Sunset

Each day that dawns begins anew,
Brings light to what was dark.
Dries morning dew and opens eyes,
To see a morning lark.

Yet daylight too must yield its way,
Retreat as evening comes.
Give place to swift encroaching dark,
Though tasks lie still undone.

We cannot stop this constant churn,
Though fear or doubt cry out.
The rolling tides of forcing change,
Are deaf to human shouts.

To Know, or Not To Know?

On what seem to be fairly regular occasions I find myself in a position where I wonder if Hamlet was wrong about his very famous question that surfaced while he reviewed his awful situation and contemplated terrible options for dealing with it.  I occasionally have reason to wonder whether the real question is not “to be, or not to be,” but rather “to know, or not to know.”  The existence and personal acknowledgement of this question is somewhat disturbing to me given that I have spent the vast majority of my life actively seeking for both knowledge and wisdom.  At my core, I have built a life based on obtaining and applying knowledge.  Willful ignorance is weakness and ugliness.  If you know me at all, you know that I love to learn…  learn anything… learn everything (if that were possible).  How is it then that I could even contemplate willful or “blissful” ignorance.

I have always understood that knowledge comes at a price.  Anything worth having requires giving up something in exchange, and knowledge is no exception.  Aside from the work it requires to learn, knowledge comes with other responsibilities – in particular, the responsibility to use it appropriately.  Once obtained, knowledge requires we wield it as a weapon in defense of truth and right, a lever to lift the afflicted, a light to chase out darkness, and a safety line to prevent personal catastrophe and aid in rescuing the lost.  It is a powerful tool, and like any other tool, requires energy and discretion on our part in order to use it effectively.

Throughout my life, my quest for knowledge has been a central focus.  You might say I’ve attempted to become something akin to the mental equivalent of a high-performance athlete, constantly working to build strength and capacity.   As with an athlete’s physical capacity, building mental capacity requires exercise of existing capacity to the point where that capacity fails, prompting a system response to rebuild stronger.  That process universally entails discomfort, if not outright pain.  However, it is a pain that the experienced practitioner recognizes, understands, and actually enjoys because it is a sign of progress.  The benefit is visceral and real in the tangible and foreseeable future.

As an example from my earlier life, I began running regularly while in graduate school to relieve stress and keep my wits about me.  When I began, running anything over a mile was painful.  I didn’t enjoy it.  In reality, I hated it.  However, I recognized a need to master my body and clear my mind, so I continued through the pain.  It wasn’t long before I began to see the benefit that came with challenging my body as my capacity adapted to the new challenges.  Within a year, the guy who routinely struggled to pass a one-and-a-half mile fitness run for the military was running half-marathons and ultimately a full-up marathon for fun in spite of the fact that both the build-up and the actual race resulted in considerable pain.  I saw the benefit, so the cost in time and discomfort was worthwhile.

This experience with physical pain directly correlates with my experiences gaining knowledge.  From a very early age, I have found the process of learning exciting.  I have always been able to apply bits and pieces of knowledge in ways that I find rewarding, to the point where the experience many would describe as “the pain of learning” is an exciting journey.  Just like when, at the peak of my training for the marathon, I found the physical discomfort of training comforting and pleasurable, I very early in life began to love the effort it requires to learn.  While not my foundation, this concept is at the core of who I am.  One might claim it is the load-bearing walls that support the rest of the structure.  Questioning it is like driving a bulldozer through the center of a building and expecting it to remain standing.

Unfortunately, as I’ve “gained experience” with life the unhappy realities of our mortal condition have presented me with somewhat regular opportunities to obtain knowledge and face realities that inflict pain without any clear payoff to offset the price.   Usually that kind of knowledge has to do with understanding the unfortunate realities that impinge upon me such as the evil nature of some men, motivations and intentions of public figures, and the willful ignorance of others.   For this kind of unhappy understanding, at least, I have found a path to accept it philosophically.  However, lately I’ve found a niche where I’m not sure knowledge, or rather information, isn’t outright hurtful.

A few years ago Liz got rather sick.  For a long time, the doctors were unsure what the nature of the illness was.  They struggled to develop a course of treatment that would pull her back from the brink.  It was a very dark time for me.   As they worked their way through the various possibilities I would occupy myself with pouring over the medical and other literature to understand the nature of the disease(s), treatment options, prognosis, etc…  At first it felt like a therapy, providing me with something on which to expend the nervous energy that threatened to build up to a point where it would consume me.  Learning was my default method for tackling a problem, and I applied it with vigor here.

