HUMAN ACHIEVEMENT? – Marilyn Armstrong

Fandango’s Provocative Question #44

From Fandango:

“You’re probably familiar with this quote from philosopher, essayist, poet, and novelist, George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.“ In a 1948 speech to the House of Commons, Winston Churchill changed the quote slightly when he said, “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.“

Or my favorite version of this particular saying:

“If you don’t know history, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree. ” ― Michael Crichton

So, speaking about what you remember about the past or have learned from history, how would you answer this question:”

Achievement? By the human race?

Right now, I’m having a lot of trouble crediting the human species with any significant event. I suppose it depends on what you think is significant. Would it be something that makes a life for people better? Or for a specific part of the human species better? Even if that “advancement” decimates or destroys other important aspects of the world in which we live? Like, for example, when we learned to plow and created the Sahara desert? And eventually killed ever last living mastodon? Was that an improvement?

Or how about when we broke the sod in the west and created the Dust Bowl? You know all those westerns where the sodbusters are the Good Guys and the ranchers are the Bad Guys? You know — the ranchers were right. We destroyed the prairies.

How about the invention of the government? After the Black Plague, the central government that was created produced giant grain silos and thus managed to feed the starving people after the plague wiped out the serfs — aka, farmers.

So the central government enabled people to rebuild after the worst (known) 100 years of human life or at least the worst time we still know about. But the deep plowing of the soil essentially was the beginning of what we are now experiencing: the ending of the world as we know it.

Will we take from that lesson that few have understood and somehow avoid total annihilation? Shall we yet come up with a world in which we can all live? Not just the human race, but all creatures?

Was the world better when we foraged for food and hunted our meat? I suspect it was. Were humankind’s invention of the railroad, automobile, and the airplane an improvement or was it the beginning of our end?

Do I live with any substantial hope that we will find a way out of this disaster we are in and rebuild a world in which we can live at peace as a part of nature and not its murderer?

I don’t know. Do you know?

We aren’t going to live long enough to see the end result of this madness and I’m not sorry about that. I love this world with its birds and bunnies and squirrels and eagles. With its tigers and lions and the elephants that crush the crops — but they were here before me and they have the right to live, even when it makes our lives more complicated.

Doesn’t every living thing deserve the right to survive? And our grandchildren — do they deserve the right to survive too?

We came out of our caves as killers and so we have remained.

And here’s my answer:

The most significant thing we ever invented were weapons. Significant isn’t, after all, the same as “good.” Or positive. 

PROVOCATIVE QUESTION #43 – WHO AM I? WHO ARE YOU? – Marilyn Armstrong

Fandango’s Provocative Question #43

Fandango’s question this week is nature versus nurture, a frequently asked but never entirely answered question. I was personally firmly in the “nurture” camp for many years. I simply didn’t see how our genetics could be responsible for so much of our behavior.

The question:

Over the years, I’ve done a lot of studying about this and it turns out that much more of “who we are” is based on our genetic makeup than on our “training.” Training is like a very thin shell. It tells us how to behave. How to act in a social situation.

This shell doesn’t tell us who we are. That thin exterior aspect of us is personality while inside,  the yolk and the white are mostly DNA and genes. We may “act like” one parent and “be” like another. Our “guts” so to speak are powered by a double helix which defines our intelligence, our bones, our muscles, our ability to focus, our tenacity, our ability to deal with pain. Our willingness to put up with disappointment and failure. Stubbornness. Flexibility. The speed at which our minds work. The shape of our heart and our immune system.

These aren’t things we define as “personality,” but they are the fundamentals that make us who we are. We can look like anyone in our family tree and BE nothing like them. We can BE just like them and look entirely different.

No, I didn’t want to believe it either, but study after study after study has shown the same thing: the “face” we show to the world is mostly nurturing, but what is inside us is almost entirely nurture. You don’t have to argue the point with me. All those studies are available online these days.

Talent tends to be inherited. Our willingness to fight for what we believe is handed down. It may not “look” the same, but functionally, is IS the same.

Too confusing?

I’m confused too, but over the years I have come to believe it. Even when I don’t like what it tells me is true. Even when the resemblance is to someone I don’t much like and who I would like to not be associated with.

As for elaboration, I got a lot of my mental tenacity from my father, who I loathed and I got absolutely none of my mother’s ability to enjoy sports. My mother was very physical, very active, very ‘just do it.’ I’m almost the exact opposite — except mentally, maybe.

I was nothing like my brother, except if you scratched the skin, we were very similar. Different manners, similar reasons for being who we were. My sister and I were nothing alike, but we had the identical voice and vocal patterns.

