Post Traumatic Growth

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On May 8, 2020 a fire swept through our townhome destroying everything, except our lives. A car speeding at around 70 mph crashed into our house hitting a gas line and instantly setting our house ablaze. The crash and fire occurred adjacent to the bedroom of our two-year old son as he slept. When the crash occurred, my wife heard a benign noise, and then house shook for a solid two-seconds. I thought it was a small earthquake, so I casually laid my head back on the pillow to go back to sleep. My wife felt compelled to go downstairs where upon she opened the door and was met with 15-foot flames. She rushed upstairs to get our son whose room was directly in the line of the flames. His room would be engulfed with smoke in the next 60-seconds. Realizing we could not escape through the front; we had only our small patio area in back to flee. Our small patio area hugged up close to the house and was simply too close to danger. With the fire encroaching closer we also feared an explosion. Our horror was magnified by my futile efforts to find a way to get my family across our nine-foot fence. Feeling trapped, there was a sixty-second period of blood curdling terror where all I could do was scream for help. After a last-ditch effort, I was finally able to get my family over the fence to safety.

Life is interesting. One minute we are resting comfortably just after tucking our toddler into bed, and the next minute is filled with terror as I try to get my family out of a burning house. One moment I feel completely in control of my life, and the next I am standing barefoot in the middle of the street helplessly watching our home burn to the ground. Finding myself surrounded by a fleet of firetrucks and a large crowd of on-lookers, I slowly began to allow reality to sink in.

In the weeks following the fire, I began to obsess over one simple question: how can I remain optimistic and hopeful? Having spent a career of counseling people dealing with grief, anxiety and death, I knew that it was now my turn to practice what I so often teach. But why optimism? Honestly, the post-traumatic stress of almost losing our son linked with losing the safe and secure sanctuary we had created was sending me into a psychological abyss of despair. But it was even deeper than that.

For a solid two weeks after, I battled a barrage of rage, despair, shock, and sadness. More pointedly, rage at the careless drivers who turned our lives upside down. You see, the drivers fled the scene after the crash and their only punishment was a ticket for reckless driving. That was it: a ticket. I found myself ruminating of the absolute worst outcomes for the two drivers. Despair also reared its head daily as I struggled with the loss of our possessions and sentimental items. Sadness and shock bowled me over often as I realized just how close we were to losing our son. Hours would just fly by with me all the while ruminating with dark thoughts and brooding emotions. Feeling paralyzed by the multitude of debilitating emotions, I knew I was on the precipice of spiraling deep into my own personal Hell.  For the sake of my mental health and my family, I needed to make a change- immediately.

I sat down one day in my living room and decided that I was going to review the psychological literature as well as my notes specifically on the idea of learned optimism. Led by psychologist Martin Seligman, learned optimism[1] is a path of psychological rescue that contends that you can choose the way you think. Based on cognitive behavioral psychology – which is what I practice with my clients – learned optimism has been demonstrated that our thoughts are not merely reactions to events; they change what ensues.

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When we encounter adversity, we react by thinking about it. Our thoughts rapidly congeal into beliefs. These beliefs may become so habitual we don’t even realize we have them unless we stop and focus on them. And they don’t just sit there idly; they have consequences. The beliefs are the direct causes of what we feel and what we do next. They can spell the difference between dejection and giving up, on the one hand, and well-being and constructive action on the other.

Realizing that my thoughts were congealing into destructive maladaptive beliefs, I decided to act. Every day I committed to reading sixty-minutes on learned optimism as well as writing down the values and needs in my life that give me a firm foundation and coherence. The acknowledgment of values and needs in one’s life is crucial because tragedy often shatters our closely held beliefs or even calls them into question. Tragedy throws our homeostasis into a chaotic whirlwind, so reviewing one’s values and needs- the things, people, and experiences that make life worth living- can serve as a compass to navigate the tumultuous waters of suffering, grief, and angst.

Determined not to be dominated by a pessimistic haze of despair, I employed empirically tested methods to help change my thought patterns. To liberate myself from the bondage of pessimism, I began the journey of doing the diligent work of daily cultivating a practice of changing my thought patterns. Here are the four insights that helped me through the suffering.

I am responsible for my response to suffering 

I can choose my response. No matter what evil or tragedy befalls us, we our in control of our response. In my situation, I realized that I could continue to spiral into an abyss of despair, or I could choose to pursue hope and optimism. Trust me, dwelling in despair did not require any “work”; it was natural and even justified given what we had been through. Cultivating an optimistic hope-filled outlook, however, seemed like climbing Mount Everest. Daily, sometimes hourly, every time an agonizing thought entered my mind, I had to be diligent to respond and re-frame the thought to a healthier perspective. For instance, when anger would take over, I would quickly re-frame the thought to gratitude that I have family with me right here and now.

I am reminded of Viktor Frankl’s story of being imprisoned in a concentration camp during the holocaust. Surrounded by death and misery, he realized that “everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”[2]

I control the story 

We all live by the stories we tell ourselves. The way you explain events (in your head) determines how helpless you can become, or how impowered, when you encounter the everyday setbacks as well as momentous defeats. For me, wisdom and growth became pivotal themes in my story. I could easily create a story in my head with themes of victimhood and helplessness. Instead, I took control of the story by re-framing my tragedy as a freak event that gifted me with an opportunity to gain wisdom and insight. Your explanatory style that views suffering through the lens of personal growth is the hallmark of a hope-filled optimist.

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The dark place is temporary

Anytime we experience tragedy or trauma, the natural inclination is that it will last forever. Moreover, we feel like we are the only one on the planet feeling deep emotional pain. But the reality is that the emotional turmoil is temporary. In my situation, I went from thinking “I will never get over this” (permanent and pessimistic) to trusting that “I have begun the process of healing” (temporary and optimistic).

It is what it is (and that’s okay)

I remember the weeks after the fire thinking: this isn’t fair! I mean, my wife and I work hard, we are responsible citizens, we are good people. It isn’t fair that the careless driver only got a ticket and we have to endure the suffering. Within all of us is the tacit belief that we deserve fairness. I see this often when young people get a terminal diagnosis, when babies die prematurely, when hard-working employees are unexpectedly laid off. We have ingrained patterns of beliefs and expectations that bring coherence to our view of the world; sometimes when those expectations are disrupted, we simply cannot accept it. We quietly believe that there is some cosmic justice that ought to work in our favor if we play the game of life right. Bad stuff is supposed to happen bad people, right? However, when we adopt that idea of fairness, we are setting ourselves up for a rude awakening. Life, mother nature, and cancer does not care about fairness. Rather, it is what it is.

I remember listening to the Dali Lama give a speech right after the attacks of 9/11, and his opening words were, “It happened.” He then paused for a long thirty-seconds to allow those two words to sink in. In the midst of anger, fear, and sadness those two words provided the necessary starting point for everyone struggling to make since of the tragedy. Before any judgment of bad/evil or right/wrong takes us emotionally hostage, we should train ourselves to first acknowledge that it happened; it is what it is. This is the path to acceptance. The mental pivot toward accepting that it is what it is, is crucial for an optimistic mindset and for hope to flourish.

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Life is too short to live with mental unrest. Knowing that I have the autonomy to do something about the thoughts in my head gives me hope. Knowing that tragedy can be an opportunity for growth and wisdom rather than spiraling into depression is reassuring. It doesn’t mean, however, that if I just believe good things, I will be happy. I still battle anger and resentment, it’s just that I now have a healthy practice to address distressing thoughts. I take responsibility and I stop, focus on my breaths through mindfulness meditation, and remind myself that grief and suffering is a process towards growth and wisdom. The goal isn’t happiness, it’s acceptance. And through acceptance (it is what it is) we can experience post-traumatic growth.

 

[1] Seligman, Martin E.P. Learned Optimism

[2] Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 73.

Arguments Against Minimum Wage Hikes

I recently went into my local poke restaurant for lunch, and I noticed a framed letter on the wall as I waited in line. The letter was to the faithful customers, and it stated that all of the prices were increased by $1 due to the impact of the recent minimum wage law legislation. I knew the manager of the restaurant, so I asked a little more about how the new wage hike was affecting business. He stated that not only are prices increased for customers, but since the restaurant is a small business, they had to cut back on benefits given to employees in order to keep the business and cover costs. Lastly, I noticed how his employees were all young ambitious Generation Z’ers. He stated that with the increased wages, applicants who are truly poor or have no education don’t apply because of the surplus of 17 to 19-year-olds willing to work in order to pay for high tuition college fees. Most of the people working for him were not poverty-stricken or single mothers, rather most could write code or help you develop a website. This was interesting: a law that is proposed from an ideology proclaiming to care for the poor and oppressed, is actually having an inverse effect.

Currently in America, there are many who fervently advocate for legislation to “help” the poor and oppressed. Many of these policies, however, only virtue signal without doing anything at all for the oppressed. Moreover, many policies that sound compassionate actually do more harm to the people it’s meant to help. This particular essay gives arguments against minimum wage hikes. Despite the compassionate appeal to raise the minimum wage in order to help minorities and low-skilled workers in America, the economics and data tells us a different story.

