Who said it was going to be easy?

This post serves a couple purposes. Firstly, it is to apologise for how late I have been in providing a blog post to anyone who has been waiting for one. Secondly, I felt like using this post as a means for explaining its very own tardiness (hint: it was to do with the title).

Grad school is hard. I can’t actually recall anyone telling me that grad school would be easy. Studying the humanities, at least philosophy (since that’s all I know right now), is hard. I equally don’t recall anyone telling me that philosophy would be easy.

I think embedded in two of the sentences above calls to attention a deeper belief that exists as common (but not necessarily conscious) thought throughout engineering and the sciences. I noticed an unfortunate reality when in undergrad, which was a general idea that the degrees doled out by the College of Engineering carried more weight than those given out by the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts (LS&A). I must add though that those who held these beliefs were, in my mind, rather innocently holding these beliefs. I don’t think they could be held responsible for thinking that their major was harder, and more credible, than another’s. Engineering is hard work, too.

I remember having to balance my music minor and other humanities classes with my engineering degree, such that I always felt like I was merely taking time away from engineering to devote to humanities classes. It was not always the other way around. Not often would I think I was taking time away from the humanities to get my work done for engineering. Neither discipline is better than the other, but I’m realising that now is the time when I finally don’t have to think that I’m taking away from another field of discipline to study (in this case) philosophy. (Don’t get me wrong – I still held a *massive* appreciation for the humanities (as I’m not sure I would be on the RMJ Fellowship had I not held such a view).)

Engineering could always be used as an excuse if I hadn’t entirely finished the reading for an english class, or for not being truly well-read enough in the theory of a topic being discussed a certain day in anthropology. I still managed to do what was necessary for most of my classes, and luckily my teachers managed to notice that I had a strong passion for (in my case) creative writing, anthropology, and music.

However, now that I’m able to devote 100% of my time to studying philosophy, the topic is no longer a superfluous, cool term that I used in describing an idealistic, romantic view of a discipline. I can’t now just read about virtue ethics, or moral relativism, and think, “Yeah, that’s cool, maybe I can throw that into my arsenal of interesting topics to discuss with people… hopefully they won’t inquire further into the topic.” This use of vocabulary quickly changed when I came to UCL. (I recall getting looked in the eye directly, being asked to delve into what I meant about something I had just mentioned, and getting extremely nervous with this task. This is becoming easier each time the situation happens, thankfully.) I find myself, instead of expressing solidly a thought or belief that I had always held, stopping myself in my tracks and thinking of all the possible counter-arguments and descriptions of my thoughts. I’ve literally stopped talking mid-sentence to a friend when speaking about some political issue in the States because I started to really think about what I was saying. I blame this (happily) on philosophy.

To give an example, I think I remember mentioning in my application to LSE something along the lines of “I will use the term ‘inequalities’ in this essay, but I really believe that we should be talking about inequities in life.” This sentence was saying that I really thought that most inequalities were truly inequities. I gave no significance to inequalities, and all moral significance to inequities. What mainly stirred these thoughts was the following graphic that popped up on my Facebook newsfeed:

However, after one lecture I had in my module titled “The Philosophy, Politics and Economics of Health” (the same as my course title), we delved into inequalities, specifically as they pertained to health. Some questions that came out of this discussion are as follows:

What makes an inequality an inequity?

What is the nature of an inequity? Is it the fact that it is unfair?

If an inequity is simply an unfair inequality, then what makes the inequality unfair?

What’s telling you that anything is unfair? What school of thought are you using — perhaps some form of egalitarianism?

Is unfairness dependent on who is responsible for the unfairness?

What if someone purposefully puts himself into a position of inequality? Is this unfair if their decision was completely free and autonomous?

What implies autonomy? Is it better to have more choice in life all the time? Is freedom directly related to the amount of choice one has?

As you can see, the questions can spiral into other areas that might not work directly back to our initial question, but this is the nature of philosophy (at least in my mind). I’m quickly learning that I need to truly develop a difficultly intangible frame of reference on which I can build my argument.

Since truly so many ideas have validity in philosophy, some may say that there is no right answer. However, I think this is really the beauty of philosophy. If there’s no right answer, then I had best be sure that I build my argument so well that, when I try to attack my argument as best I can with counter-arguments, the argument holds through and becomes believable by the reader.

I remember listening to a lecture by Dr. Christian Casper in my senior design course, about the failed launch attempt of the Challenger space shuttle (apologies if I get any information wrong in this account!). The day of the launch was predicted to be colder than usual, and those in charge of the launch asked those who manufactured the shuttle to determine whether they believed it was safe for the rocket to be launched that day. Embedded in all of the data gathered from tests on this rocket was the fact that an integral part of the design (an o-ring, I think) had a really great chance of failing if the outside temperature was below a certain point.

Essentially, it was going to be too cold to launch the rocket that day, but those in charge of the launch failed to be convinced by the engineer who worked with the o-rings and the shuttle. Alternatively, and perhaps more importantly, the engineer failed to present his data well enough so those in charge of the launch would be successfully convinced to not launch the rocket. The shuttle proceeded to explode and kill the entire crew aboard.

Here’s where (at least one) utility in philosophy comes into play. Independent of whether or not there is one true, right answer (Truth with capital T), the way in which you present your argument has a large part to do with how those listening or reading will receive this argument.

Humans do not function on facts. We can think of facts as blatantly true or false, or perhaps as 0’s or 1’s, the familiar binary code that computers use to process information. Humans, rather, are perceptive beings, despite how much truth our claims might hold, so we must present our ideas of the truth in such a way that will give them the best chance of being fully understood (where understanding is not the same thing as agreeing).

