Sunday, December 23, 2018

From the Many, Wisdom

Green shoot

As noted elsewhere, I am a little-D democrat and a big-R Republican. How can I hold two such divergent views? Because I believe in the power of unfettered human imagination and, ultimately, in the wisdom of crowds over time.

By “over time,” I mean in the long term. Crowds in the short term can be fickle and stupid. Sometimes, they are subject to madness and stampedes that end up killing dozens or hundreds of people on their periphery—especially when they brush up against a stone wall or a blocked door. Sometimes, crowds turn into mobs wielding crude weapons and venting their anger and hysteria on harmless people. But that is the short term. In the long term, tribes or societies or nations can reach an equilibrium of consensus, weigh possible choices, and find a path forward that works for most of their members.

Life in the United States—and in much of the developed world—today is materially and artistically richer because we have an open economy with free markets. This is in contrast with the command-and-control economies that grew out of Marxist philosophy and socialist principles, as echoed in current progressive thought. In this alternate view, the government, or the party in power, or some other overarching group of technical specialists and social scientists holds a vision of what society should be like, what its members should need and want, and then works to provide those necessities.1

There have been notable cases of relatively small groups of experts achieving great technological innovations: Thomas A. Edison’s original Menlo Park laboratory, AT&T’s Bell Labs, the Manhattan Project, and the Palo Alto Research Center. All were places where engineers and scientists with interest in a particular specialty—electricity and practical invention, telephony and radio communications, atomic physics and energy, or computer applications—gathered to play in the field of science. Whether they were looking for a certain result, such as the first fission bomb, or just seeing what new approaches could bring to a novel technology, they all achieved great things. But these were private groups, except for the Manhattan Project, and while the work that they did was proprietary, their goal was to bring forth inventions that would be useful to society as a whole—yes, even the atomic bomb.

But except for the Manhattan Project, none of these groups the claimed sole authority to delve into their particular specialty, to produce inventions that could not be challenged or surpassed by others in society, or to be the only voices heard in that specialty. Even the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a function of the U.S. government, built the original internet so that scientists and engineers could share, comment, and build on technological advances. Out of that first backbone network has grown the “enterprise of science” that now girdles the developed and undeveloped world, sharing knowledge and driving a technological revolution in physics, chemistry, biology, medicine, and every other science—along with literature, law, social science, and commerce. That one technology has put us all on an express elevator to the future.

Contrast this with the sort of closed system promoted by the Soviets and the socialist Chinese as described by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s In the First Circle. Scientists, engineers, and technical support people work there in closed facilities—sometimes structured as prisons for useful but otherwise untrustworthy minds—at the command of the government or party and producing only the results that the government can tolerate. It’s an extension of the gulag, even when the work is not done behind locked doors.

In a command-and-control economy, production—and, more importantly, innovation—are determined by a preselected group of specialists, technical experts, and all too often party functionaries. How much steel or aluminum will be made and shipped to fit a five-year plan written four years ago? How many shoes will be made and shipped to a city with a population of a million and a half people, whose feet fall into a statistical average of so many men and women, adults and children? How much bread does the average person need to eat—perhaps just to survive—and so factor into the annual planting for wheat production? All of these questions are left to people who decide for the nation what the nation needs and wants. A small plot of land might be left over for individual farmers to grow their own vegetables or to feed their own chickens—but nobody is invited to go into the produce or poultry business. And no one can invent a new way of making steel and set up a business to revolutionize production.

