~ Does Classifying Addiction as a Disease Help or Hurt Addicts?

(Let me start off by saying that I realize addiction is classified as a disease by medical professionals. So this post is not about the legitimacy of labeling it as such but whether it is helpful or hurtful to addicts to classify their problem this way.)

If someone stopped you on the street and asked you to name 5 diseases, well, first you’d probably take a few steps back and ask why the hell they want to know. Your next move might then be to name illnesses like cancer, cystic fibrosis, Parkinson’s, ALS, or MS. Most of us don’t think “addiction” when we hear the word disease.

Yet recently, this term has been used often when discussing the great actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s overdose on heroin. People have shown great compassion for Hoffman’s struggles with addiction, expressing sadness over his passing and shaking their heads at yet another soul lost to a compulsion they could not control. And while I am glad this tragedy has at least got people talking about this all too common but overlooked problem in our society, I still feel that twinge of resentment, that tiny flicker of anger when I hear that word, disease, used in reference to addiction. Perhaps this is because when I think of disease, I picture an illness that a person has acquired through no fault of his/her own, a condition that has no relationship to the behavior of the individual or the choices he/she has made.

But this isn’t entirely true for addiction. Because even with addiction, there are choices. A choice to do drugs (and this includes alcohol). A choice to escalate that use. A choice to not stop using in spite of the negative effects it has on yourself and others.

And yet, I recognize that there are many other “diseases” in which choice plays a significant role. Take Type II diabetes or lung cancer for example. Not everyone who has these illnesses “brought it upon themselves”, but more often than not, these conditions are the result of years of bad decisions. Now that doesn’t mean that I would say to someone with lung cancer, “good, you got what you deserved.” Or that I wouldn’t have compassion for those who are suffering from Type II diabetes, even if it is the result of their own choices. It just means I find the term disease troubling when used to describe these conditions because its connotations somehow imply that the person suffering shares no responsibility for their plight.

Don’t get me wrong. I realize that once someone is addicted it is not a simple matter of will power to overcome the temptation to use. However, I resent the idea that an addict is “powerless” over their addiction. I resent it because it does those battling their addiction a disservice while also providing them with a convenient excuse when they sometimes lose a battle.

Think about it. If there was no element of volition in addiction, then why is it that some addicts are able to stay sober while others are not? If it is truly a “disease” in which one is powerless, then how does one get or stay sober in the first place? Again, I’m not saying that there isn’t an element of compulsion or that the brains of addicts have not been altered due to their addiction. Just that in the struggle to stay sober, choice plays a role and that using the word disease to describe addiction sometimes undermines this fact. Furthermore, it discredits the efforts of the “recovering” addict as well. Staying sober is a hard, hard task. One that requires commitment and strength and honesty and a network of support. So when we say that addiction is a disease in which the addict is powerless, it feels like we are also saying that their sobriety is not their own, not something that they clawed and climbed their way out of the darkness to achieve.

Furthermore, referring to addiction as a disease provides the addict with a convenient scapegoat when they do relapse. They often use this “diagnosis” as a way of avoiding blame or explaining away their mistakes. “It’s not my fault. It’s a disease” is something I’m sure many a loved one of an addict has heard before.

And so it is for these two reasons that I resent referring to addiction as a disease. It doesn’t help the addict or those affected by addiction.

What might actually help addicts is to rethink how we discuss addiction. Not just whether or not it’s a disease but how we can prevent people from becoming addicted in the first place. After all, no one smokes their first joint, takes their first shot, or snorts their first line thinking they will be an addict. We all think we will be the exception, even when we have had front row tickets to the main event our whole lives and know the predisposition for addiction lies deeply embedded in our DNA. Even then many decide to play Russian roulette, never knowing whether they’ve lost or not until it is too late.

So this is what we should be focusing on when we talk about addiction: how to stop people from becoming addicts in the first place. To do this, we need to understand why some people become addicts and others do not. We need to know if there is an identifiable “tipping point” in which recreational behavior turns into something more sinister. Just when does a person’s brain chemistry or wiring change so that he or she is now an “addict”? Are there genetic tests that can determine the degree of one’s predisposition for addiction? Perhaps if we could tell people from a young age just how great their odds are, then maybe we could convince them to never pick up that beer or that joint or that pipe. Yes, most children of addicts already realize that they are at a higher risk for addiction themselves, yet there is no hard and fast rule for just how much so. Nor is there an explanation for why one sibling becomes an addict while the other does not. The one thing we do know is that the earlier one starts using the more likely he/she is to develop an addiction. Perhaps this should be emphasized in drug awareness programs rather than focusing on the immediate physical damage that can be done. Because the message we send to children is hypocritical, telling them not to drink as we lift our glass of wine. Maybe if instead of trying to scare them away from experimentation, we explain that waiting until their minds have fully developed will allow them to better enjoy the pleasure that mind-altering substances can provide, they might actually listen.

