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You know those optical illusions where, at first glance, they look like one thing, but then on closer inspection, they turn out to also be something else? The vase that is also two faces is one example. Once you see it as the other thing, it’s hard to refocus in order to see it the other way again. That’s how the topic of vaccination feels to me. My transition from a non-vaccinating to a vaccinating parent was a revelation; it was like being hit on the head by a frying pan. It occurred over the course of an intense few days. While I can still rattle off the usual concerns among vaccine hesitant parents, I have a difficult time putting myself back into that mind space, because all the usual reasons for not vaccinating are not based in reality, and I see that reality, like seeing the two faces instead of the vase, every time, and through every argument. When my story gained attention, one of the first things people wanted to know was why I didn’t vaccinate in the first place. What was my reasoning? I had a hard time answering the question, because I’m just not in that mental place anymore. Recently I dug around, trying to find some evidence of my reasoning beyond just, “scary sounding ingredients and potential side effects,” and found this from April 2010:

I am so horribly torn about what to do…I read everything I can get my hands on, and I’m still not feeling like I can make a good decision. There are passionate, informed, intelligent advocates on both sides, with convincing arguments in their favor. It just drives me nuts. As a new mother I wholeheartedly admit that I care about my daughter’s welfare above all else, but I also think that what is in her best interest is not separate from what is in the best interest of everyone. It’s a really tough position to be in, especially for an over-thinking person like me. It seems like whatever I end up doing will be wrong in some way. I guess that comes with being a mom and I’d better get used to it.

And this from August, 2011:

It’s such a tough thing – when I am really thinking about it and reviewing in my mind all I’ve learned about the topic, I feel reassured that I’m doing the right thing. At [my daughter’s] last checkup, the [anti vaccine] doctor said most kids these days have had several ear infections by her age, and the fact that she’s had none is a testament to her strong immune system. Things like this reassure me. But then I don’t think about it for a while, and I see that scary pertussis commercial and read articles in magazines and newspapers about how important it is to vaccinate, and I start to doubt all over again…it is an agonizing, ongoing, uncertain kind of decision. The funny thing is, I don’t truly believe that [my daughter] would suffer from terrible side effects if I did choose to vaccinate her. I’m more worried about subtle, little things that you can’t necessarily attribute to vaccinations, but then again can’t ever know for sure. Slight alterations resulting from something artificial introduced to an immature system. I’m also deeply suspicious of “the system,” of the funding sources behind the research, and of people with an economic stake telling me what to do (when is the government ever right about how we should live our lives?). All of it adds up to an uncomfortable, tentative decision that in this case, at this time, I’m more comfortable with passive risk than with active risk.

This sentiment still resounds deeply with me, even though it is no longer attached to vaccination. As parents, we feel like the stakes are so incredibly high, and we only have this one chance to do it right. We’re not birds – we don’t raise a clutch or two to adulthood each season, able to become better, more experienced parents from start to finish several times in a lifetime. It’s a one shot deal. As a new parent, I felt a heavy sense of responsibility to do everything right, to strive to be the perfect parent, to correct the perceived mistakes my parents made and do them one better.

However, I have always had a hard time taking an ideological stand on controversial, complex issues. I suffer from a chronic case of “analysis paralysis,” where my natural tendency to see things from many sides can hamper my ability to make a decision. In the case of vaccination, my default mode was to take no action and hope for the best. I learned, at my children’s and my own expense, that passive risk can be a much worse gamble than active risk. I was afraid of somehow altering my children, of cheating them out of some unquantifiable potential, by injecting them with substances I did not understand. And even though, as my comments above illustrate, I was nowhere near confident in my choice, I did feel a sense of defensive righteousness about that choice. “Gah, her kids are sick again,” I’d think to myself. “She should have researched the dangers of vaccination and how they can compromise the immune system.” Though flawed, it’s a human tendency to rationalize and rank superior our choices against the choices of others.

