Friday, November 25, 2016


I'm happy to say I've been reading a lot lately. Most of my reading takes the form of audiobooks. I love that I now enjoy washing dishes, folding laundry and mopping floors-because that's my time to read! In the past week, I've read Nutshell by Ian McEwan, Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty, Loner by Teddy Wayne and One True Loves by Taylor Jenkins Reid. All of them were fascinating in very different ways.

Nutshell was a take on Hamlet, with Claude and Trudy (as stand-ins for Claudius and Gertrude) plotting to commit murder in order to be together. But the perspective from which it was told was unlike any other.

Big Little Lies helped me understand why an affluent woman would stay with a physically abusive man. The story was seriocomic and so much of it rang true (the in-fighting between kindergarten mums could have been set in the Five Towns) but the deeper message was excellent. I watched the trailer for the HBO series and it bears little resemblance to the fleshed-out, entertaining but fully human characters in the book.

Loner was terrifying and dragged me down into the world of T.J. Lane and Elliot Rodger. I realized that young people who are remorseless are the most disturbing type of villain. As an astute friend noted (Lightman), I expect the young to be good, impressionable, desirous of changing the world for the better. When killers are young, it seems worse.

I finished One True Loves most recently so that's the one that's still on my mind. The premise of the book is far-fetched. (A woman marries a man who is lost at sea and presumed dead. In time, she moves on, dates another man and becomes engaged. Then the first man- her husband- returns. She's now faced with an impossible choice.) Despite this, and the extremely quick resolution- unlikely to occur in real life-it had some wonderful ideas and quotes that I would like to write down here so that I can return to them.

1. "You're supposed to be Penelope. You're supposed to knit the shroud day in and day out and stay up every night unraveling it to keep the suitors at bay. You're not supposed to have a life of your own, needs of your own. You're not supposed to love again. But I did. That's exactly what I did."

2. "There is other love out there for me. But it's different. It isn't this. It isn't this exact love. It's better and it's worse. But I guess that's sort of the point of love between two people- you can't re-create it. Every time you love, everyone you love, the love is different. You're different in it."

I liked those concepts. I think many people assume that they're only supposed to love once, and I think it's insightful to note that the people we are tend to change and shift in accordance with the people we love (likely for better and for worse). Or perhaps- who we are at the time dictates who we love.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

On Identity & Integrity: Jean Valjean & Moses

The books that call to me like siren songs are those that wrestle with the question of identity. Is Hamlet mad or a consummate actor? Can Proctor live if he must sign his name to lies? Who would the Phantom have been if his genius had been respected, his skeletal face ignored? Why does the intelligent Anna Karenina fall for the foolish cad Vronsky? Does McMurphy care more for himself or for the plight of others? I seek to discover what it is in each character that makes them deeply human, as this is how I learn to love them.

Perhaps one of the most powerful moments in biblical literature occurs when Moses, adoptive son of Pharoah's daughter, chooses to ally himself with his Hebrew brethren. In that climactic moment, Moses must choose: is he a Hebrew or an Egyptian? Does he care solely for himself or also for others? Is he willing to risk his wealth, status, inheritance and very life for the sake of a man he does not know?

I realized tonight that Moses' choice is echoed in the famous work Les Miserables. In this work convict Jean Valjean escapes and reforms himself, becoming mayor of a city and enabling its inhabitants to live well and justly. Unfortunately, legalistic inspector Javert will not give up his search for the escaped convict. Through an accident of fate, a different man is assumed to be Valjean, and will be tried and sentenced in his place. Knowing this, the real Valjean must determine whether he has a moral obligation to expose himself and suffer the consequences of telling the truth. Originally, in the book, Victor Hugo portrays Jean Valjean's dilemma as follows:
There was a moment when he reflected on the future. Denounce himself, great God! Deliver himself up! With immense despair he faced all that he should be obliged to leave, all that he should be obliged to take up once more. He should have to bid farewell to that existence which was so good, so pure, so radiant, to the respect of all, to honor, to liberty. He should never more stroll in the fields; he should never more hear the birds sing in the month of May; he should never more bestow alms on the little children; he should never more experience the sweetness of having glances of gratitude and love fixed upon him; he should quit that house which he had built, that little chamber! Everything seemed charming to him at that moment. Never again should he read those books; never more should he write on that little table of white wood; his old portress, the only servant whom he kept, would never more bring him his coffee in the morning. Great God! instead of that, the convict gang, the iron necklet, the red waistcoat, the chain on his ankle, fatigue, the cell, the camp bed all those horrors which he knew so well! At his age, after having been what he was! If he were only young again! but to be addressed in his old age as “thou” by any one who pleased; to be searched by the convict-guard; to receive the galley-sergeant’s cudgellings; to wear iron-bound shoes on his bare feet; to have to stretch out his leg night and morning to the hammer of the roundsman who visits the gang; to submit to the curiosity of strangers, who would be told: “That man yonder is the famous Jean Valjean, who was mayor of M. sur M.”; and at night, dripping with perspiration, overwhelmed with lassitude, their green caps drawn over their eyes, to remount, two by two, the ladder staircase of the galleys beneath the sergeant’s whip. Oh, what misery! Can destiny, then, be as malicious as an intelligent being, and become as monstrous as the human heart? 
And do what he would, he always fell back upon the heartrending dilemma which lay at the foundation of his reverie: “Should he remain in paradise and become a demon? Should he return to hell and become an angel?” 
What was to be done? Great God! what was to be done?
In the musical adaptation, Valjean's conflict is portrayed within the moving song "Who Am I?"

