Your Beautiful Backstory

When I lived in Morocco, I learned devotion meant cabbies would park on any curb to unfurl prayer mats as the adhan echoed through Tangier’s cobblestoned streets. I realized a prince rooming across the hall was merely another human being. I discovered being American entitled me to win astounding scores from my pre-calculus teacher, travel the country on a whim, join the headmaster for drinks following the school play, and break curfew.

IMG_5587I came to appreciate that people see the world through different eyes. History and personality and culture color these lenses through which we apprehend existence. At the time, I was an avid runner. I ran every day after class, exploring neighborhoods that sprawled over the Mediterranean coast, bringing pedestrians up short with my bare legs, doubly shocking them with an Arabic greeting – As-salamu alaykum (peace be upon you). Through old slums, down along the salty port, upward between walled estates of affluent Europeans – my running circuits expanded to cover the entire city.

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Photo: Tim McRae

For my edification or perhaps for my safety, one of the guards at the American School introduced me to a local runner, Muhammad. He spoke decent English and brought me to the Tangier’s outskirts, then the countryside beyond. We cut down dusty dirt tracks and surveyed arid farmland. Sometimes we tested our speed against each other, sprinting fast back to the campus gates and collapsing on a redolent green to stretch. On one foray into the hinterlands, we rounded a thicket and nearly plowed into a bearded old man clad in a white robe and sandals. Alarmed, he stumbled back and yelled at us as we sped past.

“What did he say?” I asked Muhammad, afraid that he was angry with us for trespassing.

“He asked what we are running from, who is chasing us.”

I laughed. Muhammad grinned. And we ran on.

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My friend Muhammad leads on the left during a 15K race beside the waterfront in Tangier, Morocco. Photo: Tim McRae

Six weeks later, I found myself massed behind the starting line of my first ever road race, a 15K. At the sound of a pistol, Muhammad and I and a hundred others set off for five flat laps around a circuit near the waterfront. Moroccans are famously fast runners. Moroccan Khalid Khannouchi held the marathon world record shortly after my time in Africa. I watched the top seeded runners dash away as if I languished in a slow-motion twilight zone. They blasted past me on the far side of the median. Still I pressed on to do my best. Muhammad and I battled for advantage. The field became ever more strung out. When I passed alone under the shadow of some palms, a spectator stepped out from the crowd and bellowed in English, face contorted with hostility: “You’re going to lose, American!”

I returned his glare and ran on.

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Photo: Tim McRae

The alarmed rural peasant, an aggrieved race spectator, this privileged American exchange student – our worlds illustrate only a fraction of the breadth of human experience. Reflecting on these circumstances (and many more), I see huge divergence between the ways we know reality. I must accept the fact that we will not see eye-to-eye on a vast range of topics. Even here in the small town of Moab, where our views should align more closely, the lenses through which we see differ considerably.

How does a second-generation Mexican American relate to our politics and culture? Compared to a recent arrival from a big city, what is a lifetime Moabite’s perspective on this changing landscape? How do religion, family, gender, and unique life experiences inform the way your neighbor or your colleague see the world?

It comes as no shock that misunderstanding and offense are so common – an emoticon misinterpreted, a statement taken out of context, a subtext real or imagined, a motive assumed, a backstory unknown. Too often a natural human negativity bias and this confusing world join together to throw suspicion and judgment out-of-hand over people and concepts unfamiliar to us. Nature and hard experience have taught us that it’s safer to be paranoid, to reject perspectives different than our own.

51MfVDOlEkL._SX338_BO1,204,203,200_As counterbalance, Don Miguel Ruiz’s book The Four Agreements hits upon some key ideas, in particular: 1) Don’t make assumptions. My assumption was wrong regarding that Moroccan farmer who seemed angry. Muhammad’s translation revealed that he was only confused by our sudden presence. 2) Take nothing personally. I was furious with that man who bellowed at me during the race. I was the target of his antipathy, but his anger reflected only his perspective. It wasn’t about me. It was about him. Ruiz says, “When we take something personally, we make the assumption that they know what is in our world, and we try to impose our world on theirs.”

I no longer need to travel to a far-flung place like Morocco to appreciate that our standpoints are different. Mine and Muhammad’s. Yours and mine. Our neighbor’s and colleague’s. Experience of the human condition keeps piling up and reiterating daily: I should assume nothing and remember there are many ways, unfathomable or lovely, to see existence. Let us debate ideas and keep ourselves safe, but let us also acknowledge the vast unknown, usually benign, and often beautiful backstory of our fellow human being.

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Originally appeared in The Moab Sun News, June 23, 2016.

