A Public Faith

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to do an internship in Amman, Jordan. It was an incredible experience, though I’ll admit I was definitely ready to come home by the end of it. I remember thinking in the final weeks of my internship about what I would miss the most – what I would regret leaving. The answer was easy for me:

More than anything else, I would miss the call to prayer (the adhan).

Yes, it’s beautiful (if you’ve never listened to an adhan, you’re missing out), but it was more than the auditory aesthetic I would miss.

Even though I’m not Muslim, there was something incredibly touching (and quite moving) about the way that it broke up the day. The public reminder to take a moment and think about God. The shared understanding that there was something more important than whatever it was you were doing at the moment. The outward manifestation of an inner belief.

Fast forward several years.

I have fallen utterly and completely in love with Washington, DC. Why? Well, many reasons, but one of my favorite things about living here is something you may least expect and is, in fact, not unique to DC at all.*

One of my favorite things about living in DC is Ash Wednesday.

DC is, shall we say, not famous for its religiosity, but every Ash Wednesday, I see people walking around with the cross of ashes on their forehead. And every Ash Wednesday, I see priests waiting hopefully outside busy metro stations, ready for whoever will take a minute out of their busy day to receive the cross of ashes. This is not something I saw in Utah (Mormons are Christian, but we, like some other branches of Christianity, do not usually observe liturgical holidays like Lent, Pentecost, etc.), and it’s something I have loved ever since my first Ash Wednesday in DC when I did a double take coming out of the metro after nearly running into a smiling priest.

In thinking about these two things I love (the adhan and Ash Wednesday in DC), I realize there are two reasons for my random attachment to them. First, I love old things, and things steeped in tradition. And second, they are rare** public demonstrations of faith, and I find that both beautiful and touching.***

Faith is something that is usually quite private (even attending church does feel like such a public display of faith), so it’s nice to sometimes see it represented so boldly and publicly. There’s a boldness and confidence in it that is not only admirable, but timeless.

I thought a lot about this over the past few days. So much of DC is shut down on Good Friday, and that’s yet another example of a beautiful public express of faith. Yes, that’s not how a lot of people think about it. And yes, there are problems in thinking about religion as a shared experience. (After all, it’s shared only within a particular community, whether large or small.) But here’s what I love:

In a world where religion is reserved for the private corners of the mind, unabashedly and publicly (yet respectfully) showing faith in any number of ways is beautiful, thought-provoking, and inspiring; and in a world with so much vitriol, it’s a lovely reminder that there are so many ways in which we’re not so different after all.

*I assume so, anyway, although I have never been anywhere else on Ash Wednesday besides Utah or DC.
**Rare in my experience. Obviously, if I lived in, say, the Vatican, or in a Muslim majority city, it would feel different.
***I fully recognize the problems with religiosity or piety being too exhibitionist (as well as too public) and such, but I still love and appreciate the beauty I find in it.

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The Right Time

When I was eight, I tried to read my first adult book. I seem to remember it being at least 800 pages long, although Goodreads claims it is just over 400 pages, so…there’s that. It had been given to me by my grandmother and was part of an enormous series called The Work and the Glory (consisting of 9 books, the longest of which actually is nearly 800 pages). I was sitting in the car with it on my lap as we were driving home from my grandmother’s. My mom was filling the car with gas. I was waiting. I hadn’t brought a book with me, and with a shiny new book sitting on my lap, what is a true bibliophile to do?

I started reading it. I didn’t get very far. It remained on my bookshelf, unread.

I came back to it a few years later, successfully reading it and the rest of the series. They were even some of my favorite books for a while.

When I was twelve, I checked out Treasure Island and another children’s classic (I think it was A Secret Garden, but I’m not sure) from the library. I was not ready for them and could not bring myself to read more than a few pages before giving it up as a bad job.

The funny thing is that Treasure Island must technically be at a lower reading level than the adult series I read a younger age, but that didn’t matter. It seemed utterly foreign to me and I felt I had no hope of ever being able to understand it.* I had some sort of idea that the ability to understand and appreciate certain kinds of literature was a kind of innate talent-like a gene that I just simply hadn’t been born with. This, of course, is not true. It was simply not the right time for me to read it-just like it wasn’t the right time for me to read The Work and the Glory when I first tried. I somehow implicitly understood that better at age eight than I did several years later.

I’ve thought a lot about coming to pieces of literature at the right time. Having a favorite when perhaps it’s only a favorite because of something small that spoke to you in that particular moment. The difference it can make to read a book at just the right moment for you.

It’s the same thing in the “real world.” There’s a right and a wrong time for everything. The trick is waiting for the right time to roll around.

And that can be aggravating as all get-out.

