Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Who inspires you?

To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasis in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places-and there are so many-where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, it itself a marvelous victory. –Howard Zinn

I recently started reading, Then They Came for Me by Maziar Bahari. This is actually the book that Jon Stewart is making a movie about, so you may have heard of it. In the first few chapters I kept thinking to myself that these are the types of stories we should be passing on, telling out friends about, discussing at the workplace water coolers. I know there’s a lot of drama on The Bachelor and everyone is super curious what Kim Kardshian’s baby will look like, but instead of giving these stories so much attention, let’s focus some extra google searches to something productive, positive, potentially world changing. In this post, I would also like to forgive Jon Stewart for abandoning us this summer because Bahari’s story deserves more airtime.

Here’s a list of some documentaries, memoirs, stories I think are worth sharing, stories that reveal the capacity of human actions to reshape the world. Often we romanticize people who’ve passed, your Gandhi, MLK Jr., and we assume that no one is carrying that torch, the torch of peaceful protest. As I mentioned in my last post, there are people all around the world who are fighting for environmental justice, social equality, and political freedom in the face of some pretty daunting obstacles. As I’ve mentioned before, what we give energy to multiples. Let’s honor those, who without extraordinary power, have acted courageously to better their communities. The people on my list are already pretty famous. They have been recognized for their activism, namely many of them have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, but I feel that our Western society spends much more time admiring the frivolous or incessantly debating our political differences, rather than being inspired by stories of the audacious and truly brave. These people should be household names.

What does progress look like to you? What stories do you think deserve a little more attention? How do these stories serve us? Maybe you’re not willing to risk political imprisonment. I get it. That’s ok. What can you do? Can you be inspired to strive to act for progress even in some small way? Can you be more conscious of the root of your actions? How do these actions serve you and how do they serve your neighbors?

Personally, I feel that stories like these remind me that even small positive actions are meaningful. If African women can work to forgive their rapists, surely I can let go of some wrong in my past, some burden I’ve been carrying. If Chinese dissidents risk persecution for demonstration, surely I can start a letter writing campaign to my Congressperson.

Add to this list! Tell me about stories, books, movies that highlight people with courage, tenacity, just straight up ballsy-ness. Tell me about people you think are totally badass, putting out positive messages and trying to change the world even though it seems impossible. It’s about what we value. Looking at pictures of celebrities in bikinis does pass the time, but how does it serve you? Let’s spread around some global good news, ya’ll.

Letters from Burma
 1)   Aung San Suu Kyi and the makers of the documentary Burma VJ (2008)

"It is not power that corrupts, but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it."
 From speech, Freedom from Fear, 1990
She may be the world's best known political prisoner, having spent roughly 15 years under house arrest in Burma. During this time, however, she gained notoriety globally through her writing and inspired hope in the hearts of her country men and women living in political oppression.

Burma VJ

Image Source
“There are no outdoor sports as graceful as throwing stones at a dictatorship.”
Image Source

Famous for co-designing the Bird’s Nest for the Olympic games, Wei Wei has used his notoriety to draw attention to party corruption in China. 
This documentary is also really entertaining.

3) Liu Xiaobo

This guy’s name is censored in China, you can’t even look him up on Wikipedia without an internet proxy around the Great Chinese Firewall. He has served four prison terms for various crimes such as “disturbing the social order,” and spreading messages to subvert the country and authority, these terms have been from 1989-1991, 1995-1996, 1996-1999, 2009-2020. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for co-writing Charter ’08:
Image Source

 “After experiencing a prolonged period of human rights disasters and a tortuous struggle and resistance, the awakening Chinese citizens are increasingly and more clearly recognizing that freedom, equality, and human rights are universal common values shared by all humankind, and that democracy, a republic, and constitutionalism constitute the basic structural framework of modern governance. A "modernization" bereft of these universal values and this basic political framework is a disastrous process that deprives humans of their rights, corrodes human nature, and destroys human dignity. Where will China head in the 21st century? Continue a "modernization" under this kind of authoritarian rule? Or recognize universal values, assimilate into the mainstream civilization, and build a democratic political system? This is a major decision that cannot be avoided.”