#1: Minimum wage hikes hurt small businesses

Minimum wage laws increase costs for businesses, making it more difficult for small businesses to pay their employees accordingly. When Seattle recently increased its minimum wage, several restaurants that couldn’t afford the higher labor costs had to shut down immediately. Kelly Ulmer, owner of Almost Perfect Books in Roseville, California, had a business model that was employee-friendly, offering shares of all profits to the employees each week. “As the minimum wage increased, the profits decreased,” she says. “All of my employees actually made more money at $8 an hour than they do at $10 an hour because I had actual money to give them.”[1] Anytime minimum wage laws are enacted, the biggest initial outcry comes from small businesses who don’t have the cash flow to take the economic impact of the wage hike.

Many people found it eerie that Walmart CEO Doug McMillon called on Congress to raise the minimum wage in 2019. Here you have a CEO of a multi-billion-dollar company looking like a generous saint. Before we anoint Mr. McMillon, keep in mind that Walmart benefits greatly from minimum wage hike because it increases their revenue after the collateral damage done to small businesses around the country. You see, big businesses have more cash flow to pay the extra costs from the minimum wage hike. Thus, small businesses take the biggest financial hit.

#2 Minimum wage hikes increase unemployment

Low-skilled workers who would be employable at a low wage become unemployable at an artificially higher wage. And that explains the perverse cruelty of minimum wage laws: it inflicts the greatest harm on the very workers it is allegedly designed to help.

Similar to my first point, a minimum wage hike reduces the quantity by labor because employers can’t afford to pay everyone the increased wages. Therefore, companies have to lay-off people in order stay afloat. Also, if we begin to think about the future with the increase of artificial intelligence, minimum wage laws incentivize companies to use AI rather than people to save on costs.

As an aside, for those who love to point to the Scandinavian countries as the paragon of “the ideal society,” keep in mind that Switzerland is one of the few modern nations without a minimum wage law. As of December 2019, Switzerland’s unemployment sits at a meager 2.1%. The last time Americans saw unemployment rates that low was in the Coolidge administration when unemployment was 1.8%. By the way, there was no federal minimum law implemented during the Coolidge era.

#3 Minimum wage hikes harm low-skilled workers

If the government raises the minimum wage, the higher wages can lure more skilled workers to compete for jobs they may have once avoided. A college student who wouldn’t have taken a McDonald’s job for $9 an hour may find it worthwhile at $15 an hour, leaving fewer opportunities for, say, an uneducated immigrant from South America. Going back to the aforementioned impact of the Seattle minimum wage ordinance, researchers at the University of Washington reported:

“Our preferred estimates suggest that the Seattle Minimum Wage Ordinance caused hours worked by low-skilled workers (i.e., those earning under $19 per hour) to fall by 9.4% during the three quarters when the minimum wage was $13 per hour, resulting in a loss of 3.5 million hours worked per calendar quarter. Alternative estimates show the number of low-wage jobs declined by 6.8%, which represents a loss of more than 5,000 jobs. The work of least-paid workers might be performed more efficiently by more skilled and experienced workers commanding a substantially higher wage.”[1]

And this highlights the essence of the economic logic that explains why the most vulnerable workers (low-skilled, uneducated, teenagers, etc.) are the group that is most harmed by minimum wage laws — those laws artificially raise the wages of low-skilled workers without increasing their productivity, and therefore significantly reduce their employability relative to higher-skilled workers.

#4 Minimum wage hikes hurt the oppressed

Many people don’t realize that in 1930, the unemployment rate for blacks was lower than the white unemployment. It’s unbelievable because people assume that racism was so persistent in 1930, it ought to have left most if not all blacks without any opportunity for employment. Despite rampant racism, however, there were more black workers than white workers.

Back in 1948, the unemployment rate for 17-year-old black males was just under 10%, and no higher than the unemployment rate among white male 17-year-olds. How could that be, when we have for decades gotten used to seeing unemployment rates for teenage males that have been some multiple of what it was then — and with black teenage unemployment often twice as high, or higher, than white teenage unemployment?[3]

The disparity in unemployment between black and white workers occurred when the minimum wage regulation went into effect during the 1950’s, and the racial gap in unemployment expanded.[4] With the artificial increase in wage, blacks were priced out of jobs.

Many people automatically assume that racism explains the large difference in unemployment rates between black and white teenagers today. Was there no racism in 1930’s and 1940’s? No sane person who was alive in 1948 could believe that. Racism was worse — and of course there was no Civil Rights Act of 1964 then.

It’s important to note, however, that the economics of supply and demand often carries more weight than racist policies. To use another historical example, during Apartheid in South Africa where it was illegal to hire blacks in most occupations, blacks nevertheless outnumbered white workers. During this time, there was no minimum wage law in South Africa, so many blacks were able to do the work that whites refused to do. Thus, economics carried weight even in South Africa apartheid.

Final Thought

Why is this important? Because ideas have consequences. And if we perpetuate ideas without looking at facts, history, and the collateral impact on society, then you get the kind of country that devalues liberties and freedoms needed to thrive. Perhaps it’s better to think about ideas, like minimum wage hikes, using facts and reason without depending on emotional “compassionate” arguments that end up causing more harm than good.  Just a thought.

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Esha Chhabra, Forbes (May, 2017)

[2]Minimum Wage Increases, Wages, and Low-Wage Employment: Evidence from Seattle” by Ekaterina Jardim, Mark C. Long, Robert Plotnick, Emma van Inwegen, Jacob Vigdor and Hilary Wething.

 

[3] Thomas Sowell, “Intellectuals and Race,” 2013.

[4] Actually, the federal government established a minimum wage in a 1938 law called the Fair Labor Standards Act. However, this law was never in effect because a decade of high inflation had raised money wages, for even low-level jobs, above that minimum wage.

Emptiness

The essay was written after several counseling sessions with clients dealing with a deep sense of despair. After contemplating the foundation of suffering, and immersing myself in several books on the idea of emptiness, I sat down and put my thoughts into words. I completed this essay after 3 days at Starbucks, and copious amounts of triple espressos. I completed this essay with the song “Goose Bumps” by Wicked and Wild (EDM music) playing on Pandora.

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“It’s not supposed to happen like this; this just isn’t fair,” is what she said as she exposed her wounds of deep despair. Her immaculate dream of traveling the world with her husband of 48 years, now shattered by a debilitating form of dementia that has left her bright engineering husband unable to even converse. Babbling and wondering aimlessly around the facility that cares for him, she watches him from across the room as her idyllic picture loses all the vibrant color and begins the process of fading away. She is unrelenting and refuses to accept. Fueled by a strong need for control and order, she fights to revive her ideal picture. Even though the house of cards she has constructed is falling, she will not let go of the brilliant engineer that was her rock throughout these years. She clings to the incomplete dreams that deserve to be fulfilled. Then she vocalizes a sentiment that we all have said aloud or within: “It’s not supposed to happen like this; this just isn’t fair.” The suffering in the quiver of her voice is deep and heavy.

Suffering is due to the attachments we have. While suffering is inescapable, the extent of your suffering will coincide with the magnitude of attachments you have with the world you have created. We attach ourselves to expectations, ideals, and identities all the while thinking: this is how life supposed to be. We infuse everything around us with an essence that further deepens our feelings, judgments, and perceptions about the world around us. Even worse is that we live with a voice in our heads, and a conscience that takes all of our experiences and predilections and forms an illusory “self”, an “I”. This is the disease that has stricken us all: the ego, the “I”. The ego is made up of the ideas and beliefs that define you. The ego drives the narrative you live by. All of us live by a narrative that we’ve been constructing since we were children. The narrative fills in the gaps of our deepest existential question: who am I? Through adolescence and into adulthood, our feelings, thoughts, impulses and perceptions are filtered through the story that we live by. These are the factors that come together to create each individual: A value-driven human that seeks self-preservation through attachments to meaning. Once we are attachments are gone, compromised or given a terminal diagnosis – then suffering ensues.

My contention is that suffering can be mitigated if we release our attachments (or greatly loosen our grip) and stop infusing everything – even ourselves – with an essence. How so? By embracing emptiness. To put more concisely, living with the mindset of emptiness is to avoid infusing things and people with solid, fixed, and permanent descriptions. All of the wondrous adjectives that we fill our world with, will one day turn to dust or fade altogether. Embracing emptiness is a way to make peace with that reality.

Let’s go back to my opening illustration of the soon-to-be widow who said, “It’s not supposed to happen like this; this just isn’t fair.” She created a life that was replete with solid and predictable essences: solid conception of her brilliant engineering husband who is her emotional “rock”; fixed dreams that they would travel the world; predictable stable life that gave her the comfortable illusion of normalcy and homeostasis. Once those descriptions are solidified, they pave the way towards expectations and ideals that are just as predictable and fixed, whereby she expects the world and her life to produce the results that she anticipates. When reality is made clear – nothing is solid and predictable – she is now left exposed and raw; she now sees the illusions that guided her life and the deep chasm of emptiness is revealed. If only she would have made peace with the deep chasm of emptiness prior, her suffering would not have spiraled into inconsolable despair.