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Orphans Broke My Heart and Put It Together Again

While tutoring orphans in the Dominican Republic, I witnessed something I will never forget.

At dusk one evening, children from across the orphanage compound began to converge on the main courtyard. Blankets in hand, they ran barefoot to win an advantageous position and sit cross-legged on the flagstones. As the sun set, a group of upturned faces waited for the show.

“What’s going on?” I whispered to José, an orphanage staffer.

“It’s Wednesday,” he explained. “Every Wednesday night is Tarzan night.”

Tarzan_2004_cover“Oh,” I said, pretending this made everything plain.

José disappeared into the administrative building and soon returned rolling a TV stand before him. Children of all ages waited in utter silence, as if poised to see something miraculous. José withdrew a VHS tape from its jacket, inserted it in a dusty player, and adjusted the tracking to banish pesky static from an overused cassette.

Disney’s castle materialized in the dark. An animated feature began, bathing that sea of orphan children in blue light. It was the story of Tarzan, an orphaned child raised by gorillas in the jungle. Though he tries to be a good gorilla, Tarzan is different. His family is gone. He never feels as if he belongs.

I looked over those children and saw fifty humans absorbing this story and relating to it as I never could.

In the movie, people finally arrive in Tarzan’s jungle. Two of them, a naturalist father and daughter, choose to stay. They become Tarzan’s family. He is found. He belongs.

These orphans in the Dominican Republic yearned to be Tarzan. To be found. To become part of a family and be loved. The tale of Tarzan represented great hope to these children. And to me this experience drove home two unassailable truths. First, anybody who grows up with a loving family has already won. To exist alongside people who care about you, rather than inside an orphanage jammed with lonely lost children – that is a stroke of fortune greater than any treasure.

Second, I understood more deeply the power of hope. One of my idols, Charlie Appelstein, a youth care specialist from New Hampshire, always says, “Hope is humanity’s fuel.” Without hope for a better future, people have no energy to forge ahead. This is especially true for children who face tough circumstances.

IMG_0004-1Years later, I wonder where these orphans are today. I wonder if those two sweet boys who hugged me hard and long before I flew away have found someplace where they can be surrounded by people whose love they deserve. I like to believe they did. At the very least, I like to believe that they could find and build a family, given the right turns of luck and opportunity. The only thing that might make such goodness bloom in the world is hope. Hope has legs. It can carry us beyond the trials and hurdles that we face personally and perhaps as a species.

The other day I saw a bumper sticker that read, “Keep your hope for change. I’ll cling to my guns and religion.” For me, this threw sharp relief between the notion of hope and fear. Both states of mind motivate us. However, one is positive, it begs the question: what good can we create? It eschews the bitter flavor of paranoia and cynicism.

I have hope. And I pray that you do too, for our collective dreams are made manifest in the world every single day.

I hope we can formulate policies that make poverty, homelessness, crime, and orphanhood diminish. We’ve done it before; we can do it again. I hope we can continue to nurture our values of democracy, freedom, respect, rule of law, and equality; indeed, Western civilization sprang from these principles. I hope during the coming election year we can believe in good government run by honest people for the benefit of average Americans, a system of compromise through incremental improvements.

Of politics nowadays, David Brooks writes in the New York Times: “Compromise is corruption. Inconvenient facts are ignored. Countrymen with different views are regarded as aliens. Political identity became a sort of ethnic identity, and any compromise was regarded as a blood betrayal.”

We can do better. David Brooks knows it. I know it. You know it. As voters and social media users and engaged citizens, we should demand it.

Thank you, I will keep my hope for change, because almost everything good in this world – from sports to business to love to liberty to social stability – springs from positive yearning. Politically, we are like those orphans. In the courtyard of our country we sit together before an unknown future, mesmerized by a shared vision. And like those orphans, despite our differences, we all share almost exactly the same needs.

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Travails Into Triumphs

When I was six years old, my parents embarked on a long and awful divorce. When I was eighteen, getting hit by a car sent me into the twilight zone where years of memory were lost, my intellect plummeted to the level of a second grader, and speech and physical therapy became a way of life. Two days after I collided with that car, my grandmother was killed. I have suffered depression that stewed me in the fog of private desolation for weeks on end. I have slogged through three surgeries to fix broken bones.

broken-heart-sad-wallpapers-pics-for-boys.7I share these stories of adversity not because I feel special. Exactly the opposite. All of this stuff has taught me one very important lesson: behind each person I meet, behind every friend and family member, there are histories like my own. Everybody has suffered loss and trauma and fear – many folks far more than I have.

