On the “Benefit of the Doubt”

Photo by Andy Holmes on Unsplash https://unsplash.com/@andyjh07
Photo by Andy Holmes on Unsplash https://unsplash.com/@andyjh07

Having four kids at home, I find myself having to constantly explain to them the concept of giving the benefit of the doubt. The result of which is that the idea has become very near and dear to me. I see so many conflicts that could have been avoided if those involved understood it.

We like to think that we are good at understanding our motivations (that’s a post for another day). And because we think ourselves good at judging our motivations we justify to ourselves when we are mean or rude, inadvertently or as a side-effect of our actions.

We also are limited to viewing the world through our own eyes. As a result, we are not often privy to the appearance of our actions as seen by others. If you’ve ever watched a candid video of yourself you know what I mean. You watch yourself saying the words you remember, but your body language, your stance seem off. You remember feeling compassion during the conversation but in the video you seem almost aggressive.

It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to judge another person’s intent, and without understanding intent it is seldom fair to judge another’s actions. And yet, our level of offense is so closely tied to the perceived intent. You see someone cut in front of you in line and feel she was trying to disrespect you, or someone doesn’t respond to you and you assume he is giving you the cold shoulder. (Both may have completely innocent, albeit boring, explanations.) The point is this, seldom will you find one person being intentionally malicious toward another person, unless in retaliation for some previous injustice, real, perceived, or otherwise.

There is an old maxim that states that one should never attribute to malice that which can adequately be explained by ignorance. I think that is very wise. The truth is that, while as individuals we can occasionally be intentionally cruel, most people don’t like to be. Rather, we are all the heroes and heroines of our own stories. There is a sort of philosophy in Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game that to truly understand someone is to love him the way he love himself. So try, the next time someone causes you some injury to view the whole event from the other’s perspective. Try to understand and see how your emotions change. Try to see that person as she sees herself and to love her as she loves herself. Let that love lead you to share the most important thing in this life, the love of Jesus, who sees every intention and died to take our place.

Memories of Friday Eve

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash https://unsplash.com/@anniespratt
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash https://unsplash.com/@anniespratt

A Traditional Friday Eve

I remember Friday Eve’s as a young boy. Waking up early in wide-eyed anticipation of what the next day will bring. There’s just something magical about Friday Eve. I don’t know if it’s the just-before-bed viewing of Twin Peaks or gorging myself on “hot dish” at Friday Eve Supper. It could have been sneaking into the liquor cabinet for the peppermint schnapps, I’m not sure.

After supper, with the hot dish still warm in our bellies we’d change into our Friday Eve jammie’s with the little button flap on the bottom. We’d hold hands and sing our favorite Friday Eve melodies.

Oh, those times

In days of yore

When Herr Freitag came a’knocking on our door

He came from near

He came from far

He came no matter where you are

Then there’s the agonizing worry in the wait for a visit from Herr Freitag. Have I been good enough? Would he bring me my shiny new Junior Outdoorsman for Kids catalog, and leave fun size candy bars in my sock drawer?

I remember, I actually caught Herr Freitag once. I woke up in the early hours of a Friday morning. It was still dark, but as I peered around I saw Herr Freitag coming in through the window, as was his way. He was dressed in his famous black sweater and ski mask. He looked at me for a long moment before he leaned in closely and conspiratorially whispered, “Quiet kid, or I’ll kick your teeth in.” I nearly fainted from excitement. Then Herr Freitag borrowed our TV. He still has it, I believe, the old fellow.

What I learned from NaNoWriMo

This year I had wanted to write 30,000 words in the month of November. I’ve failed horribly this year. But in some ways, I’ve succeeded.

I have indeed written more this month than I usually would. I have written a few thousand words (many in letters) and I’ve remembered how much I like to write, so in those ways it’s been successful.

Especially since my goal at the start was not as much about word count as it was about building a habit of writing and a desire to do it. (Though I suppose the goal itself testifies to the pre-existence of the desire).

But what have I learned from it?

One of the things I’ve learned is that as much as I want to, I can’t write at a computer. The words don’t flow the same on a keyboard and I will always find myself distracted by a “just check”. I’ll set aside the writing for a moment, but never pick it up again. Instead I much prefer older, more elegant analog tools. A nice pen and good paper.

For myself, I think I also equate writing and thinking. It’s how I reason things out.

If I don’t write something down I won’t move past it. I will keep thinking the same thought over and over. Not like a stuck record, but more like a nagging reminder of an unfinished task; an incomplete thought.

And since I am able to write so much more effectively on a notebook or loose paper than on a computer I think I’ve started to view a notebook as a thinking tool. While I think of a computer or iPad as a distraction, an entertainment tool. The computer is an idea generator, being exposed to other people’s thoughts and ideas through their own writing, videos or podcasts. The notebook is where I flesh out my own thoughts on these ideas with which I would not otherwise have contact.

