Gingerbread Houses (with recipe)

It is a tradition in a bakery culture like the German to make gingerbread houses (糖果屋) as the one described in the fairytale Hänsel and Gretel (漢賽爾與葛麗特), inhabited by an evil witch. This is the recipe for a gingerbread house as my father taught it to me. Strictly speaking, it is not “gingerbread” at all, because real gingerbread is not suitable for houses like these. First, it gets hard and dry after three days standing (and the houses are usually displayed for a few days for decoration), and it also gets too thick and massive so that it is not easy to produce the parts in the right size, especially for more sophisticated designs. The dough described here is based on a recipe for “Spekulatius”, traditional German Christmas cookies. With the right spices, however, it can taste almost like gingerbread. The amount of ingredients, here, is enough for a rather big house (let’s say, about 50cm high, wide and long).

Ingredients:

  • 1000g Wheat flour
  • 750g Sugar (half white, half brown)
  • 500g Butter (can partly be replaced 1:1 by Marzipan, for example 400g butter + 100g Marzipan)
  • 4 Eggs
  • Leavening agent: For special taste and right balance between brittleness and expansion during baking, it is recommended not to use baking soda (sodium bicarbonate), but potash (potassium carbonate) and/or salts of hartshorn (ammonium carbonate). I usually use a mix of the latter two, if available.
  • Spices: Cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, anis, etc… If your supermarket has it, get “gingerbread spice” or “Spekulatius spice” mixes. In Asia (Taiwan, China,…) you may use “Five spice” (五香粉), which also gives it a “christmassy” flavour.
  • For the “glue”: powder sugar, water, lemon juice (or “Citronella”).
  • Block chocolate (“couverture”) for the coating.
  • Candy and anything colourful for the decoration.

candyhouse1

Procedure:

Mix all ingredients to obtain a homogenous solid dough. Homogenous means you have to knead it quite well for quite some time. It is easier when the butter gets a bit warm. However, you know the dough is good when your hands start getting sore. Put the dough into a fridge for at least 2 hours or, ideally, overnight. When it is cold it is much easier to process it.

Now the dough is rolled out (3mm thick) and the pieces that are needed for the building are cut out. It must be planned and measured in advance! This is the design and architectural part of the work. Then the pieces are baked in the oven. Depending on the type and power of the oven, the baking time is 10-15 minutes. Be sure to put the hot and still slightly soft pieces onto a plane surface where they can cool and harden without deformation.

candyhouse2

candyhouse3

You can either bake everything first (for simpler buildings where you can estimate the size of all parts beforehand), or start assembling the first pieces before baking more parts (which might be necessary when the size of further pieces depends on how the construction proceeds). The parts are “glued” together with a thick mix of powder sugar in water with a bit of lemon juice for better taste. Without the lemon juice, it will be too sweet (and only sweet)! As an alternative, my father mixed the powder sugar into egg white. It glues very well, and you can also apply it in the form of decorative snow and icicles. However, it turns so hard after a few days that sharp edges and pointy tips can injure your mouth while eating. Therefore, I prefer the softer version with lemon water. Be prepared for needing 500g of powder sugar for a house of the abovementioned dimensions. For 250g you will need only 2-3 spoons of water and a few drops of lemon juice. Apply the sticky mass to the edges of a piece and press it against the edge of the piece that it has to be connected with. Use supports (glasses, cups, boxes, books, etc.) if you are tired of holding the pieces with your hand. It usually takes 5 minutes for the pieces to be securely attached.

candyhouse4

The most difficult part is usually the roof, or any part that protrudes or “hangs”, or is positioned in a slope. Big pieces need support from below, or they will bend and break after a while. When the building is complete it can be coated with chocolate and decorated with candy. Some candy might stick on the chocolate coating directly, others must be attached with a bit of the powder sugar glue. In my opinion, it should be as much candy and as colourful as possible, but in this point everybody is creative in a different way. Moreover, one of my maxims is that everything on and in the gingerbread house must be eatable (except, maybe, the gold foil of those chocolate/caramel coins, and, of course, the figurines of witch, Hänsel, Gretel and the cat)! See examples of gingerbread houses that I made in the past years in the following “background story”.

Background story:

One of my very vivid childhood memories is the annual gingerbread house that my father made, usually around Christmas. We invited all the Kids from the neighbourhood and ate it together. Here is a photo of the house from 1984, and one with the neighbours’ Kids from 1985.

candyhouse1984candyhouse1985

From the late 1990s onwards, I continued this culinary tradition. I was 16 when I first made a gingerbread house together with some friends. In the second year, a piece of gingerbread broke and we couldn’t build the house as planned. Instead, we improvised and assembled a “bunker” instead of a normal house. An idea was born: Why not making different buildings every year with some funny features? In the following years the designs and constructions got more and more sophisticated. Unfortunately, most of our early houses (like a nuclear power plant, or a football stadium) are not documented by photos. The oldest I found is from 2004 (poor quality though): Two gingerbread towers with a gingerbread airplane crashed into one of them.

candyhouse2004

When the constructions became more complicated and needed much time (it takes me three days to make the houses of the past few years), the preparation and the consumption had to be separated. The annual gingerbread house party with the candy house, additional other food (because just the house would be too sweet!), and a traditional German alcoholic drink called Feuerzangenbowle (fire punch) became an institution in my yearly schedule, usually around Christmas (even though one has nothing to do with the other). In 2005 and 2006 we held this party in the form of a contest with several teams making houses and a jury awarding the best, most creative or most delicious. In 2005 (too bad, no photos…) we had the most impressive and at the same time most disgusting house: as a tribute to hurricane Katrina devastating New Orleans earlier that year, a team made a house in Southern USA style, put it into a large box and flooded it with 4 liters of jelly pudding! In 2006, the Korean pagoda made by my friend Doro and me could not compete with the amazing circus of Jonas and Steffi!

