Sunday, April 24, 2011

Two Rings, Ring 1

I have two rings on my right hand. Objectively, they don't mean much. Subjectively, personally, they mean a great deal.

On the ring finger of my right hand is my high school class ring, which I got in the tenth grade. Almost two decades later, I still wear it. We were able to pick from various designs in order to personalize the ring, so I aimed for things that were meaningful to me. Some of it is not so deep: the coloring is gold with a black inlay, it has a fake emerald for the month of my birth, with the name of my high school circling the base of the stone. On one side is the year I graduated and the school mascot: an eagle, talons out as if to catch something, wings outspread. On the other side is my first name, and below that a design consisting of a torch held high, with the atomic symbol just right of that, and in a diagonal overlay two words: Truth Honor.

Truth, Honor, Education! These are the things that mattered to me when I was 15, and still do today, the values that, when I think back over my life, were there in some nascent form even as young as 7 years old. They have evolved and shifted over the years, but have always grown deeper.

Truth: I realized sometime between 8th and 9th grade that I was miserable, I had no one I trusted in my life, no one I believed could be trusted. It occurred to me that if I desired people in my life I could trust, I needed to be trusted, to be trustworthy. I made an oath, a vow, that I would not lie. I would strive for the rest of my life to be honest, to stick to my word when given (and to not give it lightly), and be worthy of trust. It's worked out really well for me overall.

I cannot say that benefits were immediate. I still struggled with misery, with depression, not just then, but later in life as well. However, as time went on, some people recognized that I would speak the truth, and that I would stick to my word. As a result, I've heard things from people that were sometimes very ugly, stories of abuse or misery of their own. Others knew they could ask me a question, and get an honest answer. And yes, I found people whom I could trust.

My views of Truth, and of my personal vow, have changed and evolved over time. I still believed at that tender age that I needed to hide from people, and so I got very good at saying things that were literally true, while allowing others to misinterpret my meaning. Sometimes this was useful in being tactful while not lying, other times . . . well, I cannot say it was always the right thing to do, anymore than I can say I've never slipped up and failed to live up to my own ideal. I am human. It is a fact that despite our best intentions, most (or all) of us will slip up from time to time. I do not intend that as an excuse, simply . . . a statement.

My focus has shifted from simply desiring trusted people in my life, to considerations of individual's personal truth, to desiring and seeking objective truth. And that is where I sit now, looking to the work of science to give the world the truth of reality, not as we might wish it be, but as it actually IS. In an introductory philosophy course in college there was a discussion of hedonism, with the following thought experiment presented: if you could be placed in some sort tank that would sustain your life for the length of your lifespan, while also having your emotions and mind stimulated so that you could constantly experience a level of pleasure unknown in normal life for the rest of your life, would you want that? Assume, if you must, that society has already made allowances for such a decision, and that it's accepted and normal, so that you will not be harming anyone by doing so, or that you won't be reducing anyone else's pleasure by doing so. The original presenter of the thought experiment assumed that the only answer anyone would make is "Hell, yes!" My answer is "NO, reality is more important than pleasure." Of course, the fact that reality offers so much in the way of wonder and fascination -- from the sheer bizarro workings of particles smaller than an atom, to the proliferation of life in all it's myriad forms (have you ever taken a look at some of the creatures and ecologies in the deep ocean? it's like another planet down there!), to the crashing of galaxies -- is a distinct pleasure. Yet, even were it not, my answer would remain the same.

Honor. Concerns of honor were much on my mind then, and still are, though I think more in terms of ethics or morality than I do "honor." If you'll notice in my first post I describe how concerns over evil and God's actions in the Garden were instrumental toward starting me on a path to being an atheist. Integrity, ethics, morals. When I study philosophy, these are always my primary concern. I've mentioned before that my grandfather is a pastor, well, he's also the closest thing I have to a father figure in my life (for some reason, I just never had that kind of connection with my stepfather). As such, he's been a large influence in my life. One memory doesn't even have him directly in it, just his influence. I was at my grandparents house, and my grandmother was talking to someone, I don't recall who, and telling a story of something that happened recently to her. Apparently, she'd been having a conversation with one of her lady friends, and this lady friend started talking about something or other going on in her life that had been troubling her. The problem was, the lady was talking as if Grandma knew all about it, without providing any background details to the issue. Frankly, Grandma was confused. When she asked what the lady was talking about, she responded something to the effect of "I told [your husband] all about it when I talked to him." My grandmother had to explain that when someone discusses something with her husband in confidence, than as far as he's concerned that discussion is between the person, him, and God. Get that? He doesn't even tell his wife! That's as it should be. Though I disagree with my grandfather on what he considers the very foundation of his life -- faith in a personal God, and that faith is any kind of virtue -- I nonetheless hold him in the highest esteem, with this story being but an example of why.

I hold that concerns of ethics should be a primary concern in all people's lives. Without it, we could probably construct plenty of laws that would keep society orderly, but how could we possibly expect that anyone would choose to avoid breaking such laws if they thought they could get away with it? And some would indeed get away with it. How could we ever think to raise our children in a way that leads to fulfilling lives for all, without an ethical concern?

Education. The class ring as a whole is an homage to an educational facility, and I firmly believe in the value of a good education. I look at the problems of the world, especially in America, and it strikes me that a direct cause of much of our ills comes down to a poor education. When parents refuse to vaccinate their children for fear the vaccine is at best worthless, and at worse causes problems like autism, that's an issue of critical thinking and knowledge. But critical thinking is not the sole province of smart people, it can be taught, the province of education. When so many people stop taking an antibiotics course before it's gone just because they feel better, and as a result we start seeing the emergence of drug resistant bacteria, that's a failure of education. When we see evolution decried as "just a theory," and legislative bodies seeking to force teachers to teach the "theory of creationism/intelligent design," that's a failure of education to explain just what a scientist means when he or she uses the word "theory," and the reams of evidence necessary to earn that name.  It's been shown time and again that higher levels of education lead to greater economic opportunity for the educated, which leads to better economic health for society as a whole. How can there be any doubt that education is vastly important? Yes, education is definitely a core value of mine.

I wear this ring not for any fond memories of my high school years, and not for any sense that high school was a high point in life (it was actually a rather low point), but for what the ring has come to symbolize: truth and trust and objectivity and ethics and morals and education and a better life as a result.

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