Thursday, May 16, 2024

Sympathy, Empathy, and Compassion

 I've thought of sympathy and empathy before. Lately, I've enhanced my perspective and added compassion to the mix.

I recall, years ago, looking up 'sympathy' and 'empathy' in the dictionary and seeing them defined opposite of how I used those two words. On researching it further, I discovered different dictionaries had different views of the two words. Go look back at my thoughts from back then and you can catch up... or simply go with the following definitions:

Sympathy is the intellectual understanding of another person's plight or situation. I may have never experienced what you are experiencing or anything similar, but from what you have said or shown, I can sympathize with you. I can understand what you are going through.

Empathy is the emotional understanding of another person's plight or situation and is based on an experiential memory. I empathize with people who are going through something I have or am currently experiencing myself.

In many ways, they are interchangeable. We take the time to relate to the other person's situation. Yes, they differ based on how we are connected - by memory or intellectual description. Yet, in the end, we are connecting with the person.

Now, let's go off on a tangent. Compassion. Compassion is about having either sympathy or empathy for another person and acting on that feeling to help the person we are connecting with. Compassion is an active behavior motivated by either sympathy or empathy.

There is a huge divide between compassion and the first two emotions (sympathy and empathy). Both sympathy and empathy are inwardly focused. We may tell someone we are sympathetic, and in doing so, we are asking them to look at us and our state. These emotions are more of a "Look at me. I am the same as you." type of response. Yes, there might be a "you are not alone" element, but in the end, you're not alone because I am there with you.

Sympathy and empathy are self-focused in nature. Compassion is focused on the other person. With compassion, we use our understanding (via sympathy or empathy) to motivate ourselves to act for the good of the other person. Our role is diminished in favor of the other person's outcome and relief. With compassion, sympathy/empathy is a motivator and driver. It is not the focus.

In the end, let's be compassionate.

Monday, April 1, 2024

The Bible is a Library

 The bible is a library, and the librarian has a strong bias as to which books to put on the library shelves. It is not one book, but a collection of books. It clearly has more than one author, with some of the book's authors named in some fashion. Not everything in the bible are books. Some of the documents are letters from different writers. In the end, it is a set of written documents collected between two covers. In essence, like a library (which is a collection of documents contained within a structure), the bible is a collection housed in a binding we call the 'holy bible'.

I mentioned a librarian. In the early days, there were a number of different libraries. However, in the year 397, one librarian, with the help of that librarian's board of directors, tore down any other library so their own library would be the only one people could come to. I've always said there are two ways to climb the ladder of success. One method is to employ strength and endurance to lift oneself up each rung until reaching the top. The other method is to pull others off their ladders so you look higher up than anyone else. It seems, with all the talk of heresy and such, the "catholic" church employed the second method. While Athanasius' Festal Letter 39 defined the list of 27 acceptable books for inclusion in the canon (read: library), it took a couple councils to affirm that list. (see: the Council of Hippo in 393 and the Third Council of Carthage in 397.) 

Athanasius' list appears to be based on four general criteria.

  • Apostolic authorship
  • Widespread usage
  • Theological consistency
  • Unity with Hebrew scriptures

Let's take a look at each of them. Like many early Christian leaders, Athanasius likely considered apostolic authorship or association as an important criterion for inclusion in the canon. Books believed to have been written by apostles or those closely associated with them were highly regarded and considered authoritative. This criterion would have favored the inclusion of the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) and the letters of the apostles, such as Paul, Peter, and John. It would have ignored many documents which were not making claims of apostolic authors.

It is reasonable to believe that the apostles were relatively uneducated fishermen and similar locals who lived near Jesus. To claim they became educated authors in Greek is a bit of a stretch. It is far more reasonable to assume learned people took the stories and teachings handed down to them and wrote them decades later.

"Widespread usage" needs some definition. This is widespread as defined by the librarian. A document that has widespread usage in Jerusalem may not have widespread usage in Alexandria. Athanasius was a Bishop in Egypt. While it would be reasonable that Athanasius communicated with other bishops in the roman imperial provinces of the fourth century, that interaction would be limited to similar thinking churches.

Based on the books included versus excluded, it is clear that Athanasius had a theological assumption integrated into his choices. He clearly favored Pauline theology over the teachings of James. He was strongly against anything that hinted at a pro-Arian stance. (This is reasonable considering he was exiled from his bishopric multiple times for defying Arian theology.)

