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May 2017

Random Acts of Progress and the Drunkard's Walk

We unfortunately seem to be unconsciously biased against those in society who come out on top or the bottom. When we assess the world, we tend to see what we expect to see. We can equate degree of success with degree of talent and reinforce our conclusions of causality by noting the correlation. The worst type of confirmation bias. The " I wish more people worked hard, as I have"--myopic self-deception. In reality there is often little difference in ability/talent between the "successful" and the "unsuccessful". The biggest difference is how randomness impacted the outcomes and opportunities. 

In Leonard Mlodinow's insightful book: The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, he asserts how things that appear linear, cause and effect, and intentional, all the way down to the molecular level are random.

Whoa, I can feel I pushed your doubt buttons! Fair enough. But let me explain and allow some randomness to influence your thinking oh reader of great certainty ;)

The random motion of molecules in a fluid can be viewed as a metaphor for our own paths through life, and so it is worthwhile to take a little time to give Einstein’s work a closer look. According to the atomic picture, the fundamental motion of water molecules is chaotic. The molecules fly first this way, then that, moving in a straight line only until deflected by an encounter with one of their sisters. This type of path—in which at various points the direction changes randomly—is often called a drunkard’s walk, for reasons obvious to anyone who has ever enjoyed a few too many martinis (more sober mathematicians and scientists sometimes call it a random walk). If particles that float in a liquid are, as atomic theory predicts, constantly and randomly bombarded by the molecules of the liquid, one might expect them to jiggle this way and that owing to the collisions.

So many things we do are impacted by things we don't do and that sets us on a course--or a walk if you will. Things are always colliding with our direction and ideas and once in a while we see them or pay attention to them. We can take credit for these momentary and intermittent flashes of awareness. Our brains want to simplify the timeline so that we can take or give credit or issue blame.

Phone-whale_3188738b

Your place of birth, your parents, your health, your general DNA allocation was random. Even if you think that there was divine intervention or a pre-conceived destiny, there was a huge component of randomness that derived your 23 chromosomes. And all of the "decisions" you made or were made for you. 

What if I didn't accept my mentor's advice that led to a new career? Talked to that stranger who I married and have three kids with? Made that turn, or went to that event, or went on that date, or said yes, instead of no, or wore the red tie, or had Mexican instead of Italian...... Do you really know what would have could have happened? What we pay attention to makes a difference. 

For everything you have missed, you have gained something else, and for everything you gain, you lose something else.  Ralph Waldo Emerson

What we do know is not everyone is born into the same randomness, contexts for chance, opportunities for choice. There is great inequity in the sets of randomness we inherit. We all know the story of the immigrant who overcomes obstacles to become a billionaire. Or a blind singer who becomes a record breaking star. And if we are not careful we believe that random opportunity is out there for every immigrant or disabled person. 

We know the randomness at Exeter is different than at East LA Community College. The different molecules that are bombarding off of you will create different drunkard's walks. 

I don't think you can be deliberate about shaping your course forward because you then end up somewhere completely stale and expected.  

I think a lot about this relationship between cynicism and hope. And critical thinking without hope is cynicism. But hope without critical thinking is naïveté. Maria Popova

So I try to reside between the two to try to build a bridge, because blaming others and feeling hopeless about changing our course generates a feeling of futility. Then cynicism rises up to provide a false sense of protection while our dreams evaporate. We can restore our hope and energy by moving forward even if we are stumbling and failing along the way. 

But on the other hand, believing blindly that everything will work out just fine also produces a kind of resignation because we have no motive to apply ourselves toward making things better. And I think in order to survive, both as individuals and as a civilization, but especially in order to thrive, we need to bridge critical thinking with hope."

What appears random or "lucky" was usually right in front of you. You know when you think of something and then it appears everywhere--not talking about Google's algorithms :) Or the so-called Law of Attraction. But it is true when you think and discuss your needs your bucket list, your dream job, yes things "appear"

And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it. Paolo Coelho

So two huge lessons I have learned. Help those with fewer choices and chances see the periphery, see the molecules around them, help them to allow life to happen and divert them from their unsatisfying pursuit of happiness.

Listen to your heart. Open your eyes. Let the paths that are there surround you and reveal themselves.

And for those with fewer chances and choices, those who are more bombarded by the molecules lower on Maslow's, help them have a better chance to see the molecules that are foreign and strange. Guide them to a space where they can see themselves. Where there is sufficiency of opportunity. Not a crutch but a helping hand to give them perspective.

Why? Because we need all of the talent we have to blossom. We desperately need more people to find what they want and to be less oppressed by what others expect. 

Randomness enables us to express things we did not know we had or wanted. Randomness awakens the genius in each of us. Randomness is the way of nature.

Not ignoring reality and responsibility, but being more aware of what interests us, taking chances, and eliminating regrets before they happen. 

