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So I’m on the job market. It’s a terrible time to be looking for work; friends of mine who are in much better positions than me are freaking out. I’m pretty level-headed about the whole thing. I’m pretty level-headed in general. I like to think this is a good thing—I’m adaptable, not easily fazed, etc. It’s quite possible this is a bad thing—I am prone to accepting the things that I can indeed change.

It’s hard to know.

The more I look around, though, the more I’m convinced that it’s neither apathy nor denial. Allow me to justify my sangfroid, or moreover, let me evangelize to you. It’s especially important for parents, because if your kid is anything like mine, there are fan blades and there is excretory matter and sometimes things go flying. Keeping it together is how we get from here to the other side—and, for me at least, a foundation that I can rely upon for why I should just let it go, well, it’s a source of strength in dark and dangerous times.

So. To econ it up a little bit, let me motivate it thusly: Let’s say you face a choice. You can either have a fifty-fifty chance of winning $1.60 or $2.00 or a fifty-fifty chance of winning $3.85 or $0.10. If you’re like most of the subjects in the now seminal Holt and Laury 2002 paper, Risk Aversion and Incentive Effects, you’d go with the “safe bet”, even though you’ll earn less in expectation; roughly 2/3 of their subjects made such a decision.

Why? Why the heck do people leave 7 cents on the table every time they make this decision? There’s very little out there that critiques this decision. This particular field of economics is justifiably concerned primarily with documenting and describing human decisions—positive economics—and not so much with how people ought to make decisions—normative economics. This is all good and well.

The take-home I’d like to present is this: please, please, PLEASE take the risky, high-payoff bet when the stakes are this low. If you want to remain contented with your lot, this is almost impossible without some groundwork first, because people don’t like to walk away with ten measly cents.

To illustrate what I’m talking about, I drew up a quick Excel table with random numbers and what-have-you, and recalculated it five times. In the first drawing, the safe bet outperformed the risky bet in 2 of 5 recalculations. Once, choosing always-safe outperformed always-risky over 100 independent drawings, earning $5.95 more than always-risky. But in all the other sets of drawings, risky beat out safe. The five outcomes were (π(risky) – π(safe) )= (-$5.95, $20.85, $7.45, $37.60, $30.90).

I’m not saying you should take big risks. I’m not even necessarily advocating that you take on more small risks. Mostly what I’m trying to say is: it hurts to go home with a dime, but it’s best not to put too much weight on any one event. You barely miss the train one day and just make it another day. A crappy waiter at a restaurant? It happens. A bad interview can hurt, but over the course of a lifetime, these events even out, and the brainpower we spend on them is almost certainly wasted.

By the same token, so your kid is brilliant and polite at age 2? Might not last to age 3. The baby lets you sleep through the night at 4 months? Enjoy it while it lasts.

Paying attention to the long view can make you more confident, more humble, and more grateful; more emotionally and financially stable; and better at handling momentary crises. If that’s not a recipe for a good tactical parenting, I’m not sure what is.

Another really amazing class. The material was very critical of Unitarian Universalism in a really insightful and responsible way, and it really gave me a new sense of depth on the foundations of our institution and on the challenges we face as a community. I’m very new to the UU thing, so I have a bit of a tin ear to the internal monologues common to UU-ers, but I got the sense that there was a sense of skepticism, interest and critical thought among the group tonight–which is pretty much what I think you shoot for in a class like this.

The material for today’s class was:

David E. Bumbaugh – On Being a Born-Again Unitarian Universalist

Anthony David – Torn Between Unitarianism and Universalism

Anthony David – A Unitarian Universalist Creation Myth

Before class started, I started thinking about the material we read before class and drawing up a little mental map for myself about “born-again-ness”, and mostly came up with stuff about devotion and diversity–devotion to making faith and metaphysics a central part of life and diversity in the sense that it is no longer compartmentalized into a small segment of life, but instead covers all aspects of your life.

I started making a list of questions that would go on the “faith form”: who are you, where are you, what were you, what will you become, where will you go, why are you here, etc. I then started thinking about meta-questions. “Is the individualistic paradigm a valid approach to these metaphysical questions?” “Does ‘who am I?’ even makes semantic sense?” “Upon what assumptions are my fundamental questions predicated?”

