Wednesday, May 16, 2012

My Heros-- Cory Booker, Dalai Lama, Sal Khan

As the Hair song goes, it's "Easy to be Hard" to rant about problems, evil, baddies, greedies. But heros? All too rare. I guess I would define heros as people wildly loaded with virtue, at least in the categories that the perceiver deems to be key. This of course reflects personal moral values--meaning your heros may not be my heros and vice-versa.

Perhaps going out on a limb here, I think calling out heros is more productive than calling out villains. But then again, holding people up for commendation may also expose their faults and subject them to condemnation. And sadly, where there are no real faults to be found, jealousy will assure people invent some. If you want a quick roll in the sludge, just look at the comments following articles or facebook pages, etc for your heros. There is sure to be some awful dreck hurled by people with nothing better to do than make others look bad. The popular catch phrase among my son's generation is, "Haters gonna hate." And here I am already condemning others as haters... Maybe we're all at least to some degree skeptical of purported heros. Maybe we've just been burned too many times by pseudo-heros, -- folks who appear amazing until their maggoty underbelly comes to light. Shoot, just gone negative again...

I admit that I looked reasonably hard for faults in Cory Booker, the Mayor of Newark, New Jersey. Since he's a public figure, there's lots online about him. I think the worst I could find (other than random, jealous, possibly racist hating) was that at some point a few years back he was going to close libraries or at least shorten their hours. But in the mean time he's managed to turn the once-disrespected city into a something of a magnet for donations by fashionable rich people (e.g. $100 million from Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg to help the schools).

 Booker identifies his faults as being an excessive fondness for books and difficulty forming a close personal relationship. Forget the sex, he says he would just like to wake in the morning, spooned up close with someone he loves. But he recognizes his intense schedule doesn't leave much time for a significant other. How fair is THAT? Talk about making virtues of your vices. I couldn't resist adding a few personal details to Booker's wikipedia entry.

A reporter following him around for a magazine article said Booker actually has no vices -- he's a vegetarian, an exercise nut, non-smoker, non-drinker... Trained as a lawyer, and no doubt taking down a fairly good salary, he continues to choose to live in a run-down part of town, in an apartment uncluttered by "stuff." His previous slum residence was torn down. And before that he lived in a camper parked on the worst drug-dealing corner of the city.

When Booker came home to find a neighbor's apartment on fire a month or so ago, he rushed in to carry her out of the flames (after pulling rank on his security guard who didn't want to let him do this), sustaining smoke inhalation and a burned hand in the process. In 2010 he personally shovelled the snow from the drive of a constituent with heart problems after his daughter texted a complaint to Booker. The mayor's personal action inspired a small gang of people to join him clearing sidewalks. (Quite a contrast with one former mayor of Washington, D.C. who famously remained out in sunny California when his city was buried by one of the worst snowstorms in history.)

The Rhodes scholar even has a sense of humor, bantering with late-night talk-show hosts who trash his city, for example. This week he stars in a video with New Jersey governor Christie, lampooning his own heroic image.

Update, November 2012: With people left homeless and without electricity days after the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, Booker continues to tweet and facebook with the best advice and tips for recovering from the storm. A neighbor tweets that her block is still without electricity. Mayor Booker invites her to stop by his place and join other neighbors who are chillin' at his place, recharging devices, listening to music and relaxing. Later he sends a take-out dinner for 12 to the house for neighbors who are relaxing at his house. Facebook description of the Huffpost article on Booker's very personal, hospitable approach to storm recovery calls him the "Best Mayor ever."

Then there's the Dalai Lama. Upon accepting the £1.1 million Templeton prize this week, he announced he was handing £900,000 of the prize over to "Save the Children " (click the appropriate flag at the bottom of this linked page to go to your country's STC page to make a donation), with the rest going to two other good causes. There are too many wonderful things in the Dalai Lama's life to repeat here, but I think one of the best things is his sense of fun and his laugh. Following an interviewed by the BBC's Sarah Montagu this week, tweeters and emailers wrote in to the Morning Show requesting a replay of the giggle that erupted from the Buddhist monk (I'm guessing that this was for the throaty laugh 11:20 into the interview).  I remember hearing that the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu greet sometimes by tickling each other.