The entire song is powerful, but the part which echoes Moses' choice is this:

Who am I?
Can I condemn this man to slavery
Pretend I do not see his agony
This innocent who bears my face
Who goes to judgement in my place

Who am I?

It is precisely this question with which Moses struggles. At his core, who is he? What does he stand for? What are his values? Can he choose passivity even if not apathy? Can he choose the life he has known since he was weaned or must he throw it all away due to an ideal? Those of us who grow up with the story as children fail to see the tremendous moral struggle with which Moses engages. He looks "this way and that way" - determining who he is. At his core, is he Egyptian or Hebrew? Is he Jean Valjean or Monsieur Madeleine?

And in the end, as we know, Moses determines that he is a Hebrew. He kills the Egyptian. 

When Valjean speaks to Marius towards the end of the novel, he tells him: "You ask why I speak? I am neither denounced, nor pursued, nor tracked, you say. Yes! I am denounced! yes! I am tracked! By whom? By myself. It is I who bar the passage to myself, and I drag myself, and I push myself, and I arrest myself, and I execute myself, and when one holds oneself, one is firmly held."

Valjean and Moses are both men of integrity. Their identity is constructed based on their integrity. They cannot lie. They are not men of words, able to dissemble and perform in a politically staged manner for the sake of their own benefit- or even the benefit of others. In the same manner that Valjean considers the welfare of the city that depends on him, Moses could have waited, biding his time until (perhaps) he would become monarch, resolving to change the working conditions of the Hebrews at that point. But both of them realize this would be wrong. There is a moment of very real crisis and the response must be now- one cannot wait.

To live a meaningful life is to embrace the message of Moses & Valjean. Live with integrity. Be willing to do what is right, no matter the cost. Construct an identity based on core values. And recognize that one must aspire to live a life where one drags oneself, pushes oneself, arrests oneself and executes oneself. One who lives thusly does not fear death.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

On Trump, Scare Rhetoric & Civil Discourse

It's lucky I'm a liberal, because otherwise I would be having a pretty hard time at Northwestern.

It's de rigueur for students to be distraught over the outcome of the election. On the one hand, I appreciate that Donald Trump is a morally repugnant, unpleasant man. On the other hand, it's become increasingly clear that people create their own narrative of events and stick to it, ignoring evidence in favor of their personal flavor of frustration.

Donald Trump is already walking back many of his statements. Where before, he declared that he would deport all illegal immigrants, he is now limiting his plan to deporting those with criminal records. Where before, he said that one of his first acts in office would be to overturn Obamacare, he now wants to keep the clauses that allow children to stay on their parents' health insurance into their 20s and which forbid insurance companies from denying coverage due to preexisting conditions. Where before, he maligned Obama and referred to him in insulting ways, he is now willing to be tutored by Obama because he has been humbled by the realization that he does not actually understand the scope of the presidency.

During the third presidential debate, Hillary Clinton decried Trump's "scare rhetoric" and alarmist tactics when it came to his factually incorrect description of partial birth abortion. I think the same point can be made about current responses to Trump. Too many news outlets have been engaging in alarmist scare rhetoric, such that I even have liberal friends who are comparing the man to Hitler. I do not like Trump as a human being; he has chosen to be or don a persona that is misogynist, sexist and (intentionally or unintentionally) racist. Despite this, he is not Hitler. He has no plans of perpetrating mass genocide. To suggest otherwise is to enter the theater of the absurd.

There does appear to have been a rise in hate crimes due to people who think they know what Trump stands for and who believe themselves to be empowered by Trump. I question whether one can really hold Trump directly responsible for this; that seems similar to holding Eminem or other recording artists responsible for individuals who perpetrate crimes based on their music. (Of course, one could argue that someone running for such a public office as President bears more responsibility for his language than a recording artist.) I agree that it would behoove Trump to distance himself from these groups and condemn the hate crimes in very strong language, and thus far, he has not done that. This is certainly problematic.

I am disturbed by language in our media (especially media that skews liberal) that attacks individuals, not based on the merits, but based on who they are. For example, Ben Carson has been tipped to become the Secretary of Education. An explanation based on the merits would argue that Ben Carson has absolutely no qualifications for this position. Just because one has been educated in this country, created a foundation to hand out scholarships and has served as a prominent surgeon does not an educator make. An educator would be someone who has really thought about how public, private and charter schools are being run today, who understands policy issues, funding issues, cultural and racial issues and who has a plan to better our schools overall. An educator would be someone willing to listen to individuals across all viewpoints in an effort to lead with humility.