DIGITAL CAMERADIGITAL CAMERADIGITAL CAMERA

In 2007, I made a gingerbread version of the cathedral of my hometown Münster. I counted 436 pieces of candy on it.

candyhouse2007

2008 saw the model of the Tuckesburg, a famous building in Münster that once was the home of zoologist Prof. Landois, founder of the first zoo of Münster.

candyhouse2008

In 2009, I was in Japan for a research project and introduced the candy house tradition to my friends and fellows there. For the sake of simplicity, I chose the most original witch house design.

candyhouse2009

In 2010, I made the castle of Münster (known as the administrative building of the university).

candyhouse2010

By the way, the figurines of witch, Hänsel, Gretel and the cat are still the same that my father used. You can find them in almost all the photos posted here.

candyhouse5

Among all the houses I made so far, 2011 is definitely the building with the biggest number of parts (more than 120). Does it look like Castle Neuschwanstein?

candyhouse2011acandyhouse2011b

After staying in a Buddhist temple in Korea in 2012, I tried to build such a temple. However, that turned out to be too challenging because the roof of Korean-style temples is much larger than the construction underneath. This is impossible to resemble even with the best cookie recipe.

candyhouse2012

As usual, this house was consumed during a party with many friends. Not much later, in February 2013, I made another house for my family (parents and siblings, nephews and nieces). It is another small one that looks like my childhood home in the countryside near Hoetmar.

candyhouse2013Feb

Later that year I left Germany for Asia. After moving to Taiwan around Christmas, I introduced myself to my new housemates and their friends with a gingerbread version of the Taipei101, until 2008 the highest building of the world. My gingerbread101 with a height of 118 cm was at that time the highest I had ever made.

candyhouse2013Dec

In 2014, Germany celebrated the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall. Therefore, I built the most famous landmark and symbol of the separation of East and West Germany, the Brandenburg gate. The Kimbab (Korean sushi) indicates that the party preparation was already proceeding…

candyhouse2014

A cineastic highlight of 2015 for many people was the release of a new Star Wars movie. For an old fan like me, it was an inspiration to construct one of its most iconic spaceships, the Millennium Falcon (70cm diameter). Unfortunately, due to high air humidity and some construction difficulties (Don’t try to make flat disk-like structures with gingerbread!), the Gingerbread Falcon broke on the day of its construction. But I could get good photos, at least!

candyhouse2015acandyhouse2015b

How can this be topped? It probably can’t. In 2016 – still in Taiwan – our gingerbread house party was scheduled on December 24th, Christmas Eve. In Germany, this would be impossible, because this evening is an important family event, so that nobody would go to a party. Taking the opportunity of having such a party on Christmas, I decided to make a Christmas tree, combining the gingerbread tradition with a Christmas custom. With a height of 125cm, it also broke the record of 2013’s Gingerbread101.

candyhouse2016

This year, 2017, we decided not to make a candy house. It would be too much of a hassle to keep a very curious and uncontrollable Kid away from it (and chocolate coated cookies with candy on it are really not the stuff that 22-months-olds should eat…)! Instead, we will make Spekulatius cookies from the same dough with you (Tsolmo) and share them with visitors! When the time is right, there will be more candy houses, that’s for sure!

Advertisements

Real Music vs. Pop

Another story I remember vividly from my childhood is “The emperor’s nightingale” by Hans Christian Andersen. I had a nicely illustrated book in German, and now you have an even nicer Chinese version of it.

nightingale

Here is a short summary of the story: The Chinese emperor gets knowledge of a bird with the loveliest voice ever. It is a rather plain and ordinary nightingale – and the emperor and the citizen don’t hide their disappointment about this unspectacular appearance – but when it starts singing, however, everybody is amazed by its clear and beautiful melodies. One day, a gift from the Japanese emperor arrives: a mechanical nightingale with gold and gemstone applications that looks really precious and valuable. It’s melodies, however, are not as pleasant as the real nightingale ones. The people and the emperor, obviously more of the visual type, decide to give their admiration to the mechanical bird while the real nightingale is expelled from the palace. There is, of course, a dramatic twist in the story including death and regret, but no worries, it has a happy end! For now, however, this plot description shall be enough to explain a thought that I had after reading the story again.

It immediately reminds me of the contemporary situation of music. On the one side, we have great music, on the other we have good-looking puppets of pop industry. My definition of “great music” is related to its compositional sophistication, aesthetic value, or the creativity and technical skills that are put into it. Orchestral works, chamber music, blues and jazz, funk, reggae, rock, heavy metal, progressive music, even some of the electronic music like drum’n’bass, ambient or acid jazz – in these genres there is a good chance to find “great music” and admirable musicians. Music industry, in contrast, produces pop. The music is plain and boring, but the promoted stars look pretty, handsome, sexy or in any way “marketable”. The latter only exists because people are more competent with their eyes than with their ears and brains. Visual pleasures are easier to acquire than auditory ones. Moreover, music with high quality needs an understanding of music that many people don’t have or are too lazy to train. They are lured by the shallow but blinking and shiny pop business. Those who are really interested in music with aesthetic and qualitative value don’t need to bother, but there is one big problem with it: Acquiring musical skills and creatively producing outstanding music requires time and money. Also musicians need to make their living! However, the field of creative and valuable music is seared by music industry, because all the money is put into visually appealing puppets, because they are more promising for generating profit, because the masses (where the money is) are reached with prettiness rather than with musical quality. This shallowness (as a form of stupidity) will someday ruin mankind, I am quite sure! Music is just one example where it becomes very apparent. In more impacting spheres of society (technology, politics, economy, etc.) it will have devastating effects! Just saying.