That was as far as I got, more or less, and then class started.

As an ice-breaker, we paired up and tried to come up with UU signature aspects. I was a little disappointed in myself, I think. I went for the ingathering of the waters, which has deep and personal meaning for me, but it was right there at hand, and I feel like I would have earned more for trying harder.

(The summer after freshman year, when I went to the river and moved rocks and smoked cigarettes with my pant legs rolled up and tried to find a place to fit–it’s worth writing about some time in here, as a lot of my analogues derive from what I learned moving rocks and changing the course of the river.)

The majority of the class was about the “ghosts” that haunt our Unitarian Universalism and the reading on a creation myth started us off–the driving force there being that as a tradition derived from a standing order church continues to feel a compulsion to serve everyone within the sound of its bell.(which, upon further review, is an interesting economic institution. The argument was that the presence of the church was a Public Good, and so in order to solve the freerider problem, taxation was used to support the church…makes economic sense, but violate the principle of separation of church and state)

While the idea of ghosts was by no means intended to be negative, I argued that ghosts are unavoidable in a liberal religious tradition. Insofar as liberal religious traditions take pains not to “throw out the baby with the bathwater,” there will always be aspects of the baby that then become our haunting spectres. We call it a church, and neither a mosque nor a synagogue, despite my atheism, for example. That said, I wouldn’t argue that we should just call it a building… In many cases, these ghosts just complicate things, like baroque ornamentation, or other odd architectural features that merely seemed like a good idea at the time. In some cases, though, they can hold us back.

We talked at length about the idea that Unitarian Universalists favor universality rather than particulars, and that this is both a strength and a weakness. At its best, it belies our belief that there are many paths to truth. At its worst, we end up doing nothing but singing songs about how inclusive we are and taking a Noah’s Ark (two of each)–or Pokemon (gotta catch ’em all!)–approach to building a congregation. Rev. David made the very good point that, for all our inclusiveness, we are neither a terribly large nor an incredibly diverse faith tradition. He also noted that megachurches–not renowned for their inclusivity–are among the most culturally diverse faith organizations.

This got me thinking–why do megachurches work?

One reason: trying to get two of everything doesn’t work. Then each person only has one person like them in the congregation. Try getting 150 of every type of person and suddenly you have a diverse community where everyone feels like they have someone to talk to. So sheer scale can help a lot.

At the same time, I think there is an irony to inclusiveness. By valuing our inclusiveness so much, we effectively become a very exclusive congregation: we only attract people who can stand to be around strangers, people who are themselves personally inclusive. So by trying to include lots of kinds of people, we end up only attracting one kind of person–the inclusive kind. Consequently, we are a pretty exclusive bunch.

Megachurches only attract one kind of person as well–those willing to embrace conformity, within certain bounds. They, too, are an exclusive bunch.

As conformity has historically been favored by evolution, and as a willingness to embrace strangers is sort of a freakish mutation (although one I value greatly), it’s not surprising that megachurches have a larger draw than UU congregations. (I have to say, though, I think UU has a lot more to offer many people than they realize, and at least some of this difference is certainly due by a relative difference in willingness to evangelize.)

We talked about a bunch of other stuff, but as I’ve got a TychoCelcchu CoH shoutcast (don’t ask–it’s dorktacular) burning a hole in my desktop, I’m gonna wrapt this up pretty soon.

So, the last thing on my mind is the idea of questions as ends in themselves. We talked about this briefly in class, but I think about it a lot. We require at least tentative answers to take actions, but without negative capability (or omniscience), we will have trouble drawing a conclusion without certainty, and trouble being okay without a conclusion.

When the nagging need for answers gnaws at us, we have to either embrace doubt (this is especially integral for undecideable propositions, the definition of which I torture into including such questions as “Does God exist?” and “Does free will exist?) or turn to faith. In truth, I think doing both is the best course of action. Without at least a tentative answer, we cannot act. In order to arrive a tentative answer in a morally responsible way, we have to move past doubt to take a leap of faith; that said, in order to arrive at a tentative answer in an intellectually responsible way, we have to remember that we doubt our faith, and thus that the answer can only be tentative. More on this later, for sure.

Another heck of a class.