But the articles I am reading about Carson do not make these simple, sensible arguments. Instead, they talk about him as a creationist, deriding him for his religious views. People assume that because he is religious, he must also be ignorant. Because he believes in creation, it must mean that he wants all children in all public schools to be taught mythology rather than scientific reality. Now, it's possible that Carson has indeed stated this publicly and that I have just missed it. In that case, I would be troubled, as public schools must respect the separation between church and state. But until I see this stated publicly, Carson ought to be critiqued on the merits, and not because liberals cannot stand that he believes in God.

Our society as a whole would benefit from more civil discourse. Civil discourse would mean that liberals would not assume condescendingly that people who are religious only are that way due to a lack of exposure to other beliefs and ways of being. They would not assume that their values are the only correct values. It would also mean conservatives would not paint all liberals as out to corrupt their children. Our society is becoming increasingly black and white, and our news outlets are losing the ability to construct nuanced pieces. It's much easier for two sides to stand up and shout at one another than it is for the two to come together and truly hear one another. Hearing means reserving judgment and looking at the other person as a fellow human being.

It is important for us to stand up for fellow humans if they are being attacked or harmed. Thus, I applaud various initiatives that seek to make humans feel safe- such as wearing a safety pin or trying to create more camaraderie in the world. I disagree with continuing the divisive rhetoric by promoting protests, riots or ridiculous hashtags such as #NotMyPresident. You do not have to agree with Trump's values, nor do you have to respect him, to be governed by him. It is imperative that you recognize that this is not Syria. We are not directly at risk from ISIS or Boko Haram. We do not (for the most part) experience famine or water crises. There are people out there in the world who are experiencing actual disasters and Donald Trump as president is not one of these. He is foolish and possibly incompetent, maybe even dangerously so, but luckily we have a system of checks and balances in place that will prevent him from doing too much harm. If he does something unconstitutional, we have the ability to impeach him. Trump is hemmed in by laws and statutes. Thus, rather than grieving that people in the world do not share your values, the time has come to let those values shine- in a positive way. Give blood. Perform random acts of kindness. Volunteer your time with a worthy organization. Bring more good into the world. If you act like the kind of person others would want to become, they will come to you and ask to learn from you. This is the way to influence others and win respect.

If Trump begins to act in a way that directly threatens others, that will be the time to defend those individuals' human rights. But right now, it's time to be constructive, not destructive. As Mad-Eye Moody would say, "Constant vigilance!" Be watchful. Be ready. But in the meantime- actively work to be kind. Try to find what you have in common with someone who supports the candidate you did not vote for. Look for what is similar between you, not for what is different. If dialogue begins with love, it is far more powerful. Try to begin dialogues with love.

Monday, November 14, 2016


I've read Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet many, many times. He writes a letter about love in which he warns that young people do not yet know how to love. They smash themselves against one another, and in the collision, break themselves to pieces.

I find myself thinking about this as I approach my sixth anniversary.

I have gone through so many transitions when it comes to things I believe. Though I am still young, I remember that when I was even younger I was troubled by these transitions. I felt like I was not being true to myself if I was constantly changing my mind. I believe it was my father who pointed out to me that I was changing my mind because I had acquired new evidence. Thus, I was not being fickle. I was being reflective. And it is good to be reflective, because it is through reflection that one determines whether one's practices are useful, meaningful or good.

I appreciate transitions much more now. I recognize that if I have reached a point of transition, it is because I have learned something important I could not fully comprehend or synthesize before.

Today, I'm thinking about love.

Originally, I thought of love as urgent, desperate, wild passion that pushed back the raging dark. Love to me was a barrier, the last white, great flame that would surround me when I felt certain that I would dissolve. Love was intense and it was its intensity that I craved. What I longed for, more than anything else, was to be thrown high upon crested waters, riding waves that would buoy me up when I felt I might be falling.

And there is power to that love. I won't deny it.

But the love one needs to fight back the dark is not love in its deepest form. One might say it is the very tip of the jutting iceberg, clear and understandable even as an adolescent. This is the love that cuts, burns, grinds down, sparks, careens, swoops and buffets.

This is not the love I feel now.

My current love is a steady, nurtured emotion. It is one I have tended. I have watered it like a plant, exposed it to sunlight and made sure the soil is loamy, rich and thick. It is a deep, deep feeling, and it pulses so faintly that I am not always aware of it. It is like my breath. It comes steadily, easily, so much a part of me that I forget it. Except, of course, for those times I pause to concentrate on it. This is the love that forms when people have seen one another, broken and whole, and recognize the beauty in the person seated before them. This is a quiet love, a forever love, the rope that is forged strand by strand, carefully, slowly woven together to form Gleipnir.

There is still passion. I can leap and twirl and dance and know his hand is outstretched, ready to clasp mine. I can feel sunbursts of joy exploding in my chest. The dark is still held back, but this time, it's not because of him. It's because of me.

The world is a very large place and we are but two people in it.
The world is a very large place but we are two people in it.

We are the children in a storybook, his hand pressed in mine. A sun sinks beneath the earth in a conflagration of orange, indigo and red. We watch, transfixed.
I turn. I lean against his side.
"Let's walk," I say.
He nods. "That way," he points.

We find each other in the journey.