This article is the fourth of an essay series on worldview, titled Between Jerusalem and Athens. Read the first here, the second here, and the third here.
In the wonders of living, experiences that seemingly contradict each other can co-exist at once. Multiple thoughts and feelings happen at an instant, and while deconstructing them one by one is an interesting academic exercise, it does not fully reflect the unity of the experience as a whole.
Once Upon a Shark Encounter
Recently, for the first time ever, I swam with sharks in the wild. My first encounter was at a site that was not supposed to be a shark site, but I saw a juvenile shark that came by a few times. From a distance, I could see something white and flat approaching. I thought, That’s either a white string ray, unlikely, or the belly of a shark. Sure enough, it was the latter, and also the main reason I went to the Bahamas.
Was it scary? A little bit, sure, for I know what a shark could do when unhappy. My worry grew as it came closer, but more importantly, my excitement, too, grew. It was so graceful, beautiful, and wonderful, and the contours of their fins looked amazing against the blue vista.
The video below was one of the times it swam by.
Later on, we went to the shark arena, a spot where many Caribbean reef sharks gathered. Here, a group of us floated on the surface, holding on to a rope as precaution and watching about 30 sharks swim 20-feet below. We were instructed to stay still so as to not look like a distressed fish and attract the sharks, not necessarily because they would eat us—humans are not usually on their menu items—but because they were curious creatures. My husband and I were the first ones in and last ones out, although it was still too short for my taste.
Wonder and Fear
On land, we’re preconditioned to fear sharks. (Think Jaws.) Certainly, it was not possible to leave these thoughts behind while we were in the water. But this feeling of fear was not the only one present during those moments. Rather, there was also awe and love and wonder. As for me, I could not get enough of it. We were too far up and it was hard to see their full physiques. One day, I would get closer.
If I were to be academic about it, I could try to analyze the experience and breakdown each component of my feelings. On wonder, what made me admire the creatures? What was it about this experience that impressed me? On fear, what made me worry about my safety? On paper, these two things seem to belong to separate categories, one a positive feeling and the other one negative. And I could say of this experience, “It was amazing,” or, “It was scary” as a single statement, and it would be fully justified.
But in reality, they were there together in the same experience. The two feelings were interwoven, like two threads that made up a piece of fabric, such that I couldn’t separate which moments were fearful and which were wonderful.
Such is life. In nature, the things that amaze us are often the same things that can cause fear. Of cliffs and rocks and mountains, grand and capable of destruction (or you could fall off them). Of the ocean, expansive and vast and dark and mysterious. Of creatures, beautiful and fierce. Many grand things have latent danger in them, and it’s perfectly natural to both love and fear them at the same time.
What Overcomes Fear
Yet there is another aspect that brings this seemingly paradoxical experience to the next level. When I see shark divers, conservationists who swim with sharks in such close proximities and interact with them so naturally, they seem to have no fear of sharks whatsoever. They could do this because they love these sharks. My wonder may lead me to 20-feet away, but their love brings them much closer.
I don’t think this is just a function of their courage. In their interaction, they are respectful and careful. There are boundaries that they honor between them and the creatures, an implicit covenant between human and fish that they would only admire and not harm each other. Certainly, they could not remain safe if they harassed these sharks. After all, the underwater world is the sharks’ home turf.
Love casts out fear, someone said. I think its truth is evident in this situation. Nothing changes in the sharks themselves; they still have the potential to be dangerous, especially when their boundaries are crossed. But this does not prevent the interaction between humans and animals, because love gets rid of the fear and makes room for a connection between beings.
Some years, my goal would be to read a certain number of books by the year’s end. Since I’m motivated (obsessed) with numbers, this target would propel me to read through a variety of materials at a good pace. However, because I’m motivated (obsessed) with numbers, the same target can also drive me a little crazy.
For example, if I set a 50-book goal in a year, I’d be calculating the number of books to read per month (4.167), week (0.962), and day (0.137, assuming a non-leap year), and constantly evaluating myself each day/week/month on whether I’m behind, ahead, or on target. It becomes a continual chase where once I get behind, the accumulated numbers (and adjusted daily targets) would haunt me every day.
Last year, I started without a book goal and enjoyed a variety of quality books at a leisurely pace. Whoever whispered in my ear that I should start calculating towards the end of the year was a true disruptor. I could hardly resist the temptation to calculate, so I did and discovered that I was consuming books at a pretty good speed. Naturally, what followed was to set a target for the year’s end. Lo and behold, my reading then turned into a bit of a chaos. I noticed I was choosing books less carefully, reading those I otherwise wouldn’t just because they were shorter or easier. You see, if you have a speed-related goal, then reading a long book would be detrimental to that goal. Yet many of the best publications, those with substance that can enhance understanding are lengthy and should be consumed at a slower rate.
One often hears the expression “I couldn’t put it down,” but there are books that you have to put down. Books should be read at the speed they deserve, he properly notes. There are books that can be skimmed and fully grasped and others that only yield themselves, so to speak, on the second or even third reading.
There is much wisdom in this. While I practice a form of variable-speed reading already, this quote insinuates of a much slower pace and of repeat reading that would yield a full grasp of the subject material. I don’t usually do this except for a very select few.
Based on that wisdom, I’m abandoning a book goal this year. I want to be free from chasing numbers, to take my time, enjoy, and digest what I read.
Instead of a number, my reading goal this year would be of a different focus. It is to internalize the subject material by practicing and incorporating them in real life, and to synthesize knowledge into its larger context. I’d like to work on my mental models; where do books and thinkers align with respect to each other, what is the appropriate context in which the suggested thoughts apply or don’t apply, etc. All of these would require a slower pace of reading and thinking, including re-visitations to the books I’ve read in the past.
