Irish Refuse & The Golden Rule

“It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.”Irish Proverb

 

The Irish Taoiseach (prime minister), Enda Kenny gave some remarks at the White House for Saint Patrick’s Day. Among his comments was a nod to the difficult history of Irish immigration abroad to countries including (but not exclusive to) the United States. You can find video of his speech here.

Enda Kenny (skip to 6 mins, 34 seconds):

“Ireland came to America, because deprived of liberty, opportunity, safety and even food itself, we believed. Four decades before Lady Liberty lifted her lamp we were the wretched refuse on the teeming shore. We believed in the shelter of America, in the compassion of America, in the opportunity of America. We came and became Americans.”

To some observers, this is a reminder of global current events, where refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere are seeking sanctuary. In addition, an estimated 20 million people are on the verge of famine in four countries:  Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and northeastern Nigeria. Some of this is due to drought, but the primary reason stems from conflict, which blocks access to food, water, and other essential supplies and medicine, as well as a lack of action from other nations.

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Extraordinary Cases of Compassion and Forgiveness: The Secular and Divine

As a kid, I went to Catholic school for several years. In addition to our lessons in traditional educational subjects of reading, science, math, history, and social studies, we also got regular lessons in Church teachings. Although I consider myself atheist or agnostic today, I distinctly remember that some of the religious lessons – particularly some of the parables of the New Testament – simply “felt” good.

In particular, I remember that the parable of the good Samaritan said something to me – try to help others in need, even if there is risk, and even if they are somehow different from you. Likewise, the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector (at least to me) emphasized the importance of being humble. The parable of the prodigal son contained themes of contrition, mercy, and reconciliation.

When we read those lessons – in class or in Church – they often came with a pleasant physical sensation. At the time, I interpreted that feeling as evidence that the parables were divinely inspired. After all, other stories didn’t give me the same emotional response (though at that age, I didn’t have many examples to compare). Of course, now I interpret things differently. The biological anthropologist in me would say that the pleasurable sensation is part of a human neurobiology that promotes pro-social behavior. This, in turn, reinforces the rewards that we gain from being connected to others.

Does that sound too cold? “Oh, you materialist!”  I hope it doesn’t. Whether the sentiments are divinely inspired or a part of an evolved emotional response, the effect is the same – they help maintain our connections, which we absolutely need. No human being is an island. Instead, we are obligatorily social primates. And, regardless of whether we take a religious or secular perspective, the effect is the same. We are still left with the angel and devil on either shoulder, whether we interpret that literally or figuratively. We all make our choices that are based on a combination of character, the information at our disposal, and our surrounding circumstances.  

I have to admit that I still get that inspirational feeling whenever I read about extraordinary acts of compassion, forgiveness, or simply someone who’s made an effort to seek out another’s humanity. I’ve collected them for a while. After a few accumulate, I feel the need to share them. Below are a few fairly recent examples, followed by a more comprehensive list. Collectively, they all give me hope, as they span the range of humanity – secular and religious – from many societies.

The mother of Abdolah Hosseinzadeh removes the noose from around the neck of her son’s killer, sparing his life, April 15, 2014. Image via Arash Khamooshi.

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Chasing Away the Demons

I’ve been thinking of how people are quick to demonize one another, at a time when social divisions are rising in the United States and elsewhere around the world (or what I imperfectly perceive as rising divisions). The phenomenon of Us and Them is ever-present. For a long time people have recognized the pattern that we tend to demonize others who are different from us.

In his work, “A Treatise on Human Nature” (1740), Scottish philosopher David Hume noted that we tend to have a double standard in how we think about “Them” when our country (or whatever group) is engaged in conflict:

“When our own nation is at war with any other, we detest them under the character of cruel, perfidious, unjust and violent: But always esteem ourselves and allies equitable, moderate, and merciful. If the general of our enemies be successful, it is with difficulty we allow him the figure and character of a man. He is a sorcerer: He has a communication with daemons; as is reported of Oliver Cromwell, and the Duke of Luxembourg: He is bloody-minded, and takes a pleasure in death and destruction. But if the success be on our side, our commander has all the opposite good qualities, and is a pattern of virtue, as well as of courage and conduct. His treachery we call policy: His cruelty is an evil inseparable from war. In short, every one of his faults we either endeavour to extenuate, or dignify it with the name of that virtue, which approaches it.”

This blog has been an exercise in sharing some knowledge — and I do try to get things right — but it’s also been an attempt to try to seek out overlooked pieces of optimism. My biases creep in, and I know they are there, but they are mine and I own them. I can see the nastier side of human beings clearly, but I know there is more to us than that. We can’t ignore those things either. 

I see humans as evolved, fallible creatures (just like every other species). At least for me, it helps to remember that we are all a single species, that we are all related, that we are obligatorily social and require some degree of connection, that we can overcome difficult circumstances, that people can break cyclical violence, that the universe favors non-zero sum relationships to some degree, that nature is not always red in tooth and claw, that we are flexible and just as predisposed for cooperation as we are for conflict, that we can find ways to reconcile and mend broken relationships, that life is beautiful, and, finally, that we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.

Colin Kaepernick and the Clash of Values

“Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.”    – Dalai Lama

Los Angeles Rams v San Francisco 49ers

Colin Kaepernick (right) and teammate Eric Reid kneeling during the national anthem (Source)

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A lot has been written about the San Francisco 49ers’ Colin Kaepernick and his decision to kneel during the national anthem before his team plays its games. For those who haven’t heard, in August of this year, Kaepernick opted not to stand during the anthem to protest police violence against minorities in the US. In his words:

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color…To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

The practice has since been taken up by dozens of other players in the league, and spread to the NBA and WNBA, US women’s soccer, high school athletes across the country, a high school football referee, cheerleaders, even a few singers of the anthem itself.

kaepernick-effect

The spread of national anthem protests (source)

Reactions to the protests have been mixed, with some people supporting Kaepernick’s right to peaceful protest, others being outraged, and still others being sympathetic to his cause but disagreeing with his methods. One mid-September poll found that Kaepernick had become the most disliked player in the NFL, “disliked a lot” by 29% of 1,100 Americans asked. That number was up from 6% in August, before his protestations began. He has received death threats, and a handful of NFL executives from teams around the league have expressed disdain for him, referring to Kaepernick as a “traitor” who “has no respect for our country.” Continue reading

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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How Our Lives Intersect

Below is one artist’s (Nancy Belmont) illustration of the many ways our lives intersect. In the video, she cleverly gave people yarn which they wrapped around a series of poles representing a number of possible groups to which someone might belong.

When the experiment is complete, we see the full picture and the various ways the participants’ lives overlap and the commonalities people share.