Authenticity

who-is-this

This election is about authenticity.

Michelle Obama’s speech resonated with so many people because she was the most authentic person on stage.

There seems to be a great need in the world for people to be authentic, to be honest about their needs and desires, hopes and dreams.

His word is his bond.

What you see is what you get.

I work every day to be an honest practitioner of me, and yet, it continues to be a struggle if only because I do not yet know who I am.

In my defense, however, I never had a fighting chance, because from our earliest days, Western society impels us to fit into molds.

In school, we are taught to behave in a specific manner; to sit in regimented rows and speak only when spoken to. Our excellence is constantly measured against that of our peers on a scale that doesn’t really seem to prepare us for anything except more of same.

When we find employment, we are slotted into roles beyond which it is counterproductive to stray. We are hemmed in by job descriptions and told not to get above our station. To strive for something bigger is to earn the threatened enmity of our “superiors”, as well as our supposed equals.

set-de-moules-pour-personnages-pme

More often than not, to break from our confines and achieve improvement let alone greatness is to go it alone; to be ostracized from our fellows. And even in achieving something, there is a vast pool of people waiting for you to fail, snapping at your heels, if only to validate their decisions not to strive.

And while I find that sad—and admit to having wallowed in that group myself—I cannot blame these people for feeling, thinking and behaving in this manner. They, like I, bought the lie that if we behaved ourselves, if we followed the rules, if we lay our souls down to society, to industry, to community, we would be taken care of, we would be protected.

The lie is crumbling, however. It is becoming more difficult to not see beyond the façade. To remain blind is becoming increasingly difficult even for the most determined.

Children are graduating from school to find nothing awaiting them. Get your high school diploma; get your Bachelor’s degree; get a graduate degree. The bar keeps moving if only to delay arrival at the precipice, an abyss that grows deeper with every tuition payment.

Middle-aged and older employees who remained bound to a company, addicted to seniority, pensions and steady salary, are suddenly finding themselves cut loose after 15, 20, 25 years and staring back at a ravenous pack of un- and underemployed juniors—local and international—willing to work for lower wages.

In many ways, these poor souls are the victims of the very investment portfolios and pension funds they fought so hard to build, stakeholder groups that demand increasing returns with little concern for how companies achieve those returns.

lockedgate

And so the cry goes up for politicians and administrators and executives to be more authentic, to be more honest with those they oversee, to live up to their promises.

We point vehemently to the walls of the molds into which we poured our lives as though they were legally, morally and ethically binding contracts, and implore others to save our lives.

And as has happened in every decade that preceded this one, we will fail and we will fall as institutions redefine and reconstruct themselves on the old models.

The same hue and cry that triggered the Reformation and the Renaissance also triggered the Inquisition and Fascist Europe.

What I have come to believe is that I cannot change the world. Rather, I can only change me or perhaps more correctly, stop changing me. The person who needs to be authentic, to be honest, to live up to promises is the one I see in the mirror; he is me.

Rather than distort myself to fit boxes constructed by society and its micro-collectives in the mistaken belief that this will keep me safe, I need to risk all and not only discover who I am, but also express that person to the world.

My first steps to do just this have been awkward and timorous. It is uncharted territory and demands a certain amount of trial-and-error.

But as I continue to move toward authenticity, I am finding the footing firmer. Dirt-grasping shuffles are becoming steps, and will hopefully one day be strides.

And whereas society is not always welcoming of my decision, I have been lucky enough to find that the people in my life have been almost universally supportive.

It is unlikely that I will change the world, but it is a certainty that I will change my world.

And if I am authentic, that is enough.

authentic

The Majesty of Old World Faith – review

Basilica Ste Anne de Beaupre

A short drive to the east of Quebec City is the majestic Basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupre, which has been credited by the Catholic Church with miracles related to curing the sick and disabled. Reflecting this history, you are immediately presented with a collection of crutches and braces upon entering the church.

