The problem with freedom

Gender and society satire from the 1890s

A satirical cartoon on gender roles in society from the 1890s

In the 1920s, tobacco companies sought to increase the number of women smokers. So for the Easter Sunday parade of 1929, a group of public relations and marketing experts hatched a brilliant plan on their behalf. They paid a group of young, attractive, fashionably-dressed women to march in the parade and, in unison, light up cigarettes. The women proudly exclaimed to the parade goers that they were smoking “torches of freedom“. Photos and stories of the women circulated wildly. Almost overnight, smoking had become a symbol of female independence and liberty.

I learned about this historical event years ago when I was in grad school. But it recently came to mind once again, amid the debate about freedom of expression following the attack on a French satirical newspaper earlier this month.

Rightfully, following that event there has been an outpouring of sentiment in favor of free speech and in defiance of terror and intimidation. I won’t get into my own thoughts on the specifics of this event, or some or the more controversial details — namely, the arrest by French authorities of dozens of individuals for hate speech following the free speech demonstrations, or the allegedly hypocritical policies of some of the demonstrating world leaders — subjects which have been covered ad nauseum already. (A good approximation of how I feel on these subjects is here.)

On the other hand, what I haven’t seen to this point, and what I personally am yearning for, is an intelligent discussion about not only our legal rights as citizens, but what it truly means to be “free” as a human being. And I think this is a discourse that religion, and especially the Baha’i Faith, can help move forward in a big way.

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Learning about honesty from your neighborhood car dealer

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A couple of months ago my wife and I bought a car from our local Volkswagen dealership. We needed a new car after our second child was born, and we ultimately settled on a Jetta Sportwagen, which I highly recommend for any parents out there who need a car big enough to fit two car seats, but are desperately trying to disguise the fact that they’re no longer cool.

After we agreed to buy the car and all the paperwork was signed (mostly by me, as my wife was home with the new baby), the salesman gave me a head’s up that I’d be receiving a survey via email about my experience at the dealership. “We’d appreciate it if you could give us 9s and 10s”, he said, referring to my survey responses.

At the time I didn’t think much of this comment, and just assumed he and his colleagues would benefit from some positive feedback. But when the time came came to fill out the survey — a simple, straightforward electronic form that I can only assume most people go through in a minute or less — I grappled with my answers. Did I really think the presentation and cleanliness of the car showroom, for instance, was “truly exceptional”, which is what the survey instructions indicated that a 9 or 10 response was supposed to mean? The honest truth was that the experience at the dealership was good but nothing to call home about. I had bought a car from another VW dealership a few years earlier, and I found it hard to decide which buying experience left me more satisfied. How could I honestly say that this last one was something “exceptional”?

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Here’s what your Baha’i friend thinks about Islam

There seems to be a debate going on within American liberalism as to whether it makes more sense to defend Islam against its detractors, or criticize it in light of all the terrible things perpetrated in its name. (I say “liberalism” only, because I think the answer within American conservatism was decided long ago.) So I thought I’d just share some personal thoughts on this.

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On the futility of politics

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For a while I’ve wanted to write something about why Baha’is choose not to get involved in politics. I’ve kind of dragged my feet on this, mostly because it’s a difficult topic to write about, and is fraught with potential pitfalls. But given the number of international conflicts and other major news stories that have sprouted up  over the past couple of months, and the immense attention that some of these have received in the news and social media, I figured it was as good a time as any.

If you’re wondering why the Baha’is have not stood up and spoken publicly on these various conflicts — Israel vs Hamas, Ukraine vs Russia, the St. Louis protestors vs the police, etc. — then you are probably not alone. That’s because Baha’is actually make it a point not to make their voices heard on specific stories like these. I remember during the buildup to the Iraq War in 2003, for instance, as faith-based groups around the world were holding protests against the possibility of an American invasion, hearing the voices of some well-meaning activists criticizing the relative silence of the Baha’is. How can a religion so committed to peace and justice be so content, as I heard one person put it at the time, to “sit on the sidelines”?

The simple answer is that part of being a Baha’i is to make a commitment to stay out of politics, and to avoid taking sides in terms of one party, group, or nation over another, even as we stand in favor of certain principles.

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The happiness scam

Rainn Wilson, the comedic actor best know as “Dwight” from The Office, delivered a brilliant commencement speech to the graduating class at USC a couple of months ago. For those who aren’t aware, Wilson is one of the world’s best-known Baha’is, and has never been shy about broaching the topic of spirituality, especially with young people. Here he was at his best.