Sometimes we get a peek behind the curtain of people’s lives, a glimpse into the experience of those we encounter and know and love. When this happens, when we see the hurdles faced by others, a crucial aspect of being human becomes clear.

Nobody lives without hardship.

I worked with a young woman whose family suffered five deaths over two years. A friend once told me, voice trembling, about the night she was violently raped. I know a young teen who pines for the day she can move out of her house, away from her alcoholic mother. Due to an injury, my wife can no longer pursue her life’s passion. My stepfather has limped around since a landmine in Vietnam nearly removed his legs altogether. My best friend’s blood disorder almost killed him.

Though I can’t fully comprehend what it feels like to own these histories, I can try. What if we saw one another as those difficult events? What if I wore my brain injury as a hat? What if your irritating neighbor donned her daughter’s death as an apron? What if the moody boy walking past your house every afternoon bounced not a basketball but instead dribbled the day his mother left?

NameTag2I think we’d be gentler with each other. Also, some allowances might come in handy. I have a rotten short-term and working memory since being hit by that car. Please cut me a little slack when I forget your name. Each person around you has some kind of deficit caused by misfortune. Less patience. Only one leg. A perpetual sense of loss. Estranged family. Depression. Hopelessness. Anxiety.

Of course, nobody should be defined solely by the horrible stuff they’ve faced, so we shouldn’t stop here. Instead, we can acknowledge the past and go on to appreciate its products.

In honor of my loving parents and the upstanding adults who guided me growing up, I want to be known as a man who helps a youth mentoring program thrive. My friend told me she accepted rape as part of her past but will not allow it to ruin her future; she became a psychiatrist. 168986_10150396505740788_5844762_nThat young teen with the dysfunctional mother ought to be cheered for her resilience in the face of astonishing odds. With soccer no longer in the cards, my wife cultivates a new passion – rock climbing. After Vietnam, my stepfather could never go for long hikes, but he still established his own thriving small business and recently bought a bicycle that he rides every day. My friend with the blood disorder completed an Ironman-distance triathlon – 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, 26-mile run – in 11 hours 55 minutes.

At times, life is difficult for everyone. If we’re lucky, our friends and family and mentors walk beside us along the way to provide support when we need it most. As a result, many people I know have transformed travails into triumphs. In a world short on empathy, it’s good to exercise compassion because we don’t know what kind of tribulations might be rocking somebody’s world.

Like that young woman who watched so many family members die or commit suicide: she endured more than her fair share of misfortune. Somehow, she bounced back over the years instead of regressing. Sure, she owns some heavy baggage. But she keeps driving forward despite these moments of pain I will never understand.

Maybe I’m kinder to her, knowing what I know. The shape of your abundant past is a mystery to me, but with a little imagination and humility, I can be kinder to you too.

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Found outside the elementary school in Moab: GOAL… “To be respectful person.” Yeah, that’s my goal too.

Originally published in the Moab Sun News.

One Idea that Will Change Your Life

If you let go of preconceived notions, if at the very least you view this as a self-contained thought experiment, you’ll come away changed. Galen Strawson’s Basic Argument is very simple and therefore elegant. The paper offers some important insights about moral responsibility. What? Moral responsibility? Yawn.

Punishment takes on a new meaning when we consider the Basic Argument. (Source: Christian Graphics)

This is serious. The world’s penal systems rest on the concept of moral responsibility. Most folks judge other people’s behavior standing atop the foundation of moral responsibility. You’ll understand how powerfully this concept impacts your life once we get into it. So without further ado… The Basic Argument goes like this: 1. You do what you do, in any given situation, because of the way you are. 2. In order to be ultimately responsible for what you do, you have to be ultimately responsible for the way you are — at least in certain crucial mental respects. 3. But you cannot be ultimately responsible for the way you are in any respect at all. 4. So you cannot be ultimately responsible for what you do. (Incidentally, Mr. Strawson does an excellent job of presenting his own work here at the NY Times) Fooey! you say. That’s just a way to shirk one’s responsibility, to justify bad choices! Look. Nobody is ultimately responsible for what they do, yet people make great decisions all the time. This argument isn’t going to change that. In fact, this argument will change very little, except some people’s understanding, those people whose experiences have taught them to value logic. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s take it a step at a time. You do what you do because of how you are. We probably won’t disagree here. Why else would you do what you do? Because of the way someone else is? Of course not. You might eat chicken curry because you like it. You detest horrible pop music because you always have. You choose to learn BASE jumping because you have the inclination and because caution isn’t hardwired into your genes. Every predisposition and preference and decision you make is a product of who you are. It would be a hard sell to say: I do what I do not because of the way I am but rather because fairies tickle mushrooms, or because my parents messed me up (both of which would suggest somebody else was responsible for what you do anyway). I rock climb because that’s an activity I enjoy. I write because that’s an activity I find stimulating. I floss my teeth because I’m afraid of gingivitis. I mentor a kid because it’s rewarding to help somebody. I gulp down water because my experience and instinct taught me it quenches thirst, and I want to be quenched. I do all these things because of who I am. Simple as that. Can you think of any other reason you would do what you do OTHER THAN THE WAY YOU ARE? If so, please tell me. Now, to be responsible for your actions, you must be responsible for who you are. As we just saw, you do what you do because of who you are. If that’s true, and if you’re going to take responsibility for your predispositions and preferences and decisions, you must be responsible for how you are. In other words, you must have had some role in creating yourself.