After I finish this post, I’ll move into an evening of becoming evermore well-read, searching for the best counter-arguments for my own views, such that I can reinforce (or respectively and consciously change) my thoughts on what I believe to be important and worthwhile. Hopefully this process will end in a way that prepares me well for fighting for the health and well-being of various populations and people with whom we inhabit this earth.

In ending, I want to address my use of the word “it” in my title. My old english teacher, James, abhorred the word “it”, only because he believed (and still believes) that the word is a terribly nondescript and useless word to use in writing. However, I wanted to utilise the generality of this painfully ambiguous pronoun. If we learned anything from this post, it is that each field of study has its worth, and is going to require a warranted level of expertise that is required by its students. As the old cliché phrase goes: if I am doing something that I see as easy, I’m most likely not properly challenging myself in the matter, and hence not letting myself grow to my full potential. (Keep in mind that ‘natural’ cannot be substituted for the word ‘easy’ in this sentence.)

~~~

Have a happy rest of your weekend, friends! In some news, I’ll be taking part in a couple jazz shows happening on campus soon – one is called Fiesta, and is a night full of Latin, fun-filled jazz and dancing. The other is called “Cross-Currents”, a jazz fusion show that’s going to be played with minimal instrumentation and for an audience in an intimate (meaning small) setting. I’m really looking forward to these shows.

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On fearing death – why does it matter?

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I can’t remember specifically when, but for a some time when I was younger, perhaps around my early grade school years, I would start tear up a little each time I went to bed. My dad would come in to say good night, and when he did, my tears would become stronger. He would notice my sadness, and in his comforting, caring tone, he’d ask,

“What’s the matter?”

“I’m afraid for when you die,” I’d timidly say.

I can’t remember what my dad would say in response to this, but whatever he said was enough to get me to calmly go to sleep. I guess nighttime was the time I saw best for confronting the nature of my parents’ mortality. Is this normal for the common seven-year-old? Keep in mind, I wasn’t forced to do this – both of my parents were healthy, along with my sisters, and most of my extended family as well. We didn’t really have many health issues in our family outside of those seen as “due to old age.” This is surely not the case for many, many children in this world – too many children are forced to confront the nature of their parents’ mortality all too soon in life.

I brought this story up in class last week, because the topic of class was simply, “Death.” This module, titled “Illness,” is where we try to take the idea of illness and examine illness’ place in society as a philosopher would. The first of a few readings we were assigned for this class was Epicurus’ letter to Menoeceus where Epicurus speaks, among other things, on the idea of fearing death, and what it means to think of death as being good or evil.

Epicurus tries to speak about why humans tend to fear death, and speak to why it might not be rational to fear such a thing. Pulling a quote from Epicurus:

“Death…is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not.”

Here we see that, considering two possible states (being dead or alive), we can’t really fear death as death itself, simply because we might cease to exist when we die, hence we cannot be present to do the fearing death. This isn’t necessarily contradictory to many religious beliefs, I think – in the Catholic tradition, life is found in death, hence I don’t really think Catholics (I can’t really speak much to other religions) believe in true death, but only physical death; Catholics believe in the eternal life of the soul. Going further, the only conclusive thing I can say about death are these words: “I don’t know.” I don’t know what lies on the other side of the passing of my body, I don’t know where my mind or soul goes.

If we take Epicurus’ words to be true, we might be able to say that it’s not rational to fear death. However, I was speaking with a classmate after this week’s session and she drew the distinction between the idea of fearing death as being reasonable versus rational. The distinction I’d like to make here is that while it might not be rational to fear death, it might wholly be reasonable. This idea hinges upon the mere fact that we are social beings, and live in relation to others. Since I really, honestly don’t know when my death will come, and I won’t actually be able to know that I am existing “in death” (again please don’t construe this with ideas noted in whatever religion you might hold), then I really shouldn’t worry about life for my own sake. What I should worry about, though, is my life in relation to others, and others’ lives in relation to mine. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to fear the death of those I love, because if they leave this earth, or this realm, there would be nothing in this world that could fill the gaping hole in my heart and soul that their exiting would create. I have yet the capacity to experience their absence, and that absence would undoubtedly cause me to suffer as a result.

I chose my words carefully in that last sentence, because the term “suffering” is an interesting one. Oftentimes, especially in biomedicine, suffering comes in tandem with pain (patient X is experiencing pain and suffering due to Z). However, after exploring the idea of suffering in class, it can’t really be said that all pain leads to suffering, nor that all suffering comes from pain. Suffering, in a broader sense, can be caused by all sorts of things in life, or simply by life itself. The loss of a loved one, a hard breakup, not getting that dream job… What I think I want to believe is that death is not the greatest evil in this world, rather it is the suffering that comes with death, or more generally, that suffering is something that we can rationally fear as humans.

Suffering consists not only of the item that caused its existence (pain, death, etc.) but also of a unique temporal element. That is, suffering exists only in a narrative of life – of past, present, and future. If we think ourselves as suffering, then we usually know when the suffering started, and hope for when the suffering will end. Some might say that suffering is a good thing, as it builds character – however I would only agree with this if we can reasonably see that our future holds a time when the suffering we experience now will not exist.

Without hypothesising any more on suffering, I want to turn towards biomedicine and the motives that drive biomedicine into such a high role in today’s society. It seems as though the role of biomedicine today is ultimately to stave off impending death, to relieve us of our mortal duties as humans, to keep us living as long as possible. I often turn to the concept of a quality adjusted life year, or the QALY. Yes, this time is adjusted for “quality” and not merely years lived – living off of a ventilator for 20 years, incapable of speaking or moving around, might in fact be worse than one year of being medically unhindered. However, the QALY is still attached to time – the QALY, and therefore our objectified goal in medicine, is temporally dependent. Why this dependence?

I could imagine that one might want to extend her life because this gives her the opportunity to make longer, more meaningful connections to others, to leave a lasting impact on this world, and to effect change in the best way possible. We live for the future, we prepare ourselves for what might happen later on in life, and what we might be able to do with one more degree, with a little more work experience, or with a little more time spent in connection with others. I can’t argue against having more time spent with loved ones, but bear with me here and take that idea to the extreme. What if we had eternity to spend with others?

If I had eternity to spend with my family, I might just pass up an opportunity to hang out with them for, say, another opportunity to go out and meet new people. However, strictly because I do not have eternity to enjoy my loved ones’ company, I might want to spend a little more time cherishing what time I do have with them. In this sense, our mortality, and its temporally limited nature, allows us to really cherish the relationships we have because we never really know when they’re going to end. Furthermore, if we spend all of our time fearing the end of our relationships, we would never have the time to really enjoy them in the present moment.

I’m going to leave the conversation there for now. I do want to talk more about the goals of biomedicine and the role that suffering and death play, but this would require many more words, and a lot more thought and time. I’ll also use that time to ponder more on suffering, and how to actually tackle this idea philosophically. In other words, I’m going to devote an entire blog post to the matter instead of tacking it onto this post.