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What is Emptiness

Emptiness is a state of being in which you embody the realization that everything is without an essence. Essence has to do with the qualities we imbue on something/someone that, in turn, affect our perceptions and feelings. To imbue someone/something with essence is to fill them with adjectives, or descriptions that we believe to be inherent in them. For example, you come to view your Starbucks barista as a happy and out-going, yet when overwhelmed with a rush of customers, she is an angry barista. In short, you fill your barista with an essence, qualities that impact your feelings and judgments about this particular barista. Essence is a matter of interpretation; it’s something you are choosing to construct from a host of subjective qualities. Essences don’t exist independent of human perception. To perceive emptiness is to perceive raw experience without doing what we’re inclined to do: build a theory about what is at the heart of the experience and then encapsulate that theory in a sense of essence.

Emptiness, then, is to avoid the imposition of instilling an essence in the people and things around you. Moreover, emptiness is to be empty of the affect that impacts our desires, feelings and attachments to things and people. Why is this important? Because suffering is due to the attachments we form; when we imbue the object of our desire with special qualities and an essence – and then the object of our desire is gone, giving birth to suffering. Suffering is mitigated or dampened when we release our grip, unattached to the essence of things/people, and realize the emptiness of the qualities that feed our ego. Thus, to be in a state of peace to is be in a state of emptiness.

Emptiness is a phenomenon in which we are completely free from any obstructions. Emptiness is an opportunity to step back and view the world clearly.  Unencumbered by our prejudices, judgments, and biasness – emptiness quiets our anxious mind, and liberates us to the experience of a still mind.   Emptiness is the canvas and background to your very being – blank. In the West, the feeling of emptiness is often seen in a negative light that connotes nothingness or meaninglessness. When someone bemoans of feeling hollow inside, they are quickly encouraged to take up a hobby, go on vacation, or see a doctor for depression. This kind of emptiness is common in those who feel lost when it comes to meaning and purpose in life. Contrary to a nihilistic hollowness, emptiness is starting point for calmness and peace. Emptiness is our true nature, utterly free from expectations, ideals, status, reputation, and obligations. With no agenda or need to continually protect our fragile ego, emptiness gives us fresh lenses to view and experience the world.

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Impermanence and Emptiness

The two threads that weave the tapestry of emptiness are impermanence and non-self. Impermanence is the acknowledgement that everyone/everything is in a state of ceasing to be. Simply put, nothing is solid, nothing is predictable. Even a new-born baby has begun his/her journey towards death. To Westerners, this is dark and morbid thinking, but it’s reality. Impermanence is almost impossible for human beings to embrace because it goes against every ounce of our fiber: at all cost, we fight for self-preservation. So strong is our fight, that even though we know intellectually that we will one day die, we do whatever we can to push those thoughts away.

Not just people, but even the impermanence of things escapes us. I remember watching my dilapidated 1996 Toyota Camry being hauled to a junkyard, and then reminiscing about the day I purchased it and thought it was the most amazing thing ever, possessing a kind of infinite beauty. I ponder the same thoughts about my dad, who, as a little kid, was my invincible superhero – the strongest man in the world (in my eyes). Now in his eighties, he can barely feed himself. The full force of decay and entropy never hits us until the object of our desire is facing complete extinction – but even then, we often continue to deny impermanence. We desperately cling to people, things, and ideas, imbuing them with an everlasting life force to feed our purpose, meaning, and identity. And then when we experience death, loss, or a faith crisis, we find ourselves shocked, utterly bewildered and barely able to get out of bed and face the world –shell-shocked to find our world not as stable, predictable, and in control as assumed.

Emptiness and impermanence go hand-in-hand because the tranquil state of emptiness can only be experienced when you grasp for nothing. Emptiness is experienced when you fully embody the reality that nothing is solid, and nothing is predictable. This is what it means to just be; palms open clutching nothing, and a mind unshackled by the chains of constant thinking. This conception of emptiness doesn’t mean that we avoid enjoying people and things, rather, it means we don’t cling with parasitic tenacity to the concepts, ideals, and expectations of people and things. It means that we are able to take a step back, and simply embrace the now – the present moment. We’re not living in the past and we’re not placing demands on what the future should look like.

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Empty of Your Own Identity

The second thread that weaves the idea of emptiness is non-self. If I asked you to tell me where self is located, where would you point? Most people point to their head or heart. If you lose and arm, are you still you? Are you still you if you have a heart transplant? What about if you experience a brain injury? Where exactly is your self located?

At some point in time, we’ve done or said something that we later regretted, and thought, “that wasn’t me.” Or you’ve felt like you weren’t being yourself. You have many “self’s”, for instance, when you are mad, excited, nervous, in front of an audience, alone in your house, at work, or with your friends. So which ‘you’ is ‘you’?

We all live with the illusion that we have a self. We speak with the upmost confidence when we speak in first-person, “I”. If pressed to describe yourself, you will begin listing the attributes that make you … you. In essence, the “self” is the story that we create and live by which is the accumulation of our history and experiences. But the “I” is just that: a story that we’ve created and live by. The story you create evolves every day; morphing based on your perception of life events.

The mistake we make is in seeing our self as a fixed identity. We live by fixed descriptions that we lump together to form the concept of self. These fixed identities are as simple as man/woman, parent/child, smart/dumb, responsible/undependable, optimistic/pessimistic, introvert/extravert, etc. The problem is that we live with the illusion that these descriptions make our “self” solid and fixed. To the contrary, we are a vast array of feelings, perceptions, and responses that ebb and flow and cannot be pinned down to something fixed and solid. The “you” of last year, is different than the “you” of today. As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus long ago said, “you can never step into the same river twice.” We are constantly changing, and who you were last week is not the same as today. In the past week, you have experienced many feelings, perceptions, and reactions that – even in the most minuscule of ways – have shifted the way you interface with the world.

What does all this have to do with emptiness? Well, emptiness is the realization that nothing is fixed and solid, just like our concept of self. In other words, in a state of emptiness, you’re not attached to the descriptions and identities that make up ‘you’. Instead, you see yourself as an experiencing consciousness that accepts life as it happens. ‘Accept’ doesn’t mean condone; rather, it means that you face the world with courage, knowing that all events in life – like the ocean – ebb and flow. Moreover, it means that when conflict (psychological or physical) comes your way, you possess the wisdom and insight to know that your identity and “self” is not really being threatened. Rather, like a cloud moving through the sky before dissipating, so too will the conflict that appears to threaten the “self”.

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Final Words

Emptiness means holding onto nothing. The intersection of impermanence and non-self is in the realization that nothing is fixed – even though we live like all is fixed and under our control. As long as we live under the illusion of control and that people/things are predictable and fixed in our lives, pain and suffering will be waiting at the threshold. Like I have already said, while suffering is inescapable, the extent of your suffering will coincide with the magnitude of attachment you have with the world you have created. Making peace with the reality of emptiness is the antidote to deep despair. Emptiness is a state of being that helps accept that everything comes and goes and ebbs and flows. Again, everyone knows this intellectually, but few truly embody this in their daily living. For when we embody emptiness, we approach ourselves and the world with a humble, open and accepting disposition that acknowledges that even though suffering is part of life, it need not overtake us. Negative emotional states will arise and fade. We need not get swept away by the torrid currents of anger, bitterness, and despair. They too shall pass.

 

 

 

 

Image of A Good Life

Written and finished at Starbucks in San Jose with a triple espresso at my side and an EDM band called Tobu blasting in my ears. This is an essay inspired in my continued quest to think deeply and introspectively about the clients that I provide counseling to as they deal with terminal illness.

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I’d like to propose an illustration that, perhaps, captures the image of a good life. For millennia, philosophers and religions alike, have tried to explain what the good life entails. For some, the good life is simply happiness or happiness found in an external agent, like God. Others have pointed out that the good life has to do with love, personal flourishing, or self-realization while doing meaningful activities. With so many theories, it’s easy to feel helpless when confronted with the deeply personal question: what does the good life look like? Rather than succumb to a one-size-fits all answer, I’ll put forth an illustration.

The good life is like a jazz group jamming together.

Allow me to clarify this illustration. The good life is like a jazz group jamming together; whereby people create a melodic harmony through engaging in meaningful experiences through free-flowing unencumbered expressions of living out their full potential. The result is a kind unbroken rhythm of joy and contentment.

You see, with jazz, you get this informal and improvised session whereby the musicians work off one another’s joyful creative expression to form a harmonious whole. Unlike a symphonic orchestra where the group follows a pre-defined musical score, jazz creates space for complex harmony to take place from the free expression of individuals playing together. In order to create harmony, each member must have a receptive sensitivity to the self-expressive performances of the other musicians. As each player grows more musically eloquent, the others draw inspiration from this and are spurred to greater heights. As each player grows more musically eloquent, the others draw inspiration from this and are spurred to greater heights. There is no conflict here between freedom and ‘good of the whole.’ Though each performer contributes to ‘the greater good of the whole’, he does so not by some grim-lipped self-sacrifice but simply by expressing himself. There is a self-realization, but only through a loss of self in the music as a whole. There is achievement, but it is not a question of self-aggrandizing success. Instead, achievement – the music itself – acts as a medium or relationship among the performers. There is pleasure to be reaped from this artistry, and – since there is free fulfillment or realization of powers – there is also happiness in the sense of flourishing. Because this flourishing is reciprocal, we can speak, remotely and analogically, of a kind of love.

