Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Inevitability of Change



Let's talk about slavery and guns. I know! The light and easy topics! The other day, an infographic swirled around facebook showing American slavery lasted for 246 years and segregation lasted for 89. In the scheme of things, the years since the end of segregation are minuscule. It's hardly any time at all. Generation after generation after generation was born into slavery. I'm sure at the time it seemed like slavery would last forever, and for many it did. They spent their entire lives as slaves. And now for the modern-day person, we look back and shake our heads, saying, “I can't believe it took that long.” I think the same will be true with gun violence.

Christopher Reeve said, “So many of our dreams at first seem impossible, then they seem improbable, and then, when we summon the will, they soon become inevitable.” I won't say I'm confident in the inevitability of gun control, but I'd like to be. I think about the generations of slaves who thought for sure slavery would last forever and still took steps to fight against it. The tireless men and women who said, “No, we won't stand for this,” and then did something. It took a loooong time and obviously we still have problems with racism in this country, but things changed. That gives me hope.

The wheel of change keeps turning. Photo by Alex Read on Unsplash.

What also gives me hope are the teenagers from Parkland, Fla., who are saying, “We will not stand for this.” On the 17th, they held a rally in protest. Emma Gonzalez, a student from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the site of the most recent school shooting, gave a speech. She called for new gun restrictions, blasting President Trump, the National Rifle Association, and lawmakers for what she called their self-serving and ultimately hollow responses to the shooting. Many students held signs demanding new action on gun control. "My friend died for what?" read one sign. "Stop gun violence now," read another.

Also, the organizers behind the Women's March have called for a national school walkout next month to protest what they say is congress's tacit response to mass shootings. The walkout on March 14 is set to last 17 minutes, and will seek to pressure lawmakers "to do more than tweet thoughts and prayers in response to the gun violence plaguing our schools and neighborhoods," the group said on its website.

I don't know if these actions will accomplish anything. I don't know if congress will immediately pass stricter gun regulations, or if they'll heed the siren's song of gun lobby money. We could have another 50 years of mass shootings before us, or not. What I do know is change is inevitable. And I also know change doesn't just happen, we have to push for it.

Frederick Douglass said, “I prayed for freedom for 20 years, but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.” I'm with you Frederick. Let's pray with our legs. Eventually, inevitably, things will be different, and our descendants will look back at this time, shake their heads, and say, “I can't believe it took that long.”

I dream of a world where we remember things can change, do change, and will change. A world where we remember the veracity of Christopher Reeve's quote, that after we summon the will, certain changes are inevitable. I dream of a world where they happen sooner rather than later.

Another world is not only possible, it's probable.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Gratitude and Mourning



This Valentine's Day marks 10 years since I moved to California. I can't believe it's been that long – five years I could believe, but 10? That's almost a third of my life. I'm grateful I made the decision to move here, I'm grateful for my life here, my friends here, my community here, but also I'm sad.

I'm not sad about the decision, because like I said, I love California. California is home. I'm sad I'm not 23 anymore. I don't want to go back in time and relive 23 because I was scared, anxious, and insecure much of the time, but in other ways I miss who I was. I miss how excited I felt, how enthusiastic I was. I miss the newness of the world around me. I know I'm still young and I'll still experience new things, but now I have a point of reference. When I travel to new countries, they remind me of other countries. When I try a new restaurant, it reminds me of another restaurant. As I get older, even new things are slightly familiar.

I feel grateful and I feel sad. Photo by Sweet Ice Cream Photography on Unsplash. 

Really what's happening here is I'm grieving the old me. Celebrating my anniversary reminds me of who I used to be and who I am now. The gap is large, in a good way, but it's still a gap. Through my work in therapy, I’m learning it’s important to grieve for my old selves. To feel a sense of loss for the person I once was and can no longer be. The sadness exists and doesn’t go away through any rationalization on my part, nor any amount of looking on the bright side. Mourning the old me reminds me of a quote from my spiritual teacher.

He said, “Death is nothing but change. A 5-year-old child is transformed in due course into a 15-year-old boy. In 10 years, the child becomes the boy. Thereafter, you will never be able to find the body of the 5-year-old child. So the child’s body has certainly died.” He then goes on to mention the boy growing into a man, and then hitting middle age, then old age, until he finally dies and says, “The rest of the changes we do not call death; but in fact, all the changes qualify as death.”