The topic of the speech was, more or less, how simply “pursuing happiness” can leave us feeling empty and unsatisfied, and how an attitude of selflessness can bring us a deeper feeling of fulfillment. Here’s an excerpt (a long one, but worth reading in its entirety):

Happiness is so fleeting. It’s like an amusement park ride. It’s like cotton candy. I mean, it looks so amazing: It’s delightful and fluffy and pink and you joyously eat it and then almost immediately regret your decision. Your fingers are sticky the rest of the day, and you’re undergoing an almost immediate insulin crash from the half pound of sugar that you just sucked down. You’re hungry again almost immediately and you begin the chase again for ingestible happiness right away. Happiness in our contemporary culture is something to be chased, something that’s just around the corner, something outside of ourselves. There’s a kind of a “if then” proposition about happiness. For instance: “If I get a job at a top law firm then I will be happy.” “If I get married to the perfect man or woman then I will be happy.” “If I can become more popular then I will he happy…” etc. It’s the whole point of commercialism, too, and materialism. If you buy this car, eat this cheeseburger, wear these jeans, use these headphones, then you will be happy. And you know what? Buy the jeans, eat the cheeseburger, the result is never happiness. Joy or contentment. It’s always the same. We’re never satisfied. It never meets our needs fulfills our standards. We’re left empty, wanting something more. It’s cotton candy. Fleeting, sticky, unsatisfying….

Volunteering, helping, showing kindness, sacrificing your time and energy, giving selflessly, these are the things that will give you the greatest human flourishing. And what a strange dichotomy in this “me me me” culture we live in. Focus on yourself: you’ll find only misery, grasping, depression, emptiness, dissatisfaction. Focus on helping others: joy, contentment, gratitude, happiness… So go forth young men and women spiritual beings all, with your pieces of paper, your souls and your hearts, go forth and undertake our new national motto, “life liberty and the pursuit of service”, and your lives will be the richer for it.

This is potentially tricky territory — I mean, the speaker is basically telling young people at one of the happiest moments of their lives not to strive to be happy — and I truly admire his courage. But the main message here should not be controversial. That’s because, as pointed out in the speech, science actually confirms that acts of selflessness tend to lead to greater happiness. (Nevermind that it represents a core teaching of nearly every religion.) And yet, from my perspective the fact that selflessness, rather than selfishness, is more likely to lead to fulfillment and life satisfaction gets a shamelessly low level of attention in the modern discourse. Instead, we are hit with a steady stream of messages preaching the opposite, including the semi-sarcastic-yet-inescapably-depressing image below, which I captured at our local mall food court:

Spiritual enlightenment was never so easy nor delicious

In the same tradition as the religious faiths founded before it, the Baha’i Faith in countless passages warns us not to rely on the material world for fulfillment. One of my favorite passages written by Baha’u’llah is this one (which I’ve shared before), which compares the world itself to a desert mirage:

The world is but a show, vain and empty, a mere nothing, bearing the semblance of reality… Verily I say, the world is like the vapor in a desert, which the thirsty dreameth to be water and striveth after it with all his might, until when he cometh unto it, he findeth it to be mere illusion.

For us to look to something bigger than the world around us is not an unnatural act or suppressing our natural selves. The human being’s true nature, Baha’u’llah teaches, is more noble than that. In the same passage as the one above, He compares the childish obsession with our material lives with a fallen bird:

Ye are even as the bird which soareth, with the full force of its mighty wings and with complete and joyous confidence, through the immensity of the heavens, until, impelled to satisfy its hunger, it turneth longingly to the water and clay of the earth below it, and, having been entrapped in the mesh of its desire, findeth itself impotent to resume its flight to the realms whence it came. Powerless to shake off the burden weighing on its sullied wings, that bird, hitherto an inmate of the heavens, is now forced to seek a dwelling-place upon the dust.

Why is this so difficult for us to learn? How come we feel compelled to chase after things that are so ineffective in delivering real happiness? It’s universally acknowledged that true happiness can’t easily be achieved with material things. And yet, we still keep reaching for the cotton candy.

Real faith is admitting that you don’t know

Fox's "Cosmos" has been refreshingly profound

Fox’s “Cosmos” and the deeper conversation about science and faith

My wife and I have been getting into the new Fox show “Cosmos”, a reboot of the old Carl Sagan show which (I’m told) raised the country’s awareness of science and inspired countless young people. I truly hope it’s a success and stays on the air, though I’m not so sure the appetite will be there in the end. We’ll see. So far, at least, the reviews appear to be good and the show is great in terms of combining scientific content and entertainment/style.

One thing I’ve been pleasantly surprised by is the show’s willingness to tackle the dichotomy of science and religion. This is especially refreshing to a Baha’i who was taught from childhood that the two branches of human knowledge are complements rather than adversaries. Abdu’l-Baha once said:

Religion and science are the two wings upon which man’s intelligence can soar into the heights, with which the human soul can progress. It is not possible to fly with one wing alone! Should a man try to fly with the wing of religion alone he would quickly fall into the quagmire of superstition, whilst on the other hand, with the wing of science alone he would also make no progress, but fall into the despairing slough of materialism.

