Critical Appearance

The wide black disc flashed with a white rectangle as the shutter released, and the characteristic snap left a satisfying feeling of capturing the moment. T’ew shifted slightly on one knee, the lens of his camera balancing on the edge of my shadow. Behind him, the red and gold leaves of this Korean autumn shone with the growing light of the rising sun peaking over the buildings at my back. I stared unblinkingly into the depths of the lens as it snapped open and closed again. He lowered the camera from his face and inspected the picture.  As he stood and joined me on the bench, he sifted through the series of portraits he had just taken.

“How did they come out?” I asked.

“Here. Take a look,” he said as he passed the camera to me.

Flipping through the dozen or so photos of my face lit with a surreal glow of the background sun, I couldn’t help but think about how uncomfortable it is to be on this side of the camera. Frozen in that instant of an awkward half smile, my likeness was open to utter scrutiny. My broken protruding nose, the red dots of pervasive acne, my matted and unkempt hair all captured in the finest detail. I scrolled across the others quickly, and handed the camera back.

“Nice,” I said. “That shallow depth of field really highlights your subject.”

Your subject. I didn’t even want to admit that I had just been scrutinizing my own face. Though I know I am imperfect, I still find it uncomfortable to look at my faults. They are the first things I see when I look at myself, whether in the mirror or a photograph. Of course, I can do nothing (short of drastic surgery) to change them, but in each picture or frame of film, they stare back at me as a constant reminder of my unsatisfactory state of being.

I stoically obliged T’ew’s requests for me to play the model as he tested his new lens during our early morning walk. We started early – just after 6 am – to capture what is known as “magic hour,” that hour around sunrise or sunset when the lighting is just right for capturing some fantastic images. From my apartment, we ambled east toward Tancheon, a river that flows from southern reaches of Seoul into the Han river in the heart of the sprawling metropolis. After walking a kilometer or so south along the river, we took a detour west along a tributary. The sky glowed pink and blue behind us as we walked and chatted about ethics, philosophy, and science. On the far edge of a very Western-style neighborhood of upperclass homes, we reached a dead end at the edge of an impassable mountain forest. It proved to be a great spot to snap a few pictures before continuing our circuitous journey back to Yatap.

Over the course of several kilometers, we had over an hour to fill the time with conversation between stopping for random photo opportunities. After a discussion about the potential for the indefinite extension of human life, I posed the question Why do people reject the things that science tells us? We both agreed that those who refuse to accept the findings that the scientific communities have made are simply too uncomfortable with the idea that their previously held beliefs were in fact wrong.

That of course begs the question What’s so wrong with being wrong?

We all know the feeling of being wrong. It feels exactly the same as being right. We are ignorant of our ignorance, and we are able to live our lives without a second thought. That is, of course, until we find out that we are wrong. At that moment, we begin to feel anxious and afraid. Something is out of place. The pieces of the puzzle that our mind had put together suddenly no longer fit, and it’s not entirely clear how they must now be relaid. The bigger our misconception, the more uncomfortable the feeling. Particularly when science challenges religious dogma, this feeling can be overwhelming. When the entire fabric of the world, the genesis and conclusion of everything we know, become imperiled, the reaction is to fight back and return things to the way they were. What evolutionary advantage this feeling may have had, I will not speculate, but it is certainly innate within almost all of us. For some, it is so strong that despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, they will stand by their convictions, assured that the rest of the world is mistaken.

Though we feel incredibly uncomfortable in these moments, that in itself does not morally incriminate the state of being wrong. In fact, it is quite the opposite.

Recognizing the fallacy in our assumptions and our beliefs is the grandest opportunity of all to take part in a process that defines and separates, improves and empowers our species: learning. When our ancestors began to plan, think ahead, and think abstractly, it began to separate itself from the rest of the animal kingdom. The development of a new type of cognitive function opened the door for innovation, engineering, and most importantly, education. No longer were the advances of our species limited to their creator, they could be passed laterally to all of their peers. Over our long history, we have reached a point at which we need not solve the vast majority of our problems on our own. Our understanding of concepts and ideas can come from our contemporaries and our predecessors. This process is not without mistakes. Untruth can be passed just as easily as truth, and discerning the difference is often difficult. However, we are a species that is constantly evolving and improving. The evolution of our knowledge now far outpaces the evolution of our genes. This means that we can grow and develop ourselves at a rate no species has ever been able to. To waste this ability is a tragedy.