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Like jazz, the good life is your creative meaningful expression that’s played alongside other people. In order to have harmony in our lives, we align our meaningful expression with the good of the people around us (good of the whole). Our direction and aim is to realize our potential and true capacity to be better and wiser; and we do this through the lessons learned, and inspiration we receive from others. In doing so, we reap the pleasure, joy and wisdom through the reciprocal melodic love that we give and is given to us.

Does this sound utopian? Absolutely. If only it were that easy. However, we need an aim. We need a compass pointing north. The aim is the good life. Nevertheless, the good life is vague and can be interpreted in innumerable ways that get us nowhere. Going deeper, the good life is a meaningful life, whereby people are able to flourish and reach toward their full potential as human beings. Put more simply, the aim is personal flourishment that is good for the whole. It’s a life in which individuals create values and virtues for the good of the whole. This is the difference between totalitarian and true democracy. The jazz band illustration is representative of the cooperative effort of people to allow space for the discovery of rhythm and harmony through the freedom of meaningful expressions. However, if we reduce the conversation of the good life to an unachievable pipe dream then how would you even know when your life has any value or worth? To the contrary, each jazz band member is challenged to new heights as they play their part for the good of the whole, while realizing that they are not alone in their quest, for they are playing with others who are seeking their own meaningful pinnacle. I readily admit that my answer is vague and anyone can poke holes in it – “meaningful”, “flourishing” and “harmonious whole” are packed full of nuances and contexts that require a proper context. However, they are worthy starting points, albeit a target and aim, that do us well until someone can point to something better.

Lastly, my jazz illustration leaves out is the bass player who goes rogue and messes it up for everyone. And sometimes, we are the rogue bass player. We know what it’s like to experience environments that are rhythmically chaotic, where all seems out of tune. Narcissism, bitterness, resentment, victimhood, poor decisions, etc., all lead to the digression and disharmony of any quest for musical beauty. This is where responsibility comes into play. Just as each jazz musician is responsible for their performance in the band, so to in life each of us must bear our individual responsibility to keep harmony with ourselves and others. While the entire world will never function like a jazz band playing rhythmically off each other in a harmonious whole, we can still take responsibility for our part in the band and play (i.e. live) to our fullest potential. The people around us may be playing off key, however, when it’s our time to engage with life, we can respond and take action in the most meaningful of ways.

jkboin

A Shallow Dive into Meaning

Written at Starbucks in Willow Glen with my usual blonde roast coffee and Avicii on Pandora. This essay is inspired by my counseling sessions with people on hospice, with months to live. More to come.

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Life is intrinsically meaningless. By intrinsic, I simply mean in-and-of-itself. For life is in fact deeply meaningful once we infuse it with meaning through shared experiences and values between conscious minds. A jug of water that sits on the surface of Mars, unbeknownst to any person in the universe is meaningless. However, a jug of water that is found by a dehydrated traveler in the Sahara is profoundly meaningful; for it can nourish his body or even save his life. It takes a conscious mind (an experiencer) to experience meaning. A letter received in the mail is rather meaningless. But everything changes if the letter inside the envelope reveals whether the recipient is accepted or denied entrance into medical school. For then, it’s not just a letter; it’s a portal into another dimension of life. Given these nuances, what then can we say about a meaningful life?

Meaning is an abstract representation of value and significance. When engaged with meaningful activities, we’re induced with visceral feelings that overtake and move us to acknowledge that some-thing or some-one is valuable and significant. Meaning is abstract like love, in that you can’t point directly to it or put it under a microscope to view it- yet we dare not deny its existence. A meaningful life obtains breadth and depth through engagement in relationships and connecting with the world through the expression of values and passions. Meaning is the elixir to life itself, in that, we need it to get through life. Without meaning, why or how would anyone go on? In contrast, our life takes on more purpose and significance when we allow ourselves to be bowled over by such experiences like beauty, love, and generosity, etc.

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The responsibility of experiencing meaning falls upon you – the individual. We affect the quality and significance of meaning through our outlook and openness to life. Monday mornings, for example, are intrinsically meaningless. In-and-of-itself, Monday morning serves as a designation of time- that’s it. However, Monday morning gains contours and a complexion through its representation as, for example, the ending of your restful weekend and back to the office for another week of grinding it out. When you get out of bed on a Monday, you can either imbue the beginning of your week with a negative and nihilistic outlook or positive and opportunistic outlook. However, the somber and dismal perspective we put on Monday morning is a subjective expression that we imbue. The same goes with the breadth and depth of meaning in your life: the people, experiences, and perspective you take on life is shaped by the value and worth you imbue upon them.

Meaning gets its force and vitality through the value. My bi-annual trip to Hawaii with my family has a lot of value for me; while my business trip last January to Houston had little value. Laying with my 20-month old son as he goes to sleep is deeply valuable; but if my son is replaced with my cat Muffins, then it loses its meaningful force. Value, in the context that I am using it, is a symbolic representation of the worth and significance of some-thing or some-one. The beauty of our neural circuitry and evolutionary trajectory is that we possess the capacity to feel empathic, connect deeply, and express passionately. We have been blessed with the proclivities and predispositions to be turned inside-out by awe and wonder. Thus, we engage in meaningful projects, political movements, hobbies, and relationships that grip our attention while enriching our lives.

Any cursory discussion around meaning most always ends up with someone asking, “Well then, what is the meaning of life?” Well to start, there is a vast and crucial difference between “meaning of life” and “meaning in life.” It’s amazing how one little preposition can have such an impact! The search for the meaning of life is like the search for the fountain of youth – it’s something outside of you that you need to find in order to make you whole. While the search for meaning in life is your personal quest to figure out what keeps you motivated to get out of bed every morning – day after day. Albert Camus begins his essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus”, by stating, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question…” The worth and value of life is found in meaningful experiences, pursuits, and relationships – in life. Meaning is not out there waiting for you to find it, for example, at a yoga retreat in Costa Rica. Rather, our day-to-day being itself, is a mosaic of meaningful opportunities and pursuits that should open our eyes to the panoply of beauty and value that surrounds us – in life.

.kjn;

What is Good Mental Health?

Last week I attended to a family who’s terminally ill matriarch, Jane[1], was hours away from her last breath. Only 55 years old, the sudden and rapid decline of her body and mind was too unbearable for the family. Just as worse than the cancer that was destroying Jane, was the dysfunctionality of her family as the battled each other throughout the house. Having counseled the family in the months leading up to this moment, I was already well-aware of the decades of unresolved conflict and pathology that permeated this family. A tiny spark was all it took to set this family ablaze, fueled by decades of unresolved bitterness, regret and anger. This day, the two sisters were warring with each other as to whether or not to give her mother more morphine to ease the pain. Mind you, the feud was taking place in front of Jane. Then there was Jane’s youngest son who stormed out of the house slamming the door in rage and yelling at the top of his lungs in the front yard because the grief was too immense. He had an estranged relationship with his mother and was now realizing that reconciliation was too late. Finally, you had Jane’s sister yelling at the adult children for their greediness and selfishness. There was not just a cancer inside Jane, but a cancer within the family that appeared to have the same dire prognosis. I stood off to the side, leaning against the wall while observing everyone’s house of cards tumbling into an oblivion. I thought to myself, it doesn’t get much worse than this.

Every day I counsel people who find themselves in the midst of deep despair, anger, and sadness. One of my chief concerns is how to help individuals gain insight into managing their own mental health. My concern for this essay is to provide a definition for what good mental health is. To be fair, mental health is a vague term that is dependent on innumerable nuances, subtleties, and context. But just as we have a general consensus of what good physical health is, it’s a worthy task to explore what good mental health is.

Let’s begin. A mentally healthy person has a positive and strong view of the self; self-awareness to know what they are feeling and why they are feeling it; the ability to turn their inner struggles and fears into strength; the ability to gravitate to contentment and courage after being swept away with negative emotions; the ability to discover nuggets of wisdom through failure and tribulation; the ability to grow, develop, and move towards goals; the ability to re-frame negative events into insights of wisdom; the ability to accept criticism and view it has an opportunity to learn and understand; a strong sense of values that are inner directed, rather than outer directed; ability to modulate desires, expectations, and perspectives towards healthy ends.

A mentally healthy person is one who has the self-awareness to stay present in emotionally charged moments in life. Rather than being swept away by fear and insecurity of the past or future, the mentally healthy person is able to face adversity with courage. The analogy of a hurricane may help to clarify. Despite the gale force winds swirling around, it’s in the eye of the hurricane where there is an eerie calmness. The mentally healthy person is able to recognize when the environment is changing and the winds are picking up; so too are they are able to position themselves in the peaceful eye of the storm with their feet firmly on the ground, staying resolute and mindful.

