Age 16, 11th Grade

The First Sixteen Years
I could get very impressive and tell you that among the main branches of philosophy are metaphysics, dealing with the origin, nature, and purpose of the universe; epistemology, involving the nature of knowledge and definition of truth; and ethics, concerning the problems of right conduct. I could do that and show off, but I won’t, though you can see that I couldn’t resist throwing in that first sentence. I’m sure that you really don’t care what my theories concerning the purpose of the universe or the nature of truth are. I think what you’re interested in is the ethics branch, what I personally believe in and try to follow. So that’s what I’ll attempt to set down. However, I’ll have you know that good old Plato himself said, “I have never written a summary of my thoughts, and I never shall.  It is not something which can be put into words…”

I suppose that my religion is as good as a place to start as any. After all, religion and philosophy are closely related. Though I can’t fit myself into any established religion, I’m not an atheist or an agnostic either, because I do believe in God. I have just never been able to fit my concept of God is with the generally accepted version of Christianity or any other religion. I should say that my parents did not bring me up with any religious influence, and I was left free to formulate my own ideas. This was not at all easy, but now that I have a doctrine, more or less, I am far more comfortable and satisfied with it than I would be with anything else. I tend to find fault with established religions rather easily, though I have nothing against them on the whole. However, I do resent it when well-intentioned people try to convince me that their way is best and my way is all wrong.  Religious intolerance is a personal pet peeve.

At any rate, here is the general idea: I believe in a Supreme Force that has ultimate control over the universe, which I often personalize and call God. However, in everyday matters, I’ve come to believe that God does not enter in very much, but that each of us is the strongest influence upon what happens to us. There is also an irrational element, call it Chance or Fate or whatever, that is just that—irrational.  It doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere.  In general, you could say I’m an optimist in that I think the world is progressing in the right direction, but sometimes I have doubts about this.  As for the human race itself, I try to be generous and say that everyone has some good in them and that it is a matter of whether the good part or bad part rules.

An afterlife?  I’d like to think so, though I haven’t worked out the details.  I’m convinced on one point—that the privilege of an afterlife has nothing to do with what religious rigamarole you performed during your life, but rather with what kind of person you were and what you did with your life. The whole concept is pretty complicated when you think about it, and it’s almost better not to brood over it.

Ultimately, I think your philosophy and/or religion should be a private matter between God (or whatever) and yourself. I happen to think that God and I have a very good understanding worked out, and I think other people should respect my beliefs and not try to change them. I don’t go around trying to make everyone think like I do.  Unfortunately, some people are constantly trying to convert me to something that I don’t want and don’t need.

My code for living is not well-defined. I could say that I try to “be good,” but then what does that mean?  Mostly, I go on intuition and occasionally I ask for help. Top on the list is compassion, understanding, and kindness. I have a kind of weird ability to put myself in almost anyone’s shoes, so these first three come a lot easier than being unselfish and generous. In the daily treadmill, I have a bad habit of getting careless, so for all my high ideals, I’m far from perfect. I’d like to leave the world a little happier than when I came, and I’d particularly like to leave something behind of some value to the rest of the world.  So far, I haven’t done very well, but give me time.

Who am I similar to? I agree with Kant on one thing. He said that there is no way for the intangible world outside the realm of human experience to be proven to exist, but that it must be assumed to exist anyway. In other words, the existence of God and immortality can never be proved; but unless you believe in these things, insanity will set in. Also, I have a bit of Epicurus in me, in that I like the idea of living each day to the utmost.

I haven’t finalized my philosophy at all. I try to keep an open mind and weigh new ideas rationally before adding or rejecting them. I realize that I haven’t expressed myself very clearly, but it is straight in my mind; it is just hard to set down. Give me another sixteen years and I’ll give you a few more details.

Age 17, 12th grade

On Human Beings and Being Human
What is man? Strip away the elaborate surface of mankind, examine the real essence of humanity, and what do you have?

