The Better Path

There is a fairly famous poem called “Desiderata.” You may have seen it before. The first lines are “Go placidly amid the noise & haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons.”

Desiderata

I found a large framed copy of this poem recently as I was packing up my mother’s apartment. A little over a year ago, my mother had a stroke that requires her to live full time in a nursing home from now on. I remember this framed copy hanging in the house I grew up in, so it meant enough to Mom to have kept it for a long time.

My mother is a person of many contradictions. She can be both generous and cold. She is often critical and just as often accepting. She voted for Trump but also has spent an unknown amount of money to support children in developing countries and also children with developmental disabilities in this country. She has done many things in her life but complains that she’s not accomplished anything.

The poem exhorts us to be the best version of ourselves and not worry overmuch about what might have been. “You are a child of the universe,” it says, “no less than the trees & the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”

And maybe that’s why mom has this framed copy, as something to reflect on when it all seems too difficult, as a way of reminding her to stop once in a while, take a deep breath, and try again. Perhaps we all have things that we put in place to remind of to strive for better and not succumb to the darker impulses. It might be a poem, a book, or a song. It could be rosary beads or a religious artifact. It could be a special picture or movie.

The thing is, even though the poem was parked in my mom’s closet and not hanging on a wall, the fact that she still kept it tells me that she is, at 84 years old, still in the process, as are all of us I suppose.

I’ve said before that knowing one’s parents is complicated, especially for those of us who have our parents in our lives for over five decades, and for those of us who have parents who have been difficult to understand.

So it can’t be said often enough that stopping once in a while, taking a deep breath, and trying again can lead us to the better path.

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Guns are Owned by People

Full disclosure: I’ve given money more than once to Everytown for Gun Safety, because I believe that America would be a better place with less gun violence. Just in the past two years, we’ve seen Las Vegas, Pittsburgh, Thousand Oaks, Sutherland Springs, Parkland. Before that, there was Orlando, Washington Navy Yard, Newtown. On a regular basis, we get reports of a new one.

This is on top of what could be called “normal background” gun violence. These are the drive-by shootings in a city like Chicago, Baltimore or Los Angeles, the hunting accidents, the self-inflicted gun wounds. To me, having fewer guns at hand and making them harder to obtain would, automatically, reduce the level of gun violence. It just makes sense.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-gun. Guns are, under the right circumstances, a useful means for getting what you want, such as a deer, and marksmanship is a fun test of skill (I once upon a time earned my Marksman First Class certificate from the NRA).

Those who advocate for tougher gun policies also feel that guns are too easy to get. “Weak gun laws in most states mean that virtually anyone can openly carry loaded weapons without any permits, training or background checks,” says one email from Everytown for Gun Safety. “Inadequate laws that fail to hold adults accountable for unintentional shootings reinforce the idea that they are merely “accidents” rather than completely preventable tragedies,” another says.

Common sense, no? Who would dispute that fewer guns, or raising the level of gun owner responsibility to that of a motor vehicle owner, would equate to fewer gun deaths? Why is there so little traction on this issue?

Because gun ownership and usage are not one unified issue but at least two distinct ones with very little overlap.

On the one hand, guns are owned and gun violence is committed by people who view the gun as a tool. The gun, and the shooting of people (or anything else), is a means to an end. Whether it is for settling disputes, defending territory, or obtaining something they want, the gun is the the hammer that drives the nail, the wrench that removes the bolt, the key to open a door.

On the other hand, there are a significant number of people (in America) for whom owning a gun is an important piece of their identity. In other words, they identify as “gun owner” just as they identify as a member of their family, a part of their culture, or with being an American. And when someone says that gun ownership should be restricted, it is these people who get anxious and defensive.

This is actually an understandable reaction. The concept of identity is complex, and goes to the very heart of who we perceive ourselves to be. What I am is a bundle of self-identifiers, and if enough of them are removed, I would find it difficult to recognize myself. And the piece of my identity that defines me the most is the one I will cling to the hardest.

This leads to some complicated social interactions, fuzzy logic, and paradoxical situations. An article published last year in the Atlantic makes the point that it is common for people to deny what’s in front of them if it means denying a firmly-held belief about themselves. “If the thing you might be wrong about is a belief that’s deeply tied to your identity or worldview…then people [do] all the mental gymnastics it takes to remain convinced that they’re right.”

Additionally, because a vital facet of identity is being able to recognize who is in your tribe, then surrendering a piece of your identity will naturally cut you off from your social support network. “Having social support…is far more important than knowing the truth about some facts that do not directly impinge on your life,” the article quotes Pascal Boyer, an anthropologist.

No one wants to live in a violent community, but no one wants to feel alone either. People will disagree on what to do about gun violence based on how they see “us” versus “them.”

Those who dispute that fewer guns would equate to fewer gun deaths seem to be those gun owners for whom such information conflicts with their identity. The current gun control debate rings false for lawful gun owners, who get more and more entrenched in their desire to defend who they perceive themselves to be.

If Everytown for Gun Safety really wants to make progress on the gun sense laws, they will need to find common ground with the lawful gun owners. That won’t happen without a change in tactics, tone, and language. Simply stating statistics accomplishes nothing, according to the Atlantic article, because to the person who holds a particular belief about themselves, such arguments are to be ignored.

The events of the 20th century show that when people’s identities are threatened–whether it’s by increased rights for women, desegregation, redistribution of wealth, immigration policies, etc.–forced change breeds antipathy and resentment. And that’s not a recipe for lasting change.

What Does Democracy Look Like? Ride the Subway.

I ride the Washington, D.C., Metro trains essentially every business day of the year and have found it to be, quite possibly, the most democratic place in the country.

I have been riding for over two decades, and I have seen much that goes on, or is likely to happen, on this subway system. Like any public transportation, it has both good features and bad. But the one thing that is most remarkable is that it even happens at all.

