*we put the "mmm" in communism


This is the personal blog of Tim. Here, Tim writes on anything he has enough inspiration to finish a post on. That usually ends up being matters of science, pop culture, technology, religion, and philosophy.

This blog is around nine years old, which is over a third of Tim's current age. Back in 2003, it was called "Of Tim: Tim's life - or lack thereof", and it was as bad as you might expect the blog of a freshman in high school to be. Tim hopes that his writing is a little better, these days.

Tim welcomes any input that you, the dear reader, might have. Comments are very much appreciated, especially if you have a dissenting opinion. If you'd like to learn more about Tim, you might want to see his facebook or google+.

Also: Tim is a very avid consumer of various sorts of music. You may be interested in his playlists!

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I delivered a eulogy today. This is what I said.

I’ve never done this before, so I apologize ahead of time if I’m young and stray too eagerly into the unorthodox or worse, the cliché. Death is still mostly foreign to me.

I only experienced a short window in Nana’s time with us. Seventy-two years of her story do not include me, and a lifetime of practice, mistakes, and learning preceded my interactions with her. Whatever her challenges were, I was not privy to them. As such, Nana will exist eternally in my mind as the pristine vessel of the best kind of grandmotherly love. On any given day, she would fulfill with gusto the roles of guardian, tutor, correctional officer, and friend. She made possible a wealth of excellent childhood memories which I look forward to reminiscing on for the rest of my life; the ride home from school in her glorified go-kart of a car, the bacon sandwich she’d make every day while I sat down to watch afternoon cartoons (starting with Thundercats), the countless hours spent doing puzzles and playing word games. All of that was beautiful and lovely, but I think it would fail the depth of her character to limit my eulogy to youthful nostalgia.

Which presents a problem for me.

I realize, as I trawl through the annals of my biography, that my memory is not good. I have this collection of scenes from my childhood, but the details are so blurred. In these memories, her mannerisms and demeanor are perhaps the clearest of what remains; I can recall the lilting style of her voice when she would admonish me, or how her lips would purse woodenly while she read a story, or the way it seemed like every wrinkle on her face would contribute to her smiles. But ultimately, I can’t remember a lot of what she actually said to me. I forgot, kind of like loose change through a hole in your pocket. I was too young, incapable of understanding the myriad subtleties that no doubt accompanied her old-fashioned sensibilities and warm companionship. I want to say I know who she really was, but by the time I was beginning to develop an identity, she was losing hers to Alzheimer’s. I am stuck knowing her only through the murky lens of early grade school.

Nana’s commitment to personal growth was certainly legendary. Her convictions engendered a kind of super-human dedication to furthering her knowledge of God, and at every turn she was encouraging me to do the same. It was a sort of zest and passion that commanded every part of her life. She took unabated pride in everything she did, making expert use of her hawk-like attention to detail. She worked hard to turn the more mundane routines of her relatively solitary life into a daily celebration, and what resulted was, from my eyes, a freight train of relentless optimism and charity, and that train did not come equipped with brakes.

Her love, as I experienced it, was completely unconditional. It wasn’t a love based on understanding – it was just a kind of fact of life that never required justification. I wasn’t easy on her, either; I would sometimes make it the mission of my week to stay rooted in poor temperament, hoping to shake her iron grip on my willpower. She went for the long haul, though. Her strategy was one of patience and steadfastness, and I would inevitably find myself humbled before her incredible consistency. Everything I learned about being stubborn, I learned from her.

I don’t know how she would feel, to see me now; I have become many of the things that she lamented about our world, and I no longer share in her beliefs about God or the nature of the universe. It’s hard to reconcile because of how inseparable the story of her life and the qualities of her personality are from the Christian faith. But then, I remember, my relationship with Nana wasn’t predicated on her understanding of me or my understanding of her. Even now, I still don’t really get why she was the way that she was. And that’s okay. That’s one of the greatest things about family – you don’t really need an excuse to care about each other.

Her sons, grandsons, and great grandsons permanently bear a piece of her identity into the 21st century and beyond. Her legacy probably isn’t what she expected, but that’s okay too. If there’s one thing our family has experience with, it’s handling the unexpected. I think the fact that we’re still going strong is a testament to how Nana’s spirit of pride and stubbornness continues on within us. Nana is a reminder that to be alive, to be what makes us who we are, is to remember. Without the lore that forms the backdrop of our existence, we fall out of the story of our own lives. Nana becomes now a part of our family story, and the more we remember of her, the more we will know of ourselves.

I, for one, am thrilled to share with future generations what Nana shared with me, and I hope I was able to do a bit of that here, as well.
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Early morning found me awake, so I decided it was time again to see how my old church was faring. As I hoped, the visit brought forth a slough of new perspectives on ancient paradigms. This time, my ponderings focused on the concept of "living by faith", a phrase often employed in many religious contexts.

I've learned that a critical part of the process of reevaluation is finding a functional definition of the concept at hand - one that shies away from vagueries and can be envisioned practically. To this end, I felt this description accurately described the act of "living by faith": engaging in any behavior where the outcome is uncertain or unknown. By nature of going forward with an action where there are a high number of unknown and uncontrolled variables, the risk of a negative outcome is much higher. Uncertainty naturally engenders much anxiety, which is why this concept is often paired with a call to trust in god to provide a positive result.

