Category Archives: Life and Purpose

Thoughts on life and purpose

Five Steps to Happiness

The Daily Telegraph has an enjoyable, light read which they’ve titled, “Scientists suggest five ways to stay sane.”

From the article:


Developing relationships with family, friends, colleagues and neighbours will enrich your life and bring you support

Be active

Sports, hobbies such as gardening or dancing, or just a daily stroll will make you feel good and maintain mobility and fitness

Be curious

Noting the beauty of everyday moments as well as the unusual and reflecting on them helps you to appreciate what matters to you


Fixing a bike, learning an instrument, cooking – the challenge and satisfaction brings fun and confidence


Helping friends and strangers links your happiness to a wider community and is very rewarding

A Great Marriage

Sara and I are celebrating our ninth wedding anniversary today. It’s amazing to me that we’ve been married for that long: the time just flies by.

What else is amazing to me, is that we are still very deeply in love. I can honestly say that I’m no less captivated by my wife than I was when we were first married. She can’t walk by me without drawing my eyes with her grace and sheer sexiness. I can’t walk by her, without stealing a kiss or a hug or a little cuddle. Or at least an appreciative pat on the bum. 🙂

We’ve got plenty of difficulties at home, but the one difficulty we don’t have is relationship strife. Even being at odds with each other is fairly rare; we virtually never fight.

And the thing is, it’s not even hard. It really isn’t. As far as I can tell, it just takes a very firm dedication to just a very few policies: mutual respect/acceptance, forgiveness, and a real and genuinely honest and open communication with each other.

I should qualify my “not even hard” assertion. If you have and can cultivate these things, it’s not hard. If you don’t have the things I mentioned, obtaining and keeping them can be very hard, and even impossible for some couples. And, they can’t even be sufficient for everyone: no matter how much I may respect you and your beliefs, if they are fundamentally opposed to mine, we probably aren’t compatible enough to be living together, and we almost certainly aren’t compatible enough to be living together. (If you want to teach our children that there are “many roads to heaven”, while I wish to teach them that without a personal relationship with Jesus Christ they’ll wind up in a fiery inferno for all eternity, I daresay we’ll find it hard to maintain a partnership!)

I also believe that for some, the “mutual respect” policy may be mutually exclusive with the “genuine honesty” policy, or with the personalities, interests, and ideologies of the couple, in which case a truly good relationship is practically impossible. A pro-life lobbyist and a doctor who practices abortions will find it awfully tough to respect each other. Another extremely common example would be religious/spiritual divergence. I’ve met secret agnostics/atheists whose spouses don’t know that they no longer consider themselves Christians. It’s impossible to have a meaningful relationship with such skeletons in the closet. And I’ve met others who have informed their spouses, family and circle of friends about their deconversion, and whose relationships with their spouses have become irreconcilably strained: that’s an example of where “mutual respect/acceptance” is incompatible with an honesty about who you’re asking them to accept. I’m very thankful that my marriage with Sara has weathered my own switch from Christian faith to atheism; I’m very aware how unusual it is to survive that as well as we have.

Mutual respect and acceptance means the following to me: I appreciate you for who you are, despite your flaws. I may not understand some of your interests and loves, but I value them because they are special to you. If there’s something I don’t like about you, I’ll let you know (“genuinely honest communication”), but with tact and care, and without nagging you about it. If that aspect of you never changes, I’ll still love you till the end of our days. It means I will never, ever, resort to short, biting remarks (to me, that’s a very sure sign of a damaged/damaging relationship). It means I respect your opinions enough to be willing to reach a compromise with my own. And, of course, vice versa on all of those things (“mutual”, remember?).

Note that just because mutual respect and acceptance is required to make a loving relationship, it does not mean that it’s wrong to deny your partner respect and acceptance: it just means that it’s required to make the relationship work. Some things are not worthy of respect or acceptance; some relationships should not work. Many cases of verbally, emotionally, or physically abusive relationships are held together through the victim’s desire to maintain the relationship, out of the hope/belief that the abuse will stop. In my view, any relationship in which abuse of any kind plays any part must immediately be ended. Do whatever’s necessary to help the abuser stop the pattern, but don’t even entertain the possibility of re-entering a relationship until the pattern has been completely eradicated. And don’t be too optimistic about the chances of such an eradication: it takes radical alteration of personality in many cases; best just to assume it’ll never happen, and move on. Let someone else take the risk the next time.

