Anatomy of Excellence

Anatomy of Excellence

A post on the anatomy of excellence befittingly takes some grit to go through. But I refuse to dilute it to a bite-sized listicle and I trust your intellect. Excellence deserves the 3500 words. Read it through at once or bookmark it to read it in pieces, but it’s worth getting to the end.


 

What makes people excel? What makes some stand out from the rest?

 

When we measure our performance against the crowd, we typically benchmark ourselves against this somewhat amorphous concept of the average. Average is an interesting concept because it can be understood both as praise or insult. In many areas of our lives, bowling, height, and playing guitar–we’ve all got some—average is probably our fate. But, as Atul Gawande writes in his book, Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, “in your surgeon, your child’s pediatrician, your police department, your local high school? When the stakes are our lives and the lives of our children, we want no one to settle for average.” For high stakes situations, “what is troubling is not just being average but settling for it.”

 

In Better, Gawande writes about the three things that make a person successful in medicine: diligence, moral clarity, and ingenuity. I here take the liberty to add to his list and compile the 5 virtues of excellence—the anatomy of excellence.

 

The Anatomy of Excellence

 

  1. Diligence
  2. Commitment to do right
  3. Personal responsibility
  4. Ingenuity
  5. The striving towards something better
  1. Diligence

 

Diligence is the drive to complete the littlest tasks that seem insignificant day in and day out. It is easily overlooked and underestimated because of its simplicity. Gawande writes,

 

The first is diligence, the necessity of giving sufficient attention to detail to avoid error and prevail against obstacles. Diligence seems an easy and minor virtue. (You just pay attention, right?) But it is neither. Diligence is both central to performance and fiendishly hard.

 

Why is diligence important? It’s important because it’s a mindset, an approach of doing things that’s in it for the long haul. It bears the stamp of the person’s character, not just natural talent, which in the greater scheme of things is more important. Character is what we’re looking for in the person we’ve entrusted work to. Some things cannot be achieved without diligence. Many are filtered out from achieving great things because they don’t want to do the tedious thing; they’re turned off by the unglamorous work.

 

Gawande describes an example of diligence by describing the tireless efforts to minimize patient infections in hospitals due to contacts with doctors and nurses. The solution is simple: they need to wash their hands–wash them well and often. As it turns out, implementing this easy and known solution is not straightforward at all. People get lax, forgetful, lazy, and busy.

 

Stopping the epidemics spreading in our hospitals is not a problem of ignorance–of not having the know-how about what to do. It is a problem of compliance–a failure of an individual to apply that know-how correctly.

 

The efforts to monitor this behavior faced many failures. They didn’t work or worked only temporarily, because changing human behavior is hard. You have to read the book to grasp the frustrations in maintaining this high level awareness of hand washing. The antidote of these infections is diligence–both in the medical practitioners and in the individuals responsible to supervise safety.

 

Through trials and errors, they found a way to motivate medical workers to wash their hands consistently, which was a valuable lesson in itself. Many of the previous efforts were top-down. This time around, they obtained inputs from everyone on the floor, creating a wider ownership to the hospital’s performance and a culture of accountability where everyone was watching out for everyone else.

 

There will not be a time when washing hands will not be important in hospital work. This is not a phase–diligence is necessary, forever.

 

We always hope for the easy fix: the one simple change that will erase a problem in a stroke. But few things in life work this way. Instead, success requires making a hundred small steps go right–one after the other, no slipups, no goofs, everyone pitching in. We are used to thinking of doctoring as a solitary, intellectual task. But making medicine go right is less often like making a difficult diagnosis than life making sure everyone washes their hands.

 

Small details matter. And diligent people who pay attention to these details consistently stand out from the rest.

 

People underestimate the importance of diligence as a virtue. No doubt this has something to do with how supremely mundane it seems. It is defined as ‘the constant and earnest effort to accomplish what is undertaken.’ There is a flavor of simplistic relentlessness to it. And if it were an individual’s primary goal in life, that life would indeed seem narrow and unambitious.

 

Understood, however, as the prerequisite of great accomplishment, diligence stands as one of the most difficult challenges facing any group of people who take on tasks of risk and consequence. It sets a high, seemingly impossible, expectation for performance and human behavior.

 

 

  1. Commitment to do right

 

Moral clarity is doing the right thing because it is right. It wouldn’t be a distinguishing virtue if it were easy, because often the right thing to do is not the easiest, cheapest, or most expedient option. When other priorities conflict, which approach would one take? Yes, this approach requires a certain moral compass, a belief that there are ethics associated with your work.

 

In medicine, human lives are at stake. A mistake or wrong decision by a doctor or surgeon can result in life or death. This makes medicine an inherently moral profession. But even when we don’t see the results of our mistake as immediately as doctors do, it doesn’t mean that our own work is not moral in nature. I’ve argued before that every work has a moral component that requires us to do the right thing. We may not see the direct consequences, but it doesn’t mean we are not culpable or responsible for our mistakes.