By "theological consistency", it is meant that Athanasius ignored any teaching or book that did not conform to the theological story Athanasius wanted to present. The bible is not a compendium of the variations of belief seen throughout the world. Instead, it is a single view held by a collection of groups. Unfortunately, I see the subjectivity of view to be a weakness and not a strength. Considering the variety of ways people professed their faith in the newly forming religion, to say one perspective is right and all others are wrong makes it too likely that the professed perspective is not a complete and whole understanding.

Early Christian communities recognized the continuity and connection between the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and the emerging Christian writings. The books that maintained a connection to the Hebrew Scriptures and demonstrated a fulfillment of the Jewish prophetic tradition were more likely to be included. This criterion would have influenced the inclusion of the Gospels and Acts, as they presented Jesus as the fulfillment of the Jewish messianic prophecies.

So, if these criteria are not met, then Athanasius did not include the writing into his "library". Was Athanasius biased? Well, he was exiled from his position on more than one occasion for having a viewpoint that did not conform to the general beliefs of the time and place. His nicname "Athanasius contra mundum," suggests he was more on his own than a representative of the general understanding held by people of the time.

So, in the end, the bible is really a library of books assembled by Athanasius as his personal viewpoint which stood in direct conflict with the general understanding of the christian theology of its day. It is intriguing that today, it is considered the inerrant word of God. How did one person's offshoot viewpoint become the only acceptable view?

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Oral vs Written Tradition - A comparison

 We are told that before the written word, knowledge was maintained using an oral tradition. The emphasis we are being persuaded to believe is that before the written word, there were oral historians who carefully remembered and transmitted that knowledge to the next generation flawlessly. Was the oral tradition better than the written system we have today?  Let's compare them.

Starting with the written history.  (Yes, it came later, but it is the one we know best.) For starters, there are problems with written history. The first one to come to mind is that living languages evolve. At the time a piece of history is written, it is typically written in a living language. That means that the written words evolve from the time they are created. Written history suffers another issue: translation. When the written word is translated to another living language, the meaning is modified because the two languages may have different meanings for the translated word. Lastly, the written word presumes the reader is not able to receive any further clarification than what is written, because the text does not offer the ability to clarify any questions the reader may have. If the written word doesn't address future questions, then it doesn't have the ability to respond or clarify the future reader's questions.

Which is a major strength of the oral tradition method of conveying history. If the listener (receiver) has a question, the authoritative person can clarify the message. The other side of this positive is that the person conveying the history, when asked questions that are not directly covered by what they were taught will need to provide their own interpretation to answer the question.

There is an assumption by modern people that the oral tradition was carefully taught and repeated so that nothing would change. That would require a certain level of skill in each person to stay faithful to what the person before them transmitted. Their ego would have to be removed entirely from material being transmitted. Such an ability is a learned skill which is not completely learned by anyone. It certainly would not be a skill of an ordinary person (which explains why there were "professional" story tellers in pre-literate societies.)

In the end, unless the person writing the history is present at the event and is writing then and there (such as a court stenographer), there is some degree of oral tradition in every written document. This is even more true if the writer is not a direct witness. It would seem to me that neither written or oral history is free of issues.

Now, consider the Christian Bible. The earliest known documents are presumed to be written decades after the event by someone who wasn't present for them. The written copies we have are copies of copies, involving translations.

In general, the people who witnessed the acts and words of Jesus were not professional historians. The people they told their experiences to were not trained to present the material with clarity or accuracy. Instead, it was a group of individuals independently telling their friends and people they met the exciting things they recalled (however accurately). Those people then passed the exciting parts of what they heard on to others. (Why talk about the boring stuff...  So, already we have some warping of the overall picture.) Since each person perceives what they do based on the filters they have developed, and interprets what they see based on how they filter the information that comes to them, the stories morph into things that no longer capture the whole message, but rather the various transmitter's perception of what was the exciting or newsworthy elements of the original story. Once it gets translated into other languages, more meaning is lost due to the impact of different languages not having a direct one-to-one relationship between words. Write it down in a living language and now the language departs from the original meaning to wherever the language takes it.

For example: does the word "virgin" mean "never had sex"? Can a person have anal sex and still be a virgin? Is it possible to have sex outside of marriage? Now imagine if a culture had a taboo about sex before marriage, does that mean nobody has sex before marriage? Is a taboo behavior something everyone stays away from? Now then, what if the word "virgin" simply means "a young woman before marriage." Yes, tradition and taboo suggest the virgin has never had sex, since doing so would be breaking a taboo or tradition. But can that always be true? If the word simply means young (pre-marriage), does that mean we can substitute the meaning of "young" with "never had sex"?

