The New Year: A Sociological Perspective and Personal Thoughts

In a few days, all over the world, people will be celebrating the start of the new year. In this post, I will be sharing thoughts for the new year. I will explain rituals from a sociological perspective, apply the insights to New Year’s celebrations, and show how it applies to us, both personally and socially, while addressing religion and power structures in that application.

I will start by saying that, technically, January 1 is just another day, and labeling it as the start of the year is arbitrary. (In fact, other calendars have their New Years on different days: the Jewish New Year [Rosh Hashanah] is in the early fall, the lunar  Year in East Asian calendars is on the second new moon after the winter solstice, the Iranian, Kurdish, Zoroastrian, and Baha’i New Year occurs on the vernal equinox, and the Muslim New Year goes back through all the seasons*.) However, the tendency to designate such dates fulfills sociological functions.

Originally, the calendar helped farmers to know when to plant their crops. Nowadays, it allows us to determine our ages, make appointments, and remember important events. This brings us to another function: to set aside dates for specific purposes, popularly called “holidays”. In sociology, a school of thought called “symbolic interactionism” focuses on symbols and rituals, and how people in a society or social group interact to give meaning to said symbols and rituals. In our discussion, holidays are an example of dates assigned meaning. There is another school of thought called structural functionalism, which discusses how different parts of society work together to contribute to the functioning of the society and meeting the needs of the society’s members. Holidays function to encourage solidarity, reinforce social values, allow an outlet for various sentiments, and remember historical events important for the identity of the social group.

These holidays are some of the few remaining rituals in the modern world. The importance of rituals is discussed by The School of Life in their video “HISTORY OF IDEAS — Ritual”. At the 8:21-8:45 mark, the speaker says, “Even in the hands of religions rituals have been guardians of important states of mind that would otherwise be crushed or neglected. A book of poetry is in the end a hushed object in a noisy world, whereas a ritual protects emotions to which we are sincerely inclined but without a degree of fabrication and structure we might be too distracted and undisciplined to take time for.” Around the 12:20 mark, the speaker observes that what we once did in ritual we now do privately, but that our gestures are more vulnerable to half-heartedness and forgetfulness, and suggests that rituals remain useful in our journey to be sane and kind.

So, what does this mean for New Year’s Day? Well, internationally, January 1 has been designated the start of a new year, and this is tied to a desire to start over, to change course, an idea that religion appeals to as well. One expression of this is making resolutions. Through these, we express a desire to do things differently, to change course. This desire is best expressed in the Ecuadorian tradition of Año Viejo (lierally, “old year”), the custom on New Year’s Eve of burning effigies made of old clothes and newspaper that symbolize the anger, regrets, failures, sins, disappointments, mistakes, etc., of the past year and allow for the hope and resolutions of the coming one. This symbolizes most dramatically the general desire to leave behind the old pain and to look forward with hope and start anew.

This is expressed in a number of religions; in this post, I will discuss it from Jewish and Christian perspectives. (My apologies to readers who practice other religions; I am not knowledgeable enough. Please feel free to leave a comment below to add your thoughts.) Years back I listened to a Jewish podcast called Spiritual Truths in an Outrageous World, hosted by David Sacks. In one episode (I can’t remember which one), Sacks told the story of an encounter between a Jew and a Christian on an airplane, and the subject turned to Gen. 1:1, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”. The Jew explained that the Hebrew is better translated as “With a beginning…”, meaning you can always have a new beginning. (Years later, this conversation and idea saved the Christian from suicide.)

Christianity mentions that a Christian becomes “a new creature in Christ” (2 Cor 5:17), and that the old man is dead, and we are new in Christ (Col. 3). On the one hand, there is the notion of having died to the elemental spirits of the world (Col. 2:20), but on the other, to “put to death” that which belongs to the old nature (Col. 3:5). These are linked in 2 Pet. 1:5 to add “excellence” (that is, character development) to our “faith”.

Now, I realize that I likely have readers who aren’t Christian. I think these passages in general discuss the idea of looking forward, of being a better human being, and that is what I want to convey. This is an expression of general human sentiments, and expressed in resolutions.

