A Life that Passed Like a Wind

Thirty four years ago last November, my former roommate, Dan Cohen died at the age of 25. He was an extraordinary individual, and if you have a moment, I’d like to tell you a little bit about him.

Dan had the misfortune of being born a Thalidomide baby. He was significantly less than five feet tall, slightly hard of hearing, nearly blind but for his exceptionally thick glasses, and he had purple tinted teeth — which were always on display since his lips did not easily close over them. But the worst of it was that he had an exceptionally weak heart.

At the time I knew him, Dan could walk only a few hundred yards without stopping to rest because his heart would within that short distance pound like he’d run a marathon.

At an early age — maybe nine or ten — Dan’s doctors told his parents that, because of the weakness of his heart, he would most likely not live beyond 25 years old, which proved to be an accurate prediction. His parents made the decision to tell Dan what the doctors had told them, so Dan knew early on that he wasn’t going to live a long life.

I met Dan in college. He and I lived on the same dorm floor for awhile. We became roommates because no one else on the floor wanted him as a roommate. Frankly, Dan was one of the messiest people I’ve ever known. But when he asked to become my roommate, I figured I could handle it on the one condition that he didn’t let any of his mess stray to my side of the room.

It wasn’t long before I learned that Dan’s one ambition in life was to learn everything he could possibly learn as fast as he could learn it. Because of his circumstances, the university allowed him to study anything he wanted to study without pressuring him to graduate. His official major was biology, but he took courses in every major field of science along with many courses in the humanities. He was an engaging thinker, and introduced me to many ideas that were new to me.

The only thing Dan seemed to like more than learning something new was a good joke. Most of our conversations were laced with his wit, and even to this day, I can hear in my mind his laughter.

He also had an well-informed empathy for the underdog, the oppressed, that I myself at the time did not fully share with him. For instance, he was deeply concerned with injustices suffered by the Palestinians.

We only roomed together for one year before I left the dorms. Then one freezing winter night, Dan got a phone call from the hospital. My brother was seriously ill and had been taken to the emergency room. Could Dan give them my new number?

As it happened, Dan only had my address, but not my phone number. Without apparent thought for himself, he set out past midnight, in the middle of a blizzard, to walk to my new home because he didn’t have cab fare and couldn’t find anyone who would lend him the money. It took him, he said, almost two hours to reach me. He had to stop every block or so and rest his heart in the freezing wind.

What impresses me most about the man was not the selfless, heroic effort he made to inform me of my brother’s hospitalization, but rather his extraordinary love for life, his courage, and his sensitivity to others.

Dan knew he didn’t have much time in this world, but I never once heard him complain about it. You can say life was unfair to him, but that’s not a judgement he himself ever gave an indication of harboring.

Instead, I only recall his passionate enthusiasm when he would toss out to me some new idea he’d had, or some bit of knowledge he’d discovered that day. I think he made the most of the tragic hand he was dealt in life, and over the years, he has become something a personal inspiration to me.

Thank you for listening. I believe Dan deserves to be remembered.

Just How Strong are Internet Friendships?

It seems to me, the internet has made it easy to meet people who are fundamentally like us.  Nowadays, I myself expect it to happen once or twice a month — which is more frequent than the same thing happening offline.

Yet, what impresses me most about meeting people online who are fundamentally like me isn’t how often it happens, but with whom it happens. I have been nearly astonished to discover again and again how much someone from a background, society, or culture very different from my own can feel almost like kin to me.

Indeed, it makes me wonder just how important background, cultural, and social differences are.  Before the net, I saw such differences as crucially important; now, I’m not so sure.  Maybe how well our most basic personalities mesh with each other can be more important to the strength of our friendships than all the financial, social, political, religious, philosophical, national, age, ethnic, gender, and other differences that would otherwise divide us.

I’m still very much working out an answer to that question.  I would like to believe that friendship consistently trumps everything else, but I know that sometimes it doesn’t.  For one thing, there are too many recorded instances of friends murdering each other for political, religious, or other such differences for it to be true that friendships always trump those differences.  Sometimes they do, but they don’t always.