This doesn’t mean that the mentally healthy person will never get sad, angry, or feel angst. Far from it. Some situations warrant anger or righteous indignation. Even deep sadness is a natural part of experiencing loss. It does, however, mean that they possess the awareness to re-calibrate, re-position, and re-orient themselves towards perspectives that are good for their mental well-being. I’m reminded of holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl who, while surrounded by death and despair in a concentration camp, was able to mentally cling on to hope while finding scant scintilla of meaning within his dire circumstances. Thus, the mentally healthy person is able to guide and even manipulate the mental self-talk in the head in a way that makes moving forward possible.

What life event and experience pops into your mind when you consider a time where you were overcome with a deep amount of stress, anxiety, or fear? Try and make that experience vivid and lucid in your mind. Recall your dynamic and charged thoughts as well as your raw emotions in that moment. Bring to mind how this experience affected your worldview and perspective of your own life and future. Perhaps the experience that you are pondering brought disillusionment, despair, or anger. Here is the question: How did you cope and persevere through the mental pain?  This question ought to prompt you to consider your own emotional resiliency. Emotional resiliency is nestled with good mental health because it provides a portal into how you manage your own mental well-being. How you navigate your own mental health will reveal how emotional resilient you are when chaos ensues. As you look at your history, how did you persevere through mental anguish? What did the painful experience teach you about yourself? Have you repressed the pain, or have you integrated and adapted the pain into the story of who you are?

The pathology of an angst and tortured mind lies in wait within every individual. Yes, even the most pious of Buddhist monks has to contend with a mind that can spiral into chaos. The psychological detonator that is so easily triggered resides is utterly ubiquitous. When our minds ignite, it’s as if the apocalypse is at hand. A bad week at work or a betrayal by a friend can lead to one’s mind spiraling out of control and thinking the worse. Whether it’s death, trauma, or someone cuts you off while driving, our fragile ego shatters into a thousand tiny pieces. Ask yourself, do you have the psychological resiliency to cling to virtue and hope? Do you have a reservoir within you that provides purpose and meaning in life?

In order to possess mental health, psychological homeostasis, or mental balance, one ought to explore the question: what is good mental health? I encourage you to think through the definition I provided and add or subtract from it in order to enhance your own understanding.

[1] “Jane” is a pseudonym and some of the following events have been changed to protect the privacy of the individual and family.

Mental Self-Sabotage

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Okay, let’s start by trying to recall a specific date in your past. Close your eyes, and think back to your experiences from Tuesday, January 20, 1998 to Sunday, February 8, 1998. For those 20 days in 1998, it’s perfectly reasonable to assume you would have experienced a range of thoughts, leading to emotions such as joy, frustration, anxiousness, happiness, etc.

What I want you to do now is, recall specifically some of the thoughts you thought during those 20 days in 1998. I pose this thought experiment to many of the people that I counsel, and most will remember absolutely nothing. Nevertheless, it’s fair to say you would have most definitely experienced, even if for only for a few minutes – thoughts leading to emotional states such as anxiety, sadness, anger, etc. My question is this: what happened to those thoughts? Well, for starters, those thoughts have dissipated into an oblivion. Like morning fog rolling through the terrain, so too those thoughts have dissipated into space.

The importance of my thought experiment is to highlight how fleeting thoughts are. The problem, however, is that despite our transient thoughts, we often get tangled up in our thoughts and spiral into emotional anguish. Mental suffering occurs when a thought arises, then we attach harmful judgments to those thoughts, thus allowing a strong emotional charge to take over our mind.

If thoughts just simply arise in consciousness only to eventually fade away, then why are so many people tormented by their thoughts? I’m sure that I spent at least three minutes in psychological distress during those 20 days in 1998, only to have those thoughts fade away. But why sabotage myself, even for three minutes of mental anguish, when the initial thought will soon evaporate into the ether?

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A healthy way to deal with thoughts is to observe the thought rather than judging or analyzing. Watch the thought, feel the emotion, observe your reaction. For example, your boss criticizes you for a mistake you made on a project. Rather than identifying with the thought (thought: I can’t do anything right, emotion: self-loathing or sadness), you simply observe the thoughts arise, without critique. Then you choose the appropriate response that is within your control. You may respond my saying, “Okay, now I know better for next time,” or “I need to shift some things around in my life so I can be more effective at work.” But even if emotions of anger or sadness (naturally) creep in, simply observe them.

Why should you avoid judging and analyzing thoughts? Because that’s how emotions get charged. When we attach labels to our thoughts, we pour gasoline on the fire. Before you know it, a thought has turned into ruminating dark thoughts leading to charged emotions.. At this point, you have completely identified with your thoughts. Rather than watching the thought, you have become the thought. Self-sabotage as begun.

Thoughts are just thoughts. They come and go. Like large waves that crash and run up onto shore, then recede back into sea. Why fight the waves? Let them come and go. Watch them. You had over a million thoughts fly through your head in the aforementioned 20 days in 1998, and they floated away. You will have a million more thoughts float in your head in the next 20 days, let them come and go.

;klnpo

The Need For Ancient Stories, Even When They Are Barbaric

Written over two days and finished up while vacationing in Palm Desert. This essay was inspired after meeting with my monthly philosophy group which broached this topic. I finished this essay with a Venti blonde roast coffee at my side, and Antonio Vivaldi playing on Pandora.

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Let’s begin with some rhetorical questions. Is democracy bad because we can isolate some really bad historical offenses? Is science evil because it produced the hydrogen bomb and eugenics? I can say that I have pursued nobility and virtue in my life, but should I be deemed a vile human because I went through two years of narcissistic rebellion from 16-17 years of age? There is a tendency in our culture to isolate grievances within history, and then focus solely on the injustices born from those evils to the exclusion of anything good or lessons learned. This is the current tenor, especially when it comes tearing down statues of southern Civil War generals, demonizing Western Civilization, or dismissing and lambasting religion due to its abhorrent bronze-aged ethics. My point is that just because transgressions occur in history, even horrendous evils, doesn’t mean we should broad-brush with equal opprobrium.

Along these lines, it’s common for secularists to criticize and reject religion because it leans heavily on stories with histories in which “barbaric ethics” were accepted, as opposed to our more enlightened value system of today. I readily admit that I would much rather live in our current era, as opposed to ancient or even medieval times. Our current morality has progressed in such a way that societies have more freedoms, liberties, and rights – all of which contribute to a flourishing society. The mistake, however, is the wholesale repudiation of religious stories due to the ignoble period from which the stories are derived. Secularists are mistaken because these ancient stories address timeless existential concerns that speak to the human condition. Moreover, we interpret them in light of our current ethical framework in such a way that the useful and meaningful elements are distilled and put to virtuous action.

In this essay, I will focus on the secularist’s error in broad-brushing religion as insubstantial due to the savagery “endorsed” in holy writ. For the sake of brevity, I will highlight one of the most widely used stories secularist use to expose the ignobility of the Old Testament God: Abraham’s call to sacrifice his son. How can an ancient story that seemingly endorses human sacrifice be beneficial in our current era?

Here is short synopsis of the story. When Isaac grew to be a young boy, God tested Abraham by telling him to take his son (Isaac) and offer him as a burnt sacrifice. Though filled with sadness and grief, Abraham obeyed God’s words without hesitation and took Isaac to the mountain. Abraham had complete faith that God would provide a way out and that he would not lose his son. At the moment that Abraham tied up Isaac, the angel of the Lord stopped him and said, “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”[1]

This is a wonderful story that has been interpreted a thousand different ways to personify such virtues as faith, love, sacrifice and loyalty. One can see Abraham’s radical faith in his “ultimate” love (i.e. God). One can distill from this notion the idea that we all have an Ultimate in life that reflects a deep foundational purpose for each of us – and making sacrifices to fulfill that purpose is what brings out the richness of life. The story can also reflect the relationship of love God has for Abraham in that God doesn’t want Abraham’s blood, God wants his heart. Moreover, the sacrifice aspect of the story is a motif that the church has adopted through lent, in an effort to deepen one’s dedication to God through sacrificing something meaningful to the believer. We can think of the story as taking us away from our narcissistic self so that we can re-focus on connecting with ideals and worthwhile pursuits that are truly more meaningful.

Unfortunately, secularists have sought to use pseudo-rationalism to dilute any valuable meaning from the story. The secular person will often note the savage ethics “endorsed” in the story which include, a call for child-sacrifice, a supposed loving God ordering Abraham to commit homicide, and the irrational blind faith of Abraham. But is this a fair assessment? I mean, this is a story preached every Sunday in some church or synagogue in America each week, and the rate of child-sacrifices due to divine command is, nevertheless, a non-issue.

The secularist’s curtailment of the virtues within the story is nothing more than the classic fallacy of reductio ad absurdum. In other words, the secularist presumes absurd and ridiculous conclusions. I can think of no church in history that regularly killed babies due to this divine fiat in the Old Testament. The reason for this is because ancient stories like this have been recognized for their deeper meaning and virtues. This story has not been used to justify any horrendous evils because humanity has been smart and practical enough to realize that more significant lessons for life may be gleaned.