In an open market, cozy and predictable businesses like steelmaking are upset all the time. During the 19th century, the Bessemer process for turning pig iron into steel used a blast of air blown over the surface of the molten steel to burn off impurities. This process built the mills of the Ohio Valley. Then, after World War II, a Swiss engineer developed the Basic Oxygen Process, also known as the Linz-Donawitz process, after the Austrian towns where it was first adopted. LD steelmaking inserted a lance into the molten steel and burned off the impurities with pure oxygen. It made better steel and took over the market, and the Ohio Valley started to die.2

A command-and-control economy is basically conservative. The bureaucrats who run the five-year plan, and make investments in plant and people to meet it, naturally want to protect those assets. They don’t have any interest or the time to sample public opinion, keep on top of new inventions, and risk upending their industrial base to bring cost savings and technical improvements to their economy. An open market with a capitalist base is more adventurous. People with money to invest in the hope of multiplying it—yeah, basic greed and self-interest—don’t care what tidy national apple carts they might upset. They are attuned to public attitudes and pounce on new trends in both the public appetite and the technology that might serve it. They are investing their own money, or that of others they can convince to invest with them, and if they make a mistake and lose … well it’s only money. Failure is a necessary part of growth—because no one has an absolutely clear crystal ball. And the damage is limited when the bets are made by small entrepreneurs instead of national governments.

If the computing and telecommunications technology of the past half century had been in the hands of a U.S. cabinet department or national institute—or even with Bell Labs—we never would have had the personal computer (two guys at Apple plus two guys at Microsoft), the personal music system (Sony and Apple again), or their synthesis in the smartphone (Apple and a lot of copycats). Such personal use of technology would not have been considered nationally important, and so these products worth billions if not trillions in today’s economy would never have seen the light of day. I would still be writing this article on a typewriter—with no place to publish it. You would still be making telephone calls from an instrument with a dial and a handset—and connected to the world with a wire.

Is the process of capital investment and free market distribution messy? Yes. Is it sometimes wasteful? Of course, both for the products it brings forth that fail and for the stable industries it disrupts and destroys. Personally, I never saw the attraction of either the Pet Rock or Pop Rocks—those hard candies that fizzle in your mouth. They were short-lived innovations, actually joke products, that someone thought would make a buck. A serious Soviet economist would have dismissed them out of hand. But still, some people made a living, however briefly, in selecting smooth river stones, washing and packaging them, and selling them as a novelty item. Some people made a living, however small, by mixing sugar, flavoring, and whatever made the candy fizz, packaging and selling it, and raking in the bucks. These people got a living wage, fed their families, maybe bought a house, paid taxes, and supported the rest of us in the economy. Who is to say that this is a worse choice than investing in a twenty-fourth brand of deodorant or a steel plant that is only marginally competitive with the imported Chinese product?

The point is, a free market supported by capital investment leaves the decision-making up to the wisdom of the rest of us, rather than to some embedded expert in a command-and-control economy. If a product or innovation is useful, it will find a use, establish itself, and perhaps change lives—not because some expert knows this ahead of time, but because the wisdom of individuals acting in a group demonstrates that it is so. The expert might have a hunch or an idea or a subtle aversion, but it is patently unfair—not to say unproductive—to give this individual or preselected group the final say in how the economy will operate. Only the market alone, messy and fickle as it is, can establish long-term value and benefit for the rest of us.

Or so I believe.

1. This is echoed in Bernie Sanders’s comment during the 2016 election that the U.S. economy doesn’t need twenty-three brands of deodorant. His premise was that providing this level of choice to the average consumer is a waste of resources, and the money invested in developing, manufacturing, and distributing those extra products could be better spent by society—meaning, according to the plans and programs he and his party have in mind. I still ask, would he be happy using Secret—“Strong enough for a man but made for a woman”—or how about my brand, which has a sailing ship on the package? Those are both popular brands. Why shouldn’t everyone be happy with them?