Strangely, this question has persisted for as long as there have been men to ask it, yet no one has arrived at a definite conclusion that all can accept without question. All the great minds, the great philosophers and thinkers in the history of the world have tried and failed to describe man fully. Some say he is the image of God; others, that he is a highly developed evolutionary beast. Some hold that he is evil; some that he is basically good.  There are myriads of theories and thousands of followers, but no one undeniably, unarguably true answer. Most people tend to agree, however, that whatever man is, he is a highly complex, intricate and fascinating creature.

But is he? Is man really as marvelous and superior as we like to think he is?   Of course, such a question is basically unanswerable, but there is living evidence that man may really be only a short step away from the beasts, and not so wonderfully advanced as we believe him to be.

Such evidence lies in an African tribe called the Ik (pronounced “eek”). The Ik live in the mountainous region of northern Uganda – a bleak, inhospitable land that supports only the hardiest life. Formerly, the Ik were a proud people, a nomadic tribe of hunters and warriors who drifted through the land and survived upon what they could capture and gather. Although primitive, they had an established society, including the family unit, a simple religion, social functions, and birth, manhood and death rites. Moreover, they acted “human” as we know it: they experienced the emotions of love, hate, anger, jealousy, and compassion, regarded as present in all humans. Their lives were hard, but they managed to survive as a tribe of human beings, no more primitive than many others in Africa.

Then, in the name of “progress,” the Ik’s entire lifestyle was suddenly demolished. The lands they had roamed for centuries were transformed into a game preserve. The government put the Ik on a worthless plot of land, forbade them to hunt, and told them to farm. This region was so barren that growing anything was impossible, even if the Ik had possessed the knowledge or the inclination to farm. The condition of the tribe today results from this violent change in their lives—ironically created by well-meaning conservationists.

Nature decrees that those who are best able to adapt to change are the ones who survive. In order to live, the Ik have been forced to regard the finding of food as their primary objective. They cannot take time for relaxation or recreation; they must constantly be searching for something to eat.   As a result, their social structure has collapsed. The traditions, rituals and tribal loyalties that had previously bound them together have been abandoned since all time and energy has to be devoted to survival.

The necessities of life are so scarce that a member of the Ik cannot afford to think of anyone other than himself. There is no one in the tribe today who can remember a kind act. It is every man for himself, as there is no sharing. A person foolish enough to share would soon be dead. Human relationships have deteriorated into non-existence. The family unit is gone—husbands do not provide for their families, and there are no signs of affection between husband and wife. Mothers reluctantly nurse their children until the age of three, at which time they are shoved away to fend for themselves. The people show no emotions; they have lost the ability to love, to hate, to grieve, and to rejoice.  Their prevailing psychological mood is suspicion—of everyone and everything.

No one knows whether the Ik, locked within their desperate existence, miss their lost humanity. The tribe is slowly dying from starvation and disease, and soon it will be gone. Those still alive are walking corpses—the human spirit died out in them long ago.

Within a few generations, the customs of the Ik dissipated into nothing. Even more amazing than this was the rapid decay of interpersonal relationships. Many species of primates exhibit a far more developed society than the Ik do at present. Chimpanzees, for example, share food (which is plentiful) and often show affection towards one another. Thus, in a sense, the Ik have descended not only below the level of humanity but below the level of apes as well.

Why did this happen? Because the Ik were deprived of their livelihood, they could no longer afford the time and energy needed to be human. One can tell by a study of history that it was in areas of prosperity and security that civilizations were born. The most advanced civilizations are those where basic human needs are easily met. When people don’t have to spend their entire existence struggling just to stay alive, they begin to think, to create, to compile knowledge, and to care for others.

The Ik, then, do not have a chance to rise above animal level. It is not because they are less intelligent or more bestial in nature than we are; they are merely shaped by their environment. One might wonder if given food, shelter and a fair chance, the Ik would regain their humanness.