~~~

Life update: we’re into reading week, so I don’t have class this upcoming week. I have a few things planned:

  • To play in the house band at Phineas on Tuesday night
  • To see a West End show on Wednesday night – The Exorcist (getting my socially necessary dose of Halloween activities in a little later than usual)
  • To go see a BBC jazz live recording session this coming Friday
  • To start (and finish) my first political philosophy paper (wish me luck)
  • To go visit a few museums in London (I just got a national art pass, so I have no excuses now!)

 

(A bit) on the justification of jazz

Life here at UCL is a bit tricky, as a necessary part of graduate studies is figuring out the proper work-life balance (cliché, I know). I believe the double-edged sword of grad school to be the newly-, socially-acceptable idea that graduates can make more excuses to stay in and study, because they have “so much work.” I can’t possibly go out because, well, I have so much reading to do. I have a paper to work on. I’m a studious, *keen* grad student so I shouldn’t spend much time socializing. And people would believe me if I make these sorts of excuses.

I guess this reasoning isn’t false. I do have a lot of reading (and soon to be) writing to do, but that work tends to fill whatever time span I give to myself, be it two hours, an entire evening, or the expansive weekend. I have trapped myself in a corner, believing that I simply have no time to do anything else but read and worry about my classwork. The walls behind me fell apart, though, when I started getting involved in UCL’s jazz society. This society offers not just opportunities to play with each other, but time to laugh, talk about jazz, or just express our feelings about things not necessarily jazz-related. There’s this sense of inclusion and mutual benefaction that we all get from indulging in such a type of music together, and I think the Jazz Society speaks volumes to how London is in general. London welcomes all, no matter their origin, and allows one to find their niche in such a vibrantly huge place in this world.

Every Tuesday the jazz society holds a jam session at a campus bar, Phineas. From 8 PM to 9 PM the house band plays, and from 9 – 11 PM they open up the band to anyone who would like to join in and play a tune. If this kind of thing happened in the States, I’m not sure how many people would come. I think I’m safe saying that, if put in front of a band playing live, upbeat jazz music, someone my age would have a great experience. However, if presented with the idea of going to a jazz show, some friends might hesitate because jazz doesn’t carry the same idea of “fun” that the genre did 40 years ago. However, these Tuesday nights are some of the liveliest I’ve seen this campus bar, where patrons are packed shoulder-to-shoulder, to the point that I feel getting out of the establishment with ease would be pretty difficult. In other words, (I can safely assume that) people like jazz here! Friends dance, sing, and sway to the music that we make on these nights and experiencing others enjoying jazz is truly beautiful, especially from the viewpoint of a performer.

Keeping in mind, however, that this happens in the middle of the week: How in the world do I justify treating a Tuesday night as I would a Friday night back in Ann Arbor?? Well, sometimes I’m not able to properly justify this decision in a “classwork first” sort of mindset. A few nights I’ve had to sacrifice the couple extra hours of sleep to finish some work that I hadn’t finished Tuesday afternoon. I might have to sacrifice a few extra pounds (analogous to dollars, surely) to spend on an extra Wednesday pick-me-up (in the form of coffee). However, if four weeks of philosophy has taught me anything so far, it’s that we can view problems and situations in multiple different frameworks. What if I process this situation in a framework that we might call, say… “Jeffrey’s soul is not fully whole unless he gets to play music for others” framework? Okay, I’m lacking a bit of originality in naming, but I’m learning an important lesson here. Classwork and reading do not hold the entire answer to having a truly beneficial experience here in London, which is something I’m sure Roger M. Jones would have agreed with.

Having internally resolved that conflict, I wanted to bring up another topic, that of which revolves around family: Parents.

I particularly loved being in Ann Arbor because I was approximately two hours away from home. To me this was the perfect amount of separation: healthy enough distance so I could make my own life without having to consult my parents about decisions that I made, but close enough that I could go home for the weekend without spending too much time in transit. Additionally, my parents could come to events that were important to me in my time at U-M, be it graduation, a music show, a birthday, or a presentation.

Don’t get me wrong – I truly, deeply love my parents, but something is to be said for parents who raise children who are able to be independent when they need to be, but at the same time vulnerable enough to ask for help in a time of need.

Last Tuesday, one of the singers in JazzSoc had her birthday on the same night as jazz night, and her dad and his friend accompanied her to the bar to watch her sing and enjoy her birthday in good company. What surprised me, though, was when the dad got up and asked for a guitar, because he was ready to play and sing a blues. This woman’s father, getting up to perform in front of a crowd with an average age about one or two sigmas’ worth below his, was what I thought an act of true love for his daughter. And his daughter got to observe him partaking in music, on her birthday, in the company of her friends.