2. In the story of steel, U.S. productive capacity helped the Allies win the war, and this country emerged on top of the global economy. But our steel mills were left standing with old technology: Bessemer process furnaces and finishing by casting the steel into ingots, heat-soaking them, and then rolling them out into slabs, sheets, beams, and wire coils. Meanwhile, the mills of Germany and Japan had been bombed flat during the war; so in their rebuilding during the 1950s they could start fresh with LD process mills and new finishing technologies like continuous casting of slabs and sheets from molten steel. The U.S. mills had to move quickly to scrap their old equipment and rebuild with the new processes—but not quickly enough. So the U.S. market was flooded with better, cheaper European and Asian product, and basic steelmaking declined in this country. You snooze, you lose.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

That Voice in Your Writing

Man holding a mask

Last week, I wrote about That Voice in Your Head, concerning the mental condition of hearing voices and how we all may be on a spectrum for that phenomenon. Now I want to think about how a writer—or how I do, anyway—uses the voice that speaks from the mind to create a thought, a mood, a story setting, and narrative dialogue.

First of all, every writer soon or later finds his or her own “voice.” This is the unique, or mostly unique, or at least individual and comfortable way for the person to render prose. For most of us, it is not a conscious choice so much as “doing what comes naturally.” And this “natural” is based on the reading we’ve done, authors we’ve liked, and the authorial voices we’ve consciously tried to emulate. Because I favored English class in high school, taking two Advanced Placement courses in English rather than in history or math and science, and then chose English literature as my major in college, I had the opportunity to read across a wide field, from translations of the Greek playwrights and Italian poets to Chaucer, Shakespeare, other English poets, and novelists of the 18th and 19th century, as well as a handful from the 20th century. It’s also possible to study the language and focus on just American authors, from Hawthorne to Twain to Hemingway, but my courses stayed mostly with the English authors.1

What has that done to my writing, to my natural voice? Well, while I don’t favor (rather than “favour”) English spellings, I do notice a certain preference in word order, especially around adverbs.2 For example, if I am using a “helping verb”—and when you write in the past tense, as in most novels, their use abounds for shifts in temporal perspective—I am more likely to embed the adverb between the helper and the main verb than let it straggle along before or after the verb phrase. So, I will write: “He will certainly go,” rather than “He certainly will go.” That example may seem less direct, less forceful, and therefore a bit more English, but then … so be it. I will also choose a slightly more formal and structured language in general descriptions, and I will hesitate to leave out structurally necessary prepositions. For example, I will write: “all of the cats” rather than “all the cats.”

But language is flexible, speaking and writing have their own rhythms—especially when keeping to the meter of poetry—and every rule and habit was made to be broken.

When I was actively freelancing, supplementing my corporate income by writing one-off brochures and annual reports for other companies through a well-respected local communications agency, one of the principals there paid me the complement of saying I had mastered the “business friendly” voice. I never consciously studied that voice, but I know from the example of others who haven’t mastered it what this means. The business-friendly voice is formal, although it strategically uses contractions in order not to sound too stilted. It avoids harsh, direct statements, especially if the reader might take them to heart as directed at his or her own breast. So business-friendly is cushioned with words like “sometimes” and “often,” allowing the reader to imagine that what is being described as so might occasionally not be. Business-friendly uses the subjunctive mood a lot—putting difficult concepts in the realm of “might” and “could” and “would,” instead of the simple declarative of “is” and “is not.” Above all, the writer who uses business-friendly generally likes and trusts the people he or she is addressing, encourages their dreams and desires, and forgives their foibles and mistakes. The writer tries to be someone with whom the reader would like to have coffee and conversation, perhaps even a beer.3

But these voices, whether the “natural” one that a writer acquires through varied reading or the “business friendly” voice that one puts on for the sake of diplomacy and/or sales, are the background upon which a writer works for a specific effect in creating fiction.

My natural tendency, also a derivative of English literature, is to write in compound sentences and adopt parenthetic phrasing to acknowledge the occasionally lengthy detail, necessary explanation, and honest counter-example.4 While this may seem to inflate and extend the scope of my sentences, it really is a form of economy, of condensing my thought. Imagine if each parenthesis had to be set out as a sentence of its own, with a phrase referring back to its point of departure. Imagine if I laid out each sentence as a short, direct structure in the form of subject-verb-object and had to add the explanation of how one related to the next, rather than linking them into a logical flow. The writing would then be flat, plodding, dull, and not at all engaging. My natural tendency is to spin a web within which to catch your mind.