A popular destination for both tourists and pilgrims alike, the church is easily visible from the highway and is a common point of interest on bus tours of the area. For the drivers, although street parking is possible, it is highly unlikely; instead, we took advantage of a small parking lot nearby that charged $5.

Feeling much more imposing from the outside than its sibling in Montreal—Notre-Dame Basilica—it is less dramatic once you step through the great doors. The lighting is much brighter than with Notre-Dame (less moody or awe-inspiring), but that gives you plenty of opportunities to read Ste. Anne’s life story, told in a series of vignettes across the vault above the main chamber.

With so many tourists wandering around, conversing and taking photos, it can sometimes get a little awkward when pilgrims are praying to the Sainte for her intervention in some personal need. More than once, I witnessed less mindful tourists lining up to get shots of themselves with believers praying in the background. I was unimpressed, and while I am not religious, I felt bad for those who are.

On the lower floor is another chapel with a much lower ceiling, surrounded by scenes of various priests and nuns from the area’s history working with the local indigenous community or immigrants to the New World. (I will not get into the historical and social implications of these interactions.)

And in the hallway that rings this chamber are several smaller prayer alcoves and rooms dedicated to Mary or past priests and nuns.

Within walking distance, you will find a variety of restaurants. Those on the narrow town streets tend to be coffee and souvenir shops, while those off the highway are fast-food joints like Tim Hortons and A&W. A couple minutes west on the highway, you will find Restaurant Les Artistes, a true roadside diner. There is also a gift shop on the Basilica grounds, but I did not visit these.

Even if you’re not particularly religious, the Basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupre has much to offer as a tourism destination because I think more than Notre-Dame, it offers a true glimpse into the role of the Church in Quebec’s history and the faith of its current believers.

Malnourished with malinformation

KnowledgeI’d argue that any amount of knowledge is a good thing. It is a little bit of information that is likely to trip you up.

As many of you know, I am a science and medicine writer in another life—the more lucrative one, but that’s not saying much—and so I spend many of my days immersed in the worlds of scientific and medical discoveries and blundering. I even spent several years working at a biochemistry bench as a scientist—you may genuflect, now—so I know the world of which I speak.

For this reason, I tend to view science and medicine as a work-in-progress, as so much noise with moments of signal. Rarely do I herald the hype and equally rarely do I despair the bumps.

To my friends who see every announcement as a breakthrough, I am a cynic. And likewise, to everyone who pounces on every setback as evidence of mass conspiracy, I am a complicit shill. Whatever.

The challenge comes when I engage in a discussion of the topic du jour, because more often than not, the person with whom I am talking is adamant that he or she knows the truth. They are empowered by something they have heard or read from a renown expert. They have information.

(Let me state here that I do not believe that I am the holder of all truths. I do feel, however, that I have a good handle on what I do not know, and just as importantly, what is not yet known for certain.)

So, let’s start with some definitions (purely mine) of information types:

Information: A collection of facts about a subject upon which someone can formulate a testable theory or postulate a conjecture.

Misinformation: Incorrect declarations that potentially lead one to false conclusions.

Disinformation: Knowingly false declarations for the purposes of misleading another group (e.g., counter-espionage, propaganda).

information triangle

I suggest, however, that we need another category to address the shade of grey between the positives of information and the negatives of mis- and disinformation.

Following the model of nutrition versus starvation, I propose we call this new category malinformation, with the following definition:

Malinformation: A collection of facts that, while true, is insufficient to formulate a definitive conclusion without the support of further facts.

Just as a malnourished person is not starving, but rather suffers the effects of an insufficient blend and quantity of nutrients to experience balanced health, a malinformed individual is not wrong per se, but rather suffers the effects of an insufficient blend and quantity of facts to experience balanced knowledge and understanding.

For example, people who change their eating habits because they read about a single study that showed a specific food extract reduced tumour size in mice. Or a clinician who has created a behavioural modification program to reduce addiction based on a thought exercise using largely unrelated studies.