Speaking on the BBC interview about his reaction to his "rockstar status" the Dalai Lama avers that he actually doesn't think he's any different than other 7 billion people on earth, who, like him, just want to be happy and see an end to suffering. Near the end of the interview he gives a mild chiding to Brits for their formality, saying he hopes to carry to his death his childish approach -- just jumping in wherever people are playing.

My third hero is one Salman Khan, founder of the "Khan Academy."  Formerly a hedge fund analyst, Khan started tutoring a cousin over the internet in 2004, using Yahoo's doodle notepad as his online blackboard. Other people wanted his tutoring help, too, so he started putting his voice-and-notepad lessons on YouTube. And things snowballed from there -- 3,000 videos are now available free online, with subjects ranging from art history to zoology -- especially economics, math, and science.

Khan's Wikipedia page says that as of this month, the Khan Academy channel on YouTube has more than 330,000 subscribers and Khan Academy's website claims "150,076,102 lessons delivered." A 60-Minutes segment on Khan and his Academy reported that some schools were finding innovative ways to use the lessons to enhance teaching and self-paced learning. Rather than replacing teachers, the show said, the online lessons and tracking of students' progress allow teachers to be intimately familiar with the finest details of students' understanding of a subject, freeing them to be coaches rather than lecturers. It's all free and there's even a (free) app for your iPad.

Fortunately, other folks think a lot of the Khan academy, too, with Bill Gates saying his friends and family use the learning site, and Google giving the Academy $2 million to rev up supporting hardware, software, and course offerings. MIT- and Harvard-educated Khan is just one person, but I bet he's made a huge difference in the world. In the time it's taken me to write these last two paragraphs, his academy has delivered another 5,325 lessons!

Monday, May 14, 2012

Give your Gas Can to God

Jonathan Haidt says we have some chance of resolving society's moral challenges successfully if we can bring together people of opposing intuitions in an environment where the charging elephants of emotion can be stilled and reason brought to bear.

Could that same process work, self-induced, in the even more incendiary, intimate realm of interpersonal conflict, such as the next fight with, say, your spouse?

I get the impression that even my great hero, preacher/teacher Rob Bell, feels the temptation of interpersonal conflict. In one of his Mars Hills podcasts he admits he's one who can't resist pouring a little gasoline on the glowing ember of conflict. I personally despise fighting, but likewise find it difficult not to react, not to defend myself in heated discussion. 

And over the years I've seen some couples who seem pacific in the presence of other people, but there's just something about them, some body language or telltale clues in the ways they react to one another that make me suspicious that their home life is a firepit.

My wondering about the possibility of finding a moment of reason and perspective, an "equipause" amidst interpersonal conflict, was prompted the other day, when I came across this quote, in a different context:
Much of the root of conflict resolution resides in our own selves – in dealing with our own unresolved hurts and biases, as well as finding personal balance, so that we can control the urge to jump to conclusions and react without thinking. And so that we can have the courage to stop in the moment, take a deep breath, and think about how to control our default thinking to be able to react with compassion instead of anger and defensiveness. -- from Personality Differences Matter by Rita Brhel (I added the emphasis.) 
Thinking about this possibility, I remember that on one of his lecture tours a few years ago, Bell overturned my view of Jesus' response to injustice. I'd thought of "turning the other cheek" and "going the extra mile" and "giving the shirt off your back" as meaning people should just passively endure abuse.

No, Bell said. If a first way of dealing with abuse was returning fire with fire, and a second way was passivity, then Jesus' response was a "Third Way," which essentially introduced an "equipause" into the conflict -- a moment in which the perpetrator could see his or her actions from another viewpoint -- a moment in which to find courage and 'react with compassion instead of anger and defensiveness.'

Turning the other cheek, Bell said, would force the perpetrator to use the "unclean" left hand for the second face-slap. In Jesus' time, this would have been deeply demeaning to the person doing the slapping, rather than the person being slapped.  Equipause... Do I really want to do this???

Going the extra mile, Bell said, sprang from the law at the time, which said a Roman soldier could ask any native of a conquered country to carry his gear for one mile. But any further was strictly forbidden. "Going the extra mile" would force the soldier to break this rule and get in trouble with his superiors. Equipause... Do I really want to do this???

And giving the shirt off your back, Bell said, would have been deeply embarrassing -- not to the person who was nude, but to the person who forced and looked upon the nudity. Equipause... Do I really want to do this???

