You may or may not have heard of the so-called “bystander effect.” It refers to the observation that, in some circumstances, any particular person is less likely to help someone else when there are many others who could help. It’s also of some interest that most people believe that they will make their own decision independently of what others do.
In some ways, the feeling that, after all, you are only one person, and so what you do cannot possibly impact climate change much, might be a close cousin. It’s true that if everything else in the world stays the same and you stop driving your car 10 miles to work every day and instead decide to ride your bike, it won’t have a huge impact on global climate change, but it will have some. Your actions may not save a million lives, but they could save one.
More importantly, why did your mind skip right by that premise I snuck in there? “If everything else in the world stays the same…” Why would it stay the same? When you think about it, it’s fairly well impossible that everything else would stay the same. For one thing, you would be fitter because of riding the bike. For another thing, you’d likely be in a better mood. People at work would notice that you’re riding a bike and you would end up in conversations about it. These conversations could lead to others. You’d be having people wonder why you did that. Some of them might try too.
Those are just a few of the predictable consequences. Of course, you’d be impacting the world differently all the time. There’s no way to predict all the “Butterfly Effects” you’d be causing without your knowledge. In general, however, if your actions are kinder to the ecosystem, the ecosystem will be nicer to you.
When I was transitioning from 4th to 5th grade, our family moved to an area of new development and our little neighborhood was surrounded by acres of woods and fields. In the woods immediately behind our house, mayapples blanketed the rich forest floor beneath the tall canopy of oaks, ashes, and cherry trees, all overhung by wild grape vines. I loved the forest! But as an eleven-year old, it also seemed that my friend Wilbur and I would be required to destroy our “enemies” (i.e., the Mayapples) with our wooden “swords” (i.e., broken branches with the bark stripped off). And destroy them we did.
The next year, the mayapples were “replaced” with thorn bushes — mainly blackberry and black raspberry but there were some wild roses and cat briers in the mix. Coincidence? Perhaps. We continued to fight these hardier “enemy warriors” and every year, unlike the mayapples, they kept coming back for more, though these berry bushes never bore any fruit.
Consider “The Golden Rule” — “Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You.” It’s the right thing to do. But it’s also a very practical thing to do. If you are nice to people, then by and large, they are more likely to be nice back to you. Why wouldn’t it be the same with other species on the whole? I’m not suggesting that it’s true in every case. No matter how nice you are to the mosquitoes that bite you, they are unlikely to throw a party for you even if you let them suck you dry!
I’m happy to say that I soon outgrew that pre-teen phase of cutting down vegetation for the sheer “joy” of it. So, I don’t have many stories that illustrate how being intentionally unkind to nature came back to bite me.
However, I do know that when it comes to honeybees, if one of them stings you, crushing the offender could well get you in worse trouble as could flailing about swatting at them. Decades after the mayapple episode described above, I went on a hike on “Turkey Mountain” with my son-in-law and some of my grandchildren when one of the boys stepped in a bee’s nest. I was holding my grand-daughter and didn’t have the option of trying to run or trying to flail at them. I just stood still. I didn’t get stung nor did my grand-daughter. But everyone else who was swatting at the bees, did get stung.
In general, it makes sense to me that if you are kind to nature, you will generally experience more pleasure yourself. Since humans are social animals, your kindness to nature will typically not go unnoticed by others. Though there might be some few perverse folks who will do the opposite of what you do, most will follow your lead. Humans are social animals. Except for pre-teen boys and a few spoiled sociopaths, most people are predisposed to be nice to other forms of life. Life competes with other Life. But Life also collaborates and cooperates with Life. Big time. And, one of the many examples is that people collaborate and cooperate. That is the natural tendency and they must be manipulated to instead be needlessly belligerent. A more natural stance is to see what others are doing that has a good result and join in.
For several years, my wife & I attended the Newport Folk Festival. Like most people, I love music, but I especially love outdoor concerts because I can dance to the music. Most of our ferryboat trips to Fort Adams State Park were accompanied by spectacular summer sunshine. Hot sunny weather meant a great time to dance to the music and occasionally take a short dip in the water to cool off.