That means my 23-year-old died and it’s important for me to honor and say goodbye to her, just as it’s important for me to honor and say goodbye to other people when they die. And that's what it feels like today, that I'm saying goodbye to the 23-year-old me. I'm remembering what I liked about her and what I disliked, and I feel sad. A little voice in my head is saying, “It's almost Valentine's Day! You should be writing about love and happy things! No one wants to read a depressing post!” That may be true, but also in multiple conversations with people they told me they felt like they had to be happy and upbeat in order to talk with me and I said, “No you don't. You get to be whoever you are. I don't mind if you're happy or sad. Either way is fine by me,” and I meant it. And I mean it for me, too.

As we approach Valentine's Day, I hope you will also let yourself feel sad if sadness arises. I hope that you will grieve old selves and old loves if that bubbles up. I also hope you know that doesn't diminish the good things in your life, or take away how grateful you are for changes. All changes are deaths and all deaths need mourning.

I dream of a world where we mourn our losses. A world where we let ourselves feel how we feel with love and acceptance. A world where we recognize we can feel sad about the past and grateful for the present at the same time.

Another world is not only possible, it's probable.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Fair Share



I had a dream the other night my sister, Rosie, and I slept in the same bed. She started hogging all the covers and I yanked them back from her and said, “No. You can't take all the covers.” It's not a dream based on reality because Rosie cares a lot about sharing, but nonetheless, it got me thinking about greed, especially as it relates to the world's resources. A group of people are hogging almost all the resources leaving the rest of us shivering in the cold.

Peter Joseph said, “The value system disorder of rewarding, in effect, generally the most ruthless and selfish in our society, both by financial means and then by public adoration and respect, is one of the most pervasive and insidious consequences of the incentive system inherent to the capitalist model.”

 I'm interested in fairness and sharing. Photo by Elaine Casap on Unsplash.

I'm with you Peter. By and large, we as a society seem to be OK with greed as long as it comes from a place of power. No one bats an eye when we hear about corrupt politicians or businessmen engaging in shady backroom deals. In fact, I think we expect it. We've become so used to greed and selfishness it seems normal. In a way, it is normal. We all have the same tendencies within us. In yogic philosophy, these tendencies are called vrttis.

My spiritual teacher says, “The correct way to get rid of depraving tendencies is not to repeat to oneself that I shall avoid this tendency or that. Suppression is not the proper way to weaken these tendencies. Do not suppress, but channelize. Humans are psychic beings. Reconvert the psychic into the spiritual. Let elevating tendencies be converted into a spiritual wave.”

My point in using that quote is to say yes, we all have the capacity for cruelness, for greed, for selfishness, but that doesn't mean we say, “Oh well. It's natural. Gotta let it do it's thing.” No. As human beings we are constantly evolving and that means using rationality, it means channelizing our natural propensities toward something else. If I want to strangle a cat, instead of acting on that impulse, it's better for me to rip up a phone book, or scream into a pillow. The same is true, and can be true, for greed.

I realize not everyone is interested in converting their natural impulses, that's fine, but it means we as a society have to impose laws and sanctions. We already have consequences for things like murder and theft, why don't we have consequences for hoarding wealth? Why do we instead encourage it? I already know the answer to that question, but I'd like to go back to my dream.

If Rosie and I were still children living at home, what would happen if we started bickering about the bed covers? Our parents would come in and either make us share or give us separate bed covers. They would come up with a solution – they wouldn't say, “Oh well. It's human nature to be greedy Rebekah, get over it. You'll just have to shiver.”

What I'm proposing here is that we all start acting like parents, coming up with solutions that work for all of us. I'm proposing that we act like adults and say, “No” to people who want to hoard all the covers, so to speak, and instead encourage a more fair share.

I dream of a world where we work together to curb the natural impulse toward greed. A world where we say “No” to hoarding wealth. A world where we understand we can channelize our natural tendencies into something else. A world where we give people their fair share.

Another world is not only possible, it's probable.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

A Tree is Not a Forest



The other day my Lyft driver said the word “thug” with so much derision it sounded like a slur. Frankly, I think that's how he meant it. He also praised a town in California that restricts the number of residents by not building any new dwellings, and the town would rather pay penalties than allow section eight housing. What astounds me is this guy presumably thinks society would be better off if all towns quarantined the poor and people of color as if they were deadly viruses.

I understand this already happens to a large degree – many places stratify according to socioeconomics and/or ethnicity – but it's shortsighted and unnatural. I read a fascinating article about trees the other day. Did you know a tree can be only as strong as the forest that surrounds it?