However, as the easily identifiable and treatable conditions were eliminated one-by-one, what began as therapy took on more of an aspect of slow torture.  As the list of possibilities shortened, the consequences and potential outcomes became disturbingly frightening.  To make matters worse, Liz needed reassurance and I needed strength.  I was forced to suppress the pain and anguish boiling under the surface.   The effort to keep control of my fears left me with nothing in reserve.  Not only did I suffer, but those around me suffered as conditions that wouldn’t normally have bothered me triggered harsh or inappropriate responses.  What had begun as  therapy began to fuel the disease.  I eventually came to doubt the wisdom of arming myself with information.

This anecdote is one of a handful of similar circumstances that have led me at times to question the utility of knowledge in all cases.  I can’t help but wonder sometimes if it wouldn’t have been better to be the trusting and blissfully ignorant idiot, unaware of the awfulness of the road ahead.  There are times when knowing you are facing a tough road can prepare you for the journey, making the experience less painful or even enjoyable.  But I’ve also found times where knowing the path doesn’t equate to being able to alter it, slow the progress, or even prepare for the impact that is barreling at you.  Sometimes I wonder if I would be happier in certain circumstances were I unintelligible to the crisis until it suddenly and unexpectedly swept over me.

At present, I am staring at another situation where dredging up information has instigated anticipation of a potentially terrible path while leaving me completely unable to change course or prepare for the journey in a way that would be any more effective than simply waiting in ignorance.  In this case, should the information prove relevant, all I have done is rob myself of a period of  relative peace I could have enjoyed.  Luck may favor the prepared, and knowledge may be the glory of God; but isn’t there a small shred of truth in the sentiment “ignorance is bliss?”

Siege Weapons Part 2

Mangonel: a type of catapult. It’s name comes from a Greek-Latin word for war machine.

The mangonel was a siege weapon used to launch rocks, dung, bales of hay (set on fire), dead bodies, wooden spikes, and hostages (very few hostages survived) over or at a walled fortress.  Hostages were launched from mangonels to scare the people inside the wall. The dead bodies and dung were launched to spread diseases to the people in the fortress or castle.

Mangonels work by a mechanism called torsion. Torsion is when you take ropes and twist them and stick the throwing arm in the twisted ropes.  When you pull the throwing arm down and lock it in place the ropes spring the throwing arm forward.  It took one person in full armor to pull the throwing arm down and hold it down in place while another person put the lock in, which is on a rope or string, so when somebody pulled the string the throwing arm was released.  The projectile was then launched forward over the castle wall. Some people were too light and when they pulled the throwing arm down enough they went flying into the castle wall. Sounds like a dangerous job…

In the Siege of Dover in 1216 among many siege weapons used, the mangonel and trebuchet were the favorite catapults of the French army. The French sieged Dover so they could get control of the ports and docks in England so they could send a ship inland toward the capital city and attack. But the French never got past Dover (only the objects launched by the mangonels got “passed over”).

Today mangonels are mainly made for hitting people with water balloons and tennis balls. And in some cases, marshmallows. Most people make them because they are interested in siege weapons, physics, and people who like medieval history.

mangonel shot
Mangonel shot used in the Siege of Bedford Castle in 1224

Multi-polar

When in Rome, do as the Romans
– St. Ambrose

I was pondering some on the nature of the “quote” above and decided to look up it’s history.  Much to my surprise, it is attributed St. Ambrose, a devout Christian.  Given the way this sentiment is used in modern society, I was thunderstruck at the idea it had originated from one of the most influential Christian thinkers of the early Church.  On the surface, it would appear that St. Ambrose is advocating for a form of moral relativism and giving license to abandon morals and standards in order to “fit in.”  However, after reflecting some and looking for the context around which the thought was based, I understand how it could be applied to Christian morals and have found a modicum of comfort in it.

It was something in the nature of my professional, interpersonal, and private relationships that initially got me pondering on this topic.  You see… it seems to me I have something of a split personality.  When at work, the personality and behaviors I utilize are markedly different from those I use with my family or social acquaintances.  The public face of Dad when he gets home from work looks very different from that of the LtCol who just left work.  Both of these faces look different from the face of the Priesthood leader, and all of the faces combined look different from the face that lies hidden in the recesses of myself.