Now, to the social aspects, and the dark side of New Year’s Day. A major reason January 1 is the international New Year is due to the dominance of European and European-descended societies since 1492. This legacy includes vices such as imperialism and colonialism, which has resulted in a majority of core nations’ being Western and to such societies being advantaged over others (though there is change with the rise of Asian nations). While many of us in the West would like to go forward and forget this, we must reckon with this. We may want to deal with history as a multihyphenated line “where the past ended at some definite point and the present started from scratch, and there is nothing but rupture in between” (Şafak, p. 165). A perhaps more accurate view of history would be that of a cycle with “the past incarnated in the present and [where] the present birthed the future” (ibid). In these quotes, Şafak was comparing Turkish and Armenian views respectively in reference to the Armenian Genocide. 

However, this is applicable to Western society; one example of this applicability is in American race relations. Many white Americans have a multihyphenated line view of history, in which one line ended in 1865 with the abolition of slavery and another in the 1960’s with the abolition of segregation, and even the assumption that racism is dead in USA. With this mindset, many whites think that black people need to just get over slavery, as it ended 150 years ago.

However, a cycle view is more common among African-Americans. From their viewpoint, though slavery was abolished in 1865, the effects continue to this day, and black people continue to face disadvantages in society. In short, we are haunted by the ghost of slavery. The challege issued is what future are we going to birth, and to fight for a future of greater equality for everyone.

This concept is reflected in the Bible, when it records the praise of the living creatures, “Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God, the All-Powerful, Who was and who is, and who is still to come” (Rev. 4:8). I heard from a rabbi (I don’t remember which one) that God’s Holiest Name (that Jews don’t even pronounce) is a combination of the past, present, and future tenses of the Hebrew word for the verb “to be”. This shows, he explained, God’s involvement in our past, present, and future. This reflects how history affects us, and the need for awareness of how our present actions affect the future.

This all also applies to our personal lives. While we often want to forget our pasts, what we have been through affects our present lives. Sometimes we have trauma from our pasts. This helps us to be aware of where we are now, and help us to make decisions that will birth a good future. So, as we go into the next year, to go forward in hope, we may have to confront our past, not only the previous year but sometimes things from years back. (That may mean therapy or counseling.) In my case, I wonder how my experiences can be used to help others (which is one reason I started this blog), and ask about my hopes and wishes, and how I can benefit others. Where am i going?

That is the question for us all? Where are we going this year? What kind of life do we want? What can we do? I think the best thing is to take it one day at a time, as Jesus prayed, “Give us this day our daily bread” (Mt. 6:11, KJV). Each day take little steps, as little things add up. 

To sum up, rituals are started as people ascribe meaning to symbols and objects through their interactions with each other. These symbols, such as dates, serve to communicate values, remember significant events, attend to important states of mind, and allow for expressions of emotions. In particular, New Year’s Day serves to provide a chance for people to pause, take stock of their lives,  think of where they are going, and start anew, which is an idea expressed in religion as well. However, in our desire to leave the old behind and to start anew, we need to remember that the past continues to have an impact today, and the present influences the future.

Towards the end of the movie Rudolf’s Shiny New Year, as Father Time puts a crown on the head of the baby New Year, he proclaims the year 19-Wonderful. So, my wish is that for you, dear readers, the next year may be the year 20-Wonderful! May you all have a happy, healthy, and prosperous New Year!

Happy New year, everyone! 

*Note: all seasons refer to the seasons on the Northern hemisphere.

Sources:

All scripture quotatiins, unless otherwise noted are from the New English Translation  (NET).

Scriptures marked KJV are from the King James Version. 

Şafak, Elif. 2007. The Bastard of Istanbul. Penguin Books.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Power of Mindful Learning, by Dr. Ellen J. Langer, Chapter 2

Finally, I am getting around to the next post in my series! You can read the Introduction and Chapter 1 as well. Now, onto the post!

