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A woman went to buy coffee at a mall near the place where she worked. As she was about to go down the escalator, a man shoved her aside as he hurried down the steps, making her spill coffee on her dress.

“Hey!” she cried.

But the man did not even look back as he rushed out the exit doors.

“What a rude idiot,” she thought.

She was still mad about her ruined dress as she went back to the hospital where she worked. She was a doctor in the emergency room. As she was checking in, she saw the man who had shoved her aside, sobbing beside a bed that held the body of a young child whom the doctors tried to revive but failed.

Suddenly, she was not so mad about her dress anymore.

When my wife and I decided to go into business, it exposed us to a quite a wide variety of people. I thought that I had dealt with some of the weirdest kids when I was a teacher, but I never realized that some adults could be even weirder (at least, from my point of view — for all you know, I was the weird one in their world).

In dealing with these different types of people, I came to understand one thing — context matters, and it matters a lot. While these people may seem to act rude, weird, idiotic or stupid, they were doing so because of a certain context — it may be a family situation, or an ingrained belief system, or peer pressure, or anything else.

Too often, we judge people without stepping into the context under which they operate. We get mad, irritated, or even murderous over situations that would actually make sense if only we had taken time to listen and understand the details, emotions and motivations surrounding it.

Learning to be quiet, to listen first before reacting, has taught me how to empathize with the other person better and to come to a solution that we both can agree on, and it saves me the trouble of getting my emotions all riled up over nothing.

One of the best examples of understanding context that I can think of is another coffee story — the case of Stella Liebeck, otherwise known as the woman who sued and won a case against McDonald’s for serving hot coffee that was too hot. People used to cite this story as an example of how ridiculous the legal system can be and how lawyers can manipulate “facts” in order to win a case.

So let’s bring a little context into this story by filling in a few details from the American Museum of Tort Law. Liebeck was a 79 year old woman when she got burned by McDonald’s coffee, which documents show was served at around 180 to 190 degrees, 30 to 40 degrees higher than served by other companies and commercial home coffee machines. Liebeck suffered third degree burns on her thighs and genitals. Further investigation also showed that 700 other people had suffered serious burns.

Yet, even though the company was aware of that, they did not change their policy of serving coffee at that temperature. And even though Liebeck initially was willing to settle for $20,000 to cover her medical expenses, all that McDonald’s was willing to pay was $800.

So in the end, the jury awarded Liebeck with “$200,000 in compensatory damages for her pain, suffering, and medical costs, but those damages were reduced to $160,000 because they found her 20 percent responsible. They awarded $2.7 million in punitive damages. That amounted to about two days of revenue for McDonald’s coffee sales. The trial judge reduced the punitive damages to $480,000, while noting that McDonald’s behavior had been “willful, wanton, and reckless.” The parties later settled for a confidential amount. According to news accounts, this amount was less than $500,000.”

And then of course, media picked up the story and ran a headline that said a woman made $2.7 million by spilling hot coffee on herself and that version of the story is still being told and spread today, and Liebeck is probably still the object of ridicule for many.

But now that you know the context, I hope you’ll think better of her from this point forward.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

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Sand Castle

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A man set out to build a sand castle. He had grand designs of it in his head and he was so excited he got up at the break of dawn to get started on it. Pretty soon, he had a crowd of curious people around watching him work. Someone asked what he was doing, and he stopped working for a moment to explain. Another person asked if he could help, and he said sure, why not?

Later on, some bullies came and jeered at him. He again stopped working, confronted them and had a heated argument with them. He was so mad after that he needed to get a drink and cool down. Then he went back to work and finished one of the castle turrets. Somebody else came along and criticized its design saying it looked ugly. The man looked at the turret and thought it was fine, his assistant thought it was fine too, but the critic was insistent and they spent an hour arguing about it.

Finally, just to appease the critic, the man tore down the turret and began building another one. A couple of small crabs crawled out of the sand near the castle and caused a corner to collapse. The man growled at the crabs and chased them, finally cornering them and crushing them with a rock. He rushed back to the castle to fix the collapsed portion.

Another critic came along and said the design looked too square and they should go for a more rounded look. The man and the critic spent another good hour arguing about it. Finally, the man and his assistant looked at each other, sighed, and began to tear down and rebuild yet again.

And so it was that late in the afternoon, the man and his assistant were left staring at a half-finished castle slowly being washed away by the rising tides.

In another version of the story, the man and his assistant got to work. The bullies came and jeered but the man just ignored them and continued working. The bullies soon got tired and left, but not before one of them kicked a corner of the castle. The man just took it all in stride and began repairing that part.