Our helix is very complicated and we carry strong inherited traits often from very long ago. Nothing is ever simple.

CENSORSHIP AND THE LIFE WE LIVE – Marilyn Armstrong

Fandango’s Provocative Question #42

It’s a good question for everyone to ponder these days.

There has always been censorship of some kind in every country as long as humans have been “civilized.” Its definition — or at last one of its many possible definitions is, “Censorship is the suppression of speech, public communication, or other information, on the basis that such material is considered objectionable, harmful, sensitive, or “inconvenient.”

Censorship can be conducted by a government, private institution, and corporations. Or by your local sheriff or lynch mob.

The question is:

There is some kind of censorship in every nation, every government and in nearly every business. Even if the big secret is “what ingredients are in the Coca Cola recipe,” it’s still censorship.

There is censorship to keep technology private. Censorship which aims to keep military movements undercover. In some places, religions force secrecy. No society is completely open. There’s always something — militarily, governmental, corporate, technological, religious, or personal that are forbidden to say aloud. Sometimes censorship is unwritten, but everyone knows about it. Sometimes it’s part of your professional contract.

Sometimes you just know what you should simply not talk about because if you do, something bad will happen to you or those you care about.

Issues like this don’t affect everyone. The business you are in, how well-known you are, what kind of profession you follow are part of the process. If you are a general in an army, most of your life is censored. If you are in the Mossad, or a television reporter, what you can say is by definition censored. In the United States today you can get away with anything if you are personally unimportant but can get away with very little if you share a spotlight on the big screen of life.

Does it affect me? Personally? Mostly not because I am not regarded as knowing anything worth censoring. I don’t belong to a corporate entity that is creating new technology or know anything about the government other than what I read in the news.

Garry has a lot of secrets and most of them — nearly ALL of them — he has never told me. I have pointed out that many of the people about whom he “knows stuff” are gone from this world.

“They have families,” he says and that is the end of the conversation. Reporters always have secrets.

So do I personally feel threatened as an individual citizen by censorship? Not at the moment. When I worked for Grumman I had a “top secret” legal rating and there were things I could not say to anyone lest I be imprisoned and fined. I worked in a “black building” and I hated it. I hated everything except those great bridge games at lunch. They were fun!

If I live long enough, this could change, but I think for most non-political, not military, and no, not a spy either? No one cares what we say because we don’t know anything and when you are low enough on the totem pole, nobody much cares what you say.

But if our world changes dramatically and for the worse, this could alter. I hope I’m not alive if it does.

PAST, PRESENT, AND FUTURE (MAYBE) – Marilyn Armstrong

Fandango’s Provocative Question #41

So what do you think of this quote? Aside from the reference to tenses, is it true?


“The past is always tense, the future perfect.”


I would be more inclined to say that our past was always perfect and the future is both tense and mysterious.  Especially now. Our future is frankly looking pretty damned grim. So grim that I spend an inordinate amount of time not thinking about it.

I would like to see one sign that all humans world over would get together and make a serious effort to fix our planet. But I don’t see it. I don’t see any signs of any kind of cooperation. Not between supposed allies or enemies. I don’t even see governments taking the future of life on earth (for people) as serious, not if it costs someone a few extra dollars.

Honestly, we the people care, but them the people who make the trash and poisons? They don’t care. They really don’t care. The government doesn’t care. Obviously.

Enjoy it while you can.

I’ve been hoping against hope that somewhere there would be a little glimmer of a better world to come, but I’m not seeing it. I’m seeing the opposite and not just here. Everywhere.

Oh, the joys of living in an oncoming disaster. What fun!

PROVOCATIVE QUESTION – CONTROLLING OUR LIVES – Marilyn Armstrong

Fandango’s Provocative Question #40

And so the question is:

Control is an illusion. It’s what we all believe we’ve got until our life takes a sharp turn and hits a big rock or slides into the ditch. Crash.

All of your firm beliefs that nothing can stop you doesn’t help because there are things — many things — that can stop you.

I love when people tell me nothing can stop them, that whatever they want, they can get it. All they have to do is want it enough. I don’t argue with people who talk like that. They believe it and who am I to argue?

I’ve hit a lot of rocks, ditches, sharp turns. I’ve had my “life vehicle” battered to wreckage. I learned, painfully and slowly there is a time to put down the reins, look in the mirror and face reality. Even when it isn’t what you want.  There comes a time to give up trying to control your world and go with the flow. To find a better path.

Your perfect, beautifully controlled life can turn upside-down in a split second. For others, it’s slower. For me, it was at the pace at which bones and joints calcify. I refused to pay attention to the wreckage of my spine. It was mind over matter. I was strong. I could make it work, no matter what.

