Primates and the Day of Atonement

“As far as possible without surrender/  be on good terms with all persons.”

– Max Ehrmann, Desiderata


Our kids were home on Wednesday last week, as our school district observed Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement in Judaism. I’m not a theologian and can’t claim to have anything beyond a superficial understanding of Yom Kippur, but as we walked past the local synagogue in our neighborhood, surrounded by parked cars, I speculated about how and why such a tradition might have arisen.

From my understanding, Yom Kippur is primarily concerned with seeking forgiveness from God for any transgressions accrued in the last year. However, I was more curious about another related aspect of the holiday, which is that – prior to the day itself – people are also encouraged to seek forgiveness from others they have harmed.

I can see parallels here to my own Roman Catholic childhood and the sacrament of Penance. Of course, as a boy I was just doing what the adults told me to do, going through the motions – perfunctorily confessing to a priest about fighting with my siblings. But I never contemplated why something like Penance might exist, aside from the obvious one of avoiding Hell (that fear seems a lifetime ago).

Most religious traditions and societies probably have concepts like forgiveness, reconciliation, and atonement built into them to some degree. These likely have deep roots, and we can even find some of the basic building blocks of these among other species of primates. Most primate species are highly social, group-living animals, which has a list of pros and cons. The benefits of being social include having more eyes and ears to detect predators, the ‘selfish herd’ idea (less chance for me to be eaten), defense (against conspecifics for territory, against predators), more models of adult behavior (socialization), easier to find mates and food, and (in some species) reaping the benefits of specialized division of labor.  

However, all things in biology have tradeoffs. If you’re going to live in a group, chances are next to nil that there will not be at least some internal conflict. It’s certainly not all-conflict-all-the-time, but the degree of internal conflict depends on circumstances. Two individuals may want similar things most of the time, but they cannot maintain perfectly overlapping interests indefinitely.

Among baboons, social life is rife with conflict as individuals vie for status. In an interview with Robert Sapolsky, he described the impact social stress can have on baboon life, while drawing a comparison to humans:

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“A Way Out of Hell”

I first watched Richard Attenborough’s 1982 film “Gandhi” when I was a teenager. I’ve seen it several times since, but there is one particular scene that has always stood out. To me, it is as powerful as any film scene I’ve encountered.

For background, the scene takes place during a period of rioting between Muslims and Hindus. Brokenhearted by the violence, Gandhi vowed to fast until the fighting stopped or until he dies, whichever comes first. Due to the reverence that people held for him, Gandhi’s fasting helps to bring the riots to a halt. As he lay in bed, weak from hunger, a group of Hindu men hand over their weapons and pledge not to engage in further violence.

As they leave with Gandhi’s blessing, a solitary man with a crazed look barges in. I don’t think I can do the rest of the scene justice, so it is probably better just to watch.

A few months ago, I finally decided to ask someone well-versed in Gandhi’s biography if they knew whether the events in the scene happened as they were portrayed. Kindly, a historian answered my question, although their response was indirect. Instead, they cited the phrase, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” This is often attributed to Gandhi and can be found on bumper stickers, internet memes, and t-shirts. However, there is no record that he ever spoke or wrote those words. Gandhi did say something along those lines, but it’s not exactly made for a t-shirt: 

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“The United States has a moral obligation to help Laos heal”

The Dignity and Future of the People of Laos

Today, President Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Laos. It’s kind a big deal. So far, I think he’s hit all the right notes, pledging a substantial increase in funds to help clear unexploded ordnance dropped by U.S. planes decades ago during the Second Indochina War. Whereas the U.S. had given about $100 million over the last 20 years to help clear some of the bombing, this will now be increased to $90 million over the next three. The effects of these bombs have lingered for too long, causing about 20,000 casualties since the war officially ended, so it is good to see Obama take this seriously. (And, by the way, the New York Times has just published a story on how this increase in funds is almost entirely due to the amazing Channapha Khamvongsa. She has worked on this for a long time, and she is to be admired).

