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Chiune Sugihara, his wife Yukiko and children

Chiune Sugihara, his wife Yukiko and children

A few decades ago, I attended a wedding reception on Long Island and had a conversation with a person that has stayed with me all these years. I only had that one short talk with her and don’t remember her name, but she was very engaging and quite fascinating. She was Jewish and was born in Poland. She was a young girl when Germany invaded her country and systematically began to exterminate her people. Her life was saved by the actions of a Japanese diplomat, Chiune Sugihara, who provided exit visas to Jews in Poland and Lithuania. The woman and her father made their way across the Soviet Union via the Trans Siberian Railway to Japan to Canada and eventually to New York. I was fascinated by her story but the part that has stuck with me all these years was her wisdom of perspective. She said that we tend to focus on the present and forget to put things into perspective. She would catch herself complaining about the cold New York winters, but then she would remember crossing Siberia and the bitter cold. New York was not so cold after all. When I hear someone say, “this is the worst ever” or even “this is the best ever” I think of her. She saw both the worst and the best in people. And when I hear people judge others as different and as outsiders to be rejected, as we in the US did to the people on the SS St. Louis fleeing certain death, I think of the compassion and bravery of Chiune Sugihara and his family. Too few of us have their integrity.

All we have is the current moment, and how we view and live in that moment ripples through time in ways we can barely imagine.

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The end of the year is near on the Gregorian calendar.  There are other calendars – Chinese, Jewish, Muslim, and others including some structured so that dates fall on the same day of the week every year. But, like the metric system, our culture for the most part ignores the way others measure time.  Theoretical physics says that time should be able to go backwards as well as forwards and is not linear. But we experience time linearly and we look for causes from the past and long for or dread the future, and often miss the moment we are in. We resolve, especially at this time of year, to change.

Often people want to know the “why” of problems they have, or of behaviors. They feel they must know the why before they can change, or to make the change permanent. I sometimes tell the story of a research psychologist I once worked for. He swore he would never do clinical work because of an experience he had in rotation during his doctoral program. The rotation included a clinical track. He had a client who was afraid of plants. He tried the standard exposure therapy but got nowhere.  Eventually she came up with a story of being frightened as a child in the presence of a plant. He had no idea if the story was true, but it worked. Too inexact for him. He went into research.

But how exact is research?  Does the why or the cause matter? There is an article in Wired well worth reading at http://www.wired.com/magazine/2011/12/ff_causation/all/1.  It is called “Trial and Error: Why Science Is Failing Us” by Jonah Lehrer.  He looks at the story of the cholesterol drug torcetrapib and how what should have easily worked failed miserably. Causes are shortcuts, are stories, that we tell ourselves to make sense of the world. We are wired to try to make sense of the world, and we do this with stories.  What we forget is that they are stories and we sometimes make them unquestionable truths.  They matter, but in the end, they are our constructs. Statistical analysis in research can help, but too often the questions are asked in ways that affect outcomes, or the wrong tests are chosen or funding affects outcomes. At best, we can predict with probability.

Jonah writes:

“David Hume referred to causality as “the cement of the universe.” He was being ironic, since he knew that this so-called cement was a hallucination, a tale we tell ourselves to make sense of events and observations. No matter how precisely we knew a given system, Hume realized, its underlying causes would always remain mysterious, shadowed by error bars and uncertainty.”

One problem with a cause is that there is always a cause for the cause – an infinite regression of “why.” Often we have difficulty with randomness and ambiguity and shades of gray. But things happen. One of the interesting things about quantum mechanics is that subatomic particles can disappear and reappear somewhere else for no apparent reason.  We may long for the certainty of predictable waves in the flow of life, but to live, we need to be able to surf. To swim against what we think should be the tide is to wear ourselves out and risk drowning. And realize that nothing is permanent.

Jonah concludes:

“… (W)e must never forget that our causal beliefs are defined by their limitations. For too long, we’ve pretended that the old problem of causality can be cured by our shiny new knowledge. If only we devote more resources to research or dissect the system at a more fundamental level or search for ever more subtle correlations, we can discover how it all works. But a cause is not a fact, and it never will be; the things we can see will always be bracketed by what we cannot. And this is why, even when we know everything about everything, we’ll still be telling stories about why it happened. It’s mystery all the way down.”

What we can do is flow with the mystery in the moment we have and the story we tell. And a new year can start any time we choose in our lives. Calendars are constructs for marking time. Lives are for living.

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