 

Gawande explores the difficult questions on the right thing to do with regards to physical boundaries, doctors’ mistakes, and doctors’ involvement in the death penalty. The first, he thinks about nakedness and the boundaries that should be in place to ensure trust between patient and doctor. In the second, he asks how much should doctors be paid and how much should doctors pay when mistakes happen? Lastly, he examines the decisions of doctors who, one way or another, are involved in the death penalty. These are hard and uncomfortable questions to ask, but the act of asking these hard questions–what is the right thing to do–is a mark of excellence.

 

The easy thing for any doctor or nurse is simply to follow the written rules. But each of us has a duty not to follow rules and laws blindly. In medicine, we face conflicts about what the right and best actions are in all kinds of areas: relief of suffering for the terminally ill, provision of narcotics for patients with chronic pain, withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment for the critically ill, abortion, and executions, to name just a few. All have been the subject of professional rules and government regulation, and at times those rules and regulations have been and will be wrong. We may then be called on to make a choice. We must do our best to choose intelligently and wisely.

 

Above all, we have to be prepared to recognize when using our abilities skillfully comes into conflict with using them rightly.

 

Part of the commitment to do right is to acknowledge the limit of our knowledge. When do we know what to do, and when do we not know what to do? What do we do at that point? When there’s a possibility of us being wrong, do we have the guts to quiet down our ego and seek the help of others? In facing hard cases, doctors are faced with decisions on whether to keep pushing or stop fighting. In commenting on the ones that display self-awareness,

 

Sometimes they still pushed too long and not long enough. But at least they stopped to wonder, to reconsider the path they were on. They asked colleagues for another perspective. They set aside their egos.

 

This insight is wiser and harder to grasp than it might seem. When someone has come to you for your expertise and your expertise has failed, what do you have left? You have only your character to fall back upon–and sometimes it’s only your pride that comes through. You may simply deny your plan has failed, deny that more can’t be done. You may become angry. You may blame the person–“She didn’t follow my instructions!” You may dread just seeing that person again. I have done all these things. But they never come to any good.

 

In the end, no guidelines can tell us what we have power over and what we don’t. In the face of uncertainty, wisdom is to err on the side of pushing, to not give up. But you have to be ready to recognize when pushing is only ego, only weakness. You have to be ready to recognize when the pushing can turn to harm.

 

In a way, our task is to “Always Fight.” But our fight is not always to do more. It is to do right by our patients, even though what is right is not always clear.

 

The right thing to do may be a vague concept, but perhaps it is good that it is vague. The key here is the striving to seek what is right and to commit ourselves to pursue it. This is what sets the excellent ones apart from the majority who is satisfied to follow rules blindly.

 

 

  1. Personal responsibility

 

I have found that it’s possible to get rid of a problem by pushing it around, postponing it, or tagging enough people in the effort until it becomes someone else’s problem. When you spread the responsibility of a certain task out, it’s easier to blame it on another person.

 

This is NOT problem solving. And not what excellent people do.

 

What they do instead is this: they lean (hard) into their problem, take ownership of the task, and make it their personal responsibility to get it done and get it done well.

 

This is a rant against the “Not my problem” syndrome. Imagine the person charged with uploading videos to a website, but the videos are long and people can’t find what they’re looking for–the key message as promised in the title–easily. He throws up his hands and says, “Not my problem. I did my job.” In other words, the perfecting of the video is not his job; it’s someone else’s problem. What can I do, I’m just an uploader?

 

Well, there are things he can do. He can point people to the minute and seconds where the key message appears, he can learn to cut and edit the videos, or at the very least, he can deliver the message to the right person on the team that can solve the problem.

 

If you’re a part of a team and you have a message you want people to hear, then it is incumbent upon you to make sure people get that message as easily as they can. And yes, it IS your problem.

 

The key thing here is having personal stakes in the work, making sure that once you touch the task, it will come out better at the other end. It’s about adding the maximum value to the product, as much as you possibly can.

 

Excellent people don’t just accept the scope of their task blindly. They investigate the wider scope–why do they need to do this task, what is the context. Once it is done, who are the recipients of the results? How can they receive this as easy as possible? They make it their business to not just finish the job, but to complete it—complete throughout the life cycle of the job, not just when it’s off their desk.

 

I don’t deny that there are limits to what we can do, that at some point, it really is not your problem anymore. But the point here is the attitude, because likely, the person who tends to say, “It’s not my problem. I’ve done all I can.” is likely not the person who has pushed the farthest in his effort.

 

Lean into your problem and contribute. Not everything is your problem, but the ones that are on your plate, make them yours and finish them with finesse.

 

 

  1. Ingenuity

 

Ingenuity is the creativity someone brings to the table to solve a problem. It is something that will not come out unless personal responsibility exists. This is the deep learning, the nonstop testing, and continual improvements in making your work, your craft, and your art better.

 

My favorite part of Gawande’s book is the chapter titled “The Bell Curve.” It tells the story of a small field in medicine that has been “far ahead of most others in measuring the results its practitioners achieve: cystic fibrosis care.”

 

Part of improving performance is conducting diligent measurements, data gathering, and benchmarking. What doesn’t get measure often doesn’t get improved. The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation has collected data from treatment centers across the country since the 1960s. It all began with a pediatrician named LeRoy Matthews, who had a bold claim that his patients had an annual mortality rate of less than 2 percent at a time when the rest of the field averaged at more than 20 percent. The average patient died at the age of three.