In addition to preventing addiction before it starts, we also need to know if there are different types of addicts (not just people addicted to different substances) so that we can better help people who become addicted. Currently, we rely on AA as the panacea for all addictions even though its long term success rate is abysmally low and it fails to recognize that addicts are a very diverse group of individuals. Because of this diversity, what helps one person stay sober may not be as effective for another. Sure, there may be some universal elements among all treatments, such as insisting on accountability for one’s actions, but there should also be some flexibility and individualization. Treatment should be tailored to the individual, perhaps combining pharmaceutical aids with behavioral modification therapy for one person while teaching another to place their faith in a higher power and to attend daily meetings.

These are the types of discussions we should be having in light of yet another life lost to addiction. Because even if Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s death was the result of his own poor choices, this does not mean we do not still mourn his passing.

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~ The fundamental difference between liberals and conservatives*

A Conservative’s Perspective on Income Inequality

I grew up in a Republican family, but I didn’t really know it at the time.  Politics weren’t discussed at the dinner table.  Still, Catholic school and my middle class upbringing were supposed to be enough to encourage me to follow in my father’s conservative footsteps.

And for a while, it worked.  I remember finding Anti-abortion pamphlets sitting among many other brochures in the vestibule of my church.  I was horrified by the pictures of aborted fetuses and for a brief period of my youth, vocalized these opinions to any who would listen.

And then, slowly, over the course of my twenties,   I grew up. I finally experienced the “real world,”  an event my dad prophesied would lead to the end of any liberal leanings.  According to him, once it was my money being thrown away on undeserving government programs, I would finally understand why Republicans had the right idea.

However, when I left my suburban bubble to learn about the “real world”, instead of my experience confirming the biases about the poor or illegal immigrants or certain ethnicities that had been part of my upbringing, I had an entirely different reaction.  In stepping outside of my own little world, I realized how fortunate I was to have been born within it.

And that confirmed my liberal leanings.  I recognized that my upbringing, despite being far from idyllic in its own ways, was much better off than 98% of other people’s childhoods.  And this did not make me superior. It just made me very, very lucky.   In my opinion, this perspective is the fundamental difference between conservatives and liberals.   Whereas I am extremely grateful to circumstance for the person I have become, most Republicans ascribe their good fortune to their own devices.   They are successful not because they always had food and shelter or because education was valued in their community or because they had a mother and father who loved and supported them, both emotionally and financially.  No, they are successful because they are hard-working individuals with strong morals and a determined spirit.   Sure, they might thank their parents and teachers, but in their hearts, they attribute their success mostly to themselves.   (Hence, the “I Build That” mantra that was spouted by Romney supporters during the 2012 election in response to Obama giving government infrastructure and policies the credit for many a business owner’s success.)

Conservatives also believe in the rags-to-riches stories.  That success is achievable by all, if they really want to work for it.  And to some small extent, they are right. There are individuals who have come from nothing and been successful.   However, these stories are always the exception and not the rule.  For every Ted Cruz, there are millions who were not able to overcome the unfortunate circumstances of their birth, who could not find a way to reshuffle the deck clearly stacked against them.  Are there also people who abuse the system?  Who make no attempt to overcome their unfortunate circumstances?  Sure there are.  But just like with the rags-to-riches stories, these are the exception rather than the rule.    And yet Republicans still try to justify policy based on these exceptions rather than acknowledging they are anomalies.

On the other hand, because I am a liberal, I thank fortune, just as much as my parents and the community I was raised in, for providing me with such a strong foundation.  I may not have what I currently have or be the person I am today without many of the fortunate circumstances of my birth, a factor which I had no hand in.  Would I have gone to college if it hadn’t been a foregone conclusion that I was going to attend?  Would I have cared so much about my grades if I hadn’t been surrounded by peers who had similar attitudes and upbringings?  Would I be healthy and fit if regular activity wasn’t a ‘normal’ part of life in my household?

Because I can never definitely answer these questions, I can’t say I entirely deserve what I have.  At least not when others have so little.  Sure, I worked for my accomplishments and am proud of them.  However, I also realize that someone currently living in poverty might have achieved similar feats if they’d been given the advantages that I was given.  Or that I might be like some of the impoverished, living paycheck to paycheck, a medical event away from disaster if I hadn’t been born where I was or hadn’t had the opportunities I’ve had.

This all comes back to the “nature vs. nurture” dilemma, which is at the heart of why I am liberal.   Even if “nurture” is only responsible for 50% of who we are, that’s still a significant factor in determining our fates.  And it’s usually a factor over which we have no control.  For example, my name is Kelly, a very common, acceptable name.   I didn’t choose it and I’m sure it hasn’t played a huge role in my success.  But in white middle class culture, it is considered “normal.”    In other cultures in my country, however, it’s common to give children unique names.  Unfortunately, this seemingly  innocuous choice made by parents can have a huge impact on that child’s future according to numerous studies showing the link between one’s name and success.   And yet,  children have no control over what they are named.   Unlike a young boy named Godzilla Gorilla Pimp Hunter (not made up), a “Kelly” is already at a great advantage from birth.   And again, this is not because I am superior but because I was lucky enough to be given a name society deems acceptable. (see the Key and Peele skit below for a humorous take on this idea.)