Benjamin Franklin once wrote that “being ignorant is not so much a shame as being unwilling to learn.”

When we returned to my apartment after watching the new film Martian, T’ew started to press me on my growing conviction against eating meat. I am still internally debating the ethical issue of consuming the flesh of another animal, but the environmental argument for a plant-based diet is obvious and defensible. Pound for pound, raising livestock produces vastly more greenhouse gas than growing crops for human consumption. For me to lobby for the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and insist that others take steps to reduce mankind’s carbon footprint while supporting an industry that produces nearly 20% of the global greenhouse gases that are raising the average surface temperature of our planet would be the epitome of hypocrisy.

T’ew challenged nearly every one of my assumptions and beliefs about this new way of living, even stating the futility and insignificance of my actions. He made me defend my position with arguments I had not considered, describe perspectives I had not seen, and evaluate premises I had taken for granted. To hear him challenging my view of the world was uncomfortable. It raised my heart rate and put me on edge. The challenge was, however, gladly welcomed. It is through this process of critical examination that I can discern if what I believe is an untruth either developed erroneously or accepted irrationally. He exposed gaps in my knowledge and faulty assumptions I hold about the world. Imagine if I continued through life without this experience. How would I continue to justify my deprivation of bacon, hamburger, and sushi? How long would my conviction of these principles hold? How soon would I relapse into hypocrisy? How easily might I abandon my new life goals altogether?

In taking the most basic of our beliefs and pulling them apart, we can examine them in fine detail to scrutinize their every fault. However, unlike the blemishes that become painfully obvious in the high definition image of my face, we can quickly correct our misunderstandings. In doing so we may grow and advance ourselves and our species. In overcoming the fear and discomfort that comes with realizing our ignorance, we become stronger and more capable of facing the challenges that this world continues to present us.

I want to be proven wrong. I want to figure out that I had things mixed up. I want to know that my image of the world was false because I want to learn.

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Question the Mystery

Through the broken clouds of the mid-evening sky, rays from a hidden sun fan out like venetian blinds shuttering a glimpse of the glory of Heaven above a watery horizon. Soaring gently over the high tide lapping at the sandy shoreline, a lone gull pulls its way upwind in search of necessity or perhaps desire. Across the shallow water stands a chain of forested islands, silhouetted against the perpetual gray haze of the western Korean coastline. Beyond, only imagination can tell us what lie in the space past the edge of the Earth.

Actually, I know what lie beyond: China. Just a few hundred kilometers over this sea sits the Middle Kingdom, a few hundred more lie Indochina and the Indian Ocean, then Antarctica, the Atlantic, North America, the Bering Strait, and finally Korea. It’s a simple exercise of tracing a line on a globe. This procedure, however, is far less wondrous or inspiring than the mystery of the unknown.

Looking out over this beach, I am trying to catch a brief respite from the camp I have agreed to attend. The campsite belongs to the Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) church, an organization of which I am an employee. I hold no ill will against the church or my school. In fact, the school has an exceptional reputation for treating its employees well, and my observation confirms the testimony. That said, I have yet to find a comfortable way to operate within a religious community. In addition to the stress of teaching several hours a day, the discomfort of standing silently with eyes lifted through a group prayer or listening distantly to worship songs constantly adds to the pressures of my life.

When I agreed to participate in the camp, I thought it would be a quiet escape to nature. Little did I know, the beach on which we would be camping shared the space with a large dormitory and chapel at which a hundred young campers and families are participating in a church seminar. In no way are they rude or particularly inconsiderate, but after hoping for silence, I find the excited shouts of children or the gay chatting of a group of new friends less joyous. Lost opportunities for silent solitude have ruined my hope for much needed stress relief.