While I don’t have any evidence of this other than my own observations, I have a sense that there can be an inverse relationship between the stridence with which one expresses one’s opinion, and one’s confidence in that opinion. Statements like, “I have made up my mind and no amount of ‘evidence’ you throw my way will make me change it,” are the tenuous, defensive kinds of things I hear from anti-vaccine voices. I see an incredible distrust of “big pharma,” yet a suspension of disbelief when like minded peers claim from within the echo chamber that they have a vaccine injured child, or know someone who does. I hear loud anti vaccine voices adopting a faith based ideology that has allowed itself to be tricked into trusting quacks, malcontents, false whistle blowers, and self-interested manipulators of data, over working experts in the field. We all admire the lone voice of reason in the darkness, the underdog success story, but sometimes what sounds like reason is actually lone wolf obstreperousness for its own sake. I see these things because I was there, occupying that cognitive space, believing it and even identifying with it.

Once you get into something deeply, once you have made an all-or-nothing stand, you know you will break if you bend. You know you can’t give an inch. So, like old Procrustus, you’ve painted yourself into a corner of your making, and are forced to start chopping off the parts that don’t fit. This is why so many anti-vaccine voices threw back their heads and howled “fraud!” when they saw my story. It didn’t fit the narrative – I was the black swan that wasn’t supposed to exist. Like the story of “No True Scotsman,” they claimed that no one who was genuinely and truly anti-vaccine would ever switch course like I did. In one sense, they were right. It took a few years, but finally I was able to recognize I was in a bed that didn’t fit, and so I got out.

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I’ve had the same checking and savings accounts since I was sixteen. I’m 40 years old, and I’m on my fourth car. I would have kept my last one (I had it 12 years) except I had three children in less than two years, and needed something a little bigger than a compact sports sedan. When something breaks, I get really resentful that I have to go out and replace it. In other words, I’m a creature of habit.

When I wrote this and then this and this happened, people asked me if I had a blog and encouraged me to write more. A few angry people hatched conspiracy theories about me, accusing me of either not being real, not ever being against vaccinating my children, or of having “ties” to the pharmaceutical industry, because apparently my husband shares a surname with people who work in the medical field. This was news to me, but that’s how things go. What they’d never be able to discover online is that my grandfather is a retired MIT-trained chemist, his father was a chemist, my great-uncle was a veterinarian, and one of his daughters is a doctor. I was also (briefly) a biology major. However, I have no “ties” to any pharmaceutical companies and was not paid to write my story. What I do have is a deep and abiding interest in figuring out how the world works.

People started looking for me on social media, leaving both supportive and menacing messages, and some less savory folks spent lord knows how much time and energy snooping around my friends list to concoct their theories. So I had to turn my Facebook account into Ft. Knox.

But I still want to engage out loud with my thoughts. I still have an insatiable curiosity about the world, how it works, and the people in it. The existence of this blog is a reminder to me that I have been asking these questions for a long time: Why do people believe what they believe? Where have we been? Where are we going? How can we make the world a better place? Which problems can we solve?

Despite being an unpolished reflection of my jumbled thoughts and ideas from over a decade ago, I don’t want to abandon this blog to start another. Rather, I think I want to revive it to continue thinking out loud, documenting my evolution as a searcher, mother, perpetual student, teacher, and maybe eventually, writer.

“There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.”

– From The Handmaid’s Tale

I read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale for the first time when I was still a teenager and it had a profound effect on me. I have read it several times since. The above bit of dialogue is what comes to mind first whenever I think of the book and its relevance to our current society. Which do we want? Freedom to do as we please as long as we’re not causing harm to others (or maybe even if we are, according to the judgment of some), or freedom from a subjective list of harms that could befall us? Obviously there is a very messy line between the two, and potential for a lot of overlap, but in my mind the conceptual difference between them is vast.

I live in Chicago, a city that recently has gotten some attention for its infamous and failed ban on foie gras, and also for its recent designation by Reason Magazine as the country’s worst nanny state:

Chicago reigns supreme when it comes to treating its citizens like children (Las Vegas topped our rankings as America’s freest city). Chicagoans pay the second-highest cigarette tax in the country, and the sixth-highest tax on alcohol. Chicago has more traffic-light cameras than any city in America (despite studies questioning their effectiveness), restricts cell phone use while driving, and it’s quickly moving toward a creepy public surveillance system similar to London’s.