In the introduction to the book, Dr. Langer references seven myths that “undermine true learning…stifle our creativity, silence our questions, and diminish our self-esteem” (p. 2). In this post, I am going over chapter 2, which addresses myth #2, “Paying attention means focusing on one thing at a time.” In this post, I will summarize Dr. Langer’s case, discuss a couple of her studies, give applications concerning religion and language learning, describe my own experience, and evaluate Langer’s argument.

Langer contends that, instead of focusing on one thing at a time, “the most effective way to pay attention is to look for the novelty within the stimulus situation” (p. 43). She starts by exploring the conventional meaning of “distraction” (wandering focus, p. 35) and suggesting an alternative definition of “otherwise attracted” (p. 36). She observes that there are many situations in which we have no problems paying attention (such as computer games, p. 37) and asks about times in which we have difficulty, “What is so attractive about the alternative stimulus? What can we learn from that attraction? Can we add the attractive elements to the stimulus to which we want to attend?” (p. 36). She uses studies in perception and the experiences of meditators to show the near impossibility of “holding an image still” (which is  general meaning of “paying attention”, pp. 37-39). She concludes, “People naturally seek novelty in play  have no difficulty paying attention in those situations” (p. 39) and “The idea that to pay attention means to act like a motionless camera is so ingrained in us that when we do pay attention successfully we are usually unintentionally changing the context or finding novel features in the subject” (p. 40). She backs this up with two studies (discussed below) that show the influence of mindfulness in paying attention (pp. 40-42).

Langer concludes by applying these principles to ADHD. She starts by describing ADHD’s symptoms,  effects, theories of the cause, and the usual methods of treatment. She then turns to mindful approaches and describes situations in which increased attention was observed: the absence of toys, the presence of game format, listening to rock music, and color stimuli (pp. 45-46). She tells of an experiment she participated in involving a poster with fourteen landmarks, and the task was to remember where the landmarks were. There were three groups: a sit-still group, a feet-shuffle group, and a move-around group. The move-around group performed best, and the sit-still group worst (pp. 47-48). However, when the study was repeated in a Montessori school (where movement is expected), the findings were reversed (p. 48). Langer concludes, “The studies suggest that mindfully varying perspective helps us to pay attention” (p. 48) and ends by summarizing the chapter’s findings (p. 49).

Now, to discuss the two studies on novelty I previously referenced: one study involved a computer task and the other short stories. In the computer study, an image appeared on the computer screen and participants were supposed to click a button when it disappeared (the reaction time was measured). They were divided into three groups: one group was to “just pay attention” and hit the button, another was to “outline the target”, and a third was to think of the shapes in different ways and to notice differemt things about each one” (pp. 40-41). The mindful group outperformed the other two groups and found the task easier. There was no observable difference bewteen the outline group and the pay attention group (p. 41).

In the short story study, adults on a train were asked to read short stories and divided into three categories of groups. In one category, participants were told to vary 3-6 aspects of each story, read it from different perspectives, change the endings, etc.; in another category, participants were told to focus on three or six  aspects of the stories; lastly, one category was told to just read the stories. They were all told they would be questioned afterwards (pp. 41-42). The result was that the mindful groups remembered more of the stories. Langer comcludes, “Varying the target of our attention, whether a visual object or an idea, apparently improves our memory of it” (p. 42).

Now, onto the applications in religion and language learning. First of all, religion. Langer herself references the difficulty of focusing in meditation (p. 39), and I personally know the difficulty of focusing in prayer, as do many others. I will offer suggestions based on Langer’s findings. First of all, for the liturgically-minded, I suggest reflection on the meanings of the prescribed prayers, and to view them from different perspectives. There is talk that the lectionary tells the story of God’s narrative of redemption and His work in redemption. I would suggest looking into how the liturgy reflects that narrative, how that works in the world and your personal life. Ask,”What is my role in God’s story?” I would also urge reflection the scriptures used in the lectionary. My advice is similar for those who don’t use liturgy (as I was raised). In this case, prayers are more spontaneous. I would suggest reflecting on the Names of God, as they reveal His character, and how they apply in your life and the world. I  would also suggest looking at scripture in a different way,  reflecting on differing perspectives, and using that in prayers. I would urge everyone (whether or not they use liturgy) to look at the world and reflect on how God may be working in it. In addition, I also recommend, since prayer is talking to God, to make prayers out of your wandering thoughts. (Since I am a Christian, I wrote this from a Christian perspective. I know a little about Judaism and have read that there is a narrative of God’s working in the world and our partnering with him there as well. I guess the applicability is there as well. For other religions, I am not knowledgeable enough to comment. However, I hope that all the Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, etc., who may be  this will find transferable aspects to make it applicable. For those in Eastern religions, does any of this apply to meditation?)