Forgiveness. In a nutshell, this means, “don’t bring up shit from the past.” It’s not forgiven if, the next time you have a little fight, it’s suddenly back on the table, along with a lot of other little friends from the past. Forgiven means: I’m not bringing it up against you ever again.

This doesn’t mean let’s be stupid. Forgiven is not equivalent to forgotten. If I’ve had fidelity issues in the past that I’m working on, and you’ve forgiven me, that does not mean that you don’t say a peep when I offer to give Maureen a ride back to her studio apartment. Part of forgiveness is taking part in building your partner’s ability to do better in the future. It means not allowing past mistakes to cloud your respect for your partner; it doesn’t mean being unrealistic about the possibility that mistakes will repeat themselves.

Sara and I don’t have any terrifically huge issues we’ve had to forgive each other from and work through, so perhaps time will tell how well we weather such things. However, a lot of relationships without huge mistakes get battered down due to constantly rehashing the same old small things. One of the things I appreciate the most about Sara is that she does not throw up old mistakes at me, and I do my best to give her the same courtesy.

Honest Communication. Remember in Jerry McGuire, how Jerry’s fiancé had that “brutal truth” thing (Jerry: “I think you added the ‘brutal'”)? She used it as an excuse to make awkward and inappropriately-timed revelations about her sexuality (“You know, I don’t think we need to do the thing where we tell each other everything!”), and pound him into the ground when he lost his job for having some principles. That’s not what I mean. 🙂 Honest communication is one of the best things about our marriage; but honesty is worse than useless without tact and respect. If I think you made a bad decision, I don’t believe that it’s right to tell you that you did right, or even to just keep my mouth shut; but that doesn’t mean I get to be an asshole to you. If you’ve got a problem with me, I wouldn’t want you to be a prick to me, either—but I do want to know you’ve got an issue with me.

It’s important to understand that part of genuine, open and honest communication, is communication. It’s easy to have the whole trifecta: respect, forgiveness and honesty, if no one’s ever saying anything to each other! But it’s still impossible to call that a great relationship.

Paridoxically, honest and open communication can very frequently lead to unpleasant conflict. Nobody wants a marriage full of conflicts and quarreling. But I strongly believe that addressing conflict is better than ignoring it, or avoiding it by keeping silent about how I really feel. In earlier years, Sara and I got into a few big, boiling, even screaming (just once) fights, because I made the conscious decision that I wasn’t going to silently allow her to nurture an attitude of bitterness about some people who’d hurt her. I’m ashamed of the screaming. But I don’t regret the argument: I’d rather have a short-term, volatile fight resulting from “open communication”, then to let something persist in our relationship that I can’t “respect”. (This was during a period of adjustment to getting a handle on a severe mood disorder that was afflicting her: she would sometimes get an exaggerated impression of genuine malice or utter lack of regard from people; she has learned to recognize

Part of open communication is being quick to communicate (with care) whenever there’s a grievance. A couple of years ago, Sara had a very, very close relationship with a young girl we knew from our church named Cassidy. Sara and I both felt like she was virtually family, and appreciated her down-to-earth, no-nonsense sensibilities. She was also a very quiet person. We still think about her pretty frequently, though we’ve had no communication with her for a couple years.

One day, Sara took it upon herself to share with Cassidy that she was feeling hurt by the way Cassidy would let her older sisters talk about her, and relay these insulting things back to Sara, but not defend her at home. Cassidy’s response was to write a long letter with a good dozen grievances of her own against Sara and our family. Some of the things in that list were ridiculous, and some were quite possibly legitimate concerns. But any of the things that might have been legitimate were from months past, or else were potentially ongoing issues—in either case, she should have brought them to our attention as soon as it was a problem. Saving them all up to dump on us the moment we have one issue that concerns us isn’t a discussion, it’s a torrent! It’s impossible to have a meaningful conversation about a dozen things at the same time. Several of the illegitimate accusations were very serious, and Cassidy refused to consider the possibility that she had misunderstood. In the end, Sara and I decided it was best to sever ties with Cassidy, as Sara simply could not emotionally survive another ordeal like this one; it would have been impossible to maintain the same level of friendship with her anyway, as she intended to “forgive and forget”, without actually addressing the problems she’d brought up, which were too serious just to bury like that.

