In search of the new mythology


I recently started reading a book of transcribed interviews with Joseph Campbell, the famous philosopher and mythologist. I found some of his ideas so fascinating — and in some cases so in tune with how Baha’is think about religious truth — that I felt the need to write a blog post just to share them here. I hope those reading this find Campbell’s words as interesting as I do.  Continue reading

Personal reflections on getting fat as a dad

dad_and_son_on_beach

After my wife and I had our first kid a few years ago, I joked that becoming a father was a great way to get out of shape. There are two main reasons for this: 1) most of your free time is gone, so it’s much harder to get to the gym or wherever else you normally get exercise; and 2) you’re getting a lot less sleep at night, which means that you’re more likely to eat like a pig during the day.

I’m not exactly tipping the scales these days, but as I get deeper and deeper into my 30s, staying in shape is becoming noticeably harder. In terms of diet, I probably eat better now than I ever have. I’m far from perfect, but I’m down to about one sugary drink per week, I hardly ever have anything with white flour, and I try not to snack after dinner. And yet, the dress pants that I had the dry cleaner take out for me just a few months ago are once again feeling snug around the waist.

Of course, there’s another reason besides less exercise and less sleep that explains why men struggle to stay in shape as they get older: declining testosterone. Continue reading

The top five Fruit Tree Blog posts of 2015

Thank you to all the readers and supporters of Fruit Tree Blog as we close out another year.

In case you missed them (or just feel like reading them again), here are the top five blog posts of 2015:

1) The dirty secret behind Europe’s migrant crisis 

Aging and shrinking populations in much of the developed world have a simple solution: young, able-bodied workers from developing countries.

2) This nation is built on trust and self-serve fountain beverages

Recognizing the importance of trust and honesty in keeping the wheels of our economy churning.

3) Let the mystery be

A Leftovers junkie learns to accept mystery when it comes to life’s great questions.

4) America has a race problem. What am I going to do about it?

What we can do as individuals to help heal the disease of racism.

5) Why I’m so pumped about Andy Grammer

Celebrating the young Baha’i musician’s success in an era of artistic cynicism.

Here’s to 2016. Much love and Happy New Year to all.

-“Ed”

Seriously? Yes, of course Christians and Muslims worship the same God.

I recently became acquainted with the story of Larycia Hawkins, a professor at a Evangelical Protestant college here in the U.S. who was suspended for publicly asserting that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. What I found particularly remarkable about this story wasn’t what it revealed about the current state of free speech on college campuses, currently a red-hot subject of debate. What was more striking was that, apparently, many people somehow believe that Christians and Muslims worship different gods.

Here’s how one particular article about Hawkins kicked off:

Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God? It’s a question that has bedeviled theologians and everyday believers for centuries.

I almost lost my souvlaki sandwich reading this sentence. Have theologians really been debating this for centuries? If so, then shame on them for such a massive waste of time. Continue reading

To defeat racism and bigotry, make friends with some racists and bigots

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When I was in 7th grade, my classmate’s father died of cancer. He took some time away from school, and during that time, my mother encouraged me to express my condolences to him when he got back. Being naive and stubborn, I resisted. “I’ll be reminding him of the fact his dad died, and just make him feel worse,” I argued. My mother responded that I didn’t understand, and that people appreciate these gestures, however simple, when they experience loss. And besides, she told me, it was my duty to acknowledge it. To pretend that nothing had happened would be much worse.

My friend eventually came back to school. In the days following, he tended to sit near the back of the classroom. He was more subdued and quiet than before, and rarely talked in class. I never expressed my condolences, or even acknowledged that he’d lost his dad. It’s hard to remember why, but I think I was scared of how he’d feel and how he’d receive the gesture. Maybe I was scared I’d say the wrong thing, say something stupid.

I was reminded of this episode a couple years ago after a string of highly-publicized instances of violence against black people in America. It had been a depressing series of events, culminating with Eric Garner’s now famous “I can’t breathe” chokehold-induced heart attack at the hands of the NYPD. The nation, it seemed, had reached a racial boiling point, a fragile equilibrium where smoldering suspicion and anger could explode in unpredictable directions.

In many ways, these events felt to me like a friend’s relative had died. I myself was saddened and afraid; how much worse must the feeling be, I wondered, for my black friends and colleagues experiencing these spectacles in a much more personal way? I didn’t want to make the same mistake I did as a kid, to continue on and ignore it, to pretend that nothing had changed. Somehow, I wanted to acknowledge the obvious. I wanted to express my condolences.

Continue reading

Let the mystery be

hubble-new-monkey-head-nebula-1600My wife and I have really gotten into HBO’s The Leftovers, now its second season. The Leftovers is about how people from one particular town deal with the sudden, seemingly random disappearance of millions of people from around the globe into thin air. It’s one giant allegory, tied together with fantastic acting and compelling characters.

This season the producers have picked an interesting choice of music to accompany the opening credits. It’s a song called “Let the mystery be” by Iris Dement, whom I’d never heard of until recently. (Give it a listen here.) The song is about accepting mystery in life, especially when it comes to life after death. As the opening goes:

Everybody is a wonderin’ what and where they all came from.
Everybody is a worryin’ ’bout where they’re gonna go when the whole thing’s done.
But no one knows for certain and so it’s all the same to me.
I think I’ll just let the mystery be.