The future is already here it just isn't evenly distributed. William Gibson

Life just appears before you. Choices, chances. Too often we try to take credit for what is and we forget how we got there. All of the advice, education, mistakes, mentoring, role models, and yes luck, should take a rear seat to our false and unfounded control over our destinies. 

Yes being focused helps immensely. Yes being planful is also very useful. But what are you missing while you plan? Is your plan and laser-like attention creating a myopia that ignores amazing opportunities or revelations.

Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail. Emerson

Random acts of kindness and progress. Allowing the molecules of randomness push us on our own drunkard's walk and discover new people and places. 

Judy Rupp's excerpt from Old maps don't work

It is time for the pilgrim in me
to travel in the dark,
to learn to read the stars
that shine in my soul.
I will walk deeper
into the dark of my night.
I will wait for the stars.
trust their guidance.
and let their light be enough for me.

 Thanks for reading. John

 


My Prayer for Us

Another story about networking and allowing life to happen. Late last year, I spoke to a non-profit group and afterwards a nice Asian American guy named Richard Cheung, told me he liked my speech. He asked if I could speak in Pasadena next year. I said what I always say, "Let's see if I am a fit and if we can work out the schedule." The Mayor of Pasadena Terry Tornek asked me to keynote the 44th annual Mayor's Prayer Breakfast on May 4, 2017--on the national day of prayer. They wanted an ecumenical speaker on the the subject of compassion. I know why me? Not sure why either! Richard is a very generous person and he chairs an amazing organization called Friends In Deed, which helps the most vulnerable people including the homeless. What convinced me was the breakfast was a benefit for Friends In Deed. And I was transported into another world.....Anyway here are my remarks I prepared and delivered to the 600+ assembled. 

 

I’d like to thank Richard Cheung and Friends In Deed for the extraordinary work they do, and thanks to Mayor Tornek for the invitation to be here, for your leadership, and vision for a better Pasadena. And thank you—all of you—for coming here today and spending your valuable time to be together; and to express our unity, connection to one another.

I’m here to be a little bit of a catalyst, a little bit of verbal caffeine, a little bit of a wake-up call, about things you already know, things that are already inside of you—things that we need to stir. My job today is just to shift your perspective a little bit, to consider again, how do we build a better community.

Isn’t it nice to just to stop and pause from the speed of life. And take a breath.     Let's breathe.

Breathe in the mountain and breathe out flowers.

I think about my family and want them to know how grateful I am for their love and support. Sarah, Jenna, Malia, Bobby. In preparing these remarks, I thought of my grandparents when they came to this country with nothing but dreams of a better life, arrived on boats to work on the railroad and to work on the farms in the San Joaquin valley; to pursue the American Dream. I think about my parents, Rod and Tomi Kobara, who both passed away in the last two years, living very full lives achieving the American Dream. And 75 years ago, this week in northern California, they were rounded up by the government—because of Executive Order 9066 that declared all Japanese residents of the United States to be enemy aliens—and 120,000 other JA citizens were put into concentration camps. They were deprived of all their possessions, rights and opportunities for almost four years. Ironically, they emerged out of that process with a stronger desire to prove that they were Americans, to provide a better opportunity for me and my siblings. I’m inspired by my family every day, and the great sacrifices all our ancestors made for us to be here.

Proud of which the Japanese American community bonded with the American Muslim community, since 911, to prevent such a shameful part of our history from repeating itself. Today, more than ever, we ALL need to be part of this effort.

I think about Young Sook Kim, my mother-in-law, whom I never met, who escaped from North Korea to go to South Korea when she was a teenager yearning for freedom. She started doing the wash and feeding GIs during the Korean War, and ultimately married one of those GIs. She came to the United States and had to learn the language and culture and got her bachelors, masters and her PhD in anthropology and became a college professor—she embodies the American Dream. Her life inspires me. She died at the age of 48. Her legacy was to afford her two children, and her three grandchildren she never met, a better chance.

That’s all any of us are asking for, is a chance. An opportunity. A fair chance, and when that chance exists we have hope, but when that chance doesn’t exist, we lose hope. And when we lose hope, we lose everything.

We’re all losing hope. We are surrounded by an ocean of suffering and it is  overwhelming. Each time we say: There’s only so much we can do--We lose hope. And we can think we are just drops in that ocean. We get used to it. The more comfortable we get, we become numb and disconnected from our fellow humans and our sense of humanity.  An excerpt from a poem I wrote:

Comfortable?

Very

Too comfortable?

Perhaps

Why do you ask?

Comfort is nice

Good for you, but we need to talk

About what we should do

Now is a good time

Time

Got plenty of that

Choices

Got plenty of those

I know

I know what I want

But do I want what I know?

Why are we here?

Where are we going?

What difference can we make?

Endless unanswered questions

Does it matter?

Aren’t we comfortable?