Gender Construction

A while ago, we all (you, your Mom, me) went to the market together, passing by a baby and children clothes vendor. Since you needed new pants, we made use of a good offer: buying three pants for a discount. When choosing the three pants, it turned out that your Mom and me had quite different ideas of what would be good colours and designs for you. She chose mostly girlish items, pink, cute and with decorative applications. I preferred neutral colours with subtle patterns and designs that support outdoor activities and climbing play structures (you may say: somehow boyish pants). That made me think about gender roles and their formation. As a constructivist, it is out of question for me that gender roles and expectations are the result of socialisation and culture. Nowhere in our biology it is determined that female humans have to be or do like this and that male humans have to be or do like that. Gender shouldn’t even be a big deal! In reality, in many social spheres (education, job life, sexuality and partnership, etc.) it definitely is, but I don’t want to support that by indoctrinating you with such ideology. It starts with simple things like choosing clothes for you, is supported by our choice of toys, by the tasks we give to you and the expectations we have on your behaviour, performance and character, and might even amount to our idea of your partnerships and sexual orientation. I want you to grow into a free, open-minded, self-confident, self-fulfilled and happy person! I wish you will be able to choose freely from all the possible options that come along your way. There must not be any gender restrictions. It doesn’t matter if you dress yourself like a girl or like a boy, as long as you are happy with your choice! It doesn’t matter if your favourite hobbies and activities are typically boy’s domains or rather girlish, as long as you feel satisfied with how you express yourself and your skills. Be creative! Be weird! Be yourself! And don’t let any narrow-minded traditionalist tell you anything different! Gender (which must not be mixed up with biological sexes) is an element of the mind-deluding matrix that limits your freedom and diminishes your life quality. In the Buddhist sense, it is part of the suffering. Better rid yourself of that concept. As parents, we should give you all the support to do so!

pinkgirl

Two important topics are connected to this: Gender disorders and sexuality. Biologically, you are a girl. Maybe someday you will feel something is wrong with it and it turns out you are actually a boy in a girl’s body. This is not a seldom phenomenon. But from my point of view, this “problem” is only amplified by the stress that is put on you in form of gender role expectations. Your identity and personal integrity shouldn’t depend on whether your appearance and biological gender is matching with your actual emotional and cognitive perception. With this mindset, there can’t be any “disorder”, because the “order” is a flawed constructed idea. A friend asked me if I would mind if you were homosexual. Of course not! Who am I to decide who you love or who you feel sexually attracted to?! Again: Make free choices that suit you! Observe yourself and increase the chance that your choices are sustainable and viable! Be happy! What your actual choices are, then, is rather secondary.

Superstition = Ignorance

In the previous letter I mentioned ignorance. This is an important topic that is worth elaborating further. According to Buddha’s teachings – and I fully agree! – it is one of the three mind poisons, besides attachment (or greed) and resistance (or hate). It is even regarded as the root of all mundane afflictions since it produces and amplifies attachments and resistances. Not knowing how things really are – how, then, can beneficial and sustainable decision-making be possible? One of the most obvious unwholesome manifestations of ignorance is a mindset based on the maxim ‘We have always done it like this!‘ as often observed in matters of tradition, customs and especially religious and superstitious practices.

A while ago, your Mom insisted on taking you to a nearby temple of the deity “Mazu” (媽祖), the heavenly goddess and patron saint of fishers and sailors, who was suggested by a fortune teller as your “Ganma” (a kind of patron or godmother). Since you are perfectly healthy and develop more than well your Mom wanted to thank the Mazu and please her with your visit. I know that this is very important for her, so I didn’t stop her and went with you. Actually, for me, these religious rituals, same as horoscopes and fortune telling, are entire nonsense! But, pragmatically speaking, if it makes the family happy, why not?! However, I had one serious objection: In Taiwan, it is a custom to burn tons of incenses and even paper money for the deities and ghosts of their folk religion, a mix of Daoism (the biggest influence), Confucianism and Buddhism with strong impact of shamanistic beliefs and practices. Bringing a little baby to such a smoky and polluted place is certainly not a good idea! Isn’t that ironic? We take you to a temple to pray for your good health and, by that, expose you for a considerable time (20-30 minutes) to highly carcinogenic air, heavily laden with the combustion products of organic material, full of heterocycles, acrylates, and many more. This is exactly my problem with ignorance! Instead of applying rational, reasonable, knowledge-informed considerations to their decision-making and choice of options for their life, people do stupid, unhealthy, counterproductive, inefficient things that are motivated by traditions, believes, fears and unquestioned customs that are passed down from ancient times in which the people really had no better idea. What a humbug!