One summer day, however, our lucky streak of sunny weather came to an end. Everyone at the festival, including our little group, huddled and shivered under their umbrellas and leaky raincoats. You think a raincoat is pretty effective at keeping the water out. But that’s because you’re judging its effectiveness on not getting wet when you walk from your home to your car and your car to your workplace or the drug store. Under those circumstances, they work well. But when you sit for hours in a downpour, you’ll get wet, raincoat or no raincoat.
So, after about an hour and a half, the thought came into my head: “Hey! I came here to dance. I’m soaking wet anyway. I’m going to dance!” I stripped off to my bathing trunks and do what I came there to do: dance. Why let the rain stop me?
I enjoyed myself. After about a half hour, a few others began to dance. Performers on the stage commented favorably on the spirit of the dancers. More joined us. Within a few hours, hundreds of people had joined in the joy. At some point, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around to see a microphone in my face and a large TV camera. At that time, I had the exulted title of “Executive Director” so my first thought was to wonder whether my management chain would see this interview with me in my bathing trunks, and if so, what they would think of it. In moments like that, it seems to me, the best thing to do is simply continue to embrace the moment. So, I simply told the truth about what I was doing and why; that I came to dance and I was enjoying it; that there was no point *wishing* it wasn’t pouring down rain, and that instead, it was more enjoyable to embrace the rain and make it part of the dance along with the music.
If scores of people pile on to crazy and easily disprovable conspiracy theories, wouldn’t many more people pile on to something that is positive and joyous and life-affirming?
If you make some small change that is pro-planet, wouldn’t that tend to induce others to do the same? And, if they did, wouldn’t that tend to induce still others to do the same?
You may or may not be on the nightly news and induce still more people to change their attitude or behavior, but you’ll certainly have a positive influence on those in your immediate vicinity.
If denial of reality can spread like a pandemic, why not small life-affirming changes in the behavior of your fellow human beings?
Aren’t they synonyms? Aren’t both these words applied to adults who have some of the characteristics of a child?
No. And … yes.
Both words are typically applied to adults. And both words are typically applied to indicate that the adult in question has some characteristic(s) in common with a child.
But the sense of these words is quite different.
I spent two wonderful summers in my mid-teens working as a counselor at a camp for kids with special needs. Many of these kids had been paralyzed from polio. Some were confined to a wheelchair. But polio was not the only cause of issues. One week was dedicated to kids who were severely hearing impaired. One of the great joys of that particular week was a camp tradition that the cook would “chase” the senior counselor while clanking a cow bell very loudly through the mess hall. Only two of the group of 50-60 kids were totally unable to hear. (Who knows? Maybe even those two have been since able to hear a little with cochlear implants). Anyway, although the rest couldn’t hear well enough to understand spoken speech, they could hear that very loud bell. People differ in all sorts of capabilities; most often the kids at the camp — and adults as well — have some mobility, or some hearing, or some coordination. The so-called “deaf kids” squealed with delighted laughter at the antic.
Generally speaking, the weeks that the kids came were not organized by their particular special needs but by age range. The first campers to appear were young; perhaps 5-7. The next group were 8-10. There was a huge difference in the way these two groups approached things. The younger kids had a kind of … openness. A light burned behind their eyes. They were fully there. The second group were already wary. Instead of plunging ahead to answer a question based on what they themselves thought and felt, they would look at my face, or the face of another authority figure and try to read what they were supposed to think and feel. They had, it seemed, surrendered some of their soul to schools, and rules, and requirements. They knew how to be cagey. The light behind their eyes had dimmed.
Inside every adult however, that wild well-lit child still lingers and sometimes he or she will come out to play. For some folks, that requires drugs or alcohol. Others save it for special occasions like Mardi Gras or having their team win the World (sic) Series. And some adults are lucky (or unlucky) enough to be in a profession that actually rewards creativity — at least up to a point. Painters, writers, actors, therapists, scientists, dancers — often need to draw on that inner child to see afresh; to play; to dance; to interact with the world while minimizing preconceptions. That is being child-like. And, it is generally thought to be a good thing. Some adults find any hint of play annoying in other adults. Children almost universally like it — although they want the adults to be adult when a real danger is afoot.