The Metro carries between 600,000 and 700,000 passengers every day on average, and there are all kinds of riders. There are the rich and the poor. There are blacks, whites, Latinos, and Asians. There are women and men. There are managers and laborers. There are the young and the old, the athletic and the disabled. There are Christians and Muslims and Hindus and Jews.

All of us each day enter crowded train cars together. We sit or stand next to each other. We sometimes talk but often are silent, minding our own business.

This is normal. But certain types of people would have us believe that this is simply impossible, that there is no way a stable civil society could be maintained that is made up of such diversity. That the only outcome from putting a Muslim and a Jew, or white people and black people–or whichever antagonistic combination you prefer–in a confined space is bloodshed.

Here is the remarkable thing about the Metro: nobody is forcing themselves upon someone else. Nobody is claiming their opinions are correct and that everyone else is wrong. Nobody is trying to kill one another, or injure, or harass. Yes, there are some beggars and hustlers, some thieves and the occasional person who is either drunk, stoned, or in serious need of a shower. But mostly, every day of the year, we get along.

Security is gained by numbers. Everyone behaves better when there are numerous witnesses. Why? Because we all more or less know how to behave in public–I truly believe this. And not just large numbers of people who look like you or believe as you do. Diversity is its own strength. It is only when we are alone or in a crew of too many like-minded individuals that the trouble begins.

As Metro riders, we accept that each person is on the train for a reason and has somewhere they need to be. Deep down, despite our differences, we accept each other’s essential humanity, that everyone has a mother and/or father who is missing them, or has a spouse they kissed goodbye that morning, or children they are looking forward to seeing when they get home. They have work to do, people to meet. lives to live.

In this time when America feels more divided then I can remember in my lifetime, I take comfort from my rides on the Metro. I take comfort from our demonstrated ability to not give in to our negativity, think outside ourselves, and get along. It is an example of an America that finds strength in diversity. It is an example of what America can aim to be in the coming new year.

His Turban Was Magnificent

His turban was magnificent, a rich bluish purple. He came into my wife’s room and introduced himself.

“I am a neurologist,” he said, “and I would be happy to treat your wife, if it weren’t for the pregnancy.”

She had just recovered from a seizure less than an hour before. She had the worst headache anyone could ever imagine. She was nauseated and her vision and hearing were impaired. We didn’t fully know what was wrong yet, but something clearly was.

And our second child was at risk. Her pregnancy was only 33 weeks along, but the seizures were a threat to the growing baby.

I’d rushed to the hospital, seen the seizure, knew it was a complicated situation. Neurology was not something I had anticipated needing. Someone had to make a decision, and had to make it fast.

“It’s just that…since you are pregnant…I think it would be better to transfer to you a facility with more experience,” he said. I wasn’t sure how to feel in the moment. His warmth and composure was reassuring; his recommendation that she be moved made logical sense but was unsettling.

My wife said “My head is killing me; if you are going to make a decision, make it quick.”

It was done then. The neonatal team would perform an emergency C-section. My wife, still sedated, would be flown by med-evac helicopter to Baltimore, a city I knew almost nothing about.

The ICU doctor–also Indian–would give me a warm hug and tell me it would be alright in the end. And I got in the car with a friend and drove into the night.

He was right, the ICU physician. Things are alright, 16 years later.

But I never saw the neurologist with the turban again.

Measuring Life Dollar by Dollar

I saw the young man sitting on the bench. He looked scruffy, with uncut hair, tattoos and piercings. He looked like hadn’t slept well in a while.

To get where I was heading, I had to walk down the narrow passage between the two buildings and past the bench. It was unavoidable.

“Can you spare a dollar so I can get something to eat,” he said to me.

I made eye contact, so I had to stop. I briefly hesitated, then pulled out my wallet. The moment where I could have made a graceful exit had passed.

My wallet had no ones. The smallest bill was a five. I pulled it out and handed it to him. “You’re in luck,” was all I could think of saying.

“Thanks man. I really appreciate it,” he said.

Giving away money is uncomfortable.

I do it often enough–last year I claimed over $1,000 in tax-deductible contributions to charities–but these face-to-face encounters still leave me with a weird feeling: I have money and you don’t; you are asking me to give you money, perhaps embarrassed for doing so. I have the power to decide to hand over some cash and whether to ask for something in return, perhaps wondering how it would be if roles were reversed. It is a transaction, and not really a person talking with another person at all.

We give large sums of money unconditionally to family. We give small sums of money unconditionally to strangers. Everything in between is weighted with social awkwardness. How much are you asking for? What do you want the money for, and why do you think I can give it to you? Are you a blood relative? How well do I really know you? Is this a grant or do I expect repayment? If I give you this money, do I expect you to do something  in return?

Money talks, as the saying goes, and it can say both good things and bad. My mother has told me more than once that she gave “a large amount” of money to my sister, and that she expects it to be paid back. My guess is that it is in the several thousands of dollars. My sister’s past history warrants a cautious approach to money lending. She defaulted on a loan for which my dad was a co-signer, for instance, something he still feels stung by. She accepted gifts of money and stuff over the years that is now gone: spent, lost, stolen, sold for cash, or just destroyed.

So my mother has some justification. But we give large sums of money unconditionally to family, right? Perhaps not, after family has burned you once too often. I may still be naïve about such things; I hope I am never in the position to have to make that choice.

My mother doesn’t really need the money–it is on principle that she is asking for repayment. My sister doesn’t have it to repay.

It is a stalemate.

Meanwhile, I go to my job and give of my time; my company pays me in return. I give to charity, I give to panhandlers. I intend to ensure my children’s college is paid for. I worry about having enough money for retirement. Life is measured by a series of transactions.