When we apply this idea to Mary, it is more complicated. She was betrothed when she got pregnant. Betrothal in ancient Jewish culture was a legally binding commitment preceding marriage. It involved a period of waiting and preparation before the actual marriage ceremony took place. During this period, they would often undergo various rites, rituals, and preparations, such as completing the necessary legal requirements, assembling a dowry or bride price, and making arrangements for the wedding ceremony. As a virgin, we can assume she was young. But if she is already that committed to Joseph, can we be certain she didn't have sex with Joseph? If you say you can be certain because the Bible says she was a virgin, then I would agree, she was young... period. The extra words added in were added during the oral tradition that took place over the decades.  Remember, none of the apostles (assuming they even wrote the gospels attributed to their names) were present during the nine months prior to the birth of Jesus. ... And before the death of Jesus, would his mother, Mary, admit to being sexually promiscuous prior to her marriage? (Hi... I committed taboo activities...) Even if she did, would the people relating the stories of Jesus want to say she had performed taboos that resulted in the birth of their messiah?

If I told you a story and you passed it on to another person (remember, most of the people passing stories of Jesus were not trained professional oral-tradition story tellers), would you mention the boring stuff? If you really loved me and thought I was the greatest person, would you want others to know of my faults and failures? Would you gloss over my faults to highlight the reasons you think I'm great?

I'm not sure either process, written or oral, for transmitting knowledge, is better than the other. Combine them and the quality of the story degrades significantly. It makes me wonder how well my ideas will survive the future.

Friday, March 15, 2024

Our view dictates our reaction and behaviors

 I've been reading a book titled "Power vs Force" by David R. Hawkins. The book is about applying kinesiology to consciousness. Some of the ideas presented in the book got me thinking about something I've always known: our filters dictate our responses. This book confirmed it for me and expanded on my thoughts further. It also went off in directions that didn't matter as much to me.

But, for the part that did get me thinking, I've been drawn back to it time and time again these last few weeks. As individuals, we grow up with a set of experiences and attitudes that shape how we feel about the world/god/cosmos. That, in turn, is our filter we use when we experience things. For example, if we hold a world view that everything is vindictive/evil, we are more likely to use blame to avoid punishments we assume will follow. On the other hand, if we perceive the world as wise and meaningful, we will instead look at the same event and search for the meaning behind it. The event is the same. Our reaction differs based on our basic world view.

I was listening to a person tell me how she sees herself as a vile monster, unworthy of kindness or experiencing nice things. When she sees something nice/kind, she feels that either someone screwed up and accidentally let her see it or it is the thin wrapping of a greater horror. Her response to hearing positive things said about her is to reject both the message and messenger. Since she doesn't feel she is entitled to kindness, any kindness directed at her reminds her that it wasn't intended for her. My heart and soul goes out to her, yet I cannot think of a way to get my message of love and compassion across.

I have also been listening to people lately with an ear for their emotional reaction or the thought process they seem to use. One intriguing awareness I'm discovering is that people repeat their thought patterns regularly over multiple sessions. In other words, while a given response may differ, the typical response a given person will give to any topic will be based on the same world view/filter.

So, if we can change a person's view, can we change their reaction? That's an easy yes.  How about, if we get people to force themselves to change their reaction, would it help them change their world view/filter? I bring this up because I've been told to "fake it until you make it." Can faking it (forcing oneself to respond at a different level) bring about a change in one's perspective on life?

Recall at the start of this, I noticed people respond to the same event in different ways. Those ways are based on the filters they employ which are based on the world view they perceive. So, can we change our understanding of the world by changing how we choose to react?

The 17 categories in the book are split between one neutral viewpoint and eight viewpoints that are either inwardly focused or outwardly focused. The bottom eight (inward) are various behaviors designed to avoid pain and suffering of oneself. These include things like shame, guilt, apathy, fear, anger and pride. The object of the emotion is oneself. (I'm ashamed, or I'm afraid.) Whereas the eight outwardly focus emotions tend to be focused on others: trust, acceptance, understanding, love, peace. The book also orders them from self removal on the internal side (shame and humiliation leading to elimination of oneself) through a series of "I exist, but ignore me", to "pay attention to me", and on to acceptance of others followed by forgiveness then understanding to love. And the levels of consciousness tops out at the complete removal of the concept of self (pure consciousness and enlightenment.)

So, if there are sequential levels, perhaps we can help people by changing their filters and reaction. If regret is higher up the ladder than blame, then getting someone to stop blaming other and simply regret that things are the way they are... is that some improvement? Can we make steps in the right direction without expecting someone to jump many levels at once?

Is it our right/responsibility to make those changes? Is being comfortable in one's skin good enough? What does it mean to love someone? Is helping them out of a morass that they feel comfortable and familiar with helping? Is ignorance bliss?