It’s important to acknowledge that there have been one-off examples of child homicide due to divine commands, but those are cases in which psychological disorders were diagnosed and swift punishment was carried out. In 2004, Deanna Laney killed her two young sons because God told her to do it. She stated in an interview, “I felt like I obeyed God and I believe there will be good out of this.”[2] This is similar to Andrea Yates of Texas who, in 2001, drowned her 5 children in the bathtub because the voice of God in her head ordered it. These cases are ones in which both Christians and Jews alike firmly believe are egregious and amoral. Moreover, psychological illness is the culprit, not a well thought out interpretation of the text. Never do we see faithful adherents of the Old Testament defending the actions of these one-off cases.

Another retort from secularists is to suggest that we set aside stories like this and conjure up a different story or select a real-life story that conveys Enlightenment virtues? This is a much more charitable rebuttal to the Abrahamic story. However, I would still argue that this suggestion fails to take into consideration the pragmatic elements of these ancient stories which speak directly to our human condition. Ancient stories abound and resonate througout milennia because they address fundamental existential concerns. Ancient narratives such as the Gilgamesh Epic (Sumeria), the Enuma Elish (Babylonia) and Egyptian Book of the Dead all provide motifs that include a fall into chaos, a struggle with evil or suffering, and then redemption – which is the relevant reality that impacts the 21-century person. Thus, whether you are in 3000 BCE Sumeria or 2019 Idaho, the quest to make meaning from suffering still permeates the soul.

Ancient stories are timeless treasures that expose the vulnerability and inclinations of the human mind. Stories from the past, even tall tales, fables or legends, unveil the psychological architecture which propel man to navigate the world – and from which we can look back and learn. Shall we set aside Plato because of the orgies and sexism found within his text? Shall we do away with the lessons and ideals of the Reformation because Martin Luther was anti-Semitic? It is simply intellectual pride to apply the pseudo-rational strategy of the secularist whereby modern moral superiority is exalted at all cost.

My argument holds true for other so-called abhorrent ethics of ancient writ. We interpret them in light of our current ethical framework in such a way that the useful and meaningful elements are distilled and put to virtuous action. Progressive Muslims are currently doing this with the difficult texts in the Quran. While a very small interpret the ancient commands as literal – which I admit is scary – a vast majority are able to employ Enlightenment values onto the Quran and glean life lessons that embolden virtue for today. And this is how culture works. Truth is found in what is useful, practical, and works within a given community. The reason why societies have progressed throughout the centuries is that we are able to view moral conundrums through the question: what does better look like? Thus, the complexion of freedom, liberty, and justice evolve throughout past centuries to reflect to norms and values as we pursue what ‘better’ looks like. Communities have proven that we are pretty good at improving on our mistakes, especially when you compare, for example, the Medieval period with today, or even 1900 ACE with 2000 ACE.

For these reasons, we ought to give these ancient stories their due. We glean what is useful and beneficial. We use them as road maps to live with more vitality and meaning. We recognize that even though they were written within a different context along with different values than we may have today, they nevertheless address the fundamental elements of the angst of being a human being in a world filled with chaos.

[1] Genesis 22:12 (NIV)

[2] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/god-told-me-to-kill-boys-says-mother-54427.html

War on Cops and Mass Incarceration: Do we have a problem?

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We live in interesting times. Even though we currently live in the safest period in history, you would never suspect it. A recent wave of scholarship—including Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, Mehrsa Baradaran’s The Color of Money, Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law, and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations” – has converged on the interpretation that the present disparities we see in society continue as a form of blatant racism. Furthermore, liberal media outlets drum the narrative of an epidemic of mass incarcerations and rampant police shootings of black criminals. This has given rise to the Black Lives Matters (BLM) movement and has permeated into the political sphere with rhetoric that casts blacks as the victims of white privilege and structural racism. These narratives have coalesced into the belief that racism is behind the disparities we see in society. But is this narrative true? In this essay, I wish only to address and challenge the narrative which says that America’s epidemic of mass incarceration and rampant police shootings of black people is evidence of structural racism. My claim is that behavioral and cultural factors, as oppressed to structural “racist” agendas, are in fact what explains high incarceration rates. Furthermore, I will use data to so show that there is no clear evidence that blacks are specifically targeted and killed by racist officers.

The 2014 Ferguson shooting of a black man, Michael Brown, sparked a movement of remarkable proportion in America. This event birthed a narrative that claimed rampant and unjustified force by cops, particularly white cops, around the country. BLM took to the streets all across the country claiming that the shootings proved that racism is more prevalent than ever. The ACLU came out in full force, helping to spread the message that black men are at risk at the hands of white cops. In 2018, NYU hosted a panel discussion called, The Epidemic of Police Brutality, which, like the media, casts the problem as something both excessive and flagrant. Perhaps you’ve noticed that if a black assailant is shot by a white cop, the message and coverage on CNN automatically assumes racist intent without any due process.  So, is this message from the Left true? Is structural racism so pervasive that our most trusted institutions are intentionally targeting black people?

Well, statistics shed light onto the myth of structural racism. In 2018, 998 people were shot and killed by police. Of those 998, 210 where black and 405 were white.[1] If white victims of shootings almost double that of blacks, how is that racism against blacks?[2] This stat should cause the Left to pause and think more about their arguments – but it hasn’t. Moreover, black and Hispanic police officers are more likely to fire a gun at blacks than white officers. This is according to a Department of Justice report in 2015 about the Philadelphia Police Department, and is further confirmed by a study conducted by University of Pennsylvania criminologist Greg Ridgeway in 2015 that determined black cops were 3.3 times more likely to fire a gun than other cops at a crime scene. Moreover, blacks are more likely to kill cops than be killed by cops. This is according to FBI data, which also found that 40 percent of cop killers are black. According to Heather Mac Donald, the police officer is 18.5 times more likely to be killed by a black person than a cop killing an unarmed black person.[3]

Here is the problem, the slightest hint of disproportionate action on law enforcement is blamed on structural racism. Black intellectual, Larry Elder, highlights the sheer lunacy of such reactionary exclamations at the 2015 BLM protests in Baltimore over the shooting of Freddie Gray. While his fellow blacks insisted upon structural racism thriving in Baltimore, Elder insightfully points out that the Freddie Gray shooting happened with a black police chief at the helm, with a majority of black officers protecting the city, and a city council possessing a majority of black democrats, with a black Attorney General in office, and a black President of the United States running the country. How is this structural racism?

The Wrong Benchmark

The prevailing argument follows this thesis: any inequality is inequity. In other words, if things aren’t equal then it’s unfair. If blacks make up only 13% of the population, the 210 deaths of black victims shot by police are now disproportionally magnified. The rhetoric of mass incarceration follows the same argument: if blacks are a higher percentage than other races in the prison system, then it means that they are targeted unfairly. Nevermind how particular cultures lack certain values and virtues that breed a strong work ethic, or grit, or appreciation for education. The Left shifts the blame to external factors – an insidious use of power and oppression brought on by white people. Thus, if there is a disparity within the overall population, it must be due to racism.

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The population-ratio argument goes like this: if blacks make up only 12-14% of the population, how come they are killed by police and incarcerated at a greater percentage to the population. The problem with focusing on population is that we are talking about crime. First, consider that because there is such a concentration of criminal violence in minority communities, this will mean that officers will be disproportionately confronting armed and often resisting suspects in those communities, raising officers’ own risk of using lethal force. The Wall Street Journal notes that 2009 statistics from the Bureau of Justice Statistics reveal that blacks were charged with 62 percent of robberies, 57 percent of murders and 45 percent of assaults in the 75 biggest counties in the country, despite only comprising roughly 15 percent of the population in these counties. Such a concentration illustrates how unlikely officers will confront someone other than black in those urban areas.

Crime should be the benchmark, not population-ratios,  because this is what officers respond to. But this hasn’t stopped the Left from using population-ratio to assert racism with regards to arrests, racial profiling, and stop-and frisk laws. This, however, is precisely the core flaw of left-wing anti-cop rhetoric: the failure to define the proper benchmark for evaluating police behavior. Inevitably policing is compared to population ratios, for example, in NYC about 50% of all pedestrians stopped are black, yet blacks are only about 23% of the population. According to the Left and especially BLM, this shows that police are racist. Again, this is the wrong benchmark. Blacks in NYC commit 71% of all shootings, if you add Hispanic shootings, both account for 98% of all shootings in NY. Whites are 34% of the population and account for 2% of shootings. Again, the benchmark should be crime since that is what police address. Here is a counter argument that exposes the lunacy of this logic: males make up around 50% of the population, yet are disproportionately incarcerated more than females. Thus, it must be systemic bigotry. Perhaps it’s males that actually commit more crime?

Black-on-Black Homicides

The BLM movement is waging a war with perceptions and illusions. The real fight, however, is backed by solid data. Blacks die of homicide at 6x’s the rate of whites and Hispanics combined. This is a massively alarming statistic that should unite all races in finding a solution. And the solution ought not be anti-cop rhetoric. Predominantly black inner cities need cops the most.