 

The Foundation assigned another pediatrician, Warren Warwick, to investigate Matthews’ claim. When the results came in, they confirmed that he was a positive deviant. In his center, the median estimated age of death was 21 years, seven times the age of patients treated in other centers. At the time, he had not had a single death among patients younger than 6 years old in 5 years.

 

Unlike pediatricians elsewhere, Matthews viewed CF not as a sudden affliction but as a cumulative disease and provided aggressive preventive treatment to stave it off long before his patients became visibly sick from it. He made his patients sleep each night in a plastic tent filled with a continuous aerosolized water mist so dense you could barely see through it. This thinned the tenacious mucus that clogged their airways, enabling them to cough it up. Using an innovation of British pediatricians, he also had family members clap on the children’s chests daily to help loosen the mucus.

 

This one doctor changed the entire field. By 2003, the average life expectancy of a CF patient is 33 years.

 

Gawande visited two hospitals to compare treatment practices. First, he went to Cincinnati, a place that had middle ranking. He was surprised to be impressed by the quality of medical practice there. Everything was practiced “carefully and conscientiously—as well as anyone could ask for.”

 

Then he went to Minneapolis, where he met Warwick, the doctor who did the study on Matthews many years ago. Having learned from Matthews, Warwick seemed to add something different to the treatment.

 

In an interaction with a high school patient named Janelle, Warwick started with the friendly banter between doctor and his teenage patient. He found out that there had been a slight dip in her lung-function. Three months earlier, she had been at 109 percent, better than kids without CF, and now she was at 90 percent.

 

Most people would have settled for 90 percent, but not Warwick. He started asking, why did it go down, asking Janelle to find out what had been going on in her life. Met with a series of “I don’t know” plus attitude, he went on to do a lecture,

 

“’A person’s daily risk of getting a bad lung illness with CF is 0.5 percent.’ He wrote the number down. Janelle rolled her eyes. She began tapping her foot. ‘The daily risk of getting a bad lung illness with CF plus treatment is 0.05 percent,’ he went on, and he wrote that number down.” He went on to describe the different between a 99.5 percent vs. 99.95 percent chance of staying well. On a given day, there seemed to be hardly any difference. But, showing his calculations to the patient, in a year, it is the difference between an 83 percent and 16 percent of making it through the year without getting sick.

 

He eventually found out that Janelle had a new boyfriend and some new school changes that disrupted her treatments. He then insisted on Janelle to come for a few days to catch up on lost grounds. The interaction ended with this, “We’ve failed, Janelle… It’s important to acknowledge when we’ve failed.”

 

Gawande reflects on the core of Warwick’s worldview that makes his center better than average,

 

He believed that excellence came from seeing, on a daily basis, the difference between being 99.5 percent successful and being 99.95 percent successful. Many things human beings do are like that, of course: catching fly balls, manufacturing microchips, delivering overnight packages. Medicine’s distinction is that lives are lost in those slim margins.

 

Warwick’s combination of focus, aggressiveness, and inventiveness is what makes him extraordinary. He thinks hard about his patients, he pushes them, and he does not hesitate to improvise.

 

His ingenuity led him to innovate unconventional solutions to CF, inventing a new stethoscope, a new cough, and a mechanized chest-thumping vest for patients to wear.

 

When you lean hard into a problem, diligent in paying attention to details, committed to do the right thing for your patient, and use your individuality and creativity in trying new solutions, all of that opens up doors of innovation, solutions that are uniquely you. None of this will come out of superficial work.

 

 

  1. Something better

 

In the CF discussion, even though Matthews and Warwick’s methods had improved the entire field, their centers managed to stay ahead of the pack. From the gathering of data over the years, patterns emerged.

 

“You look at the rates of improvement in different quartiles, and it’s the centers in the top quartile that are improving fastest,” Marshall says. “They are at risk of breaking away.” What the best may have, above all, is a capacity to learn and change–and to do so faster than everyone else. 

 

Humanity is gifted with this infinite capacity to grow and those who know how to do this out of their own volition, excel. It is the striving toward something better that distinguishes those at the high end of the bell curve.

 

Paul Kalanithi, another doctor, writes in When Breath Becomes Air that “the defining characteristic of the organism is striving.” In Mind, Character, and Personality, Vol 1, Ellen White writes, “’Something better’ is the watchword of education, the law of all true living.”

 

There’s always something better to do, some way better to try.

 

 

Gawande concludes that to be successful in medicine is to have and practice these ingredients of excellence.

 

We are used to thinking that a doctor’s ability depends mainly on science and skill. The lesson from Minneapolis–and indeed from battlefield medical tents in Iraq, villages with outbreaks of polio, birthing rooms across the country, and all the other places I have described in this book–is that these may be the easiest parts of care. Even doctors with great knowledge and technical skill can have mediocre results; more nebulous factors like aggressiveness and diligence and ingenuity can matter enormously.