IronyGhostmoney

Indeed, the ubiquitous burning of ghost money is one of the most annoying things about Taiwan, from my perspective. The air is bad enough, but there is nothing worse than neighbours who burn an entire bucket of paper sheets on each and every possible occasion (the lunar calendar is full of special days of hundreds of deities). Especially in the “ghost month” (lunar 7th month) there is a brown layer of ashes above the city. In Taipei the public burning of ghost money is forbidden, but still many people do it, because for them it is a severe offense to stop them from their traditional customs. Sometimes I wonder if the young generation that has at least some formal education is still really believing in ghosts and spirits and the effectiveness of pleasing them by burning paper. Yes, cultural customs and traditions deserve some respect just for the sake of being a cultural element deeply rooted in a society. However, there is a limit, and that is rational reason! When traditions are found to be entirely counterproductive (like producing air pollution to pray for health), there must be a way to change the custom! Even religious and other spiritual worldviews have to be adapted to contemporary levels of knowledge! Ignorance is NOT bliss! As long as a society doesn’t reach this level of understanding, it will remain an “underdeveloped” one. Sorry, Taiwan!

airpollution

Bare necessities

In an earlier letter I wrote about the steps of development, from body-centeredness to mental advancements to spirituality. Today, I’d like to elaborate on a similar yet slightly different model, inspired by Maslow’s pyramid of needs. He distinguishes three levels of human needs, manifested in 5 steps of particular interests. The “basic needs” are the most fundamental physiological needs (enough food and water, sufficient warmth and the chance to rest) and safety needs (being free from harm and danger). Then, there are psychological needs such as belongingness and love (having relationships, family, friends) and esteem needs (feeling productive and being merited for ones accomplishments). Finally, people have self-fulfilment or self-actualisation needs (having hobbies, being creative, expressing and satisfying one’s inner states).

maslowpyramid

This pyramid can be “read” in various ways. First, the suggested hierarchy may be understood as an order of development of both human civilisation as a whole and individual human beings in particular. Non-human animals and our closest evolutionary ancestors are driven by their physiological needs, and to a lesser extent by safety needs. When early humans as conscious and self-aware beings formed clans and rudimentary societies (in contrast to non-aware social animals like bees, ants or fish swarms), the emotional bonds among clan and family members made them realise love needs. When the survival and well-being of a society (or clan, or family) depends on the activity level and its success and efficiency of each individual, and when successful and efficient activity was merited, the psychological need of prestige and esteem supported the motivation to actively contribute to social life and to increasing life quality. When all this is taken care of and there is still time left, then there is room for self-actualisation in the form of creative and artful activities – the birth of human culture. On the individual level, the basic needs (food, sleep) are the first expressed ones, along with security and safety needs. When the newborn baby feels well-taken care of, it starts forming bonds with the caretakers and love-givers. When getting socially active, needs of confirmation and rewards are expressed, and from a certain age on, Kids feel the desire to express themselves according to their skills in a meaningful way.

A second reading is the relation between those needs and the granting of human rights. The more basic a need the more we are inclined to grant the satisfaction of that need as a “human right”. It is important to distinguish negative rights (the right of freedom from something) from positive rights (the right of freedom to something). From my understanding, Maslow’s pyramid implies that from top to bottom the “freedom from” rights increase in significance and importance. Everybody might agree that people should have the right of freedom from being blocked from access to food, warmth and sleep. But not everybody agrees that people have a right of being loved or a right of having a job or a right of committing to a passionate hobby (or, strictly speaking, in terms of negative rights: the right of freedom from being blocked from access to it). The positive rights, in contrast, increase from bottom to top: People are granted the right of freedom to choose their hobby, their favourite music, their religion or their job. Usually, people are also free to choose their friends and partner (not the parents and siblings, though). However, in case of the basic needs, they are usually not spoken of in connection with terms of freedom of choice. It appears plausible, however, to understand the physiological and safety needs as “more urgent” than, for example the need to have a hobby or a job. This hierarchy is also mirrored in international agreements on human rights protection and manifested in actual law-and-order systems. When imprisoning criminals, their right of freedom to choose their activities, their destinations or their social surrounding is taken from them (so to say), but even in a prison it must be ensured – according to common sense – that they have enough to eat, a place to sleep safely and that they are not tortured or humiliated. On a less “political” but more “familiar” level, we might make the example of parents that bar their 10-year-old daughter from having a tattoo with the argument that her safety (from harmful health effects of the carcinogenic ink) outweighs her freedom of self-actualisation (which, as she believes, having a tattoo is part of). Here, it is also obvious that from bottom to top the number of options to choose from are increasing immensely. On the basic level, we simply have to eat, sleep and stay away from unhealthy environmental conditions. It is also clear what safety and security imply. The ways to serve the need of friendship and love are much more manifold, not to speak of the choices for esteem and self-fulfilment needs.

Third, there is an ethical reading in the pyramid – even though I wonder if Maslow or others who exploit this illustration would think of it in this way. Ethics as the attempt to find solutions for conflicts and problems that occur in the inter-sphere between individual people, societies and cultures is concerned with strategies of argumentation that can convince parties of the rightness or wrongness of certain viewpoints, decisions and/or actions. People have different interests, desires and preferences. When these collide, a solution is needed as an orientation for what would be a proper way to proceed. Commonly, people agree that “my rights end where your rights start”, but that is often too simplistic and not helpful for many conflict cases. This pyramid may serve as an orientation for a hierarchy of rights. When two need-based rights collide, the one further down in the pyramid is to be prioritised over the one further up. When a politician’s interest in power (as a form of prestige) and votes leads him to making decisions that are undermining the social stability of his country (like Trump in USA), it is unethical. When I neglect my children’s need to spend quality time with their father because I am more interested in my job or my hobby, it is unethical. This reading is connected to the second reading on rights: Limiting someone’s options for self-fulfilment is less ethically problematic than limiting someone’s options for seeking safety. When I prohibit a certain hobby you have many alternatives to choose from. But when I mistreat you or don’t care for you, you can’t just choose another family. On the socio-political level, when a legislation prohibits smoking in public places (as in Germany) some people complain, but it is not a big problem. When a legislation prohibits homosexual relationships (as in Russia), thus limiting the satisfaction of relationship needs for a significant group of the population, it is ethically highly questionable. When a legislation is not putting sufficient energy into the social balance (as in Myanmar, not governing the conflict between Buddhists and Muslims), it is losing its justification. When a legislation is not even trying to feed its population (as in North Korea), this legislation is better put out of power (forcefully, if necessary) since this is clearly a violation of human rights.

