If Turgenev represents the liberal sensibility Russians wrongly rejected, he also exemplifies the psychology that has given liberals, especially Russian liberals, a bad name. From vanity, from the desire to be accepted by the right people, and from fatal short-sightedness, Russian liberals celebrated revolutionaries who despised their values and sought to destroy them. The lessons to be learned from Turgenev go beyond his masterly novel. ~


This is relevant today, as we watch "progressives" failing to speak out against anything, however wrong-minded, coming from the extreme left. Turgenev's masterpiece stands out by pointing out the weaknesses and flaws of both sides. 

As for the scene of the initiation of a young woman into a revolutionary organization, it's up to the reader to decide whether she is a saint or a fool (and a potential murderess). It's a test of the reader's values. Turgenev doesn't preach; he makes us question and think.


It is interesting that Turgenev has the nihilists as the young generation. I am sure that's a reflection of the historical situation, that these were the new ideas of a new generation, but it seems particularly apt that his nihilists are adolescents. It seems impossible for anyone who is mature to seriously take up such a philosophy. The radical stance, the egoism, the refusal of not only tradition, but culture, values, liberalism in favor of....what?? Eventually, the "celebration of terrorism.”

It is particularly delicious that the ideologue who despises the romanticism of his elders finds himself swept up in a romantic his consternation, and the reader's delight. I am certainly reminded of Dostoyevsky's Raskolnikov, who acts on this kind of belief, commits an act of terrorism, a murder simply to demonstrate he can...achieving only his own long suffering..That too, is the act of an adolescent, and proves only the opposite of his radical presumption.

It is also interesting that Turgenev's hero, Bazarov, sees how his experience puts his ideology in question. The ideas have to tumble in the face of his physical and psychological reality, and he ends up with something much like an existentialist position — that all ideologies come down to the material reality of brain chemistry, and physiology, and nothing more. Yes, there is courage in that honesty. A courage and honesty, as you note, conspicuously absent from progressives who won't speak out against the wrongs of the extreme left. We've all seen how that plays out, and into, the creation of totalitarianism.


Precisely. The book is a masterpiece. Bazarov is brilliant, and, once chastened by unrequited love, he becomes a tragic figure. The reason that the woman he loves doesn’t return his feelings is that she’s a young widow who’s known a bad marriage, and doesn’t want to lose her freedom. We must remember that back then you couldn’t just have a “relationship.” 

As for the book's political relevance, it's hard for me to believe how little humanity seems to learn from history. Perhaps it's because the heads of state are often madmen, just like cult lealders, even in the clinical sense.
Ivan Turgenev by Perov, 1872


~ A 1972 study conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology known as “The Limits to Growth” predicted that society would collapse sometime in the middle 21st century. Contemporary research from a director at one of the world’s largest accounting firms shows that the study’s prediction alarmingly appears to be accurate.

In 1972, MIT scientists set out to study what it would take for society to collapse under real world conditions. Their system dynamics model, commissioned by the Club of Rome, showed that there were “limits to growth,” a kind of cap on how many resources we could produce and consume as a society, especially considering factors of “population, food production, industrialization, pollution, and consumption of nonrenewable natural resources” according to the study.

Using a computer simulation to model these factors, the scientists found that civilization would likely collapse in the mid-21st century due to the strain of the rabid consumption of the planet’s resources.

The report, which was published under the name “The Limits to Growth,” quickly became a sensation. It has sold 30 million copies in 30 different languages. The results were the source of much controversy and cutthroat debate between experts and journalists alike.

New research shows “The Limits to Growth” is accurate.

Now a senior director at KPMG, a Dutch firm that is amongst the “Big Four”– a nickname for the four largest accounting firms in the world — has published her own study affirming the results found over thirty years ago by MIT.

That director is Gaya Herrington, who leads Sustainability and Dynamic System Analysis at KPMG’s office in the United States. Herrington’s study, which was published in the Yale Journal of Industrial Ecology in November 2020, can be read on KPMG’s own website.
Asked why she had decided to take up the gauntlet of the infamous study, Herrington said that “Given the unappealing prospect of collapse, I was curious to see which scenarios were aligning most closely with empirical data today.

“After all, the book that featured this world model was a bestseller in the 70s, and by now we’d have several decades of empirical data which would make a comparison meaningful. But to my surprise I could not find recent attempts for this. So I decided to do it myself.”

Herrington’s study analyzes the same factors as the original Limits to Growth. What she found was that if our civilization continued to grow “population, fertility rates, mortality rates, industrial output, food production, service, non-renewable resources, persistent pollution, human welfare, and ecological footprint,” — the ten key variables she outlines — at a rate that was “business as usual,” or consistently upward, with no change in consumption, we would indeed be on track for collapse within this century.

“Economic and industrial growth will stop, and then decline, which will hurt food production and standards of living… In terms of timing, the BAU2 (business-as-usual) scenario shows a steep decline to set in around 2040” said Herrington in her sobering recent report. ~


Only two small thoughts on the limits of growth and the collapse of society. Continual and endless growth is a principle and requirement of capitalism. And a description of cancer. Does development always necessarily mean growth? Might less not be more here as well as in so many other places? An example that irritates me is the continual and absurd proliferation of consumer products. Look at a supermarket's shelves. Ok toothpaste. A good thing, but do we need hundreds of slightly different kinds? Each brand (and there are many) has a long list of  (slightly) different flavors, colors, types, sizes, etc. And that's just one product. It becomes a job in itself, and I would argue an unnecessary irritant, if not an outright burden, simply to shop for basics. All this choosing takes up time and attention that could be used better elsewhere. Everything becomes a big job, a big deal, from toothpaste to cars...and this choosing is an illusion of plenty and an illusion of freedom. More and more, as the products proliferate, they are more and more and more of the same.

My second thought, is that these predictions of collapse are predicated on things going on the same as they have been. I think there is a very good chance they won't. We are inventive. Every time we come up against some obstacle, or have some new desire, we get ideas. New science, new technologies, new ways to travel, work, communicate,  and the world changes. It has been noted that everywhere, globally, the birthrate is falling — at least partly, and maybe largely, due to the rise in education and opportunity for women, and, crucially, to the availability of birth control. A woman with access to birth control will have fewer children than a woman who has no such access. A falling birthrate will undoubtedly bring its own problems (fewer young people working to provide for proportionally larger population of elderly), but they won’t look like the problems facing an ever growing population.

I must confess, I have great hopes for the future, and wish I could be here to see more of it!


I am very curious as well — even about ten years from now. Much as I lament the fact that my neighbors are tearing out greenery and filling their yards with rocks, I must admit that even this shows that rapid change is possible. Of course I don’t mean just this — it’s a million other things relentlessly changing — because the only thing that doesn’t change is change itself. Maybe that’s where the hope lies.

What sometimes drives me to despair is the human tendency not to do anything until the last minute. For instance, the technology to take out carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere already exists, but not the avid interest it should generate, given the choice between an amazing future and extinction.



~ In the first year the World Happiness Report was published (2012), the United States came in 11th. But the most recent report finds the U.S.A. down eight happiness rungs, to the 19th position.

In reality, Americans aren’t particularly sad compared to the rest of the world — in fact, they’re objectively among the happiest. The United States ranks 19th out of 149 countries, after all. But whether it’s because the U.S. is the wealthiest country in the world; or because of that relentless optimism Americans are known for worldwide; or a widely held belief (by Americans) that America is innately different from the rest of the world, scholars and politicians have wondered why this country isn’t at the top of the list.

COVID-19 may be responsible for much of the drop. But more than a global pandemic, a mix of economic, social and cultural circumstances have joined together over time to create a particular kind of American discontent. And though Americans still enjoy relatively happy existences, there are ways they can do better.

The impact of COVID-19 might explain some of the downward happiness trends America has been seeing. Increased loneliness, uncertainty and joblessness have made American problems, and other problems, much worse. American life satisfaction took a tumble and kept falling after April of 2020, and “negative affect” (a measure of emotions and self-concept) began to crawl up. Then the COVID Response Tracking Study found that more Americans than in the past were pessimistic and unhappy about the future.

But COVID-19 can’t explain the trend Americans have experienced since long before the pandemic hit — according to a number of sources, they’ve been trending downward for years.


“We're always convinced we're exceptional. And now it seems to me we're exceptional in our stupidity more than anything else,” says Carol Graham. Graham is a Senior Fellow at the Brookings institute, a think tank specializing in social sciences; Graham’s expertise is in measuring American well-being.

“We were the only rich country in the world prior to COVID where mortality rates were going up rather than down,” Graham says. “And that was due to deaths of despair in less than college educated middle aged whites.” Suicide, drug overdose, and liver disease from alcohol are typically known as “deaths of despair” because they happen more in groups with little hope for improved economic or social conditions.

Graham’s research tells a story of economic upheaval beginning long before the pandemic hit — bolstered by a racist history — that’s had unexpected outcomes. As well-paying blue collar jobs for white men in American manufacturing disappeared and Walmarts moved in, joblessness, low education, addiction and despair followed.

Meanwhile, non-white Americans, who spent centuries battling discrimination in American workplaces, economies and society, built informal networks of support in extended family or religious institutions. They prioritized higher education as a way to improve life. In fact, while Black and Hispanic Americans (two major groups for whom census data is gathered) still face higher student loan debt, healthcare disparities, and higher rates of poverty, they are more optimistic than ever before.

But as rural, white communities continued to hang on to the American dream with fewer and fewer prospects, they saw their own belief system crumbling.

“The group that most believe, hook line and sinker, ‘you work hard to get ahead, you don't want government support, government support’s for losers,’ all of a sudden needs collective support, needs all sorts of things, and doesn't have those natural, informal social linkages,” Graham says. And because America is still majority white, American unhappiness went down overall.

This isn’t the first time social scientists have pointed toward American economics as the root of American unhappiness. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist at Claremont Graduate University who was known for his work on happiness and creativity, wrote back in 1999 about capitalistic measures of our own success, 


Economics, however, may not tell the entire story of American discontent. Tied up in the classic narrative of hard work, material payoff and more recently, workaholism, is a reliance on the individual and not the group. In one study on the US, Russia, Germany and East Asia,
researchers found that those in cultures that value collectivism versus individualism tended to be more successful in pursuing happiness because of an emphasis on social engagement.

The richest countries are not happiest, the healthiest countries are not always the happiest. The happiest countries are the ones who do have the highest levels of a whole range of things,” says John Helliwell, an editor of The World Happiness Report and professor emeritus of the Vancouver School of Economics. “They include, especially, a willingness to trust each other to work for each other, and to come together in times of difficulty.”

Helliwell describes speaking to executives in Denmark, the second happiest country according to the World Happiness Report, about their workplaces, which he described as more collaborative and communal. “They share the same lunch room, they share the same conversations about what to do to make a better product, knowing about what's going on in the other's families,” Helliwell says. Pay was also, crucially, more equal. That is, the gap in pay between the highest- and lowest-paid workers at a company was relatively small. “These flat structures are happier places to work. And they're often more effective.

The United States, on the other hand, is one of the most unequal rich countries, and the most unequal of the G7 nations, according to the Pew Research Center. Inequality, which the World Happiness Report uses as one of the strongest measures of social trust, plays a big role in happiness. Access to healthcare and education is also unequal, Helliwell adds. “Despite lots of people's efforts, it probably is less equal than it was 50 years ago. And that has consequences.”

Continental poverty divide


It may not be that inequality would affect individuals in a vacuum. After all, if we didn’t know how well-off Jeff Bezos — or even our neighbor — was, we might not care. But the feeling of relative scarcity, that one has less compared to others, is a powerful one. And we’re not just limited to our neighborhood or commute in absorbing what others have — social media, with its roots in America, allows us to be bombarded with it at all hours of the day.

“That idea of wanting to have a better car, or a better backdrop for your vacation photo, or your wedding is probably more prevalent in the United States than elsewhere,” adds Helliwell. And a growing body of research supports this phenomenon. One study found that more Facebook, Instagram and Twitter use resulted in less well-being, while the opposite was true of real, face-to-face social interaction.

There’s also much less bullying and arguing. “Once people get a chance to meet each other and sit down and talk together,” says Helliwell, “they're much less likely to even consider the option of saying negative things about each other or act in negative ways. Social media has a built-in distance.”

And, Helliwell points out, mass media has a way of overreporting the bad and exaggerating perceptions of danger and mistrust. But it’s not all doom and gloom. Helliwell says that based on findings from the World Happiness Report, COVID-19, surprisingly, allowed people worldwide to see more examples of people helping one another out.

“People are now acutely aware that there are people who need help. And what's more, they're doing something about it,” Helliwell says. “People who are not going to Brazil on a mountaintop on their holidays, but are walking in their block and meeting their neighbors, ended up getting happier.”

* * *

“Has it ever struck you that life is all memory, except for the one present moment that goes by you so quick you hardly catch it going?” ~ Tennessee Williams


That's why the thought of Alzheimer's or any other memory-erasing condition is so frightening. You'd think that would result in a lot of research funding for brain diseases. Not so. Cancer comes ahead. And aging itself (most chronic diseases are the diseases of aging) is in 15th place. Alzheimer's Disease is in 35th place.

“Anyone who ever gave you confidence, you owe them a lot.” ~ Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany


I'm infinitely grateful to all those who gave me confidence. They say it takes only one person who believes in you, and you'll be OK. That may be true, but after you get used to being attacked and put down every day, and having been bullied in school, it helps if it's many supportive people rather than just one -- though every supportive comment helps. I bless every editor who took a minute to scribble a note, even every man whose face lit up when he looked at me (no sexual harassment, that!) I bless every unknown driver who's ever let me into a lane -- that too has added to my confidence — in the basic goodness of humanity and myself (studies found that performing an act of kindness makes people happy).



~ Africa is going to smash into Europe as Australia migrates north to merge with Asia. Meanwhile the Atlantic Ocean will probably widen for a spell before it reverses course and later disappears. ~

If our existence spanned hundreds of millions of years instead of just a handful of decades, we would see land masses constantly merge and break up again, their dance around the earth powered by a near-continuous orgy of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

For at least a few times already, all of our planet's dry bits have come together to form a single, giant island in a single, giant sea. Roughly 200 million years ago, Pangaea was the last iteration of this recurring supercontinent. That deep history will repeat itself. In another 250 million years, we'll have the next supercontinent. We've already got the name: Pangaea Proxima.

