Thursday, October 2, 2014

Humility, The Beauty of Yom Kippur

Every fall, Jews all over the world come together for the holiest day of the year, our Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. For approximately 26 hours, we refrain from eating, drinking and partaking in worldly pleasures and instead spend the day in synagogue, often literally on our knees, asking God to forgive the sins we committed over the prior year.

Yom Kippur is a day of awe and judgment, but because God is loving and merciful He forgives all our sins if our repentance is sincere—with one critically important caveat: though God will “automatically” forgive all sins made against Him, He will not forgive sins we’ve made against other people unless those people forgive us first.

Thus in order for our sin slate to be wiped clean, we must spend the days leading up to Yom Kippur seeking out those we’ve wronged to ask their forgiveness.

For me personally, this aspect of the day is the most meaningful. Examining my relationships and apologizing to those I’ve mistreated is profoundly humbling. Having to acknowledge that there were moments when I was not kind or considerate, that there were times when I stepped out of line, and that some of my actions negatively impacted someone I hold most dear reminds me to stay grounded.

In this way, Yom Kippur is a tough but a wonderful day for it reminds us that the path to Godliness is not only paved with our relationship with God Himself, but also our relationships with each other.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Giving Thanks on Thanksgiving


Like many Americans probably do, I spent the days leading up to Thanksgiving thinking about the things I am grateful for. The list is extensive and includes a loving family, supportive friends, a stable job and my wonderful readers. But it occurred to me that what I am most thankful for is what I consider to be a “guardian angel” that helps guide my life. This might not be the literal sort of angel described in scripture (though I am open to the possibility that it could be), but some sort of guiding force that helps things “work out for the best,” as is the saying. At the very least, it can be described as good fortune.

I have faced challenges both large and small in my young life. Though I credit good advice, helpful people and hard work for overcoming most of the trials, I also believe that some invisible force guides me to those right people and things at the right time to solve my problems. After all, my right people, place and time started right at birth, as I was born to parents who were able to emigrate to the zenith of First World civilization so that I could have a promising future.

A difficult but overall fortunate series of events has led me to this moment of sitting in my New York apartment at my top of the line computer to write this article. But at this very moment, there are 1.3 BILLION people who do not have access to enough electricity to turn on a light bulb, let alone fire up an Internet connected computer. And as I sit and salivate over the turkey and trimmings I will enjoy in just a few hours, 870 million people don’t have enough food to sustain proper nourishment, let alone eat the estimated 4,500 calories on a typical Thanksgiving plate.

How is it that my life has worked out so fortunately when such an astronomical number of people lack even the most basic essentials that I often take for granted?

It is a question I cannot answer, but it is one that I find important to consider because it puts life in perspective. When I was younger, I used to think that the seemingly endless amount of financial hardship and health problems my family and I have faced for the majority of our American experience made me someone because together we’d been to hell and back. But in my adult life, as I have been able to pursue my dreams and goals, I slowly learned that the thing that makes me someone is being thankful for the many blessings I do have and giving something back to those that have less.

I write this piece not to be self-righteous or to manipulate my readers into feeling guilty over enjoying their Thanksgiving meals and life’s myriad blessings. I will certainly enjoy mine. And, despite my best intentions, I’m sure there will be many moments in the coming year when I slip and again take my blessings for granted. To be human is to be fallible. But to be human is also to reason and strive. With this piece, it is my hope and intention merely to encourage reflection. Though I do not believe this is true of my readers, it is becoming an indisputable fact that the holiday America created to give thanks is turning into nothing more than an excuse for Americans to gorge themselves before heading out to stand in long lines and trample each other to buy huge amounts of stuff they do not need. I hope this article can serve as a drop in the pond to encourage all of usmyself includedto strive to appreciate our lives (even) more.

On a deeper, personal note, I wish a happy Thanksgiving to my dear readers! On this day of gratitude, I am especially thankful for your continued interest, insightful comments and warm support. Some of you are strangers whom I have never met while others are friends or family members. However, whether you know me personally or not, you haven't given me a free pass when my writing has been off or my analysis missed an essential point. Thank you for considering what I have to say, the intellectual discourse you provide, and encouraging me to continue to evolve and strengthen my craft. As Pulse of My Nation proceeds into its second year, I look forward to sharing more of my work with you and receiving your ideas and encouragement.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Reflections on Independence Day


As we commemorate the 237th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, the foundational document of the United States of America, I am grateful and proud to live in a country whose ideals are to treat all people equally under the law and guarantee everyone the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Although there have been numerous examples in our republic’s distant and more recent history of times when it did not live up to those higher principles, it is the often too slow, typically erratic, but nevertheless unyielding march toward greater freedom that so inspires me about American history.