The sheer distance between my family and myself started to become so real at that moment. I was really happy for this experience, yet I realized the sacrifices that my parents make for my own independence. Something can be said for letting a child be independent and make their own decisions, but even more is the idea of accepting the idea that their child is going to move to the opposite side of the world. As much as they would want to (and I would, too), my parents cannot physically come to my shows, to a presentation I might have, or to celebrate most special events with me. I’m starting to realize how difficult this might be for a parent, especially when “letting go” is carried out to the extreme in my sense.

There’s something to be said about this lack of physical connection and space. In the absence of physical presence, I can start to feel the intense intangible connection that a child (and brother – shoutout to my sisters!) feels with his parents (and sisters). It’s this connection that will never leave me, that is inherent in having been born of my parents and them having raised me in their unique style and means. As much as some might not like to hear, our parents will never leave us, even when they’re across the world.

So, shouting out to mom and dad, you might not be able to physically share in my time here, but you are emotionally and spiritually taking part in every waking moment of my time. Despite my inability to send a message every day (sorry mom), I do always think about you – know that the senses of security, safety, and confidence that I feel in my own capacity to adjust and live in a new world do not come from my own inherent abilities but largely from who you are.

~~~

More to come on studies – reading week is approaching, and I have a pretty difficult paper due after this week, so stay tuned for the inevitable “I’m going to practice my ideas on my readers” post!

 

Legitimacy, Obligation, and the Authority of Illness

In writing this post, I hope to accomplish two things:

  1. To inform you a bit about what I’ve been learning so far in my classes. (Only specific highlights, to make things digestible.)
  2. To speak of another part of my past life, Camp Kesem, and the disease the camp addresses: cancer.

The ideas I’m going to address will pertain to two of my classes that I’ve had so far: Contemporary Political Philosophy (CPP) (on anarchy, democracy, obligation, etc.) and Illness. I’m thoroughly enjoying my other classes, but I think I’ll leave them out of this discussion for the sake of being concise.

Now, to dig into the matter… I think I might have mentioned a few questions regarding what I learned about in this CPP class. This past week struck me as profound after we discussed what are called the instrumentalist theories as well as the idea of consent. Consent turns into a real interesting topic, especially when we think about how integral this idea is especially in the field of health (see small text below for a short diversion).

~~~~~

Consent, in my mind, has been used as a shield to guard patient autonomy. Furthermore, in many circumstances patient autonomy is seen as something we must not infringe upon (almost taking up an anarchist view in this sense). It is completely unheard of practicing any bit of medicine on a patient without any bit of their explicit consent.

~~~~~

Without explaining much, the instrumentalist theories (slightly) contradicted what we learned about anarchism. Anarchism (as told by R.P. Wolff) states, among other things, that humans are to remain completely autonomous beings that should not relinquish any of their autonomy to an authority, because there is no way for a government or an authority to be truly legitimate. In other words, it’s never okay to submit yourself to the power of an authority if you want to respect your dignity.

Despite how many times the anarchist can keep asking “how” and “why” to your presumptions about what’s okay in terms of obligation, I couldn’t reason with myself that anarchism was the answer to living a successful life myself, nor for society to be successful in any way that wouldn’t end up like what happens in The Lord of the Flies. Plus, if medicine was a complete anarchy, we wouldn’t have the ability to actually give consent and almost “turn over” our power to the medical professional. How would any progress actually be made? (See another small text for another diversion.)

~~~~~

This merits an entire discussion on how we define autonomy. Some definitions might include:

  • Having complete freedom of choice, all the time. No exceptions.
  • The absence of any hinderance to the way one wants to live.
    • This means that, potentially, one could submit themselves to, say, a government or authority in order to give themselves more opportunities to live a better life, where if they denied the authority, they may in fact be hindering themselves more than if they didn’t.
  • Not ever submitting yourself to another individual’s power.

~~~~~

This week of class, and the connected readings, brought some clarity to the question I posed before the small text (at least as much clarity that is allowed in political philosophy). Joseph Raz, when speaking on authority and legitimacy, brought up one of the instrumentalist theories, or the normal justification thesis (NJT). Raz proposes that one is justified in resting his own power in authority if, in that case, he believes that the authority has the expertise, knowledge, and time to devote to making a decision for him/her (“him/her” being the hypothetical “one” that Raz introduces) than he/she might not have.” Furthermore, Patrick Durning adds to Raz’s thesis that if the subject claims to have more knowledge or expertise than the authority in a specific problem, then they are justified to override the authority’s power and make his/her own decision in the matter at hand. (This theory would then lend itself to the definition of autonomy that I posed in the second bullet point of my most recent “block” text.)

Raz’s theory makes a little more sense to me, and can lead (in my mind) to a society functioning much better than us all deciding to become anarchists and not give any recognition to any central authority. Atul Gawande, in his essay, Whose Body is it Anyway?, manages to speak of (or around, I should say) this theory without even mentioning the NJT itself. Gawande speaks of when his 11-day-old daughter, Hunter, stopped breathing due to an unknown reason, which led to Gawande and his wife taking their daughter to the hospital. After some testing, the medical professionals ended up at a proverbial fork in the road. It was suspected that Hunter had a lung infection, but they wouldn’t know for sure for a few more days until the lab results could properly come in. Hence they could have put Hunter on a ventilator, posing many risks to her little body, or alternatively they could have let Hunter push through, risking her body of a shut down and her subsequent death. As the patient (since a child’s autonomy is extended to her parents in most cases), Gawande had the complete ability to make the decision to put his daughter on a ventilator or let her push through. However, in this instance, he chose to defer the decision to the medical professionals, despite his ability and expertise that would give him full capacity to make his own decision.

Following Raz’s NJT, Gawande assessed the situation, showed that he had the right expertise to make a decision for himself and not pass on his autonomy to the authority. But he still refrained in making this decision. Would Raz say that Gawande was not justified in passing this decision to the medical professionals, when he was on par with them professionally and was more familiar with his own daughter, therefore making him more qualified to make his own decision regarding his daughter’s health?

Hunter ended up living, but what if she ended up dying because of this decision? Would Gawande have published this story? Largely with Whose Body is it Anyway?, Gawande is trying to make a point that sometimes a doctor’s paternalism might be justified, and I think Raz’s NJT supports this idea. (If the doctor, or the “expert,” is seen as the one with better faculties to make a decision for a patient (but not necessarily in Gawande’s case), then it would actually free up the patient to live a less hindered life if they release their autonomy to the doctor’s whim.)

Okay, so I might have just walked you through a pretty obvious point, making it more obvious with some cool philosopher’s knowledge and discussion. But the heart of the matter is what happens when we succumb to what I believe to be a truly dominating authority in our lives, that of which truly relinquishes our autonomy (in the “hindrance” definition I’ve used). I could speak of illness in general, but I want to highlight one in particular, that which has been a growing, silent, and deadly killer of our century:

Cancer. 

It’s highly likely that any one of you reading this blog has lost a loved one or at least knows someone who has been affected by cancer. I lost my grandma and my great grandma to cancer, and this may be considered lucky in relative comparison to other families. Cancer takes a hold of one’s life, not only physically but also socially: we see the disease literally wrapping its hands around the patient, the brother, the daughter, the mother… yanking them in to whisper in their ear: I will force you into thought about your mortality; I will hold you from normalcy; I will stigmatize you; I will make your life hell.

If a lawyer representing the U.S. government did the same thing I just described, I would be pretty skeptical of this government’s legitimacy. However with cancer, we must relinquish all of our faculties to make choices to this disease. Sure, we can make the choice to get chemotherapy or attack the cancer in some way, but these methods usually come with terrible side effects, are not 100% effective, and cast the patient into an eternal state of remission, never being cancer-free. In my mind, we lose autonomy when cancer takes over our lives. I couldn’t help but make this connection when I was reading about authority and obligation to obey in Raz’s work.

As much as I want to have an answer for you, or a theory about how truly deciding to obey or not obey cancer will actually do anything about the cancer itself. What I’m talking about is pretty theoretical and in reality, in practice, these ideas may collapse into thin air. But I want to explore this idea further, despite that risk: what happens when we do submit ourselves to the authority of cancer? I’m not speaking only about the patient, because cancer is something that affects the entire family. And this is where Camp Kesem comes into play.

In one sentence, Camp Kesem is a summer camp meant for kids whose parents have been affected by cancer. It’s not a camp for kids with cancer, and it’s not a camp where kids go to only talk about death, sickness, and the disease that has ravaged many families. This is a camp where kids come to have fun, to find kids like them who understand what cancer does to a family. They go to a place with families who all have one thing in common: they have had to obey to the authority of cancer.

For some reason, though, camp has turned into a place of refuge for me and for many of the campers who come back every year. Camp Kesem is a family, and some of the strongest connections that I am aware of in this life have formed out of being together for only one week. One week – that’s how much time has passed since my last blog post, and I think I stand pretty neutral on where most of my friendships are (which are in a good spot – don’t worry!). How can we find such refuge that was founded from cancer,  that which has coerced us into devoting our mental, physical, and monetary resources into a disease that many times ends in death? After asking this question, my mind pointed me back to the Dominican Republic. I think I might have described this situation before, but I’ll describe it again:

We, being myself and the fellow interns for a Dominican NGO called FUMSIL, were on a vacation day and decided to go to the south coast of the DR. We went to a beach town called Jarabacoa, were we could choose to swim in an (ice cold) river or in the sea. We chose the sea mainly because it was warmer. Before I left for the water, one of my Dominican friends, Kiko, told me to be careful with the ocean. Okay, if a Dominican tells you to be careful with the ocean, it means that this matter is pretty serious. So I go down the rocky beach and go towards the water. I enter in about four feet, only to be slammed by a wave that knocked me to by rear, then proceeded to drag me across the carpet of small pebbles and rocks. Woah, I thought, Kiko was right.