Here's what our world will look like at that time: the Americas attached to Africa in the north and Antarctica in the south; Africa slammed into Europe and the Middle East; and Australia welded to Asia's east. The giant continent is centered around the remains of the Indian Ocean, now an interior sea mirroring the former Mediterranean, with a boot-like India posing as a replacement Italy.

Where continents have collided, new mountain ranges have arisen. The world's new high point is no longer located in the Himalayas, but in the as yet unnamed range that has sprung up where Florida and Georgia have slammed into South Africa and Namibia.

It's unlikely that there will be any humans around to witness the reunification of the world's land masses – we'll be lucky to survive the next century, let alone the current millennium – but the map includes some present-day cities nevertheless, for your orientation.

Or more likely, for your disorientation. On Pangaea Proxima, Cape Town and Mexico City are just a day's drive apart. Lagos is to the north of New York, and both are close to the Atlantic Sea, the shrunken remnant of the former ocean. And you could travel from Sydney to Shanghai and on towards Tokyo without having to cross a single body of water.

Europe has attached itself to Africa, and Britain – Brexit notwithstanding – has rejoined Europe. One thing has remained reassuringly the same: New Zealand is still an isolated place, forever threatening to fall off the bottom right part of the map.

The movements of continents, starting with Pangaea, 200 million years ago



One morning I had a naughty thought, “If I were god, I would do good things for people.” Later, an even more subversive thought arose (I take no responsibility for my thoughts. They simply arise). Remembering how god was presented to us as the eye in the sky, spying on everyone’s sins, I realized that in the book of Job there was a hint that this was the function of one of the sons of god, Satan (ha Shatan) — THE ADVERSARY. The Prosecution. It was Satan who “walked up and down the earth,” building the case against this or that human being.

It was bad enough that god would make bets with Satan. There was no need to fuse the two entities. God was unlovable enough as judge and executioner. To make him also collect the evidence for the Prosecution was really going too far.

In Rogier van der Weyden’s painting, the task of “weighing the souls” (the heavier ones went to hell) seems to have been delegated to Archangel Michael. In the town where I was born, right under the “ambona” (from where the priest preached the sermon) there was a baroque naked angel (with a sculpted loincloth billowing about) weighing the souls, one scale dipping down: a new meaning to “heavy soul.”

St. Michael Weighing the Souls, from The Last Judgement, C.1445-50


I see, or rather read, more and more “blasphemy.” My father had nothing but contempt for the catholic church, but in childhood I didn’t consider it blasphemy, the church being a flawed human institution, a fear-of-hell-based substitute for real holiness. So what if priests had “relations” (I didn’t even know what the word meant).

But then, when I was ten or so, my mother saw my anguish, guessed that it was over sin and hell, and said, out of the blue, “There is no hell. God wouldn’t be so cruel.” BLASPHEMY! I winced with horror: hell was the very foundation of sacred teachings, and now my mother, a blasphemer, was going straight to hell for sure.

Then at 14, it was my turn. After the insight that the religion that had been forced on me was just another mythology, still half-believing but having decided that a cruel god like that did not deserve worship, I said in my mind, “If god exists, let him strike me with lightning.” And waited, utterly terrified. I’ll never forget those five minutes of terror. I stood in one spot -- I vaguely remember pavement and trees, the cooing of pigeons -- I literally could not move, paralyzed with fear. I was waiting for that lightning (it wasn’t even a stormy day, but that did not matter to the part of me that still believed; the laws of nature were irrelevant; I had blasphemed and would be punished).

Finally I unfroze and continued walking to wherever I was going — maybe to the nearest kiosk to buy the newspaper for my blaspheming parents.

Many years later, in the less Catholic-repressed US, I had a boyfriend who several times called god as asshole. In spite of the lapse of time I still experienced shock. That was before the “new atheism." Now “blasphemy” is nothing special. If anything, it’s ridiculous, given that someone is insulting a fictitious character. If a modern reader calls Achilles an asshole, that's just literary criticism.

But the awareness that blasphemy was once punishable by burning at the stake is always with me. The clergy understood that in the absence of divine punishment, they had to be the executioners. Recently I was thinking about capital punishment for blasphemy in some Islamic countries (unbelief falls under the category of blasphemy). It struck me that such punishment itself constituted blasphemy, a lack of faith that god himself would exact revenge. Punishment simply could not be left in god’s hands! And, come to think of it, nothing could be left in god’s invisible hands. The most religious countries seem to have the least faith.


. . . and we were taught that god had unlimited powers, down to reading every thought in our head (even if we are wearing a helmet).

But this meme is more than facile satire. Jimmy Bakker has accidentally revealed the assumptions of the Fundamentalist clergy: You can't trust God to do the "right thing." You have to do it for him.



There's an overlooked power to prayer that could help explain why people engage in this repetitive recitation of words that in any other situation would strike us as perverse. I mean, imagine if you ended up in conversation with someone who talked to you like they were praying to whatever. Pop-tarts or Cancun, God or Teslas. You'd think they were weird.

Prayer makes people feel good about themselves. They feel virtuous and humble. It's the buzz of posturing as a pious saint. As such it's a kind of moral mental masturbation.

I have nothing against that kind of moral mental masturbation. I think humans need it. I just don't think it's a whole other ballgame from sexual masturbation, which I also think is useful. Close your eyes and picture yourself either a moral or a sexual studmuffin. Harmless so long as afterward, you remember that you're just a human, neither saint nor studmuffin. ~ Jeremy Sherman


I find it wonderful how Jeremy subverted the usual meaning of that very common phrase, "the power of prayer." 

I also think that praying gives the devotees of prayers the illusion of doing something useful, either for themselves or for others, when in fact they are doing absolutely nothing to help. When you have no intention to send money or to volunteer your time, you can always say, "I'm sending my prayers."

Jeremy Sherman:

That too, and anyway it's highly therapeutic to voice our wishes. Amen to that.
And to having a way to virtue-signal to oneself self-reassuringly. I'm a guy who wrestles lifelong with temptations I'm ambivalent about. I'm lucky. They're not overwhelming temptations. But I know what it's like to have a regular ritual gesture that reassures me I haven't become a total slob. I may be over-eating but at least I'm doing the Insanity workout every day, so I'm good. 
Taken to the extreme you get the White Evangelical movement that could say "sure I'm trying to overthrow the US democracy but at least I pray to God once a day and I couldn't really be callous because after all, I'm against abortion. 
Token gestures. Virtue-signaling to oneself. 
And to others. An atheist doesn't quite know how to respond when someone says, "I'm praying for your quick recovery." I think that "thank you" is a convenient white lie in such moments. Likewise when when someone says, "God bless you." 

And besides, most likely they are NOT praying for you. If they do any praying at all, it's for themselves.


~ In October 2019, a month or so before Covid-19 began to spread from the industrial Chinese city of Wuhan, Steven Taylor, an Australian psychologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, published what would turn out to be a remarkably prophetic book, The Psychology of Pandemics.

Even his publishers had doubts about its relevance and market potential. But in the 22 months since, the book has become like a Lonely Planet guide to the pandemic, passed around and marked up like waypoints along a new and dreadful global health journey.

Taylor’s book, as its foreword points out, is a picture of “how human factors impact the spreading of disease and emotional disturbance”. The stops along the way include prejudices, the role of the media, attitudes to vaccinations, how society manages rumors, and the psychology of conspiracy theories.

The western world, with its enviable access to healthcare compared with much of the planet, is approximately at Chapter 10 in this journey: improving vaccine adherence. “Vaccine hesitancy doesn’t really get at the motivational roots for why people don’t want to get vaccinated,” Taylor told the Guardian.

CDC data showing that urban and rural rates of Covid-19 transmission closely shadow each other, and broad availability of vaccines across much of the western world, suggests denser psychological complexities around “hesitancy” than described by political or economic orthodoxies to explain why 90 million adult Americans remain unprotected by any vaccine.
A preferable term, Taylor writes, and one that has been used by psychologists for close to 60 years, is psychological reactance – a motivational response to “rules, regulation, or attempts at persuasion that are perceived as threatening to one’s autonomy and freedom of choice”.

Despite this, Taylor says that what people say about vaccination is often different from what they do, and studies before vaccines were released predicted a lower take-up than what has actually taken place when faced with a lethal pandemic. That, in many ways, is an optimistic sign, as are signs that vaccination take-up is again rising as the Delta variant surges, especially among unvaccinated populations.

What is clear, Taylor says, is that anger directed politically or personally toward vaccinate-hesitant groups is likely to be counterproductive, especially when available vaccines are both overwhelmingly safe and highly effective.

“Psychological reactance has been an issue around any public health guidance, whether that’s increasing the intake of more fruit and vegetables, good dental hygiene or vaccinations and masks,” Taylor said. “The you’re-not-the-boss-of-me kind of response is seen particularly in people raised in cultures that take pride in freedom and individualism.”

Despite this, Taylor says that what people say about vaccination is often different from what they do, and studies before vaccines were released predicted a lower take-up than what has actually taken place when faced with a lethal pandemic. That, in many ways, is an optimistic sign, as are signs that vaccination take-up is again rising as the Delta variant surges, especially among unvaccinated populations.

“The anti-lockdown, anti-mask, anti-vax protests have been a lot more prevalent than they were 100 years ago, even if they were motivated for the same reasons,” he said.

One exception, Taylor says, is the prominence of conspiratorial thinking. “A lot of conspiracy theorists who had tended to communicate with one another emerged from their silos to promote their theories more widely and, I suppose, indoctrinated more people as a result of Covid-19.”

Taylor theorizes that with the Delta variant on the rise, any return to lockdown could trigger an exaggerated backlash and rebellion – part of the psychological phenomenon commonly known as pandemic fatigue.

Lockdowns, he says, are not a long-term strategy for managing pandemics. “They’re a necessary evil but if we have another wave when people have just got a taste of freedom it’s going to demoralize people and be bad for mental health,” he said.

By the same token, people’s desire to get back to pre-pandemic life doesn’t speak to health resilience any more than psychological reactance, he says.

“The consequence of people rushing out to socialize prematurely is part of the uncertainty, especially for people who see themselves as impervious or of robust health,” Taylor points out.
“We’re going to see recurrent outbreaks of Covid, but the desire to socialize is stronger than the fear of getting infected.” And that is psychology. ~


Parents are cursed with the phenomenon of psychological reactance in their children, especially adolescents. The basic attitude is "I won't let you boss me around." The folk wisdom calls it "cutting off your nose to spite your face."

You can also encounter psychological reactance in addicts of all sorts, e.g. in alcoholics who insist they have a constitutional right to drink and/or kill themselves if they so please.

Still, even with 90 million adults remaining unvaccinated, it's interesting that earlier studies predicted an even greater rejection of vaccines.

My own experience with the vaccine was amazing (at least to myself). I chose the J&J vaccine so I'd be sick afterwards only once. My self image of myself was as somebody rather sickly
after all, I am officially handicapped since after my knee replacement surgery I need to use a walker (and have not committed suicide only thanks to methyl salicylate, the main ingredient in Bengay and a miracle drug for my chronic knee pain; it works for migraines too). Thus, I expected severe side effects. 

To my astonishment, there were . . . none. Tiny discomfort at the injection site was gone within minutes. The day passed, then another and nothing. Did I really get the vaccine or perhaps Costco gave me an injection of saline instead? I realized that wasn't likely so that means I did as well as those various people (chiefly men) who triumphantly reported no side effects on social media. And the self-image as a "sicko" that was sold to me by my primary physician began to slightly fade away . . . 


Thanks for the word reactance. I think it’s true we get energy from rebelling against what experts advise us to do. But it’s childish and self-destructive energy. If I decided not to floss my teeth tonight, I imagine I’d get a kick out of that decision. But what a stupid kick.


Sometimes I get a kick out of not buying things — in spite of the implicit pressure that to be a good citizen you should also be a super-consumer, to keep the economy going. I like old-fashioned thrift. And I love to say “Hah-hah!” to the whole advertising industry. No, I won’t buy all the stupid junk you want me to buy, and you can't make me, hah-hah!

On the other hand, this may not be a pure case of reactance since buying less (have you heard of the “Buy Nothing” movement?) helps protect the environment. Minimalist consumers get to feel virtuous.

Mainly, yes, reactance is frequent in children and adolescents — they don’t want to be “bossed around” and may do foolish things just to spite parents. Another highly reactant group is alcoholics and other addicts. 

On the whole, it's probably unavoidable that putting pressure on anyone will result in reactance. That's why rewards and incentives work better.

photo: Lars Leber



~ Our dental health changed with our diets. Ancient humans and their hominin ancestors really didn’t have much of a problem with cavities. Unhappy smiles became more common only after the advent of farming led to humans eating a lot more carbs — a shift that went even further following the widespread availability of refined flour and sugar in the 19th century.

But in the past decade or so, scientists sequenced the DNA from ancient dental plaque and figured out that something else in our mouths was changing at the same time as our dental health. Turns out, there are specific strains of bacteria — streptococcus mutans, in particular — that are more common in mouths with cavities. And as human diets changed and cavities became more common, those bacteria started taking over our mouths. Our modern communities of oral bacteria are less diverse than our ancestors’ were, and they’re dominated by these cavity-causing strains.

Increasingly, scientists are thinking of cavities as a microbiome problem. The advice you got as a kid — brush your teeth, floss, eat less candy — is still important. But it’s becoming more clear that the types of bacteria inhabiting your mouth matter, too. Some people do all the oral hygiene stuff right and still get cavities because of the bacteria living in their mouths. Which presents a question: If the types of bacteria in your mouth can make you more prone to cavities, could you fix your teeth by getting different bacteria?

I got interested in this question for selfish reasons: Namely, I am one of those people who brush and floss and eat a diet lower in sugar compared with the average American and still  — still — end up with cavities on the regular. Obviously, this is unfair, but even worse, it looks like one of my two children might be in the same position. I wondered if I had caused my kid’s cavities by passing my bacteria on to her and if, somehow, I could solve the problem with … a spit transplant? (I dunno, man, you think wild things at the pediatric dentist.)