But not all the time.

While this seemingly meandering structure, filled with oxbow bends and tributaries like a great river of thought, is adequate for most narrative purposes, there are times when it just won’t do. Descriptions of action are one of those times. Then the pace quickens. Sentences unwind. Impressions flash by. The reader’s attention spins forward. The character hardly has time to breathe.

At a deeper level, when writing from the point of view of one character or another, I not only limit my narrative to the elements of the story that this person can know directly, remember from a prior conversation, or surmise using his or her own wits. More importantly, I try to shape the language into the character’s voice, picking up his or her cadence, sentence structure, and word choices. An abrupt or contentious character will use shorter sentences and more assertive verb forms. A studious or otherwise reflective but involved character will use more complex sentences, hypotheticals, and subjunctive verbs. A disagreeable character will express the story around himself largely in negatives; an anxious one, largely in fears. And so on. In this way, the writer adopts the skin and the mindset of the character as if speaking in the first person, but using the third person voice in an extended, almost subliminal form of indirect discourse.

And finally, when writing dialog, one compresses and compacts these tendencies. Speakers in a hurry chop out their sentences. Ones who don’t care—or don’t want to show that they care—speak more slowly and sometimes glide around a difficult point. Sometimes, too, a speaker will have a tic, like a speech impediment, or an accent, or an overuse—or absence—of contractions and elisions. It’s not a good idea to play with accents and tics too much, though, as the reader can get tired of wading through and interpreting the resulting dialogue. And after a while all over-played accents start to sound affected and ridiculous. The writer must be subtle and throw in just enough spice to flavor the meal without drowning out the story’s natural spirit and flow.5

But all of these techniques and tricks depend on how the writer hears that narrative voice inside his or her head. You can adopt some of them consciously, adding them like ingredients in a recipe. But it is only through practice—the essence of building your “natural” voice and its variations—that you can do the blending skillfully enough for it to fade into the background so that the story may step forth.

1. Of course, Hemingway had a big influence on my generation of writers, too. He inspired us to employ our perceptions and our language briskly, starkly, and actively. In my case, I also picked up from my reading in science fiction the cadences of Heinlein and Asimov, who always spoke in my head as a voice of reason flavored with wry humor.

2. Yes, I know, all the modern writing instructors caution you to avoid adverbs. While I try to avoid the overuse of adverbs—so that they pop out and proclaim themselves, always a bad thing—I respect all parts of speech and use them in their place.

3. Note the “with whom” there. More English formality, and it avoids the awkward, trailing thought in ending the sentence: “have coffee and conversation, perhaps even a beer, with.” Because I would rather cut off a finger than fail to close off that appositive about beer.

4. Such as the inserted “also a derivative …” in this sentence.

5. And never forget that for the span of time that the book is open on the reader’s lap and his or her eyes are scanning your prose, you are the voice speaking inside their head. If that voice is too strange or ridiculous, the spell will be broken and the reader will close the book.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

That Voice in Your Head

Man holding a mask

Recently our group at NAMI East Bay heard a panel of consumers1 discuss their experiences with hearing voices. Two of them were from the Bay Area Hearing Voices Network, an organization that helps people with the “lived experience” of “hearing voices, seeing or sensing things that others don’t, or have extreme or unusual experiences and beliefs” come to understand and explore the meaning of these phenomena.

One of the panel members, who had taken prescribed medications to subdue the voices, found the side effects so distressing and the results so problematic that he preferred instead to live with the voices. A second panel member actively interrogated the voices and tried to understand them, asking whether they were ghosts, or pure energy from another dimension, or extraterrestrials. He would reason and debate with them when they told him to harm himself. A third felt that the voices were an inspiration, and he knew they came from outside his head because he could not feel the resonance in his skull when he himself spoke aloud. This man came to trust their answers when he needed to take an examination or make a business report.