Of course, the mere fact your personality meshes well with someone else’s personality in no way guarantees you two will become friends.  So far as I’ve been told, a good personality mesh is less important to the strength of the friendship bond than at least two other factors.

Working together towards a  goal is one of those factors.  People tend to bond when they do that well.  And if they do it well, then the more they do it, the more bonded they become.

Unfortunately, the internet provides comparatively limited opportunities to work together.  Sure, you can do somethings together, but not as many things as you can with someone offline.  That’s important because working together towards a goal is — at least according to the science I’ve read — a top factor in friends bonding with each other.  It’s arguable that the limits the net imposes on this type of bonding reduce the strength of internet friendships.

The other factor is mutual self-disclosure.   People who voluntarily and more or less comfortably disclose or reveal themselves to each other tend to bond much more strongly than those who don’t.  In fact,  it seems very difficult to form a strong bond without at least some significant measure of mutual self-disclosure.

It’s likely that the internet substantially helps to facilitate self-disclosure.  There’s a good reason Catholics build confessionals.  It’s much easier to talk freely and honestly about yourself when you have the anonymity that can be — and sometimes is — provided by the confessional.  Even better than a confessional, the net can provide anonymity to anyone who wants it.   In fact, I’ve noticed it is so common these days to “confess all” over the internet  that I sometimes think of the net as “The Great Confessional of Our Times”.

But even people who prefer to fully disclose their real names, locations, and other identifying information are nowadays apt to reveal all sorts of other personal stuff about themselves over the net.  Whatever it is about the net that makes so many people feel safe to disclose so very much about themselves, anonymity does not seem to be the key factor causing it.

Whatever the cause(s) of it, it seems probable that so much self-disclosure provides comparatively many opportunities for people to bond in friendship.  Moreover, I think those bonds are very likely to be just as profound in many instances as any offline bonds that are predominantly based on mutual self-disclosure.

Considering all of the above, I think a good case can be made for the notion that internet friendships are capable of becoming quite strong, perhaps just as strong as offline friendships.  The opportunities the net provides for working together towards a goal — although comparatively limited — combined with the opportunities it offers for mutual self-disclosure would seem to be two most crucially important factors in making such strong bonds possible.  Of course, there are other factors that go into forming strong friendships, but those two seem to be the top factors.

Furthermore, I think that, if two people’s personalities fundamentally mesh well, they might even be able to form a strong bond between them in spite of being divided by many differences in such things as their age, gender, ethnicity, religiosity, politics, nationality, and so forth.  That would seem to be significant here because the net easily brings together very diverse people.

But none of that addresses the odds or probability of such strong friendships happening.  Are strong internet friendships less likely, as likely, or more likely to come about than strong offline friendships?  To me, that’s an interesting question, but one that I do not have an answer to.  What do you think, though?

And what do you think about the overall strength of internet friendships?

Can We Deserve to Have Friends?

I recently overheard someone remark that they “had gone years without even one real friend”, and that they felt “severely lonely”.  She then went on to say that she “deserved friends”.

Her remarks left me with several thoughts.  In the first place, you wish you could do something about someone’s “severe loneliness”.  That is, it seems safe to say we’ve all been there at one or another point in our lives, and most of us probably have some empathy for people who feel lonely.

But beyond that, I was struck by her notion that she “deserved” friends.  Did she mean that friends were her just due in life?  That she could earn friends the way we, say, earn money?

If that’s what she meant, then I find myself in disagreement with her.

It simply does not seem possible to me to deserve someone’s friendship.  Instead, it seems to me friendship is a gift that people sometimes give to us.  But it is not that we can demand of it others because we deserve it.   “I have done x and y for you — therefore you must be my friend.”  That just doesn’t sit well with me.

But what do you think?  Can we deserve friends?  Can we earn them by way of what we do for them, or by means of what kind of person we are?

Can Men and Women be Just Good Friends?

I had a drinking game I liked to play when I was in school.  The goal was to guess someone’s religion based on their answers to a short series of questions.  The catch?  The questions couldn’t be about religion.  Instead, the questions had to be about love and sex.

The game fascinated me.  I got so into it, I would keep a running tally of hits and misses from which to work out a “career average” for correct guesses.  I couldn’t get over how often you could match someone to the religion they grew up in with no more than the answers they had given you to three or four questions about love and sex.