4) Leymah Gbowee, Pray the Devil Back to Hell documentary and personal memoir, Mighty Be Our Powers, How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War
“You can tell people of the need to struggle, but when the powerless start to see that they really can make a difference, nothing can quench the fire.” 

Book website
This is what women working together looks like. So, so powerful and inspiring. 
5) The Island President with Mohammed Nasshed
“I do not even like the term negotiate. There is nothing to negotiate with the environment.”

All I really know about Mohammed Nasshed is what I’ve seen in The Island President and his speech in Copenhagen at the UN Climate Summit. There are year old stories in the NYTimes of him resigning from office and back and forth claims that he abused power and that he was forced to resign under gunpoint. He has since been arrested, detained, questioned, and put on trial. The Diplomat, Asia Pacific blog has a good summary. 

6) Mala Yousufazi, 8th grader and Pakistan’s first Nobel Peace Prize winner.
I seriously hope you’ve already read a lot about this girl because she blows me away. Death threats from the Taliban be damned, this girl’s on a mission. There are frequent stories of her continuing activism for female education, like this story from yesterday, June 18th.
“I don’t mind if I have to sit on the floor at school. All I want is education. And I am afraid of no one.”

Thursday, June 13, 2013

"I Don't Let Doomsday Bother Me, Do You Let it Bother You?"

I have a confession to make. I am a current events junkie. I read the New York Times. I listen to NPR. I watch NBC Nightly News. I have a not so secret crush on NBC foreign correspondent Richard Engel. That guy is a bad ass mofo. As you might guess, said obsession means that I have strong political beliefs. You know, opinions about all these current events. At times my frustration with the ineptitude of political leaders, generalized greed of corporations, and apathy of the common man leads me to raise my voice. This happens frequently when I’m discussing politics, religion, and the environment even with my husband, who for the most part agrees with much of my worldview. It especially happens when discussing current events with my father, who fundamentally disagrees with all  of my worldview and while disagreeing raises his voice several octaves in fiery indignation, leading me to raise my voice and on and on. (Perhaps this is the root, no?) Fortunately, our sparing these days is good hearted, and we share a common core belief that people in this country would be best served by regular exercise and decreased soda consumption. The point of all this is to say, I get fired up on all these news events that could best be described as fleeting stories. At times, my passion even leads to me interrupt or cut off others, just to spit out some reaction to their shortsighted viewpoint. This is a horrible thing that nobody likes, including myself. It’s a douche bag move, really. I work on it.

It might be more appropriate to refer to myself as a current events junkie in recovery. You see, I started college two weeks before 9/11. The Bush years, Iraq, the market crash to follow shortly after. I went to a large, private liberal arts institution in the city of Boston. I started smoking cigarettes one evening my sophomore year while writing a philosophy paper and continued socially just to have a gesticulation tool, something to really drive home my rich, white girl point of view. I did make two great choices in college though that kept me from being a total asshole. The first was to volunteer in an afterschool program in the rougher part of Dorchester, MA. If you want to see little kids go to blows over an Uno game, I recommend volunteering at an afterschool program in Dorchester, MA. I continued working with “under privileged” (I put quotations on this because I hate that description) kids in Jamaica Plain. This experience was good for me on several levels. First of all, I was acutely able to recognize that I would most likely never have to suffer through anything more than pretty shallow problems. These kids had one computer for their entire school, while my parents were paying exorbitant amounts of money to send me to Boston University, where I occasionally skipped class and drank a hell of a lot of booze. It also taught me that educated people love to go on and on about solving problems that they don’t really know anything about. Many of us are disconnected from the street level. There are a million examples of this, some well meaning government agency, corporation, or non-profit comes in and says, “Ok, we figured it out, we’ve got the solution to poverty in your neighborhood. We’re going to give everyone a sewing machine.” or “We’re going to build ‘X’ (incredibly expensive center) to create jobs.” While the neighborhood is shouting, “Yo, you trippin’! It’s 2005, and we’ve only got one computer in our elementary school. We don’t need an airline hanger.” Ultimately, the lesson was white people are full of shit. I am full of shit. I have no idea what it’s like to be from Dorchester, MA. I do know that, racism is very, very real, and if you want to help people make their lives better, you have to actually respect them. Get off that fucking white horse, you look like an idiot.