Inspired by Maslow’s pyramid (that makes good sense to me), I thought about an additional or even supplementary pyramid of necessities for life quality. The pyramid of needs doesn’t say anything about the sources for the satisfaction of those needs. What must be given for a certain life quality? How can that be prioritised or hierarchised in order to come to insights that can serve as orientations for actions and decisions (such as the “human rights” approach based on the hierarchy of needs)? Here is the result of my reflections:

mehlichpyramid

The basic necessity that is needed for survival is environmental stability. Embedded into an ecosystem, human beings can’t survive without it. If the fine-tuned environmental balance is disrupted, the whole system will be affected, for example through changes in biodiversity, food chains, climate, chemical constitution of the atmosphere, etc. Environmental health is the basis for our food sources, for access to fresh water, for breathable air and the ecological niche of the human race. All anthropogenic activity (including system formation such as society, culture, economy, money, etc.) is dependent on it and, therefore, secondary to it. Second, human needs can only be satisfied when there is a certain level of social stability. In extreme cases (war, riots, anarchy, violence), this can affect the survival chances. In a more moderate sense, political stability provides autonomy and grants rights to the citizen that it is governing, thus enabling integrity. Here, integrity means inviolacy and the ability to act at all. However, it gradually (in the pyramid upwards) takes up the meaning of righteousness (ethical integrity) when the levels further down are taken care of. The third level that corresponds to Maslow’s belongingness and love needs is labelled ethical stability. With this, I mean an atmosphere of trust and co-operation among family members, neighbours, colleagues and peers (those in direct vicinity of one’s life). Only in that kind of surrounding can people start building close ties and rely on each other, increasing each others’ life quality by mutual support and collaboration. Only such a society is able to establish a system that offers livelihood options. This might be the most critical and debatable part of my pyramid. It implies that – as soon as a society reaches a certain level of integral peace and co-operation, people will feel the desire to act as parts of this society, bringing in their skills and abilities. They do that, as I believe, out of self-motivation and not because the social system forces them to. Moreover, it is not clear to everyone why economic needs play a role in this fourth level rather than on the first level (providing food, housing, clothes, etc.). The economic system we have, arisen from a functionally differentiated society (to use Niklas Luhmann’s term), dictates a lifestyle of shared competences in various types of jobs. Only in this kind of system depends the daily supply of food, housing, etc. on the financial income from one’s job (livelihood). This is man-made and not a universal law – it could be different. That’s why the basic needs (or here: the basic necessities) have, in principle, nothing to do with the economic system that we established. Having a job is only a necessity because we as a society chose to live like that. This fourth level in my pyramid is rather referring to livelihood options as a multitude of ways to unleash one’s productivity potentials because that is what we naturally fill our lives with when the lower three levels are secured. When survival is certain and the personal integrity secured, we start being concerned about our identity. We define ourselves through our social ties with family, friends and peers, but also – and maybe predominantly – through our social roles as competent experts in a particular field of skills or knowledge. Ultimately, when there is sufficient capacity and time for it, we form habits of thought or action that agglomerate to what we call culture. People use their creativity and intellect to engage with art, philosophy and spirituality. They choose hobbies (“spare time activities”) and fill leisure time with joyful and pleasurable endeavours. Some of those are part of the identity formation mechanisms, others are simply a “luxury” in the sense of “they are not really necessary for our life”. However, in any case, it is usually those aspects of life that give us the feeling that it is worth living for.

Same as for the needs pyramid, also the necessity pyramid can be understood as a development description, analogue to the one given above. More interesting – and the main reason why I think this way of putting it produces further insights – are the political and ethical dimensions in it. In both fields (politics and ethics) we asks “What shall we do?”. When taking this pyramid as a decision guideline, the answer is: “Start at the bottom, fix the problems, and work your way up!”. In reality, however, we observe trends that proceed in the opposite direction. Governments are eagerly promoting industrial aims for the sake of job creation and material wealth while resources and energy demands ruin the environment and the eco-system. The climate changes in an accelerated fashion under the influence of human activity, but important decision-makers and consumers seem not to care due to the conveniences they desire on the 5th level (self-fulfilment needs and cultural necessities). Religious and societal conflicts dominate the News (for example islamistic terrorism, racism or homophobia, unemployment rate) while the serious global problems arising from atmosphere warming, pollution and species extinction are marginalised and only peripherally brought to people’s awareness, at least not as an “urgent issue”, not to speak of one that is wholeheartedly worked on.

I suggest that crimes are punished on the basis of this pyramid. Environmental destruction and pollution (for example by corporations or shipping companies) as the worst possible crimes are punished with lifelong imprisonment. Terrorism, genocide and tyranny are punished accordingly. Corruption, brainwashing through media or educational curricula, all forms of fascism and discrimination might fall into that same category when they threaten the social stability. The next level are crimes that undermine the ethical integrity of the society: intriguing, fraud, betrayal, abuse, harassment, etc. Stealing money (no matter how much) or other commodities, however, is not a big deal since it is motivated by greed and avarice – character traits that mostly the criminal himself is suffering from, as such already punished. These people need help, not punishment. Crimes in the art/culture realm are hardly possible, then. Copyright violations (for example by downloading music and movies illegally) are a bagatelle compared to crimes that target the more fundamental necessities of human life.