Then the critics came and the man and his assistant paused briefly to discuss their ideas. Then they decided to incorporate the changes they thought had merit and discarded the ones they could do without. The critics weren’t happy but the man just told them, “Hey, there’s a lot of sand in this beach. Go build your own castle.”

The crabs crawled out and collapsed a corner. The man just watched them go, shrugged his shoulders and fixed that part.

At the end of the day, the man and his assistant shared a toast as they looked at the castle, now complete and basking in the warm rays of sunset. It wasn’t the perfect castle, but it was their castle, and they had built it just the way they wanted it.

So I look at this story as a metaphor of life. I can go through my life arguing with my critics, fighting the bullies and the crabs, and going up and down an emotional roller coaster, and find out at the end that I had wasted too much time trying to please other people, or getting into petty arguments trying to convince them why I’m right and why they’re wrong. Or I could just ignore the bullies, thank the critics, but only apply what aligns with my vision and goal and get on with it. And yes, there will be crabs and the bullies will sometimes do some damage, but if I don’t waste a lot of time on them, there will always be some extra time to fix and readjust and recalibrate.

And yes, what I want for my life may not be what others want for theirs, but my life is my own as their life is theirs so I’ll just tell them, “There’s a lot of sand in the beach out there. Go build your own castle instead of trying to tear down mine.”

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

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If God Had Not Designed the Brain

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In my discussions about God’s existence (or lack of it) with theists, one of the arguments I encounter is this: If God doesn’t exist, then how do I know if what I am thinking is correct or not? In other words, if God had not designed the brain to know what is true or not, then all that the brain has to go on is evolution. And since evolution is about survival, not necessarily about truth, then how do I know if this brain evolved to actually perceive truth? How can I claim to be seeking for the truth or to have found it, with such a faulty or unreliable instrument?

I admit not having a proper answer for this argument other than feeling there was something wrong somewhere. Today I read an article by Richard Carrier which addressed this question rather brilliantly.

Right from the start, he does not argue the premise that our brain is faulty and unreliable but he agrees with it 100%, saying “We know for a fact that our cognitive faculties are poor…they do not work very well. So badly designed are they, that it took us thousands of years to invent ‘workarounds’ for our failing faculties, technologies that ‘bypass’ their defects, and help us learn about reality contrary to our biologically evolved inability to do so. Language. Logic. Formal mathematics. Scientific method. Critical thinking skills. Even physical instruments, which correct for countless limits and defects in our sensory and cognitive abilities. These we all had to invent. None of them were communicated to us by God. We had to come up with them ourselves. And because a god didn’t help us find them, it took over a hundred thousand years to do it. That makes exactly zero sense on Keller’s thesis. But it is exactly what we should expect on mine: there is no God.” (Keller here refers to Timothy Keller, a theologian whom Carrier is refuting in his article).

He then refers to an article listing over 100 cognitive biases, or ways our brain deviates from logic and rational thinking. Reading through that list was an eye-opener for me as I saw myself falling into one or another cognitive bias.

So here the theist’s argument is easily turned against him, for if God had indeed designed the brain for truth, then he is a poor designer indeed. Yet some would still persist and say that, “Well, you’re still agreeing that there is a designer, whether poor or not.” To which I would reply, “If that is the case, why would a poor designer be worthy of praise and worship, much less obedience?”

If they say, “Well, it’s really man’s fault, because it was his sin that caused the defect.” So in other words, everything was perfect to begin with, and because of sin, it’s as if God randomly took out a microchip or two from our brains so that it was now faulty?

But consider this, if our brain was a product of slow evolutionary processes, then it would stand to reason that it had to have made many faulty assumptions and conclusions — and looking at history, we can confirm that indeed it has. Our ancestors saw lightning and believed it was a sentient deity. They thought that diseases were brought about by evil spirits, and they believed the same could be cured by magical rituals, exorcisms, prayer or applying sacred oils. They believed the earth was flat and that the sun ran across the sky.

That we were able to create tools that worked around these beliefs and showed them to be false, is a testament to man’s tenacity to discover the truth about reality, rather than to any claim to divine design. While it is true that our perceptions are not 100% accurate, they are not 100% inaccurate either, and the the simple truth is that they are more accurate now than they had ever been, and we know this not because we simply feel it, but because experiment has shown and proven it.

The scientific method, logic, probability, statistics, and so on are all tools that we rely on not because they have been handed to us as gospel-truth but because they have proven time and again to be more reliable indicators of reality, negating the many cognitive biases that have evolved with our brains. Thus, we can say that following these principles would lead us to a better understanding of truth and reality, rather than the simple belief that God made it so.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

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How Do I Get To The Other Side?

