Morality (Radiolab)

Welcome to the first installment of my attempt at thoughtful exploration, or at least to think. I decided to try the Radiolab episode on Morality first, you know, start small.

This episode starts off with a two part thought experiment. You will have to make a choice at the end of each one.

Part One
You are near some train tracks, there are five workers on the track. They’ve got their backs turn to the trolley, which is coming in the distance. They do not see, hear or feel it coming. You can’t shout to them, and if you do nothing, they will all die.
You have two choices

  1. You can do nothing
  2. There is a lever next to you, which you can pull, causing the trolley to jump on to some side tracks where there is only one worker.

So, do you kill  1 man by pulling a lever or kill 5 by doing nothing?

My answer is pull the damn lever, and I am not alone. They claim 9 out of 10 people choose to pull the lever. What’s your answer?

Part Two
You are standing above some train tracks, on a foot bridge. There are five guys below, just as in the first question. The trolley is coming, again, they can not hear, see or feel its approach. You can not yell, signal or in anyway tell them of the impending doom. Next to you is a large man, and you realize if you pushed him, he would divert the train and the train would only kill the fat man, saving the five workers.
*For the sake of this experiment, let us assume you can not sacrifice yourself

  1. Do you do nothing, allowing all 5 to die
  2. Do you push the fat man and save the 4 workers?

There have been hundreds of people asked this question, and though most say “yes” to the first, the same amount say “NO” to the second part. Resoundingly so. When asked “why?”, most people can not explain why murder by lever is okay while murder by pushing is wrong.

They follow the path of science and look at how the brain reacts when deciding these questions of calculation and morality. Different parts of the brain light up with each question, on the first it’s a question of logic, while on the second it’s a more instinctual guttural reaction.  They ask the question, is morality part of our evolution or an aspect that sets us apart as creatures of reason?

For my two cents, I think I’d pull the lever and push the guy. Unless of course they were related to me, then fuck the bastards on the ground. Logic vs ingrained instinctual evolved reactions?

This episode goes in many directions and I don’t think I can cover it all here, but I wanted to focus on these questions and one or two other points. They bring into question how we think and why. Why we feel the way we do and how it informs our moral make-up.

I have one more layer to add. The M.A.S.H> question.

You are in a basement, in a war torn region, with all of your village; family and friends you have known everyday of your life. You are holding your baby, who has as stuffy nose. Enemy forces are scouring the village, and they will torture and kill anyone they find. Your baby has been coughing. If you cover the baby’s mouth they won’t hear, and your village will escape, but you will smother the baby and she/he will die. Do you sacrifice everyone’s life, including your own and the baby’s OR do you kill your own child, saving everyone else?

My wife said “I would risk it, I wouldn’t kill my child. That’s a cowards way out”, which I understand, but I have to ask a question. Couldn’t it also be perceived as the cowards way out to NOT kill the baby?. Perhaps not being able to make this sacrifice for the better of the many over the one is the ultimate cowardice? This goes against something so base within us, our children, the reason to continue on and be better. Even if you aren’t a parent, the whole argument of  “you have to think of the future” posed against any short sighted effort, whether it be pollution or choosing a job that helps others..it’s all for the future of what? The continuation of our species, right? Even the only mildly adjusted among us, don’t like to see children hurt, it just goes against how we’re made.

What would you do? Some days I would sacrifice my child. I would probably kill myself right after and follow them along that path, but I think I would do it. On other days when I hold my daughter, when she’s tired and her body is heavy and limp, trusting me to hold her? I realize I have walked away from logic and any life would be worth one more breath from her little body.  I’m not sure which path is stronger, weaker or morally bereft.This also calls in to question, the sanctity of life. My wife would argue that all life is sacred, hence the ban on swatting bugs in my house. I on the other hand, don’t see life that way.

When I was 13, my psychiatrist made an observation that has followed me my whole life. She said I displayed “sociopathic tendencies” , that I lacked a certain level of empathy, my sense of “guilt” was underdeveloped (or barely recognizable..whatever). The morality conversation, invariably smacks into the idea of empathy. Does it separate us from other creatures? Are we born with empathy in place? The Radiolab episode touches on children, exploring when empathy develops and how. Anecdotally, it seems like it’s both part of us as a species and something fine tuned by societal expectations. How then, does that effect those of us without the same societal expectations?

We teach our kids about hitting, fairness, being kind etc, many ideals we ourselves have bent and broken given the right circumstance (or person).  Yet what they are saying is that the core values, of right and wrong (“Do you kill your baby?”) strikes us in the reptile brain, a knee jerk denial taking hold. The finer points are harder to parse out.