Mouth bacteria are connected to cavities because of the tiny creatures’ digestive process. “Cavity bugs,” as my daughters’ dentist calls them, feed on bits of sugar and carbs stuck to your teeth. The bacteria ferment those things, creating natural acids that start to dissolve the tooth enamel, similar to how water combines with carbon dioxide to dissolve limestone in a cave.

My fear that I had spread cavity-causing bacteria to my kid is, unfortunately, substantiated by science, said Robert Burne, a professor of oral biology at the University of Florida. “You can take an animal that naturally develops cavities and feed it a high-sugar diet, and it will get cavities. And if you house it with animals that seem to be naturally resistant to cavities, they will then develop cavities,” he said. Cavities, in other words, are a transmissible, infectious disease.

What’s more, Burne told me, research has shown that a caregiver’s susceptibility to cavities — be it a parent or a day care provider — can predict how likely a kid is to get cavities.

And transplanting the bacteria of a not-cavity-prone person to someone who’s cavity-impaired isn’t really an option. Rob Knight, director of the Center for Microbiome Innovation at the University of California, San Diego, was once approached by a dentist in Colorado who wanted his help with a study based on that very idea. “He had noticed that some of his patients tended to get cavities at very high rates, even though they were absolutely scrupulous about brushing and flossing, and other patients did basically nothing and they got no cavities at all. So he was hoping to do an oral microbiota transplant, essentially, by transferring saliva from people who did not get cavities to people who did get cavities,” Knight said. The dentist’s proposed mechanism? Hire attractive women with few cavities to kiss cavity-prone participants. The plan never made it past an institutional review board.

Now the basic idea here — to give people better oral health by changing their oral microbiome — isn’t a bad one, Knight said. But the problem (besides the whole bit with the beauty subjectivity  and the kissing) is that scientists simply don’t know enough about the oral microbiome to guess whether a spit transplant would work, would work only temporarily or would make things worse. That’s because the connections between specific bacterial strains and cavities are merely correlations — nobody knows yet if one causes the other. 

Studies comparing the oral microbiomes of people who have healthy teeth with people who don’t find more streptococcus mutans in the cavity-prone. However, as Knight explained, changing a kid’s microbiome does not necessarily mean changing whether that kid gets cavities. “We might just be seeing a side effect of something else,” he said. Does the bacteria cause the cavities, or are the bacteria and the cavities together a response to some other factor? Nobody knows.

On top of this, your oral microbiome isn’t static. It changes over the course of your life, over the course of the day and even from one part of your mouth to another, Knight said. What does that mean for the idea of changing the oral microbiome? Again, nobody knows. But it does suggest that the issue is more complicated than one that could be solved simply by kissing some strangers with low dental bills.

But there is some good news in all this. Scientists know a handful of surefire ways to make your oral microbiome healthier. Are you ready for this insider knowledge? OK, here goes: You have to brush twice a day, floss, use mouthwash and eat a diet low in sugars and refined carbohydrates. Yeah, the advice you were getting all along is also a form of biohacking. Those activities change the pH levels in your mouth, Burne told me, making an environment that is less acidic and more friendly to the kinds of bacteria that aren’t associated with cavity formation. Decreasing the acidity also helps promote remineralization — basically the process of your teeth fixing themselves. The opposite of this advice — eating a lot of sugar and not reliably cleaning your teeth — creates an environment that is more friendly to streptococcus mutans and its buddies. “It’s a [natural] selection process,” Burne said.

At some point in the future, researchers may well find out enough about the oral microbiome to start hacking it in a more high-tech way — a way that could address the plight of people who do the basics but still get less-than-stellar results. But despite the promises of a plethora of sketchy probiotic “supplements” on the market, we just aren’t there yet.

So the best thing to do is double down on the stuff you’ve already (hopefully) been doing. That is not, shall we say, what I wanted to hear. I wanted some easy solution that would improve my life and my child’s. But in the time it took to research and write this story, I stumbled upon her stash of empty candy wrappers. And that, at least, gives us a place to start making changes. Step one: Don’t give the cavity bugs a buffet.


The obvious solution — until we have more specific data — is simply to eat fewer carbs. This creates a dilemma, since a lot of nutrients are present in “good carbs,” such as beets and sweet potatoes. But wait! there are vegetables like raw carrots that actually help clean your teeth. More on this below.


WATER. Water helps wash away food particles and keeps your saliva levels high.


Cheese is one of the best foods for healthy teeth for a number of reasons. First, it is low in sugar and high in calcium. It contains casein, which is a protein that is particularly useful for fortifying tooth enamel. Cheese is high in calcium, which is important for maintaining bone density. Cheese is also high in phosphate content, which helps balance pH levels in the mouth, which helps to preserve tooth enamel. Another great reason cheese is a friend to our teeth is that chewing it increases saliva production, which helps to wash away bacteria in the mouth.

[Oriana: Gouda cheese in particular is rich in Vitamin K2, which helps prevent cavities]

Aside from water, milk is the best drink when it comes to your teeth. It’s rich in calcium and other important elements. Milk, like cheese, also lowers the acid levels in the mouth, which helps fighting tooth decay.

Yogurt is packed with calcium and probiotics that protect you against cavities, gum disease and even bad breath.


Many vegetables are good for teeth because they require a lot of chewing to clean teeth surfaces. Crunchy, firm foods that contain lots of water are great natural teeth cleaners because they stimulate the flow of saliva, which helps to scrub away food particles and bacteria. These fresh crunchy veggies are usually also packed with some of the most important minerals and vitamins for your mouth.

Celery is probably the closest thing to nature’s dental floss. The crunchy and fibrous texture makes for a very effective natural teeth cleaner.

In addition to packing lots of nutrients, carrots are also one of the great cavity-fighting vegetables. Carrots contain lots of vitamin C, calcium and keratins which all offer dental benefits. Eating fresh carrots also helps to clean your teeth – like a natural toothbrush. When combined with your saliva, carrots help to wash away stain-causing bacteria and food particles. 

In addition to packing lots of nutrients, carrots are also one of the great cavity-fighting vegetables. Carrots contain lots of vitamin C, calcium and keratins which all offer dental benefits. Eating fresh carrots also helps to clean your teeth – like a natural toothbrush. When combined with your saliva, carrots help to wash away stain-causing bacteria and food particles.


Super healthy, leafy greens are rich in calcium, folic acid and lots of important vitamins and minerals that your teeth and gums love. Crunchy fresh greens in salads and sandwiches also help in cleaning your teeth.


Will an apple a day keep the dentist away? Maybe not, but it will certainly help. Eating apples or other hard fibrous fruits can help clean your teeth and increases salivation, which can neutralize the citric and malic acids left behind in your mouth. And while sugary apple juice may contribute to tooth decay, fresh apples are less likely to cause problems. This is because chewing the fibrous texture of apples stimulates your gums, further reducing cavity-causing bacteria and increasing saliva flow.

Unlike many acidic fruits, raw pears are good at neutralizing acids in your mouth that cause decay.


Nuts are full of health benefits for your teeth. They are packed with tons of important elements like calcium and phosphorus. Especially beneficial are almonds, Brazil nuts and cashews, which help to fight bacteria that lead to tooth decay. For instance, peanuts are a great source of calcium and vitamin D, and almonds offer good amounts of calcium, which is beneficial to teeth and gums.  Cashews are known to stimulate saliva and walnuts contain everything from fiber, folic acid, iron, thiamine, magnesium, iron, niacin, vitamin E, vitamin B6, potassium and zinc.


Most meats offer some of the most important nutrients mentioned above, and chewing meat produces saliva. And more saliva is good, because it decreases acidity in your mouth and washes away particles of food that lead to decay. Red meat and even organ meats are especially beneficial.

Fatty fish (like salmon), and tofu are loaded with phosphorus, an important mineral for protecting tooth enamel.


Heard of polyphenols? Polyphenols are a category of chemicals that naturally occur in many of the foods and drinks we consume, including teas and coffee. They offer several health benefits, including their role as antioxidants, which can combat cell damage, as well as their effects on reducing inflammation and helping to fight cancer. Green and black teas are rich in polyphenols and offers a number of other health benefits.


There is a long-held perception that raisins promote cavities. However, one study suggests that compounds in raisins may actually fight tooth decay. One of the five phytochemicals the study identified in raisins is oleanolic acid. In the study, oleanolic acid inhibited the growth of two species of oral bacteria: Streptococcus mutans, which causes cavities, and Porphyromonas gingivalis, which causes periodontal disease.


We all know that vitamin C is good for the body because of its antioxidant properties and for growth and repair of tissues in all parts of your body. This also true for teeth. The collagen in the dentin of teeth depends on vitamin C for maintaining its strength and structure through synthesis.

Strawberries are packed with Vitamin C, antioxidants and also malic acid, which could even naturally whiten your teeth. Be sure your diet includes fresh fruits and veggies rich in vitamin C, such as apples, pears, strawberries, pineapples, tomatoes, broccoli, bell peppers, and cucumbers.


Okay, maybe garlic isn’t a go-to for fresh breath. However, the allicin that is contained in garlic has strong antimicrobial properties, which can help fight tooth decay and especially periodontal disease.

Again, maybe not the first choice for fresh breath. When eaten raw, onions have powerful antibacterial properties especially against some of the bacteria that causes cavities and gum disease.


These mushrooms pack a bold flavor, and offer anti-microbial properties for fighting tooth decay. Researchers found that shiitake mushrooms contain a poly-saccharide called
lentinan, which prevents the growth of bacteria in the mouth.


Drink plenty of water during and after meals to help wash away sugars and acids left from snacks and meals.


A fascinating article — I had no idea about shiitake, for instance!

I started munching on raw carrots while reading this — so simple. Good for your teeth and your digestion ("Disease starts in the gut" is true in many cases).

ending on beauty:

Last night your memory stole into my heart
the way spring steals into a desolate field
Or the breeze spills all its tenderness on a parched desert
Or the infirm one suddenly feels well-- for no reason

~ Faiz Ahmed Faiz, tr from Urdu: Shadab Zeest Hashmi

(photo: Doug Chesser)


Saturday, August 21, 2021


Georgia O’Keeffe: Grey Lines with Black, Blue, and Yellow, 1923


My love, I have a new lover.
Last night he and I
watched a shadow-bruised moon
sail between narrow clouds.

You preferred the ghostlight of dreams.
You hated these ruthless streets,
the suspicion you were only human.
You wanted a candle-lit

mansion of a thousand windows.
But you lived in one room,
and what you drank
wasn’t a love potion.

Tarnished glow shrouds the pavement.
Legend says you died for love,
and that I died with you.
That I loved only Tristan.

But to me every man I loved
was Tristan.

Before a sliver of steel
took you past farthest shore,
in one instant you knew
you loved nothing and no one.

How cold the sea wind is
for the journey beyond you.

~ Oriana


I sense here a mature sensibility. Only a woman who has experienced a lot would say, “To me every man I loved / was Tristan.”


I agree. Only an experienced woman is finally free from the "one and only" mythology of romantic love.

It strikes me that one of the enormous changes that started happening in the twentieth century is that women have been able to have several erotic relationships over the course of years — and thus to learn from each relationship. One of the things we learn is that at first we automatically idealize our love object, and tend to think that this love is finally the true love, this man the soulmate we’ve been waiting for. Not always, but I think this holds true for the more  serious involvements.

And here the particular irony is that the man who inspired this poem wasn’t a great love, much less the greatest love of my life. But because of the shock of his suicide he inspired a great many poems, which I collected into a chapbook, Virgo in Gray.


“Being a woman is a terribly difficult task, since it consists principally in dealing with men.” ~ Joseph Conrad


~ It’s a truism that high culture, as it used to be known, has been steadily losing its authority since the rise of mass culture in the early twentieth century. In 1939, the art critic Clement Greenberg observed in his essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” that the audience for stringent modernist works by Joyce or Picasso was dwarfed by the appetite for “ersatz culture, kitsch, destined for those who, insensible to the values of genuine culture, are hungry nevertheless for the diversion that only culture of some sort can provide.” Kitsch, Greenberg wrote, “has gone on a triumphal tour of the world, crowding out and defacing native cultures in one colonial country after another, so that it is now by way of becoming a universal culture, the first universal culture ever beheld.”

A few years later, in their 1947 book Dialectic of Enlightenment, the Marxist cultural critics Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer offered an influential analysis of “the culture industry,” arguing that while genuine art allowed for free, individual response, Hollywood movies and pop songs turned its audience into passive and docile consumers. In 1960, Dwight Macdonald popularized that idea in his essay “Masscult and Midcult,” writing that mass culture was “anti-art,” “a uniform product whose humble aim is not even entertainment, for this too implies life and hence effort, but merely distraction.”

In his 1963 essay “Culture Industry Reconsidered,” Adorno insists that the consumers of mass culture actually despise and resent it: “They force their eyes shut and voice approval, in a kind of self-loathing, for what is meted out to them, knowing fully the purpose for which it is manufactured.”

Some such assumption is necessary for any thinker who wants to reconcile a commitment to artistic excellence with a commitment to democracy. It is parallel to the Marxist concept of false consciousness, which does the same thing in the political realm. If the working class ought to be revolutionary, why does it cling to its reactionary attachments to nation and religion? Because it is deceived by the ideology of the ruling classes. Why does the public prefer masscult to high culture? Because it is the victim of indoctrination by the culture industry. For Adorno that industry was a branch of capitalism, but Macdonald notes that the Soviet culture industry operated in much the same way: “like ours, it is imposed from above and it exploits rather than satisfies the needs of the masses.”

The idea of cultural false consciousness put a twentieth-century spin on a quintessentially Victorian idea: that the ills of modern society can be remedied by the right kind of culture. In his 1829 book On the Constitution of Church and State, Samuel Taylor Coleridge proposed that this task be assigned to an intellectual class he named the clerisy, which would be paid by the state through a national endowment as a secular counterpart to the clergy of the Church of England. The clerisy would be “planted throughout the realm, each in his appointed place, as the immediate agents and instruments in the great and indispensable work of perpetuating, promoting, and increasing the civilization of the nation.”