Others have observed that because Obama was too young to have served in the military during the Vietnam War, he has a fresher perspective and can therefore act as a generational page-turner. Perhaps that is sometimes necessary in order to rise above the past, as people often become entrenched in their views. The old guard phases out, and new blood enters the picture. In fact, Obama declared that his visit marked a new era in U.S.- Lao relations, based on mutual respect and “a shared desire to heal the wounds of the past.”

I’ve given this some thought. When I was younger, whenever I read a story about some tragedy — a car accident, a war, a terrorist attack, refugees forcibly displaced from their homes, a victim of sexual violence, etc. — I don’t think I quite understood the magnitude of how long that type of emotional pain could endure. Those things don’t just clear up overnight. They can persist well beyond the actual offense, even for decades. Because we are such a social species, intensely connected to others and highly attuned to the thoughts and emotions of the people around us, it seems that one of the key ingredients to healing is to hear that others recognize and respect our pain.

I think Obama recognized this. If I were a poor Laotian farmer whose fields were contaminated with leftover bombs, I would probably put more weight on the $90 million than on any speech or anything Obama might say. Yet, symbolic gestures can also go a long way. Obama’s statement that he recognized and had high hopes for “the dignity and the future of the people of Laos” is a potentially powerful one. At least I think so. Let’s see what happens during the next few days of his visit there.

Obama in Laos

From Legacies of War

From: Legacies of War

In a few days, Barack Obama will become the first U.S. president to have ever visited Laos. The organization Legacies of War has come up with the catchy title of LAObama to raise awareness of the visit. An NBC News story described Laotian and Hmong Americans as “cautiously optimistic” about the visit, including the possibility of further reconciliation after the war years, or at least bringing the two countries closer together.   

“The visit of the President might help the former refugees from Laos and the government of Laos to speed up their long overdue reconciliation process. The war ended more than 40 years ago,” Asian American studies professor emeritus Kou Yang of California State University, Stanislaus told NBC News. “The U.S. should assist Laos to rebuild itself after the secret war. Bring Laos closer to the U.S. and closer to the more than 560,000 former refugees from Laos in the U.S. These refugees have already contributed much to the people of Laos. Each day, thousands and thousands of dollars are sent to Laos. Many schools and libraries are built by former refugees to the people in Laos.”

Whatever the results of the visit, it is still noteworthy that this is the first time a U.S. President will have set foot there. John F. Kennedy didn’t even know how to pronounce Laos (it doesn’t rhyme with “chaos”).

Human Family (We Are More Alike, My Friends, Than We Are Unalike)

Human Family, by Maya Angelou

I note the obvious differences
in the human family.
Some of us are serious,
some thrive on comedy.

Some declare their lives are lived
as true profundity,
and others claim they really live
the real reality.
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Impermanence and Letting Go

“All is flux”Heraclitus


Yesterday I started the move to a new office just down the hall. I’d been in my old office since I started teaching at UMass Boston in 2003, and when a new office opened up I was asked if I wanted it. It has some advantages. It’s (slightly) larger than my old one, it’s off the main hallway (i.e., a bit more private), and it has a better view. But another factor is that I simply felt like moving. Sometimes change is good for its own sake — a breath of fresh air.

To make the move easier, I did something I’m normally not too good at, which is letting go of things. I recycled a lot of old files and articles that I had held onto for years. Some of them I’ve kept since graduate school, even though I’d not revisited them in nearly 20 years. It felt good to dump them.

I’d like to say that I don’t need anything. At an intellectual level, I understand that everything is impermanent —  organisms, mountains, relationships, nations, memories, jobs, planets. Time devours all things. On the other hand, when we’re in the present moment, some things appear to be really important and worth prioritizing and holding onto.

Maybe I don’t need anything. Except of course, the chair, the remote control, and the paddle game. And that’s all I need. So I do need some things.