Beyond just utility, though, I’ve found that I take far less pleasure from writing at a computer than I do with a fountain pen on nice, heavy paper. And the pleasure I derive from pen and paper is a big motivator to return to writing once I’ve started, and to start in the first place.

I’ve also decided to try out a Baronfig notebook. I’ve been using Moleskine for a few years and I may go back to them, but I’ve heard great things about Baron Fig paper and the shorter wider proportions of the notebook intrigue me. Plus, they are attractive notebooks and cheaper than Moleskine.

NaNoWriMo

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash https://unsplash.com/@patrickian4
Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash https://unsplash.com/@patrickian4

November is NaNoWriMo. While I don’t have a plan to write a novel, I do aspire to write more. I enjoy writing and I think it’s important for helping me learn, think and improve myself. But, as evidenced by this blog I’m not very consistent in it. I really want to improve my consistency in writing.

My initial idea was to try to post every day during November. I like the goal of writing a 50,000 word novel by 11:59 on November 30, but as I said, I have no desire to write a novel right now. I decided to commit myself to writing 50,000 words this month, this is divided up into 1,667 words a day. I realized that 30 posts is way more than I can realistically commit to, and truth be told I probably won’t meet the quota many of the days. Though I will keep track of my progress in Drafts.

Instead of writing a novel, or writing a blog post every day I will commit to writing 50,000 words through the month, divided between my blog, my journal, and random musings. I think my journal will get most of the love, this year. My fifth child was born at the end of October which is oddly, or not, causing me to have to deal with some unresolved issues from when my fourth child, Andrew Paul was stillborn last year. Several of those journal entries I hope will make their way to this blog.

Why I Write

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Sometimes I need to write to know what I think. My day to day musings are generally disjointed and repetitive. I arrive at a decision or opinion, if I arrive at one at all, on a circuitous and meandering neural path. It can be hard for me to reason through a concept internally. I tend to circle repeatedly through the parts of an idea that are most familiar, or least complicated. Like most, I don’t like cognitive dissonance so I try to avoid it rather than engage in the work of rectifying the discrepancies.

How I Write

To actually work my way through an issue I usually have to sit down and force myself to start writing. My own particular style of thinking via pen isn’t to do mind maps or any sort of organizational scheme that was pushed on me in school. Instead I write prose. I write it out as it comes to my head, trying to capture my thought process as it happens in the form of a narrative. That way I feel like I am able to shape it and control it. I can redirect it forward when it starts to double-back to more familiar and comfortable paradigms. The narrative form leads me forward in much the same way a story pulls the reader along on a journey. The control allows me to face the cognitive dissonance and forge a way through it.

It’s no magic bullet. Sometimes I still don’t get anywhere. Sometimes it takes me several times of writing through something and a scrapping it and starting over before I get to what I want. My Les Misérables article is one of these projects. When I started I wasn’t even quite sure what I was going for. I wrote for a while and chiseled away at my idea until I was able to see what it was. It took me longer than I like to admit to get to something I felt was comprehensible enough to share. I still don’t feel like I’m done, there’s still more there to explore. Maybe I’ll come back to it some day and expand on it.

I also write the way I speak because imagining an audience forces me to clarify and flesh my own mental shorthand. It causes me to document the memories and thoughts that lead me to an opinion so the nuances are not lost when I revisit it. It’s too easy to ignore or gloss over a supporting idea in my head when I’m just thinking. Especially if it’s a feeling from a memory or a feeling gained from an experience, but when I am writing I need to tease it out and get to the deeper meaning. And sometimes judge if it’s worth holding on to or not. Writing it also links the idea more in my head so it isn’t lost in the ether or discarded as an indecipherable scribble on a post-it. But it also often illuminates deeper connections than I suspected or would have found from the simple mental shorthand link in my mind.

Growth

In every endeavor, however small, I choose to grow. I do not want to stagnate. But growth can look very different in various circumstances. In writing I could strive for growth in a quantitative sense. This would just mean turning out more pieces of increasing length until writing is all I do in my spare time. Sometimes this sounds appealing to me, but I don’t think it’s the right goal for me. Not at this time.

My goal is communication. Better communication. My wife will tell you that I am rubbish in an argument. I shutdown and am silent, or I grasp helplessly at phrases that I think for a moment will convey a wealth of meaning but realize the moment they’ve left my lips that instead they’ve undermined or contradicted everything that I meant by them. It’s not just in arguments either, I am a horrible interview. If I haven’t thought through a question ahead of time I will sputter and stall. I have a fast memory, but I am a very slow thinker.