As Raymond Williams showed in his classic 1958 book, Culture and Society, the idea of culture as a social panacea appealed to Victorian thinkers troubled by the approach of democracy. Social critics like Thomas Carlyle and John Stuart Mill believed that the diffusion of culture would elevate the mind of the people, making it a wise sovereign rather than a violent and vengeful one. In the title of his 1869 book, Culture and Anarchy, Matthew Arnold named two possible futures for democratic society, leaving no doubt which was to be preferred.

It wasn’t just the working class that Arnold saw as in need of culture. “Sweetness and light” was also lacking among the aristocracy, whom Arnold nicknamed Barbarians, and the middle class, whom he called Philistines. Every class suffered from the tendency toward “anarchy,” since they all believed in “an Englishman’s right to do what he likes; his right to march where he likes, meet where he likes, enter where he likes, hoot as he likes, threaten as he likes, smash as he likes.”

To counter this libertarian nihilism, Arnold looked to the influence of culture, which he famously defined as “the best which has been thought and said in the world.” Exposure to the best would teach the Englishman to embrace “the pursuit of our total perfection,” which Arnold saw as the goal of culture and the key to a better society. He served this cause in his own working life as a school inspector, part of the new bureaucracy created to extend education to the working class.

In his 1988 book, Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America, the historian Lawrence Levine shows that Arnold had “an enormous influence in the United States,” where he inspired a generation of the intelligentsia to work for higher cultural standards. As Henry James wrote in 1884, “I shall not go so far as to say of Mr. Arnold that he invented” the concept of culture, “but he made it more definite than it had been before—he vivified and lighted it up.”

Arnold looked forward to a future in which democracy became cultured. By the time Greenberg and Adorno wrote in the 1930s and 1940s, however, it was clear that the opposite had happened: under the pressure of mass society and mass media, culture had been democratized. In the mid-twentieth century, it was no longer possible to argue that most people in Britain and America didn’t have access to “the best which has been thought and said.” Thanks to public education, public libraries, and public museums—and even more to new technologies like the phonograph and rotogravure—the treasures of the past had never been available to more people, regardless of birth. Someone like Clement Greenberg, the son of Jewish immigrants from the Bronx, could never have become a paladin of Western culture before the twentieth century. He simply wouldn’t have had access to the pictures and texts (to say nothing of the religious and class prejudice that would have barred him from his authoritative position).


If you search for Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony on Spotify, the most popular recording of the most popular piece in the classical repertoire is the one made in 1984 by Herbert von Karajan with the Berlin Philharmonic. The first movement has been streamed about 1.5 million times, the third about half a million (which tells a story in itself). By contrast, the hit song “Driver’s License,” by the teen pop star Olivia Rodrigo, was released in January 2021 and by the end of May it had been streamed 800 million times. These numbers are hard to reconcile with Adorno’s theory that pop music fans “force their eyes shut and voice approval, in a kind of self-loathing.” [Oriana: I strongly prefer Leonard Bernstein's dazzling Fifth; you can find it on Youtube.]

As for books, a recent visit to Amazon’s “Literature and Fiction” section found that the top sellers were a romance novel by Nicholas Sparks and a science-fiction novel by Andy Weir. By comparison, Ulysses, which served Greenberg as an example of the best of the twentieth-century avant-garde, is down around 81,000 in the long-standard Gabler edition (though, since it’s now out of copyright, there are several editions to choose from). [Oriana: But think of the multitude of fans who love Dickens, Jane Austen or Charlotte Brontë.]

Of course, Spotify and Kindle are imperfect measures of the true currency of any work. But they confirm the impression that people devoted to high culture must already have: that they are members of a very small minority. Just how small is impossible to say with any confidence. How many Americans pay attention to serious contemporary literature, art, or music? An estimate of one-half of one percent of the population—1.6 million people—would surely be on the high side.

The fact that most people aren’t interested in “the best which has been thought and said” isn’t really new. The same was true in 1869—that’s why Arnold wrote his book. What is new is the rejection of high culture in theory, as well as in practice. Since the 1960s, traditionally “high” forms and values have lost the power to command even notional respect from the public at large—not even through the inverted homage of satire, as in “Roll Over Beethoven.”

Levine’s Highbrow/Lowbrow is a good example [of the changing attitudes of the guardians of high culture]. The historian argues that when some Americans in the nineteenth century started to want to see Wagner operas at full length and in an atmosphere of concentration, rather than a potpourri of Verdi arias interspersed with patriotic songs and pantomimes, it was because they were consolidating their class privilege. The Arnoldian idea of culture, Levine writes, appealed to “segments of the new professional and middle classes who lacked any bedrock of security and needed to distance themselves, culturally at least, from those below them on the socioeconomic scale. The cloak of culture—approved, sanctified, conspicuous culture—promised to become a carapace impervious to assault from above or below.”

The idea that high culture could challenge the values of democratic society and come out the victor was wishful from the beginning. Shelley implicitly acknowledged as much two hundred years ago in “A Defense of Poetry,” when he called poets “the unacknowledged legislators of mankind.” The Victorian sages hoped to turn the poets—and the novelists, philosophers, painters, and composers—into acknowledged legislators, and for a time parts of society paid lip service to the idea. But the reality of overwhelming public indifference to high culture was always plain to see, and in time the partisans of culture lost their appetite for fighting it.

Today Arnold’s dream is turning itself inside out: those he would have considered cultured increasingly have to justify themselves to the uncultured, rather than vice versa. Another way of putting it is that high culture now functions like a counterculture, entailing a conscious act of dissent from the mainstream. Popular culture—television shows, pop songs, memes—is every American’s first language, the one we acquire whether we want to or not. Learning to understand and appreciate high culture is like learning a second language, which requires deliberate effort (and which Americans are famously averse to doing).

When high culture was officially prized, joining the counterculture meant rejecting its values. Today the situation is reversed, and things like aestheticism, pessimism, and the embrace of difficulty are highly countercultural. Indeed, they are more subversive than the Sixties counterculture ever was, since the latter—as Sontag belatedly realized—promoted a hedonism that was very much in the American grain, and which proved to be easily assimilated to plain old consumerism. Whereas there has never been much of a constituency for the obstinate and the exigent—just look at the worldly careers of Herman Melville and Emily Dickinson.

Finally, culture is countercultural in the sense that it carries more social risk than reward. Preferring things that are old, distant, and difficult to those that are immediate and ubiquitous means alienating oneself from one’s community, in some cases from one’s own family. It is at best an inexplicable quirk, at worst a form of antisocial arrogance. Villains in American movies are notoriously fond of classical music—like Sgt. Kilgore in Apocalypse Now, who massacres Vietnamese civilians with the “Ride of the Valkyries” blasting, or Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, who listens to the Goldberg Variations while eating a prison guard’s flesh.

All this may sound like a lament. But if acknowledging that culture is a counterculture means letting go of an old humanistic dream, it also puts an end to the evasions and compromises that are inevitable when culture is conceived of as an edifying force. The idea that engagement with classic works of art and thought is productive of sweetness and light was always at best a half-truth. There’s at least as good a case to be made that high culture is an antisocial force, encouraging inwardness and withdrawal, perplexity and disturbance. Arnold’s own poetry is anything but sweet or light; it echoes with what he calls, in “Dover Beach,” “the eternal note of sadness.”

In twenty-first-century America, certainly, high culture appears deeply subversive. Plato’s Republic teaches contempt for democracy as surely as King Lear teaches contempt for humanity. The Goldberg Variations are useless in the strict sense—they can be put to no use; they do nothing to make the listener more effective or a better citizen. Indeed, the most unsettling thing about high culture is that it is not a means to an end but an end in itself—which makes it the exact opposite of money, our usual standard for measuring worth.

That’s one reason why people who become culture heroes after their death are often seen as useless or worse while they’re alive. As the historian Ernest Renan wrote, “Opposition always makes the glory of a country.” If high culture must go into opposition in twenty-first-century America, at least it should exercise a privilege that is unavailable to a clerisy, but has always accrued to countercultures—the enjoyment of a certain stylish defiance. ~ Adam Kirsch


It’s thrilling to see myself as part of a counterculture. I thought that word was reserved strictly for the hippie movement of the late sixties and seventies. I was attracted to some aspects of it, but repelled by others.

I grew up surrounded by books, so it was only natural that in due time I’d fall ecstatically in love with classical music and great literature. I do enjoy certain favorite popular songs, the ones that speak to me: “She’s Got a Ticket to Ride” or “Like a Bridge over Troubled Water.” I worship Judy Garland’s iconic performance of The Battle Hymn of the Republic. But on the whole, I belong in the camp of what used to be called simply culture, and now is often classified as “high culture.” I also appreciate ideas like the anti-consumerist “Buy Nothing” movement.

So finally I have a label for myself and people like me. “Counterculture” isn’t just otherness, like being an outsider. The word connotes a certain kind of courage, a defiance of loneliness. I like it.


On high culture as counterculture, I have to credit my mother. She came from poor folks, both parents alcoholic, uneducated. I don't  know where her own love and knowledge of music and literature came from, but she was the source of those loves for me. One of her earliest gifts to me was Hawthorne's retelling of Greek myths, she had me watching Macbeth and The Tempest on TV before I was 9, we bought Shakespeare's plays at the thrift store for pennies, she introduced me to Beethoven, jazz, ballet and all the riches of the public library. These interests and ideas were not shared by the people around me, not until university. And again, now, no one I live with has any interest or knowledge of this kind of culture — all my connections and conversations about it are long distance. So I guess once again I'm part of a counterculture!


Long distance is right, and I bless the inventors of email. But then our kind of counterculture has typically relied on correspondence — great friendships and love affairs conducted by mail. When we fall in love with someone’s mind, it’s often mainly about long letters. And we fall in love with fictional characters too, so it’s a very rich love life. 

I'm used to thinking "mere curiosity has kept me alive"— simply wanting to know what happens next. But intellectual pleasure has also been a factor. I don't think of myself as a particularly lucky person (though this is beginning to change), but I have to admit that I have experienced plenty of intellectual pleasure, for which I feel extremely grateful.

Gustav Klimt: Schubert at the Piano


INTEROCEPTION (Want to feel happier? Lift weights)

~ There’s growing evidence that signals sent from our internal organs to the brain play a major role in regulating emotions and fending off anxiety and depression.

Interoception may be less well known than the “outward facing” senses such as sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell, but it has enormous consequences for your wellbeing. Scientists have shown that our sensitivity to interoceptive signals can determine our capacity to regulate our emotions, and our subsequent susceptibility to mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.

Interoception includes all the signals from your internal organs, including your cardiovascular system, your lungs, your gut, your bladder and your kidneys. “There’s a constant communication dialogue between the brain and the viscera,” says Tsakiris.

Much of the processing of these signals takes place below conscious awareness: you won’t be aware of the automatic feedback between brain and body that helps to keep your blood pressure level, for instance, or the signals that help to stabilize your blood sugar levels. But many of these sensations – such as tension in your muscles, the clenching of your stomach, or the beating of your heart – should be available to the conscious mind, at least some of the time. And the ways you read and interpret those feelings will have important consequences for your wellbeing.

“Researchers and clinicians are recognizing interoception as a key mechanism to mental and physical health, where understanding our body’s signals helps us understand and regulate emotional and physical states,” says Dr Helen Weng at the University of California San Francisco.

This idea stems from the pioneering work of Prof Antonio Damasio at the University of Southern California in the 1990s. He proposed that emotional events begin with non-conscious changes in bodily states, called “somatic markers”: when you see an angry dog, for instance, and your muscles tense or your heart begins to race. This physiological reaction occurs before you are even aware of the emotion, and it is only when the brain detects the alteration to the body’s internal state, through interoception, that we actually experience the feeling and allow it to shape our behavior. Without the back-and-forth between the brain and the body, the feelings of happiness, sadness or excitement wouldn’t exist.

As evidence, Damasio described the decision making of patients suffering damage to areas such as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which disrupted the creation of those unconscious bodily reactions. If they saw a photo of a horrific car crash, for example, they did not have the slightest physiological response – and this was accompanied by a lack of any emotional feeling either. They reported knowing that they should feel shocked or disgusted, but they didn’t actually experience the feelings. Importantly, the impaired interoception and emotional awareness also disrupted their decision making, meaning that they struggled to cope with the simplest choices, such as what meal to pick on a dinner menu. This suggests that our interoception lies behind our sense of intuition, when something just feels “right” or “wrong” without us being able to explain why.

Such processes may play an important role in many mental illnesses. A large subgroup of people with depression, for example, often show poorer interoceptive awareness on the heartbeat detection tasks, and, for these patients, the reduced ability to feel their bodily signals may lie behind their sense of lethargy and emotional numbness – the sense that they can “feel nothing” at all.

People with anxiety, in contrast, do report being attentive to their interoceptive signals – but they don’t necessarily read them accurately. They may misinterpret a small change in heart rate as being much bigger than it really is, for example, which can lead them to “catastrophize” their feelings and amplify their sense of panic.

Prof Hugo Critchley at Brighton and Sussex Medical School points out that poor interoceptive awareness can also lead to the sense of “depersonalization” and dissociation, which are early symptoms of psychosis and may be a precursor of their delusions. Interoception helps us to form our most basic sense of self, he says – and it seems to be askew in these patients.

Therapies that aim to address these problems are still in their infancy, but the early signs are promising. Critchley recently worked with 121 autistic adults – a group known to be at high risk of anxiety disorders – to see if improved interoception could reduce their feelings of stress. Over a course of six sessions, half the participants were given repeated attempts at the heartbeat detection tasks followed by detailed feedback on their performance. Those in the control condition, meanwhile, took part in voice recognition training, which was designed to help them detect the emotional overtones of people’s speech – a task that could well be useful in their lives, but which did not specifically target their interoceptive awareness.

Reporting their results in the Lancet earlier this month, the team found that the interoceptive training group showed markedly lower incidence of anxiety at a three-month follow-up, with 31% completely recovering from their anxiety disorder, compared with just 16% in the control group. “It improved people’s ability to recognize and ‘de-catastrophize’ their physiological experiences,” Critchley says. He tells me that his group has seen similar benefits in a more diverse student population, though that research has yet to be published.