We can look at the Ik as a terrifying example of what the human race could become. If predictions for the future of our world come true, all of mankind may soon be faced with a shortage of food, air, water, and space. Under such conditions, survival could become our sole concern, and we might descend to the level of the Ik. Or would our technology, mentality, ideals, and spiritual beliefs pull us through?

So, to return to the original question: “What is man?”  The Ik seem to demonstrate that creativity, philosophy, and philanthropy are only frivolities indulged in by an animal species clever enough to solve ably their survival problems and thus have leisure time.  Fortunately, however, the Ik cannot be regarded as a typical example of what man really is.  They are an extreme case, to say the least. A primitive tribe to begin with, they have been subjected to an unbelievable amount of stress and deprivation. Yet, the incredibly short amount of time it took them to drop to the level of animals should make us all think twice. Are we really so far superior to our bestial relatives? The Ik have something to teach us, and all civilizations should take note of their example before it is too late to save our humanity as well.

Spring Wings

It’s very easy to tell when spring is on the way.   All the birdwatchers start becoming restless—polishing their binoculars, cleaning out all the old check-lists from last year, getting ready to start all over again. No wonder—for the migrations make spring the most interesting time of the year to bird.

One of the first birds to arrive back in northern climes are the Canada Geese. They begin their journey as early as February, following the main rivers northward while the country is still locked with ice and snow.  Somehow they know that eventually, warmth will return to the land. They have good faith, and perhaps that is why the sight of them brings such a thrill.

Next, other species of waterfowl seem to follow the geese’s leadership and begin to appear. Usually, by this time some of the lakes and ponds have thawed, and it is not unusual to see hundreds of little black specks dotting every available pond.   Here the birder can really have a field day—there are nearly twenty different duck species alone, and they are all beautiful. Because all the males are in colorful breeding plumage, they are easy to tell apart. The ducks range from the soft cuteness of the pied-bill grebe to the stylish ring-necked ducks dressed in smart tuxedoes, to the iridescent glory of the wood ducks, arrayed in every color of the rainbow plus a few more.

Finally, no discussion of spring migration would be complete without mentioning the warblers. Warblers are probably the most sought-after birds of the whole spring. Many birders spend every April and May weekend “warbling.” For those who haven’t been fortunate enough to pay much attention to warblers, they are tiny songbirds who delight in frustrating the birder by always flitting about in treetops and never holding still. There are nearly forty species of warblers—some common, some not. Spring is the only time Ohio birders can enjoy them—most breed farther north and only pass through during migration; and in the fall, they are nearly all dressed in a drab olive-green and impossible to tell apart. But in the spring, they sport bright yellows, greens, blues, oranges, and striking black and white patterns. They are beautiful and adorable beyond measure, and perhaps that is why so many birders work so hard to see them.

Of course, all the seasons are fascinating to those who are willing to take the time to enjoy them. Summer has the fun of nests and babies, fall the staggering numbers of fall migration, and winter the busy feeder stations. But spring definitely is the time for fresh early-morning walks and sharp eyes and ears.

River of Love

Few things are as pleasant as a quiet country stream. It starts as a humble trickle, then gradually swells into a tiny rivulet. As it makes its way through the land, it gains strength and confidence and soon bubbles merrily between the fields and meadows.  Sometimes it is deep and still, sometimes noisy and frolicsome. There may be sharp turns, sudden falls, and shallow places. But always it flows steadily on in spite of every obstacle, growing in size and beauty until at last it merges into a great river and becomes part of it.

Like the quiet stream, love begins with a few humble drops of affection. As time passes, this affection grows in strength and depth little by little, finally splashing happily into true love. Love can be serene like the still pool, or joyous like the bubbling rapids. All love goes through crazy twists and turns, endures ups and downs, and slides through frightening shallows. But it continues to flow steadily, increasing in power and loveliness, until at last, it joins the final, mighty river of love.