Chicago also has banned handgun ownership (and has made no move to reexamine said ban in light of the recent Supreme Court decision), limits trans fats in restaurants, has only 1,300 bars (compared with over 7,000 in the 1940s). I will also include in this category the unfortunate city of Bensenville, which has the tragic honor of being adjacent to O’Hare airport, and atop the new expansion site. It is now a ghost town of boarded up houses and businesses, awaiting its final and inevitable fate at the hands of the courts (let’s call this one “freedom from property”). I should also mention the ban on cell phone use, but not cosmetics application, newspaper reading or picking one’s nose, while driving (“freedom from distraction by cellular communication”), and Mayor Emperor Richard Daley’s approval and support of relocating the Chicago Children’s Museum from Navy Pier to Grant Park. Grant Park’s 1836 mandate describes it as “a common to remain forever open, clear and free of any buildings, or other obstruction whatever” (“freedom from open public space”). Chicago is even considering a ban on text messaging while walking in intersections (“freedom from death by idiocy, OMFG, LOL”).

Nationally, to this list I’ll add our expensive misadventure in Iraq (“freedom from the presence of Islamic dictatorships in strategic oil-rich regions”), the likewise expensive and ultimately ill-fated border fence (“freedom from feeling like the government isn’t doing anything about the immigration problem”), the war on drugs (“freedom from mind altering chemicals without a prescription excluding caffeine, alcohol, tobacco and chocolate”), the government bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, along with other bailouts and corporate subsidy programs including the Farm Bill (“freedom from capitalism”), and some dubious social programs and “incentives” (“freedom from personal responsibility”).

Add to this a plethora of local and municipal fees and regulations, vehicle and pet registration dues, sin taxes, bottled water taxes and taxes to fund mismanaged, woefully inadequate prisons and public school systems (“freedom from liquidity”).

Personally, I would like to live in a nation where “freedom to” is the guiding principle. I would like to live in a city where owners of private businesses are free to allow their customers to smoke cigarettes, with thanks to those who, thinking like entrepreneurs, also offer well-ventilated, smoke-free areas. I would like to live in a city where, in accordance with the Second Amendment, I am free to legally own a hand gun, just like city officials currently are. I would like to live in a state where I am free to decide if my child is tall enough or weighs enough to safely ride in the car without a car seat. I would like to live in a city where, while driving, I am free to take or make an important phone call. I would like to live in a state where I am free to send my child to private school using my un-property tax money. I would like the freedom, as a law abiding citizen, to talk on the phone with confidence, knowing that the government respects my right to privacy. I would like the freedom, here where I live, to breathe unpolluted outdoor air, to drink pharmaceutical and chemical-free water and to have access to a renewable energy grid. Most importantly, though, I would like my country to preserve my freedom to live under a faithfully observed Constitution, and likewise to preserve my freedom from tyranny, including from laws that attempt to protect me from myself. I’m doin’ just fine, thanks.

My parents’ friends have a house on top of a hill and it has lots of woods all around. It is the only house up there. One time they invited us to a party at their house. Lots of people came and it was summertime.

In the back of their house was a big garden. A really big garden. Bigger even than the one my grandma has. They grew all kinds of things back there and my favorite thing they grew was basil. I didn’t even know what it was called then, but the smell of it filled up the whole back yard. It smelled just like summer, and the sun was going down and the sky was all pinky purple and the stars were starting to come out and the whole world smelled like basil.

Then we got to do something really fun. We got to stomp grapes. We rolled up our jeans and got into this big barrel thing and just stomped and stomped. The grapes came from their yard and they were going to turn the stomped grape juice into wine. I wonder how they could do that. The grapes were squishy between my toes and these little flies were flying around and my feet got cold and itchy-sticky. But it was still fun to stomp on those grapes.