Other teams have been investigating the potential use of mindfulness to improve people’s interoceptive awareness. There are many kinds of mindfulness, of course – some of which may place more focus on the mental experience and the appearance of thoughts. But Prof Cynthia Price at the University of Washington in Seattle has tested a training program that specifically encourages participants to focus on the internal sensations within sequential body areas.

Her participants were people with substance use problems. The condition is often accompanied by poor emotional regulation, which can make it harder to avoid relapse – and, crucially, many people report a sense of disembodiment that might contribute to their problems.

Price’s results so far suggest that the therapy successfully reduces symptoms of depression and cravings, and in one year-long study, it significantly increased abstinence, compared with those undergoing the standard treatments. She hopes the practice could be beneficial for many other people. “These skills should be helpful for anyone, regardless of whether they have a health condition.”

With time, it is possible that new technologies could ease this process. Tsakiris, for example, has investigated a small non-invasive device that clips to the ear and delivers a mild electric current, through the skin, to the vagus nerve, which acts as a pathway between the gut, the heart and the brain. In one experiment, Tsakiris found that the gentle stimulation increased people’s accuracy on one of the heartbeat detection tasks. “It seemed to strengthen the communication between the brain and the body; it opens up the bandwidth a little bit,” he says.

These are early findings, he emphasizes, but if further research confirms the benefits, it could be used during mindfulness exercises to train people’s interoception, he suggests.


Perhaps most intriguingly, the new awareness of interoception can help us to understand why certain physical exercises can be so good for our mental health. For one thing, regular workouts may change the nature of the signals that your brain receives. “If you’re deconditioned from a lack of exercise, you’re more likely to experience symptoms that you might associate with anxiety,” says Critchley. “Your heart will race more when you experience challenges – be it physical or emotional.” As you get fitter, however, and organs such as the heart become more adept at dealing with strain, your body will show a more resilient response to changing circumstances – changes that could spill over into your emotional wellbeing.

Equally importantly, the practice of exercise should lead you to be more attentive to those signals, so that you are also more accurate in reading and interpreting the changes that you detect. “This doesn’t mean that all athletes have very high emotion regulation capacities,” Tsakiris warns. “But they do have an advantage, precisely because their interoceptive system is better attuned.”

It’s not just aerobic exercise that will help; increasing evidence suggests that strength training can particularly effectively reduce feelings of anxiety. You might expect this to arise from the aesthetic improvements and the ego-boost that comes from looking more toned – but the effects remain even if you control for visible changes in muscle size. One potential explanation is that the training somehow alters the interoceptive signals we’re receiving from the muscles. By engaging with our muscles, we feel physically sturdier and more capable to deal with threats – and this bolsters our sense of self-esteem and mental resilience, too.

“Interoceptive feedback from the muscles can tell you something, unconsciously, about what you can achieve in the world,” explains science writer Caroline Williams, whose recent book Move! (Profile, 2021) explores the many ways that physical exercise can benefit the mind. “After strength training, your body feels that it can cope, and so, on some level, you feel a bit more in control of life.”

Interoception, it seems, is one of our most important senses. And by paying a little bit more attention to the signals it sends you, you may be healthier in body and mind. ~


I'm particularly interested in the finding that strength training increases our interoception — and lowers anxiety while bolstering mental resilience. I think this effect has been found for intense core exercises (such as slow sit-ups) as well. 

Also, I think we need to give credit to William James who said that emotion comes from the interpretation of bodily signals. You don't cry because you feel said, James argued. You feel sad because you cry. Perhaps the time to take this bold opinion seriously has finally come.


~ The distribution of wealth follows a well-known pattern sometimes called an 80:20 rule: 80 percent of the wealth is owned by 20 percent of the people. Indeed, a report last year concluded that just eight men had a total wealth equivalent to that of the world’s poorest 3.8 billion people.

This seems to occur in all societies at all scales. It is a well-studied pattern called a power law that crops up in a wide range of social phenomena. But the distribution of wealth is among the most controversial because of the issues it raises about fairness and merit. Why should so few people have so much wealth?

The conventional answer is that we live in a meritocracy in which people are rewarded for their talent, intelligence, effort, and so on. Over time, many people think, this translates into the wealth distribution that we observe, although a healthy dose of luck can play a role.

But there is a problem with this idea: while wealth distribution follows a power law, the distribution of human skills generally follows a normal distribution that is symmetric about an average value. For example, intelligence, as measured by IQ tests, follows this pattern. Average IQ is 100, but nobody has an IQ of 1,000 or 10,000.

The same is true of effort, as measured by hours worked. Some people work more hours than average and some work less, but nobody works a billion times more hours than anybody else.

And yet when it comes to the rewards for this work, some people do have billions of times more wealth than other people. What’s more, numerous studies have shown that the wealthiest people are generally not the most talented by other measures.

What factors, then, determine how individuals become wealthy? Could it be that chance plays a bigger role than anybody expected? And how can these factors, whatever they are, be exploited to make the world a better and fairer place?

We finally get an answer thanks to the work of Alessandro Pluchino at the University of Catania in Italy and a couple of colleagues. These guys have created a computer model of human talent and the way people use it to exploit opportunities in life. The model allows the team to study the role of chance in this process.

The results are something of an eye-opener. Their simulations accurately reproduce the wealth distribution in the real world. But the wealthiest individuals are not the most talented (although they must have a certain level of talent). They are the luckiest. And this has significant implications for the way societies can optimize the returns they get for investments in everything from business to science.

Pluchino and co’s model is straightforward. It consists of N people, each with a certain level of talent (skill, intelligence, ability, and so on). This talent is distributed normally around some average level, with some standard deviation. So some people are more talented than average and some are less so, but nobody is orders of magnitude more talented than anybody else.
This is the same kind of distribution seen for various human skills, or even characteristics like height or weight. Some people are taller or smaller than average, but nobody is the size of an ant or a skyscraper. Indeed, we are all quite similar.

The computer model charts each individual through a working life of 40 years. During this time, the individuals experience lucky events that they can exploit to increase their wealth if they are talented enough.

However, they also experience unlucky events that reduce their wealth. These events occur at random.

At the end of the 40 years, Pluchino and co rank the individuals by wealth and study the characteristics of the most successful. They also calculate the wealth distribution. They then repeat the simulation many times to check the robustness of the outcome.

When the team rank individuals by wealth, the distribution is exactly like that seen in real-world societies. “The ‘80-20’ rule is respected, since 80 percent of the population owns only 20 percent of the total capital, while the remaining 20 percent owns 80 percent of the same capital,” report Pluchino and co.

That may not be surprising or unfair if the wealthiest 20 percent turn out to be the most talented. But that isn’t what happens. The wealthiest individuals are typically not the most talented or anywhere near it. “The maximum success never coincides with the maximum talent, and vice-versa,” say the researchers.

So if not talent, what other factor causes this skewed wealth distribution? “Our simulation clearly shows that such a factor is just pure luck,” say Pluchino and co.

The team shows this by ranking individuals according to the number of lucky and unlucky events they experience throughout their 40-year careers. “It is evident that the most successful individuals are also the luckiest ones,” they say. “And the less successful individuals are also the unluckiest ones.”

That has significant implications for society. What is the most effective strategy for exploiting the role luck plays in success?

Pluchino and co study this from the point of view of science research funding, an issue clearly close to their hearts. Funding agencies the world over are interested in maximizing their return on investment in the scientific world. Indeed, the European Research Council recently invested $1.7 million in a program to study serendipity—the role of luck in scientific discovery—and how it can be exploited to improve funding outcomes.

It turns out that Pluchino and co are well set to answer this question. They use their model to explore different kinds of funding models to see which produce the best returns when luck is taken into account.

The team studied three models, in which research funding is distributed equally to all scientists; distributed randomly to a subset of scientists; or given preferentially to those who have been most successful in the past. Which of these is the best strategy?

The strategy that delivers the best returns, it turns out, is to divide the funding equally among all researchers. And the second- and third-best strategies involve distributing it at random to 10 or 20 percent of scientists.

In these cases, the researchers are best able to take advantage of the serendipitous discoveries they make from time to time. In hindsight, it is obvious that the fact a scientist has made an important chance discovery in the past does not mean he or she is more likely to make one in the future.

A similar approach could also be applied to investment in other kinds of enterprises, such as small or large businesses, tech startups, education that increases talent, or even the creation of random lucky events.

Clearly, more work is needed here. What are we waiting for? ~


In some ways, it’s all luck: the parents you’re born to, the country and time in history you’re born in. Your genome — and pretty much everything has a genetic component, and we certainly do nothing to “merit” our genes, which could give us high intelligence, drive, and persistence — or, on the contrary, a susceptibility to addiction or a predisposition to certain cancers.

The randomness of it all . . .  I got a flavor of it in an email exchange with a Polish woman poet. I  wrote to her that I wondered if I would have become a poet if I’d stayed in Poland. She assured me that yes, I would have written poems “but of course as a completely different person.” That really hit home, given how often I’d tried to imagine myself as a poet living in Poland and writing in Polish. Each time I couldn’t escape imagining myself as a language poet — something I detest in English, but which I played with already as a child. In my teens and beyond, I adored a Polish language poet, completely untranslatable since it’s all a play on words (of course I DID try to translate him, and I think I succeeded with two of his poems).

And even my coming to America, which looks like an example of a conscious choice, had a lot to do with having been born to my mother, an event over which I had zero choice. So the most crucial event in my life was ultimately due to pure chance.

It’s something to remember whenever we feel like judging people.

(A shameless digression: “It's all luck” reminded me of a friend who used to say, “It's all grace.” But of course she meant only the *good luck* — e.g. hearing the right words, the life-changing words, at precisely the right time. It can take a lot of mental acrobatics to arrive at a cognitive framing of bad luck as ultimately a blessing. Our mental health may depend on it.

It’s also great good luck that the expression “Shit happens” entered the language. I wasn’t being punished for my sins when an elderly driver with dementia hit my car. I didn’t “attract this accident into my life,” as New Age people might say — a new way of blaming the victim. Sometimes what happens is completely random, with no one to blame. )

from another source:


~ The philosopher Galen Strawson has a knack for translating big, abstract questions – the kind of things you might assume were of little interest outside philosophy lecture halls – into puzzles so personally troubling I can’t continue with my day until I’ve figured out where I stand on them, or at least been distracted by a sleepless baby or enticing cheeseburger. He does this repeatedly in his invigorating new book Things That Bother Me (which, incidentally, would be the title of many more books, and most opinion columns, if we all had his candor). For example, take the timeworn conundrum of “free will”, or rather one specific part of it: for which of my accomplishments in life am I entitled to claim credit? We’d surely all agree that some Trumpish child of privilege, born to wealth, deserves no credit for striking it rich. But as Strawson vividly demonstrates, the matter goes deeper – and gets a lot more uncomfortable – than that.

What if you’re super-rich but got there thanks to your intelligence? You were just lucky to be born intelligent. What if differences in intelligence are down to nurture, not nature? Again, luck: you didn’t choose your parents or most of your teachers; and in any case, you might not have been gifted with the self-discipline to learn from them.

OK, but what if you taught yourself the self-discipline? Still luck: you were gifted with the sort of character capable of cultivating self-discipline.

On and on it goes: whatever your station in life, you got there by following some course of action. But even if that course of action were wholly your doing, you still had to be the kind of person able to pursue it; and even if you became that kind of person by the sweat of your brow, you still must have already been the kind of person who could raise that sweat…

Eventually, working backwards, you will reach some starting point that can’t have been your doing. The troubling conclusion is that the person born in poverty, with no parental support, who scrimps to put himself or herself through college, finally achieving success through ceaseless suffering, owes their triumph no less to luck than, say, Eric Trump does. Or, as Strawson pithily puts it: “Luck swallows everything.”

Among other things, this has interesting implications for the way we talk, these days, about “privilege”. Some people undoubtedly have advantages over others thanks to their gender, race or class. But if it’s true that luck swallows everything, there is also a sense in which differing degrees of privilege are the only thing there is: your social situation is a matter of luck, but then so are your underlying skills and character.

We should fight, strenuously, to make society less sexist and racist. But the result won’t be a world in which accidents of birth matter less; it will be a less sexist and racist society, in which accidents of birth still account for everything.

I realize that plenty of people, some much smarter than me, don’t buy this view of free will at all. I’ve never been able to find a flaw with it, though. It’s dizzyingly unsettling, but that’s just my tough luck.


At the same time, some readers will no doubt object that we constantly make obvious choices. We can’t prevent a pandemic from happening, but we can wear a mask and get vaccinated — isn’t that a choice? Not for me. I can’t imagine not wearing a mask and not getting vaccinated just as I can’t imagine robbing a 7/11 if I need cash. Of course I go to the bank instead. But this is not a choice — it follows from the way I was brought up, and I didn’t choose my parents or teachers or any of the crucial influences.

Sometimes I surprise myself — just today, I gave my gardener a check for double his usual fee because it was his birthday. Yet the only charity I contribute to is Wikipedia, and even to that favorite organization I don’t donate much. I regard most charities as scam — I saw how those organizations preyed on my mother (“They have a list of all senior homeowners,” a friend explained). I remember the wonderful satisfaction after I intercepted a phone call that tried to milk her for more money and said, “You are talking to her daughter. From now on there will be no donations.” “But it’s for the children,” a syrupy voice on the other end pleaded. “From now on, zero,” I replied. I felt as if made of steel. The syrupy talker gave up. Oddly enough, other charities also stopped their solicitations, so yes, they must have been coordinated.

Did I have a choice about getting assertive? I don’t think so. Likewise, I'm ruthless about eliminating toxic people from my life. Not a conscious choice — it flows from my essence, shaped by my genes and circumstances I didn’t choose. Normally I'm soft-mannered and have even been called a people-pleaser (“Only children are such people pleasers”) — but there are exceptions. I may be a sweetheart almost all of the time — but don’t mess with the Warrior Woman. It runs in the family.

But perhaps that’s too easy an explanation for my never (with one exception) donating to charities. Perhaps there are deeper causes of which I'm not aware. And why was my mother, normally so strong, such a softie when it came to charities, so opposite of me in that area? I don’t know and I don’t think I’ll ever know.

Did I choose to be a dedicated teacher, exhausting as it was? No, for me there was no other way I could teach.