Radiolab ponders if shame/guilt are the emotions that divide us from our primate cousins. I wonder about this a lot. I was never a guilty person, I felt and still do, that is a mostly wasteful emotion. It tears people apart, and I have rarely if ever seen any good come of it. I will add shame to this pile too. Regret, yes, I get that. Being aware you made a mistake, or hurt someone, and confronting that while trying to alter that behavior in the future, that I understand. Shame? Guilt? I would much rather have someones changed behavior over their heartfelt sorrow at a slight. Alternately, anxiety over guilt and shame from a past action seems to fell the strongest, brightest people I have known. Instead of these emotions being the things that makes us special, I wonder if they are the Achilles heel that foils the brightest among us?

Our daughter is testing and pushing, trying out things she knows will get a reaction. She will kill the bug her cousin wants to save, just to see what will happen. If she was at home, she would of saved the bug. She says hurtful things to her mommas like “I don’t like you, I want you to leave this family!”. She is aware of curse words but is not so interested in those, she is going after the ones she sees dividing adulthood from childhood, those that are not allowed to her, “stupid” being top on the banned list. My wife worries that she will become a “mean girl”, but I am fascinated by this emotional growth, this mental drawing of lines in the sand.

What is “good” and what is “bad”? How do we figure it out? What IS morality? She is making observations along the lines of empathy, trying them on, seeing if they fit her quickly growing sense of self. Watching her makes me realize that if any of us is still growing, still discovering our world (which I hope to be doing until my body ends), we are still doing this. I am still learning what is right and wrong, as I get older and the lines blur and reform. I have had high ideals over the years, things I believed to be absolute and almost all of them have been, if not broken, remade into different less black and white versions of themselves.

I am still defining morality for myself and trying to help my daughter figure her’s out as well, with differing levels of success. I would like to hear other stories and ideas on the subject, so please share them with me if you are so inclined.  One way conversations are rather boring, I hope you will join in.

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Exercise

I am trying to get better about writing. I miss it, my own sanity is improved with the outlet of the written word. I have issues with commitment and consistency, and this is a place they rear their shiny distracting heads, easily taking my attention from any task I set myself. With that in mind I decided I should try an exercise in writing, set an assignment for myself.

There is a show called “Radiolab“. By their own definition:

Radiolab is a show about curiosity. Where sound illuminates ideas, and the boundaries blur between science, philosophy, and human experience.

This show has been something I have avidly listened to since its inception, I could track my life by their episodes, so why not do so? I am going to attempt to use individual episodes as starter points for my own writing, this ongoing conversation with myself. I love curiosity and exploration, I love the journey they can take you on and how often the roads you find yourself on are not what you expected at all. It’s like an unexpected deep conversation with a stranger, lingering in your thoughts, coloring the landscape with a new hue.Each episode explores a different subject such as Who am I? Morality, Time, Memory and Forgetting, and Space. I love the conversations that are possible with these dense hearty beginnings.

I’m also kind of sick of my own terrible yet compelling story of overcoming odds and being just so damn special. I’m sure I have many many days of going into that in excruciating details as I try to focus on a project around that. I’m hoping that by using this blog as an outlet, a thought and writing experiment, I can both improve my own skills and keep my sanity intact. I’m all for delving into my psyche, plumbing the depths of my soul and becoming the enlightened yogi master I was destined to be, but I (nor anyone I have ever come across worth their salt) can not be defined by just one aspect of my own tale. That would be terribly boring.

It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious.     ~ Oscar Wilde

So I will attempt to write at least once a week (I like the bar to be low) on some subject with its initial spark stolen from the RadioLab archives. I’m sure it will be brilliant.

The Moth (plus everything else)

themoth.org

On Wednesday I performed at The Moth, in a main stage production. If you don’t know what The Moth is, you are missing out and I recommend you go check it out. In short it is a storytelling program, where all the stories are true and told without notes. There are story slams where you can show-up, put your name in a hat and if picked, tell a short story and compete with everyone else chosen. If you’re lucky you win and go to a Grand Slam to compete against other stories. These are held all over the country. You can call their pitch line and give a 2 minute story pitch, and if it’s good enough you get on stage, maybe even do a Main Stage show. The other way is being asked to participate, as many noteworthy people have been. If you go to the big main stage show you get a producer assigned to you and they help curate your tale and get it ready for the show, a 300 person audience in an amazing venue, where people pay to hear you!

I called the pitch line and got to be in a Main Stage show at The Players club in NYC. IT WAS FUCKING AWESOME! I was assigned a producer, Jenifer Hixson and she partnered with me over the last couple weeks getting my tale ready for the show. Jen was/is amazing. I feel so blessed to have worked with her. She has the ability to turn the lowbrow to refined genius. She is brilliant and so funny. I kinda have a gigantic (platonic) crush on her, but that’s how I make friends, I fall in love with them.

I got an email that they were interested in my tale, and then a call to see what the story was in full. I was told it might be a few months, up to a year before they found a show that would work with my story but they liked it and wanted to use it. Within two weeks they contacted me again, would I like to do the July 11th show they were putting together? YES YES YES, of course I would do the July 11th show (that was, three weeks away at the time)! I thought I had months to be anxious about this whole idea but luckily I could compress all my anxiety and self-doubt into a much shorter amount of time.

