25 December 2020


Be Kind

Not merely because Henry James said there were but four rules of life— be kind be kind be kind be kind—but because it's good for the soul, and, what's more, for others, it may be that kindness is our best audition for a worthier world, and, despite the vagueness and uncertainty of its recompense, a bird may yet wander into a bush before our very houses, gratitude may not manifest itself in deeds entirely equal to our own, still there's weather arriving from every direction, the feasts of famine and feasts of plenty may yet prove to be one, so why not allow the little sacrificial squinches and squigulas to prevail? Why not inundate the particular world with minute particulars? Dust's certainly all our fate, so why not make it the happiest possible dust, a detritus of blessedness? Surely the hedgehog, furling and unfurling into its spiked little ball, knows something that, with gentle touch and unthreatening tone, can inure to our benefit, surely the wicked witches of our childhood have died and, from where they are buried, a great kindness has eclipsed their misdeeds. Yes, of course, in the end so much comes down to privilege and its various penumbras, but too much of our unruly animus has already been wasted on reprisals, too much of the unblessed air is filled with smoke from undignified fires. Oh friends, take whatever kindness you can find and be profligate in its expenditure: It will not drain your limited resources, I assure you, it will not leave you vulnerable and unfurled, with only your sweet little claws to defend yourselves, and your wet little noses, and your eyes to the ground, and your little feet.


Michael Blumenthal 


21 December 2020

midwinter is midsummer


Midwinter. We are entering the Rauhnächte, as they are called here. The twelve nights between years. The year of the moon has 354 days, ending on  midwinter. The year of the sun 356. These are the missing twelve days and for some mythologies, these are dead days, with the laws of nature out of order and the borders to the other world, the magic world of spirits, wide open. 

I am not great on any magic, the spirit world has never been inviting. But there you have it, some things are bigger than what my tiny brain can come up with, I admit as much. The knowledge while here in the Northern hemisphere, we are struggling and trying to make sense of that on these dark cold nights, my grandchild picks strawberries and runs along a sunny beach in the Southern hemisphere, provides a different, cheerful magic. I can live with that. Gladly.

Just a reminder:

We cannot successfully contain the pandemic and save lives if we do not give up some quite a lot of things in our lives at the same time. And we all have to act in this way without having convincing answers to all of our questions.

The number of cases, the number of deaths and the amount of research on this have undoubtedly shown one thing: the fewer the contacts each individual has and the less time we spend in social settings, the sooner this pandemic will come to an end. It is not a matter of chance. It is in our hands. We are not the masters of our fate alone here.

17 December 2020

And Peace Shall Return

Our capacity for denial is stronger than our capacity for belief. We find it easier to not face the truth. We go on living our ordinary lives while refusing to believe the overwhelming evidence that our way of life is self-destructive. A prisoner of the past, we go on doing things which we know are killing us. Worse, we believe that the inevitable conclusion of all our deeds will not come to pass. We think that somehow, at the last minute, there will be a miracle, a magical solution. We possibly even hope that factors in nature we hadn’t considered will somehow wipe clean the slate of our cultural and environmental crimes.


Ben Okri

I could've done worse than read this story by Ben Okri (link here, go on it's excellent). 

But only barely so. The title is inviting but seriously misleading for all of us who believe we are on top of things and superior to, say, the common fruit fly. Reading it did all sorts of things to me, I cried, I admit that much.

To counteract any feelings of hopelessness, I am listening to/watching a live performance by the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra directed by Daniel Barenboim. They are playing Beethoven to celebrate the composer's 250th birthday. Beethoven was born a few miles down the road from where I sit right now and this concert comes live from our city's opera house. 

The musicians sit spaced safely apart, they all wear masks, apart from the woodwind and brass players. Daniel Barenboim plays the piano and does not wear a mask, he shed a few tears during the Largo (second movement of Beethoven's piano concerto no. 3).

I am not particularly attached to classical music (I wrote about why this is so here) but I like the idea of it being a freebie (thank you covid) and that I can do some editing, i.e. paid work, while listening. 

And I also think highly of Daniel Barenboim.