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There is a story I encountered twice in the past few weeks. The first time was when I read it somewhere on the internet and the second time was when a friend used it in a speech dedicated to the birthday of another friend. Anyway, it’s a good story and worth pondering upon, so here goes:

A young monk was walking along a riverbank, trying to find a way to go across the river. The current was too strong to swim in and there were numerous rocks jutting out that would make that very dangerous. He walked for quite some time but did not see a bridge, nor even a raft or boat that he could use to paddle across.

Then he saw an older monk on the other side, hobbling along the riverbank. The young monk waved to the older one and shouted, “Father, how do I get to the other side?”

The old monk looked at him for a moment, then shouted back, “My son, you are already on the other side.”

I guess it is the human condition to not be satisfied about one’s current state. The poor dream of being rich, thinking how happy they would be with oodles of money. But there are also the rich who envy the poor for their simplicity and ability to laugh and enjoy life despite their circumstances. There are common folk like us who dream of being famous while there are celebrities who try hard to anonymous when they are off the camera. There are those deprived of good health who fight tooth and nail just to see one more sunrise while there are those in the prime of their lives who willingly throw themselves off the roof or put a bullet through their heads to hasten their journey to the ultimate other side.

There is another story of a poor fisherman who was sitting on the docks with his friends. They were talking and laughing while holding on to their fishing poles waiting for the fish to bite. A businessman came along and saw them, and said to the fisherman, “You know, if you went on your boat to the deeper part of the sea, and used a net, you could catch more fish.”

“Why would I want to do that?” asked the fisherman. “I catch just enough for me to eat for today. What will I do with all that fish?”

“Well, you could sell it at the market and make some money,” replied the businessman.

“And why would I want to do that?” said the fisherman.

“Well, with more money, you could buy a bigger boat and catch more fish,” said the businessman.

“And why would I want to do that?” said the fisherman.

“Well, eventually, you could buy more boats and hire others to fish for you and you can have tons of money so that you won’t ever worry again on how or where to get your next meal. Then you can sit back with your friends and go fishing all day.”

“But isn’t that what I’m already doing now?” said the fisherman.

The secret to happiness is contentment — the realization that where you are now is already the other side. As the zen master said to the student who was getting frustrated because he worked so hard at enlightenment, “Stop struggling and you will arrive.”


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Death Rites

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A friend of mine told me an interesting anecdote the other day. An aunt had recently passed away. At the wake, there was a funeral service held by the funeral home itself. The representative, according to my friend, was “extreme born again” and as she delivered a fiery sermon, one of the cousins, who belonged to another sect, got up and went outside. As he did so, another cousin whispered, “Oh look, he left because his Jesus and her Jesus don’t get along very well.”

After that came a mass composed of old people wearing yellow, and my friend wondered if his aunt would get confused as to which heaven she was supposed to enter.

I replied that some Filipino-Chinese customs were more bizarre as there would be a mix of Christian and Buddhist or Taoist beliefs — as well as perhaps some folk beliefs. Imagine a priest or pastor delivering a sermon while at his back is an altar with incense and a food offering for the deceased. A really elaborate funeral affair would have a paper-mache house, cars and other property that would later be burned so that the deceased would have these in the afterlife. There is also the constant burning of paper symbolizing money, for the deceased to spend in heaven.

Strict adherents of feng shui would check your birth dates at the door. If your Chinese zodiac sign conflicts with the deceased, you won’t be allowed to enter and view the corpse, even if you are a relative. I learned about this a few years back when I had a student whose brother had passed away and she wasn’t allowed to go to the wake.

Some still adhere to the practice of hiring mourners to wail loudly at the burial procession, to show the deceased how sorrowful everyone is at their passing. And then there is the ritual of wearing only white clothes for certain period of time (a year, if I’m not mistaken) after the funeral.

The interesting thing is that when I talk to some friends who follow these beliefs, I learned that most of them do so not because they really believe in the practices, but because that is what is expected of them by the community. In other words, they don’t want to be seen as ignorant or rebellious of the social customs around them.

This got me to thinking what it would be like on my own funeral. I’ll probably break so many customs and traditions. For one, I will forbid any religious services whatsoever. Eulogies and poetry-reading are acceptable. Anyone can come wearing whatever they like, even the color red. There will be jazz music playing all day long.

My own idea of a death ritual is it should be a celebration of a life well-lived, the perfect dessert to a satisfying meal. I see no purpose in burdening others to follow elaborate rituals or threatening them with eternal hellfire.

I do not know what lies beyond death, or even if there is life after death. What matters is that I have fully lived and loved in this one.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

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