That leads me to the goal of writing. Learning to think faster. Practicing reason and organization of my thoughts so that I need less time to ponder before answering. My goal is to be able to share communicate in the moment with my wife. To learn, through writing, ways to form a thought and then to express it more quickly so that our conversations aren’t back and forth monologues. Wish me luck!

It’s Nice to Read Again

Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

The past couple of years I have had increasingly less time in the evenings. At my old job I would often have to work in the evenings just to stay afloat, as there was simply too much work for one person.

Since I’ve started my new job, however, even with all of the new things I have to learn I’ve found that I have more time in the evening to relax and recharge. And one of the things I’ve been doing with that time is reading more. Reading for pleasure, I mean, not just work related reading.

I love reading because it takes me out of myself for a little while. It allows me to shift my focus from the immediate stressors that weigh on me. I have no illusion that this is escapist, but it is, nevertheless, exceptionally rejuvenating. And who doesn’t need an escape now and again? I think it’s healthy to escape, to not focus on yourself and your troubles for a little while, it lends perspective.

And it exercises a part of the brain that is ignored far too often in adults, our imaginations. We’re encouraged to be inventive and creative in problem solving but at the same time it’s looked down on to read fiction. As adults we need to be able to think outside the box, but be firmly planted in reality. I think we treat these as mutually exclusive, but they don’t have to be. Exercising one’s imagination, easily done through reading, doesn’t cause one to loose grip on reality. In fact, I believe we can often learn more about reality from fiction than from non-fiction, but that’s another blog post.

When it comes down to it I don’t read for pleasure to escape my life; I read for pleasure to be refreshed for it.

A Mobile Culture

Photo by ROBIN WORRALL on Unsplash

There is a fantastic scene at the start of the movie Warm Bodies where the protagonist, a zombie named Z, reminisces about what life must have been like before the zombie apocalypse. It must have been wonderful, he thinks as he walks through an airport terminal teaming with the senseless undead, to be able to talk to each other and have a real, meaningful, human connection with someone else. As he thinks this the scene shifts to a time before the outbreak and the terminal is full of living people, each focussed entirely on the tablet or phone they hold.

The Problem

I remember watching the movie and thinking what a poignant commentary it is on our modern, mobile device driven culture and lifestyle. We’re now more connected to each other than ever before, but we achieve this connectedness by isolating ourselves from those around us. We are at a terrible in between time where technology has created a social situation for which there is not yet solidified etiquette.

But we risk more than just appearing rude. We’ve all seen the mother who at the park spends the whole time on Facebook while her child desperately vies for her attention. Or the father who keeps telling his son he’ll play catch “in just a second” while he obsessively refreshes his Twitter feed (I am that father). We continually send messages to those around us, and most strongly to our children, that what is happening out there is far more important to us than what is happening right here. What does this do to a child who cannot get his parents’ attention because they are too involved in the doings of people that, too often, they hardly know? I ask rhetorically. I do not know, but I cannot imagine it helps him grow to be a healthy, well-adjusted person. I don’t want my kids to remember me with my face always buried in my phone screen, feeling like they’re perpetually second on my priority list.

From the perspective of my six year-old daughter there is no difference between me texting my wife to clarify which brand of detergent is the one that doesn’t ruin clothes but also doesn’t cause skin rashes and checking to see if there are any new tweets (even though I checked 45 seconds ago). She can’t tell that one is important and relevant to the task at hand and one is escapist, isolating entertainment. All she knows is that I told her we’d go to the store together for some fun daddy-daughter time and I’m not present with her.

Journaling digitally is similarly troublesome. The benefits of digital journaling make it very attractive to me. I can have my journal entries available anywhere; searchable, annotated with photos, and automatically including location, weather, etc. But journaling is naturally introspective. When you journal it is you and the journal (whatever method you use). One of the detriments of digital journaling, then, is that for longer periods of time you sit staring at a screen. This can also be confusing to those around you.

The Solution

I’m hesitant to call this section the solution because I don’t know that there really is a solution. I can think of some practical steps. But I think the real solution is that we learn to moderate ourselves. We need to learn to quell the FOMO and develop the skills necessary to be present. That is the real solution. It’s learning to use the technologies that we have to serve us in a helpful way.

If I revisit the example at the store with my daughter how can I still get the information that I need while at the same time teach and model appropriate boundaries and behaviors for her. I can think of a couple different ways.

  1. I can make an old fashioned phone call. While this is isolating me from her it is not leaving her in doubt about what I’m doing. She understands the purpose and duration of my distraction away from the time we’re spending. There’s no worry that I’ll float back to the phone call in a couple of minutes “just to see if there’s something new”, the phone call has a definite beginning and end. And when it ends I go back to giving her my attention.
  2. My daughter is learning to read and write and so I can hand the phone to her and together we can set about the task of learning which brand we need to buy. In this scenario neither of us are isolated as we use the technology together to accomplish our goal. It also becomes a learning experience for her as I’m able to help her type and spell correctly.