It’s never been an easy road. Too many battles -- bloody physical ones and exhausting emotional ones -- have been fought, uncountable casualties amounted, and generations later the scars of the Civil War, Civil Rights Movement, and various social uprisings such as the Stonewall Riots still haunt and affect us.

It is through the sacrifices of countless brave men and women that our union is stronger and more perfect in 2013 than it was when the country was first founded in 1776. Every achievement was a hard fought, well-earned victory that cost too many people much too much.

But the hard work isn’t over yet. Many people -- among them immigrants, LGBT-Americans, Wal-Mart employees, etc. -- still struggle for the dignity, equality and liberty that America offers many others and is supposed to offer to all.

It is my hope that as we flip our burgers and watch the fireworks this Independence Day, we will celebrate our good fortune to live in this country and honor it for all of its incredible, unmatched achievements. But I also hope that we will take a moment to reflect on America’s past, present and future so that next year we can celebrate an even more perfect union.

Happy Fourth of July to all of American’s peoples!

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Discourse, Not Disrespect

After reading some of the comments on my recent Huffington Post article about same-sex marriage, I am both encouraged and concerned.

It’s gratifying to see that people have very strong, passionate opinions about same-sex marriage. Their support is what will usher in marriage equality.

However, with strong feelings on any issue, there is also a chance to push too far too quickly and inadvertently contribute to the opposite of the desired goal or effect.

For example, some readers took issue with my cousin and friend’s father because of their position on marriage. Of course, I took issue with their position too, which is why I wrote the article. And I presented their point of view from my own perspective. But my intention was to lay out a nuanced argument that encourages deeper thought and conversation, not finger pointing and name calling.

People with ideas that are different than ours can be dangerous because their vote might bind us to a terrible policy we don’t deserve. This can make us feel vulnerable and scared, which can lead to a strike-them-before-they-strike-us attitude. But if we point fingers, yell and name call, all we do is alienate those people further from ourselves without opening an honest dialogue to encourage them to think differently. This principle applies to many issues, not just same-sex marriage.

Disagreement and disrespect personified?
We cannot champion our causes without passion and conviction. But increasingly in almost all issues across the political spectrum, passion and conviction have led many people to extreme, unyielding positions. More and more we engage in mudslinging than achieving compromise that ensures effective governance.

To be clear, I do not in any way encourage compromise that would allow for a victory of a homophobic position. I do not believe civil unions are the answer to the same-sex marriage question. I believe that both straight and gay couple should be allowed to marry across the 50 states. With that said, I also do not encourage passionate insults that do little to advocate or educate.

I hope I do not sound disrespectful, for that is not my intention. I am very grateful that people took the time to read, think about and comment on my point of view. My words in this article are meant to elaborate on a larger issue of how Americans discuss their politics today.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Instead of a Life, a Shrine

When images speak louder than words: A disturbing site in New York's Greenwich Village, where 32-year-old Mark Carson was brutally, senselessly gunned down in the early hours of May 18, 2013 solely for being gay. Image copyright Daniel Davidson.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

What Saying ‘Me and My ________’ Says About Me


Me and my friend went to the movies last night.
If you read that sentence and paused, you must know something about English grammar. That being that the sentence should read: my friend and I went to the movies last night.
Changing the order of the words makes the sentence sound better (doesn’t it?), but aside from its contribution to a better aesthetic quality, is the order of the words important?
Though grammatically incorrect, ‘me and my _______’ has become a commonly used—or, I should say, misused—expression. Though it sounds awkward, on a fundamental level the misused expression communicates the exact same simple meaning of the grammatically proper one: that the speaker and his—friend, lover, sibling, etc.—are part of a shared experience. But if examined deeper, the placing of ‘me’ before others communicates something more complex: that the speaker is framing himself as the most important subject in the shared experience.
To understand how this works, consider basic sentence structure. A complete sentence has a subject and predicate. The subject is who or what the sentence is about and the predicate is a verb that expresses the subject’s action or state of being. A sentence may also have a compound subject, meaning that the sentence is about more than one person or thing. A sentence like ‘my friend and I went to the movies’ is an example of a sentence with a compound subject because the sentence is about my friend and I.
By saying ‘my friend and I went to the movies,’ I am literally putting my friend first by declaring her as the first subject in the sentence and relating her experience ahead of my own. And by relating her experience before mine, I am also figuratively communicating a level of respect and importance attributed to my friend.
If I rearrange the same sentence to say that ‘me and my friend went to the movies,’ it still has the exact same compound subject: me (a variation on the I previously used) and my friend. However, by switching the order of the two subjects, I’ve put me first, thereby signaling both literally and figuratively that me (—I—) is (—am—) the more (—most—) important subject in the sentence.
By placing me first, I am communicating that I value myself and my experience more than I value the person(s) who shared the experience with me. The message is subtle and most likely unintentional. The speaker probably doesn’t realize he’s even doing it. But he is, and the message is there.