The original Hearing Voices Network in the UK was founded in part by Ron Coleman, a consumer himself who is now in recovery and works to provide “recovery centered treatment” to other consumers. The principle seems to be that these experiences are not the symptoms of an illness but real events—as indicated by two of the panel members above—that the person feels he or she should explore in a positive way and that others—loved ones and family members—should be curious and supportive about rather than judgmental. The basic good that I can see in all this is that, if the phenomenon of hearing voices cannot be treated and eliminated with either medication or psychotherapy, at least it should not become a source of fear and anxiety for the patient. Support from and discussion with others who share the experience perhaps can approach this good result.

But I still don’t believe the voices are real—or anything more than a neurological or perceptual fault in the auditory processing centers of the brain.2

One of the panel members said that hearing voices is a common experience. He is right—in the sense that humans are a verbal species and routinely put our thoughts, however silently inside our heads, into words. We may not convert all of our sense impressions and internal thoughts into words, but we certainly try. For example, if I smell something familiar, I will usually try to identify it with a word: “This is ‘coffee.’ ” Or, “That’s ‘a rose.’ ” If I see an unusual shape, I will try to match it with a familiar shape and give it a name.

Many of the thoughts that pop into our minds are verbally arranged. For example, if I am doing something and sense it’s wrong, the thought may insert itself as a sentence: “This is a bad idea.” In the old Transactional Analysis, which was popular back in the late 1960s, the Freudian personality functions of superego, ego, and id were explained as the internalized voices of your Parent, your own Adult self, and your earlier Child self. The Adult makes rational decisions based on current needs, reason, and experience. The Parent issues decrees and warnings based on remembered authority. And the Child expresses needs and wants based on remembered emotional states. … Or something like that. The point is, these are learned and internalized reflexes that the person remembers from growing up as an immature version of self under the regime of a parent who is more mature and either guiding or punishing. Usually, these reflexes present themselves as verbal statements. When my mind generates the thought “That’s a bad idea,” it is usually in my mother’s voice.

I should note also that when I am writing, as now, the words are coming into my head as if I were speaking them aloud.3 And when I write fiction and generate dialogue, I imagine the two or three characters speaking and supplying their own favorite expressions, diction, preferred sentence structure, and even accents as they speak.

So this “common experience” of hearing voices can be pictured as a spectrum, and this matter of thinking in terms of words would be the “normal” end. It is normal in that most people are not alarmed by it, do not find it troubling, and accept it as the way their brain works. I should note that this end can have its alarming aspects. My mentor at the university, Professor Philip Klass, once told of a time he was driving faster than usual on an elevated freeway. He heard a voice in his ear say distinctly, “Slow down!” The voice was so real that he reacted instantly—and around the next turn was a wreck that, if he had not slowed, he would have plowed into. Was that voice the manifestation of a guardian angel? Or just his own mind cautioning him about driving too fast? Either way, he questioned whether the instance of hearing the voice, followed by the crash up ahead, could be mere coincidence.

Moving toward the less-normal parts of the spectrum, we have Professor’s Klass one-time warning voice, as well as the times when we hear a change of air pressure at a partially cracked window and think it’s a human moan or sigh, or the babble of the crowd in a busy restaurant suddenly resolves into an almost-familiar voice speaking our own name. Or—and I speak from experience here—sometimes a recent widower will hear a noise and imagine it’s the whisper of his dead wife. It may be imagination, but it sounds awfully real and there is a momentary pang of recognition and regret. The point is, in this part of the spectrum we are not at all sure, however briefly, whether the voice was inside our heads or not.

Toward the middle of this spectrum are the voice hearers, like the members of the panel, who hear voices that they know or believe are not their own and not coming from inside their heads. They can have it explained to them that their brains are malfunctioning and they are listening and responding to tricks of their own imaginations, but they will not believe it. The voices are too real. One of the panel members insisted that the different voices each had their own way of speaking and accents, and that was proof to him that the voice came from outside. Also, the voices often suggest something that the person would not normally do, such as inviting him or her to commit suicide. Whether the person is following the voice or resisting, he or she acts as if dealing with an alien entity.