I have, of necessity, developed something of a segmented personality and persona that has dropped deep roots into the crevices of my brain.  What I must be to function in the varied environments I live and work in changes with the surrounding environment to some degree, and the long years of practiced mental segregation have resulted in rather solid dividing lines between the various contexts.  Because of the nature of my work, much of what I say or do at there must stay there.  Aside from requirements to protect certain information from disclosure, the techniques and traits used to get “it” done are wholly inappropriate and inadequate for social or familial situations.  As a result, I have a “work brain” and “work personality” that activates almost automatically when I walk through the doors to my office.  Similarly, I have a “home brain” and “home personality” that kick into gear when I am around family, and a “social brain” and “social personality” I can drag out of hiding when I need to be sociable at a party or other “fun” gathering.

The lnikages between these various personalities have tended to get weaker and weaker as I get more and more exercised at using them for their intended purposes.  In fact, one complication of this kind of compartmented reasoning and reacting is that I tend to forget what I was doing and what is required of me almost instantly when I switch from one context to another.  When I am at work home is not in my thoughts much, and events, anniversaries, requirements, shopping lists, or any other home-related things I should be remembering are archived in the “home” section of myself and lie dormant until I leave work and shift gears.  The process works both ways.  As a result, I am a rather forgetful person on the whole.

This split-personality characteristic has always bothered me.  It has often made me feel like a fraud to some degree, and caused me to attempt to consolidate the public faces of myself from time to time.  Each time I’ve made the attempt it has been aborted after exhaustion kicked in or consequences stemming from misapplied techniques became uncomfortable.  As a result, I’ve resigned myself to the unhappy reality that having a context-sensitive personality is an unfortunate but necessary requirement for me.  While I strive to ground all of my behaviors on a common foundation, the aspects of me that different people are exposed to look entirely different depending on where and when the interactions occur.

Given that there are several different public versions of “me,” none of which fully reflect the totality of me, that they have evolved to satisfy the requirements of my environment, and that they may seem inconsistent with each other, it’s no wonder that I have found grappling with this reality to be a little uncomfortable.  This is where the context around St Ambrose’s message becomes important.  He was addressing the Church about differences in non-doctrinal liturgical practices between geographic regions, not about adopting amoral or immoral practices simply because they were common in the local area.  I believe his message was that in cases where you aren’t compromising your integrity, honor, or moral standards it is okay to adopt the custom of your environment to smooth the way.

I still doubt it is ideal, and can’t completely shake the thought that I ought to be “who I am” no matter where I am or what I am doing.  However, as the distinct and mutually incompatible segments of my personality have been developed they have become a part of “me” to the extent that if given the opportunity to simply adopt one or a combination of multiple of them, I’m not sure which I would choose.  Am I the cynical, hard-nosed, over-confident, business-oriented professional?  Am I the quiet reserved and awkward geek?  Am I the academic? Am I the socialite with a wide network of friends?  Am I the hillbilly redneck who would rather spend time under the hood of a car or on a tractor than anywhere else?  Am I the artist and poet?  … The answers to each of these questions, unfortunately, is “Yes,” and I am sure there are more caricatures  should I dare to plumb the depths of myself.  I don’t think I am capable of dropping any of them (except maybe the business professional) without damaging a part of me that has become important in some form or fashion.

So, while I don’t necessarily care for my current state of mind (or personality, or being, or whatever…), I guess I have come to terms with the fact that it is who I am, and that it will be a part of me for the foreseeable future.

Siege Weapons Part 1

The  ancient Assyrians were one of the first civilizations to use the battering ram, although it’s more commonly known as a medieval weapon.  Battering rams were made to knock down walls and gates; some even had real sheep heads on them.  Others  had spikes on them to pull down wooden gates.  They are still being used today in smaller sizes to knock down doors.

Assyrian_battering_ram

In the Wind

Now this was a great trial to those that did stand fast in the faith; nevertheless, they were steadfast and immovable in keeping the commandments of God, and they bore with patience the persecution which was heaped upon them.
– Alma 1:25

About twenty years ago I spent several weekends driving chase truck for my neighbor who owned and operated a hot air balloon.  The deal was that if I drove long enough he would take me up on a ride.  My friend Sean and I decided a balloon ride would make an awesome homecoming group date and both of us signed up.   After the prescribed number of weekends, we both got dates and headed for the mountain town that was a favorite of local balloonists.  I remember my date being afraid of how it would feel to be that high in the air hanging in the wind while I was anticipating feeling the wind in my face.