Once, when my daughter was about four, she and I and my wife all sat on the floor listening to Leonard Bernstein’s introduction to the orchestra. We “adults” mimicked playing all of the various instruments. After a few minutes of this, my daughter looked back and forth between the two of us and said, “Oh! I get it! You two are really just little kids!” My wife and I burst out laughing. We took it as a great compliment.
In graduate school at Michigan, one of my favorite courses was “Complex Adaptive Systems” taught by Professor John Holland. Most of the course consisted of his showing various mathematical models of complex adaptive systems. One modeling effort in particular I found interesting. It explored this question:
“If you are a complex adaptive systems (we humans are one example; so are cows, crayfish, corporations, and clans) how much of your resources should you spend on optimizing based on how much you already know and learning more about the environment (and then you can use that knowledge to optimize even more effectively later).”
Under a wide range of assumptions, it turns out that it is just about 50-50. That is, you should spend roughly half of your resources learning more about the world around you and half using what you already know to get more of what you need to survive and thrive; e.g., in the case of a person, food, water, love, etc.
How many organizations do this? How many adults do this? And, if an adult does learn, is it really open learning? In my experience, even when most adults do try to learn new skills, they are their own worst enemies. They have a highly evolved network of constraints, rules, assumptions and — yes, they do try to improve their skills — but only so long as it does not require a change in those constraints, rules, and assumptions.
To take a trivial example, people will go on to the tennis court and attempt to improve their game. But they often do it by making the same mistakes over and over. For fundamental improvement at tennis (or almost anything else), you will need to be open to fundamental change. By the way, making a fundamental change means that your performance will get slightly worse before it gets better. For instance, one of the people I sometimes play with exhibits a common error. He doesn’t bring his racquet back soon enough. He runs to hit a shot and only brings the racquet back after the ball bounces. As a result, he often rushes the shot, does not have any power, or mis-hits the ball. He’s trying to improve his skill, but he won’t improve much until he changes his approach.
For fundamental change, we need to dig deep and find that way of being in the world in which we are open to what is happening. Unfortunately, if a player does manage to “remember” to bring the racquet back father, his or her first few attempts will likely be worse than the way he or she usually hits the ball. Why? Because the timing of the shot will be quite different. The positioning and the weight transfer will also be different. A child seems to enjoy the movement itself and they seem to grasp intuitively that bringing the racquet back farther will naturally result in more powerful ground strokes. If you can be or become child-like while you learn, you will free yourself to learn at a deeper level.
To be childish is a quite different thing altogether. Someone who is childish is often not interested in learning or adapting or changing at all. They insist that they are already perfect and if they didn’t win the Monopoly game or the Chess Game or the Tic-Tac-Toe game, it’s not their fault (and therefore, there is no reason to learn to do better).
While I ran an AI lab at NYNEX, for a time, I had a pretty long commute. I listened to many “Books on Tape” during the commute including the autobiographies of many CEO’s of companies. Many of them were childish rather than child-like. Perhaps because they were rich and powerful, people told them what they wanted to hear all too often. As a result, these CEO’s often blamed their failures on factors beyond their control: the weather, government regulation, foreign competition, bad luck, fickle customers, etc. When they had successes, that was because they were smart enough to hire good people, make excellent decisions, provide superb leadership. That attitude of taking all credit for success and zero responsibility for failure is being childish — not child-like.
Incidentally, other animals can be stubborn (like a mule) and refuse to try something new — or they can be child-like and explore, play, and innovate. Play is not something that humans invented. We’ve all seen dogs play, but so do cats, otters, crows, ravens, horses, foxes, etc. In a very real sense, life itself is play. The replication and reproduction of life always allows for some variance. Life is always exploring the new and well as sticking with the old. Life itself is a balance between work (using what we already know to defend or acquire) and play (exploring new places, new ways of doing things). It is a balance between being an adult and letting that inner child continue to play. That is being child-like.
Being childish is however quite different. That refers to a situation in which an adult (by chronological age) refuses to consider alternatives or the consider consequences; they refuse to think about the impact of their actions on others and even on themselves. Wearing a mask that has a Star Trek emblem or the likeness of a Skull or that’s colored like a rainbow — these are examples of being child-like. Refusing to wear a mask at all because someone doesn’t “feel like it”? That is being childish.