In short, I want to not only gain knowledge, but also wisdom, the ability to contextualize knowledge and use them in a practical sense.
To this effect, my first book in 2016 is How to Read a Book, a classic guide from 1940 by Mortimer Adler that outlines the principles of reading books intelligently. Incidentally, Adler also wrote in the preface,
One constant is that, to achieve all the purposes of reading, the desideratum must be the ability to read different things at different–appropriate–speeds, not everything at the greatest possible speed… [This book] deals with the problem and proposes variable-speed-reading as the solution, the aim being to read better, always better, but sometimes slower, sometimes faster.
The preface promises a great deal more, the many ways readers can enhance their art of reading books. From reading the first few pages, I can tell the book will deliver. You’ll hear more about this book in future posts, I’m sure.
What are your 2016 reading goals? Share and comment below!
This article is the third of an essay series on engineering, titled Between Jerusalem and Athens. Read the first here and the second here.
“I can’t just work with mice!” Billy told me after not seeing each other for 8 years. “I need people, human interaction.” I knew Billy in Boston when he was a biomedical engineering student. Between then and now, he switched to anthropology and went on to do humanitarian work around the world, places like South Sudan and Nepal. He glowed when he said, “I love it.”
I admired his courage to make the turn to his very fascinating, and important, current work.
In describing his human-deprived environment, Billy hit on a distinct aspect of technical work, especially in a research setting. Mental activity—reasoning, analyzing, experimenting—is on overdrive while social needs remain starved. While we’re at it, let’s just be honest here and admit that it puts physical activity in expense too. Who’s got time for the treadmill when you need results? I’ll do it next month. Or year.
The nature of engineering work often requires isolation. Quite a number of us can get away from not talking to anybody in a given day, if we want to (and sometimes I do). This caveman-like behavior becomes a problem, though, when it is elongated, because, well, breaking news, engineers are humans too. And humans need other humans [citation not needed].
As such, engineers then are not exempt from the regular laws that govern normal, daily humanness. Like eating, breathing, and… oh yeah, interacting with other people.
Ever heard someone say, “I wish people are more like machines, give an input and you know what the output will be”? Maybe you heard it from me. Surprise, surprise, humans are nonlinear, unpredictable, and non-formulaic. And we engineers ought to know how to be human too.
What Gives Work Meaning
Why am I making such a big fuss about this? It’s because of this notion of a fulfilled life, which I want and cannot buy. Can I, engineer, have a fulfilled life and glow like Billy when he talked about his work? Can I do engineering with some soul?
I should note that many scientists and engineers glow when they talk about their work, because they just love science. For many, this love is enough to fulfill their lives.
But what I’m seeking for myself is the type of glow from knowing that my work helps another person. It’s the element of service that gives meaning to my existence. I won’t pretend that doing engineering in an office can be as noble as empowering communities out of poverty. They are incomparable. But, can I, in some degree, bring this type of soul work into my daily life?
To me, being an engineer is part of my identity, but not its totality. It’s deeper than a mere role, but there are other things that make up who I am as well. Who I am, in total, is a human being, with a body, mind, and soul.
The Soul Dimension
I wrote before about the segmentation of knowledge, how our education is classified into silos that are often tangential to each other. Here, I’m questioning the segmentation of the things that make us human: the body, mind, and soul.
Of all three, the soul seems to be the most optional in modern, Western society. The body commands greater interests now as health trends occupy media attention. But our greatest preoccupation, though, is mental. Our schools and employers are less concerned with people having good health, good character, and fulfilled lives than with their brains’ outputs. In the race towards prosperity and paid bills, we pursue education to get a job, and work, work, work. Exercising, eating well, thinking about the purpose of work, loving what you do, and giving back to others are luxuries that many can’t afford.
This arena of the soul covers a wide field (or, I’m recasting it as a wide field). It is the sphere where we have human connections, compassion, and appreciation for beauty, wonder, and fulfillment. It is something that is beyond physical or mental, but rather a spiritual aspect being human. By spiritual, I’m not talking about religious experiences exclusively, but a soul component to life that reaches beyond our own selves. I believe all of us seek something spiritual.
Abraham J. Heschel says,
Human is he who is concerned with other selves. Man is a being that can never be self-sufficient, not only by what he must take in but also by what he must give out. A stone is self-sufficient, man is self-surpassing. Always in need of other beings to give himself to, man cannot even be in accord with his own self unless he serves something beyond himself. Man is Not Alone, p 138.
I think Heschel is on to something here, because there’s evidence of this need to give. We admire individuals who are not only smart and good-looking, but who also invest themselves in the good of the world. The ones that can combine the body, mind, and soul command our greatest respect, perhaps because they have something that we ourselves seek.
[True education] has to do with the whole being… It is the harmonious development of the physical, the mental, and the spiritual powers. – Ellen White, Education.
Whoever came up with the idea that any one of the body-mind-soul triads can be neglected without consequences? When I first encountered this quote, it was groundbreaking, because it sounded foreign. I thought education only had to do with the mind.
I began to understand the interaction of the three when I started taking stocks of my days. The best days at work for me are those when I feel useful to other people, when my work directly helps another person and makes their lives easier, even in a small way. I now understand this as the spiritual aspect of my work, and though anticlimactic from the grand ideas above, it is a start of a journey.
I think, whatever field one may be in, these body-mind-soul combo needs to be fulfilled. For an engineer, the soul aspect is probably the one more lacking. But other profession fields may suffer in a different way, maybe too much soul or too physical, but not enough mind, or too much soul and mind yet very sedentary.
This balanced development though will not be given to us on a platter. We must seek it and pursue it actively into becoming a whole, holistic human being.