Good idea. But mind-over-matter only takes you so far. Major life changes do not happen in an afternoon. True they can occur in one messy crash … or they can take over bit by bit over decades. I found a great doctor who told me something I had heard before but had hoped there was another answer.

He said: “Your back has got you through this far. It’ll take you the rest of the way. Pain control, gentle exercise. Recognize your limits. Don’t do anything stupid. No car crashes. No falling. No lifting.”

No horses, no hauling. Got that. And of course, this was before all the heart surgery, which further eliminated the likelihood of any of these perilous activities. So. I’m not doing anything stupid.

Okay, I’m not doing anything very stupid. Maybe only a little stupid. And nothing that will break anything that isn’t already broken.

There’s no moral to this story. It’s life. If you don’t die young, you will get old. Which means unless you are exceptionally lucky, parts of you will hurt. Whether or not you are in a position to help fix the hurt with surgery, exercise, physical therapy, or medication? It depends on what’s wrong.

The only thing you cannot plan is a life over which you maintain full control. No one gets that.

We all have some control, but ultimately, no one has full control. Ever.

When life throws you a curve, you have a choice. Spend your time fighting for something you can’t be or do — or with a bit of grace, find your way to being whoever you are now, in this time and place.

Not winning all the battles doesn’t have to be tragic. That is where you have some control. You can view changes as a challenge or as a catastrophe. How you see them is up to you. Pretending they aren’t there can be calamitous.

Reality is not the worst place to live. Life is full of weirdness, lies, and illusion, but going face-to-face with the truth can be uplifting. You don’t have to give up living. You do have to learn to live a life that works. For you.

IS HONESTY YOUR BEST POLICY – Marilyn Armstrong

Fandango’s Provocative Question #38

Do you really want to tell your wife she looks fat in those jeans? No? Do you need to tell her you slept with her best friend, even if it was before you got married? Or for that matter, with anyone besides her since you got married?

If you tell her any of these things, are they going to improve or ruin your relationship?


Do you believe that honesty is always the best policy? Is there is ever a time or circumstance when dishonesty (lying) is justifiable? Please elaborate.

We lie to each other all the time. Usually little lies. Like how much you paid for those sneakers … or for that matter, how much you paid for your wife’s birthday present (she warned you to NOT spend a lot of money). Or maybe shearing $100 of the price of that camera lens or telephone or computer.

We lie to our kids all the time. Some of them are huge, life-changing lies like: “You can do anything you set your mind to.”

No, you can’t. If you don’t have the talent, you can’t become a great writer or musician or mathematician or engineer. You need tenacity, but you also need talent. When we don’t mention the whole “talent” issue, it’s a lie and it can ruin a kid’s life, too.

I’m in favor of telling the truth when not telling the truth will cause harm to anyone, will destroy a good relationship, or simply make someone unhappy when they don’t need to be. I am also strongly in favor of honest conversations so that people don’t waste years believing something they partially heard while eavesdropping. AND I strongly, passionately believe in NEVER EVER EAVESDROPPING.

Whenever I watch a movie and someone has cheated and the cheater feels a compelling need to confess, I always wonder “why”? If his/her spouse never heard about the cheating, they would be okay. So the only reason you are confessing is to make ourself feel better. It isn’t going to make your relationship better or make your spouse happier. If you need to confess, find a priest. Get a shrink. Confess to your seatmate on the bus across town.

Leave your spouse alone. They didn’t do anything wrong and don’t deserve to be punished. If you have the kind of spouse who is going to eviscerate you for failing to “tell the truth,” they need to have a brain adjustment too.

FANDANGO’S PROVOCATIVE QUESTION #33

Fandango’s Provocative Question #33

It’s hard to talk about this stuff without sounding pious or self-righteous. Personally, I always wonder if I have a price too and it’s merely that no one has offered to pay it that I have managed to stay true to my fundamental beliefs. When you’ve never been tempted or at least not tempted enough, it is hard to know what your own boundaries truly are.

This question was plucked from my post, so to a large degree, I’ve answered it already. Still, it’s a valid question with many possible answers and even more questions that lie along its borders.

The question of whether morality is part of “God’s personal patch” versus being a basic human issue is old. It’s a question that goes to the heart of every religion and dogma — as well every set of personal beliefs. It’s older than our literature and for all I know, they were pondering some version of this in cave dwellings.

For at least most of my life, as a child, adolescent, and adult, I have believed that we are all born with a fundamental knowledge of good and evil, of right and wrong. It isn’t something we need to be taught. We know it. Actually, Genesis essentially says more or less the same thing.

In our bones, in our brains, in that strange space we have that is neither physical or “brain matter,” but rather a special place where we preserve our personal beliefs.

