I wasn’t planning to write this today, but I want to.
It was two years ago today that my brother David left home. We thought he had run away to start a new life or something. Then last fall, we learned he had passed away.
I feel melancholy thinking about my brother today. However, I also feel a sense of peace that I will see David again. I actually feel very assured about that.
That raises a question: Why should a rational person feel assured of something he can’t see or demonstrate, such as life after death?
The five senses are considered our inputs for rational thinking. However, I’ve learned I can know things outside of my five, traditional senses. There are other, finer senses that give us knowledge about spiritual things. We can cultivate these finer senses and trust them. They contribute to rational thinking. For me, faith and religion help cultivate these finer senses.
Traditional thought is that religion is at odds with science; it’s religion versus science. However, we can think about it differently, as religion plus science. Both are methods for learning truth.
In fact, religion may sometimes know things before science knows them, especially at a personal level. In that way, religion is sort of “indy” truth — truth before it goes mainstream. Eventually religion and science will be reconciled as separate views of one great whole.
On a day like today, I’m grateful for the possibility of knowing additional truths by faith.
I really enjoyed this 5-minute clip from Professor Clayton Christensen discussing science, religion, and the pursuit of truth (starting at 2:55):
There’s also a great interview with John Lewis, a scientist discussing religion and science as being like two lenses in a pair of glasses:
Update, Aug 2, 2014: Here’s a recent, related quote from Elder Russell M. Nelson: “Truth is truth! It is not divisible, and any part of it cannot be set aside…. Whether truth emerges from a scientific laboratory or through revelation, all truth emanates from God. All truth is part of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
As a little background, I’m Mormon and we take marriage seriously — a high ideal worth working for. Because dating is the process that leads to marriage, we usually take dating seriously too. We might do well to be both more serious and less serious about dating — more deliberate, but less anxious. I look to my parents, several good friends, and others as models of good marriages. This talk by Richard G. Scott also paints a good picture: “The Eternal Blessings of Marriage”.
I’ve been thinking about this post for almost two years and the ideas in this post for even longer. I’m 33, so I’ve had over a decade of post-mission dating. The differences I see between my dating world and the one described by my parents’ or grandparents’ generation will likely be even more stark for my future children, so these are the observations I’ll share with them:
Be careful of distraction and other mental traps
Some people have told me, “Your generation is scared of commitment.” While that may be true for some people, I believe distraction and other mental traps are larger factors. Ironically, distractions even affect the people who desperately want to get married.
Here are a few distractions and mental traps I’ve observed:
It’s not really the time wasted on Facebook. It’s that you can travel down a “rabbit hole” of looking at pictures of attractive people you don’t know, looking at events that you’re not attending, and deluding yourself into thinking you’re “meeting” people. Of course, no one thinks they’re actually meeting people, but your mind can be tricked into thinking you’re making progress. And you’ll probably believe your own dating isn’t very exciting. I’ve had friends go down that rabbit hole and say “she looks like my type — why can’t I find someone like her?” and then come out of the rabbit hole to say “Where did the last 30 minutes go?”
In this trap, the strangers on Facebook we don’t know seem more attractive than the real people we do know. Of course, those strangers are also real people with strengths and weaknesses too, but we build them up in our minds.
In The Great Gatsby, Jay fell into this trap: “There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams–not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion…. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.”
The aggregation effect
Suppose you go to a dessert party, talk to several attractive people, and have a great time. Which one do you want to date? None of them? You may have just been fooled by the “aggregation effect”.
The aggregation effect is that you mentally combine all the attractive qualities of a group of people and subconsciously believe there’s one person out there who possesses all those qualities. Amy dresses well, Beth is well-read and interesting, and Candace laughs at your jokes, which makes the party fun, but if you don’t want to take someone on a date, then your mind may have fooled you. Again, this is subconscious.
Related to the aggregation effect is an elevated “baseline”. Think of your baseline as your average day-to-day excitement or happiness. It might be loosely associated with dopamine levels in your brain. When you meet someone attractive, your excitement level rises above the baseline. It’s novel and exciting.
By constantly attending parties, dessert parties, group activities, huge dances, etc. with exciting/attractive/interesting people, I believe it’s possible to raise your “baseline” so that you’re no longer excited by one individual.
To paraphrase Jeffrey R. Holland, no one is as handsome or as beautiful or as brilliant in school or as witty in speech as all of us are combined.
With 1 person, you have to carry the conversation about 50% of the time, and you get to hear novel, interesting, or funny conversation the other 50% of the time. At a dessert party with 20 people, you might carry the conversation just 5% of the time, but you hear novel, interesting, or funny conversation 95% of the time. Parties are biased to provide you far more novelty and entertainment than any one person can provide alone.