Any of these decisions are based on legitimate data from legitimate studies, but often ignore (or simply don’t look for) alternative and/or possibly conflicting data from equally legitimate studies. Rather than analyze all available data before generating a theory, they find the malinformation that supports their beliefs and then stop; a little bit of data being taken to conclusions that simply are not supported.

Boom-bust

Maybe they’re right. But more likely, it is much more complicated.

In conversation, I find the malinformed much more intractable than the ill-informed. With the latter, there is a chance you can correct the misinformation. With the former, however, the mere fact that the malinformation is correct seems to be sufficient cause for them to defend the castle they have built in the sky. When you “yes, but” them, all they tend to hear is the “yes”.

In fairness, all information is technically malinformation as we will never have access to the complete knowledge of the universe. We are always going to be forced to make decisions based on limited knowledge.

But where more knowledge is available, I think there is duty to examine and understand it before becoming intractable in our positions.

If there is a newspaper article about a new scientific discovery, efforts should be made to learn more about the limitations of the science that led to the discovery. How far can you realistically extrapolate from those few data points?

In biomedical research, that which occurs in a mouse is, at best, a clue to what might happen in a human. Nothing more.

It could lead to the next step in scientific inquiry—the actual purpose of science—or to a dead end.

Belief is nice, but unless that belief is well founded on broad and balanced information, it is limiting and might be dangerous.

(Or at least, as far as I know based on my understanding of the available information.)

Left-handed (DNA) compliment

While attending the surprise birthday party for a friend in the sciences, I noticed he owned a coffee mug from a group called Life Sciences Career Development Society based at the University of Toronto. Actually, to be more accurate, what caught my eye was the DNA double-helix on the mug…and the fact that it was wrong.

Wrong

BOOM! My head explodes.

As someone with biochemistry & genetics degrees who has written about the life sciences for ~15 years, this seemingly innocuous error drives me crazy. This must be how copy editors feel when they see a misused semi-colon (and I’m sorry about that).

right v wrong

For the non-biochemists, through a characteristic known as chirality (look it up…too hard to explain here), the typical DNA double-helix in human cells—the famous Watson-Crick-Franklin structure or B-DNA—has a right-handed helix. This means that if you could see the double-helix (above) and let your fingers follow along the curve of one side as it wraps around the other, you could only do this comfortably with your right hand.

You can see that in an example of a single helix that curves either to the left (left) or the right (right).

handed

Unfortunately, somewhere in the mists of science illustrations time, an artist drew the double-helix of DNA in the wrong direction and that double-helical abomination has perpetuated ad nauseum, including irritatingly enough, in science publications and scientific logos such as a recent health article in the Toronto Star (image below), the cover of a sci-fi novel and the LSCDS logo.

DNA - backwards

And if I only saw this in 50% of the images, I’d be irritated but probably not the raving loony I am now. But no, this freak of nature is everywhere. The correct right-handed DNA illustration is the anomaly.

So why does this matter? Maybe it doesn’t, and I am just a raving loony.

Certifiable loony!

Certifiable loony!

But for me, I struggle with what else might be wrong in a life science or healthcare story if they can’t get the DNA helix right. Do I trust the math of an investment planner who doesn’t know that four quarters equals one dollar?

Luckily, the fix is an easy one. Simply mirror the image you have (not turn it upside down) and the left-handed double-helix becomes a right-handed one. (In a mirror, your actual left hand looks like a right hand.)

So, medical illustrators everywhere, please fix your catalogues of scientific illustrations. My head can’t take too many more explosions.

So much better

Nerves already calming.

[Also, from a design perspective, up and to the right is more palatable for North American audiences as it implies future success (e.g., rising value). Has nothing to do with handedness, here.]

For the more biochemically savvy:

Yes, there is left-handed DNA, which is also known as Z-DNA. But as you can see from the illustration below, its structure is significantly different from the smooth-flowing curves of B-DNA (and the equally unusual A-DNA).

Two rights don't make a left

Two rights don’t make a left

Taking aim

Sunset on Mauna Kea

I aimed for the mountain top, but found only sky.