The BLM movement is a farce, end-stop. I agree that black lives absolutely matter. This is not up for debate. The anti-cop BLM message, however, has wasted so much time on an illusion of structural racism rather than the black-on-black crime and homicide.

In 2016 there were 4300 people shot in Chicago – that’s 1 person every 2 hours – they were all black. Can you imagine if 4300 white people were shot? The media doesn’t care about black bodies, unless their shot by a white cop. They do care about white bodies, and we see this if there’s a school shooting and white kids are taken out – it’s the end of the world. In magnitude of deaths, there’s a school-type shooting every couple of months in black communities and nobody gives a damn – except the police and families in those communities. If BLM wants to make a difference, they would shift their message to address the death rate of black-on-black crime in inner cities.

Mass Incarceration

Let’s start with the obvious: many of our inner cities foster a culture that normalizes violence and criminality rather than nurturing family values and a strong work ethic. After all, impoverished neighborhoods from L.A. to New York are not leading the nation in high school graduation, 2-parent households, or credit scores higher than 700. Moreover, the murder rate in the U.S. inner cities, comprising of all races and background, is around 22x’s higher than Germany.[4] However, nested in concentrated poor urban communities in America, is a culture that sees violence and criminality as the norm.

In her book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” Michelle Alexander argues that the American criminal justice system itself is an instrument of racial oppression. “Mass incarceration operates as a tightly networked system of laws, policies, customs and institutions that operate collectively to ensure the subordinate status of a group defined largely by race,” she says. What gives Alexander’s message force is a subtle trick that involves disproportionality and overrepresentation are cast. The sweeping popularity of Alexander’s ideology needs to be addressed, as she has emerged as a major voice within the BLM movement.

threat

What ‘s the trick that Alexander and Left uses? It goes like this: any disparities between races, with population rations as the benchmark, prove that racism and oppression at work. This strategy is the similar to the one mentioned above regarding crime. Again, population is the benchmark, albeit, the wrong benchmark. With incarceration, Michelle Alexander and other Leftists frame the argument in terms of overrepresentation. Thus, if blacks make up only 13% of the population and 33% of all prisoners[5], while whites are 64% of the population and make up 30% of prisoners, well then, blacks are overrepresented. Now we have the ideologically charged narrative: if blacks are overrepresented over and above whites in prison, then it must be because of racism. Now, the NAACP can cry foul and alarm the masses with rhetoric that says, “African Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites.”[6] Oh, then it must be racism.

But wait. Could the problem be that blacks are actually committing crime more than other groups? In 2013, the FBI has black criminals carrying out 38% of murders, compared to 31.1% for whites. The offender’s race was “unknown” in 29.1 per cent of cases. What about violent crime more generally? FBI arrest rates are one way into this. Over the last three years of data – 2011 to 2013 – 38.5% of people arrested for murder, manslaughter, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault were black. Naysayers will hint that the problem is that a high arrest rate for blacks is evidence of racism, but academica have noted that the proportion of black suspects arrested by the police tends to match closely the proportion of offenders identified as black by victims in the National Crime Victimization Survey.

What about the narrative that blacks are convicted disproportionately to whites? Our judicial system actually under-prosecutes murder in minority communities because minority communities are under-policed. When the police do come into contact with the black community, police are less likely to kill black people, according to Peter Moscos at CUNY.[7] In 1997, criminologists Robert Sampson and Janet Lauritsen reviewed the massive literature on charging and sentencing. They concluded that “large racial differences in criminal offending,” not racism, explained why more blacks were in prison proportionately than whites and for longer terms.

A 1987 analysis of Georgia felony convictions, for example, found that blacks frequently received disproportionately lenient punishment. A 1990 study of 11,000 California cases found that slight racial disparities in sentence length resulted from blacks’ prior records and other legally relevant variables. A 1994 Justice Department survey of felony cases from the country’s 75 largest urban areas discovered that blacks actually had a lower chance of prosecution following a felony than whites did and that they were less likely to be found guilty at trial. Following conviction, blacks were more likely to receive prison sentences, however—an outcome that reflected the gravity of their offenses as well as their criminal records. The media’s favorite criminologist, Alfred Blumstein, found in 1993 that blacks were significantly underrepresented in prison for homicide compared with their presence in the arrest data.[8] This hardly sounds like systemic racism.

Internal Culture vs External Power

If there was one knock-down argument that shows the myth of systemic racism, it would be the comparison of American born blacks with black immigrant West Indians (Afro-Carribean). With this comparison you have two groups of blacks, who for all purposes, look indistinguishable. In other words, they are subjected whatever level of systemic racism exists. Whatever “system” is holding one group back would logically hold the other back as well given the, so-called, systemic racism pervading American life. So here is the million-dollar question: do West Indian blacks experience the same structural racism that American born blacks face?

According to much research, and noted by Thomas Sowell, West Indians have a much different experience than American born blacks. Sowell, who is black, notes that second-generation West Indians living in the same cities as black Americans were earning 58% more. Moreover, West Indians have higher rates of high school education, college enrollment, and professional occupations than their American black counterparts. Also, the West Indians crime rate is much lower in comparison. If we look at the facts and data, it demonstrates that the “racist system” is virtually non-existent for West Indian blacks.[9] If structural racism were true, then West Indians would have similar crime rates, incarceration rates and single-parent households. Again, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a West Indian and your typical black person on the street. If structural racism exists, why is it that West Indian blacks have more wealth and career mobility than American born blacks? Perhaps, the answer for the disparities is not found in racism, but behavioral factors in groups.

The core difference between a liberal and a conservative outlook in the world is that liberals will only accept structural explanations for socio-economic disparities, and they will not ever accept a behavioral explanation. For example, when you look at poverty, the biggest driver in American poverty is having children out of wedlock. If you are a single mother, the chances are really high that you’re going to be poor and your child is 5x’s more likely to be poor if he were a child of married parents. The Left leaning Brookings Institute noted three things to become middle class: graduate high school, wait until your married to have a child, and work full-time. 73% of people who did this are not poor. We can always blame external boogey-men for making life unfair, but at some point, we have to consider the behavioral values and virtues which are nourished within groups.

Ask yourself this: what would black culture look like if they acted like Asians for 10 years, in all things? What if blacks lived with the same negligible rate of child rearing, the same fanatical involvement in school, and the same parental involvement and drive. If they adopted strict Asian values, do think they would maintain their high crime rate? Do you think their poverty rate would improve? Only a fool would assert that nothing would change for the life of a black person.

However, if that though experiment would happen, and we still saw socioeconomic disparities – then and only then would I entertain institutional and structural racism as a problem. As long as the behaviors are so vastly different – in California right now, the truancy rate is 5x’s higher for blacks than any other ethnic group – as long as those behaviors are different, I think it’s premature to say that the only possible explanation is structural racism.

 

[1] Washington Post database for police shootings.

[2] Even back in 2015, the stats show similar findings. 995 people were shot dead by police officers, 497 were white and 259 were black.

[3] War on Cops, 37.

[4] Furthermore, Another difference between the US and other relatively safe developed nations is that the US has a much higher homicide rate than similarly “safe” countries. 14,827 people were murdered in the US last year. This is way down from the 24,526 US murders in 1993, yet still leaves the US at 4.8 murders per 100,000 citizens. In comparison, Japan has .4 murders per 100,000 residents. Germany has .8, Australia 1, France 1.1, and Britain–who has recently garnered media attention for being the most dangerous wealthy European nation– has 1.2. https://www.criminaljusticedegreehub.com/violent-crime-us-abroad/.

[5] Pew Research Center, 2018.

[6] https://www.naacp.org/criminal-justice-fact-sheet/

[7] http://www.copinthehood.com/2015/04/killed-by-police-2-of-3-race.html

[8] Heather McDonald, War on Cops, 153.

[9] Thomas Sowell, Black Rednecks, White Liberals.

Everything Matters

lkniuni

I walked into a patient’s room today who was unaware of my existence. She lay in a bed, staring at the wall with drool around her mouth. As a hospice chaplain, my job is to provide spiritual and emotional counseling. But in situations like these, I feel useless. Sitting bedside, I twiddled my thumbs, wondering what I was going to eat for lunch. After five minutes, I got up and left. After all, what does it matter?

One of the most difficult interactions occurs with patients who lack the cognitive function to interact in a meaningful way. Often, I’ll sit bedside and play music, or I’ll read poems, or just hold their hand in silence. All the while, the patient just lays there staring into space. It’s these times where I often say to myself, “why am I even here; what good is this?”

I value the interactions where there is a meaningful dialogue. I see my role as a counselor as someone who meets with people in crises and creates a safe environment to process and work through the pressing issues one is facing. It’s the imagery of journeying with the patient through the depths of existential angst that makes me proud to be in hospice. It’s a profound empathic connection that I am skilled and trained to embark on. After all, death and the process of death can be a frightening experience! So, you can see my dilemma when I walk into a room and see a patient who is living with an advance form of, say, Alzheimer’s, and is cognitively alert to almost nothing.