Wall-E, like each of us, was created by the forces that shaped his “brain.” He didn’t create himself.

Ah. Here comes the crux of the argument: nothing can be causa sui – nothing can create itself. At first blush, that’s not hard to believe. I mean, a robot can’t create itself. A lamp can’t do so. A panda isn’t going to give birth to itself. And so on, including human beings. You didn’t make yourself. People begin to really take issue with the argument here, because we have the feeling, some unreasoned yet seemingly irrefutable sense, that we play a role in choosing who we are. However, because nothing can create itself, it becomes obvious that two things claim responsibility for creating the “me” which is ultimately responsible for my choices: 1) my genes, 2) my earliest experiences. In fact, we don’t get to choose either one, so this takes us to the last point in the argument: if you cannot be ultimately responsible for who you are, you cannot be ultimately responsible for the things you do, and therefore, moral responsibility is impossible. But, you might want to claim: I choose whether to do wrong or right, or you might say: I make the choice between stealing food or paying for it. Yes, you do, and always your choice is based on who you are, and since you can’t create yourself, you’re not ultimately responsible for what you choose. We do, of course, have an intrinsic sense of responsibility for our decisions, at least those of us with a conscience. Yet this is something also inherited from our genetic makeup and life experiences and therefore something for which we’re not responsible. The trajectory of our life can be selected, but the decisions always will be based on previous life experiences and innate proclivities that we didn’t independently select, so this proximal sense of responsibility is only illusion. It’s an illusion so powerful that we grant culpability to every human being that might treat us well or ill. Though we have good reason to do so in many cases (such as promoting beneficial behavior and protecting ourselves against dangerous circumstances), that doesn’t mean we’re correct in assigning praise or blame. Take any action somebody performs. Ask whether the decision was a product of who she is. Inevitably, any behavior consciously performed (any behavior done intentionally, because what else would we want to hold her accountable for?) will stem from who she is. Since she can’t ultimately be responsible in any way for who she is, she can’t be ultimately responsible for what she’s done.

Charles Whitman: Suffered a brain tumor that turned him into a murderer.

Here’s an apt example that serves to show how our choices – those decisions that seem to be made with independence and freedom – are simply products of wiring. An intelligent man began feeling ill. He noticed dramatic changes in his own emotional stability, his thinking. Hours after killing his wife and mother, he climbed into a bell tower and shot pedestrians down with a case of guns before being gunned down by the police. In his suicide note, he wrote that he couldn’t provide a logical explanation for his behavior and asked for an autopsy. The medical examiner found a tumor in his brain that impinged on the amygdala, a region of the brain “involved in emotional regulation, especially of fear and aggression.” It’s a simple case of a man carrying out decisions that were a product of an altered state of consciousness, one caused by a bundle of anomalous cells. (Read the full Atlantic article here.) The above is an extreme example, but it’s nevertheless appropriate because we are each and every one of us like this man – products of circumstances beyond our control. We inherited these neural structures. We were exposed to certain stimuli that shaped our personalities. Brain tumors strike at random all the time, something for which nobody is culpable. That is who we are. So I can do whatever I want? I can steal or kill or maim without being responsible for it? The answer hinges on the idea of the self, the concept ME. You – your experiences and genetic inheritance – are responsible, though you’d like to think there is a self separate from the mechanics of the brain. But remember, that brain in no way created itself, so it is the experiences and genetic inheritance that are ultimately responsible for the actions you’d call your own. In this society and in any society that I’d want to call home, we won’t allow a bundle of experiences and genetics to commit theft or murder or assault without recourse. Yet at the same time, to place blame verges on cruel or even downright barbarous when the criminal is an instrument of circumstances beyond his control. Tune in to a future post about real-world consequences of the Basic Argument. And in the meantime, take a shot at putting a hole in the Basic Argument. I dare you.