Or, perhaps, if my son is riding his bike around in the back yard instead of isolating myself from by texting my wife to tell her about it, I can bring him into the conversation. “Buddy, what do you want me to tell mommy about how you’re riding your bike?” We can take photos together to send to her. I need to lead by example to show him that it’s OK to communicate with others who aren’t there. That’s good! But it’s not good to cut off those around us.

For journaling a change of habit is probably needed. For me, at least, it is much easier to remain tangentially aware of my surroundings and disengage with what I’m doing when I am writing in a physical book. It is psychologically less magnetic. So the habit that I need to develop (that I’m not practicing at the moment) is to journal in a physical book when I need to capture a thought around other people so I can still engage with them.

Moving Forward

I want to teach my children to love technology the way I love technology. But I want to teach them to love it in a healthy way. I want them to be able to be excited about the tool while still recognizing it as just that a tool, that you use and then set aside. It exists to serve you, not consume you.

For example, my iPhone has the ability to shoot video at 120 fps. My oldest son and I were playing with some wind up motorcycles. We were winding them up and sending them drag racing down a straightaway made out of blocks. Then we built a wall at the end and sent them crashing through the wall. It was fun watching the bikes crash and tumble. But we made it even more fun by filming it and then watching it back in slow motion. These are the sort of experiences and memories I want my kids to have. Memories where technology enhances our time together rather than detracts from it.

Déjà Vu

I only feel déjà vu with negative experiences, almost never positive.

Our first three children came after completely complication-free pregnancies. Not once in those pregnancies did I get a feeling of déjà vu. Why? Because there’s nothing that sticks in the mind when everything goes as it should. But when something goes wrong the mind latches onto it.

We’re now on our sixth pregnancy. Our fourth child, Andrew Paul, was stillborn. After Andrew we had a miscarriage. With this pregnancy I feel déjà vu many times a day. There were so many events that led up to Andrew’s death that I can’t go for very long without having memories forced to the surface.

And in the latest ultrasound there were several uncomfortable similarities to our last ultrasound with Andrew. The baby looks beautiful and very healthy. But it’s still very worrying.

All we can do is pray for God to protect him, and trust Him to hold us. Trusting is so hard.


I am thankful that Adam Ford’s comic today was on trusting God.

This is one of the panels. The whole comic is well worth a read.

Live-Tweeting Despair

Yesterday I watched a man live-tweet the death of his six-year-old daughter. It was horrific. Not because he was tweeting it, he was crying out in pain. It was horrific to watch it unfold.

She had cancer and he knew it was coming. He held her as she lay unconscious fighting for the last bits of life she had left. She was my daughter’s age. She died on her birthday.

I can’t stop thinking about it.

Drinking from the Firehose

I recently changed jobs. I went from being a web administrator in the medical field, working with SharePoint and ASP.Net to deploying and configuring software on Unix servers for a shipping logistics company. By my wife’s description (“He works with computers”) my job hasn’t changed much. In actuality, the only consistent thing between the two jobs is “He works with computers.”

It’s been intimidating to make such a big change. In some ways I feel almost like I’m starting over, learning all new systems. Fortunately, I’ve been playing with Unix for fun for almost 15 years, so I’m not starting from scratch. But at the start I had a few meetings where the only words I understood were the conjunctions. It felt like drinking from a firehose.

My “strategy” (if you can call it that) for learning everything I need to is based on how I’ve watched my children acquire language. This is the human mind’s first task after birth and the process has worked for many thousands of years, so I think it’s worth examining. It’s also very simple. It is natural, it’s the way I would have approached it by default, without thinking about it. And that’s part of why I think it’s interesting, because the human brain is so powerful. It’s natural approach is so effective. By mindfully approaching the subject like a language immersion study I am learning much faster than I anticipated.

When a child learns language she starts with a very simple base vocabulary and let context and usage inform the meaning of the new words as she encounters them. She also isn’t shy about asking for the meaning of some words if she can’t figure out the meaning on her own.

So that’s essentially what I did. I sat quietly and listened during my meetings and listened for how our systems are built and how they relate to each other. I usually waited until after the meeting to ask for clarification on some of the systems or acronyms so that I didn’t disturb the productivity of the meeting. I worried that asking these questions after the meeting rather than when they came up would detract from my ability to understand what was going on in the meeting. Actually, though, I found that steadily, day after day, I was building a more comprehensive mental picture of the systems. Every meeting I understood more and more.

I’m still not there, yet. But I’m now at a point where I feel comfortable, more or less, doing my job. This is really encouraging since I was very stressed about starting a job in a completely different discipline.