Stories and Culture

Questioning

My head is splitting, and it’s not an ache. I’d love to reduce it to anxiety.

The questioning: we’re talking paths, perspectives, without the Universal GPS.

What I’ve begun to understand is that when I question something, I’m questioning a belief: sometimes the ethics, sometimes the usefulness of that belief. It’s hard for me, now, to think in terms of “correctness” or “rightness”: it’s a belief…

(I believe in the validity of scientifically backed facts, based on decades of trial and error. But I’m always at the mercy of the information presented to me, accessible, pre-packaged for me. ((What is the movement, the motivation behind the distribution of this fact?)) I balk: I can only take in so much, can only combine what I have. And to state the obvious, science has its failings. Studies and studies and surveys and surveys will provide us with varying results, and people find patterns in many situations. Human motion is even less quantifiable than those harder sciences, and then we sort through the trash ((or click together a slick “found” sculpture)). We’re lucky that chemical reactions are so measurable ((unlike human (re)actions)), and that 2+2 will likely equal 4 looked at the hard way…)**

DontWait

Female, 26, inexperienced kerfluffin.

Some people guide themselves by facts, by figures, by linear dreams – but this calculator doesn’t graph. I always try to see the human side of things: the account of the heart (though kerfluffin, I know what happens when hearts steel). I have an obsession with emotion.

HeartinHand

Belief (with a dose of understanding) is how I guide myself, and my actions, when I’ve got full control. (Please don’t dig into my beliefs when I’m overwhelmed or uncomfortable – we babes snarl and withdraw with underbellies exposed. Don’t you?). I construct my internal motor with these bearings and gadgets shiny and new, now (though a good polish, perhaps, might be what’s needed).

I can only construct the world (for that’s what I do when I tune the engine) based on my limited years and more limited knowledge. My beliefs are my system, well-oiled with the understanding I cherish.

StartsWithYou

And so, when I question, I remember that these ideas I have are not necessarily scientific (or even the most realistic), but they’re constructed through anecdote, case studies for consideration. Other people, determined.

TreeFlower

This week, I was faced with an uncomfortable reminder of (I think it’s) the American way: I am working on building a curriculum for a journalism club with my Moldovan partners, and had mentioned this to another Peace Corps Volunteer (it came up in passing – she wanted to start her own, too). We chatted a few times, and I offered to share the grant I spent months writing (and failed to have funded, twice) with my partners. Only after Peace Corps had approved the third go, of course (remember this). So the documents slipped through cyberspace, and an email chain ensued. Could she have the budget, please? Yes, of course. She’s having trouble writing… no support, save one student, and it’s a lot of work for one person!

HoldHands

And this is where I paused, jerked by the thought of self-preservation: I don’t want to get used. This sharp twinge went beyond the days in high school where I stubbornly carried the weight of projects (though surely this was a factor?): No, it was larger. I remembered many meetings with the director from my previous organization: “Copyright!” Her program was valuable, a thing to be withheld, controlled, marketed. An imperative of the American culture of competition – don’t let the foxes tear your fledglings from the henhouse, the intellectual property is the goose golden egg.

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I was working for a nonprofit that served at-risk youth.

I understood the protectiveness, then, as a necessity: it was fisticuffs for the brand, don’t you know the success of “Big Brothers, Big Sisters?” A benevolent program (a successful corporation).

And I paused.

I complained to my Dear French Friend (visiting, helping me ride out mid-service Questioning) about our paradigm, “Every Man to the Top.”

This idea has no use in this space. I am in the Peace Corps. I am here to serve my community. I am here to serve the people of Moldova (imagine, please, the thin royal horns of proselytism trumpeting the next few phrases) who request help – and though I live by the mantra that I can truly impact but few, effectively (so small, after all), I couldn’t pass up a chance to expand our program’s reach. Service is not self-interest.

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((In review, I find the passage above somewhat disgusting – here, I was conscious of the message, and felt forced into slight mockery of the sentiment. Will I be accused of sentimentality, or impracticality, or – gasp! – idealism? Is it some wisp to be ignored, a breath of wishful nonsense?))

I spoke with my Moldovan organization’s director, and we agreed to work with the other volunteer if she expressed interest. Why hedge this curriculum?

There was a moment where a small discord settled in my breast. I remembered that scene from before: accepting the need to copyright the material of my last organization to protect our intellectual property. I resent this, now. When your goal is to serve, why withhold your work? Why cage it like a wild animal ready to be slain by another hunger? Nonprofit organizations, or nongovernmental organizations, are part of a sphere meant to better society: what the fuck is the point of competition?

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(Remember, from before.) I will admit the practicality of waiting to share resources or ideas after a project has been financed; the way this system works presently, there is no avoiding the competitive nature of grant funding.

However, we Benevolent Programs all have these lovely pre-fab mission statements with action verbs and higher purpose. Is it not both base and counter-productive for us to hypocrite ourselves by focusing on the individual (i.e. organization) and to remain locked in the state of self-preservation? Is it so important to have our name plastered all over someone else’s project if our unrecognized contribution means that project’s success?

We can’t do much good alone.

……..

**I’m reading a sharp book called “Testosterone Rex”, where the author, Cordelia Fine, discusses how society has abused science to construct systemically acceptable gendered norms with a sometimes fatalistic explanation of the characteristics and behaviors of our two standard sexes. Fine discusses the convenience of these ideas, how the behavior of the sexes varies in different species (which does, in fact, include competitive behavior by females), and more.

Another book, “How We Learn” by Benedict Carey, documents how scientists and psychologists have come to today’s understanding of the workings of the human brain; this work beautifully deconstructs some experiments, studies and surveys (and compiles others), acknowledging the inherent failures, possibilities and alternative interpretations that can come from this type of research.

A final offering, from the book “Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Way We Gain Insights” by Gary Klein, involves research based on the analysis of story. Counter to common experiments of insight, where subjects are often tasked to solve complex puzzles in a sterile lab setting, Klein chose to break down real-life situations of extraordinary discovery to construct his framework (which he admits is both limited and incomplete) of how we gain insight. He also demonstrates scientific cases where rigid adherence to “old science” can cause both the delay of progress as well as social ridicule of the discoverer.

Take, for example, the discovery that ulcers are not merely caused by stress, but are also linked to the presence of the bacteria H. pylori in the gut. This discovery was directly counter to what scientists believed at the time, who lampooned the discovering scientist. The man was undeterred:

“In desperation, Barry Marshall ran the ultimate study – on himself. He took some H. pylori from the gut of a patient with gastritis, stirred it into a broth, and gulped it down… and by 1983 he had a conclusive case. Unfortunately, the medical community still rejected his papers and his evidence for another ten years (p. 56).”

And Marshall’s study resulted in a shift from gastric surgery on ulcer patients to antibiotic treatment.

I will celebrate that these facts, at least, are grounded in reality: the reality of complexity.

MoldovaisRomania

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