In the very first episode of “Cosmos”, we’re introduced to a historical figure named Giordano Bruno (whom I had never heard of previously) who was viciously persecuted and ultimately burned at the stake by the Catholic authorities in the 16th century. His crime, apparently, was to insist that the Earth was not in fact the center of God’s creation, and that a limitless Creator must necessarily imply a limitless creation.* Bruno was not a rigorous scientist (Galileo, the show tells us, later proved with a telescope some of Bruno’s hunches), yet he was an astounding spiritual visionary.

After watching this I was compelled to think: Every person of faith should be a Bruno. For Bruno’s epiphany, as I understand it, was not that he had stumbled upon a new truth. It was quite the opposite: it was that he understood that the human being is but a speck of dust in God’s infinitely mysterious creation, and that God’s universe must range well beyond the outer limits of the solar system. Other words, to encapsulate God within the confines of human experience is to violate all of our previously held assumptions about the His nature.

For a religious person to claim he understands God is about as senseless as a physicist to claim he understands the origins of the Big Bang. After all, how can we understand something that originates outside of our physical universe (that is, what caused the Big Bang, or whether or not anything “caused” it in the first place)? As we are constrained by the boundaries of our own physical reality, we can begin to understand something so profound only by observing its imprints on the universe around us. Coincidentally, astrophysicists recently took a big step forward in proving the Big Bang recently, by finally detecting long-theorized gravitational waves.**

The Baha’i Writings tell us repeatedly that God is an “Unknowable Essence”, too large and overwhelming to be comprehended by His creation. It is not the first nor the last religion to preach this message. The ancient Baghavad Gita, for instance, recounts the story of Arjuna’s conversation with Krishna, the Incarnation of God in human form. In it, Arjuna begs Lord Krishna to reveal his true form. At last Lord Krishna accedes to this request, but for just a moment. The result is for Arjuna to beg Krishna to once again cover up this overwhelming vision:

O all-pervading Visnu, seeing You with Your many radiant colors touching the sky, Your gaping mouths, and Your great glowing eyes, my mind is perturbed by fear. I can no longer maintain my steadiness or equilibrium of mind. / O Lord of lords, O refuge of the worlds, please be gracious to me. I cannot keep my balance seeing thus Your blazing deathlike faces and awful teeth. In all directions I am bewildered.

Like I’ve written before when discussing addiction, humility is part of being a faithful person. But humility is about more than just admitting to ourselves that our powers and capabilities are limited (a powerful tool in defeating alcoholism and other vices). It is also about admitting the same about our capacity for knowledge. It’s about admitting that our puny minds can not comprehend something as vast as the universe in its entirety, let alone the Creator who dwells beyond the cosmic curtain.

As we were watching that “Cosmos” episode tell the story of Bruno’s rejection and eventual execution, my wife aptly remarked, “No wonder so many scientists don’t believe in God.” It’s true. To any scientific thinker, the idea of God as a white-bearded grandfather or a man with an elephant head is about as believable as a giant Flying Spaghetti Monster (which is a real thing, by the way). I hope more and more scientists come to realize that there are other ways to have faith, and that some of us approach the concept of belief with the same humility and wonderment with which they themselves approach science.

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*I’m hardly an expert on this, but I realize the show may not have given the whole story on Bruno and why he was so heavily persecuted. For some discussion on this, see here.

**Science-y person reading this… please explain this in dummy’s terms for us.

Slightly random thoughts on the Baha’i Fast

Today marks exactly the middle of the Baha’i Fast, which runs from March 2nd through 20th each year. Without boring you with useless details about what I’ve been eating for breakfast, here are some slightly random thoughts on this special time of year, in no particular order:

– It took me a while to figure out that the fast was a largely symbolic, spiritual gesture, and not an exercise in not eating. When I was a teenager, I would either 1) eat obscene amounts of food in the morning and evening in hope of staving off hunger as long as I could, or 2) sleep through as much of the day as possible. As I got older, I kinda realized that there’s nothing virtuous about, for instance, rushing to eat an entire box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch in one’s pajamas as the sun comes up.