It is hard, especially in the heat of argument, to come up with such brilliant "Third Way" responses. But  what Brhel suggests, just pausing, taking a deep breath, and trying to control the charging elephant of emotional reaction -- that seems a little easier. And who knows -- maybe in that moment of stillness, a creative Third Way will appear. Or maybe the aggressor will have a playback moment in which to see him- or herself from another viewpoint.

I should stop here, but this reminds me of a brilliant passage in Fingerprints of God by Barbara Bradley Hagerty. She recounts the near-death experience of a man named Edward who found himself at the feet of God. There, he recalls, he saw
... memories spanning from his childhood to just a few days before the accident. He relived the memories from a 360-degree perspective, not only what he, Edward, had done and thought and felt, but how his actions affected others. He saw the girl in elementary school who had a lisp, and he recalled teasing her because he wanted to be accepted... 'I not only recalled the experience, I felt how she felt. I experienced the consequences of my behaviors...'

Could we somehow force our brains to take in God's 360-degree view in that invoked moment of stillness? And if not something so lofty as God's viewpoint (or if you don't believe in God) could we at least aim for the relentless practice of love?

I facebooked this great quote last week from blogger and Presbyterian minister Mark Sandlin:

Hate will never be conquered by anger.
Ignorance will never be defeated with judgment.
Love will not prevail until it is practiced relentlessly.
from All MEANS All - Amendment One and Bad "Righteous" Anger -- 05/09/2012, The God Article Blog 

Again, I'm using this quote in a different context than its author. Sandlin was writing about "righteous anger" in response to the North Carolina vote against gay marriage. But isn't the relentless practice of love even more important in our own homes and personal relationships? Is it possible to resist the temptations of responding in anger in favor of reason, a broader perspective, or at least a deep breath?

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Prayers for an atheist pastor

I was so sad to read about the atheist pastor, Teresa MacBain, interviewed on NPR (, but maybe not sad for the reasons others were sad.

My immediate reaction was astonishment that MacBain, as a pastor and one who would have spent some years studying faith, had so late encountered her disbelief. Is there really a thoughtful Christian who hasn't had moments, days, weeks, even years of doubt? Then there was the sadness of her broken relationships with colleagues and congregation (but fortunately not with her husband, bless him, who remains a believer.)

I suspect that for many, it is such earthly relationships--rather than belief in an admittedly unknowable God--that sustain the practice of religion. If she couldn't believe in God, could MacBain at least believe in the value of loving her congregation? Couldn't she at least go through the motions of following Jesus in his very human actions? Binding up wounds, listening to people, helping people find their ways through the valleys...

The part of Jonathan Haidt's book (see previous post) I am reading now is about human "groupishness" -- not our selfishness, but our inbred propensity to form and fortify groups, then to work to gain resources for them, punish traitors, reward cooperation.... The way MacBain flamed out of her faith seemed to reflect several aspects of Haidt's thesis. It sounded like MacBain's departure from her faith was driven by emotion and instinctive groupishness, rather than logical deductions about God.

Rather than discussing her doubts with others from her (Methodist) faith, MacBain just popped up at an atheist convention in Bethesda and gave her testimony of instant conversion to atheism. She describes how good it felt to be so warmly received by the atheists.

I can certainly imagine MacBain's old group (the Methodists) would feel this as a slap in the face, a betrayal. She didn't trust their Chritian love (agape) for her as she encountered doubt. She didn't give them any help in understanding what was happening. She seemed to do everything to assure that her conversion came as a sharp, sudden blow.

I pray MacBain's old group back in her home town can forgive her and embrace her again, despite her disbelief. This is one of the wonderfully counterintuitive,  nonsensical, completely unnatural things Jesus asked us to do -- embrace those who aren't part of your group, even when they're face-slappers. Try to understand. Love anyway. Equipoise.

I love this quote from Thomas Jefferson:

Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear.
MacBain's move, though bold, seems to be more the homage of emotion rather than reason. 

A silver lining post script for me was that in the process of trying to find a link to the NPR story about MacBain, I found this wonderful blog from a Mennonite pastor. This writing IS a magnificent homage of reason:
Who knew? I can't say I know much about the Mennonite faith, but this makes me want to hear more, and it's expanded my suspicion that there are more people out there living in equipoisse.