Now that I knew of how powerful this ocean was, I had a newfound respect for this beast of nature. The next time I went out into the waves, I gave in with all of my faculties – I believed the ocean to be a completely legitimate force of power, and let the ocean take control. And to let such a large, governing force of nature take over my life, toss me about, was in a sense liberating, because I had gathered a great sense of respect for the ocean as well as for how fragile my own life was.

Cancer is not the same thing as an ocean, but does submitting ourselves to some greater force of nature that is out of our control generate in us a newfound sense of respect in our lives? Does this respect for life, then, let us appreciate what we have more, and let us use our own faculties more efficiently and in better, more productive ways in our lives? With this question in mind, I think back to Camp Kesem. What I experienced with these kids, largely, was that they all had some kind of profound respect for life that I only really saw consistently in the kids who went to camp. Was this respect a factor of having had to learn how to obey the  nasty, authoritative force that is cancer?

Perhaps, without writing too much more, I might make a small conclusion from these thoughts. Instead of trying to resist the obligation to admit to the authority of cancer, why not admit to its authority? (Admitting to the authority of cancer would not be the same as admitting defeat, however.) Cancer, put bluntly, is an expert in matters of mortality, but in my experience, it is those who fully well acknowledge the authority that cancer has in their lives, who can then use more of their faculties to live with cancer and, hopefully, live past cancer. By ignoring cancer, and remaining in solitude to fight it alone, we cannot win against such a ravenous disease.

This conclusion might be weak, and I will probably have better skills to tackle these thoughts in a few months’ time, but consider this a chance to explore what goes on in my mind when I’m spending countless hours in the library reading through this new field of philosophy. To end, I’m going to leave a things a bit brighter and give you a picture of my birthday “cake” from yesterday, in addition to a birthday latte.

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WWYD? (What Would You Do?)

Hello friends,

It’s a little late here, and my sinuses are full of fluid, but I promised you all a post about my Public Ethics course, so this will be my pre-bedtime activity for the night. Today was a whirlwind, but was incredibly rewarding nonetheless. We had this incredible lecture that explored the true differences between inequality and inequity. We spent a lot of time trying to tackle the question, “If we see an inequality, is that inequality inherently unfair?” “If the inequality is unfair (and unjust), does that then turn the inequality into an inequity?” “How might we go about determining if an inequality is unfair and/or unjust, and what would we do to combat the inequality?”

But those questions are to be answered (or explored, rather) another day. I’m here to write about what I learned on Monday, or at least tell you how I experienced this Public Ethics class. My teacher reminds me of my old professor, Scott Stonington (shoutout!), as he was extremely enthusiastic about his field of study while being so personal with his students that anything he lectured on would seem interesting to me. I also share first names with him, so you could say that inherently makes him decently cool…

To start class, Jeff got us into groups of five and had us all learn each others names, while he made the same attempt. He then asks the class if anyone can explain the “James and the villagers” example that was in our readings for the past week (I can’t remember if this was actually the name of the experiment). Whoever knew what he was talking about was told to stand up and explain, as dramatic as possible (his words, not mine), the story. It went as such:

You are a foreigner in the colonial United States. You land on the coast and come inland, entering into a village that is run by a dictator, who is an imperialist eternally trying to exert his dominance over the community of Native Americans over which he rules. Seeing that you’re another white foreigner, he happily calls you over to what best resembles a town meeting place. You look to the wall of the meeting place where the dictator has lined up twenty Native Americans. The dictator says, “Welcome to the village! Now, there’s been some misbehaving in the community, so I’ve decided to show these Native Americans who’s boss. My plan was basically to kill twenty of them right here, death by gunshot. This will help them learn that I can’t be challenged as a ruler.”

“But, I’m going to turn this over to you. You, good sir, can shoot only one Native American by yourself, and the other nineteen walk. However if you don’t choose to kill one and you walk away, then I will kill all of them.”

What would you do as the foreigner?

The class was polled and we talked about why or why not we might have chosen between the two options. After exploring our options, Jeff kept modifying the situation. For those of us who said we would kill the one Native American for the others to go free, he asked what we would do if instead we had not a gun to use but a hammer. I brought up the question of age and (independently) quality of life. What if one Native American was willing to take the fall for the rest? Would that choice have been completely autonomous? What makes the choice justified? Is it your fault for the deaths of twenty Native Americans if you choose to walk away? A Deontologist might say no. A consequentialist might say yes.

This story is a good precursor to my year studying (predominantly) philosophy. Some say, “No, philosophy is not useful because the questions that philosophers ask never have the right answer!” However, I think we’re trained to believe that there really is only one answer to the deeper questions we encounter in life. However, the fact that these questions don’t have an answer gives them this incredible inner beauty that lets us truly explore the human condition. Exploring the grey area in philosophical thought experiments like these will let us really pin-point where our boundaries lay, and finding our limits (or others limits) is important, in my mind, when trying to truly understand another. My hope is that training myself in exploring the grey areas of life through philosophy will let me then be better equipped to provide solutions (not answers) to the most difficult problems that arise in the world global health.

That’s it for tonight, friends – thanks for thinking with me.

What’s to say I’m a Londoner?

 

Dear friends,

I am long over due for a blog post! It’s funny how the time goes by so quickly when learning how to become a true Londoner… The question I keep asking myself, though, is how do I actually find myself becoming a Londoner? In what way am I integrating into British culture? Can someone tell merely by looking at me that I am from the United States? (As an aside, I specifically try to tell people that I am from the United States when prompted, and to not say that I am American. It’s not a lie that I am American, however we commonly (and innocently, I might argue) that those from the United States are not the only Americans in the world. Mexicans, Salvadorans, Chileans, Argentinians, Brazilians, etc. are all Americans, too. All too often the word “American” is associated with the United States, so I’m trying to change that in my own subtle way.) (Another aside (here’s when I wish that WordPress had the footnote function, or that I will someday discover how to use said function), is that there doesn’t exist a word for “from the United States” in the English language (or one that I know of). In Spanish, I could tell someone “Soy estadounidense”, or “of the United States”, if I wanted to explain my nationality.)