Having reached this definition, I was faced with a problem. If these behaviors are naturally higher-risk, then I should be seeing a higher incidence of poor outcomes. However, most Christians will testify that the more they allow themselves to live by faith and trust in god, the better things are. Some of this can be accounted for by mere attitude; an optimistic approach can overpower a significant amount of misfortune. This can't explain all of it, though - there must be something more going on. I concluded that it is a combination of several characteristics which feed into each other, at an individual level, as well as in the community.

Before I describe these characteristics, here are some examples of the kind of behaviors that might depend on these traits for successful execution.

  • Getting married very young, after a very short dating period, or otherwise without the knowledge most people would consider necessary or valuable in deciding whether or not to marry

  • Changing jobs and/or moving somewhere new based on the nebulous function of spiritual calling or vocation - particularly those who leave stable employment to become a full-time religious worker

  • In a similar vein, financially illogical prosocial ventures, such as charity work done totally out of pocket or started without the necessary funding already acquired

  • Choosing not to abort unplanned pregnancies

Many more examples can be drawn, but these behaviors are emblematic of the topic at hand; they're fundamentally risky and require the individual to make life-altering choices for very fuzzy reasons. Intuition says that we should be seeing primarily negative results, but anecdotal evidence contradicts this. I believe the following traits explain this.

Robust social support systems

This is the simplest and most obvious, so I don't think I need to explain it much. Church communities are tight-knit, and where other social support systems fail to provide for the needs of an individual, the church community steps in to ensure basic necessities are taken care of. Because the community invests in the individual, accountability is higher; they want to know their efforts aren't being wasted.

Try, try again

Patience is a celebrated trait in most religious traditions, and many bible verses and modern Christian authors speak at length on the art of waiting for god to act. Being patient is a safe approach to most situations; the best opportunities rarely avail themselves from the start.

These actions are ultimately executed using moral and spiritual arguments, which in the context of faith/religion are not subject to the normal acid test of cost-benefit analysis. Success is assumed to be inevitable because the outcome is guaranteed by a supernatural being. Persistence and patience are simply a necessity because of the all-in element of these choices. Once a person has made the decision, it is often very difficult, if not impossible to reverse - from a logistical standpoint as well as to avoid shame in the community (goes back to accountability). If the original plan fails, it is almost always more productive to go forward than to attempt to revert the change.

Confidence increases chances of success

Community support combined with the emotional reinforcement that accompanies the idea of divine purpose results in a higher level of confidence. The more confident one is and appears to be, the better things go. This effect is further bolstered by the irreversible nature of these decisions - having been locked into a choice, one can more quickly recognize anxiety and hesitation as useless and antithetical to the end goal.

Major decisions can initiate significant life change

The easiest way to adopt maladaptive behaviors is through stagnation. As people settle into a pattern of routine, habits and customs are acquired that can lower quality of life by a significant degree. The sort of choices in question tend to force individuals to completely alter the structure of daily life in order to overcome new challenges and adapt to unfamiliar circumstances. Old habits can be more easily eliminated in new contexts, and other desired changes can be initiated since many of the factors that discourage change become irrelevant in the process of drastic life change.

Adaptation to high-uncertainty situations

As each individual goes through the ordeal of surviving the period of adjustment from stability to instability, and back again, experience is accrued that provides valuable lessons for next time. They will inevitably improve at performing damage control when things go awry (which they will). By making it through significant life change, adaptive capability will improve. Even more importantly, this knowledge is diffused throughout the community, providing valuable insights for others that will eventually find themselves in similar circumstances.

Combined together, these characteristics of religiously-motivated behavior form a potent cocktail of social momentum. Choices that would be disastrous in other environments become somewhat more feasible, at the cost of individual identity and control. By going all-in, the individual becomes inexorably tied to the community, and s/he becomes wholly dependent on that community for survival. This description remains true at practically every level of religious organization and involvement; think of your favorite radical group or cult, and if you examine their practices, very often the prerequisites for membership in the community demands abandonment of out-group relationships, personal property, and/or individual identity. This effect exists in more moderate religious circumstances, but it tends to be more subtle, lurking in the subconscious of the group's members.

I feel, at times, that I'm discovering things that everyone else already knew. Looking over the evidence now, all of this seems completely obvious, as if there were no other conclusion that could be reached. It feels very strange to see all of these forces I once thought beyond definition and description, amalgamated into fairly typical psychosocial phenomena. Amorphous platitudes (anyone remember my truth, beauty, and goodness kick?) have been usurped by more practical perspectives.

It took me a long time to accept that reality really is just what we can see - no more, no less. I wanted desperately for there to exist something unimaginably lovely and pure behind this veil of existence. I spent more time thinking about the plane of the supernatural than I did about my own life, and my life in the real world suffered greatly for it. Now, having figured out how to make reality a place worth living in, I just don't need more than this. As I learn more about nature, of the laws of our universe and the tremendous and wonderful complexity of the systems it contains, I feel like I've been an ignorant child, sobbing for ice cream as a giant bowl of mint chocolate chip sits right in front of me.

The world isn't an easy place - at least for now, there is no escape from suffering. Pain and hardship are a part of our reality that we cannot eliminate. Rather than fleeing from reality to escape the unpleasantries, I have determined that life can, in fact, be good enough to make the bad parts more than worth enduring. That's what friends and family are for.