Books of Special Note


In a column last week in the Washington Post, Michael Gerson introduces readers to Andrew Newberg, an expert on the neurological basis of religion.  Newberg and co-author Mark Robert Waldman have written a book entitled How God Changes Your Brain.  It sounds like a fascinating book.  The Gerson column is entitled A Searcher With Faith in Mind

Since I’ve not read the book, yet, most of what I write below comes from the Gerson column.  Here’s an excerpt:

Using brain imaging studies of Franciscan nuns and Buddhist practitioners, and Sikhs and Sufis — along with everyday people new to meditation — Newberg asserts that traditional spiritual practices such as prayer and breath control can alter the neural connections of the brain, leading to “long-lasting states of unity, peacefulness and love.” He assures the mystically challenged (such as myself) that these neural networks begin to develop quickly — a matter of weeks in meditation, not decades on a Tibetan mountaintop. And though meditation does not require a belief in God, strong religious belief amplifies its effect on the brain and enhances “social awareness and empathy while subduing destructive feelings and emotions.”

Also very revealing is Newberg’s conclusion that that there are neurological differences between those who contemplate a loving God and those who contemplate a wrathful God.  The former strengthens the part of the brain associated with empathy and reason while the latter strengthens that part associated with aggression and fear.  This seems highly significant. 

According to Gerson, the book “predicts ‘an epiphany that can improve the inner quality of your life.  For most Americans, that is what spirituality is about.’  But if this is what spirituality is all about, it isn’t about very much.”  My own reaction is that Mr. Gerson is probably limited by his predisposition to particular religious faith.  My evolving religious views have been strongly influenced by writers such as Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle.  I suspect that what Newberg is talking about is finding that connection to that which is eternal in all of us.  If accessed by enough of us, this is indeed of great significance and could be profoundly world altering.

Gerson closes his column by pointing out that Newberg’s experience showing that the human “brain is drawn naturally toward artificial certainties” leaves Newberg “skeptical about the capacity of the human mind to accurately perceive ‘universal or ultimate truth’.  Yet Newberg remains a seeker, a searcher for that truth, as we all should be.  Connecting to the eternal alters us for the better and would seem to remove the need to categorize or decant religious experience into doctrine or “certainty”.  Whatever it is, it just is.   

Discovering our unique talents and putting them to work for the benefit of ourselves and the world is one of the greatest challenges each of us faces in life.  It most often takes a lot of swimming upstream to first find the talent within ourselves and then find a place for that talent in the world.  The Susan Boyle story is illustrative of this.  Susan clearly had a talent that she and a few people in her village recognized, but finding application for that talent in the greater world proved very difficult.  Through persistence and risk taking, however, Susan got her break.

The Susan Boyle story reminded me of something I’d I read recently in the book Strength Finders 2.0, a book which I recommend highly to those searching for their own unique talents.  The following is an excerpt from the book (Page 29):

Mark Twain once described a man who died and met Saint Peter at the Pearly Gates.  Knowing that Saint peter was very wise, the man asked a question that he had wondered about throughout his life.

He said, “Saint Peter, I have been interested in military history for many years.  Who was the greatest general of all time?”

Saint Peter quickly responded, “Oh that’s a simple question.  It’s that man over there.”

“You must be mistaken,” responded the man, now very perplexed.  “I knew that man on earth, and he was a common laborer.”

“That’s right my friend,” assured Saint Peter.  “He would have been the greatest general of all time, if he had been a general.”

There are many obstacles to finding our true talents.  How many of us are so locked into earning a living that we’ve left our true talents undiscovered or not applied for the greater good of mankind?  Let Susan Boyle show us that there is hope for all of us and for the world in maximizing its resource of human talent. 

I was confronted with two stories yesterday, seemingly unrelated.  One was about efforts by natural gas exporting countries to create a formal organization that many fear will morph into a natural gas cartel similar to the OPEC oil cartel.  The other was a story sent to me by a friend about the rescue of a humpback whale off of the California coast where at the conclusion of the rescue the whale went to each rescuer and nudged them as if to say thank you.  It is a moving story that reminds us of our responsibility to preserve other forms of life, some perhaps of very high intelligence.  The latter story was from the San Francisco Chronicle dated December 14, 2005 and entitled Daring rescue of whale off Farallones

Receiving both of these stories comes as I’m finally reading a book that I’ve had on my bookshelf for a year now.  I’d seen it on a list last year at this time of the best books of 2007.  It’s entitled The Unnatural History of the Seaand authored by Callum Roberts.

The book tells the story of man’s centuries old abuse of our oceans and its creatures.  What we’re dealing with today is the result of centuries of overfishing and the complete insensitivity of mankind to the environment.  Reading its chapters on the Chesapeake Bay, including the Potomac River, was particularly interesting to me as I live but few minutes walk from the Potomac River in Washington, DC.  The book describes the Chesapeake Bay estuary when it was discovered as overflowing with fish and and other wildlife.  Observing it today one would suppose that nothing lives within its waters, though a few fishermen can be found angling along the banks despite the warnings not to eat more than certain quantities of fish due to the presence of heavy metals.  One certainly doesn’t see whales (including Killer Whales) or porpoises or fish so thick you could pluck them from the water.