More often than I would care to admit, I am guilty of peeking ahead to the end of a book to see what happens, or to see if my guess is correct, spoiling the ending.**

Surely I can’t be the only one who wishes I could sometimes do that with my life? To be able to peek ahead, just a few months, or a year? After all, if there’s a Hagrid waiting to tell me on page 273 of my life that actually Hogwarts made a mistake and I should have received my letter years ago, wouldn’t that be nice to know now?

But then I have to slow down and remind myself:

Right now is the right time for something.

And I need to enjoy that something now before it becomes the right time for something else.

The alternative is waiting for a golden ticket that is never guaranteed to arrive. Or putting off the moment you will finally allow yourself to smile at what’s in front of you, the way you put off that book you know you’ll love.

It takes some degree of trust to allow yourself that moment to smile. Maybe that’s part of why it’s so difficult.

Trust and, I suppose, a little bit of patience.

*For the record, I did come back to Treasure Island…but not until my mid-twenties.

**Also for the record, I do this much less often than I used to.

Opinionating

I have thought a lot recently about facts, opinions, and being opinionated.

Being open-minded is important to me. One of my pet peeves is when people do not think for themselves and ask questions. This is one reason I have always felt uncomfortable with calling myself a member of a particular political party. (To this day, I remain officially unaffiliated on my voter registration.) Even with formal education in political science, there are a number of issues that I simply don’t feel confident enough to have an opinion on.

Recently, I was talking with someone I love dearly about a Particular Person who moved to a Particular White Building in Washington, DC on Friday (ahem) and they told me I was very one-sided.

I freely admit that I would be hard-pressed to find someone I have more disdain for than this Particular Person. But I don’t think that means I am not openminded or that I am willing to believe anything about him.

I have often thought that refraining from developing an opinion on something was some kind of virtue. But I’ve realized that it’s not. There are moments and there are issues that demand that we take a side. Moments and issues where remaining on the sidelines can no longer be a neutral act.

I still think it is extremely important to be able to understand all sides of a story or issue. I spent hours reading articles last fall about why people were voting for Trump, and I learned a lot and understand many of the reasons, even if I didn’t agree with them. But that does not mean you have to give each side equal weight. Being openminded does not mean viewing every side as equally correct.

As petty of an issue as it is, the spat about inauguration attendance is the perfect illustration of this. The new Press Secretary of this Particular Person held their first press conference yesterday and lied about attendance, making claims that were demonstrably false. He claimed that there were more people that watched this Particular Person’s Inauguration than any Inauguration before. Period. (You should look on Twitter for some great memes about his phrasing, by the way…)

Photos (comparing 2009 and 2017) fairly definitively prove otherwise.

Now, this is where questioning is important. Just because photos make it seem like there were fewer people, does that mean that is definitely, obviously the case?

Absolutely not.

But if you just stop there and ignore the issue, claiming that “Oh, it doesn’t prove anything…” or “We’ll never know…”, than I apologize for being brusque, but you are being lazy.

Questioning facts doesn’t mean you stop there. You have to keep going.

So you then have to look at the photos for yourself. Note that the photos from Friday’s Inauguration were taken at the peak time. Note that they were taken from the same angle and approximately the same distance. Okay. Does that mean it is definitely, obviously the case?

No.

You can then read reports/comparisons of metro ridership and bus permits and parking capacity. You can note the televised audience for 2017’s inauguration was larger than 2013 (as this Particular Person boasted on Twitter…), BUT ALSO that it was smaller than 2009. You should also note that these are reported in multiple reputable* sources.

Okay. Now does that mean it is definitely, obviously the case?

Well, no. Is it still possible that there is some kind of fluke that we don’t really know about that really would explain why the photos are wrong? Sure, it’s possible. But how likely is it? You should feel a little doubtful.

You should note that there are very reasonable explanations for this smaller attendance. It was raining. DC’s surrounding areas are heavily Democratic, so this Particular Person’s supporters would have had to travel further than many of Obama’s supporters, for example. Fair enough.

But on the balance we can pretty safely assume that yes indeed, the number of people that showed up to this Particular Person’s Inauguration was smaller than in 2009. We cannot safely assume the reasons for this, but we should be confident enough that we can call the Press Secretary’s claim exactly what it is: a lie. That is a strong word, but please note that it was not reached automatically. (KellyAnne Conway called it an “alternative fact,” but that is just a creative synonym for “lie.”)

I don’t call it a lie because I read somewhere that it was a lie. I don’t call it a lie because I saw the pictures and it looks like it’s a lie. I don’t call it a lie because I don’t like this Particular Person. I don’t call it a lie because I expect lies from this Particular Person’s administration. I call it a lie because I looked at it and I took the time to review and go through this thought exercise that I have described here. Could I/we be mistaken? Yes. But is it likely? After looking at all this information, no. It’s not likely.