Now, to discuss language learning. First of all, I will discuss how varying the image helps with vocabulary. One way (for those more advanced) is to think of various sentences in which new words can be used, or googling them to see images of what they represent or memes involving them. An easier method is tying the foreign word to a word in one’s native language. For example, consider север (syevir), the Russian word for “north”, which resembles the word “severe”. We could say that it is severely cold in the North Pole. As for grammar, when it comes to learning a new point of grammar, think of various ways new things can now be expressed. Describe personally relevant things that require that grammar. 

I personally love this chapter, since I have, since childhood, often been told, sometimes angrily, to focus and/or to pay attention. (I was even, on occasion, spanked for unfocusedness, such as when my mind wandered while I spoke in tongues.) At the time, all I had was what Langer describes as “holding the image still” (p. 38). One comment of Langer’s I particularly like is as follows: “Since we are so successful most of the day at paying attention, perhaps we should look for the situations in which we find it difficult, rather than blame the problem on a lack of character or a mental deficient” (p. 37). This sticks out to me because it shows practically that there is a “how” to paying attention, that there is a better way. The prospect of passing on the message to others who have beat themselves up over an inability to pay attention sp that they, too, can find a better way makes it my pleasure to review this chapter.

Now, to evaluate Langer’s claims. I find, based on her research and experiences, as well as my own experiences, her claims to be valid amd helpful. I appreciate her out of the box perspective. However, Langer acknowledges that more research is needed (p. 49). Nevertheless, I think that what she says will help us all.

In conclusion, Langer claims to pay attention, we should “vary the image” instead of “holding the picture still”, and supports that with her research and experience. Her studies show that a mindful approach is more effective in maintaining attention, and this has application for subjects such as religion and language learning. In addition, my own experience supports her claims, which I find overall to be valid. I hppe that readers will find these ideas as helpful as I have found them.

Girlfriend to the Rescue

After her jog in the park, Diana Knight changed her outfit from sneakers and a jogging suit into a blouse, skirt, and loafers. Suddenly, as she grabbed her jacket, she received a message that her boyfriend was being held hostage. On the street, a man made a vulgar comment and grabbed her posterior; she kicked him in the stomach. 

Once she arrived at the destination, she knocked out a few guards with tranquilizers. She freed her boyfriend, then BANG! Shots were fired. Diana knocked over the assailant and jumped on his chest. Her boyfriend then kissed her cheek and she hugged him.

This is a post for Friday Fictioneers by Rochelle Wisoff-Fields; photo by Sarah Potter. 

An Unusual Romantic Encounter

Businesswoman Regina Jacobsen gave a presentation at Nick Wright’s college. Nick cut hearts out of the bread as he made a PB & J sandwich. Suddenly, he dropped his sandwich and Regina stepped on it while stopping to greet Nick. He said, “Hey, Regina! Your boots look nice on you!”

Regina looked down and raised her foot upon seeing the sandwich, stuck to her boot. Nick removed the sandwich and Regina said, “I am so sorry…especially with the heart!”

He pointed to the heart and smiled. They leaned forward to kiss amid cheers and toasts.

This is a postfor Friday Fictioneers by Rochelle Wisoff-Fields, photo by Kelvin M. Knight.

Halfway Around the World

Steve Freeman’s plane touched down in Bangkok, Thailand. He grabbed his carry-on bag, then grabbed his luggage from inside the airport, and met his contact, Sarawut. They greeted. Sarawut suggested, “Let’s stop by a temple and release a bird tomorrow, ok?” Steve agreed.