Some say once you’re gone you’re gone forever, and some say you’re gonna come back.
Some say you rest in the arms of the Saviour if in sinful ways you lack.
Some say that they’re comin’ back in a garden, bunch of carrots and little sweet peas.
I think I’ll just let the mystery be.

The song’s tone is light and folksy, but this clearly means something important to the artist. As it turns out, Iris Dement was raised in an ultra-religious Pentecostal family in Arkansas, but lost her faith in the church as a teenager. Continue reading

Is the world getting worse?

holding-earth-1-1414853Frequent readers of this blog know a big chunk of time here is spent discussing the world’s great problems, as well as the moral and spiritual changes we need to make to meet those problems head on. Oftentimes this exercise gets to be a downer, mostly because it serves as a reminder of just how daunting those problems truly are.

What’s particularly difficult is to get a sense of whether or not things are getting better or getting worse. I found some new perspective on this recently in an unexpected place, when, while sorting through a box of old books, I found the comic book V For Vendetta and opened it up to its preface:

My youngest daughter is seven and the tabloid press are circulating the idea of concentration camps for persons with AIDS. The new riot police wear wear black visors, as do their horses, and their vans have rotating video cameras mounted on top. The government has expressed a desire to eradicate homosexuality, even as an abstract concept, and one can only speculate as to which minority will be the next legislated against. I’m thinking of taking my family and getting out of this country soon, sometime over the next couple of years. It’s cold and it’s mean spirited and I don’t like it here anymore. Goodnight England.

That was the author, Alan Moore, writing in 1988. In retrospect the level of hyperbole is almost laughable. But that’s only because it’s hard to look back nearly 30 years and try and understand the things people back then were preoccupied with, even though they were legitimate. Back in the 80s people barely understood how HIV worked — Eddie Murphy’s standup routine famously joked about a lonely housewife contracting AIDS by kissing a gay friend on the cheek — and imagined a world epidemic of potentially bubonic plague-like proportions. The Berlin Wall was still a thing, and though the US and USSR were in a process of detente, people still contemplated the possibility of mass extinction from nuclear war. Here in the US, crack cocaine was exploding, as was violent crime in US cities; New York had more than five times as many murders in 1988 than it had last year.

I bring all this up only to make the point that every generation finds it far too easy to say that the world is hopeless and getting worse. In many ways, in fact, things are getting better. Continue reading

Whoever said “fight fire with fire” didn’t properly understand the concept of fire

When I was a kid, a handful of English language expressions baffled me. I distinctly remember, for instance, a second grade classmate using the phrase “That’ll be the day” in school. The entire class seemed to burst out laughing while I looked around confused. Maybe it was because my parents were immigrants, and we didn’t tend to use a lot of English slang and idioms in our house. But who knows.

One expression which I still don’t get is “Fight fire with fire”. I understand how and why people use it, of course. It’s to suggest that sometimes it’s best to resist a particular force with the same kind of force. But why fire? I always knew, for instance, that water put out fire, not more fire. One of my favorite books as a little boy was Mr Strong, in which the hero douses a panicked farmer’s burning crops with a barn full of river water, earning him a bounty of fresh eggs (it’s kind of a weird book). In any case, you can imagine that as a kid, when even little things lead to puzzlement and provoke curiosity, this was a major dilemma.  I was reminded of this recently when I once again came across Abdu’l-Baha’s oft-quoted passage about resisting the temptation to meet anger and aggression with more of the same. In a talk in Paris in October 1912, he said (my emphasis added):

I charge you all that each one of you concentrate all the thoughts of your heart on love and unity. When a thought of war comes, oppose it by a stronger thought of peace. A thought of hatred must be destroyed by a more powerful thought of love. Thoughts of war bring destruction to all harmony, well-being, restfulness and content…

If you desire with all your heart, friendship with every race on earth, your thought, spiritual and positive, will spread; it will become the desire of others, growing stronger and stronger, until it reaches the minds of all men.

In other words, Abdu’l-Baha’s injunction was the very antithesis of “fight fire with fire”. It was very much “fight fire with water”. Negativity, aggression, hostility, suspicion, conflict — these things can never be extinguished with equal and opposite force. The conflagration only seems to flail from side to side, only to violently spread in new directions.

I bring this up only because I sense this approach — simply put, to overwhelm hatred with love — is increasingly coming to be seen as quaint and passe. It wasn’t always like that; think of the best-known songs of the 1960s, for instance, for a sense of how that generation approached the great conflicts of the day. The Youngbloods’ iconic Get together, still popping up on the radio today, is just one example. It starts:

Love is but a song to sing
Fear’s the way we die
You can make the mountains ring
Or make the angels cry
Though the bird is on the wing
And you may not know why

Come on people now
Smile on your brother
Everybody get together
Try to love one another
Right now

Is there anywhere in pop culture where this sentiment is currently being echoed? Are there any prominent political or social leaders championing that approach? Today, our public problems are seen through the lens of one party’s triumph over another, doubling-down on futile, tail-chasing political conflict. Our national debate on race is laced with anger, as if centuries-old prejudice can be wiped away with the right amount of outrage. Issues of international security are boiled down to how best to destroy violent fanaticism with violent explosions.