The English language is complex and people are bound to make grammatical mistakes from time to time. I’ve even known professional English teachers and writers who’ve made the occasional error.

But ‘me and my ______’ is a mistake so pervasive in our vernacular that it deserves special attention. Mistakes happen, but we should be careful and conscious to say what we really mean. If we’re not, the consequences of failing to attribute respect to others in the way we speak could be diminished respect for ourselves. After all, my friend is probably telling others about seeing a movie with me too.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Celebrity Terrorists

Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

Just by reading those names, you likely draw an instantaneous connection to the Boston Marathon bombings.

The name Adam Lanza probably immediately links your thoughts to the Newtown shootings.

No doubt Timothy McVeigh rapidly pulls your mind back to the Oklahoma City bombing.

When even the simplest, most harmless criminal event occurs, we instantly want to know the identity of the criminal so that s/he can be brought to justice. It follows, then, that when an event occurs that kills, injures and shocks our conscience on a mass-scale, we want to find, punish and often understand the reasons of those responsible. So we pursue the perpetrators with the full extent of our resources, waiting with baited breath to discover their identities.

But what happens once we discover who they are?

Almost as soon as someone learned the identity of the Newtown shooter, his photograph hit the Internet as well as print and TV news. Soon after, a hodgepodge of information about him and his mother began pouring forth. Suddenly, his hauntingly angry image and persona were everywhere.

Somewhat similarly, once investigators gathered enough information the FBI released the names and photos of the suspected Boston Marathon bombers, instantly beaming them onto our screens—and into our minds. Though at the time this was done as a means of enlisting the public’s help in finding the suspects, images and profiles of the two brothers have continued to be directed at us every day since the older brother died and the younger brother was captured.

The result of the constant stream of information: Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Adam Lanza, Timothy McVeigh, and others of their ilk are people as easily recognized and remembered as Rihanna, A-Rod or Anderson Cooper.

A Google search for "Tsarnaev" reveals over 20 million results.
Through the citing of their names and images in dozens of articles, videos and social media outlets, these terrorists were lifted from absolute obscurity into the national spotlight. In spite of—and alarmingly because of—their heinous crimes, they now enjoy a peculiar celebrity status. I do not mean to suggest that we enjoy their work or celebrate their accomplishments like we do with movie and music stars, sports celebrities or other popular personalities. Dzhokar Tsarnaev is not getting a book deal. But we remember these murderers and terrorists with the same ease as we call to mind Justin Timberlake’s latest song and give them nearly as much, if not sometimes more, attention in our media than we give to our cultural icons. (Whether we should give our cultural icons so much attention is another, separate issue.)

By repeatedly recalling these monsters’ names, we ensure that their names will live on long after the collective whole forgets the names of their victims. That is, if the media that hammers the perpetrators’ names into our minds bothers to mention the names of the victims with any kind of frequency—which it doesn’t.

On one hand, the names of these terrorists serve as symbols of hatred, instability and inhumanity. They are exemplars of how not to behave. Their names will be remembered by most (but likely not all, as one man’s terrorist can be another’s hero) with anger and abhorrence. In that way, they join the list of symbols like Adolf Hitler, the name arguably most synonymous with the epitome of pure evil, and it can be argued that they should be remembered for this reason.

But on the other hand, when symbols like Hitler and Osama bin Laden (not to mention Adolf Eichmann, Joseph Stalin, Saddam Hussein, etc.) already exist, there seems to be little utility in turning more names into symbols. This is especially true of the suspected Boston Marathon bombers who, aside from having the distinction of being the first domestically bred, technically foreign bombers to attack civilians on US soil (unlike the Oklahoma City bomber), are not much different from other young terrorists who have deployed bombs or exploded themselves in terrorist attacks overseas.

Intelligence experts should analyze the Boston Marathon bombers’ backgrounds. Psychologists and other experts should use the Newtown shooter as an example for a case study (if he serves as a proper subject—I do not know enough about the discipline to comment). But we, the general public, do not need to remember these terrorists’ names to remember what they did or to learn of warning signs to prevent similar occurrences in the future.

To be clear, I am not advocating that the identities of these attackers should not be released. The public will always be curious, and in events like this has a right to know who threatened its safety. But once we find out who these people are, we don’t need their names thrown at us on repeat, until we have no choice but to remember them whether we want to or not. They and their names should fade away into the same oblivion into which they cast their souls the moment they chose to harm others.