There was a fire and everybody sat around it and talked. We stayed outside until the stars were out and the fire was big and the shadows of it jumped around the whole yard and then the smoke smell mixed with the basil smell. That was a magical day. I think about that day every time I smell basil.

Costello: I’m asking YOU who’s on first.

Abbott: That’s the man’s name.

Costello: That’s who’s name?

Abbott: Yes.

Costello: Well go ahead and tell me.

Abbott: That’s it.

Costello: That’s who?

Abbott: Yes.

We all know the famous routine. But have we stopped to think about why it is so funny, and why we can all relate to this kind of humor? Abbott and Costello are talking about two different things. They have different images in their heads, different perceptions of reality. I think that is why the humor is so universal – we have all experienced this when we’ve had arguments that stem from a fundamental miscommunication.

I have been following the Creationism/Intelligent Design/Theory of Evolution issue for some time now, and was interested to learn about Ben Stein’s upcoming documentary titled “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.” The premise of the film as I understand it is that “Big Science” has been working to suppress any questioning of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, and that anyone with a dissenting viewpoint is blacklisted in the scientific community.

The problem that I have with the entire debate is not philosophical, not atheism (Science) vs. creationism (Religion). The problem I have is with the debate itself. The way I see it, Darwin’s Theory of Evolution is an explanation for the question of how, and Intelligent Design is an explanation for the question of what. See the Abbott and Costello connection? We think we’re talking about the same thing, but in reality, the two sides are are not talking about the same thing at all. Related things, but not the same things.

We can observe evolution in action. Ask anyone who has bred domestic animals or fiddled with fruit flies in biology class. Evolution explains the process by which the earth went from a primordial soup of emerging proteins to a planet teeming with life forms of amazing biological complexity. It does not attempt to explain the creation or origin of the universe.

Scientists see evolutionary processes at work, and individually they may or may not believe that a creator, or some kind of universal intelligence, set those processes in motion. Creationism/Intelligent Design calls this intelligence God. Since we cannot prove the non-existence of something, there is little value, in my opinion, in debating the existence of God. Atheists see no evidence of God, and therefore believe that God does not exist. Creationists see evidence of God, and therefore believe that God does exist. These opposing views likely will never be reconciled even if empirical evidence one way or another is discovered. People can be stubborn creatures and will believe what feels right to them, what fits into their experience of the world.

Some people are uncomfortable with the idea that human beings are classified as apes, and share a common ancestry with chimpanzees and gorillas. They often incorrectly distill anthropological information into an indignant sound byte: “those scientists are trying to get me to believe that I evolved from apes.” It has emotional pull. We like to consider ourselves as special and somehow removed from the evolutionary process that drives life on earth. We wear shoes. We eat with forks and knives. We create art. We make love in private. Well, most of us.

Personally, I’m OK with my relationship with chimpanzees and all other creatures on earth. I don’t have an emotional stake in it, other than being continually amazed at the beauty and complexity of life, and feeling privileged to be able to observe and feel such wonder, such communion. On a human level, in terms of how we relate to one another, how we treat each other and how we interact with nature, religion can serve a valuable purpose. Ideally it can help us to understand that we need connections, that we need a moral code in order to live our lives in harmony so that we can sustain ourselves and our place in nature now and in the future.

Creationism is a human concept of what, or perhaps more specifically, who, is responsible for the origin of all things in existence. Who’s on first, so to speak. This is something that science can neither prove nor disprove; at least it can’t yet. This leaves us up to our own imaginations, our religions and our cultures to explain and debate. This is something that is part of the human experience, something that we can discuss in social studies classes, in church and around the table. Evolution is likewise part of the human, or really global, experience, something we can discuss and debate in science classes, in church and around the table. They are related topics, often leading into one another and twisting around each other. But they are also different ideas, answers to two different questions. We need to treat them as such.