Yes, very

But, we need to talk!

Talk?

That's what we’re doing

Again

So how do we comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable? How do we reinvigorate our sense of compassion? Because sympathy is arrogant, and empathy is always insufficient. How do we reinvigorate our compassion? For compassion comes from the root, passio or pati, which means “to suffer.” How do we suffer with others? That’s what compassion means. How do we suffer together? Mother Teresa says, “If we have no peace, it’s because we have forgotten we belong to one another.” And we have less peace, because we have forgotten a lot. We sit here politely and calmly, while the current state of our world is in crises, our communities are broken, people are suffering, the needs of others are out of control-we can feel helpless and hopeless. Even a generous and kind group like you, begin to think it is impossible to give and do more.

I am fascinated, energized, my optimism is renewed over our untapped potential, the possibilities within each one of us. Gandhi said, the difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would suffice to solve the world's problems.
Kierkegaard called it our Sealed Orders; epigenetics, the new  neuroscience, is studying our unexpressed DNA; Nikki Giovanni, the great poet says, “You know, we’re better than we think, but we’re not as good as we could be.” And Bonnie Ware, who studied the regrets of the dying, found the number one regret of people who were dying in hospice— I wish I had the courage to have lived a life that was true to me, and not a life that was the expectations of others.

A man named Dōgen came to Japan almost 800 years ago to teach Zen Buddhism. Zen Buddhism is about living the full life, the fully expressed life they call it the Supreme Meal. He wrote a book called, Instructions to the Cook. Literally the recipe for the Supreme Meal. The Supreme Meal is what we need to make every day, and every week and every month and every year, in our entire lives. The Supreme Meal is the best we can make with everything we have—and we have everything we need. We live in great abundance, and have every ingredient we need to make this Supreme Meal, and yet we fail to use all of our ingredients.

No matter our point of view, what side we sit on, we agree that the status quo is unacceptable. That the suffering around us is intolerable. We need a supreme meal of hope, equity, and opportunity. I am talking about using all of our ingredients: Our moral, spiritual, emotional, intellectual, and financial resources. Putting our full reputations, our social networks, our minds and hearts into the changes that are necessary. This is an All-In MOMENT. A moment to use everything we have.

My mother was a great painter. She painted 1,430 original art pieces during her lifetime. She started painting when she was 48 and painted all the way until her final year of life.

I asked for an art lesson; I asked her to teach me how to paint, and she laughed. In a knowing way, she said, “Oh John, I love the fact that you want to learn to paint, but you’re so busy, and you’re so important, at least that’s what you’ve told me. And it takes time to see before you can paint; and if you can’t see, there’s no way you can paint! And you don’t have time to see.” She finally agreed to give me a "seeing" lesson. She told me it would take at least three hours to see. She started asking me questions about these apples. And I couldn’t see the apples, I tell you, it was hours. And I finally saw the apples, and she mis-quoted Cezanne, “A time is coming when apples, freshly observed, will trigger a revolution.” Actually, he said, “A time is coming when a carrot freshly observed will trigger a revolution.

And it did. I started to see things. I started to see myself and so much around me. We have so much more to see. We tend to focus on the path and where our feet are leading us, and the path becomes a path of dependency, of certainty. We don’t listen to our hearts. We miss the peripheral view, we miss what’s around us who’s around us, we miss what’s going on right now.

The challenge is in every moment and the time is always now.  James Baldwin

So, I have been trying to shift your perspective, to help us think about who we are, and why we are here, and where we’re going. We’re the only species on the planet that gets to ask the question, What do I want to do? Who am I? No other species gets to do that. We must take advantage of this opportunity. How do we unseal our orders, express our DNA, become better than we are? And have the courage to live a life that is true to ourselves and to others.

We can never forget our ancestors who sacrificed for all of us.

How do we comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable?

The giant ocean of needs breaks our hearts, but we need our hearts to be broken open!

Open to our interconnectedness, inter-dependency. Open to our abundant possibilities.

While we sometimes feel like drops in the ocean, we realize we’re the entire ocean in every drop. (Rumi)

I know that what I am asking is impossible. But in our time, as in every time, the impossible is the least that one can demand — and one is, after all, emboldened by the spectacle of human history in general, and American Negro history in particular, for it testifies to nothing less than the perpetual achievement of the impossible. (James Baldwin)

So, we pause to breathe.           Breathe in the mountain and breathe our flowers.

Breathe in your power and breathe out your kindness

So we can have peace.      Because, Yes!  Yes! Yes!   We do belong to one another!

And once we can see, see this potential, it triggers a revolution. For we need, desperately need, your revolutions! We have every ingredient to make that Supreme Meal. That revolutionary meal. That meal of hope—together.

C’mon let’s join Mayor Tornek, Richard Cheung, Friends In Deed, so all of us can begin making and serving that Supreme Meal today!                      

Thank you.