We just had a break in performance and now Mr Barenboim is back with a mask on and we're off with the do do do doo at the start of the fifth symphony.  In another lifetime, when I was just about to become a rebel, I had to write a school essay on the second movement of this symphony and the ongoing motif  with its apparent sunny nature and its source (a Franconian folk song, I kid you not) in contrast to the fateful tone of the first movement. It all comes back to me now. Honestly, school! Now, today, I can finally use this knowledge. After all the trials and tribulations of the past almost 50 years. Here we are, thank you Beethoven, thank you secondary education.

Actually, the second movement is quite lovely to listen to.

11 December 2020

Do you remember the happiest day of your life? What about the saddest? Do you ever wonder if sadness and happiness can be combined, to make a deep purple feeling, not good, not bad, but remarkable simply because you didn't have to live on one side or the other?

 Ocean Voung

We are entering the darkest days. The next six weeks, three before and three after midwinter. When I was a child, this was a time of silences, in the 1960s in Franconia, there was snow or sleet, dark forest, early evenings with advent candles, baking, lots of baking, no commercial xmas jingle bell clutter. Not yet.

This winter will also be a silent one as we are about to enter a hard lockdown, probably until mid January. 

I don't mind the darkness of winter, I can cope with the cold, foggy weather. I am a grown up, I know it's really just a short few weeks. But I admit that we are tense, unsettled. Trying to find the right words to explain this feeling, all that I can come up with is that I am sad. We are living through the saddest days, the saddest time. And I don't just mean the pandemic. We are a hopeless species, really. Let's face it. We've made a mess of things.

Oh no doubt, I'll cheer up again soon. I hope so.  

04 December 2020

humans are social animals

While I was reading what Robin wrote today about kindness and the wonderful poem "Small Kindnesses" (here is the link to that post), two things came to mind.

The first thing is the ongoing research by Felix Warneken, professor of psychology at Harvard University, and Michael Tomasello, anthropologist and behavioral researcher at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany. 

They have been investigating altruism in human infants and compared it to altruism as shown by young chimpanzees and then developed this further to figure out more about altruism as a human trait or whether it's a learned thing and so on.

There are lovely videos online of their research experiments where they looked at how small infants react when faced with adults in a dilemma.  

(more videos can be watched here)

Recently, they carried out another, particularly impressive, experiment, examining the influence of extrinsic motivation, such as praise, on the helpfulness of young children. 

They had three groups of small kids for another experiment where an adult showed that help was needed (similar to what is shown in the video above): the children from the first group received no response to any help provided, the children from the second group were thanked and the children from the third group even received a reward. 

They did that a couple of times and then they repeated the test without giving any reaction or reward to any of the kids in the three groups. This is what happened:

The first group, the children who initially had helped and never received a response, continued to show a very high level of helpfulness. 

The second group, the kids who had received a "Thank You", showed a minimally reduced level of helpfulness.

The third group, the kids who had been receiving a reward, showed a significantly lower level of helpfulness. 

In other words: An unconditional willingness to help had turned into a conditional willingness to help. In technical language this is called the corruption effect. 

But because most societies are convinced that children are not naturally helpful, it seems imperative to create an incentive - i.g. parents give their children money to help in the household or, believing that children are naturally lazy, pay them for bringing home good grades. 

(I could go on about household chores, which are mostly repetitive, boring jobs we adults assign to kids because we think they are dummies who need to learn, but that's for another day.)

The second thing that came to mind is another study investigating honesty and selfishness in adults. This experiment was carried out in 40 countries involving 17,000 people and the results were published last year (here). Briefly, "lost wallets" containing varying amounts of money were handed in anonymously by the researchers at various public and private institutions (hotels, libraries, banks, post offices, shops etc.) and then it was examined whether the recipients did in fact contact the owners to return the wallets. 

In every country, whether in Asia, Europe, Africa or America, people were more likely to return the wallets that contained a higher amount of money. 

The researchers concluded that these were "acts of civic honesty, where people voluntarily refrain from opportunistic behavior" despite "monetary incentives to act otherwise". 

And on a final note: Occasionally, the university clinics I work for run low on blood plasma and we all receive emails encouraging us and our families and friends to donate blood. Several times people have suggested that if the clinics would pay people for this there would not be a shortage. 

Not so, there have been many studies that have shown again and again that the number of blood donors will decrease if the donation is rewarded with money. 

Anyway, reasons to be cheerful.