Jim Taylor's Columns - 'Soft Edges' and 'Sharp Edges'

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Not worth worrying about

Author: Jim Taylor

Flakes of winter snow sift down outside my window as I write these words. Millions of them. Billions of them. Burying the bird feeder. Burying my driveway. 

            I go out to shovel. Each snowflake weighs next to nothing. It’s amazing how much a shovelful of next-to-nothing can weigh. 

            No two of those snowflakes are identical, I’ve been told. 

            Maybe it’s true. Maybe it isn’t. The only way to prove it, either way, would be to examine every snowflake that has ever fallen. 

             But if you lived in Australia these days, who cares? When summer temperatures soar above 50 degrees Celsius, when fires create their own weather systems, a snowflake wouldn’t have, umm, a snowflake’s chance in hell of surviving long enough to  be examined. 

            So many of the things that we humans argue about, divide ourselves about, even go to war about, are what a friend calls “head stuff.” Interesting, but irrelevant. 

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Categories: Soft Edges

Tags: Rituals, Chesterton




Defeating imaginary opponents

Author: Jim Taylor

The first phone call came at 7:05 a.m. I picked up the phone. “Dear Customer,” a recorded message began. “This call is to advise you that we have deducted $399.99 from your account to cover the renewal of your service policy. To approve this transaction, press one. To speak to a service representative, press two…”

            I hung up instead. 

           I’m always tempted to talk back to recorded messages, the way I talk back to contestants on Jeopardy who know nothing about Canada. I’m even tempted to “press two” to see if I can tie the service representative’s mind into knots.  

            In philosophical circles, this practice is called the “straw man argument.” 

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The mark of moral progress

Author: Jim Taylor

The progress of civilization is not measured by democracy or economics, by health or wealth, nor by art or architecture. It’s measured by our reduction of cruelty.

            I needed to state that thesis up front. To discuss it, I have to cite instances of cruelty that will turn your stomach. If I started this column with them, you’d probably quit reading.

            Let’s start with Genghis Khan, who reputedly killed 40 million people in his 30-year reign. He executed one enemy by pouring molten silver into his eyes and ears.

            Which is probably characteristic of his time. A rival tyrant boiled captured generals alive. Victims may have been conscious for several hours as they cooked.

            Scottish explorer James Bruce became the first European to enter the mountain kingdom of Ethiopia. The emperor and his vizier entertained their visitor by putting out the eyes of a dozen slaves while they ate dinner.

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Imagine being a victim

Author: Jim Taylor

It is, perhaps, the most terrifying way to die. No one likes falling, not even off a footstool. But being hundreds or thousands of feet in the sky, and falling helplessly, is everyone’s nightmare...

            But it wasn’t a dream for 176 people aboard Ukrainian Airlines Flight 752 earlier this week.

           Fortunately, these disasters don’t happen often. If you’re going to put your life into someone else’s hands, commercial aviation offers the safest, best regulated, way of travelling. Ian Savage of Northwestern University  calculated fatality rates per passenger of various forms of transportation. Airlines came in at 0.07 per billion passenger miles. Bus, subway, and train all ranked below one per billion miles.

            Cars were seven times higher; motorcycles more than 200 times higher.

            Setting aside a plane’s greenhouse gas emissions, you’re safer flying across a continent than walking to the corner store.

            Except that if something goes wrong at 35,000 feet up, you can’t get out and walk home.

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New angles on an old prayer

Author: Jim Taylor

Many Protestant congregations mark the new year with John Wesley’s Covenanting Service.

            Wesley is, of course, the founder of British Methodism. 

            A “covenant” is like a contract, but more binding. Many people make New Year’s Resolutions -- if cynically, knowing that we will soon break them. But a covenant is more than a resolution. Once you make a covenant there’s no backing out.

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Connect the dots, see the pattern

Author: Jim Taylor

Former Bolivian President Evo Morales said that he is "absolutely convinced" the United States orchestrated the military coup that removed him from power last November.

               I believe him.

               Not because I have any inside knowledge of Bolivian politics. Nor because I have back room connections in Washington DC.

               I believe Morales because I have seen too many examples of the U.S. attempting to impose what it calls “regime change” in other countries. Bolivia fits the pattern too well.

               The prime example is probably Iraq.

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The yin and yang of winter months

Author: Jim Taylor

The days are getting longer – had you noticed? Today will be one minute and nine seconds longer than yesterday. Sunrise hasn’t changed, but the sun now sets later. Soon the sunrise will accelerate too, and the northern hemisphere will hurtle towards summer. 

            Our grandson sent a photo of himself on a beach in Mexico. I must admit that my first reaction was not delight. It was envy. I looked at the sparking sand, the turquoise sea, the fluffy clouds. I could imagine warm sun on my shoulders. I wished I were there. 

            Why, I wondered, would anyone live anywhere but in the tropics?

            But I know why, when I look out my window. Grey snow, piled along the roadsides. Brown grass. Bare tree limbs, black against a sodden sky…

            I need these seasonal reminders so that I can fully appreciate summer. 

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Falling forward into the unknown

Author: Jim Taylor

When the streets get icy in winter, I walk more carefully. Especially after the snowplow has gone by, and polished the fresh snow into a surface as slick as anything created by a Zamboni. I can’t take the risk of stepping forward and having my heel skid. 

            The more slippery the surface, the shorter the steps I take. 

            And when I’m going down a slope, I employ something like a curler’s slither. I don’t lift my feet at all. 

            The length of my stride is directly related to my confidence in myself. 

            “Walking,” Paul Salopek explained in National Geographic, “is falling forward.”

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When Christmas isn’t over yet

Author: Jim Taylor

‘Twas the day after Christmas, and all over the floor

lay the littered remains of the day just before…

            That’s a cynical view of Christmas. No presents left under the tree, just bags of tattered Christmas wrapping to go into recycling. The carcass of leftover turkey lurks in the refrigerator. The music channel has put Christmas albums away for another year and gone back to golden oldies.

            There’s not much left of Christmas.

            Or is there?

            I rather like the idea that the walls of an opera house might somehow still resonate to Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s soaring soprano. That a sports stadium might remember Roger Banister’s Miracle Mile. That a street in Jerusalem might remember Jesus’ sandaled feet.

            Because that means something isn’t over, just because it’s over.

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The fundamental need for belonging

Author: Jim Taylor

Today is the last Sunday before Christmas. I can confidently predict that every Christian congregation -- and possibly those of other religions too -- will hear a sermon about the birth of Jesus.

            I can also predict some of the themes of those sermons.

            Some will use Mary’s status to urge people to do something about poverty. Or about justice. Or perhaps about historic discrimination against women. The Christmas story becomes a means of getting at a social issue.

            Others will use a series of carefully selected Bible verses to prove, beyond any doubt, that God Almighty became a helpless crying baby. And/or that biblical prophets knew all the details of an obscure birth that would take place 500 years later.

            And therefore, by extension, that every other word in the Holy Book must also be 100% accurate.

            A friend and retired preacher calls all of this “head stuff.” It’s wonderful material to argue about. But it makes no difference at all to how you drive on the highway. Or how you treat the cashier at the grocery store.


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