Fighting fire with fire has never made sense. And it never will.

The dirty secret behind Europe’s migrant crisis

I’m not sure exactly how to feel about Europe’s migrant crisis, whereby 1.4 million individuals fleeing war or economic calamity are expected to seek refuge within the continent by the end of next year. It’s been startling, to put it mildly, to read about the risks some of these people took to escape their home countries, and the catastrophes that some of them have experienced. But beyond that, I hope and pray that the crisis forces a dialogue about the massive movement of human beings around the globe that will need to occur over the next several decades.

To illustrate what I mean, take a look at the chart below. It shows UN population projections in developing (i.e. “poor”) countries next to those in developed (“rich”) countries over the next century. I lump in China with the rich countries for two reasons: one is that China, though still poor by most measures, is rapidly converging towards being developed; and the other is that it’s facing the same potential slow-motion population disaster as places like Europe and Japan, thanks in large part to its one-child policy.

As you can see, the rich world is basically facing an epic storm of receding population levels, an issue that is destined to become more and more noticeable in our lifetime. As population growth turns negative in these countries and as their populations age, it will put huge pressure on fiscal budgets — think of all the money the government must come up with to pay pensions to an aging population, in the face of a shrinking pool of income tax payers. It also exacerbates the problem of sluggish aggregate demand and deflation, already a major issue in places like Japan and Europe.

So the rich world already has a need for young, able-bodied workers, and will likely need more and more of them in the years ahead. Guess what? There are huge numbers of such people in the developing world, ready to pack up and come work in the rich countries, often for wages you and I find substandard but which represent a giant leap forward from the developing country status quo. And it’s likely that as developing country populations explode, and especially as issues like climate change destroy living conditions in many of these — more Syrias, in other words — there will be even more workers from poor countries looking for new places to live.

Meanwhile, economists have long highlighted the enormous gains to poor country residents from just small increases in international labor mobility. An oft-cited study on the economic implications for poor country residents immigrating to the United States, for instance, estimated a four-fold increase in real wages for the typical worker. But freer labor mobility should not be seen as an issue of charity. In reality, developed economies will soon become as desperate for young people to come in as today’s refugees currently are to get out.

So rich countries need workers, while poor countries have too many. The question is, Will this transaction actually take place? The economic case is unmistakably clear; without expanding their labor forces through immigration, rich countries are headed for a slow-motion economic train wreck. The stumbling block is not scientific evidence but pure, good-old-fashioned prejudice. We all see the need for more workers in places like Germany, Japan, and America. Let’s be real: We just don’t feel comfortable with them being Turkish, Indonesian, or Mexican.

This is why seemingly squishy, airy-fairy ideas such as “loving thy neighbor” and “universal brotherhood” are so important and potentially powerful. The tar of prejudice is so thick that whole societies would rather commit the equivalent of economic suicide than let brown-shaded, funny-accented people to join their nations. World unity is not some utopian ideal; it’s a matter of economic survival.

As Shoghi Effendi put it nearly 80 years ago:

The anarchy inherent in state sovereignty is moving towards a climax. A world, growing to maturity, must abandon this fetish, recognize the oneness and wholeness of human relationships, and establish once for all the machinery that can best incarnate this fundamental principle of its life.

The problem is daunting, but the solution is simple. Only stubborn prejudice and fear stand in the way.

When “get rich quick” goes mainstream

A friend of mine from college tries to get me to join his fantasy football league every year. For the past decade or so I’ve declined. I used to do it when I was younger, and enjoyed it when I did, but it was such a time suck that when I went to grad school (and later, got married and had kids) I wisely elected to sit on the sidelines.

This year, for whatever reason, I succumbed to the pressure and joined the league. (I named my team “McNally’s Revenge”, after the alleged ball deflation equipment guy from my beloved New England Patriots). But pretty soon, I realized that fantasy sports has changed a lot over the past decade since I’ve been out of the game. For one, I’m trying to do the whole thing on my iPhone, which I find dizzyingly confusing, which in turn makes me feel dumb and old. But more significantly, the element of money — always lurking in the shadows of fantasy sports, of course — seems to have been shoved to the forefront. Fantasy sports, apparently, is no longer about talking trash to your friends and ripping eachother off with shady player trades — you know, good wholesome fun. Apparently, It’s now about becoming a millionaire overnight.

How else can I make sense of the fact that Boston’s South Station is completely plastered with Draft Kings advertising? These days one-day fantasy sports ads are inescapable, not only in places — both real and virtual — where young, male sports fans congregate, but places as universal and banal as the city train station. The sudden ubiquity of these ads — seriously, I had never heard of this concept a few months ago — should tell you something about the outrageous profitability of the one-day fantasy sports business, and the rapid ascendancy of Fan Duel and Draft Kings in particular, companies that have rocketed to prominence in the past couple of years. Continue reading