Extremely long double side note aside, we (being U.S. citizens) have some work to do in describing ourselves as American without (again, I emphasize, oftentimes innocently) including the power that the United States tends to exert over other areas of the world. Footnote capabilities aside, I guess I would insert one here that says this claim should be backed by ample historical research that justifies my imperialist claims. And I shed my wonderful birth country in bad light with these thoughts. I would still consider myself patriotic, however I tend to express this patriotism in alternative ways.

Regarding my initial questions, though, I think I’ve been integrating myself pretty well here. Multiple times I’ve been asked for directions by tourists, and I’ve also been asked “and how are you” in German by a (new) friend who initially thought I was German. I try to follow two basic rules when trying to look like a local:

  1. Try to be quiet and speak less often than you would be inclined to do so.
  2. Look straight ahead and not up at the buildings when walking in the city

From what I’ve noticed of the English that I’ve met is that most like to listen instead of speak in a conversation. I’ve caught myself a few times talking more than I probably should have, and have tried to make a constant effort to listen more during conversations. Sometimes I have to resist the antsy feeling of “Gosh, I *really* want to offer my point of view in this conversation,” which sometimes makes me squirm in my seat. However uncomfortable at times, I was surprised at how wonderful it is to listen more than speak in a conversation. (Footnote, which is a disclaimer this time: I have been described by my friends as quiet and soft-spoken, so I think I do have an advantage for assimilation when coming to the UK with my personality.)

Looking straightforward and directed as I walk will usually give the illusion that I know where I’m going, despite whether or not I actually have real knowledge of the area of town I’m in. I can’t remember if I’ve written this already, but at one point I was walking around Oxford with Google Maps open on my phone, and someone stopped me for directions to some unknown street in Oxford. I glanced down at my phone, and the name of the street was peering right back at me, and I pointed her in the right direction. I subsequently checked the “Be mistaken as an Oxford student” box in my mental bucket list. (Wishful thinking, surely).

Concluding this little bit, I surely have a lot of room to go if I want to call myself a local of London, or a Londoner. I’ve been taking the necessary steps to do so, including listening to the BBC more often than NPR, taking a cup of tea in the afternoon, and making those ever-so-subtle changes in vocabulary that don’t seem natural quite yet.

Shifting gears a bit, I wanted to talk about my last week, which was the first week of “real” classes. I’ll start with the fun bit. (This is a joke; it’s all fun!)

I started out the week with an intriguing “Philosophy of Mind” course, which talked much about introspection and the feasibility of the perceptual model when it pertains to perceiving the mind. This might be a topic for another time but, as interesting as this class seemed, I managed to switch out of it and enrol (yes, again, they use one “l”) in a class called “Public Ethics,” which is *far* more intellectually stimulating while (in my mind) being more readily applicable to what I perceive to be the problems that involve the human condition. (Maybe I should devote a post on what I believe to be the human condition.)

My classes then moved on to my Contemporary Political Philosophy module. I am rightfully terrified by my professor, Dr. Avia Pasternak. To give some context, I was equally terrified with the director of the U-M School of Music Jazz Lab Band, Dennis Wilson. This didn’t deter me from doing well in the class, however my fear really allowed me to improve more than I would have had I been studying under a passive, unconvincing professor. I can say the same about this political philosophy class. The readings are dense and nearly indecipherable at this point, and Dr. Pasternak expects a lot from us, but I’ll be putting in the necessary work to rise above and beyond her expectations for us as students. Last week we explored the differences between “justification” and “legitimacy” when it comes to powers of the state and how they might involve themselves in citizens’ lives. Equally, when is coercion ever justified? What is the difference between coercion and persuasion? Does the state ever have a right to coerce someone into an action? Much of this comes down to, for me, the question of how “paternalistic” we should make health, and whether health of the polity should be a public concern, or dealt with by non-governmental matters.

The following day I had my Philosophy, Politics and Economics of Health lecture (with equal nomenclature to my course title). We had an overview of topics, but then discussed the ideas behind when something becomes an epidemic, and more specifically what really constitutes an “epidemic,” setting it apart from being a mere sickness that is affecting a lot of people. What I’m learning quickly is that much of these arguments depend on how one defines the term (s)he is using, and how they justify that definition. Knowing this, would you define obesity as an epidemic? How far can the state go into preventing obesity? Should they target only children or adults? What’s the difference from the government taking action against the marketing of smoking ads but not the marketing of fast food ads?

On Thursday, I attended my “Illness” module, which discussed more the “lived experience of illness” and how we might come to understand an illness. We discussed specifically the topic of grief. Is grief seen as an illness? Or is it seen as normal behavior? When does grief become abnormal? When can it be used as justification to take paid time off of work? How can we trust someone who has to take 40 days off of work due to grief? What if we could take a pill that allowed us to relieve us of all symptoms of grief? More generally regarding the idea of illness: how can we truly come to understand an illness of someone else? (Hint, look into the field of phenomenology in philosophy.) Furthermore, how does the body play a role in the perceived experience of (generally) the world and (specifically) when the body is ill? Why is it, that one is ill, they have such a hard time remembering or feeling how it is to be healthy?

Some of these questions will lead to coherent thoughts eventually. I promise that tomorrow I will write you with an incredibly (albeit often discussed) thought experiment that our Public Ethics teacher started us out with in class yesterday, since I didn’t give you an explanation of the class here.

It’s about 12:30 AM here, so I’m going to sign off. On schedule for tomorrow: the second Philosophy, Politics and Economics of Health module, a couple meetings with a couple anthropologists, some reading, some pizza with my classmates, and a Spanish evening course. Much to do, so little time! Although, while I write this, I forgot to mention that I have been playing JAZZ this past week, with some really cool cats. (Cats is commonly used in the jazz world to describe feelings of affirmation towards other jazz artists.) I went to a jam session, called “Jam at Phineas”, where the house band lets anyone come play any tunes from 9-11 PM. Phineas is one of UCL’s student bars, and students here love jazz, so the house was incredibly full and bouncing to the music we were making. I had a blast. I also went to the “jazz singers” and “big band” taster sessions, to see how these arms of the Jazz Society are. Naturally, I loved both sessions, so we’ll see what I can do as far as participation goes. Nonetheless, I have chosen to join the Jazz Society here. More to come on that front!

Tales of a Fresher