Sara and I both have a particular sensitivity for when we’re angry with each other. When we’re pissed off, we are very aware of the rift; it’s like a sliver of glass in the brain. I’m not sure that every fight can be resolved before the sun goes down, but so far we’ve always managed to do so. We don’t have a specific policy on that or anything; we just both can’t stand to go to bed angry, and stay that way. This has the nice effect of ensuring that we communicate until we can return to a position of acceptance and affection for each other.

Sexual honesty. I suspect that a huge number of marriages suffer from an inability to honestly communicate about sexuality. Sara and I are at a point where we speak freely about who we find attractive and why. When watching a movie, or watching people on the sidewalks while driving the car, Sara and I are equally likely to drop a comment about how sexy they might be. That’s not particularly unusual these days, but it is relatively unusual to people who came from churches like ours, I think. A lot of Christians feel like, once they’re married, they’re supposed to suddenly stop experiencing (or, more typically, pretend to stop feeling) any physiological reaction whatsoever to members of the opposite sex, except for the one person they married. It might be a small thing, but it amounts to a small skeleton, a small secret that you never admit or talk to your spouse about, and I think that’s a potential bad seed.

So she’s hormonal, a waiter at the restaurant has a great butt, and her eye happens to follow him a bit while he passes the table. So I turn my head to follow a female pedestrian on the sidewalk as we’re driving by. So friggin’ what? Are we to shoot each other nasty looks, and add another tally against each other, as many couples do? Why pretend that sexual attraction is a choice, or pass judgment on each other for what amounts to aesthetic tastes?

I think where it becomes a problem, is when the “female pedestrian” can draw that kind of attention from me, while my wife can’t. My eyes are captivated by Sara every moment that she passes in front of them; why begrudge a random stranger a half-second of my fleeting attention? If you find yourself in a situation where you’re ogling strangers more than you’re lusting for your spouse, then you might look to what’s going on in other areas of your marriage: I don’t think it’s because he or she’s “unattractive”. It’s pretty damn hard to ogle your spouse more than your neighbor, if much of the time you’re too pissed-off at each other to even look them in the eye. Conversely, surface beauty isn’t such a huge deal when you’re literally married to your best friend. You become much more willing to overlook physical shortcomings. I’ll note that most, if not all, of the instances of marital infidelity that have involved people I’ve known, started life first as simple, innocent friendships, and progressed from there. The opportunity for infidelity usually arose when the marital relationship went through a normal period of difficulty, where the “cheater” then felt less close to the spouse than to the “friend”. Is it little wonder why secretaries make the stereotypical affair partners, when one begins to spend significantly greater numbers of hours with them than with the spouse?


Sara, you are absolutely the source of my greatest joys in life, along with the three beautiful/smart/sassy/spunky kids we’ve had together. I’ve treasured the nine years we’ve had, and look forward to many, many more to follow. Keep being you, and know that you are deeply loved.

More to Teach My Kids

There are a couple additional things I want my kids to know, and despite the fact that they’ve been going around in my mind for some time, they apparently were nowhere to be found when I actually set out to write a list.

Compassion. Should be top of the list, of course. Obviously, this is one of those things that they hopefully pick up from conversations with mum an’ dad, and day-to-day knowledge-passing at the home. Bolstering it with good stories and maxims, such as those from the Book of Virtues or the Bible (hey, just coz it’s been way over-hyped don’t mean it doesn’t have some good stuff in it).

But it needs to be more than that. The reason there’s a problem today with so many people with so little compassion, is that the most exposure a lot of people get to real, genuine need, is bedtime stories and news coverage. People get into the practice of hearing about and watching compassion, and then stand around looking stupid when the time comes compassion is required of them.

Compassion is an action, so if I expect my kids to learn compassion, I should ensure that they have regular opportunities to put it into practice. Local soup kitchens, and programs to address homelessness (rather than just shelter its victims in their status quo), such as EHC LifeBuilders, are a good place to start.