To be sure, I did not try for the denomination.  The categories were Catholic, Liberal Protestant, Conservative Protestant, Jewish, or Mormon.  In other words, I wasn’t dealing with a lot of religious diversity.  Back then, most everyone fit into one or another of those categories.

I can only recall one of the core questions now, but it was my favorite because I felt it did more work than the other questions in allowing me to figure out someone’s religious background.   If I was asking a woman, for example, I would phrase the question this way, “Do you feel men and women can be just good friends, without having sex?”  Followed by, “Why or why not?”

I read a blog post tonight that reminded me of that game.  Specifically, the woman claimed it was all but impossible for a man and woman to be platonic friends.  She said she’d only in her life had one boyfriend she wanted to be real friends with.   And making friends with him had taken 20 years from the time the two of them broke up to the time they were “just good friends”.

Twenty years to make a friend?  After reading that, I figured maybe he and she didn’t bring to the problem the world’s best people skills.  But I also took a look at her “About Me” page, and noticed that her religion fit her attitude that men and women cannot be just good friends.

Religion isn’t everything, of course.  Lots of other things influence how easy it is for men and women to be just good friends.  For instance, the older you are, the easier it gets.  And the biggest influences of all are arguably the individual people involved.  But religion does seem to have an influence on what we tell drunks in college bars about our attitudes towards sex and love.  Of that, I’m reasonably certain.

Bad Ideas and the Internet

I have been thinking this morning about the internet and how it allows everyone who so desires to find a group of like minded people who will never challenge his or her pet beliefs.

So, if one happens to think the sky is not typically blue, but forest green, one can with ease find at least a few thousand others who share the same belief.  Somedays, I even suspect no one today is any longer capable of coming up with an idea — no matter how off the wall that idea is — that cannot find a following on the internet.  That is, the internet has made it very easy to be both grossly wrong and have a like-minded support group too.

Of course, the ability to isolate oneself from dissent — from any reality checks — is not a new thing.  Nor is it a new thing to be able to find a support group of like-minded people.  Yet, today, the internet has made it easy to do both.  And, because doing both has become much easier, doing both has become more likely.

Support groups are important because, among other reasons, people in support groups routinely feed off each other.  Like sports fans, they can feed off each other’s enthusiasm.  And, they can also feed off each other’s ideas.  They can ramp each other up.

In the absence of any reality checks from dissent, someone with a bad idea and a support group can easily go from, “The sky is forest green”, to “The sky is forest green and in it live elves”, to “The eternal and unchanging sky is forest green and in it live elves”, and so on.  There seems to be no limit.

Truth is not universally important to most of us. (Perhaps ironically, believing we know the truth is nevertheless crucially important to most of us.)  Instead of being universally important, it is merely locally important: Typically, we have areas of our lives in which we are careful to establish truths, and other areas in which we are more or less indifferent to truths.  The same person who believes the sky is forest green might be a complete realist when it comes to driving a car.

I suspect that, when establishing the truth is really not important to us, we tend to choose our “truths” according to their entertainment value, or by the pleasure they give us, or by whether we find them otherwise in some way rewarding.  If that’s indeed the case, then in the future will we see a world in which nearly everyone has an internet support group for his or her half dozen or so bad ideas?


“Perfection Wasted” by John Updike

And another regrettable thing about death
is the ceasing of your own brand of magic,
which took a whole life to develop and market –
the quips, the witticisms, the slant
adjusted to a few, those loved ones nearest
the lip of the stage, their soft faces blanched
in the footlight glow, their laughter close to tears,
their tears confused with their diamond earrings,
their warm pooled breath in and out with your heartbeat,
their response and your performance twinned.
The jokes over the phone. The memories packed
in the rapid-access file. The whole act.
Who will do it again? That’s it: no one
imitators and descendants aren’t the same.

John Updike

Can Non-Believers be Truly Happy?

It’s true that happiness can be achieved without having faith but that’s only temporary happiness. You’ll find very few faithless people who are truly satisfied with their lives , and I believe that true satisfaction can only be achieved through faith.