The next day they released a bird at a temple. Steve watched the bird fly away and a cat vainly try to catch it. The scene caused Steve to reflect on his own life: he related to the caged bird. He remembered his upbringing back in USA: he remembered the restrictive cult he was raised in, how he lacked opportunities, and felt like he was going nowhere. He remembered encounters that gave him the courage, like the bird, to leave the cage. Thus, he smiled at the bird. “Fly on, my friend”, he said.

Steve related to a monk’s describing the Noble Truths of Buddhism. “Association with what is disliked is painful, disassociation with what is liked is painful, not getting what one wishes is painful.” The monk went on to identify cravings as the cause of suffering. Steve found himself identifying with these statementts.

Afterwards, Sarawut and Steve went shopping in the floating market.

This is a post for Sunday Photo Fiction; also the source of the photo.

The Vision

Mike finally reached the top of the mountain, where he cried out, “Is there anyone up there? I am at a loss! My life is wasted! What should I do!?”

He thought of the lost years supporting a leader claiming to for God, the trauma of that controlling environment. Mike wept. Suddenly, in a vision, he saw flowers growing at his feet. A dove flew by, singing. He saw people abandoning weapons. He saw himself in a room among a group of people. Mike asked, “Was that You, God?” A gentle breeze blew.

Mike confidently left the mountain.

This is a post for Friday Fictioneers by Rochelle Wisoff-Fields; photo by Danny Bowman.

Book Review: “The Power of Mindful Learning”, by Dr. Ellen J. Langer, chapter 1

After a year after writing the introduction to this book, I am ready to proceed (especially after having just taken English 101 and 102). So, here it is:

“Whether it is learning to play baseball, drive, or teach, the advice is the same: practice the basics until they become second nature. I think this is the wrong way to start” (Langer, p. 10).

This is the thesis of this chapter. Langer then cites examples that question the effectiveness of the basics, even questioning the very concept of the basics. She acknowledges why teachers teach the basics, but suggests mindful learning based on awareness of context and appreciation of uncertainty as better teaching methods. She cites two examples to contrast mindless and mindful approaches to learning. She then cites personal examples and research to support her claim that mindful approaches are better. After mentioning the role gender plays, she introduces the concept  “sideways learning” in contrast to both top-down (lecture) and bottom-up (experimenting) approaches to learning (pp. 22-23). She describes sidewaya learning as “learning a subject or skill with an openness to novelty and actively noticing differences, contexts, and perspectives” (p. 23). She uses piano playing as an illustration of the concept, mentions an experiment showing how a text can teach mindfully, and concludes with a hypothetical example of performimg CPR (involving the differences between infants, 50 lb children, and adults) to illustrate the importance of mindful techniques. She concludes the chapter with the question, “Which way would you want to learn the [CPR] lesson? How should we teach it?” (p. 31). 

I am not going to go over the content in detail (even summarizing it will make this post very long), so I am going to address a few concepts, and discuss their application. I will discuss obedience to authority, the value of doubt, sideways learning, and how they relate to feminism, religion, and language learning. 

When Langer questions the existence of the concept of the basics, writing, “Perhaps one could say that for everyone there are certain basics, but there is no such thing as the basics” (p. 15, emphasis Langer’s). Langer suggests that it may appear easier to teach one set of basics because “the teacher needs to know less, a single routine little room for disagreement and hence may foster obedience to authority” (p. 15).  In my Fundamentalist upbringing, obedience to authority was highly valued, and rebellion was viewed heinously, being seen as witchcraft (based on 1 Sam. 15:23). In my view, obedience to authority is a questionable value: after all, obedient participants in the Milgram experiments were willing to apply an electric shock at a dangerously high voltage level when told to do so. In addition, obedience to authority may make it easier for abusers to get access to victims, and to gaslight, shame, silence, and control them. Also, it may make it harder for people to speak out against said abuse. Furthermore, Nazi war criminals defended themselves with, “I was just following orders”, a defense rejected by the courts. To expand on that, social progress has often come about through disobedience to authority, and we are the beneficiaries of that today.