Storytelling

Lend me your ears and I’ll tell you a story…” (opening line of a song written by my father)

Stories are powerful. Stories can shape our entire outlook on life, our belief systems, our sense of identity. Storytelling ’round the fire has been an integral form of human communication from time immemorial. Think of all the stories you have cataloged in your brain – the stories your mother or father told you before bed, Aesop’s fables, fairy tales, war stories, nightmare birth stories, I-knew-a-guy-who stories, stories meant to give us some nugget of wisdom and guidance in how to live our lives.

Growing up I always loved fairy tales, but not just any fairy tales. They had to contain an element of darkness, of danger, of the macabre in order to appeal to me. In fact, I would argue that, by definition, an effective fairy tale must contain this element. Beauty has no purpose unless there is also a beast. According to Hans Christian Andersen, the Little Mermaid didn’t get her man in the end; she returned to the ocean, alone and defeated, in the form of sea foam, riding atop the crests of waves for eternity. I liked how the Disney version of Sleeping Beauty retained a sense of darkness and gloom (despite still straying wildly from the Grimm version). The wolf actually ate the duck, and likewise gobbled up Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother. Disney, while ever in the business of happy endings, seems now to completely omit the macabre from its source stories. I was fascinated when I learned not too long ago that during times of famine in Medieval Europe parents sometimes sacrificed one or more of their children (often depositing them deep into the woods) so that the rest of the family might survive on their meager rations. Wide-eyed German children listening to the story of little Hansel and Gretel likely had reason to be afraid – very afraid.

Stories can be powerful tools to inspire fear; mothers often employ every child’s natural terror of monsters and things-that-go-bump-in-the-night to elicit good behavior from their children lest the bogeyman come and get them. Campfire stories exploit our natural human fear, as diurnal creatures, of the dark shadows and sounds unseen in the night, to delicious, spine-tingling effect.

Using this exact same concept, people have been led to believe some pretty amazing things. Think of all the ways, according to certain religious faiths, that you can get yourself a one way ticket to an afterlife of eternal misery and suffering. Or, conversely, the things you must do in order to experience eternal bliss. Think of the kind of power people can amass when we believe they hold and distribute the tickets.

Stories are the tools we use to pass on our beliefs, our ways of life, to the next generation, even when we aren’t aware that we’re telling them. We can tell our children stories about bad kinds of people and good kinds of people, and they will believe us. When people are dependent and trusting, we have almost limitless power.

Looking at the world stage, from prehistory to the present and beyond, from times of peace and war, ease and suffering, to everyday acts of personal violence and valor, I’m always asking myself these questions: Which stories are being told? Who is telling them? Who is competing with whom in the storytelling contests, and what are the agendas? How do we decide which stories we will believe? Which ones will we tell our children?

A reader recently left the following comment on my “about” page. (Sorry, Marjana, I’m going to delete it since I’m addressing your question here in a lengthy post and, well, no offense or anything but I kind of like my about page to just be my personal “about” statement). Anyway, here is the question:

Hello. I was wondering whether or not you ever looked into what Islam has to say about the world…its perspective of reality…? Just curious. I take it you are not one to be fooled by the news media and what it has to say about Islam. I take it that you are one to read with an open mind/heart and not with prejudice/bias.

First of all, I’m happy that I come across as open minded. That’s what I strive to be. Second, I’m not going to go into what the question may or may not imply. Well, I will a little bit. I don’t know if Marjana is Muslim or not, and I think the answer would make a difference in how I read the question. At any rate, here goes:

1) It is commonly understood (meaning I am not going to provide sources) that the rise of agriculture about 10,000 years ago resulted in people organizing themselves into larger groups such as towns and cities. This seemed to first occur in the “fertile crescent,” the area of land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and also the Nile delta. When large groups of people come together, there must be some way of keeping order so that people can go about their daily lives in relative comfort and safety.

2) There seems to be a universal human tendency to feel that there must be a force larger than us, a being or intelligence that gave rise to all of the amazing aspects of life on earth. When good things happen to us, we must somehow be in the favor of this being, and when bad things happen, we must have done something to displease this power.