 

The great news is that this is accessible to everyone. Everyone can be diligent, commit to do right, claim personal responsibility, try new things, and strive to be better.

 

True success in medicine is not easy. It requires will, attention to detail, and creativity. But the lesson I took from India was that it is possible anywhere and by anyone. I can imagine few places with more difficult conditions. Yet astonishing successes could be found. And each one began, I noticed, remarkably simply: with a readiness to recognize problems and a determination to remedy them.

 

Arriving at meaningful solutions is an inevitably slow and difficult process. Nonetheless, what I saw was: better is possible. It does not take genius. It takes diligence. It takes moral clarity. It takes ingenuity. And above all, it takes a willingness to try.

 

These are not natural-born talents. These are the stuffs of discipline, attitude, and approach to life, work, and learning. It can be acquired and practiced by all. Do one, and you may already do better than your peers. But do all of them and you can’t help but be excellent.

 

 

Between Jerusalem and Athens

Between Jerusalem and Athens

Between Jerusalem and Athens is a 7-part essay series on worldviews.

 

Since last year, I’ve been thinking about meta-questions: What caused us to think in a certain way? Where did ideas—those I subscribe to and those I don’t understand—come from? What influenced the prevailing thoughts in a given society? What are their strengths and shortcomings?

 

You may say it’s an exercise of intellectual empathy, an attempt to understand others and myself, and to learn the vocabularies by which we can converse across different worldviews.

 

Between Jerusalem and Athens as a title represents this cross-cultural look at the world, which is probably more a reflection of me than of the world itself. Jerusalem and Athens are not to be interpreted as two ends of a spectrum—the ideas in this series of essay extend beyond these—but as an analog of the cultural blends that shape my thinking. Jerusalem is an analog of the East, although there are many versions of “East”, which influences me through my heritage, birthplace, faith, and early education. Athens is an analog of the West, the intellectual culture inherited from ancient Greece, in which my life and work are immersed. Between Jerusalem and Athens is also a tribute to Abraham J. Heschel, whose writings have opened up new horizons in the way I see faith and spirituality—a peek into the philosophy of Judaism.

 

The 7 essays in this series, split into 9 posts, are descriptions of the world through my lens. Looking around, I see a siloed world—academically, in the workplace, spiritually, personally, in public service, media—segmented based on certain artificial categorizations. In many cases, these categories and classes have helped us focus, analyze, and make much progress as a species. But they are not without downfalls, as the categorizations may turn into barriers, dividing people. These essays are my response to the strengths and weaknesses of this approach, and my quest to find solutions by exploring other worldviews.

 

When A Single Narrative Is Not Enough

On avoiding single-mindedness and telling a one-sided story. “The danger of a single narrative comes when it is accepted in pure disregard of other possible narratives, solely labeling something as good or bad without acknowledging the alternative.”

 

From the Equad to the World

On the silos of knowledge that prevent communication and collaborations across artificial barriers that are much needed to solve complex real world problems. This is a vote for multidisciplinary thinking, the widening of the scope of our thinking beyond conventional academic categorizations.

 

Engineering With Soul: A Spiritual Dimension to Work

On the separation between the mind, body, and soul—the components that make up our humanity—that causes an unfulfilling life. Addressing the need for a balanced development on all aspects of our being.

 

Wonder and Fear: Thinking Two Thoughts at Once

On the reality that two seemingly contradicting experiences can coexist at once. A precursor to the last essay below.

 

Asian and Western Minds, Part 1: Why They Differ

Asian and Western cultures are descendants of two different ancient philosophies, namely the ancient Chinese and Greek cultures, respectively. This essay is on the core principles of each culture and how they affect today’s societies.

 

Asian and Western Minds, Part 2: How They Differ

This post highlights the key findings of Richard Nisbett’s social psychology experiments, observations on how specifically Asian and Western minds differ.

 

A Child of East and West, Part 1

The chronicle of an Indonesian in America. This is the story of my upbringing in the East and my cultural experiences after moving to the West.

 

A Child of East and West, Part 2

Continuing the story with my life in the West and the re-discovery of the East.

 

Theoretical Dichotomies: When Either-Or Thinking Gets You Nowhere

When a paradigm categorizes things too much and has difficulties reconciling paradoxes. Real life is messier than theoretical analyses.


 

There is a book that I return to many times, titled Education by the insightful Ellen White. Its profound first paragraph never fails to strike me every time I read it, and it serves as inspiration for the essays above. It is an argument for a life of learning that is wide is scope, multidisciplinary, practical, and well integrated. This, to me, is the perfect way to end this series.

 

Our ideas of education take too narrow and too low a range. There is need of a broader scope, a higher aim. True education means more than the pursual of a certain course of study. It means more than a preparation for the life that now is. It has to do with the whole being, and with the whole period of existence possible to man. It is the harmonious development of the physical, the mental, and the spiritual powers. It prepares the student for the joy of service in this world and for the higher joy of wider service in the world to come.

 

Image credit: FreeImages

Theoretical Dichotomies: When Either-Or Thinking Gets You Nowhere

Theoretical Dichotomies: When Either-Or Thinking Gets You Nowhere

This article on either-or thinking is the seventh and last essay in a series titled Between Jerusalem and Athens. Read the firstsecondthirdfourth, fifth here and here, and sixth here and here.