There are two fields of human interest that I’d like to comment on in view of these pyramids: education and technology. Where in these pyramids is education? Some might say it is the guarantor of social stability, therefore it is something that should be granted as a right, and something that the international community should eagerly work on to provide to each and every human on this planet. Others argue that it is only useful to serve the need of esteem or the necessity of livelihood, respectively. It is for identity formation rather than for personal and social integrity. I agree with the former viewpoint: There can’t be integrity, neither personal nor ethical nor societal, without education (at least reading, writing and basic mathematics). A lot of social instability around the globe arises from the immaturity of wide parts of the population due to a lack of education. Educated people will be more free from the despotism of leaders (political, economic, ideological, etc.), and more willing to develop the social conditions to the better (whatever that means). They will be able to secure the satisfaction of basic needs and create capacities to satisfy also the psychological needs and identity-relevant necessities. Moreover, the right education will support environmental protection, sustainable livelihood and economy, and more responsible consumerism and lifestyle practices.

This brings me to reflections on technology. Basically, I (alongside many scholars in Philosophy of Technology) regard the creation and usage of technology as the result of needs and desires. People invent and apply artefacts in order to make their life easier. The oldest known tools (if understood as technology, as I do) helped their users to ensure a sufficient supply of food, clothes, housing and warmth. Still today, many branches of technology are serving purposes of survival, be it for food production, medical technology, housing, protection from natural forces, etc. Other items serve social purposes, for example transportation systems or mass media. Relationship needs are addressed in various forms of communication technology, but also indirectly in the form of making work processes less time-consuming, thus enabling more time with loved ones and for socialising. Technical artefacts enable many new forms of jobs and ways to be a productive member of a community, for example scientists and engineers. Moreover, technological solutions are strongly interwoven into cultural practices, arts, entertainment, and alike. However, at the same time, technology also has negative impact on all levels of human needs and necessities: technology-caused environmental destruction and pollution, social imbalances due to unjust distribution of access to technology-induced wealth, interpersonal and individual conflicts arising from misuse of technology, limitations of livelihood options due to replacement of human workforce by technological solutions, and personal numbness and blunting as a consequence of mindless consumption and application of “cold” technology. In technology assessment, negative and positive effects of technological progress, often referred to as “risks and benefits” are analysed and evaluated according to certain parameters. In the same fashion as I categorised the heaviness of crimes, I suggest to evaluate technology on the basis of my pyramid of necessities: In the first instance, technology must be “environmentally friendly”, that means its design, production, implementation and application must not interfere with the environmental integrity and balance. If it does, no matter how useful it is in serving needs of the upper levels, refrain from it! In the second instance, it should be ensured that it serves social stability by promoting justice and fairness through its general availability and non-discriminatory effects. Then we can start asking in which way it affects people’s life habits (interaction within families, among friends, with colleagues) and people’s options to choose doing anything meaningful in their life. Then – and only then – may we take into account all those intended purposes and anticipated effects that the technology in focus has on the amenities of human daily life. There is a lot of technology (in the widest sense) currently firmly implemented in our daily life that would fail this assessment: individual auto-mobility (cars and motorcycles), cosmetics, agricultural techniques (especially meat production), energy production from fossil fuels, just to name a few examples.

Gather Ye AVSIHAC

In the epilogue of his great book “The Love Bug and other Tales of Psychotherapy“, psychiatrist Dr. Dan Briddell explains his simple formula of a “good life”: ROSEBUD. It is the easy to remember acronym of seven “stepping stones” as elements of a guideline for how to live a good life:

R – Reality: Come to terms with, understand, and respect what is. Embrace reality from a position of emotional and intellectual strength.

O – Optimism: Develop and maintain a healthy optimism and humour in all aspects of life. There is an enormous power in the zone of positive thinking.

S – Service: Serve a greater good. Develop activities that extend your time, commitment, and service beyond self-interest.

E – Ethics: Develop an ethical approach to life. Endeavour to make the right choice – each and every time. Be receptive to corrective feedback.

B – Balance: Maintain balance in all things. Diversify your life’s portfolio and seek the appropriate balance with thoughtful attention to work, play, relationships, and emotional, intellectual, and spiritual growth.

U – Unconscious: Learn to appreciate, befriend, and grow more comfortable with the silent, inner aspects of your self. Dreams, memories, reflections, intuitions, imagination, and meditation are all keys to unlocking the dazzling power of the unconscious mental process.

D – Develop your gifts: Develop and maintain a high degree of self-respect through the assessment and refinement of your unique abilities, skills and gifts – especially the gift of love. Even modest acts of kindness and encouragement, each and every day, will strengthen your own feelings of love and contentment.

This acronym is aptly chosen, not only because it is easy to remember, but also because it evokes the association with Robert Herrick’s famous poem “Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May“, which the teacher John Keating in the “Dead Poets Society” uses to explain to the students what it means to “seize the day” (Carpe Diem), to live in each moment to the fullest, making the future rather than hoping for it.

rosebuds

However, as always, I am slightly critical with Briddell’s quite superficial explanations (though in the book in more detail than cited here by me). Maybe he didn’t want to overwhelm his readership with too much psychology and scholarly parlance. He wrote for the US-American market, and the anti-intellectual US-American society has to be addressed with easy-to-grasp, idiot-proof advices that are vague enough to press them into their dogmatic religiosity and shallow esoteric life-help-palaver. With the danger of producing a lot of palaver myself, I’d like to elaborate further what my thoughts are after reading Dr. Briddell’s stepping stones.