– One of the most beautiful and telling passages from the Baha’i Writings about the Fast is this one below, from ‘Abdu’l-Baha:

The material fasting is abstaining from food or drink, that is, from the appetites of the body. But spiritual, ideal fasting is this, that man abstain from selfish passions, from negligence and from satanic animal traits. Therefore, material fasting is a token of the spiritual fasting. That is: `O God! As I am fasting from the appetites of the body and not occupied with eating and drinking, even so purify and make holy my heart and my life from aught else save Thy Love, and protect and preserve my soul from self-passions… Thus may the spirit associate with the Fragrances of Holiness and fast from everything else save Thy mention.’ (Star of the West, v.3, p. 305)

– In my slightly-less-naive current state, I think I’m getting the hang of the spiritual part. Prayer helps, in the morning when the sun comes up and in the afternoon when it sets. This year my wife, even though she’s pregnant and thus not fasting, has helped me a lot simply by settling down the house, corralling our two year old, and sitting down everyone around the dinner table to say a short prayer before sunset. That’s made a big difference in the feel and mood of the whole period. And it’s not an easy task to get everything still even for that brief moment, mostly because our toddler has the energy and table manners of a rabid chimpanzee.

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Greed as epidemic, from Wall Street to Main Street

batch of dollarsLast month the New York Times published a fascinating and much talked about op-ed by Sam Polk, a former derivatives trader turned socially-conscious entrepreneur. If there’s such a thing as a must read, this would be it.

In Polk’s piece, he talks about his time on Wall Street and what he believes was his out of control addiction to money. There are countless passages that are worthy of pasting here, but here’s just a sample:

At 25, I could go to any restaurant in Manhattan — Per Se, Le Bernardin — just by picking up the phone and calling one of my brokers, who ingratiate themselves to traders by entertaining with unlimited expense accounts. I could be second row at the Knicks-Lakers game just by hinting to a broker I might be interested in going. The satisfaction wasn’t just about the money. It was about the power. Because of how smart and successful I was, it was someone else’s job to make me happy.

Still, I was nagged by envy… I wanted a billion dollars. It’s staggering to think that in the course of five years, I’d gone from being thrilled at my first bonus — $40,000 — to being disappointed when, my second year at the hedge fund, I was paid “only” $1.5 million…

Like alcoholics driving drunk, wealth addiction imperils everyone. Wealth addicts are, more than anybody, specifically responsible for the ever widening rift that is tearing apart our once great country. Wealth addicts are responsible for the vast and toxic disparity between the rich and the poor and the annihilation of the middle class.

Polk’s depiction of Wall Street’s culture of voracious greed sounds like a Scorcese-like fantasy. But it’s hardly an exaggeration.

Like I’ve mentioned on this blog before, I work in the investment banking industry, but in research. All that means is that I’m a kind of glorified front-office nerd who works in tandem with bankers, traders, and salespeople, and who’s often called upon to discuss the markets with hotshot portfolio managers. Research isn’t compensated like those other job functions (I’ll get to that in a minute), but we’re close enough to the action to understand the cultural current that runs through a trading floor or a dazzlingly decorated hedge fund meeting room.

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On The Wolf of Wall Street and the subtle glorification of greed

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Martin Scorcese’s new film, The Wolf of Wall Street, about the famously decadent financial scam artist Jordan Belfort, is getting plenty of attention these days. But so is an op-ed by Christina McDowell, the daughter of one of Belfort’s former colleagues, who recently came out against what she sees as the film’s glorification of greed and recklessness. She writes:

You people are dangerous. Your film is a reckless attempt at continuing to pretend that these sorts of schemes are entertaining, even as the country is reeling from yet another round of Wall Street scandals. We want to get lost in what? These phony financiers’ fun sexcapades and coke binges? Come on, we know the truth. This kind of behavior brought America to its knees.

And yet you’re glorifying it… Did you think about the cultural message you’d be sending when you decided to make this film? You have successfully aligned yourself with an accomplished criminal, a guy who still hasn’t made full restitution to his victims, exacerbating our national obsession with wealth and status and glorifying greed and psychopathic behavior.

I went to see The Wolf of Wall Street on New Year’s Day. As for whether or not the film glamorizes the famous greed and excess of Belfort and Stratton Oakmont… well, there is a lot of grey area here, much of it by design.

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What counts as a miracle?

handsFor the past year or so my wife and I have hosted prayer gatherings in our home, basically just a small gathering of friends getting together to share food, prayers, readings, reflections, etc. A couple of weekends ago, our theme was “miracles” in honor of Christmastime, which sparked a uniquely vibrant discussion.

Almost everyone present said they’d experienced a miracle at some point in their lives. But what was even more striking for me was the number of stories that were more spiritual in nature than physical. One friend recounted the appearance of a helpful stranger out of nowhere as he struggled to make it back home for a loved one’s funeral. Another talked about the sudden lifting of a burdensome feeling of hate she had harbored for her stepmother, one she’d carried for years after her mother’s passing.

We often hear about miracles, especially around this time of year, but they’re often earthly in nature. Sometime these miracles take the form of diseases that suddenly cure themselves, or serendipitously finding money in a time of financial need, or succeeding against all odds in some competition or in one’s career.

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