At this point in my life I had been in small and large planes and on almost any form of wheeled transportation you can think of.  I was used to the feel of being buffeted by the wind and pavement. In fact, the feel of wind in my face was what drove me to spend as much time as I did on motorcycles.  Without pausing to consider it, I unconsciously expected the balloon ride to be something along the same lines.

s072206_0032Once we got airborne I quickly realized how wrong I was, and had I stopped to think about it, it would have been obvious the ride was going to be completely tranquil.  As soon as the balloon lifted off the ground the light breeze we had been enjoying stopped.  We had the feeling of being completely motionless, and without looking at the ground it was impossible to get a sense of the direction we were traveling or even appreciate the fact we were moving in the first place.

Once the balloon had slipped is moorings it was completely and totally at the mercy of the wind.  Wherever the wind blew, we went without really feeling like we were moving.  The only recourse the pilot had for changing course was to change altitude looking for a wind that was blowing in the right direction.  As the ride progressed we enjoyed the beautiful scenery and excellent company – drifting with the wind over the beautiful mountain valley.  However, all good things must come to an end, and we eventually began to run low on fuel.  As the pilot looked for a field to land in our options began to become somewhat limited due to the winds near the surface.  In the end, we had to settle for a manure covered cow pasture and hope the owners wouldn’t be too upset if we disturbed their cows (we did disturb them, but that’s a story for another day).

I hadn’t thought much about that day for years until I recently read an Ensign article as part of a Sunday school lesson that talked about our need for a spiritual anchor.  The teacher talked about how we will drift with the current if we don’t set an anchor.  I don’t have a lot of nautical experience, but it resonated with this experience in the balloon.  It seems to me that when we slip our moorings or cut away our spiritual anchors we are at the mercy of the undercurrents in society and whims of the morally bankrupt.  We begin to drift without any means to direct our path to a deliberate end-point.

As with the ride in the balloon, there are references we can use to detect our motion away from the moorings we left behind, but unlike  the balloon, the reference points require us to do a little more than casually look over the edge of the basket at the ground.   And worse yet, our ability to utilize the reference points weakens as we get further and further from our point of departure, requiring more effort to distinguish our movement the further we get from the truth.   The reference points for life may vary somewhat from person to person, but they always have common characteristics, the most important of which is that they must be grounded in the reality of eternal truths.

Without the benefit of being based on eternal principles, the winds, waves, storms, tremblings, and other abrasive realities erode any foundation built by man and result in an unstable and shifting reference.  As anyone versed in celestial navigation can tell you, without a fixed and immovable reference we can be sure of neither our course nor our current position.   Without a grasp on where you are and where you are headed, it doesn’t matter if you simply cease to fight against the currents and glide along effortlessly wherever they may take you, even if in the end it lands you in a pile of cow manure.

Just like the balloon ride, finding our way to a defined destination requires a few things.  First, it requires the realization that you have drifted away from your goal.  By identifying the fixed reference point(s) grounded in truth, we can see where we are and what direction we are going.   However, just identifying position and heading is inadequate.  Making it back to safe harbor requires changing direction which means deliberately leaving the currents that have carried us away in the first place.  We must seek out currents and fair winds that move us in the right direction.  For some of us, that may mean abandoning friends and behaviors that have contributed to the currents, for others it may mean letting go of grudges, pride, or other similar factors.  The bottom line is a requirement to remove ourselves from whatever influence(s) carried us away in the first place and put ourselves in a position where the influences will guide us back to a safe landing on solid ground.

Even leaving the current that carries us away isn’t enough.  Once we have left the moorings, it takes work to return.  In the case of the balloon it was a chase truck assigned to follow, recover, and return us to the start-point.  Unlike the balloon ride, we can’t rely on others to take us back to where we started without us putting in the effort.  It requires work on our part which can include repentance, forgiveness, study, prayer and reflection.  However, there is a support crew ready and waiting to help us along the way.  Family, friends, neighbors, priesthood leaders, teachers, and more are there to help and guide us along the way.  Even more importantly, the Savior has told us that his arm is always extended towards us to lift us up and carry us when needed if we will bend to His will.

Once we return to the safe harbor and solid moorings, we then must work to make sure we don’t get caught up in the air currents that will carry us away again.  First, we need to keep our eye continually on the fixed references of eternal truths so we can detect drift early on before it has carried us far afield.  Second, we should get instantly suspicious any time things feel calm.  When we were in the balloon basket prior to liftoff, we felt the wind blowing against us.  It only became particularly calm when we lifted off and began drifting.  If we don’t feel like we are going against the flow, we are being dragged by it, which is a position none of us should be comfortable in.