As obvious from previous blog entries, I am very careful with claims about reality. First of all, no ontological certainties about reality are possible without proper epistemological reflections. What we hold for real often turns out to be the product of our deluded mind. The problem is the certainty that we suppose when making reality claims. Much more important than a close look at what is, from my point of view, is a position of systematised doubt and unbiased skepticism. Seeing the reality is a good goal, but impossible for most of us. Instead, I’d like to name awareness as the important stepping stone. Awareness as in mindfulness. It also substitutes the “unconscious” part of Briddell’s “rosebud”. Draw as much unconscious insight into your awareness as possible. Buddhist practices like meditation and the constant endeavour to exit the matrix are helpful ways to explore the real reality and get rid of delusions.

Optimism concerning the future can easily drift towards irrational hope and unrealistic dream-chasing. I favour the term vision (as in being visionary) when it comes to future plans. Have visions of possible futures as outcomes of your current decisions. If possible, choose those options that enable more options or that are reversible. Remember that the seed for your future is planted now, in this moment. With healthy visions in your mind, you keep an overview of your options and can apply your wisdom to proceed on your way. But never get attached to your futures. Optimism is contained in this as the firm conviction that – as long as you always have a choice – your way (not necessarily the goal!) will be satisfying and joyful! No need to speak of humour! Think positively, but not for the sake of mind-deluding positivity!

Service as understood here is very close to selflessness, a term that I would prefer since it is broader. Meaning in life is often created or made apparent through selfless acts. It is connected to forming virtues by internalising and cultivating virtuous behaviour towards others (kindness, helpfulness, care, generosity, empathy). Make others happy and they will be the greatest source of happiness for you. But don’t put the burden of the entire world onto your shoulders. From my perspective, it is totally OK to set priorities and care more about those people who are closer to you in the social network of inter-relations (family, friends, neighbours, colleagues, sports club mates, etc.). It requires skills of emotional intelligence, particularly empathy, feeling and thinking from another person’s perspective, temporarily giving up the own stance. That might be hard for someone who is not used to do that.

Ethics is my professional field, but here I would like to replace it by integrity. Ethics, on the one hand, is too intellectual and academic for daily life. And we don’t need to study Kant or Aristotle to act with moral coherence. Morality, on the other hand, is running the risk of being applied by principle, not by rational reason. Think of religious morality following the church’s rule, for example. Be a good person! Eliminate hypocrisy, double standards, inconsistencies and logical fallacies from your values and worldview. Integrity in the sense that an outsider could predict your decision from the fact that you promote and follow clear values and virtues is much more important. Unshakable ethical integrity can be applied to all situations that will ever occur in your life. Knowing what is best to do is a precious benefit for your life and an important skill. The more reasoned your values the better. But nothing is wrong with learning, making experiences and adapting your value set when you have good reasons to do so.

I have no objections about the call for balance, but would name it harmony for a better understanding. It is in accordance with the Middle Way thinking of Eastern philosophies. It is not about slowing down your life or limiting your activities to some necessities. It is about the awareness of the consequences of a high amplitude of the oscillation of Yin and Yang around the Dao. There will be times in your life when the amplitude is high, usually around the early Twenties, as a student, and times where you wish to calm down the pace with which your pendulum is swinging. Harmonising your life means to go with the flow of these oscillations and let them arise and cease naturally. Extremes, however, are indeed better avoided. Better make sure you know when enough is enough, in all possible respects.

The last point, development, appears a bit shallow to me. Not that it is not important for progress in life, but from my perspective, Dr. Briddell didn’t come to the crucial point here. We all “develop” all the time according to the experiences we accumulate, that is unavoidable. The problem is that most people perceive their development as a process that proceeds without their influence. Most people believe either in destiny (“There is nothing I could do about my life, anyway! It is all decided for me!”) or fate (“I will get what I deserve, anyway!”). While the former is utterly dangerous and often connected to a strong faith in a divine entity (God), the latter leaves slightly more space for self-responsible action, at least when understood in the right way (for example as in “I am the Captain of my fate!”). Best would be, however, when we understand that we are entirely self-responsible for the outcome of our lives and approach it with creativity. Furthermore, development has a notion of growth and progress. I am convinced, however, that it must include the attempts to get rid of unhealthy traits, habits and mindsets, a de-development so to say. Then, the term cultivation is more aptly fitting here: Planting seeds for future change towards more healthy states (character traits, personality, life conditions) and less unwholesome elements. I think, this point is also strongly connected to my tree of knowledge picture: Cultivation refers to exploring the roots and opening up more and more efficient channels of meaning construction. The fruits to be harvested then will be love, happiness, harmony and high life quality!

Now the ROSEBUD acronym changed into AVSIHAC (Awareness, Vision, Selflessness, Integrity, Harmony, Awareness (again, for ‘unconscious’), Cultivation). This is less easy to remember and there is also no poem about it, and I am sorry for that. But if you really understood what this is all about, you also don’t need any acronym. You just live it!

Sand

Apparently, we don’t have a TV at home – but you don’t care, yet, because you don’t even know, yet, what a TV is. Television is a technology in the field of mass media. In the 1960s it entered almost every household in Germany, other European countries, the USA, Japan, and many other countries, soon ubiquitous all around the globe. It presented moving pictures which was regarded as a huge advancement compared to the other major mass media forms in place, the radio and the newspaper. Why, then, don’t we have one now? To be sure, we consciously and wholeheartedly decided not to have one. To explain that, I’d like to share a story with you:

A professor stood before his Philosophy class and had some items in front of him. When the class began, wordlessly he picked up a very large and empty bucket and proceeded to fill it with golf balls. He then asked the students if the bucket was full. They agreed that it was. The professor then picked up a jar of pebbles and poured them into the bucket. He shook it lightly. The pebbles, of course, rolled into the open spaces between the golf balls. He then asked the students again if the bucket was full. They agreed it was. The professor picked up a box of sand and poured it into the bucket and of course filled up everything else. He then asked once more if it was full. The students responded with an unanimous yes. The professor then produced a cup of tea from under the table and proceeded to pour the entire content into the bucket, effectively filling the empty space between the grains of sand. The students laughed.