Now, I think we can probably all agree that it doesn’t really matter how many people went to the Inauguration. It is a small, petty thing. I have just used this as an example to illustrate how accepting facts does not mean you are gullible or uninformed, and forming an opinion does not mean you are close-minded.

Be wary of facts, by all means. But do not dismiss them.

Facts can be tricky and evasive little buggers. And sometimes they’re not facts at all. But sometimes they are. And by ignoring truth or pretending it doesn’t exist just because you’d prefer not to have to work it out for yourself, you’re hurting yourself and others.

It is neither always a virtue or always a vice to remain neutral. The things that I remain neutral about are those things where I do not feel I have enough information to complete this thought exercise, or when there are too many ways to interpret the data. To be adamant in a point of view then is foolish and requires what I think can fairly be described as blind belief. But the fact of the matter is that there are a great many issues and stories where there is ample, clear information to come to a conclusion. To remain neutral then is simply lazy.

I am not claiming to do this perfectly, but I hope this explains why I do not think it is fair to call someone close-minded because they have an opinion about something or because they believe something. I also do not claim to be perfectly unbiased, because nobody is.

My point is this: there is a middle ground between accepting everything as fact and refusing to accept anything as fact. Whether you’re at one end of the spectrum or the other, I hope you can come closer to the middle.

I’m trying to get there, too.

 

 

*For those of you who would rant against the “liberal media,” there is nothing I can say to change your mind, but I would hope you would consider this: “reputable sources” do make mistakes, yes, and they are not perfect nor entirely without bias. But they are widely considered reputable and trustworthy for a reason, and that should mean something. Particularly when the same thing is reported in multiple of these reputable sources (which is why it is crucial to get your news from multiple sources and to seek out sources that you frequently disagree with).

 

ETA: For more on this topic, you can read this companion post that I published on Medium.

One Undervalued Way to Make the World a Better Place

There have been many, many times over the course of my life that heartbreaking stories have dominated news media (for varying lengths of time, whether it is minutes, hours, or days). At those times, I always look at everyone around me, and I read what people post on social media, or listen to what they are talking about over dinner. And every time I’m always surprised when anything but that news story comes up. I inevitably find myself asking the same question:

“Why doesn’t anybody care?”

When people are facing possible genocide in Aleppo, who cares about what movie ruled the box office last weekend? When there are bombings and shootings and other attacks and when horror and terror seem to rule, what does anything else matter?

I don’t mean to sound self-righteous. I do the same thing. I’m pretty sure the same day I wrote about Aleppo here last week, I called my mom to complain about the annoying commute home that day. And there have been plenty of serious news stories that I have ignored altogether.

I know I can’t fix the world, as much as I wish I could. And I know wrapping myself up in the tragedies that surround us doesn’t help anyone either – in part because the best way to beat horror and terror is to simply live. Live our lives in the best way we know how.

Although I’ve felt overwhelmed this week* and sick at the astonishing cruelty that human beings inflict on one another, I have to keep telling myself that there is also astonishing beauty and kindness. I believe that.

I also believe that we can use the astonishing beauty and kindness that humans are capable of to make the world better. And that leads us to the second part of this post.

I started coming up with a whole list of things that we can all do to make the world a better place but it started to feeling like preaching and nobody likes that. So yeah. Just be a good human? But I did want to share the one thing that I think that is undervalued as a way to improve the world.

 

How you can make the world a better place in 2017

Read.

Oy, what did you expect? Because I’m, you know, me. In all honesty though, I truly believe that if more people read regularly, the world would be a better place. One of the many reasons is because stories are lessons in empathy. And reading gives us practice being inside someone else’s head. If there is one thing 2016 taught me, it is that we often have a
lack of empathy. And guess what? Reading can help fix that. Not only that, but reading makes us smarter. Boom. Two birds. One stone. Reading can also help us get a better night’s sleep. And when we are not a Grumpy McGrump Face, that’s a better world for our roommates, friends, family, and coworkers. Three birds. AND reading can stave off Alzheimer’s, which means stack-of-books-1001655_1920you will have more time and more resources to devote to improving the world.  Four birds. And I’m just getting started.

Seriously, Google the benefits of reading and then I dare you to argue that it wouldn’t make the world a better place.

http://lmgtfy.com/?q=benefits+of+reading

Oh look, I just Googled it for you.

Read. Read nonfiction. Read fiction. Read the news. Read to your kids (if you have kids). Read.

It’s an easy and tangible way you can make the world a better place.

 

*In a remarkable episode of the-universe-has-an-incredibly-twisted-sense-of-humor, I turned to a book to escape this malaise. The book was about Richard Lionheart, so you know the Crusades are just what the doctor ordered to restore your faith in humanity. Not. The two pages I read mentioned in passing an atrocious massacre, in which scores of men, women, and children were murdered. I couldn’t keep reading. It is a very good book but I had to put it down for the day.