How to kill a moth
Nature magazine published an article on how moths were exterminated in Australia using their own natural pheromones instead of manufactured insecticides. (Pheromones are a natural substance released by female moths to attract male moths.) One method was to build a snare into which the male moths would enter and not escape. The second method didn’t require a physical snare at all:
[It] is called the confusion method. An airplane scatters an environmentally insignificant number of very small plastic pellets imbedded with the scent of the pheromone, and only a few of these pellets per acre are enough to overpower the male’s ability to find the female. He is thus desensitized to the natural scent of the female by this compelling scent. The Australian article describes the confusion method as follows, “The male either becomes confused and does’t know which direction to turn for the female, or he becomes desensitized to the lower levels of pheromones naturally given out by the female and has no incentive to mate with her.” (Quoted by Dr. Donald Hilton, Lighted Candle Society Annual Banquet, May, 13, 2009)
The male moth was exterminated by raising the baseline pheromone level of its environment.
Adlai E. Stevenson was a candidate for U.S. president in 1952 and 1956. He said that from citizens we need “not short, frenzied outbursts of emotion, but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime”. That also sounds like a good formula for a relationship. To be open and vulnerable in marriage, you’d want your partner to be steady, not frenzied.
Incidentally, that’s opposite of what makes romance exciting. Drama is fun! Drama is exciting!
What makes slot machines addictive and dogs trainable is intermittent variable reward or IVR, the idea that it’s easier to manipulate behavior with random rewards than consistent rewards. “[A] dolphin rewarded with a fishy treat every six jumps will soon become lackadaisical about the five in-between ones; reward it at random, however, and it’ll jump vigorously, never knowing which jump will bring fish.”
If you date someone that’s up and down, hot and cold, it certainly may be exciting. The transition from cold to hot is exciting because of the contrast, but your mind may be tricked by this IVR effect. On the other hand, someone who’s consistent and steady may not be as provocative to your amygdala but they may provide more safety in a relationship. Our minds trick us into wanting excitement when we may prefer steadiness.
In pop culture, this is called being “no drama”. The recently passed Margaret Thatcher said, “Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.” Being no-drama seems about the same.
Lower the costs of dating, and not just financial costs
Much has been said about reducing the financial cost of dates, and I think it’s good advice. I also think it’s more than financial costs. Keeping dates inexpensive is also about reducing the transaction and risk costs.
The transaction cost of a date is all the “fuss” before and after a date.
The risk cost of a date is how emotionally painful or socially awkward it will be if this date doesn’t work out.
Things that increase the transaction costs and risk costs of dating:
Making a big deal out of date, whether yours or a friend’s
Jumping to conclusions about someone you like
Jumping to conclusions about someone you don’t like
Talking too much or too soon with your roommates/friends about your dates
After your roommate’s date, asking “Is he/she THE ONE?”
Spreading the news that two people went on a date
Dating as a conversation topic should be as mundane as the weather.
I know a young lady who lived by herself and didn’t talk about her dates, even with girlfriends. She sometimes had dates on different nights with guys who knew each other but didn’t know they were all dating her. She effectively reduced the cost of asking her on a date because guys learned that they could ask her on a date without burning bridges with anyone else. Later she started dating one of them steadily and it became public.
As my friend Tristen says, stop talking about your first dates.
Suppose I have a daughter who doesn’t get married until later in life. It may be difficult for her to stay optimistic and cheerful about dating. However, I’ll try to explain to her how important it is to be as carefree and cheerful as she was when she first started dating. I might say, “If a guy perceives that asking you on a date might get your hopes up and hurt you if it doesn’t work out, he may not be inclined to take that risk, for fear of hurting your feelings. Stay optimistic and reduce the risk for him to get to know you.”
I like these words from Thomas Edison: “I have not failed, not once. I have discovered ten thousand ways that don’t work” and “I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.” Dating is a process of experimentation, trying to find the right fit. It doesn’t have to be viewed as compounding disappointment until it’s finally, happily over. It can be fun along the way, and we can learn a lot from each other, even when it doesn’t work out.
There are supply-side efforts to fight pornography like the Lighted Candle Society, which litigates pornographers and is attempting to prove medically that it causes addiction. Agree or disagree, I think most technologists and much of the world consider such supply-side efforts an affront to free speech, censorship of the Internet, etc.
I’m inspired to see demand-side efforts like Fight the New Drug (FTND), which teaches children at school assemblies why they may want to avoid pornography for natural, self-interested reasons. The idea is, to paraphrase Justin Timberlake in The Social Network, “Pornography isn’t sexy. You know what’s sexy? Sexual intimacy with your spouse, someone you love. That’s sexy.”
I think an approach like this can teach children that, yes, this stuff is alluring, but there are self-interested reasons you may want to avoid it and opt for a more authentic kind of intimacy. It’s an attitude of “Don’t just avoid it because I said so. Understand the reasons.”
Now that I live in Boulder, I’ve come to learn that the local ad agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky was behind The Truth campaign I previously wrote about: Can pornography be made unpopular? In that piece I quoted Mary Eberstadt of Stanford’s Hoover Institution who called pornography the “new tobacco”:
Yesterday, smoking was considered unremarkable in a moral sense, whereas pornography was widely considered disgusting and wrong — including even by people who consumed it. Today, as a general rule, just the reverse is true. Now it is pornography that is widely (though not universally) said to be value-free, whereas smoking is widely considered disgusting and wrong — including even by many smokers.