Healthy Decision-Making. Not talking about avoiding fast food restaurants (clearly, I’m not the one to teach them that, except by negative example). Talking mainly about sexual health, and substance abuse. Mistakes in these areas can have extreme consequences; I’m not willing to leave this up to “parent-and-child” chats. The best way to make healthy choices is to be exposed to the consequences of unhealthy choices. In a short while, information (as opposed to rhetoric) and powerful movie-stories are probably a good start; but when they’re older, there’s no substitute for seeing for themselves. What it’s like to see a life utterly destroyed by narcotics. How having a child in your teenage years brings an abrupt limit to a formerly wide array of choices and opportunities, and what it’s really like to come to terms with an acquired venereal disease.

Things I Plan To Teach My Kids

As my daughter Joy, currently 8, is growing in understanding as well as curiosity, and as I myself am becoming increasingly aware of the deficiencies in the education that any child in America will receive, whether in a private or a public school, it’s becoming quite clear to me that I should begin to look to supplementing her education, with things that she is unlikely to hear elsewhere, but must know.

The Bible. An atheist teaching the Bible to his children? What on earth!

As much as I’d be happy for our society to be rid of all superstition and myth, the fact is that the Bible and Christianity are an intrinsic part of American culture (though it is waning); she should at least be able to get references to Noah’s Ark, Adam & Eve, etc. Besides that, I think the person most at-risk of falling prey to Evangelical persuasion, is the one who has no preexisting knowledge of the Bible; and given that it’s a virtual certainty that she will encounter attempts at persuasion by Evangelicals, it’s wise to arm her with knowledge.

This past Christmas, some readers may be surprised to discover that I purchased DVDs of Superbook and The Flying House at Amazon for my kids for Christmas. These are Christian Japanese animations from the early 1980s, promoting an interest in the Bible and biblical stories among children. Both series (by the same creators) feature a girl, a boy, a robot, and a professor, and traveling through time to experience (grossly simplified) biblical events. I bought them as much for my wife and I, who’d grown up on them and were feeling the twinge of nostalgia when we purchased them. But I had little fear that brief exposure to a Christian children’s TV series would undo our efforts to promote critical thinking in our children.

Indeed, no worry was warranted, as Superbook actually wound up being a small tool for critical thinking about the Bible, rather than a source of indoctrination. I was gratified to discover that among the stories covered in the first Superbook DVD, is the story of God telling Abraham to kill his son Isaac. How wonderful, when my children then turn to me with the “WTF?” look on their faces, that I am not compelled to explain that God was merely testing Abraham’s absolute obedience to Him, and that Abraham did the right thing by choosing to obey God and murder his son; I can simply shrug my shoulders, return a bit of the “WTF?” look right back at ’em, and tell them why the Bible (as opposed to I) thinks Abraham’s response was just super.

No atheist or anti-Christian indoctrination needed, here. The only difference necessary for installing a healthy skepticism of the Bible in my children, in contrast to the daily Bible readings I was offered as a child, is that I need offer no defense on God’s behalf, to explain away His righteously horrific acts. “Daddy, why did God tell Israel to kill all the children and babies in the city, too (or, in some cases, keep the young virgin women only, and haul ’em away)?” Shrug and give the “WTF?” look. “Daddy, why is humankind being punished for a sin our ancestors committed?” Shrug-and-wtf. “Daddy, why is it justice, rather than blind vengeance, for an innocent person to be given the death sentence, rather than the actual murderer?” Shrug and… you get the picture.

Glory be, and “thank God” for the freedom to not be compelled to pretend things make some strange sort of sense, when in fact they don’t make any at all.

Intelligent Design vs Evolution. Believe it or not, I’m all for teaching Intelligent Design as an alternative viewpoint to Evolution (provided it’s done objectively). Because, despite the fact that it doesn’t even begin to qualify as science, and spends virtually no time at all attempting (and far less succeeding) at actually building a case for Intelligent Design (choosing instead to attempt to tear down Evolution, after which they’d still have to build a case for Intelligent Design), it’s an annoyingly pervasive belief in society, that my children will have to encounter/deal with, and suppressing false, insistent information isn’t nearly so effective as education about it. Besides, nothing demonstrates how ridiculous the arguments from the anti-evolution crowd are, like putting them up next to the mountain of solid evidence for evolution.