No matter what “choice” I explore, I discover that there was no choice when it came to anything important. In trivial matters like the choice of lipstick — yes, it can be agonizing. Clothes — Katherine Hepburn was so wise when she advised dressing in black and white — you’re eliminating an endless waste of time and emotional energy.

I love staying at home, and covering up my face comes naturally to me. I wish I could say I'm a good, responsible citizen by choice, but deep within me I know that choice had nothing to do with it. And yes, that is somewhat disconcerting. You can’t feel proud of your intelligence and persistence (closely related to hard work), since those are genetic traits.

But what’s so good about pride anyway? Acceptance of life as it is — as you are in your essence as a person — is probably vastly more important when it comes to contentment and a reasonable peace of mind. 

By the way, I like what the articles says about “privilege.” It’s undeniable that being born to wealthy parents confers all kinds of privilege, like being able to attend elite schools without incurring student debt. But it’s an even greater privilege to have been born intelligent and gifted in a certain area, into a family that nourished that gift. Does a math genius “deserve” his gift?

No, deserving has nothing to do it. But if we have been lucky in some ways, it helps to acknowledge it and feel humble and grateful.

Katherine Hepburn



~ What Are the Chances? reveals how psychology and neuroscience explain the significance of the idea of luck. Barbara Blatchley explores how people react to random events in a range of circumstances, examining the evidence that the belief in luck helps us cope with a lack of control. She tells the stories of lucky and unlucky people--who won the lottery multiple times, survived seven brushes with death, or found an apparently cursed Neanderthal mummy--as well as the accidental discoveries that fundamentally changed what we know about the brain. Blatchley considers our frequent misunderstanding of randomness, the history of luckiness in different cultures and religions, the surprising benefits of magical thinking, and many other topics. Offering a new view of how the brain handles the unexpected, What Are the Chances? shows why an arguably irrational belief can--fingers crossed--help us as we struggle with an unpredictable world. ~ (Amazon)

~ As Barbara Blatchley describes in her delightful new book, What Are the Chances?, humans can be pretty bad at understanding randomness. We have a tendency to think of it as being somewhat evenly spaced out, when randomness is more like the night sky: It naturally contains streaks and structures—just not ones designed to repeat. Blatchley, a professor of psychology at Agnes Scott College, explores the psychology, neuroscience, and cultural history of luck. The text is full of examples of how easy it is to trick the human mind and its tendencies to seek causes and patterns. And if we’re so easily fooled, and we don't actually know what the chances were, can we honestly say something was lucky?

Wherever luck is, it has at least persisted in human consciousness through the ages—a shared religion of sorts, that even plenty of atheists place a little faith in. Most of us tend to believe in luck—even if, as she said one recent afternoon, while hoping the rain would hold off, Blatchley doesn’t. But whatever luck is—how could we get luckier? Blatchley has some ideas.

GQ: Before you started writing the book, did you consider yourself to be a lucky or an unlucky person?

Barbara Blatchley: To be honest, I hadn't really thought about it. I don't really believe in luck. I think lucky is a word we apply to situations where we can't figure out why things are happening, and it's comforting to be able to have a label for something. Once you've labeled it, you understand it better. But I think that what most people call luck is really just hard work.

For those of us who do believe in luck, even in a way that we have not necessarily thought deeply about, as a means of getting through the world: If I were to go about trying to build a good-luck practice, like one might build a meditation practice, what do you think I should do? How could I go about making myself luckier?

I think you should read Richard Wiseman's book. It's called The Luck Factor. I don't know if he's still doing this, but at one point he was teaching people how to be lucky. And what he did basically was have them keep a journal and pay attention to how they were paying attention to the world around them.  

He has four basic principles that distinguish people who see themselves as lucky from people who see themselves as unlucky or don't see themselves that way. He says that lucky people notice—pay attention to—the random things that happen around them. So if you see some flash of something on the ground, instead of ignoring it, going over to that thing that you saw on the ground and finding it's a $20 bill. That’s lucky. They also listen to their intuitions; they sort of go with their gut. They have expectations that they will be lucky; so if you see luck as a possibility for yourself, you're more likely to have that thing happen—and that's attention again. And then when bad things do happen to them, lucky people tend to learn from that experience and to adjust their expectations or their behavior for next time that situation rolls around again. So you can actually learn to be lucky.

Would you distinguish that attention from what you described as hard work?

Not necessarily. I'm a big fan of what Pasteur said—chance favors the prepared mind. I think that's the hard work: getting your mind prepared. And then when something does happen, you are perhaps more likely to notice it because you have that preparation behind you.

To you, what does that preparation look like?

There are things I do to try to become more attuned to what's going on. You mentioned meditation. I try to—daily. It doesn't always work, but I do try. Not only does it help with anxiety or with tension or—for example, prior to you calling, I was doing a little bit of meditating because this makes me a little nervous, I'm not gonna lie—but it does help with getting ready for something. And I think it also helps you have a clearer, calmer view of what's going on around you. And that helps if you want to notice more things in the world around you, and that’s what seems to me to be key.

You write about how considering oneself to be unlucky can become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Self-doubt can muck up our minds. So when we try to make decisions, that doubt increases the chances that we make a mistake, and that leads us to believe even more that we're incapable or unlucky. Do you have any sense of how, in particular, someone who considers themselves to be unlucky might be able to get themselves out of that mindset, out of that loop?

I would imagine that if being feeling unlucky is making you feel depressed, then going in for counseling or something along those lines might help. From not-a-clinician's point of view, if you can find something that makes you feel happy, that makes you feel glad to be wherever you are—at the risk of sounding like Pollyanna—I think that can help you take more notice of the world, and that's what seems to me to be key.

Good things will roll toward you; bad things will also. But whether you have control or not, good things are going to happen. I think you do the best work you can do and put it out there. Sometimes the streak is a bad streak and, despite the fact that you've done everything you could, you're not going to get what you want. However, in the long run, hard work is gonna pay off. So that's what I find comforting: that even the bad streak is eventually going to end. Just as the good streak will.

Do you think that your belief that hard work will eventually pay off is a form of faith? Not unlike the way that luck is a form of faith?

Yes. Yes I do. I was raised in the Midwest. I have solid Midwestern beliefs and values and all that other kind of stuff. One of them is the belief in hard work.

It does seem to relate to the definition of an optimist that you present in the book: someone who sees positive events as being because of the work that they did and negative events as being because of something else.

Maltby and Day from the U.K. did a whole series of studies where they showed that executive function from the frontal lobe—which is paying attention and being able to switch from a losing response to a winning response—that kind of thinking was different in people who saw themselves as unlucky. But they didn't find that it was better in people who thought of themselves as lucky. So it's not like you have to come all the way around and say, “Well, instead of seeing myself as unlucky, now I see myself as lucky.” You just have to not expect a negative outcome for the behavior to change.

Going back to this idea of creating some sort of luckiness practice, do you think it's important to distinguish between how we feel about ourselves when going into a situation versus how we assess an event when looking back on it? It seemed to me like those might be two separable phenomena that we could take different approaches to.

I hadn't thought of it that way, but I think you're right. I think the key that Wiseman was talking about in particular is, when you look back on it, if you see yourself as having control over an aspect of what happened—if it's not just the random winds of fate that determined what happened to you—if it's you as well—you can control that. You can change that and turn the situation around the next time you're in it.

How rare do you think it is to see something that is truly random?

I think we see random things all the time. I think we often don't recognize them for what they are. I think because we have a brain that is designed to see patterns in things, when we come across something random, we tend to discount it and to ignore it. So it's kinda hard to ask, “How often do you come across something that you ignore?”

You mention in the book that having a good luck charm can put people at ease, which can maybe help them be even more capable. And you mention that you have a pair of lucky shoes.

I do. I needed them for a job interview, and they were great, and I got the job. So they became my lucky shoes.

Amazing. Do you remember another time you put them on hoping they might give you some luck, even though you don't really believe in luck?

I wore them to my wedding. We had an unusual wedding. I wore black; he wore white. And, yes, they were lucky.

I love that reversal of colors.

We were not your typical couple, I think. We'd been together for 32 years and then decided to get married. [Laughs] So it was backwards in a lot of ways. We thought, Why not go backwards with the color?

When was the wedding?

The wedding was 2013. My husband died in 2018.

Oh, I'm sorry.

Thank you. Me, too.

If you don’t want to talk about this, I’ll understand. But did ideas about luck enter your head at all after he died?

He and I had been working on this idea of writing about luck for a couple years before he died. He was my editor. I put it down when he died and didn't work on it at all for probably a year and a half. And then I picked it back up again. He died not because of anything that had to do with luck. He had cancer, and that's not luck; that's biology. I still think luck is hard work, and writing this book was hard work.

Well, thank you for this conversation. I hope the rain is going to hold off.

It's not. It's raining right now.

Oh, darn it.

It's not luck. It's just the weather.

rain, Chicago


While I like the author’s insistence that “luck is hard work,” she seems to disregard the meaning of luck as randomness, as not having control over the events. To say that cancer is biology is to admit that there is a genetic and epigenetic susceptibility to cancer that we can’t control; cancer runs in some families the way heart attack and stroke run in others. True, we can try to lower our exposure to carcinogens by eating only organic food, for instance, but the impact may be slight at best, in any (the lowering of stress is probably a more powerful intervention). 

Anyway, when it comes to health, what isn't biology? Look at the studies of centenarians: they didn't get to be 106 by diet and exercise. It's disgusting, I know, but those people have fabulous genes (some of which have already been identified). Did they in any way deserve those genes and their exceptional health? No, it was all the turn of the genetic lottery.

As for the ordinary weather, there is only acceptance. Now, when it comes to extreme weather related to global warming, we can do our part by buying solar panels, an electric car, and voting for candidates who promise to phase out fossil fuels.

Do I hear a sarcastic “Good luck!” in response to this? Or will we be the "lucky" generation only in the sense of dying before the worst of climate catastrophe?

To return to “chance favors the prepared mind” — I admit something like that happens during the creative process. If some of your neural circuits are busy seeking a better ending, say, and you happen to look out the window, and flash — something you see may trigger the right ending. Some discoveries seem to stem from pure chance — but if you look more closely, the ground has been laid.

It’s just that it’s not a matter of hard work alone. It can be more important to take a break — that’s when the Taoist law of “non-doing” takes effect. 


In the discussion of luck or randomness it's important to remember that not only are we creatures who notice patterns but ones who always want to "make sense" of things. We are storytellers addicted to plot who want to assume things move in an orderly cause and effect pattern. There is a kind of existential terror in feeling things are out of our control, but even more in the sense that there is no story there at all, no sequence of cause and effect, simply an endless string of events in no special order.

The fundamentals of science and experience give us that base expectation that effects have causes, actions have results. The trouble comes when we consider good and bad fortunes, the lucky and unlucky. Belief in luck is like a kind of religion. When there is a catastrophe, like the condo collapse in Florida last month, or the floods in Tennessee, persons who escaped tend to say things like "God saved me"...but that assumes an individual worthiness that all the unsaved, who were crushed or drowned, did not share — that somehow some people "deserved" saving and others did not. This is a thorny problem, usually hedged by saying things like "there are reasons we will never understand."

You avoid these problems by seeing these events in terms of random luck..survivors are not morally superior, simply lucky, and luck can't  always, or ever, be depended on. The racehorse breaks away from her rider and spends 30 minutes running down the highway in traffic, and is recovered miraculously unhurt, returned safe to the barn, then burns when the barn catches fire. If everything is only a matter of luck, we don’t have all those problems of justification, but are left with a plotless, formless narrative, like a string of letters that never settle into words.

We want things to be "fair" and we want them to "make sense." We also want to see ourselves as making choices, controlling the direction of events. However, as we have seen, following the circumstances of each individual existence practically reduces the power of choice to something determined by an endless chain of random circumstance: historical, cultural, biological, etc. We can see patterns and trends, but the meanings we attribute to them are not innate.

Can we improve our luck? I think there are two possible avenues for this. One is as mentioned-"pay attention!" Keep your eyes open to what is going on all around you, and you have a better chance of seeing opportunity —like the instance given of finding money in the street. I have a curious repeating dream of walking and finding wonderful things in the dirt at my feet, of expecting to find treasure, and then finding it. The second is to be in a state of readiness, open to what comes by with anticipation, welcoming what comes. It's  kind of “expect good things and you will find them.”


I'm reminded of a late friend who mourned the fact that she’d never known lasting love. Then she’d brighten up and say, “But my fantasies were always positive!”

I’ve come to appreciate that point of view. Reality may be random, but we seek patterns, meaning, and a  satisfaction of our emotional needs. Life is notorious for not making sense. The last words of Steve Jobs supposedly were: “Oh well . . .. oh well . . . oh well.” It’s humbling, that lack of control. Yet we can conjure up fantasies, and they can be delightful. Maybe the best part of falling in love is indeed fantasizing. And if the fantasies make us happy, then they are arguably part of reality. A happy fantasy may be the best medicine we have against the brutalities of luck.

How enviable, your dreams of finding a treasure at your feet. Of course the treasure is already within us. As Walt Whitman said, “I myself am my own good fortune.” 

And that reminds me of gratitude. Luck is often a matter of perspective, of trying to count our blessings instead of our misfortunes. If we concentrate on the blessings, we will count ourselves lucky.


The opposite of that is Shawn Achor’s idea that it’s happiness that brings success, and not the other way around. Be happy, and the beloved comes. Be happy, and the promotion is yours. Are there ways to make yourself more happy? As with exercise, it takes effort, will, focus.

Or are social connections more important? Or is it the woman behind the man, and the man behind the woman? But that’s another chapter in this never-ending discussion.


~ Today we think about empathy as a way to understand another’s experience. But when the English word ‘empathy’ first appeared in 1908 as a translation of the German Einfühlung, it denoted an aesthetic ability to appreciate objects and nature. What exactly is this surprising early version of empathy, and can we imagine empathy as an aesthetic practice today?

At the end of the 19th century, German psychologists defined Einfühlung as an esthetic transfer of our subjective experiences into objects in the world. To empathize meant to project our feelings and movements into forms of art and nature. So, for instance, we transmitted our feelings of rising to the majestic reach of a mountain, we felt our own stretching in the limbs of a tree, and we projected our sense of expansiveness into the vault of a cathedral. One of the central theorists of empathy in this period, Theodor Lipps, declared that empathy fused our own imagined movements and emotions with the shapes around us, and was thus key to our appreciation of beauty.