As I left the nursing facility and got into my car, I wondered if I was making a mistake with my abrupt departure. After all, if I felt as if my presence didn’t matter, perhaps the patient didn’t matter either. This didn’t sit right with me, and I felt compelled to delve deeper into my dilemma. For the next thirty-minutes inside my car while my mind ruminated with the question does it matter?

Before I knew it, I was hit with the conviction to test something out. What if I lived the next four hours as if everything mattered? Four hours may not seem like a lot, but given the mental fortitude needed for such a task, four hours seems like it would give me the insight I need. I mean, would I realize that futile interactions are meaningless? Or would my world be illuminated with beauty when I live as if everything matters? I drove off and was ready for my four-hour test.

I went to lunch, and while eating a woman in a wheel chair entered. At one point she began looking around looking confused. Given that the room was filled with so many people, I would normally keep to myself and assume that someone else will attend to her. Not this time. I stood up and approached her cleared a path so that she could get through. She looked so appreciative and even stopped to chat with me for a bit. Turns out that she has cerebral palsy and often feels that when she is in public, she feels that she does not matter much to others. For the rest of my lunch I sat with no earbuds in my ears while being mindfully aware of all that was around me. Often, I sit with my head down while listening intently on some podcast; but today my lunch was much more meaningful.

I then went in to work and was greeted by our receptionist at the front desk. Normally, I simply walk by her with a quick “hello” and get to business. Not this time. I asked her a litany of questions – that seemed most appropriate for office small talk – and she happily answered. She ended the conversation by saying, “thank you for listening.” What an interesting twist when I slow down to see who matters.

After work I went to Starbucks, which is my typical routine. As I approached the barista, I realized that the same barista has been serving me for 2 years, and I know absolutely nothing about her. Realizing that she matters, I made some small talk with her and learned that she is going back to school to study criminal justice and she works two jobs to support her and her daughter. There was also the usual homeless guy sitting in the corner that always waves at me. I usually divert my gaze because he seems really unstable. Not this time. I asked if I could buy him a coffee and he gladly accepted. For the first time, the barista and the homeless gentleman ceased to be simply background objects – they actually matter to me.

I arrived home that evening to greet my wife and 1-year-old son with a wide-open heart. Entering my house, I truly felt as if my ego had dissolved. Oddly, it was an effortless feeling. The obligatory duties that I sometimes begrudgingly do felt like tiny gifts of opportunity to experience life with a little more richness. Taking the time to attend to my family’s needs felt much easier and enjoyable. My inner selfish voice that is so ‘I’ focused was subdued, and so much more around me really mattered.

At the start of the four-test, however, I must admit that I felt like I had to muster up some effort to see what matters. However, hours into it, I felt light and ready for whatever the world wanted to present me. Of course, the next day came, and I quickly feel right back into the ego-driven nature that has been my norm. I’m a work in progress so no need for me to feel like a failure. Enlightenment is a process, not a destination.

When I look back at those four-hours, there are several nuggets of wisdom that stood out. When I lived as if everything matters, I noticed how quickly people ceased to be just objects of my periphery. Rather, I was able to see people as walking stories who harbor a treasure trove of joy, pain, meaning, wisdom, etc. After all, we’re more than flesh and bone who will one day be food for worms. Just as I crave meaning, significance and purpose, so does the barista who serves me coffee. Unfortunately, the preoccupation to protect our fragile persona often stifles our ability to see other humans with significant depth. Fear of exposing our secret shadows and vulnerabilities often propels us to view those outside our inner circle as a means-to-an-end or as background props within our scope of vision.

In contemplating my test, I became disrupted by the question: if I have intrinsic value and see myself as one possessing dignity, should I not bestow the same value and dignity to others? What makes me so special that I can be so discriminatory to those around me? For most, the tendency is to see the value of ourselves and those whom are exclusively within our inner circle, whom we have a relationship with. Thus, we gladly acknowledge the value of ourselves, relatives, friends and those whom we feel a kindred connection with. We soon become, however, amnesic to the intrinsic value of others as they stand outside our inner circle.

What does this mean when I’m with a cognitively impaired patient? Well, it means they are more than flesh on a bed. They are ambassadors of life. They are a living testimony of perseverance and gumption. Though I may deny or repress it, I am looking into my reflection. This very well may be me some day, lying in a bed unable to do anything for myself. This reflection inextricably connects me to the patient in front of me. I recognize that the patient matters just as much as me. Just has I have intrinsic value, so does the patient.

Intrinsic value is not limited, and ought not be limited to only those who can communicate or reason. My hospice patients are a living embodiment of a lifelong effort to strive and fight to make sense of this complicated universe. Even if they cannot articulate their effort, they are nevertheless entwined within the thread that weaves all of humanity together. The universal thread encompasses the truth that all of us are thrown into the universe without consent and doomed to piecemeal our existence into some type of meaningful narrative. The patient represents this truth, and this matters.

They matter to their loved ones and friends. Even if they lived as an isolated recluse, their life serves as a symbolic representation of the sacredness of being human. As they lie in bed staring into space, they are an image of you and me. Every wrinkle, nonsensical babble and repugnant odor reveals the fragility of life. Moreover, it shows the irony of life: we helplessly soil ourselves as babies and then again at the end of life – that is, if life doesn’t take us out in one quick swoop. This, however, need not serve as a depressing picture. This is life. Hardly depressing, life is a vigorous unfolding of meaningful experiences that takes us through the depths of darkness and the peaks of joy. The innumerable unfolding of meaningful experiences is what creates value for the individual. As a helpless patient lays in bed, they are the sacred representation of the intrinsic value of humanity. Thus, they matter.

During those four-hours, I also noticed how easier it was to be present. Being present is a common term that has recently gained momentum in Western thought. Being present means that we are grounded in the now, not being emotionally pulled into the past or having a mind possessed by the future. When guided by the presupposition that everything matters, being present is easier because you are more consciously aware of the world around you – in that moment. You’re aware of that specific flower in front of you, that person in the corner, that face that looks distressed, and that laughter in the background. The more present we are with the world around us, the more meaningful it is. While I’m accustomed to living on auto pilot, I must admit that life seems to be bolder, colorful, and meaningful when I slow down to allow myself to be aware of all that’s around me.

Being present clears one’s vision to see what matters. I want to be the kind chaplain who walks into a patient’s room and is keenly present to the needs and concerns as they arise. I want to sit at the bedside and accept all that emanates – without any pretense or judgment. When I live out the phrase everything matters, I’m able to calm my urges that are possessed by own self-serving perspective. When I’m present and everything matters, humility rises to the top of the ladder of virtues. What a rich experience it is to step outside the mask that protects the ego and allow life to unfold.

I can’t help but think what would I want if I was alone in a nursing home without the ability to communicate in a coherent way? I hope that a chaplain will sit at my bedside and realize the sacredness of my final chapter closing. I hope they will be able to hold a space of calm reverence and holy recognition of my pursuit of meaning and significance in life. Though some may call it a vegetative state, I hope they will be able to transcend clinical language and see that I am a powerful metaphor. I am the leaf on a tree that has gone through the dynamic and vibrant seasons; and now Winter is here. I am the drop of water in the vast ocean, part of the beautiful sea of humanity, and now the wave is taking me to shore. I am an actor on the stage of my own Shakespearean play, and will be exiting the stage quite soon. When these metaphors crescendo, they reveal that the hospital bed is in fact on holy ground. Indeed, the ground supports the hallowed phenomenon of a person’s very last breath. For any visitor that enters during my final moments, I hope they create a compassionate space to tenderly sit with me as my hundred-millionth breath comes to an end.

Perhaps when you see a patient or loved one who is about to fade to black, it will hit you that your exit is also inevitable. Rather than depress you, perhaps this will inspire you to re-evaluate your values and pursuits. Death need not be a nasty shadow that you suppress to the farthest reaches of your subconscious. Though death destroys us physically, the idea of death can save us. It’s precisely because that there is a finality that life can be experienced with an intensified preciousness. The infinitesimal wisdom found in experiencing life is why everything matters. We would all be blessed to live everyday as if everything matters.

To be fair, I realize people may disagree and argue that stress can arise when one feels the weight that everything matters. If everything matters, then you may feel that you must always do something or rise to the occasion to give every experience it’s proper due. What a chore! I think this is where the idea of being present may provide the antidote to the pressure of everything mattering. Living as if everything matters is more about the way we posture ourselves when we confront the world rather than a burden that we carry. Thus, the more we cultivate the mindset that everything matters, the more our initial reactions are subdued and less reactive. It’s as if we our creating space in our psyche for a peaceful and compassionate reaction to what is happening to us in the now. Far be it from being a philosophy that weighs us down, rather it’s a way of looking at life that make the present moment significant and beautiful.

With this approach to the world, the next day I went back to the patient that I so abruptly left the day before. I entered her room with fresh eyes and a renewed understanding. I saw an 85-year-old woman who matters. I knew I was on holy ground in front of a woman with intrinsic value. I called her daughter who lives out of state and inquired as to what here favorite songs are. We listened to Frank Sinatra during the visit, and not once did she speak or make eye contact with me. It’s okay though. This sacred moment matters because it highlights the preciousness of life.