I aimed for the clouds, but found only air.

I aimed for the moon, but found only coldness.

I aimed for the stars, but found only emptiness.

Head bowed in sadness, I finally looked around,

To find a universe of wonder lying at my feet.

Stargazing on Mauna Kea

On Second Thought

Do you think?

Why do we give our second thoughts so much more sway than our firsts? What is so magical about the second thought that makes it more believable, more honest, more sensible?

I had second thoughts about writing this simply because it was prompted by a conversation with a friend who is struggling with a dilemma. Would my friend be upset I was talking about him or her? Making light of his or her dilemma? Sharing secrets that weren’t mine?

I can deal with that.

Rare is the person who completely trusts his gut; who goes with the first thought that comes into his head. To the outside world, such a person is often considered rash or impulsive, perhaps even flighty. Rarely is he described as definitive or confident.

Second thought, in contrast, is seen as considered, rational, reasoned…well, thoughtful (or thought full).

The Senate of Canada’s Parliament has oft been described as the chamber of sober second thought, as though the House of Commons is populated by ADHD-riddled chickens, prone to explode at the slightest provocation.

(The realities of the Canadian Parliamentary system are fodder for a different blog post.)

The concept of sobriety does point to one of the benefits of second thought. The decision not to pursue flights of drunken fancy such as driving home after drinking too much rather than take a taxi. But while this points to the benefits of second thought, it also points to its source: Fear.

We have and listen to second thoughts because we are afraid. We are afraid that our first thought was ill-considered (rash) and might result in failure. And because we don’t want to take responsibility for that failure, we build a rationale for our alternative thoughts, thus making ourselves more confident in our decision.

The harsh truth, however, is that no matter what our final decision, there is always a risk of failure, perhaps catastrophic. The Titanic and Hindenburg were well-considered ventures based on sound and common practices. It was the unforeseen (if not unforeseeable) incidences that doomed the exercises.

To a greater or lesser extent, gut instincts and reactions are You unencumbered by rules and conventions. They represent the way you view the world and yourself without the censorship of social pressures. Thus, I believe, they more accurately represent your goals and desires, and ultimately what will make you happy.

Now, this is not a belief that was reasoned on the basis of careful study. If nothing else, that would defeat my argument. It does, however come from a lifetime of observing others and myself.

I have no reason to lie to myself when under my own control, in the absence of other influences—chemical or human. Thus, my gut instinct is my truth.

This doesn’t mean that I have to follow it—there may be extenuating circumstances to go another way—but I should never deny the instinct.

In denying it, I will never have the opportunity to build faith in it, and ultimately, second thought is a lack of faith in myself.

confident

Something from nothing

“I don’t know what to write about.”

It is the clarion call of procrastinators worldwide.

There is this pervasive belief that if you are not writing about something then you are not really writing. As though words have no power, no authority unless they are tied to some portentous subject. Free association, it would appear, is not free. And yet, ironically enough, nowhere is this written. It is a myth.

It is just as valid to write about nothing as it is to write about something. To make no conjectures, to postulate no theories, to hold no opinions aside from the personally pleasing juxtaposition of two or more words.

Just as people can speak forever and yet say nothing of lasting import, so too can people wax jibberish and yet speak volumes.

In painting, we can view both delicately rendered images of nature in all its glory (my personal favourite is Robert Bateman) or the seeming chaotic void of splatter on canvas. Both are art, but speak to different tastes and preferences. Why too cannot words, which are merely the medium that in and of themselves hold little meaning?

Write about nothing. Tap into your inner anarchist, your inner artist, to express yourself in splashes of verbiage that may mean little in isolation but so much more in toto.

Embrace the freedom and release the fear that comes from working without a destination or plan. Fill the void with noise of your soul and spirit, only to discover the noise is in fact a song the tune of which you don’t yet recognize.

I think you’ll find that in writing about nothing, you will find something, and you will stand amazed.

Nothing is rarely nothing

Nothing is rarely nothing