What applies to trees applies to people. Photo by veeterzy on Unsplash.
Neighboring trees help each other through their root systems either directly, by intertwining their roots, or indirectly, by growing fungal networks around the roots that serve as a sort of extended nervous system. Why do they do this? According to German forester Peter Wohlleben, it's because like in human communities, there are advantages to working together. He said:
"A tree is not a forest. On its own, a tree cannot establish a consistent local climate. It is at the mercy of wind and weather. But together, many trees create an ecosystem that moderates extremes of heat and cold, stores a great deal of water, and generates a great deal of humidity. And in this protected environment, trees can live to be very old. To get to this point, the community must remain intact no matter what. If every tree were looking out only for itself, then quite a few of them would never reach old age. Regular fatalities would result in many large gaps in the tree canopy, which would make it easier for storms to get inside the forest and uproot more trees. The heat of summer would reach the forest floor and dry it out. Every tree would suffer.  
"Every tree, therefore, is valuable to the community and worth keeping around for as long as possible. And that is why even sick individuals are supported and nourished until they recover. Next time, perhaps it will be the other way round, and the supporting tree might be the one in need of assistance." 
It seems so obvious, noting at one time or another we may be in need of assistance, yet somehow it's not. We praise rugged individualism in the U.S. as if that's a good thing. We pretend a person can be separated from others and thrive. Human beings are social creatures, we need other people to survive, yet we operate as if the problems of those down the street have nothing to do with us, as if there is an “over there” and an “over here.” We are already living in a community, we are all already sharing the same resources, and in order for us all to thrive, it's important we remember that. And that's the sort of world I want to live in.

I dream of a world where we remember we are all in this together. A world where we realize isolating ourselves from problems doesn't make them go away. A world where we remember we can only be as strong as the community around us. A world where we realize a tree is not a forest and a human is not a community.

Another world is not only possible, it's probable.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

The Ugly Truth



Right now the funds in my bank account are low – I am one of those people who lives paycheck to paycheck. I think it's fair to say I'm a slave to my paycheck and I'm not the only one. If I lost my job tomorrow, I'd be in big trouble. I notice there's a part of me, a teeny part, that feels ashamed of that. Like if I'm poor it's my fault because I'm not budgeting well or proactive enough. There might be some truth to that, but also I take a look around me and notice I'm not the only one experiencing this. And if I'm not the only one experiencing this, doesn't that point to something systemic? Yes! It does!

A friend of mine works as a finance professor in a major metropolitan city and he told me something we don't like to admit about capitalism is it requires an economic underclass. In order for capitalism to function, someone has to get the short end of the stick. I'll remind you this is not coming from a pinko-commie, this is coming from someone who teaches finance at a well-respected university.

I'm a slave to the dollar and that sucks. Photo by Pepi Stojanovski on Unsplash.

The ugly truth about capitalism is it requires exploitation. I read a fascinating article the other day about the myth of the ethical shopper. The author, Michael Hobbes, wrote that these days, it's not the U.S. that's a major culprit of sweatshops, it's other countries. Indian children subsist off of pennies a day making clothing not for Americans, but for Indians or Chinese. Hobbes also said the production cycle is so divorced from people at the top, no one really knows where their clothes are made. Contracts subcontract out over and over again until the whole thing becomes a tangled mess. And for people in those sweatshops who try to unionize, the company says, “See you later,” and goes to another country where regulation is more lax and they can pay people less. As long as we care about getting something for the lowest price possible, we'll continue to have this situation.

It's not only a developing world problem, by the way, it's also in the good old U.S. of A. Women are still paid less than men, and women of color really get shafted. And let's not forget the exploitation rampant in sectors like food. The working conditions for people who pick produce is appalling. I bring this up because we pretend capitalism can work as a system, that it only needs a few tweaks. We pretend that anyone can become a millionaire if they only remove their mental blocks to abundance. That may be true, but what about everyone else?

Did you know approximately eight people own half the world's wealth, according to Oxfam? The Economist takes issue with the math, but even they conclude a small number of people own half the world's wealth. That means the rest of us are fighting for a small piece of pie. I don't know about you, but I'm not OK with this. We have a minimum wage, why don't we have a maximum wage? Why don't we have rules about how much wealth one person can own? If that sounds too communist, OK, then how about enhancing our social safety nets? Right now, the U.S. government is cutting funding for food stamps, Medicare, and other social services. If I lose my job tomorrow, I'm more likely to lean on friends and family than the government. Isn't the government supposed to be of the people, by the people, and for the people? I'm sure not seeing a lot of that.

I realize this post is not an optimistic one, but in this instance, I think it's important to acknowledge the ugly truth. Until we do, we'll never see the changes we'd like in our society, and I long for those changes.

I dream of a world where everyone everywhere has their basic needs met. A world where we aren't slaves to our paychecks. A world where we can lose our jobs and still be taken care of. A world where we start treating all living beings as worthy and deserving of respect.

Another world is not only possible, it's probable.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

What is a Leader?



