Thursday, May 31, 2012

Compassion and empathy: as important to human evolution as the opposable thumb

Not long ago, I received a note from a friend asking if I could provide sources or insight that would place the values of compassion and empathy in historical context.  The questioner, along with two other recipients of her query, are all members of the Balaton Group.  On its website, the Group describes itself as “an international network of researchers and practitioners in fields related to systems and sustainability.”  (

I found the response from my friend, sustainability scholar-activist and Buddhist Monk, David Berry, to be particularly clear, succinct and moving.  I asked David for permission to share it with Dormgrandpop readers and he agreed.

The development of compassion and empathy predates the first humans. It is part of the evolution of animals from being entirely instinct-based to being more aware of choices -- from being entirely self-focused to including mate, offspring, siblings, pack, clan, tribe, nation . . . toward including all life and all things as a gradually expanding "we".

Bats bring food back to the cave to feed another bat that is too sick to fly. Dolphins lift a sick or injured dolphin up to the surface to breath and they have similarly saved humans. To be part of such a bat or dolphin community increases the survivability of each individual. The increasing interest in and capacity to cooperate with each other are among the supportive factors in the rise of humans. They are as important as the opposable thumb.

The presence of Empathy is an indicator of increasing awareness of interconnection and interdependence. Because it is supportive of survival, sustainability and -- let's call it awakening, it tends to increase over time on the evolutionary time scale in spite of and because of the suffering that non-empathy and non-compassion bring in the short term.

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Friday, May 25, 2012

An End-of-Semester Reflection on Grades and Grading

At the conclusion of each semester, after having corrected final projects, assigned grades and reviewed class members’ feedback, I often share a concluding reflection.  The following is an excerpt from a reflection that I emailed to students who studied system dynamics modeling with me and two colleagues this spring term, in a course offered by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. 
Dear Class Members,
A few class members expressed a concern that their grades were lower than expected and did not adequately reflect the amount of time they devoted to the course. I could write a lengthy discourse on grading (in fact I have published such a discourse), but the way I feel about the matter is summed up in a passage from one of my favourite books, Kitchen Table Wisdom, written by Oncologist, Dr. Naomi Remen. The passage is this:
As a child, when I brought home a ninety-eight on an exam, my father always asked, “What happened to the other two points.?”  My childhood became focused on the pursuit of those two points.  It took years to discover that those points don’t really matter.  That they don’t make you lovable.  Or whole.  That they are not the secret of living a life worth remembering.
Grading standards are rigorous at the Lee Kuan Yew School and the National University of Singapore.  They are intended both  to evaluate student performance and to provide validation to external reference groups that may be hiring students or assessing institutional reputations.   These are necessary funtions.  But when, in a course such as this, students have toiled for many hours, perhaps far more than in some other courses, I wish there were additional venues for  publicly acknowledging that effort and achievement.  It is in the nature of the modelling process that the outcome of assignments/projects, which provide the basis for grades, may not fully reflect the hours spent or, indeed, the amount learned.
My concluding take-away is this:  The course we shared was a demanding one.  Every one of you took it seriously and made it a high priority in very full schedules with competing priorities, both academic and personal.   I respect this and consider it a privilege to have worked with you. I can think of no class member who was not putting out a high level of  effort.   This will be one of those special classes, comprising an engaging, creative and intelligent  group of committed, dedicated members that I will not soon forget.
I am grateful for this opportunity to have shared system dynamics modeling with you and would welcome opportunities to be of help to you in the future. 
Respectfully and with my best wishes,

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Saturday, May 19, 2012

Beginning my day anew

My day mostly begins at about six, without an alarm’s sound
I open the windows of my high rise flat,
Bedroom, kitchen, bath and living room picture windows,
from which I can view high-rise buildings everywhere,
but intermingled with trees, and grassed open spaces, and flowers
Singapore: the garden city.

Facing my desk, loaded with transformers and wires,
providing nourishment for my computer, iPhone, cell phone, kindle
A twenty four-story apartment building is rising
Soon, yellow helmeted men with dark skins,
will be assembling en mass,
to receive their orders from white helmeted men,
before beginning twelve hours or more of toil,
constructing homes in which they never will live.

My meditation begins, facing a golden Lord Buddha statue
I strive and struggle, in silence, to experience an uncluttered mind,
and “Seek enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings,”
These are goals most likely to be attained, not in this lifetime,
but perhaps in some future incarnation
of the consciousness stream that is me - and not me.

Soon it will be time to prepare my daily “DO TODAY” list
purging my electronic blank slate of yesterday’s clutter
and beginning anew
listing tasks that will be done
and some that will likely remain undone

My friend Dana Meadows and I,
in our book, Groping in the Dark  wrote this:
“Human beings should decide what is most important
and what is less so
and live their lives for what is most important.”

Each morning, preparing my “DO TODAY”
provides an opportunity to make that decision.
During the rest of the day, I get to spend sixteen hours, or so,
living according to what I have decided.

Tomorrow, shortly after 6 AM
I will get to reflect on today’s results
and begin anew.