Now, to the value of doubt and sideways learning. Concerning the former, Langer writes, “The rationale for this change in approaches [to mindful learning] is based on the belief that experts at anything become expert in part by varying those same basics. The rest of us, taught not to question, take them for granted…. The key to this new way of teaching is based on an appreciation of both the conditional, or context-dependent, nature of the world and the value of uncertainty. Teaching skills and facts in a conditional way sets the stage for doubt and an awareness of how different situations may call for subtle differences in what we bring to them” (pp. 15-16). I gave the definition of sideways learning above. The bottom line is to think in different ways and to say, “There’s a box? What box?” Langer mentions experiments involving a pilot study (pp. 18-19), a game called smack-it ball (similar to squasj but with a small racket that fits like a baseball mit is worn on both hands, p. 21), and a piano study (pp. 26-27). In each study, the group given mindful instructions to vary their technique, use previously learned material and/or experiences, and to think in creative ways outperformed the control group, enjoyed the activity more, and had a better grasp on the material.

The smack-it ball experiment was done to study gender differences. Langer writes, “In general, young girls are taught to be ‘good little girls’ which translates into ‘do what you’re told’. To be a ‘real boy’, on the other hand, implicitly means to be independent of authority and ‘don’t listen to all you are told’…. Our hypothesis was that motivation to be a good girl would lead to taking in information in a mindless way. Similarly, being a bit rebellious was expected to result in conditional or mindful learning” (p. 21). They told some players, “One way to hold the ball is…”, and other players, “This is how you hold the ball.” After practice, the researchers replaced the ball with a heavier one that required different body movements. The boys performed the same regardless of instructions or the ball. The girls who received instructions in an absolute way performed worse with the heavier ball, but those who had received conditional instructions performed as well as the boys regardless of the ball used (p. 22). Langer also suggests that is why girls have a harder time in math in high school. They excel in grade school, but the do-as-you’re-told doesn’t help at higher math levels, since numbers need to be seen in new ways. 

I was skeptical of the claim that boys are urged to be rebellious, as that’s not my experience, but that is another topic. Anyway, this betrays an aspect of sexism and one more reason why we still need feminism. Being a guy, I will not harp on this (I would rather hand the mic to women), but I will say the following: guys, we need to stand up for women’s right to dissent and to speak up, and not call her names. We need to consider her viewpoints and examine her conclusions and their implications. Also, we need to train people of all gender identities to question dogma, to look at alternate ways of doing things, and to consider multiple perspectives. 

Now, to talk about religion: first, in Fundamentalism, obedience to authority is highly valued, and rebellion is seen as witchcraft (based on 1 Sam. 15:23). For me, that meant that rebellion was punishable by a whipping (not with the hand), threats of hellfire and brimstone, and allusions to Korah (Num. 16). People at church thought that if you didn’t choose one of the options those in authority presented, you were in rebellion. 

However, I do think religion should be approached with a sideways learning approach. (Since I am a Christian, I am telling this from a Christian perspective, and am open to perspectives from other religions.) Evangelicals tend to see themselves as following the Bible, but often approach the Bible mindlessly. I discovered this when I read texts from outside my sect (JW literature, Jewish writings, Catholic materials, etc.) and saw Bible passages presented in ways that I had never seen before, and never would have seen otherwise. This shows that there are multiple perspectives to the Bible. A midrash says that there are seventy facets to the Torah. So, when reading the Bible, we should read it from multiple perspectives and consider out of the box interpretations. We should also consider critiques from critics of the Bible, in order to enhance our understanding. I think that a mindful approach will make religion more just. 

Now, for foreign languages. Learning a language involves vocabulary and grammar. I think it is an idea to learn words related to topics of interest,, and to learn grammar so that these topics can be discussed with someone in the language. Vocabulary related to topics that one is not interested in will also have to be learned. A mindful approach may be to learn the vocabulary to express how one is not interested in this topic. Thus, learners should vary the material that they are learning. 

To conclude, Langer shows the insufficiency of the “learn the basics” approach and introduces us to sideways learning. I showed how these are relevant to feminism, religion, and language learning.