John Martin, the modern dance critic, argued that, while watching modern dance, audience members felt as if they were imaginatively taking on the poses of dancers while still sitting in their seats. This inner imaginative leap was a form of kinesthetic empathy. Kinesthetic empathy activated movement-sense receptors in the spectator, prompting emotional associations and images leading to a grasp of the underlying intention of the movement. Martin educated viewers to fine-tune their own motoric engagement, or kinesthetic empathy, in order to enhance their individual aesthetic response.

In 1933, Martin declared: ‘We shall cease to be mere spectators and become participants in the movement that is presented to us, and though to all outward appearances we shall be sitting quietly in our chairs, we shall nevertheless be dancing synthetically with all our musculature.’ The empathic participation of the viewer was crucial to the appreciation of modern dance and to the aesthetic respectability of this new art form. One philosopher of the period explained that ‘dancing is the most direct elaboration of empathy (those movements by which we seek to become one with the object we contemplate).’

If embodied aesthetic engagement comprised empathy’s principal definition in the early decades of the 20th century, by the time of the Second World War, this meaning faded. Empathy’s interpersonal meaning came to the fore, and empathy became almost exclusively a matter of grasping another’s experience. However, to do so accurately now required putting aside one’s own feelings and minimizing one’s self in order to more clearly grasp another’s experience, which could be very different from one’s own. In the 1950s, a series of psychological experiments explicitly defined empathy as the ability to accurately predict another’s response. Empathy was now the direct opposite of projection, which was a mere attribution to another of one’s own ideas.

The interpersonal model of empathy was rooted in a psychotherapeutic tradition that privileged the client’s emotions over those of the therapist. This approach was first developed in the 1930s by the unorthodox psychoanalyst Otto Rank in collaboration with Jessie Taft, the philosopher and social work pioneer. In the years after the Second World War, the clinical psychologist Carl Rogers adapted this approach to center directly on empathy in psychotherapy. This empathic style spread widely in subsequent decades into pastoral counseling, a variety of psychotherapies, and even into contemporary coaching techniques.

Psychotherapeutic empathy favors connection over control. Rogers explained that, with empathy, a therapist listens deeply to the client without judgment, appraisal or even the offer of advice. To listen effectively, the therapist puts aside their own feelings and then immerses themselves in another’s experience ‘as if’ it were their own. Rogers advocated for an ‘empathic way of being’ that could be practiced in many different kinds of relationships.

The empathic way of being is at its core a kind of aesthetic appreciation. In a 1964 lecture to the California Institute of Technology, Rogers explained that an empathic response did not try to control or change another’s situation. Instead, we allow another person to be fully what they are, just as we might admire a sunset. We do not attempt to alter a sunset by saying: ‘Soften the orange a little on the right-hand corner, and put a little more purple along the base, and use a little more pink in the cloud color.’ Rather, as Rogers put it, ‘I don’t try to control a sunset. I watch it with awe as it unfolds.’

If to reverentially watch a sunset unfurl constitutes an aesthetic response, it might also be seen as a profoundly empathic act. To empathize with another in this fashion is not to critique or judge them, but to resonate with the entirety of their experience. We do not try to change their experience, or even to suggest ways to make it better or different than it is. It is true that another’s experience might not exhibit the beauty of a sunset, but valuing another’s situation in its many dimensions – including its pain and joy – amounts to a humble witnessing. The person whose experience is wholeheartedly appreciated, Rogers claimed, will often feel a powerful healing.

Esthetic empathy as witnessing is similar to disinterested contemplation, a fundamental feature of esthetics going back to Immanuel Kant. It is a moment of appreciation for its own sake, not as a means to another end. Esthetic empathy of this type, however, is different from the kinesthetic aesthetic empathy of a century ago, understood as the projection of one’s own subjective feelings and movements into an object. And yet both types of aesthetic empathy rely on the power of our imaginative capacity to delight in, and respond with reverence to, others and the world around us.

To appreciate another’s experience in a disinterested manner does not mean we fail to act in light of human suffering and despair. However, without an expansive contemplation of the breadth of another’s experience, we might not discover effective interventions. Empathy thus marks the pause, or the moment of immersion that helps us to see clearly and to fully take in another’s situation without judgment. The insights gained through empathy can then be used in concert with our critical faculties to shape helpful actions.

Empathy as an esthetic practice challenges our inclination to control and change, and instead asks us to open up a space for appreciation, a space that can be radically transformative.


~ "Years ago, anthropologist Margaret Mead was asked by a student what she considered to be the first sign of civilization in a culture. The student expected Mead to talk about fishhooks or clay pots or grinding stones.

But no. Mead said that the first sign of civilization in an ancient culture was a femur (thighbone) that had been broken and then healed. Mead explained that in the animal kingdom, if you break your leg, you die. You cannot run from danger, get to the river for a drink or hunt for food. You are meat for prowling beasts. No animal survives a broken leg long enough for the bone to heal.

A broken femur that has healed is evidence that someone has taken time to stay with the one who fell, has bound up the wound, has carried the person to safety and has tended the person through recovery. Helping someone else through difficulty is where civilization starts, Mead said.” ~


~ On August 14, 1935, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law. While FDR’s New Deal had put in place new measures to regulate business and banking and had provided temporary work relief to combat the Depression, this law permanently changed the nature of the American government.

The Social Security Act is known for its payments to older Americans, but it did far more than that. It established unemployment insurance; aid to homeless, dependent, and neglected children; funds to promote maternal and child welfare; and public health services. It was a sweeping reworking of the relationship of the government to its citizens, using the power of taxation to pool funds to provide a basic social safety net.

The driving force behind the law was FDR’s Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins. She was the first woman to hold a position in the U.S. Cabinet and still holds the record for having the longest tenure in that job: she lasted from 1933 to 1945.

She brought to the position a vision of government very different from that of the Republicans who had run it in the 1920s. While men like President Herbert Hoover had harped on the idea of a “rugged individualism” in which men worked their way up, providing for their families on their own, Perkins recognized that people in communities had always supported each other. The vision of a hardworking man supporting his wife and children was more myth than reality: her own husband suffered from bipolar disorder, making her the family’s primary support.

As a child, Perkins spent summers with her grandmother, with whom she was very close, in the small town of Newcastle, Maine, where she witnessed a supportive community. In college, at Mount Holyoke, she majored in chemistry and physics, but after a professor required students to tour a factory to observe working conditions, Perkins became committed to improving the lives of those trapped in industrial jobs. After college, Perkins became a social worker and, in 1910, earned a masters degree in economics and sociology from Columbia University. She became the head of the New York office of the National Consumers League, urging consumers to use their buying power to demand better conditions and wages for the workers who made the products they were buying.

The next year, in 1911, she witnessed the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in which 146 workers, mostly women and girls, died. They were trapped in the building when the fire broke out because the factory owner had ordered the doors to the stairwells and exits locked to make sure no one slipped outside for a break. Unable to escape the smoke and fire in the factory, the workers—some of them on fire—leaped from the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors of the building, dying on the pavement.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire turned Perkins away from voluntary organizations to improve workers’ lives and toward using the government to adjust the harsh conditions of industrialization. She began to work with the Democratic politicians at Tammany Hall, who presided over communities in the city that mirrored rural towns and who exercised a form of social welfare for their voters, making sure they had jobs, food, and shelter and that wives and children had a support network if a husband and father died. In that system, the voices of women like Perkins were valuable, for their work in the immigrant wards of the city meant that they were the ones who knew what working families needed to survive.

The overwhelming unemployment, hunger, and suffering caused by the Great Depression made Perkins realize that state governments alone could not adjust the conditions of the modern world to create a safe, supportive community for ordinary people. She came to believe, as she said: “The people are what matter to government, and a government should aim to give all the people under its jurisdiction the best possible life.”

Through her Tammany connections Perkins met FDR, and when he asked her to be his Secretary of Labor, she told him that she wanted the federal government to provide unemployment insurance, health insurance, and old-age insurance. She later recalled: “I remember he looked so startled, and he said, ‘Well, do you think it can be done?’”

Creating federal unemployment insurance became her primary concern. Congressmen had little interest in passing such legislation. They said they worried that unemployment insurance and federal aid to dependent families would undermine a man’s willingness to work. But Perkins recognized that those displaced by the Depression had added new pressure to the idea of old-age insurance.

In Long Beach, California, Dr. Francis Townsend had looked out of his window one day to see elderly women rooting through garbage cans for food. Appalled, he came up with a plan to help the elderly and stimulate the economy at the same time. Townsend proposed that the government provide every retired person over 60 years old with $200 a month, on the condition that they spend it within 30 days, a condition designed to stimulate the economy.

Townsend’s plan was wildly popular. More than that, though, it sparked people across the country to start coming up with their own plans for protecting the elderly and the nation’s social fabric, and together, they began to change the public conversation about social welfare policies.

They spurred Congress to action. Perkins recalled that Townsend “startled the Congress of the United States because the aged have votes. The wandering boys didn't have any votes; the evicted women and their children had very few votes. If the unemployed didn't stay long enough in any one place, they didn't have a vote. But the aged people lived in one place and they had votes, so every Congressman had heard from the Townsend Plan people.”

FDR put together a committee to come up with a plan to create a basic social safety net, but committee members could not make up their minds how to move forward. Perkins continued to hammer on the idea they must come up with a final plan, and finally locked the members of the committee in a room. As she recalled: “Well, we locked the door and we had a lot of talk. I laid out a couple of bottles of something or other to cheer their lagging spirits. Anyhow, we stayed in session until about 2 a.m. We then voted finally, having taken our solemn oath that this was the end; we were never going to review it again.”

By the time the bill came to a vote in Congress, it was hugely popular. The vote was 371 to 33 in the House and 77 to 6 in the Senate.

When asked to describe the origins of the Social Security Act, Perkins mused that its roots came from the very beginnings of the nation. When Alexis de Tocqueville wrote Democracy in America in 1835, she noted, he thought Americans were uniquely “so generous, so kind, so charitably disposed.” “Well, I don't know anything about the times in which De Tocqueville visited America,” she said, but “I do know that at the time I came into the field of social work, these feelings were real.”

With the Social Security Act, Perkins helped to write into our laws a longstanding political impulse in America that stood in dramatic contrast to the 1920s philosophy of rugged individualism. She recognized that the ideas of community values and pooling resources to keep the economic playing field level and take care of everyone are at least as deeply seated in our political philosophy as the idea of every man for himself.

When she recalled the origins of the Social Security Act, Perkins recalled: “Of course, the Act had to be amended, and has been amended, and amended, and amended, and amended, until it has now grown into a large and important project, for which, by the way, I think the people of the United States are deeply thankful. One thing I know: Social Security is so firmly embedded in the American psychology today that no politician, no political party, no political group could possibly destroy this Act and still maintain our democratic system. It is safe. It is safe forever, and for the everlasting benefit of the people of the United States.” ~ Heather Cox Richardson, Facebook 


A decade’s worth of telescope observations of the sun have revealed a startling mystery: Gamma rays, the highest frequency waves of light, radiate from our nearest star seven times more abundantly than expected. Stranger still, despite this extreme excess of gamma rays overall, a narrow bandwidth of frequencies is curiously absent.

The surplus light, the gap in the spectrum, and other surprises about the solar gamma-ray signal potentially point to unknown features of the sun’s magnetic field, or more exotic physics.

“It’s amazing that we were so spectacularly wrong about something we should understand really well: the sun,” said Brian Fields, a particle astrophysicist at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

The unexpected signal has emerged in data from the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, a NASA observatory that scans the sky from its outpost in low-Earth orbit. As more Fermi data have accrued, revealing the spectrum of gamma rays coming from the sun in ever-greater detail, the puzzles have only proliferated.

“We just kept finding surprising things,” said Annika Peter of Ohio State University, a co-author of a recent white paper summarizing several years of findings about the solar gamma-ray signal. “It’s definitely the most surprising thing I’ve ever worked on.”

Not only is the gamma-ray signal far stronger than a decades-old theory predicts; it also extends to much higher frequencies than predicted, and it inexplicably varies across the face of the sun and throughout the 11-year solar cycle. Then there’s the gap, which researchers call a “dip” — a lack of gamma rays with frequencies around 10 trillion trillion hertz. “The dip just defies all logic,” said Tim Linden, a particle astrophysicist at Ohio State who helped analyze the signal. 

The likely protagonists of the story are particles called cosmic rays — typically protons that have been slingshotted into the solar system by the shock waves of distant supernovas or other explosions.

Physicists do not think the sun emits any gamma rays from within. (Nuclear fusions in its core do produce them, but they scatter and downgrade to lower-energy light before leaving the sun.) However, in 1991, the physicists David Seckel, Todor Stanev and Thomas Gaisser of the University of Delaware hypothesized that the sun would nonetheless glow in gamma rays, because of cosmic rays that zip in from outer space and plunge toward it.

Occasionally, the Delaware trio argued, a sunward-plunging cosmic ray will get “mirrored,” or turned around at the last second by the sun’s loopy, twisty magnetic field. “Remember the Road Runner cartoon?” said John Beacom, a professor at Ohio State and one of the leaders of the analysis of the signal. “Imagine the proton runs straight toward that sphere, and at the last second it changes its direction and comes back at you.” But on its way out, the cosmic ray collides with gas in the solar atmosphere and fizzles in a flurry of gamma radiation.

Based on the rate at which cosmic rays enter the solar system, the estimated strength of the sun’s magnetic field, the density of its atmosphere, and other factors, Seckel and colleagues calculated the mirroring process to be roughly 1 percent efficient. They predicted a faint glow of gamma rays.

Yet the Fermi Telescope detects, on average, seven times more gamma rays coming from the solar disk than this cosmic-ray theory predicts. And the signal becomes up to 20 times stronger than predicted for gamma rays with the highest frequencies. “We found that the process was consistent with 100 percent efficiency at high energies,” Linden said. “Every cosmic ray that comes in has to be turned around.” This is puzzling, since the most energetic cosmic rays should be the hardest to mirror.