And finally—or so I believe—the manifestation of a supposedly external voice with its own character, diction, and other qualities might become so embedded in the mind of the hearer that it develops an entirely separate personality or, in psychologists’ terms, a “dissociative identity.”4 While the causes of a brain or mind creating more than one personality or dissociating itself from the one it was born with are debatable, the condition often occurs in someone who experienced extreme trauma as a child. So, presumably, the second and other personalities develop in order to envelop and protect the tender ego. The fact that the core personality is usually not aware of these other personalities, their actions, and their intentions is where the dissociation comes into play. It appears that an alternate personality takes control of the brain and body at various times.

Normally, I would not think of putting dissociative personalities on the spectrum of hearing voices, except one of the panel members mentioned his own childhood trauma and being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. So it is possible that stress and trauma play a part in the voice hearing as well as the dissociation of a personality.

On top of all this, we must remember that human beings, with our huge and vastly interconnected brains, are the “dream animal.” We live not just in the moment and inside our surroundings, as my dog does, but also in our imaginations, in our speculations, in the what-ifs and if-thens of our subjunctive language, and in the twilight realm of our dreams, where the wildest fantasies seem real and even plausible for a short period of time. Is it any surprise that this delicately balanced and incredibly complex mechanism occasionally slips a few gears and feeds us false information?

That’s just the nature of human existence.

1. “Consumer” is the new, more polite term to refer to people with a diagnosis of severe mental illness and is preferred by people in this situation to the earlier term “patient,” which implies that they have an illness. These people are consumers of mental health services.

2. One of the panel members at the meeting, who tried for a scientific understanding of the phenomenon, stated that functional MRI scans of people when they were experiencing voices showed activity in these processing centers.

3. The generation of this word stream is complex. Some of it comes from my front-of-brain thinking and deciding: here is how the article, argument, or story must go. And some of it comes from my subconscious and its intuitive sense of what the story or article might become. For more on the role of the subconscious in my writing, see Working With the Subconscious from September 30, 2012.

4. The old diagnosis of Multiple Personality Disorder has now become Dissociative Identity Disorder. Po-tay-to, po-tah-to.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

A Classic Liberal

Balloon rising

I’ve been examining my own political stance these days—especially since anyone who believes in personal freedom, personal responsibility, and free-market capitalism while being opposed to big government, statist solutions, and socialism is now considered by some to be a “racist, misogynist, homophobic Nazi.”1 I have decided that what I am, other than a stick-in-the-mud, Eisenhower-era Republican, is a classic liberal.

What are the principles of this kind of liberal, as opposed to the more modern kind?

First, I believe in your personal freedom as much as mine. Your rights to free expression, physical movement, occupation of space, and use of time are yours to exercise and govern, as mine are my own. The province of your right to these actions extends up to about an inch from the tip of my nose, or whatever else defines personal space in our culture. If you violate my space and my time, there will be consequences—and I’m prepared to initiate them. But other than that definition of pre-existing physical and temporal limits, I am not going to prejudge you or prescribe the limits to be placed on your speech, actions, and intentions. Go your way and don’t interfere with me, and we can be trading partners, potential allies, and perhaps even friends.

Second, I grant you provisional respect and allow for your personal dignity. In my heart, I want the world to be populated by—in that old phrase—“men (and women) of good will.” I want to live in a society where people can be—and do become—productive and self-sufficient in their lives, caring about their own and their families’ and their friends’ futures, and confident and comfortable in their own skins and with their current situations. This is not always possible—sometimes through personal frailty and failure, sometimes through societal lapses—but I want people to have this chance at personal happiness and dignity. And so, if I want the world to be like this, I must grant in my own mind that such people exist and that you may be one of them. I must refrain from prejudging you as a person of gnawing envy, grasping ambition, bad habits, faulty decision making, and other personal failings that can lead to chronic unhappiness. I leave it up to you to prove me wrong in this. Please don’t disappoint me.