 

 

In Asian and Western Minds, Part 2: How They Differ, one of the ways that Eastern and Western mindsets differ is in resolving contradictions. Easterners tend to transcend different and opposing views, seeking the middle way and finding the truth on both sides (i.e., dialectical reasoning), while Westerners tend to insist more on the “rightness” of one view over the other. The laws that govern much of the Western intellectual culture–the law of identity and the law of noncontradiction–lead to a method of thinking dubbed either-or thinking.

 

What is Either-Or Thinking?

 

Either-or thinking is a method of parsing concepts by dividing them into a dichotomy–two opposing options–where the alternatives cannot coexist with each other. It is absolutely one or the other, also known as black and white thinking. This methodology can be useful, such as in solving math problems, but it is not without weakness.

 

Observant readers may say, Isn’t the Western vs. Eastern comparison itself a false dichotomy? To which I would answer, yes, if it is seen as an either-or situation. Ideas don’t belong exclusively in the East or West, and anyone in the East or West is likely a hybrid of world cultures. These are abstractions, general categorizations to represent sets of ideas, models to represent real life. In other words, they are theoretical dichotomies, and as such, they involve simplifications of reality.

 

In real life, Western and Eastern ideas travel and mix together. General trends may be observed, but the details are far messier than what essays can describe. Further, the world is not divided into just two mindsets–there’s a spectrum of thoughts and paradigms in across Earth’s geography.

 

What then is the point of discussing these concepts at all, as I have for many extensive posts (see links above)? Well, models and simplifications are still useful in getting some modicum of understanding. The danger is in extrapolating the lessons too much, beyond what the models are intended to represent.

 

The Downfall of Either-Or Thinking

 

In the Greek intellectual tradition that values public discourse and debates, it is easy to see how either-or thinking flourishes. It is a perfect set up for an engaging debate in pursuit of answering the question, Which side is more right?

 

Quoting Richard E. Nisbett again from The Geography of Thought:

 

The obsession with categories of the either/or sort runs through Western intellectual history. Dichotomies abound in every century and form the basis for often fruitless debates: for example, “mind-body” controversies in which partisans take sides as to whether a given behavior is best understood as being produced by the mind independent of any biological embodiment, or as a purely physical reaction unmediated by mental processes. The “nature-nurture” controversy is another debate that has often proved to generate more heat than light…nearly all behaviors that are characteristic of higher order mammals are determined by both nature and nurture. The dichotomy “emotion-reason” has obscured more than it has revealed…it makes sense to separate the two for purposes of analysis only.

 

Throughout Western intellectual history, there has been a conviction that it is possible to find the necessary and sufficient conditions for any category. A square is a two-dimensional object with four sides of equal length and four right angles. Nothing lacking these properties can be a square and anything having those properties is definitely a square.

 

While either-or thinking can produce a clean analytical narrative, a comprehensive understanding of each side, perfectly defined and characterized, it often doesn’t correspond to real life. As Nisbett says, separating a phenomenon into two ideas is convenient for theoretical analysis only, but if it is not followed by a zoomed-out view back to reality, it can lead to useless fights. Real life does not deconstruct itself neatly into two buckets.

 

Either-or thinking is less prevalent in the intellectual culture of the East, where things are not always defined by necessary and sufficient conditions. The ambiguity of definitions is prevalent, concepts can be fluid, and dialectical reasoning transcends the opposing views.

 

The West Side of the East

 

Nisbett’s book deals specifically with the differences between the West and the Far East, those influenced by the ancient Chinese culture. These serve as an interesting backdrop for me to compare and contrast with Near Eastern thoughts. I should note that I do resent the Euro centricity of these terminologies. The “far” and “near” designations are decidedly Western, and I will try to avoid them.

 

This is perhaps the right time to reveal the motivations behind the essays in Between Jerusalem and Athens (see links above). My forays into these worldviews were first prodded by certain dissatisfaction in religious dialogues, which, being a Christian, were intertwined with the culture and traditions of the Mediterranean region. I enjoy analytical readings of the Bible, which I learned largely after my move to the West (see A Child of East and West, Part 1 and Part 2). Yet, there are limits to a Western analysis of the Bible, especially because the Bible comes from an Eastern society. Its stories, language, and images come from a different world, and this discrepancy can cause misunderstandings.

 

I do not mean here that some Bible teachings only apply to people in the East and not the West, or vice versa. The principles it teaches transcend cultures, but they are delivered and couched in a particular societal context. An understanding of the context will allow proper understanding of the principles that are being communicated.

 

Being a Christian in America, one ought to be aware of the cultural differences between oneself and the writer of Biblical passages. Words and concepts can have different nuances in different place and times, and one should always fight the urge of imposing her own culture to the text, imposing meaning that is not intended by the writer.

 

Unfortunately, these things happen. It is not easy to escape the bent of one’s mind. Biblical concepts, which have many paradoxes, are often discussed in an either-or manner that result in debates between two camps without much edification.