3) Over the course of the next several thousand years, people living in the fertile crescent developed some pretty complex civilizations, with many different religious systems. Often rulers claimed the divine right of kings; that is, they themselves were divine and had the approval of the gods to rule the people. To question the authority of your leader was to question the will of the gods. Religious systems often were nature-based, with animals, agricultural symbols and even insects taking on religious significance in the turning of the agricultural seasons.

4) One group of people, the Jews, were among those who believed in a single, all-powerful deity, rather than a hierarchy of different gods. This monotheistic group believed that God was intimately involved in human affairs – he could bring his wrath upon humans for their wrongdoing, and could likewise smile upon them with grace and love. Monotheism began to spread throughout the Middle East.

5) Religious upheaval and changes mirror human upheaval and change. Jesus, the humble Jewish prophet, arose at a time of great social unrest, at a time of conflict when many changes were afoot. Likewise, 600 years later Mohammad, the Arabian prophet, also arose at a time when things were rapidly changing (mainly due to trade and broader contact with the greater world) on the tribal Arabian peninsula. Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet, came to prominence during a time of rapid expansion and change in America and gave birth to the first homegrown Christian religion (some would say sect or cult) in this country.

6) For a religion to be successful long term, it has to be flexible in order to reflect the changing needs of the society it serves. For example, the early Christians worked with the Pagans, or nature-based religious adherents, to incorporate their rituals and beliefs into the growing Christian tradition. The winter solstice became Christmas (the birth of the Sun/the birth of the Son). The spring equinox and all of its fertility rituals became the return of the Sun/Son to earth. As people change, so too do religions. Religions that do not adequately reflect or address human needs, desires, fears or joys will eventually be amended or die out in favor of something else.

7) Peoples’ faiths have been used, for many thousands of years, as a means to control and manipulate people. This doesn’t mean that religions are bad. It means that abusers of power are bad. According to Mohammad, the only requirement in order to become a Muslim is to submit to the will of God. Unfortunately, the holders of power were generally the ones who got to decide what the will of God was, depending on their particular agenda. They are still doing this. Those with an agenda are telling young, disenfranchised people with no prospects that the will of God is to martyr themselves (and those within the reach of the explosives they carry on their bodies) in order to further their political goals.

8) Christianity and Judaism, as religious faiths, are flexible in the sense that today they can exist and flourish within secular states. Islamic leaders, on the other hand, tell people that there cannot be a separation between faith and government. Islamic law must also be state law. Again, this is not necessarily an inherent flaw within Islam specifically – it is a flaw of the people who use Islam to further an agenda, in the same way the Spanish Inquisitors used Catholicism to abuse their power, in the way Rome ruled political affairs in Europe.

9) Because of internal problems and external meddling, Middle Eastern societies are in turmoil and appear to be collapsing. One of my favorite sayings is, “there is nothing more dangerous than a man with nothing to lose.” How true this seems to be in regard to acts of terrorism.

10) I studied Islam for a year in college (using the excellent Marshall Hodgson’s “The Venture of Islam” as a guide), and have come to no profound conclusions. People are imperfect creatures. People and societies under certain types of stress behave in predictable ways. The Germans under the weight of reparations after WWI were easily seduced by the Nazis, who gave them somebody to blame. Islam itself is not the problem. The political upheaval that has been going on in the Middle East for the last two thousand years is causing pressure cracks, and things are about at the tipping point, especially as world demand for oil increases, while supply decreases. It’s a whole big mess, and if it weren’t nutty terrorists who happen to be Muslim, it would be somebody else. If it weren’t for the Jews and Palestinians, it would be some other toxic combination. The recipe for this particular type of disaster is flexible like that.

Does this answer the question of how I think Islam in particular views the world? No, it doesn’t. I don’t think it’s really possible for a non-Muslim to answer this question comprehensively. But I view Islam as a religious path that contains many truths, yet ultimately gets snagged on the particulars of how people should live their lives. I think all dogmatic faiths have this in common. However, as members of the human species, religious or not, we need to ask ourselves: do our actions help make the world a better place? Or do they cause yet more suffering and misery? After all, we judge ourselves by our intentions, but others by their actions.