Third, I grant your personal agency and responsibility for your current state of being. Unless I can see and detect some congenital or acquired disability in you, such as blindness, deafness, missing and frozen limbs, or—after five minutes of casual conversation—some deficit of wits, emotional stability, or active and inquiring mentation, I will presume that you are a fully functioning human being with two legs to stand on, two hands to shape the world around you, and a capable brain to guide them both. As with your right to freedom, I believe in your ability to live as you want and operate in the world. I would hope you will grant me the same and not wish to place barriers to my developing and exercising my full human potential.

You will note that these attitudes apply personally rather than to any group. I prefer to deal with people as individuals, unique beings, and not as indiscriminate members of a race, class, gender, or other aggregate. Economists and Marxists may prefer to deal with large groups—economists by their profession, and Marxists by their obsession—but I would rather follow the rule of Sergeant Buster Kilrain: “Any man who judges by the group is a pea-wit.”2 Marxists will find this attitude hopelessly bourgeois, and so be it. I was born to the middle class and raised to be private, diligent, industrious, and resilient—not a bad way to operate and view the world, in my opinion.3

Being a rabid individualist, jealous of my rights and expectations, dealing with other people as individuals, and granting them the freedom to do and become what they want, I tend to despise one-size-fits-all prescriptions and social engineering. I understand that proponents of big government and statist solutions must, as a matter of logic and fairness, strive to treat everyone equally. And socialism by design must treat all citizens as economic cogs in the great machinery of their proposed social organization—except perhaps for those enlightened experts who are doing the designing and taking control of the command-and-control economy. While I grant that some effort must be made at social cohesion if a village, a state, or a nation is going to function, I want to see the choice to join and function—and of who will be doing the deciding—made individually and democratically. Treating people as mere numbers or as “meat robots” devalues their thinking capability and their human potential.

While I believe we should all work together as a society and function in an open economic system, I take the position that I am not responsible for your health, wealth, happiness, or well-being. That is your responsibility and not mine. If you approach me as an individual and ask for help—whether you have your hand out with a cardboard sign at a street corner, or you are wandering dazed and confused after a disaster, or you are a friend or family member in need of support—it is my choice and not my responsibility to respond positively. I am the sovereign of my time, my effort, and my purse, as you are over yours. How I choose to spend them is a matter between me and my conscience or my god—if I have either one.

Note also that these are my personal and individual guidelines, attitudes, and approaches. They are not rules prescribed for me by someone else. They are subject to revision and revocation, and I can change my mind as I see fit.4 I can be flexible without worrying about my own inconsistency, based on my previous experience with similar situations and my new experience with each person. You can’t shame me by pointing a finger and exclaiming, “Aha!”

I am not a big proponent or follower of rules and regulations, policy statements, and firm positions. I deal best with people who have and practice a personal religion but who don’t make an issue of it or expect me to believe in and follow its rules myself. I am humble enough to know that I might be wrong, and not ashamed of admitting a mistake and moving along. I trust others to have the grace to do likewise. After all, life is a still-unfolding mystery. The universe is huge beyond our wildest imagining. No one has all the answers. And we are all just finding our way.

1. And the people who believe that really ought to examine their historical referents.

2. Kilrain was a fictional character in the book The Killer Angels, later made into the movie Gettysburg.

3. As opposed, I image, to being a member of the aristocracy, expecting undue deference, and looking down on everybody else. Or a member of the proletariat, or underclass, or whatever the opposite of an aristo is, and looking upward with hatred and envy at anyone better situated, more industrious, or better educated. The middle is not a bad place to be.

4. I live by the dictum that no rule is universal; there are always exceptions; and no one rule can be tailored to fit all situations. Our minds were given flexibility for a reason.