The second great choice I made was to be a philosophy major. While, this degree will never, ever, ever get me a job, it did teach me not to be an asshole. When people ask me about my college major, they usually reply, “Oh (long pause) so you’re a philosopher…” or “What was that like, the philosophy studying?” I usually say that yes, I am a philosopher, but unfortunately that is no longer a profession. However, I cannot recommend the study of philosophy enough. Of course, this could probably be done with a library card and educated book club discussions, but since I have a piece of paper certifying my study, let me go on to explain the benefits a little more. As you probably know, philosophy is the study of everything…and confusing enough, also the study of nothing. Existence, non-existence, politics, human relationships, values, language, religion, science, crossing the street, it is the make-up of our shared concepts, attitudes, and so on. It involves a lot of reading because the thing about philosophy is that there are a lot of different ones, all those damned philosophies. That’s really the best part about the whole thing. If you really immerse yourself in deep study of overlapping philosophies, you’re bound to tie yourself in knots.

Nick Byrd
I often describe my college education like this. When you start off as a philosophy major, you get dropped into the middle of a large four sided brick walled room, no windows, no doors, no light coming in. You have no idea that brick walls surround you. If you have good professors guiding you, they will most likely strip you of any 19 year old idiot notions you have about life, only to allow yourself to build up a much broader perspective. So yes, in this brick room you're also naked. You may first jump into Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Rousseau, all those rational kind of guys. Hey, we can make society work! Isn’t that great? And you wonder on in one direction in your brick room. Then you start studying Nietzsche and boom, you smack yourself head first against a brick wall. Ouch! Who put that wall there? That hurt! I’m going to turn around in the opposite direction! And on you go reading your existentialists or go on some metaphysical binge, until BOOM! You smash your face against another brick wall, and oh man that one really hurt! I thought I was walking in a safe direction. That’s going to leave a mark! You turn the other direction and another, until eventually you give up and sit down in the middle of the room. That’s when all the brick walls just fall over and you realize the walls were never there. They were merely a construction of your mind. That’s what it is to major in philosophy. Everyone is right, and no one is right.

This lesson was really driven home for me when I moved in with my parents for a few months after my college road trip and before my move out to California. My parents live in Texas, just outside of Houston. Houston is headquarters of every evil empire your liberal mind can fathom. At the time, I was working in a coffee shop. I volunteered for the early morning shift. It was then that I came face to face with “evil.” The CFO’s, and Vice presidents of your Chevron and your Halliburton need their early morning caffeine fix too. It’s funny; coming face to face with evil was a lot like volunteering in Dorchester and coming face to face with poverty. It’s not really what you expect it to be. When you put a face on “evil,” it turns out to look a like your best friend or your cousin. Corporate greed had kids and a mortgage and a penchant for Vanilla Lattes. Holy shit, you can actually talk to Republicans! Republicans are people too, and not all their ideas for society are terrible. The thing about all this is that our frustrations about our society are more similar than we think. And when you talk to someone who disagrees with you, you often get the opportunity to refine your solutions. Your ideas become better!

But back to my media obsession. Yes, I am a media consumer. Sometimes I get caught up in all those story lines, and I start pointing fingers. Only now, I always remember to reserve a finger for myself, usually the middle one. The problem of over consumption of headlines is that it leaves us feeling like we’re at war with each other, and worst of all, that we alone are right. And because of the proliferation of media, technology, etc. we don’t actually have to share coffee or ideas with people who disagree with us. Also, the media does not exactly represent the big picture. Everything that happens is the worst thing that has ever happened in the history of the world. The volume is always at 11. Now I am very concerned about how we treat our environment, but I’m not preparing for the end of the world just yet. I’m also not buying all these good vs. evil labels; it’s far simpler and far more complex than that. Here's what I put forward:
 1) Shouting makes you look like an asshole.
 2) Everyone and no one is right.
3) In your righteous indignation, how closely do you resemble that thing you’re fighting against?