That we must take better care of our waters seems very clear.  Living along the Chesapeake Bay estuary as I do and crossing it on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge dozens of times per year, I can think of few things that should be of a higher priority that cleaning up the bay and reestablishing a healthy fishery.  Yet, knowing what I know about offshore drilling, it wouldn’t faze me in the least to drill oil or gas wells into the bay.  I see the two things as completely unrelated.  My biggest concern with drilling would be with the visual impact and I would think that states would need to insist upon either directional drilling from shore (which can be done perfectly safely) or gas-only production from the waters themselves (as there would be no visual impact other than during the relatively short drilling phase).  This is what the Province of Ontario does in the Great Lakes.

Yet we in America, while we continue to drive our 4-wheel drive Suburbans to and from our homes built in suburbia in a manner that completely ignores the impact of runoff from our fertilized lawns on inland and coastal waters, refuse to consider drilling offshore.  It is completely illogical.  It is the kind of disconnect that we expect in an America that gets its information from soundbites rather than from serious inquiry.

This brings me back to the story that a number of countries that produce and export natural gas have created a formal organization that appears to be aimed at created an OPEC-like cartel for natural gas.  With the increase in the transport of liquified natural gas it is becoming more and more a world commodity.  As we in the United States build more import terminals we are at risk of becoming as economically dependent upon natural gas from abroad as we are on oil.

My very strongly held view is that we must first conserve, and secondly produce as much oil and natural gas at home before we import by sea any more oil or natural gas.  That we may soon have another cartel on our hands that aims to manipulate the supply and therefore the price of natural gas should be highly concerning.  It also means more petroleum products on more boats travelling into a ports, not an unrisky thing itself.

My conclusion in all of this is that President Obama has a unique opportunity to create a new energy policy in this country that is for the first time both rational and balanced.  Certainly a Democrat advocating offshore development will have far more credibility with the public than would any Republican becuase of the Democratic Party’s longstanding advocacy for the environment.  There doesn’t exist the suspicion that would exist with Republican leadership, however unjustified, that the decision is just about paying off campaign contributors.  For reasons including national security, the environment, and the economy, the country needs to expand its production of oil and natural gas at one and the same time that it expands development of alternative fuels and reduces the overall use of fossil-based fuels.  The only energy path forward is one that uses all of our energy resources as we transition to a completely new energy future.  For President Obama and the Democrats to squander this opportunity to at last put the country on the road to that rational energy future would be tragic.  There will never be a better time to get it right and it will not mean forsaking the environment.  It will, however, require saying no to irrationality and yes to progress.

When it comes to our environment, and especially our marine environment, we need to pay attention to the real causes of harm to that environment and the real risks of future harm.  Prudent oil and natural gas production incorporating the lasted technology has shown to be extremely safe and non-damaging to the marine environment.  I have toured production platforms in the North Sea and the California coast and know them to have, if anything, a positive impact on their immediate environment.  There will never be a better time than the present to get straight our goals, a clean environment and a sound energy future, and dispense with myths and untruths that muddy the waters of sound policy making. 

Former Congressman Charlie Wilson, the subject of last year’s movie “Charlie Wilson’s War,” writes an Op-ed in today’s Washington Post giving us a formula for peace.  It is entitled Charlie Wilson’s Peace.

Here’s a excerpt from the piece:

In a scene near the end of the movie “Charlie Wilson‘s War,” after the mujaheddin victory over the invading Soviet military, congressional appropriators turn down my request for funds to rebuild Afghanistan’s schools, roads and economy. If we had done the right thing in Afghanistan then — following up our military support with the necessary investments in diplomacy and development assistance — we would have better secured our own country’s future, as well as peace and stability in the region.

This is a point that resonated with me as when I watched the movie.  I had just read the book “Three Cups of Tea” by Greg Mortenson.  He makes the same point.  

A system that allows mistakes of the magnitude as the one referenced by Charlie Wilson in the quote above is a sytem that isn’t working.  We seem incapable of doing the right thing in America these days — we’re too focussed on the simple solutions; we eschew the complex.  And, yes, we’re too busy engaging in partisan battle.  This is not what should be.  We need to wake up before it’t too late.  On the subject of foreign assistance, Republicans don’t seem to get it.  The chances are greater than an Obama administration might and that looks to me to be in our future.  

For those contemplating a trip to Peru, particularly Machu Pichu, or for those interested in the Inca Empire, the book The Last Days of the Incas by Kim MacQuarrie is a must read.  It is a gripping tale of the Inca Empire and its conquest by Spain.  It is now out in paperback and I heartily recommend it.    

While I haven’t yet read the book Earth the Sequel: The Race to Reinvent Energy and Stop Global Warming by Fred Krupp and Miriam Horn, would appear to be a must read as Congress contemplates action to combat climate change and we engage in a public debate about the economic costs of reducing the release of carbon into the atmosphere.  I’ve argued that the path ahead does not need to be as dire as many on the right contend.  This book would appear to support that contention.  I reserve the right to criticize the book later based on how it suggests we handle the transition from fossil fuels.