(Of course, the people who are vehemently arguing that ID be taught as an alternative “scientific theory” to evolution, have no intention of objectively presenting the arguments from both camps, if history is any indication: instead, they’ll present the arguments for ID (that is, rhetoric), and the arguments they pretend are what evolutionists present, just as they’ve always done. I’m not in favor of that.)

Critical Thinking. Something that was (naturally) quite lacking in my own upbringing, and is critically important to evaluating the truth of all claims, whether they’re made by the Bible, religious institutions, politicians, news media, or history teachers. This is actually, of course, my first priority, but I felt the other two would be more sensationalist interesting placed first. 😉

Among the tools I would like my children to have under their belt, is to be able to detect strawman arguments (as I hinted just above), by simply going and verifying that the claims being argued against, are in fact claims that are being made (and not just ones that have been either set up by the opposition for the purpose of being knocked down, or possibly grossly oversimplified versions of real claims, or actual but decades-outdated claims that no one makes any more). That alone certainly would have saved me a lot of anti-science BS when I was a kid.

Another extremely useful skill, is knowing how to properly handle “statistics” and “studies”, given that such a very large number of claims rest on these, and are built upon them in such a way as to demonstrate a severely poor understanding of how to use them. Checking everything from the reliability of the techniques used to collect the data, to how the presentation of the data is manipulated to sound more significant than it actually is, to deriving a particular conclusion when alternative explanations have not been considered. Understanding the difference between correlation and causality is an especially important and frequently-neglected tool.

History. When we take a day off to celebrate Columbus’ discovery of the Americas, but remain mum on his documented and vicious abuse of the natives to America; when we condemn Cuba for its totalitarian Communist regime, but neglect to mention the role our own despotic presence played, suppressing and squelching any and all power that the elected Cuban president, or autonomy that the nation, possessed; when we gloss over the facts of modern history as it’s being made, by pretending that WMDs was actually a viable reason for invading Iraq, or that it had something to do with the 9/11 terrorist attacks, or that (most importantly) we didn’t completely botch nearly every possible aspect of the war military action; that’s when it’s clear that my child is not going to learn everything she ought to know from government-funded (or private, parent-pandering) academic institutions.

I never liked History/Social Sciences as a kid; I always found it excessively boring. Perhaps because most history texts are scrubbed clean of any of the controversial bits (and therefore, of most of anything that’s interesting). But now, as I’m an adult, and I continually discover the wide disparity between common knowledge and the truth (at least, as apparent by the actual available documentation) about our role throughout history, and indeed our role in the present-day world, I can’t help but find out more about the truth, as I can find it. And naturally, I want my kids to know the real truth (such as is available) as well.

(Such disparities have ever been my downfall: as a fundamentalist Christian, I got into the Harry Potter series of books precisely because there was an obvious disparity between the truth, and the misrepresentations that had become so very widespread in Evangelical Christian circles.)

The Desire for Truth

Quote from DagoodS’ blog entry today; it echos my own case. Emphasis on the last sentence is mine.

In retrospect, I now realize my God-belief was NOT at the core of my being. It was NOT the very center. What was more important to me was the answer to the question: What actually is? If it was the Christian God; good. If it was some other God: not-so-good, but doable. If it was no God; bad, but if that is what actually is then there is no use crying about it. As key as God-belief was, there was something even deeper—something that could trump that God-belief to the point of no longer believing in a God—the desire for what is actual reality.

Teen Naïveté and Life-Changing Decisions

Reading something like this is just so sad. The UK’s Daily Mail reports on a 14-year-old, pregnant girl, Kizzy Neal, who reveals that “having a baby is now regarded as ‘fashionable’ among schoolgirls.”

When my friends see my bump they say they wish they could have a baby, then three weeks later they’re pregnant and don’t know what to do.

In a related article, the Daily Mail reported last October that pregnant teens were taking up smoking in the hopes of producing babies with lower birth-weight which would then lessen the pain of childbirth.

I discovered this story through Digg, which linked to a “re-reporting” article on FOX News instead of to the original at the Daily Mail. I believe I also discovered the October article via Digg back when it was reported.