 

Examples of either-or fallacy include questions like, Is there such thing as true altruism, as in, is an altruistic deed still altruistic when the person feels good about it? Which one is more important, the motive or the deed? The more Christian versions of these questions are on faith and works, justice and mercy, God’s love and His anger, Christ’s divine and human nature, and many others. Is obedience a condition of the heart or a deed? Each issue can make friends and enemies, dissecting a community into 2 debate teams. As for me, I am often confused at the resistance against embracing both sides of the paradox. Why can’t it be both? We don’t have to accept one side in exclusion of the other, especially when the Bible teaches both. Is this a cultural phenomenon?

 

The Beautiful Resolutions

 

For an either-or mind, paradoxes are sources of consternations. But, say, you take the either-or framework away, things may actually resolve itself. Listen to what Abraham J. Heschel, a Jewish writer, wrote in his essay Jewish Thinking:

 

We are essentially trained in a non-Jewish world. This is where we obtain our general training. We are inclined to think in non-Jewish terms. I am not discouraging exposure to the non-Jewish world. I am merely indicating that it is not biblical thinking… If you take biblical passages or biblical documents or rabbinic statements, and submit them to a Greek mind, they often are absurd. They make no sense.

 

This absurdity comes the mismatch between the mental frameworks of the source and the analyst. Understanding the Bible requires an understanding of life as seen by the Bible.

 

In God in Search of Man, Heschel wrote (emphasis mine),

 

Jewish thinking and living can only be adequately understood in terms of a dialectic pattern, containing opposite or contrasted properties. As in a magnet, the ends of which have opposite magnetic qualities, these terms are opposite to one another and exemplify a polarity which lies at the very heart of Judaism, the polarity of ideas and events, of mitzvah and sin, of kavanah and deed, of regularity and spontaneity, of uniformity and individuality, of halacha and agada, of law and inwardness, of love and fear, of understanding and obedience, of joy and discipline, of the good and the evil drive, of time and eternity, of this world and the world to come, of revelation and response, of insight and information, of empathy and self-expression, of creed and faith, of the word and that which is beyond words, of man’s quest for God and God in search of man. Even God’s relation to the world is characterized by the polarity of justice and mercy, providence and concealment, the promise of reward and the demand to serve Him for His sake. Taken abstractly, all these terms seem to be mutually exclusive, yet in actual living they involve each other; the separation of the two is fatal to both.

 

In the way he united the many facets of God’s character, from Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity:

 

God is Judge and Creator, and not only Revealer and Redeemer. Detached from the Hebrew Bible, people began to cherish one perspective of the meaning of God, preferably His promise as Redeemer, and become oblivious to His demanding presence as Judge, to His sublime transcendence as Creator. The insistence upon His love without realizing His wrath, the teaching of His immanence without stressing His transcendence, the certainty of His miracles without an awareness of the infinite darkness of His absence—these are dangerous distortions.

 

And finally, I love how he resolves the faith vs. works in God in Search of Man:

 

The dichotomy of faith and works which presented such an important problem in Christian theology was never a problem in Judaism. To us, the basic problem is neither what is the right action nor what is the right intention. The basic problem is: what is right living? And life is indivisible. The inner sphere is never isolated from outward activities. Deed and thought are bound into one. All a person thinks and feels enters everything he does, and all he does is involved in everything he thinks and feels.

 

Spiritual aspirations are doomed to failure when we try to cultivate deeds at the expense of thoughts or thoughts at the expense of deeds. Is it the artist’s inner vision or his wrestling with the stone that brings about a work of sculpture? Right living is like a work of art, the product of a vision and of a wrestling with concrete situations.

 

There’s a time to atomize something, and there’s a time to see it at a distance. Life is indivisible. And Biblical concepts are also interrelated. Loving God is not separate from loving fellow mankind; being forgiven by God is not separate from forgiving others (see the Lord’s prayer); a kind deed to fellow mankind is seen as a deed towards God (see Jesus’ words).

 

This concept of indivisibility–in education, in academia, in engineering, in life–is really at the core of all of the past essays. And this post being the final one of this series, I’d like to close with this quote:

 

If man were only mind, worship in thought would be the form in which to commune with God. But man is body and soul, and his goal is so to live that both “his heart and his flesh should sing to the living God.” – Heschel

 

 

Come back to read the overview of the Between Jerusalem and Athens series!

 

 

A Child of East and West, Part 2

A Child of East and West, Part 2

A chronicle of an Indonesian in America, continued. In Part 1 of A Child of East and West, I told the story of my upbringing in the East and my Western-leaning brain. This post continues the story with my life in the West.

 

This article is the sixth essay in a series titled Between Jerusalem and Athens. Read the first, second, third, fourth, and fifth here and here.


 

Part 1 of A Child of East and West left off with me finding a match between my personal philosophies and approach to life in the West. The empowered sense of personal agency allowed me to discover myself without much social ties and constraints. This was the way to live, I thought.

 

Over the years, however, I began to see the imperfections of this lifestyle. The individualist’s life was lonely and I missed, sometimes, the communal life of the East. But it was not just in daily lives. I also began to be dissatisfied with the hyper rational approaches in other areas.