As I contemplate President Trump's recent comments about “shithole countries” and the upcoming birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., I can't help but wonder what it means to be a leader because one I think of as a leader, and the other I do not. In the past, I would have told you a leader is a person in charge, but as I've gotten older, I'm realizing how false that is. A person may be in charge due to privilege or nepotism or a host of other reasons, and not be what I call a leader.

The answer to the question, what is a leader, also changes depending on the circumstances. A leader could be someone with the most physical prowess or keen intellect. These days? It seems the majority of our supposed leaders are those with money or privilege. Furthermore, those in power seem more interested in exploitation and personal gain than the welfare of society as a whole.

This image seemed the most appropriate. Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash.

According to my spiritual teacher, this is the cycle of social evolution, where one particular class enjoys domination and superiority over another. By class, he means the laboring class, the warrior class, the intellectual class, and the merchant class. And each class rises and falls over time in a process that cannot be halted.
“The function of a [leader] shall, therefore, be to see that the dominating or the ruling classes do not have any scope for exploitation,” he said. “The moment one class turn into exploiters, the life of the majority becomes miserable; a few enjoy at the cost of many whose lot is only to suffer. More than that, in such a state of society both the few and the many get degenerated. The few (exploiters) degenerate themselves due to [an] excess of physical enjoyments, and the many (exploited) cannot elevate themselves, because all their energy is taken up in mundane problems .... Hence, for the physical, mental, and spiritual welfare of the administrator and the administered of the society as a whole, it is essential that no one be given any scope to exploit the rest of the society.”

Leaders then are active participants, they are like watchdogs, keeping an eye on signs of exploitation and then doing something about it. It seems to me, the primary quality of a leader is someone who is concerned with the well-being of humanity as a whole. A leader is not someone who cares only about their selfish pleasures. I won't speak for everyone, but I'll say for myself, I have an expectation a leader will swoop in out of nowhere and save us all. And furthermore, that a leader possesses skills and qualities that I do not. Like they're magical beings while I'm a mere human. Is that true though?

Vince Lombardi said, “Leader's aren't born, they are made.” That means we all possess the potential to be leaders. We all have the power to change something, to do something. We may not all trigger systemic change like Rosa Parks, but maybe. We'll never know if we don't try.

I dream of a world where we recognize we all have the potential to become leaders. A world where we understand leaders are not necessarily those in power and could be anyone, including us. A world where we each do our part to shepherd humanity toward a brighter tomorrow.

Another world is not only possible, it's probable.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Fate Belongs to Us



I had a moment on New Year's Eve where I thought about going to bed before midnight. It would have been easy – I was in my room, lying down, waiting for the minutes to tick closer to 12. For the first time in my life, I realized a year is a collection of days and in some ways the start date is meaningless and arbitrary. Particularly because the Jewish New Year, which takes place in September or October, seems more in alignment with marking the phases of my life.

I think the other reason the start of the new year didn't excite is me because I've blown past all the mile markers I set for myself, and others set for me. A psychic told me by age 30 I'd have two elementary-aged children. Another told me in 2017 I'd meet my romantic partner. Two years ago I thought I'd be engaged this past winter. Those dates came and went without any of the predictions coming true. I bring that up because this is the first year I have zero expectations for the year. This is the first time the year ahead of me is a big question mark.

We make our own fate. Photo by Cristian Escobar on Unsplash.

All around me people are making their new year's resolutions or intentions or goalsetting while I'm not. A part of me feels anxious about that, like I should be doing the same thing because otherwise the year will be terrible and I'll be miserable, but I also realize the year is a collection of days and can start over at any time. Instead of freaking out that I haven't planned my whole life, I'm recognizing I can make plans when I'm ready. I know goals are important because they give us direction, but right now I'm building my trust muscle, trusting that when it's time for me to make a goal, I will. It could be a random day in April and that would be fine.

This year I'm understanding more deeply the future is not laid out before me like a bread crumb trail. The future is a culmination of past actions, some that are out of my awareness.

My spiritual teacher said, “The stars do not control you; your original actions control you. And where the original action is not known to you, but the result is known to you, the result is experienced by you, you say it is fate.”

There's a freedom in realizing my past actions dictate my future because it means anything is possible. It means I could head in any direction and anything could happen to me this year. Life is a precious collection of moments that are largely unplanned. I don't want to miss out on the treasures because I'm too busy following a schedule I set for myself. This year I'm really and truly open to whatever is and that feels like a good thing.

I dream of a world where we take the pressure off ourselves to plan our whole lives. A world where we realize the new year can start for us at any time. A world where we remember plans are more like guidelines and nothing is set in stone. A world where we recognize fate belongs to us and we can take our time.

Another world is not only possible, it's probable.