 

Never Again

For those of you following the news, you will have seen that the situation in Syria has rapidly deteriorated. (You can find an excellent summary of what is happening here, from the ever-wonderful BBC.)

As I am writing this, some reports are emerging of a deal that has been reached which could end the summary killings of civilians that have been reported, including of women and children, but the immediate crisis is far from over. It remains to be seen whether any agreements will be honored or whether summary killings will continue in what one UN official called a “complete meltdown of humanity.”

At moments like this, I desperately want to do something but am faced with a wall of helplessness. This time, I’m going to try harder. This post is part of how I am doing that.

Here are some things you can do to help:

  • If you are financially able, donate to {trustworthy} organizations that are working to resolve this crisis. I donated to the International Committee of the Red Cross’ Syria Crisis Appeal.
  • Attend rallies/demonstrations, if any are being held near you.
  • Write to your Member of Parliament or Member of Congress.
  • Share information with your network about what is happening in Syria.

These actions still make me feel helpless (especially because not all of these are possible for me, since I don’t know of any demonstrations near me) and pathetic. Like I’m trying to stop a tsunami with a piece of cardboard. But it’s all I know how to do.

There’s been a lot of bad news this year on the whole and I know that people are tired. I am, too. I’m tired of seeing injustice and lies and ugliness. But I don’t want to believe that a “meltdown of humanity” is a state that we are willing to accept. And we don’t have to accept it.

We can stop it.

Drawing Lines Through History

Last weekend, I went with one of my roommates to attend a production of Handel’s Messiah. Like so many people, I grew up loving the “Hallelujah Chorus” and “For Unto Us a Child Is Born,” but it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I ever bothered to listen to the full oratorio. It’s not my favorite piece of classical music (that honor goes to Bach’s phenomenal Mass in B minor – please, please, please listen to it!) but I still enjoy it. I had never been to a performance of it, even though I always saw advertisements for different productions of it, including sing along ones, and so I definitely jumped at the chance to go to the Washington National Cathedral to see it there.

It was beautiful. Sure, I got slightly antsy and fidgety during the last half, but I am so glad I went.

While I was listening, and afterwards, I kept thinking about what it was that made me care so much about this music even though it’s not even a particular favorite of mine.

I’ve always loved old things. If I’m honest, I view Shakespeare, the Founding Fathers, and Charles Dickens as something akin to demi-gods, and going to historic sites is like standing on sacred ground to me. When visiting historic sites associated with events or people that I have been particularly fascinated with, I have on various occasions had the following reactions: crying, skipping, balling my fists, shaking with excitement, squealing, hyperventilating (very disconcerting to the people around me), and jumping. Sometimes more than one of these at once. My love of old things is part of why I like wassail. (Fun fact: I once wrote five pages about wassail in a manuscript. No joke. I was pontificating on the same subject as this blog post, actually.)

It’s only been recently that I’ve understood why old things mean so much to me.

They are a lifeline to our past. As close to a time machine as we have.

img_4749When I was listening to Handel’s Messiah, I kept thinking about how someone like me would have felt listening to this in 1742 when it was first performed.

When I stood in the Capitol for the first time, I kept thinking about the great men and women who had stood in that exact spot.

When I read Shakespeare, I don’t see a regular page. I see words, characters, and ideas that are more than 400 years old!

When I walked through Monticello, I could barely control my enthusiasm, astounded by the thought that I was somewhere that Thomas Jefferson had walked.

Those thoughts give me chills. Little bits of history reaching out and touching me.

These things – old things, old ideas, old books, old stories, old places – connect us to the past in a way that feels almost literal and tangible. They draw lines through our history straight into our present.

I can imagine very little that is more beautiful than that.

 

(P.S. Did you know you can follow my blog on WordPress, or sign up to receive emails when I post? Take a look at the sidebar for more info.)

Comfort Reads

I love this time of year.

Hearty stew, thick scarves, brightly colored leaves, roasted vegetables. Everything warm and soothing.

I found this has even spilled over into my reading choices at the moment.  When it was time to decide what to read next last week, there was nothing that jumped out at me for a while until I finally figured out what I was in the mood for: a comfort read.

Harry Potter typically epitomizes a comfort read for me, but this time around I chose Jane Eyre. I read it once years ago (I must have been 15 or 16), but not since. I remembered it fairly well, and it felt like just the right thing to read. And it was.

It’s funny how at certain times all you want is something that feels like coming home–and strange how certain books just feel like coming home. They just worm their way into your heart and stay there.

What are your favorite comfort reads?