 

Trapped in a Worldview

 

Once in graduate school, several friends and I attended one of those Christian vs. atheist debates, in line with the ancient Greek tradition from which Western thoughts emerged, on whether there could be morality without God. Debates were enjoyable intellectual exercises, where logic was the main medium to argue and persuade.

 

After the event, I asked my friend, a non-Christian, about what she thought. She said it was interesting, although the atheist’s arguments sounded more logical to her. Being a Christian, my thoughts were the opposite—the Christian arguments made more sense—but I didn’t contradict her and was perfectly comfortable with her answer, because by this time, I already had a growing hunch that events like this didn’t always bridge people from two sides. It was not whether one side was more logical than the other; it was about psychology.

 

We are more inclined to accept positions that agree with our preconceived ideas, and those arguments will literally make more sense to us. The reasoning is clearer due to familiarity, and even our physical reactions would differ when listening to someone we like and agree vs. someone we dislike and disagree with. These are natural cognitive biases, and unless we are conscious of these phenomena and fight the urge to dismiss arguments we don’t initially like, we may be fooling ourselves when we say, I came to an objective conclusion.

 

In one of his social psychology experiments in The Geography of Thought, Richard Nisbett observed that when faced with evidence contradicting one’s previous beliefs, Easterners tend to average out and seek the middle way, while Westerners show more signs of further polarization. In this experiment’s case, they should have re-balanced their views and take into account all evidence, but they instead became stronger in their beliefs. Nisbett explained this by the Westerners’ ability to generate counterarguments against an opposing view combined with the impulse to choose one or the other as correct. When a contradicting argument is weak and they are able to argue against is, their beliefs are enforced (see backgrounds of this point in here and here). Sometimes, this approach is fine. But there are certainly cases where this is unfavorable, when instead of becoming balanced, people go into extremes.

 

 

Engineering

 

As both an engineer and a student of nature, I see many contrasts between human designs and nature. Human designs are often too linear: take raw materials, convert into something for a single purpose, then throw away the wastes, which pile and pile in a location unseen by the general public, creating the illusion that they don’t exist. Until one day, the wastes overstress nature and a crisis emerges. Ocean pollution, air pollution, and global warming are results of this type of behavior. The economists would say, externalized social and environmental costs; these are outside the scope of the polluters’ work, so no one’s paying for it.

 

Natural processes, on the other hand, work in cycles. One’s discards are raw materials for another process, creating a system with net zero waste. The linear thinking starts with one objective–say, making money from selling meat–and optimizes everything to serve that one purpose. Along the way, people forget that animals are part of an ecosystem and that we can’t isolate them only to serve our economic goals (see objects vs. environment). The more I see this single narrative approach, the more I’m drawn to ecological models–holistic approaches that see interconnections between factors, appreciate complexity, see the whole and not just the parts. These are things that align more naturally to the ancient Eastern culture, although the linear thinking practice is now pervasive all around the world.

 

Life in General

 

As for my personal life, I crave certain integration between my intellectual, physical, and spiritual realms. I want to do engineering with soul, to have a vocation and not just a job, and I don’t want to be a fragmented or isolated human being. I miss robust communities, the human relationships that give life meaning. In the spiritual realm, the cerebral style of Bible studies and listening to sermons that nurtured my budding faith, eventually hit diminishing returns. As my knowledge increased, it became easier and easier to say the profound things, but with no real change in the life. How many more new sermons does one need if they don’t translate into tangible changes and actions?

 

In an over-intellectualized world, ideas face the danger of being disembodied, widening the mind-body separation that Plato might have liked, between what we know and what we do. The poignant question is, If we know so much, why are we still doing the same things time after time? This, as I see it, is a symptom of intellectual gluttony.

 

Yet there are times when I feel the most growth, the most integrated. These are when I can engage mind, body, and soul in the service of others. It is as if the fragmented pieces of me finally come together to form one whole person–me.

 

Re-discovering the East

 

It’s funny that while my body travelled geographically from East to West, I am only now rediscovering the East again. The sources of consternations above, the many years of questionings and seeking answers, along with serendipitous encounters with authors from various cultures, become an education that no school can give me. I should say that on a day-to-day basis, I am still very much Hellenized—logic and reason are still my modus operandi, especially in my line of work—but at least I am now aware that people reason differently around the world, and that there are strengths and downfalls to each paradigm. Life is messier than abstract concepts.

 

As for my church experience, it turns out that churches in the East and West–or at least my church in Indonesia and in the US–operate differently. In a culture where arguing with logic can sometimes be seen as immature, it makes sense that reasoning faith out is not always the primary focus of in the life of the church. People come and stay, perhaps compelled first and foremost by the community before they are convinced by the tenets of truth. I see this many times and it is incomprehensible to me because I’m not wired that way. But people are different, and cultural tendencies are also different.

 

Indeed, the community aspect in Eastern churches is so strong that, to me, they seem more integrated than Western ones; more people are involved in the day-to-day life and business of the church and members are more involved in each other’s lives. Of course, this level of involvement can be both good and bad, but in terms of the bond between people, it is definitely stronger. Personal connections do not only happen during the weekends, but throughout the week. I felt the strength of this community the most when my father passed away and my home church community held my family up day in and day out.

