Bhutan’s Secret: Thinking About Death

We may not know that the capital of Bhutan the small Himalayan country is Thimphu but we more than likely know that it values and prizes happiness.  Strange as it may be to our Western values, their secret, or at least part of it, is thinking about death.  Most Bhutanese think about it 5 times a day. A while back I ran across  an article by a travel writer for the BBC, Eric Weiner writing about all this. I somehow put it aside and  only re discovered it  a bit ago. The message is still fresh and certainly necessary so I am sharing it  now. Weiner went to talk to a sage while visiting Bhutan. Uncharacteristically for him he  writes, he confided his problems to him. The sage told him to think about death once a day. He did, and the advice worked.  In his piece for the BBC Weiner cites recent studies in the US, one from the journal Psychological Science, which reports on the positive effects of taking the advice of thinking about death.

Western society and the American culture in particular, shun notions of death. And what is important about this study and about the case of Bhutan is that we do so at our own loss.  Despite a predominantly Christian culture, a culture that stands for its message of life eternal, we think of death as an end rather than a step, a bridge, a chapter.  It’s not that we are focused on living, it’s the way we prioritize our efforts to live, the way we ignore death, see our life in the world as an end in itself rather than part of something larger. Several years ago I was at a dinner party and the discussion turned to what would we do if we had a year to live. Somehow ever since, I’ve incorporated the idea of dying into much of my thinking, perhaps not daily, but often enough and I’ve discovered that it guides my actions in rewarding and unexpected ways. I wish you the same.

Abortion and the Language We Use

The Guardian newspaper recently made a style guide change in relation to how it is and will cover stories about abortion. This was in response to several anti-abortion bills which were either introduced or passed recently and which were called “heartbeat bills”.   Fetal development is seen as a continuum and the president of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology said that “What’s interpreted as a heartbeat in these bills is actually electrically induced flickering of a portion of fetal tissue that will become the heart as the embryo develops.”  The Guardian wants to only use terms that can be medically defensible, so they will use the phrase “6-week abortion ban” instead of “fetal heartbeat bill”. Similarly for clarity they will use “anti-abortion” instead of “pro-life.” We may remember when those opposing third trimester abortion called it “partial birth abortion”. Some and many articles call it late term abortion, but that too is not technically a medical term.

We too must be careful about our language when we speak about abortion. We too ought to adhere to terminology and phrases which are medically sound and clear,  avoid language which The Guardian says is motivated by politics and not science.

Dropped Wallets and the Good Within People

I first saw the story in the NYT and then on NPR and The Verge and other publications. I am sure you saw or heard it somewhere because it was one of these stories the media feels it has to cover. Originally published in the journal Science it dealt with an experiment that over 200 economists thought would go contrary than it did, would not reveal people’s capacity for honesty. Some 17000 wallets usually with money in them were dropped in places like banks and post offices in over 40 countries by people posing as tourists. What they found is that people did try to return the wallets, in much larger percentages than imagined. The name and email of the purported owners were included and efforts were obviously made to contact the owners.  To note was that the names were changed according to the country. What’s more the greater the amount of money in the wallet the more likely the wallets were returned.

We have come to have a negative, if not cynical view of human nature, which of course can at least in part be substantiated by the amount of violence, greed, cruelty and meanness in the world.  But to someone like me, someone thoroughly steeped in the existence and potential for good of our inner transcendent self, this finding only confirms what I’ve long known.  I as so many have witnessed the manifestations of this good, this part of us that goes by many names, including spirit or Maslow’s positive instinctual core.

It’s time we change our view of human nature, not with naiveté but with the knowledge that given certain circumstances, the good does prevail.

Abolitionists and the Prison System

In case you haven’t heard, there’s a new kind of abolitionists. They want to abolish prisons and those aspects of the government that make prisons possible including having police departments. Of course all abolitionists are not alike and some have more rigid expectations while others seem to have more realizable goals. And neither is it a recent phenomenon. It may date back to the 60’s with the ideas of Angela Davis and with the work of trail blazers like Ruth Wilson Gilmore. What gave this movement flight however was CNN host Van Jones suggesting several years ago that the prison population should be cut by half. Then he was criticized but things have sufficiently changed he is now hailed. What is new is that many committed to reform the criminal justice system have endorsed some of the abolitionists’ ideas. Closing Riker’s Island prison in New York City for example was once thought ridiculous, but it no longer is. Besides incarceration, probation is also being looked at including the possible use of ATM-like machines through which people could check in without having to report to a probation officer. Other ideas that seem to have traction are what crimes should be prosecuted as well as the seeking of out of court remedies. Still another idea filtering through to a more general acceptance is that the system as it is creates harm seriously mitigating whatever public safety it yields. Those who work toward criminal justice reform from within the system can be frustrated by die-hard abolitionists who would want to not only abolish the whole structure but redirect the monies spent on it.  But an outsider like me can be indebted to both for instigating long overdue reforms and looking to continue reforming a system that is no longer serving the society, and much less the human beings caught within it.