As my week has come to an end, and the weekend opened up, the list of what I want to report back on keeps growing. I could only wish that I had attached a semi-permanent go-pro camera onto my chest, in hopes that this would give you all a better picture of my London life outside of what I can share in writing. Alas, you’re going to get to see my life through the (hopefully clean) window I can create with words.

This past week has been filled with welcome events, induction classes, and a fresher’s fair. Yes, I do consider myself a fresher, although a post-grad. It’s an odd feeling, calling myself what we might consider the equivalent of a “freshman”. However, I’m not sure these two terms are the most synonymous, as post-grads aren’t as hesitant to call themselves freshers, where the meaning of this word does not carry the meaning of (as “freshman” does”), “Innocently naïve young but eager and energy-filled first-year student”. I believe “fresher” to mean, quite simply, “new”.

To start the tale of my life as a fresher I was able to attend the post-graduate (and fresher) boat party this past Tuesday. The name pretty much describes what the event was: a party, but on a boat. We didn’t have the most luxurious of boats, but what I would call fabulously functional. The boat was two floors, where the upper floor was half-covered, half-open to the elements. Earlier in the night, we all congregated towards the back of the boat, where we could watch the sun set on some of London’s most iconic buildings. As the night went on, we migrated to the dance floor and danced to some of the most cliché (but fun) music from my middle school years (e.g. Apple Bottom Jeans (mom you would have loved this one), the Back Street Boys, songs from Grease, Hall and Oates, and others). The bottom of the boat was carpeted and left some more silence for conversation and relaxation, something postgrads seem to enjoy more than crazily dancing on a rocking dance floor. (Dancing to “La Macarena” is significantly harder when mid-way through the sequence, one has to throw his arms out to balance himself.)

One glorious thing about being a fresher at a largely international institution such as UCL is the eagerness people have for initiating conversation and friendship. At events like these, it’s considered socially acceptable (and welcomed) to butt into conversations at will, introduce yourself, and keep on with the conversation. This method of making friends has led me to meet a ton of new people, those from the UK, Mexico, Switzerland, France, Greece, Italy, Canada, Spain, Venezuela, Jordan, and Brazil. UCL houses so many graduate students from around the world, and I think I’ve met more students from countries around the world and less the UK, which I believe is truly amazing.

On Wednesday, I was able to meet all the people in my course (the word “course” is synonymous with “program” or “degree” in the U.S.). As I was already told by my director, we are a small (but mighty, I might argue) number of people in my course (around 25, I think). Among us are students coming from pure philosophy backgrounds, medical students (having finished their degrees or taking a gap year mid-degree), professionals who have already worked in the policy realm, and a couple physicians who wish to take a little more of a philosophical or critical view to their work and profession. We started the day with the course around 2 PM with a short explanation of the “who, what, where, when, why” of the program and followed up with more logistical questions of the day.

After this, we went out to some coffee for a little while, which opened up the initial “first meeting” tensions over coffee and tea. I started talking to a friend named Oli, who comes from a background in medicine. Someone had gotten a matcha latte, and I turned to Oli to talk about tea, especially matcha. My comments were somewhat like this, “Right, so matcha’s a pretty cool thing. Most of what we drink is commercial matcha, not really the best quality but priced well so we don’t have to pay much for it. The ceremonial matcha can go for about US$80 per gram, which is crazy.” Oli went on to ask how I got to know much about matcha tea, and from there my passion about coffee (and *I guess* tea) was discovered. Perhaps I use coffee and tea as a fallback when I’m nervous about meeting people. Alternatively, I’m just super passionate about coffee. I’m for the latter.

We then went on to an introduction and walk-through of the Wellcome Library. I think my initial experience and time with the Wellcome Library merits a separate blog post, so I’ll leave you with a simple request to google the Wellcome Trust and the Wellcome Library, knowing that being on this course at UCL gives me full access to the library’s resources.

True to English fashion, we all went out to the pub for conversation and getting to know each other in the course after the library tour. I wasn’t expecting this to be officially listed in the induction program, but it was, which was a bit surprising to me. However I’ve come to quickly learn that the English follow up so many events (professional or not) with the pub. The pub isn’t seen as a place to go blow off steam or sulk away with a beer in hand, rather it’s a place for lively and intelligible conversation following what was just learned after an intense seminar or talk.

Skipping over a few days, I just finished with a full morning of attending the fresher’s fair, very similar to the event we call “Festifall” at U-M. The UCL campus was stuffed full of students, booths, and (extremely) enthusiastic members of the various societies (in lieu of our word “club”) at UCL. Despite what I believed my actions would be, I ended up succumbing to the welcoming words of way too many societies and signed up for about 12 too many society’ email lists. I guess this is a way to truly figure out if I’m interested in a society – if I can truly withstand the barrage of emails in the coming week from any one society, that’ll be the society for me.

Here’s a (tentative) list of what I want to do outside of classes. I only say tentative because I’m unsure of what my class schedule will allow. I keep hearing this ominous rumor that one-year master’s students are usually locked away in the library all day, inundated with reading and writing that keeps them from doing much outside of work. I’m choosing to selectively filter out these messages and planning on letting myself have a little fun while I’m here.

For extra-curricular societies, I plan to participate in…

  • Jazz Society and big band
  • Writing for Pi Magazine or the Cheese Grater magazine (both are student publications). This may or may not be influenced by my recent viewing of the life of Rory Gilmore.
  • Running with UCL RAX (standing for Running, Athletics and Cross Country)
  • Dancing with the UCL Salsa Society

This might be a bit ambitious, especially because I also volunteered as a representative for my course to the university in all items “bureaucratic”. I’ve also signed up for Spanish evening classes, but all of the club events that I plan on doing miraculously don’t conflict with my Spanish class. Just keep in mind, friends, that I will be putting school first, of course, and extra-curricular activities at a (very close) second while I’m here.

I’m going to leave you with a list of the courses that I’ve decided to take, sans descriptions. Another post (that’s two I’ve told you to wait for), will describe my rationale behind each course decision!

Term 1:

  • Advanced Graduate Studies in the Philosophy of Mind
  • Contemporary Political Philosophy: Authority, Obligation and Democracy
  • Illness: An Introduction to Health Humanities
  • The Philosophy, Politics and Economics of Health

Term 2:

  • Politics and Ethics
  • Global Justice and Health
  • Key Principles of Health Economics
  • Health Policy and Reform
  • Planning to audit the course called: Madness: An Introduction to Health Humanities

All, of course, following with a dissertation!

Thanks for reading, friends. Formal classes start this coming week, so wish me luck!