Sunday, November 29, 2009

Book Review: The Art of Being Kind

We probably would agree that being kind is important. For Stefan Einhorn, not only is it important — it is the key to success. In his book The Art of Being Kind Einhorn argues that success and being good can go together. Of course, whether you agree with Einhorn will have a lot to do with what he defines as kindness/goodness and success.

For Einhorn, success is the feeling that you have a meaningful life. It is a life of generosity, seeing others, resolving conflicts, empathy, responsibility, and role modelling. It is easy to see how this sort of life is supported by kindness.

But Einhorn makes the important point that we need to distinguish between true and false kindness. There are many ways that actions can have the illusion of kindness but not be kindness at all. True kindness is not about words but actions. It is courageous, discerning, transcends laws, rules, and norms, and is kind to oneself as well as others.

In exploring kindness, Einhorn also discusses what he calls 'counterforces' — those things that tend to pressure us not to be kind such as the lack of time, resources, empathy for others, and reflection. Hypocrisy, innate aggression, a victim mentality, the principle that 'someone else will do it', and pessimism also contribute to reducing kind acts by individuals.

Kindness is clearly something that benefits others. But are there reasons for being kind that transcend the individual. The author summarises his reasons for being kind (pp. 205-206):

  • We feel better if we do good. Research has shown that it is pleasurable to do good things for other.
  • The people around us feel better if we do good things for them. Being surrounded by people who feel good is enjoyable, and helps us to develop.
  • Indirectly we create benefits for ourselves by doing good things for others, because what we do for others comes back to us, one way or another.
  • Societies with widespread ethical thinking function better than others.
  • We will get a better world as a result. Even if individual people can sometimes feel powerless, this is not the case. Do not forget how the effects of a good deed can spread out like ripples on a pond. We can do more than we think for others, and in this way make our contribution to a better world. And a good world is much better than a bad one.

In the end we have everything to gain by being kind with discernment, and a lot to lose by not being kind. And this is no bad reason for being kind — the fact that we gain by it. In fact, this is a really good reason.

Christians have another reason for being kind to others. The essential gospel  message is that God has been unconditionally kind to us in the person of Jesus Christ and what he has done for us. We are to treat others with the same kindness with which we have been treated. The Art of Being Kind, while drawing on a number of religious traditions, fails to mention this essential message of Christianity. The book would have been the richer for it.

The Art of Being Kind is a gentle meditation on the benefits of being good to others. Abraham Joshua Heschel once said: ''When I was young, I used to admire intelligent people; as I grow older, I admire kind people.' For Einhorn, kindness is a part of ethical intelligence. We can only hope that this intelligence is one which we will all develop in order to make our world a better place.

Einhorn, S 2006, The Art of Being Kind, Sphere.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Movie Review: A Christmas Carol 3D (2009)

A Christmas Carol

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Robert Zemeckis' new retelling of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol is a very enjoyable experience — especially in 3D!

Ebenezer Scrooge (Jim Carrey) is a nasty miser who despises most of humanity for what he sees as its spendthrift ways. He spends his life in a dark and cold office with one clerk and rejects anyone who tries to show him any hint of friendship. At the end of the day he travels back to his dingy dwelling where he huddles before a fire — alone.  And his repugnance of all things pleasurable extends to Christmas and the frivolity and graciousness that accompanies it. Even his brother's attempts to engage with him, by inviting him to celebrate Christmas with family, are spurned. Despite his own view that he is successful, we know that his life is the very opposite. But Scrooge is so set in his ways that he seems completely impervious to any possibility of change. Impossible, that is, until the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future visit Scrooge one night and take him on a journey he will never forget and that will change him forever.

A Christmas Carol 3D is truly entertaining — right from the opening sequence that has us flying over the rooftops of Victorian London. The characters of the story come alive and Carrey is brilliant as he plays about nine characters! The fact that Carrey is not immediately recognisable is good as his usual over-the-top performance doesn't intrude. And Carrey (in his first project with Disney) is supported by some great actors — Gary Oldman, Tim Roth, Robin Wright Penn, Colin Firth, and Bob Hoskins. Zaneckis (the director) has provided a tightly controlled balance of seriousness and fun as the important themes of this story unfold. The animated world is rich and detailed and the representation of the three ghosts are spot on. The 3D effects are fantastic and used with appropriate effect in support of the narrative.

This timeless story of redemption is one that children and adults will both enjoy. Parents of very young children should take care, though, as there are some quite frightening scenes and the movie earns its PG rating. So take the rating seriously.

I haven't seen the non-3D version, but I would think the story will hold its power even without it. A Christmas Carol 3D is a superb Disney offering and I predict it will be one of the better Christmas movies this year. Make sure you see this one on the big screen!


Positive Review
'An exhilarating visual experience and proves for the third time he's (Zemeck) is one of the few directors who knows what he's doing with 3-D.' - Roger Ebert/Chicago Sun-Times

Negative Review
'This sad excuse for family entertainment tries to enshrine a classic while defacing it.' - Joe Morgenstern/Wall Street Journal

Content Advice
Scary sequences and images


Official Movie Site

Watch the Trailer

Monday, November 09, 2009

Book Review: The Undercover Philosopher

If there is one book everyone should take time to read it is Michael Philips' The Undercover Philosopher: A Guide to Detecting Shams, Lies, and Delusions. Despite the common Christian claim to search for the truth, many Christians (along with the rest of humanity) fall prey to poor thinking.

In a wonderfully written book, Philips explores the human tendency to see what isn't there and remember what never happened; badly assess probabilities; favour our existing beliefs; only look for evidence that confirms what we want to believe; different thinking styles; rely on emotions for assessing truth; and so on.

The ways that we can be taken in are numerous and Philips provides up-to-the-minute examples of the way people have been deceived by all sorts of shams, lies, and delusions. In the closing chapters, Philips discusses more theoretical issues in relation to thinking that provides an excellent overview of the philosophical issues related to thinking. The book closes with a chapter on the process of deciding what to believe and how to go about considering evidence for belief and the ethics of belief.

One of the most distinctive aspects of The Undercover Philosopher is the author's balanced approach. He recognises that we cannot provide complete evidence for all of our beliefs. And we each have differences in the way we think and evaluate our beliefs. He also acknowledges that we may choose to believe certain things without evidence.

The ultimate point is that, knowing the pitfalls of thinking and how we can be taken in, allows us to choose our beliefs with a realistic assessment of the evidence in support of them. Noone suggests we shouldn't be allowed to believe what we want to believe. But to do so fully informed and cognisant of whether we are being taken in is important because it may have implications for how we live and how those beliefs affect others.

The Undercover Philosopher is a great book that is well crafted and fresh in its approach. If you want to be a better thinker then make sure you read it! Check out the video below for a sample of the author's work...


What others are saying...

A magnificent book – a user’s guide to one’s own brain. He details the insidious tricks our brains play on us and how to guard against them. As a scientist, I found humbling, but right on target, his assessment of the sociological limitations on our search for Truth. His writing is compact, clear, and delightfully free of academic jargon.” Steven N. Austad, author of Why We Age: What Science Is Discovering about the Body's Journey Through Life

“A great book! Writing with clarity and good humour, Michael Phillips reminds me of a great philosophical collector, an Aristotle of errors, as he enthusiastically categorizes specimens of every kind of mistake, con and self-deception and describes how we can guard against them.” Rick Lewis, Editor of Philosophy Now

Here's a link to the author's blog.