 

Which way is better? Well, that may in itself be a Western question–the insistence that there is a correct and incorrect way. Maybe the Eastern in me wants to seek the middle way, that there’s something each culture can learn from each other.

 

 

As a child of East and West, I am wishing for a convergence of these cultures that is symbiotic in my own life. At the very least, I can contextualize better now, taking cultures into account in my evaluation of things.

 

Honestly, I wish I understood these things sooner. Things are much clearer now than they were 10 or 15 years ago; this knowledge would have helped me in my younger years. Perhaps there is something to say about cultural studies for kids, especially in today’s connected world, to help us understand each other in this global village.

 

Which leads me to think about my future kids and their cultural heritage. While their parents are hybrids of East and West, they will be much more Western than me or my husband. In this sense, we will be of different cultures—their upbringing will starkly differ from mine, and I’m certain there will be conflicts resulting from this difference. Hopefully, knowing what I know now, I can understand them better and help them triangulate themselves in this world.

 

 

A Child of East and West, Part 1

A Child of East and West, Part 1

This is the first part of A Child of East and West. This article is the sixth essay in a series titled Between Jerusalem and Athens. Read the first, second, third, fourth, and fifth here and here.

 

 

On rare occasions, fragments of thoughts and life experiences can converge into a coherent narrative. This is one of those moments. In my quest to understand the world that forms the essence of this blog, I also gain an understanding of myself, my coordinates in this world. My recent exploration of the Eastern and Western mindsets (Part 1: Why They Differ and Part 2: How They Differ) inevitably led to some self diagnosis on who I am and the backdrop of my existence. These two posts serve as the springboard for this personal essay, and I’ll be using the terms Western and Eastern as they have been described in those posts.

 

As an Eastern living in the West who is nearing a 50-50 split of residency in two cultures, I see myself as a child of East and West. This is my personal story through the lens of these world cultures.

 

From East to West

 

I was born to a Chinese-descent family, both sides, who had immigrated to Indonesia for several generations. In simple words, I’m Eastern, even though the term “East” is an oversimplification of the range of Easternness encapsulated in my background. My Chinese heritage certainly bears traces of the ancient Chinese culture described in the Asian and Western Minds posts (Part 1, Part 2), but Indonesia itself is an interesting case of the East, a confluence of cultures from different parts of the world. I grew up being exposed to a plurality of ethnicities and religions, all within the country, which bore an impression on me. Jakarta as a city that attracted people from across the country and Java, an island that seemed comfortable embracing multiple philosophies in its culture, would befit an environment that can be called Eastern. The role of community, the embracing of change and cyclical nature of life, were themes familiar to me from childhood.

 

Yet even as an Eastern child, my mind and personality had always been Western-leaning. My brain was wired to be fascinated with logic, analysis, categorizations, linear and either/or thinking, which went hand-in-hand with my fascination with science and mathematics. I found the search for and getting the right answer incredibly satisfying, and I subscribed fully to paradigms like the law of noncontradiction, though I did not know it then. I craved clear boundaries and rules and coherent arguments, which, living in the Indonesian society, were often problematic. Rules bent, words were not always exact and most everything was negotiable. My dad used to say to me, “The world is not that simple.” Things were too black and white to me, and I struggled with the fuzziness of boundaries.

 

At 17, I crossed the world and landed in Boston to pursue higher education. Amazingly, even though home was half the world away, I never experienced culture shocks. In fact, in terms of the intellectual culture of the West, it felt like a homecoming. Sure, there were cultural barriers I faced, such as my inability to participate in class discussions due to my non-Socratic Eastern education. The way I saw it, I should keep my mouth shut when I didn’t have anything substantive to say. Thankfully, my engineering path did not require me to speak in class often, and the nerdy MIT world, where science–the pinnacle of Western thinking–abounded, felt comfortable. Things either worked or they didn’t.

 

Parallel to my academic journey, coming to the US also felt like homecoming for my faith journey. It was in the buzz of university campuses with the cerebral and scientific approach to everything that I gained footing for my personal beliefs. Apologetics, intellectual arguments for and against the Christian faith, and the dissecting of the Bible to find a coherent system of beliefs, became the anchor of my spiritual path. It was particularly important to me that beliefs were coherent and philosophically sound, and I found this emphasis on reason in the West refreshing.

 

I often thought in college, why was I not taught this earlier–to reason cogently from the Bible for all tenets of my faith? What was wrong with my home church? Do they not care about theology? Today, I think I know why there were different emphasis in the East and West, which I’ll get to in the second part of this essay.

 

Given the bent of my personality, I thrived in the West. I felt liberated living as an individual and discovered myself through this independence. I was pleased to not be tied to the pervasive social requirements of the East. This was the way to live, I thought.

 

Over the years, however, I began to see the imperfections of this lifestyle. The individualist’s life was also lonely and I missed the communal life of the East. But it was not just in daily lives. I also began to be dissatisfied with the hyper rational approaches in other areas.

 

To be continued…

[UPDATE: Read Part 2 here]

 

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