Monday, May 1, 2006

The Physics of Life

A few weeks ago my family went on vacation to Williamsburg, VA. On the trip home my kids were watching a movie and Shiree and I had a long conversation. The topics ranged from post-modern theology stuff, to organic farming, to carbon credit trading (to reduce greenhouse gases). Essentially we were talking about "alternative" thinking.

Throughout the conversation we asked ourself. "Is this foolishness to think this?" or "Is the mainstream way of thinking about X right?" Two things that I had mentioned just encapsulated my answers to that those questions. First, in regard to organic farming... I feel pretty strongly that if we adopt organic farming methods for the next 20 years that we won't look back and say "can you believe how dumb we were to raise vegetables with ONLY soil and manure, and lady bugs" (or however you do organic farming ;) I'm not so certain that keeping the current path will merit a comment like "wasn't it a smart thing to continue using growth hormones, genetic engineering, and pesticides to raise our food!" I don't know but if I were a betting man, I'd choose the former prediction. Second, for whatever reason, the topic of breastfeeding came to mind. My mom and her peers (mostly) formula fed their babies. The cultural and scientific establishment convinced moms from that age that formula feeding was better for your baby. It was so complete that even now there remains a strong social stigma for a mom feeding her baby in public (which also has to do with the sexualization of our culture...) despite the fact that there is credible scientific evidence that breastfeeding is important for the development of a babies immune system, brain, etc. In both of these cases you could stick within the norm and in one case you ARE wrong, and in the other case you're likely to be wrong.

Something that emerged from our talking was a general life principle.
It's always best to do things the hard way.
In my examples, it would be HARD economically and otherwise to switch entirely to organic farming, or it was hard for moms to switch back to breastfeeding. But as I've been thinking about that principle it applies universally in life. It's hard, but better to devote time from your day to developing your spiritual life. It's hard, but better to go to all of your children's activities. It's hard, but better to speak honestly to your neighbor when you're annoyed by something they're doing. It's hard, but better to serve the poor in your community. It's hard, but better to drive the speed limit. It's hard, but better to give generously. It's hard, but better to keep a budget. It's hard, but better to be yourself all the time.

I've yet to find a counter example where "it's easier, but better." Perhaps this is just the first law of thermodynamics at work. You put in extra energy doing it the hard way and you reap the benefit of it being better for you. Doing the easy thing AND reaping the benefit would seem to violate the principle.

Anyhow, I've been mulling the "hard way" principle for a few weeks now and trying to enact it in my life, but the thing that pushed me to share the thinking with my two readers is an article that Shiree shared with me by Joe Klein (be sure to listen to the Kennedy speech from the article). It's an excerpt from his book Politics Lost. Klein's point seems to be the perfect example of the "fruit" of doing things the easy way:
Listen to Kennedy's Indianapolis speech and there is a quality of respect for the audience that simply is not present in modern American politics. It isn't merely that he quotes Aeschylus to the destitute and uneducated, although that is remarkable enough. Kennedy's respect for the crowd is not only innate and scrupulous, it is also structural, born of technological innocence: he doesn't know who they are--not scientifically, the way post-modern politicians do. The audience hasn't been sliced and diced by his pollsters, their prejudices and policy priorities cross-tabbed, their favorite words discovered by carefully targeted focus groups. He hasn't been told what not to say to them: Aeschylus would never survive a focus group. Kennedy knows certain things, to be sure: they are poor, they are black, they are aggrieved and quite possibly furious. But he doesn't know too much. He is therefore less constrained than subsequent generations of politicians, freer to share his extravagant humanity with them.
Politicians today are masters of doing things the easy way. They know exactly what you want to hear and they feed it to you. On the other hand it would be harder for us to hear what we don't want to hear if politicians were honest. As for me... I'm doing it the hard way.