On the other had, a non-believer can sometimes achieve happiness through other worldly things.   i.e.  For some, happiness is due to the material wealth they obtain, to being able to spend their money as they like, to buying whatever they want and consuming more and more each day.

For people like that, consumption, experiencing every beauty and pleasure, is the greatest source of happiness in their lives.

Yet, such desires are like a bottomless well — they never come to an end. Because of their desires people emerge who are never satisfied with anything they obtain, who always want more and better,  and who believe that they will be able to live happier lives if they acquire more things, and better things. However,  all their efforts only gain them a temporary happiness.

— An Internet Acquaintance

Every now and then, someone has come along to tell me that, because I don’t believe what he or she believes, I am not as happy as I could be.  Sometimes they even tell me I am not happy at all.  Now, my first, gut reaction to this “news” is almost always the same: I think they are a lunatic.

That’s my first impression, my gut impression.  I think it a modest insight.  It says a little, but not much.  For anyone who goes around saying, “You are not truly happy because you do not believe what I believe”, is to some extent a lunatic, are they not?

They might be many things besides a lunatic.  They might be arrogant.  They might be foolish.  They might be ideologically intoxicated.  They might not know up from down.  But we should not be surprised to find they suffer from one psychiatric disorder or another.

Of course, someone can be both a lunatic and, at the same time, right.  I know this because I myself am both a lunatic and at least sometimes right.  And, since it is possible to be both a lunatic and right about something, we cannot logically reject the lunatic’s notion that, “You are not truly happy because you do not believe what I believe”, on the mere grounds that it is a lunatic who says it.

So, is there anything at all really wrong with that notion?  Can non-believers be truly happy?  Or is the lunatic right to claim non-believers cannot be truly happy?

Well, my internet acquaintance who I quote above would argue that anyone who fails to believe what he believes cannot be truly happy.  As he puts it, non-believers can be happy, but their happiness is only temporary.

To me, that seems to imply he thinks believers such as himself have achieved enduring, constant, or permanent happiness. But is belief or faith sufficient to produce enduring, constant, or permanent happiness?

It would be silly to think so, wouldn’t it?

Who is there among us who does not know at least one believer who is both faithful and unhappy?  I myself know several, but I do not know any believers who are both faithful and always happy.

It seems believers can be happy, but their happiness is only temporary.  But if that is the case, then in that respect there is no significant difference between believers and non-believers.  I think my internet acquaintance has some explainin’ to do!

What are the real causes of human happiness?  It turns out the science on this matter is still in its infancy and very little of it seems at this point to be conclusive.  Nevertheless, there have been some interesting, but tentative, findings.  Among other things, it happens  the real causes of human happiness are apparently realizable even by non-believers.  What a surprise!

Dr. Alan Carr, writing in Positive Psychology: The Psychology of Happiness and Human Strengths, describes not one but several factors which studies have suggested contribute to or cause human happiness.  Among these factors are personality traits such as optimism and self-esteem; cultural traits such as living in a society with a high level of social equality; and so forth.  And I recall that other researchers than Carr have found that the quality of one’s friendships is extremely important to one’s overall level of happiness.

As for myself, I rather like something Aristotle once said about happiness, which he identified with well-being, self-flourishing or perhaps self-realization.  The relevant passage is difficult to translate, but here is a heavy paraphrase of it: “When choosing your life’s work, you will discover your happiness or bliss at that place where your individual talents and skills intersect with the needs of your society.”  Aristotle had much besides that to say about human happiness, but that’s my favorite.

Significantly, none of the science suggests the silly notion that non-believers cannot be truly happy. And even thoughtful sages like Aristotle give no indication that belief or faith is essential to genuine happiness.  Those particular notions appear to have been snatched from the clouds that surround the heads of at least a few proselytizing believers, rather than arrived at through research and reason.

To sum: It looks like my internet acquaintance is not only a lunatic, but a BS artist.  Of course, it is always fun to be BSed. So perhaps that is the real reason that very many of us non-believers are deeply happy these days — we are happy because we are  so often BSed by proselytizing believers such as my internet acquaintance.

At least that’s how I see it.  But what do you make of all this?