Now,” said the professor, as the laughter subsided, “I want you to recognize that this bucket represents your life. The golf balls are the important things – your family, your partner, your health, your children, your friends, your favourite passions – things that if everything else was lost and only they remained, your life would still be full. The pebbles are the other things that matter, like your job, your house, your car. The sand is everything else – the small stuff. If you put the sand into the bucket first,” he continued, ” there is no room for the pebbles or the golf balls. The same goes for your life. If you spend all your time and energy on the small stuff, you will never have room for the things that are important to you. Pay attention to the things that are critical to your happiness. Play with your children. Take time to get medical checkups. Take your partner dancing. Play another match chess. There will always be time to go to work, clean the house, give a dinner party and fix the disposal. Take care of the golf balls first – the things that really matter. Set your priorities. The rest is just sand.” After a few moments of silence in the classroom, one of the students raised his hand and inquired what the tea represented. The professor smiled. “I’m glad you asked. It goes to show you that no matter how full your life may seem, there’s always room for a cup of tea.”

This story is about priorities and about our important and useful ability to step back and reflect on our life, the decisions we make and the options we choose. On the one side, it is good to realise what our golf balls are, because only then are we able to lead a mindful and fulfilled life. On the other side, it is of the same significance to identify and eliminate all the sand! And I can tell you, what we call “progress”, especially the technological one, produces more and more sand, time killers that lure our weak and opportunistic minds to choose them. My standard example for “sand” in this respect is TV. To put it straight: 98% (roughly) of what is transmitted via TV channels is nonsensical, meaningless, stupidifying, dull bullshit (this will probably be the only time you will ever read this word from me here). Yes, there is informative News. Luckily, nowadays, we have more diverse and alternative sources for News, especially via internet. Yes, there are interesting documentaries and educational shows. These are either the remaining 2%, or they turn out to be much less valuable than other sources of knowledge and learning. And, yes, sometimes it is simply entertaining and funny, for example in form of good movies, live concerts, cultural shows, etc. Again, there are better sources for that. When you read a book, your imagination creates the visual impression from the words you are receiving. In your mind, a creative sense-making takes place. When you watch TV, your mind is much less creative and by far less challenged to “make sense” of what it perceives. Besides, culture and arts should also be consumed “directly”, not through a TV screen. Moreover, TV consumption is unhealthy both for body (sitting around, blue light screen) and psyche. This last point deserves more attention and explanation.

The major problem I have with TV consumption is that in the vast majority of cases it doesn’t challenge our intellect, emotional and empathic skills, creativity, thoughtfulness and practical skills. The severe lack of self-fulfilment that goes along with watching TV leaves us behind with the inherent feeling of emptiness (not in the Buddhist sense), of having wasted time, and of stagnation. If you are already “empty” (like most of the people in “modern” countries), you might not even get aware of it. But if you grow into a mindful, creative, curious and active person that seeks self-fulfilment, you will probably choose to watch TV only when there is really nothing else to do (which means: never). When you delve into a book, create an artwork, practice a musical instrument, exhaust yourself with sports, socialise with friends, play in the sun or explore nature, I promise you will always feel “better” than after watching TV. Of course, it is not about always doing something “smart” or meaningful, there must be time for relaxing and low-level entertainment. But then, I imply, it is still about “making choices”, and the TV gives you only an illusion of choice, as Roger Waters wrote in The Wall in 1979: “I got 13 channels of shit on the TV to choose from.” As mentioned above, today, there are much more sources of all sorts of information and entertainment. We don’t need a TV to choose interesting movies, informative documentaries or comedy.

tveducation

The problem is: TV is a “simple” way to pass time. Same as alcohol is a simple way to cover sadness. Or as smoking is a simple way to deal with insecurity and nervousness. Or as chocolate is a simple way of self-reward. It is a temptation, a welcome counter-pole to the stressful and difficult “daily life” with school, job, conflict-solving, standing one’s ground and fulfilling one’s desires. People choose TV because they are tired. And because vegging in front of the TV doesn’t require any brain cells. What these people obviously didn’t experience is the power of a passion (a hobby, for example) or of interpersonal quality time (playing with children, meaningful conversation with close friends or the partner) to serve as a huge source of energy. In the terms of the story: sand sucks your energy out, while golf balls deliver energy to you! Even after a long workday, and especially when you are tired. You just need to get your ass up! In Buddhist terms: Watching TV is suffering (dhuka) in the sense that you give in to your deluded desires and your resistance to challenges. Our (your parents’) decision not to have a TV is motivated by the attempt to eliminate all sources of unhappiness and suffering. Instead, we (your Mom and I) play cards almost every night before going to sleep. This simple card game is as “stupid” and non-challenging as a TV show, but we look at each other, talk to each other while playing, interact (at least more than in front of a TV screen) and have fun “in our way” (instead of in a way dictated by a technological device). My vision of the future is a family life full of activities like this, outdoor activities whenever the weather allows it, and playing games, playing music, create or build something together, whenever we prefer staying inside.

I am totally aware that my aversion against TV is highly exaggerated and for many people even offensive. Of course, not everybody who watches TV from time to time is an idiot! But it is, as always, a matter of balance and – most of all –  a matter of mindfulness and conscious choice! For now, since you are still a baby, we decided not to expose you to TV consumption or any other form of “staring at a screen”. So far, you obviously grow into a curious, active, healthy, energetic, cognitively very skilled girl! Therefore, I believe, it is not the worst choice!