The camp, though, has not been a waste. I have been able to share some great conversation with my coworkers, encounter some beautiful views, and restart my photographic habits. I will share some of my pictures at the end, but I would like to share my reflections of one discussion that shed a bit more light on the reasons behind my discomfort in the religious community.

In the packed wet sand of the exposed shoreline, my gregarious colleague had dug a pit and started a fire around which the two dozen or so campers gathered last night. In proud introduction of the great American pastime of making s’mores, my American colleagues and I taught our students and coworkers how to properly roast a marshmallow and sandwich it between cookies that served as graham crackers with a slab of melting milk chocolate. Glad I had not lost the touch of preparing a perfectly golden-brown, crispy yet gooey marshmallow, I enjoyed more sugar than I needed as we chatted.

I wonder how many thousands of generations did just this; sitting around a fire, roasting food, sharing the stories of their lives, and discussing the most distant ideas their brains could fathom. I imagine those conversations were not much different from those we had here on the beach.

A memorable conversation began when I asked a devout colleague why the SDA church observes the sabbath on Saturday while most other Christian denominations observe it on Sunday. With a bit more prodding, I was able to elicit the story of how the early church under Roman rule changed the day to Sunday to appeal to the pagan masses whose celebratory day to worship the Sun was (of course) Sunday. They mentioned a few other ideas from the old pagan religions that Christianity adopted during this time to make it more appealing to the masses, but I didn’t dig into it. I simply enjoyed the historical recitation of how this apparently minor change would have future ramifications that ranged from the immense as in the case of armies that would not fight on the sabbath to the inane like the lack of bus service on Sunday in my hometown.

The conversation continued to wander, sometimes departing from my attention when it changed to Korean, but I would end the night with a very deep discussion about life, love, and geopolitics with a new acquaintance from another school. Though it was entertaining, I left the conversation with a sense of dissatisfaction. I decided to follow up today. I asked the original devout fellow teacher why it matters what day we call the sabbath. She and a couple of our colleagues tried to explain the biblical roots of the Saturday sabbath; its practice among the original “chosen people,” the Jews; and the SDA church’s commitment to adhering to scripture. These are all interesting tidbits, but none of them answered the question Why does God care what day we keep holy? Maybe the question is exceptionally basic, but I thought that should make it all the easier to answer. Despite this, I continued asking the same questions in as many different ways as I could contrive because the responses continually dodged them. After going in circles from tradition to scripture to tradition to scripture, I finally asked what answer satisfies them when they ask these questions. The discussion ended with the explanation that the important part was the relationship to God and that we could talk with God on any day of the week. But the sabbath should still be Saturday.

Herein lies another reason why religion will never satisfy my wonder. Mystery is beautiful, and the unknown commands incredible feelings of wonder, fear, and hope. For me, though, that unknown is not the end; it is the beginning. It is the beginning of discovery. The wonder is for the incredible things that are waiting to be known, the fear is for the feeling that I might never find them, and the hope is that I will.

I will not try to make a value judgment of this trait, but my colleagues do not share the same thirst for further answers. Because it has always been done this way or Because someone important said so is sufficient. For me, it is not. Though some aspects of The Bible have escaped my criticism, the lack of logical explanation in its immense collection of writings fails to satisfy my needs.

When the words of The Bible were written down, there were no globes detailing the continents and expansive oceans (at least in that part of the world). What lie over the horizon was indeed a mystery. However, we have come a long way in the ensuing millennia. A product of centuries of years of exploration, the modern globe is a testament to those who did not accept the answers given by wisemen and prophets. These explorers saw mystery and wanted answers. When asked the tough questions, they did not dodge and rationalize; they cast off in search of answers. They did not take for granted the knowledge that we had gained, but knew that humanity’s continued advance depended upon the steady expansion of the collective body of knowledge on which we draw when we invent new technology or solve new problems. I will not accept the regurgitated answers of antiquity or authority. I want to know the true nature of this world, and that involves continuing to ask the tough questions and find their answers. To stop questioning is to stop learning, and to stop learning is to stop living.

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