I was afraid to tell everyone , since it all seemed surreal, like it would just be some elaborate hoax or they would simply realize I was a nobody and/or find someone who would fill more seats. It wasn’t a hoax and that meant I had to call The Hive in Maine, my sons family, because the story was about them and I needed to get permission. I think some small part of me was waiting for them to say “No, we’d rather not have our story put out in front of the world” , but that was a delusional thought. This was a whole family of performers and storytellers, whether it be through dance, theater or art. OF COURSE they knew what The MOTH was and they were so excited and supportive of me! Bleh….that out was quickly smashed.

I had pitched the story all about my journey between my first-born child and my second. I gave my first child up in an open adoption and the tale of how I got there and back was what gave me this opportunity. During my daughters 4th birthday I had, had one of those moments where you experience a paradigm shift, my whole perspective changed and I saw what was going on at a new angle, yet again.  On one hand I drive my whole life towards those moments when just a little turn this way or that makes you reevaluate everything you have thought or felt on the subject at hand. Moments like these mark growth, they are what makes life worth living, at least for me. On the other side, these moments mark how everything I thought might have been completely wrong. Sometimes this requires some apologies…..

I watched my 13 yr old son holding my 4 yr old daughter and realized, the whole thing had made a full circle. There was nothing to forgive, I had made the right choice despite all of my self-recriminations to the contrary over the last 14 years. My son by birth was a brilliant smart-ass kid (genetics, apologies to his moms) and he was going to help provide what I didn’t have for him, an amazing support system and family for his sister. On top of all of that super squishy goodness, his family was part of my family to, they taught me the only lessons I had to build from and they did a pretty damn good job across the board, which is why I picked them. In the middle of this goofy smile realization, I decided I finally had a story worth telling, so I pitched it. More accurately I blurted it in a panic and then hung-up..shockingly they called me anyway.

The story started at 25 minutes, it had to get down to 10. Many “darlings” were killed, and it was so much fun! I got to work with this amazing woman, Jenifer Hixson, who created The Moth Story Slam.

I realize not everyone may be as excited as me, but I am a super NPR geek, I’ve been listening to since I was 16 and I have the members tote bag to prove it. I would not want to be on a screen, but the thought of being on NPR, on WNYC? That is fucking awesome. It’s a nerdgasm.

Three weeks, a trip to Asbury Park and many many calls later, my time on the Sunday before the show was at 9min 31 sec. Monday was rehearsal In NYC with the other story tellers minus one who had to be elsewhere. My time bloated to 14 minutes, damn it.  Everyone got one more simultaneous ego boost/critique, and doors opened at 6:30 Wednesday July 11th.

The venue made me dearly wish I had hours of time to research and wander around inspecting plaques and the huge oil paintings that decorated the walls. Just the building itself was worth extensive inspection.

We did a sound check where we confirmed I might be part dwarf. I had to bring the mike down about a foot to adjust it and we would have to do it ourselves when it was our turn.

I had heard everyone’s story minus one at rehearsal, but we were all still a little rough, still missing beats. On Wednesday, we all seemed to pull it together. It was amazing. All the other storytellers are authors and storytellers, except me. I felt so honored to share this stage with these people.

1st storyApril Salazar told a story of her unconventional upbringing and how her nudist mom might of not been a member of the PTA but showed her love in so many other ways.

2nd StoryKemp Powers spoke about the trauma of accidentally shooting his best friend when he was 14 yrs old and the journey from there to the amazing man he has become.

3rd storyDamien Echols shared his story of his murder conviction, years spent in prison and eventual exoneration through the Innocence Project. He was the one person I hadn’t met. He received a standing ovation.

4th Story

I was the 4th story, I went up right after the intermission. It was the clearest I had told the story. I was more at ease in this telling than any prior. It was so much fun.

5th storySebastain Junger was the last story. He told of why he went into war journalism and why he left that behind after the loss of his friend and partner.

All of these people have impressive bios and are worth looking up.  I feel ecstatic and blessed to have met them and to have shared this moment with them.

Afterwards there was a lot of strangers thanking me and all of us I’m sure.  My story elicited many empathetic tales of children lost, found and adopted. Many teary smiles and grateful hugs. I did this for my own children, it’s their story from me, a love letter to the two people who will never stop being a part of me. I hadn’t anticipated this out pouring of gratitude for sharing a part of so many other people’s stories as well. Perhaps I should have, but it’s hard to see outside of our own little boxes of narcissism, self-doubt and internal dialog. I was overwhelmed by this, but to see my words, my little tale touch all of these people, I might never know the names of? It felt like my own personal evolution, my paradigm was shifting. I can not thank the universe enough for this gift.