Wearing a condom that has a rocket ship on it is being child-like but not wearing one at all might be childish (unless you know you’re disease free and willing and able to raise a child). Putting on some of your favorite music and dancing while you’re doing the dishes is child-like; smashing the dishes on the floor because you’re fed up with washing them every day — that is childish. Making up a song so your students can learn math better is being child-like while being adult in taking your responsibilities seriously. Telling your students not to bother learning math — that is abdicating your responsibility to be an adult and being childish. Making up a funny protest sign and voting for the candidate whose policies you honestly think are good for the country is being an adult and being child-like. Refusing to learn about both candidates and voting for the one who makes absurd promises is being childish. Stubbornly refusing to learn the truth about your candidates failures and lies is being childish.
Life is a dance. Joining the dance and being child-like — that’s a really good thing for an adult’s health and well-being. It’s also good for society. Without any adults being child-like, there would be little or no math, science, art, music, or innovation. Of course, not all situations lend themselves to being child-like. You might have a job where the culture is so damned serious that any levity or joy will get you fired. If you have a family to feed, you might have to put on hold your desire to be child-like. If you give in to it and get fired, you’re being childish. First, get yourself a new job — hopefully one where you can be more child-like. Then, dance at the bank. If you are driving your car in bad weather, it’s not the time to “see what this baby can really do!”
Most people exhibit a mix of serious adult behavior, being child-like, and being childish. If a responsible adult “loses it” and smashes all the dishes, they will apologize; clean up the mess; buy new dishes. Rarely, we find a person who acts in a purely childish fashion. They will break the dishes and then, instead of apologizing, cleaning up the mess and buying new dishes, they will deny that they broke the dishes, blame others, and refuse to take any responsibility. Abusive parents and spouses fit into this category. But so do politicians who take a solemn oath of office to uphold the Constitution and then seek to overturn that Constitution that they swore to uphold. That is not being child-like. That is being childish.
And so is supporting such a person. To do so is to reject your own adult responsibilities.
Purely fictional stories about a child sociopath named “Donnie Boy”
Across the utter and unspeakable vastness of space
Across the everywhere of place.
Take a glance.
I know we buzz as busily as a bee
With little time to contemplate eternity.
But take a glimpse every now and then,
You might be shocked at what you see.
Look beyond the daily grind
And you will find
Millions of kinds of minds
Of creatures large and small
And that’s not all!
They are dancing each and every one!
In that great and magic dance of life!
On and on the music goes.
On and on the rhythm flows.
On and on the mystery grows.
Just because our own brief turn will end at last.
That doesn’t end that endless dance divine!
No matter how you moan; no matter how you whine,
The earth will sing and spin even when your life has passed
Just take a little peek and you at last will see
You change, you morph, you flash.
But, regardless of your cash
You won’t outlast infinity;
You won’t outwit eternity.
Don’t plot & scheme to check & slay and fight & clash.
No, help our cousins on this great green spaceship earth.
Help make this dance more graceful, fine, & filled with mirth.
You can dance your dance without destroying
You can do your thing without annoying.
You have a million ways to thrill
Why pick out one instead to kill?
The sun is sinking red and low
The wind begins to blow and flow
Into the pines who dance with love
Inviting air and water, dirt and sun,
To join her in her laughing life-long dance
“You too can join in all the fun!
Become a part of me and you’ll have won!”
Take the time to take a glance.
The ordinary world we live in is
Extraordinary in every single way!
Every molecule of it sings.
Every moment has its million miracles!
Take the hands on either side.
Across the world, the world is wide.
We’re divided just as far as we’ve decided we can be.
This division shows a silly decision;
Not an ever-fixed reality.
When we see the truth,
We will have won.
Is that we’re one.
Essays on America try to make sense of current politics in America though many of the issues extend beyond American borders.
Here’s a link, e.g., to an essay about how it can be hard to change your mind.
The Myths of the Veritas is a fictional series that explores leadership, ethics, and empathy in another time and place. Our tale begins as the leader/shaman of the Veritas tribe seeks an eventual successor so she devises a series of increasingly difficult trials that mainly test empathy.