Nov 20 2014

The Banquet and the Spider

One day a hardened and greedy man was walking through the forest when a poisonous spider bit him. He fell to the ground, unconscious and dreaming. He felt as if transported to hell. He saw a banquet room, with an endlessly long table piled high with delicious foods. The people sitting at the table, however, groaned in misery. Their arms were tied with splints so that they could not bend their elbows, and they thus could not lift food to their mouths. Worse still, they were tied to their chairs and the food was piled in the middle of the table, so they could not bend forward to eat with their mouths. They would try over and over to feed themselves by picking up food, throwing it into the air, and catching whatever they could in their mouths. Without being able to bend their arms, though, their throws were clumsy, and most of the food landed elsewhere. The banquet hall was a chaotic mess, with food flying in the air and food spilled and rotting all over the ground and the diners. The hall was filled with the diners’ moans of hunger and angry shouts at one another.

The man was suddenly carried away into heav­en. He was puzzled, though, for heaven was set up identically to hell. Once again, there was an endless­ly long banquet table, with guests tied to their chairs, their arms tied to splints. But here, the banquet room was clean. The only sounds were the sounds of happy conversation between the guests. One thing caused this marked difference: in heaven, since it was not pos­sible to feed oneself, each person would pick up food and feed it to that person’s neighbors. Invariably, the person receiving food would thank the one feeding, and then offer food back to that person in return.

The man found himself again back in hell. Puzz­led that those in hell had not figured out how to feed each other, the man approached the nearest suffering diner, leaned down and whispered, “You fool! There is no need for you to go hungry. Feed one of your neighbors, and certainly he will return your kindness and feed you.

“You expect me to feed him?” the diner said, looking with disapproval at his neighbor. “I’d rather starve than give him the satisfaction of eating!”

The man returned to himself, laying on the ground in the forest, but he soon everything faded again and he found himself in a hell nearly identical to that of his first dream, except that now there was no ceiling to the room. Far off in the distance, he could see heaven up above him. He now believed he was truly dead, in hell. Somehow a thread from a spider web hung down from heaven, extending all the way to him in hell. He figured that the thread must be compensation to him for his untimely death from the spider’s bite.

The man had not yet been strapped to a chair. Not wanting to spend eternity in hunger with such selfish companions, he began climbing the thread, eager to reach the banquets of heaven.

The climb out of hell is a long one, and the man eventually grew tired. He stopped halfway up the thread to rest. He saw how far he had come, and laughed lightheartedly as he realized that he might escape. To his dismay, however, he saw others climbing up after him. They were also new arrivals to hell who had not yet been tied down and had seen him escaping. They had begun climbing to escape as well. Fearing that the thread may break from the weight of so many other climbers, he shouted down to the others, demanding that they get off the thread, that it was his and his alone. At that moment, the thread broke. The man fell down into hell, and was strapped into a chair for all eternity. His table companions were those who had also been climbing the thread. He was so angry with them for breaking the thread that he refused to feed them.

With regret he called out to heaven, “please warn those who are still living—I did not learn, but if I had seen what I see now, I would have learned.”

A voice replied, “you did see when you were still living, unconscious on the forest floor, and many times before that, yet you never learned. Even now, you still refuse to learn. The living have teachers enough. Those with ears to hear and hearts that feel have what they need to learn and do to become worthy of heaven. Those without ears to hear and hearts that feel will never learn, no matter how many times they are taught, unless they choose to open their ears and hearts.” With that, the man’s dream ended and he died from the effects of the spider bite.

Now, to you reading this story, this man like­ly seems foolish and selfish. But, it is easy to see the fool­ishness and selfishness of others, to correct them and offer advice. It is much harder to see your own foolish­ness and selfishness. Focus on shedding your own fool­ishness and selfishness, and you will build heaven a­round you.

**Inspired by an old story, known as “The Allegory of the Long Spoons,” “The Par­able of the Long Chopsticks,” or “The Parable of the Banquet,” attributed as an old Buddhist, Chinese, Chri­stian, Hindu, or Jewish parable, also attributed to Rab­bi Haim of Romshishok; Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, “The Spider’s Thread,” 1918; Luke 16:19-31.


Jun 06 2014

Read my new book!

I’ve written a book summarizing my thoughts on life, truth, morality, and religion. About half of the book contains material from this blog (revised, re-written, and greatly improved), while the other half is new material never released before. The book is called The Triple Path. You can download it here (available in PDF, EPUB, Kindle, or mobi format).


Feb 05 2011

Sensible Parenting

Category: parenting,relationshipsJames @ 10:00 am

A lot of people have shared a recent article about “Chinese mothering” by Yale law professor Amy Chua. All I can say is: what a terrible way to raise your kids. These two blog posts (here and here) by economist Bryan Caplan are the best concise refutations I’ve seen of Chua’s parenting philosophy. Decades of research shows that parenting style doesn’t make much difference in how kids turn out. Beyond a basic baseline (providing basic needs, not abusing them, etc.), parenting style doesn’t have much effect on how kids will turn out as adults.

So what does make the big difference in kids? Genetics. For example. twin and adoption studies show that 40% to 80% of the variation in IQ is because of genetics (and probably it’s more toward the higher end) and non-shared environment (a variable which is difficult to quantify, but may include peers, school, and the child’s experiences with people outside the home).1 Twin and adoption studies also show that many other personality traits are highly heritable; even things like likelihood of divorce, the propensity to marry, marital quality and social support are heritable.2 Of course, genes and environment do interact – the size of someone’s vocabulary is highly heritable (genes), but every word a person knows is learned (environment).3 And there are very bad things parents can do which negatively affect their kids (such as abuse). But the effect of normal parenting is so low that some adoption studies show that, as adults, adopted siblings’ personalities are no more similar than random pairs of strangers. This would mean that the effects of family environment on personality are zero by adulthood.4

So what does this mean for how someone should approach parenting? I like the three questions which Bryan Caplan lists:

“Before you do something for your child, try asking yourself three questions.

“1. Do I enjoy it?

“2. Does my child enjoy it?

“3. Are there any long-run benefits?”

I would add a forth question: are there any long-run negative consequences to the activity (such as studies showing watching TV too early is bad for kids)?

In general, my philosophy is that the benefits from parenting come from the personal relationships I build with my kids and the kind of family we create. Parenting won’t do much to change my kid’s intellectual achievements, salary, or personality as an adult (although like any parent, I’ll still do what I can, subject to the four questions above, to make whatever positive differences I can at the margins). What my parenting can do, though, is determine what my kids think of me and what kind of relationship I have with them when they grow up. I don’t think that parenting should be about being a “Chinese mother” to my kids out of some misguided idea that I’ll be giving them an advantage later in life. It should be about bonding and building personal relationships. The main thing that will survive from my parenting after my kids’ childhood is their memories of me and their relationship with me, and I want those to be good ones.