This makes me curious to study the causes of the drop in tobacco consumption in the last decades. How much was caused by supply-side efforts (e.g. lawsuits against Big Tobacco, smoking bans, etc.) and how much was caused by demand-side efforts (e.g. The Truth campaign)? My bet is on the latter.
I’m very skeptical of the ability of government or law (prohibition) to produce virtue in a society. I very much approve of efforts to teach and promote virtue by persuasion and reason.
One of the Christmas traditions in my parents’ home is a small family “program” on Christmas Eve. My dad asks us each to share a quote, scripture passage, or other thought related to Christmas. I had recently been listening to Coldplay’s latest album Mylo Xyloto. I was struck at the similarity between the album’s last song, Up With the Birds, and a talk by Jeffrey R. Holland.
Coldplay (my emphasis):
The birds they sang, break of day Start again I hear them say
It’s so hard to just walk away
The birds they sang, all a choir Start again, a little higher
It’s a spark in a sea of grey
Might have to go where they don’t know my name
Float all over the world just to see her again
But I won’t show or feel any pain
Even though all my armour might rust in the rain A simple plot, but I know one day
Good things are coming our way
I was asked to speak in church a few months ago and spoke on the topic of attention and distraction. Here’s the outline of my talk, delivered Aug 28, 2011 in Boulder, CO. By the way, I consider this a very positive topic — the opportunity to direct our attention and feel more peace and flow — not a negative topic about simply avoiding the “perils” of distraction.
Define attention: “your treasure”
You have a limited amount of time. You have even less attention because attention is the subset of your time during which you’re awake, alert, and have energy. Therefore, attention is more valuable than time. How you spend your attention constitutes what is important to you.
“For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (3 Ne 13:21)
Where does your attention go?
Which people get your attention?
Which projects and causes and acts of service get your attention?
“Please be careful of becoming so immersed and engrossed in pixels, texting, ear buds, twittering, online social networking, and potentially addictive uses of media and the Internet that you fail to recognize the importance of your physical body and miss the richness of person-to-person communication. Beware of digital displays and data in many forms of computer-mediated interaction that can displace the full range of physical capacity and experience.”
We’re here on earth to have a mortal experience with a body, with presence, with real people.
Distraction is the enemy of attention
“I am persuaded that two of the greatest sins of our busy and hectic generation are distraction and preoccupation.” (David A. Bednar)
“We need to frustrate…distraction by identifying what is critically important in our lives. We must give the cream of our effort to accomplish those things. Where there is limited time or resources, this pattern may require that some good activities be…set aside.” (Richard G. Scott)
“Does the use of various technologies and media invite or impede the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost in your life?” (David A. Bednar)
“Each of us should be careful that the current flood of information does not occupy our time so completely that we cannot focus on and hear and heed the still, small voice that is available to guide each of us with our own challenges today.” (Dallin H. Oaks)
When we allow some moments of our life to be quiet, peaceful moments, God can speak to our hearts through the Holy Spirit. My prayers are best when I take more time to listen in between what I say. I sometimes feel prompted to pray for something I hadn’t previously considered. We might pray for A, B, C. God may actually want to give us B, C, D, E, F, G, H. If we don’t listen, we may miss those extra things He wants to give.
We have thousands of times more available information than Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln. Yet which of us would think ourselves a thousand times more educated or more serviceable to our fellowmen than they? The sublime quality of what these two men gave to us–including the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address–was not attributable to their great resources of information, for their libraries were comparatively small by our standards. Theirs was the wise and inspired use of a limited amount of information.
The truck story, ibid.:
Two men formed a partnership. They built a small shed beside a busy road. They obtained a truck and drove it to a farmer’s field, where they purchased a truckload of melons for a dollar a melon. They drove the loaded truck to their shed by the road, where they sold their melons for a dollar a melon. They drove back to the farmer’s field and bought another truckload of melons for a dollar a melon. Transporting them to the roadside, they again sold them for a dollar a melon. As they drove back toward the farmer’s field to get another load, one partner said to the other, “We’re not making much money on this business, are we?” “No, we’re not,” his partner replied. “Do you think we need a bigger truck?”
We don’t need a bigger truckload of information, either. Like the two partners in my story, our biggest need is a clearer focus on how we should value and use what we already have.
Because of modern technology, the contents of huge libraries and other data resources are at the fingertips of many of us. Some choose to spend countless hours in unfocused surfing the Internet, watching trivial television, or scanning other avalanches of information. But to what purpose? Those who engage in such activities are like the two partners in my story, hurrying to and fro, hauling more and more but failing to grasp the essential truth that we cannot make a profit from our efforts until we understand the true value of what is already within our grasp.