That we all know what is right and wrong from our earliest youth through all of life does not mean that we always adhere to it. We have all done the wrong thing, whether it was big and bad, or little but nonetheless, wrong.

The cynical saying that “Everyone has a price” means no matter what you believe — or why you believe it — if you are offered a good enough deal, you’ll fold and do the wrong thing. It insinuates that greed is ultimately the most powerful emotion of which man is capable.

I want to believe that this is untrue and some of us cannot be bought. But do I know that? Or have many of us never been offered a high enough price? After all, the payment doesn’t have to be money. It can be power: legal power or religious power. It can make us godlike or rich beyond the ability of our calculator to count.

Greed can be the lust for knowledge, power, drugs, or land, though somehow money seems to squeeze into the equation somehow.


To quote Gordon Gekko, “Greed is good.”


Do you agree that greed is good? Or only that greed is good within limits, to a certain extent, but not beyond? That it’s okay to be greedy as long as you don’t get excessive about it?

What is excessive?

Does it mean only if you aren’t killing or crushing other people to reach your greed level, it’s okay? Or are there other issues?

I don’t believe that greed is good. The concept that greed is good offends me. I understand why greed feels good, though. I understand everyone wants to be safe from hardship and live life in comfort and dignity. I don’t consider that greedy. More like survival with benefits.

I certainly don’t think survival is greedy until you have to murder other people to achieve it. At which point you need to put down the gun and think about it.

It’s the excessiveness of greed that’s the problem. Because once you’ve broken through the comfort barrier and moved into luxury, when is enough, enough? What amount of whatever is sufficient?

When everything the eye can see, a man desires and comfort has long been surpassed, at what point do you stop? Do you ever stop? Can you stop? When you have the greedy bit clamped between your teeth, is there an end to your run?


ALEXANDER LEARNS VIRTUE
Gold coins of Alexander of Macedon

When Alexander had flown on the back of an eagle to the gates of Heaven itself, he bangs on the door until finally, a wise man answers. Because he is a great and powerful leader, he demands the right to ask questions of the wise men. These are his questions:

“Who is wise?” asks Alexander.

“He who can foresee the future,” answers the wise man.

“Who is a hero?” asks Alexander.

“He who conquers himself,” replies another wise man.

“Who is rich?” asks Alexander.

“He who rests content with what he has,” the wise men respond.

Alexander depicted on an ancient synagogue wall

Following this question, there is a story Talmudic legend about Alexander (who was a Jewish hero — a story too long to explain here), a balance scale, and a human eye.

The eye is placed on one side of the scale. On the other side, are piled mountains of gold, gems, and all other riches. Yet the human eye is heavier, no matter how many riches are put on the other balance. Finally, one of the wise men sprinkles a bit of dust over the eye. From that moment, even a feather is heavier than the eye.

Until a man is dead and covered in earth, he will always desire more. Only death can end his greed.

“By what means does man preserve his life?” asks Alexander.

“When he kills himself.” (Talmudist notes: By this, the wise men meant when a man destroys within himself all passion.)

“By what means does a man bring about his own death?” asks Alexander, referring back to the previous question.

“When he clings to life.” (Talmudist notes: When a man holds onto his passions and belongs to them.)

“What should a man do who wants to win friends?” asks Alexander. This is his final question.

“He should flee from glory and despise dominion and kingship,” the wise men conclude.

At the end of the Judaization process, Alexander is a humbled dictator. Although the lesson does not make him a wise man, the Talmudic dialectics bring Alexander the Great down a notch or two, make him a better person and a more benevolent leader.


If anyone assured me that one can be moral and hold a strong belief system without a formal belief system, my mother did that. She believed in virtue — goodness for its own sake. She believed in dignity, kindness, fairness, and equality. She was not a racist although she was positive that education made you a better person. If there was a break in her “system,” education was it.

She loved beautiful things for their beauty, yet before she died, she gave away or sold all her jewelry and art.


In the end, I do not believe anyone of any faith is incorruptible. We all have a weak spot. Something about which we feel so passionate, we would give or do anything to achieve it.

Incorruptibility is a choice. To find out if you are incorruptible, you’d need to be tempted by whatever it is that means the most to you. You would have to make painful choices and would forever wonder if you were a fool for choosing virtue over greed, especially if you urgently needed what you refused.

If you do not have a God about whom you can say, “His laws made me do it,” you will probably feel even sillier than the religious man who at least believes he is following the route God laid out for him.

A non-believer has only his self by which to gauge the rights and wrongs of life. Standing alone is hard. A good life is a hard life.

And no one ever promised it would be easy.