Which brings me to the title of this blog, “I don’t let doomsday bother me, do you let it bother you?” This is a line from a great song, Doomsday by Elvis Perkins in Dearland. You must scoop up this song if you don’t have it; it involves an amazing horn accompaniment. Grab a little perspective here, people. Things could be better, but we don’t need to count on doomsday. Get real. I’m writing this blog to you on a MacBook with my iPhone just off to my right, and I am drinking a delicious spinach, apple, blackberry, mango, protein smoothie. The sun is out, the birds are chirping in through the windows. Yeah, we got problems, but we got first world problems. Things are falling apart, but really not quite as bad as we might make it out to be. Sure, the NSA is reading my e-mail, but didn’t I just post a photo of myself making out with a midget on my Facebook wall? Am I so concerned about privacy? Oh and hello, where were you in 2001 when the Patriot Act was signed? Yes, the U.S. economy has gone to shit, but they're building a new Target here in Petaluma. People are still buying shit. My most favorite thing is whenever gas prices go up like 15-20 cents a gallon and their interviewing some person on the news about how they are going to have to ride their bike, drive less, or car pool. This is a good thing! Stories on gas pricing in general are a good reminder of how ridiculous and reactionary our media cycle is…one week it will be “AH! Gas prices are so high it’s putting a strain on the global economy” and the next month, “AH! Gas prices are so low, it’s putting a strain on the global economy.” This is not to make light of anyone’s suffering, but let’s just keep a little perspective. Hey you, in your $100 designer jeans, you are not a victim. Let’s tone down the righteous indignation. Fear less. Be cool. 

I’m not saying give up and just ignore all these challenges. I am advocating a little less doomsday and a lot more love. I do fundamentally believe that energy matters. It’s a hippie dippy concept we talk a lot about in yoga and other Eastern philosophies. So, you’re pissed off that the Middle East is all kinds of fucked up. Or you’re just so mad that people eat McDonalds. What can you do about that?

Here’s the real key, practice and don’t preach. There’s a great book out there called Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw it Coming. The author Paul Hawken makes the point that there are millions, not hundreds, not thousands, but millions of people around the world doing amazing things for our planet and its species all around the world. What we give energy to multiplies. If we believe with such conviction that the government or corporation or whatever ‘X’ entity has the power to change the world, we haven’t really been paying attention. It’s always been people, working passionately and persistently, those without extraordinary power, that light up the world. We know this. This is the history of the world. So you wish society was more patient? The next time you’re in line at Starbucks, don’t be rude to your barista when you finally get your cup of coffee. You wish society was more tolerant? Make eye contact with every homeless person you see. You know somebody who really got this, Gandhi. If you want to change the world, change yourself. The problem is that we don’t see all these little things as making much of a difference, so we don’t work on them. Well, maybe it won’t make a difference, but does it really hurt to try?

Back to this idea, what we give energy to multiplies. I have a theory that our society gives the most attention to the loudest, the most violent, the most extreme, these are the kinds of people that get a majority of television air time. When there is some mass shooting, we talk endlessly about the shooter, the killer. What kind of crazy is he? What were his parents like? Where did he go to school? What did he write in his journal? Were there warning signs? Turn that shit off. I’m not advocating no longer following the news, but keep somewhere in the back of your mind that none of it matters. Can you retain a little emotional distance? Can you read between the storylines? When you constantly prepare for the worst case scenario, you actually live it, in your mind, all the time. Who wants to spend all their energy preparing for the worst thing that might happen to them? Let it be a surprise, and give space for goodness to flourish. Things are not quite as horrible as they seem, and we don’t really know what we’re talking about. Everyone and no one is right. I mean, we’re all going to die from a string of natural disasters created by global warming, obviously. But it’s not so bad, really. Don’t spend all your time worrying about doomsday. Give some energy to the birds chirping outside your window. Or better yet, go outside and start chirping right along with them.