And Seckel, Stanev and Gaisser’s model said nothing about any dip. According to Seckel, it’s difficult to imagine how you would end up with a deep, narrow dip in the gamma-ray spectrum by starting with cosmic rays, which have a smooth spectrum of energies. It’s hard to get dips in general, he said: “It’s much easier to get bumps than dips. If I have something that comes out of the sun, OK, that’s an extra channel. How do I make a negative channel out of that?”

Perhaps the strong glow of gamma rays reflects a source other than doomed cosmic rays. But physicists have struggled to imagine what. They’ve long suspected that the sun’s core might harbor dark matter — and that the dark matter particles, after being drawn in and trapped by gravity, might be dense enough there to annihilate each other. But how could gamma rays produced by annihilating dark matter in the core avoid scattering before escaping the sun? Attempts to link the gamma-ray signal to dark matter “seem like a Rube Goldberg-type thing,” Seckel said.

Some aspects of the signal do point to cosmic rays and to the broad strokes of the 1991 theory.
For instance, the Fermi Telescope detects many more gamma rays during solar minimum, the phase of the sun’s 11-year cycle when its magnetic field is calmest and most orderly. This makes sense, experts say, if cosmic rays are the source. During solar minimum, more cosmic rays can reach the strong magnetic field near the sun’s surface and get mirrored, instead of being deflected prematurely by the turbulent tangle of field lines that pervades the inner solar system at other times.

On the other hand, the detected gamma rays drop off as a function of frequency at a different rate than cosmic rays. If cosmic rays are the source, the two rates would be expected to match.
Whether or not cosmic rays account for the entire gamma-ray signal, Joe Giacalone, a heliospheric physicist at the University of Arizona, says the signal “is probably telling us something very fundamental about the magnetic structure of the sun.” The sun is the most extensively studied star, yet its magnetic field — generated by the churning maelstrom of charged particles inside it — remains poorly understood, leaving us with a blurry picture of how stars operate.

Giacalone points to the corona, the wispy plasma envelope that surrounds the sun. To efficiently mirror cosmic rays, the magnetic field in the corona is probably stronger and oriented differently than scientists thought, he said. However, he noted that the coronal magnetic field must be strong only very close to the sun’s surface so as not to mirror cosmic rays too soon, before they’ve entered the zone where the atmosphere is dense enough for collisions to occur. And the magnetic field seems to become particularly strong near the equator during solar minimum.
These fresh clues about the structure of the magnetic field could help unravel the long-standing mystery of the solar cycle.

Every 11 years, the whole magnetic field of the sun reverses,” said Igor Moskalenko, a senior scientist at Stanford University who is part of the Fermi scientific collaboration. “We have south in the place of north and north in the place of south. This is a dramatic change. The sun is huge, and why we observe this change of polarity and why it is so periodic nobody actually knows.” Cosmic rays, he said, and the pattern of gamma rays they produce “may answer this very important question: Why is the sun changing polarity every 11 years?”

But there are no good guesses about how the sun’s magnetic field might create the dip in the gamma-ray spectrum at 10 trillion trillion hertz. It’s such an unusual feature that some experts doubt that it’s real. But if the absence of gamma rays around that frequency is a miscalculation or a problem with Fermi’s instruments, no one has figured out the cause. “It does not seem to be any instrumental effect,” said Elena Orlando, an astrophysicist at Stanford and a member of the Fermi team.

When Peter, Linden, Beacom and their collaborators found the dip in Fermi’s data in 2018, they tried hard to get rid of it before publishing their discovery. “I think there are 15 pages in the appendix of different tests we ran to see whether we were miscalculating,” Linden said. “Statistically, the dip appears very prominent.”

However, Orlando emphasized that the sun’s motion through the sky makes the data analysis very challenging. She should know; she and a collaborator discovered the stream of gamma rays coming from the sun for the first time in 2008 using the EGRET satellite, Fermi’s predecessor. Orlando has also been centrally involved in processing Fermi’s solar gamma-ray data. In her view, more data and independent analyses will be needed to confirm that the dip in the spectrum is real.

A solar panel malfunction kept the Fermi Telescope mostly pointed away from the sun for the last year, but workarounds have been found — just in time for solar minimum. The sun’s magnetic field lines are currently curving tidily from pole to pole; if this solar minimum is like the last, the gamma-ray signal is now at its most robust. “That’s what makes this so exciting,” Linden said. “Right now we’re just hitting the peak of solar minimum, so hopefully we’ll see higher-energy [gamma-ray] emission with a number of telescopes.”

This time, along with Fermi, a mountaintop observatory called HAWC (for High-Altitude Water Cherenkov experiment) will be taking data. HAWC detects gamma rays at higher frequencies than Fermi, which will reveal more of the signal. Scientists are also eager to see whether the spatial pattern of gamma rays changes relative to 11 years ago, since cosmic rays remain positively charged but the sun’s north and south poles have reversed.

These clues could help solve the solar mystery. HAWC scientists hope to report their first findings within a year, and scientists both within the Fermi collaboration and outside it have started to pore over its accruing data already. Since NASA is publicly funded, “anybody can download it if they want to glance through,” said Linden, who downloads Fermi’s new data almost every day.

“The worst that can happen here is that we find out that the sun is stranger and more beautiful than we ever imagined,” Beacom said. “And the best that could happen is we discover some kind of new physics.” ~

The solar corona during total eclipse


~ One of the more memorable lines in the young adult novel The Fault in Our Stars by John Green is said by the book’s protagonist, Hazel Grace Lancaster:

    “I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.”

In a way, that’s sort of how I fell out of love with religion.

That’s not to say that I wasn’t attracted to religion – on the contrary, I think that I spent most of the eight years or so leading up to my deconversion trying to make sure that I could sustain that affection. Like many ex-Christians, I read the Bible intensely; I studied Christian apologetics and philosophy (I owned and read this book, for instance); I attended lectures from Christian thinkers like J.P. Moreland; I defended Christianity online in blogs and forums. At one point, I even started to formulate a written response to Brian Holtz’ arguments against Christianity. I wanted to believe and I wanted that belief to be rational and articulate.

Then, all at once, I found myself standing outside my former faith wondering how on earth I had gotten there. (Appropriately, that moment of realization also happened in a church.)

How had I gotten there? I had come to the realization that I simply couldn’t believe any of it – Christianity, God, none of it – anymore, but that wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to make sense of it.

Most people wouldn’t be surprised at why I personally ended up being religious; my father was a Southern Baptist minister, and my mother was the granddaughter of one and raised in that faith. I was born on a Sunday and was in our country church down the road that following Sunday. There weren’t many Sundays as a child where I wasn’t in church, since illness was virtually the only acceptable excuse for missing any church service.

This isn’t the experience of every ex-Christian, of course, but for me, the church was not just an important institution – it was the center of life and the center of the universe. Virtually everything revolved around it. We prayed before meals and read devotionals from Keys for Kids before bed, which I’ve learned is apparently still around. We listened almost exclusively to Christian music and radio stations. (Let’s just say that I heard way too many episodes of James Dobson on Focus on the Family during those Sunday drives to church.) My brother and I were in any church programs appropriate for our ages. We learned from example that ministry was something that you just did. (It’s no wonder that I would later dive into ministry as a young adult.)

Religion, like a celestial body, exerted a powerful pull on my life. I was heavily invested in it as a social network and as a place which held truth and salvation. I didn’t know any other kind of life. Growing up in rural Illinois, the idea of the “unchurched” or “unsaved” or “the lost” was always present, but I didn’t really know any non-religious people, let alone atheists or humanists. And I knew what the Bible said about not believing in God.

It wouldn’t be until I encountered the Internet that I would be able to see beyond the boundaries of my religious faith. Once I started talking to atheists, especially ones who shattered my stereotypical view of non-Christians as depraved (even more than the rest of us, that is) and morally directionless, I found that there was space beyond the atmosphere that the church had always provided for me.

In case the analogy hasn’t already formed in your mind, let’s make the physics clear: If you want to move away from a large object, you need enough force to equal or exceed the gravitational force exerted on you by that object. The larger the object is, the more it pulls on you and the harder you have to fight to achieve escape velocity.

For many people in situations like mine, for whom religion is monolithic, that pull is strong. It pervades our sense of identity, our familial connections, our sense of value, our sense of ethics, our understanding of the universe; it makes up the fabric of our existence.

That is, until we realize that there is life beyond it.

It’s so easy to find yourself thinking back on past beliefs only to wonder, Why on earth did I ever believe that?! If it were only a matter of dispassionately assessing the reasonableness of positions, then these beliefs might well constitute a character flaw; if we remember that there are other factors complicating our ability to make such assessments, then we can be more empathetic toward our past selves – as well as for those who still find themselves within the gravity of religion.

And when we understand the factors more acutely – the way in which religious communities provide a bond and a social safety net, the way in which religions tie individuals together by providing a clear sense of identity, the way in which religions assert an understanding of the fundamental nature of life and existence, and so on – we may find that there are ways to counteract that pull for some by showing that those things exist outside of religion. ~


I thought it was interesting to read about the experience of someone whose life was totally centered on religion. And yet the moment came:

“Then, all at once, I found myself standing outside my former faith wondering how on earth I had gotten there. (Appropriately, that moment of realization also happened in a church.)

How had I gotten there? I had come to the realization that I simply couldn’t believe any of it – Christianity, God, none of it – anymore, but that wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to make sense of it.”

I also like the author’s call for empathy not only with those who continue to be caught in the gravity of their religion, but also toward one’s younger self.  No, we were not foolish to have believed once. I had to be fourteen for my brain to be developed enough to really start seeing the absurdity of it all. The circumstances had to be just right. “Readiness is all.” The threats of hell cannot prevail against it.


Meme by Jeremy Sherman. This reminds me of the old joke: "It's turtles all the way down."



~ Veggies and fruit, unlike donuts, contain fiber that is coveted by your good microbes. Sadly, the standard American diet is very low in fiber. Incredibly, we purposefully extract it from our food! That likely explains the epidemics of obesity, diabetes, and depression that have clouded the last 50 years. It turns out that fiber can improve your health and your mood, and here we introduce some brand-new characters to this amazing story.

The Positive Cognitive Effects of Flavonoids

A new study presents compelling evidence that another set of nutrients can work in concert with fiber. They are called flavonoids. As the name implies, they give flavor to fruits and veggies. Best of all, they can be quickly identified by the color they impart. Think of red apples, purple beets, and orange oranges. These colors and flavors are all due to flavonoids. Your mother told you these were better for you than Oreos, and she was right. But then she may have poured you a glass of apple juice and missed the target. That’s because many manufacturers peel the fruit before juicing and thus toss away the nutritious flavonoids.

This new analysis by Walter Willett and his Harvard colleagues was based on a couple of large, long-term studies. It combined two databases of female and male health professionals that reached back to the mid-1980s. They were able to look at over 75,000 people, which granted them a great deal of statistical power. They found that the higher the intake of flavonoids, the lower the cognitive decline over time. Large longitudinal studies like this are remarkable for letting researchers tease out complicating factors as they follow their subjects over time. They found a clear dose-response curve, which means that the greater the amount of flavonoids, the greater the positive cognitive effect.

This study showed a significant correlation but was not designed to demonstrate causality. However, there are hints in that direction. Flavonoids are strong antioxidants, neutralizing highly reactive oxygen molecules that are a byproduct of metabolic processes. These molecules can damage tissues if they are not mopped up quickly. Thus, flavonoids can stop tissue damage and inflammation.

Separate studies in both animals and humans have shown that flavonoids can reduce the amyloid fibrils associated with Alzheimer’s and decrease brain inflammation. In addition, flavonoids are known to have a beneficial impact on your gut microbes, favoring a less inflammatory environment. They reach the colon intact, where they discourage the growth of pathogens and increase the growth of healthy bacteria. These and other studies point to a causal impact of these remarkable chemicals on cognition and brain function as well as overall health.

How to Get More Flavonoids Into Your Diet

If you want to keep your brain in peak condition, then this is a slam-dunk. Eat colorful fruits and veggies. Wash them with water, but don’t peel them. That’s where much of their goodness resides.

Here are some of the most potent sources of flavonoids, more or less in order of their impact on cognition:

Brussels sprouts
Raw spinach
Sweet potatoes
Winter squash
Cooked carrots
Raw carrots

Note that this list is bracketed by Brussels sprouts and wine, just to demonstrate the diversity of flavonoids. This list overlaps with foods high in fiber, which is often a co-traveler with flavonoids. Also note that in the case of carrots, cooking seems to strengthen the effect.

[Oriana: Coffee and dark chocolate also belong on this list. Dark chocolate is a rich source of flavonoids that improve cardiovascular health and thus brain health— what a magnificent reason to indulge in those delights!]

Intriguingly, this list of cognitive-friendly flavonoids is somewhat different for men and women. Beets, for instance, are higher on the list for men than women. But in general, these colorful fruits and veggies are good for both female and male brains.


It’s true that some of these foods, especially the fruits and root veggies, contain sugar. However, these are not like refined table sugar. Instead, they are chains of sugars with different lengths, made of many different bases like maltose, fructose, and mannose. Still, if you are diabetic, trying to lose weight, or just find it hard to consume so many fruits and veggies, you might find some of the benefit of flavonoids by taking a prebiotic containing flavonoid extracts.

Many of the foods on the list, like Brussels sprouts and broccoli, are high in fiber and flavonoids while still being low in sugar. Unfortunately, these exemplary foods are two of the most hated veggies in the land, especially for kids. They are bitter and sulfurous. As adults, we should be less petulant and learn to deal with it – with a minimum of whimpering. We can add a little lemon and butter and actually learn to love them.

If you don’t mind a little fruit sugar, it’s hard to argue with strawberries and oranges as treats. Yes, it’s hard to say goodbye to that morning donut. After all, you have insistent microbes with a vested interest. But you can change your microbial balance to favor a smarter set of microbes and keep your brain humming. After all, you’re calling the shots, and if you do it right, your microbes will find a better balance. Then they can help you stay healthy, happy and thoughtful for as long as possible. This is your fight to win.


ending on beauty:

All things pass, all things remain.
But for us, we pass
on our way making paths,
paths over the sea.

~ Antonio Machado