Some might argue that learning to overcome adversity and failure are just as important to success as one’s name, that we all face challenges in life and that rising above them is what makes us who we are.  And again, to some extent, this is also true.  However, in Malcolm Gladwell’s recent book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants, Gladwell argues that there is such a thing as too much adversity, a point at which hardship is detrimental rather than redemptive.  For example, maybe if one’s mother is an alcoholic, it makes that child stronger and more mature.  But, if a child’s mother is an alcoholic and the father is in prison and that child attends crappy schools with bad teachers and is surrounded by gang violence, then perhaps he/she is facing too much adversity to benefit from these challenges.  And consequently, it should be no surprise when that child repeats the mistakes of his parents and continues the cycle of poverty.

Regardless of your politics, you must admit that a child doesn’t choose the family or circumstances into which he/she is born, for better or for worse.  In fact, both parties would agree that a child is blameless and should not suffer or be disadvantaged because of who its parents are or where it was raised.   The strict anti-abortion stance most Republicans hold would support this viewpoint.   Yet, as soon as a child is born, these same people don’t want to enact policies that would allow these babies to have the same opportunities as their own children.  They begrudge funding for early education in poor, urban areas as they read to their own children before bedtime.  They blame hard-working single parents for not being in their children’s lives while denying attempts to raise the minimum wage.  They bemoan government support for easy access to cheap birth control while chastising women for having more kids than they can afford.   They blame schools and unions for failing our children while arguing against free-school lunches and competitive teacher salaries.

Liberals, on the other hand, support programs that try to eradicate the disparities created by the circumstances of birth and upbringing.   Rather than insisting we are all born equal, we acknowledge that some people are disadvantaged from the start.   Looking at the world as a whole, this is obvious.   And even in the land of opportunity, this is clearly true.     Sure, we are still responsible for our actions, regardless of our upbringing.  After all, life is about choices, and we must live with the ones we make.  However, no one can deny that where we are born makes certain decisions much more likely than others.  And liberals believe this fact should dictate our country’s policies, so that, at the very least, we all start out on an even playing field.  So that the race is not rigged at birth.  So that one’s future is not determined by mere luck.

This does not make me a communist or a socialist.  Just a realist and a liberal.

**DISCLAIMER:  I am sure some people will object to my broad use of these terms, so please understand that I am using them in the sense that they were used in my formative years.  For example, ‘liberal’ always had a slightly negative connotation growing up.   This is why I hate to even use political labels like Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative.  Inevitably, when we label or generalize, our statements become false to some degree.  So, although I do use these terms in my post, I don’t assume that one word encapsulates all the views and values an individual holds.   In fact, I wish we could eliminate the two party system as it encourages animosity and antagonism rather than cooperation.   What both sides need to focus on is helping the American people.  Not special interests, not corporations, and not small, radicalized pockets of the population.

~ Phil Robertson and Bristol Palin, you are bigots. Own it!

I don’t get the controversy with this Duck Dynasty scandal.   What Phil Robertson said was bigoted, but he has the right to express these beliefs.   Similarly, A&E and any other company have the right to find these comments distasteful and withdraw their sponsorship from Duck Dynasty.  (Unfortunately, their motives are almost certainly financial rather than moral which undermines their “taking offense” at what was said).   So I don’t get what the big fuss is.

On the other hand, I do think this controversy exposes the inherent hypocrisies, flawed logic, and lack of evidence used by bigoted people to justify their beliefs.  For example, you can’t say, “I’m not homophobic” but then claim that being gay is wrong or that gay people shouldn’t be allowed to get married or that the media should stop  “promoting the gay lifestyle.”  Maybe you’re not “phobic” in the sense that you have panic attacks if you are near a gay person, but you are in the sense that you are against someone else’s way of life and are unreasonably afraid of how those people will affect you and the rest of the world.   Seriously, what’s going to happen if gays can marry or are free to express their affection for one another just as heterosexual couples do?  Are you afraid gayness is a contagious disease? Or that if I see a gay couple on TV, I’m going to go, hmm, that looks like fun, I think I’ll go against my sexual preference and choose a lifestyle that will make my life harder.

Secondly, you can’t claim “I don’t hate gay people; I’m just for traditional marriage” without being a bigot of sorts.  After all, a bigot is defined as “someone who strongly and UNFAIRLY DISLIKES other people, especially a person who hates or REFUSES TO ACCEPT the members of a particular group” (Merriam Webster definition).   How is it not unfair to look down upon or refuse to accept someone because of how they were born?  Would it be okay to say that left-handed people should not be allowed to marry? Or that anyone who is not a brunette is immoral and unnatural and therefore, all red-heads and blondes should change their natural hair color so that they are like the majority of people?

I know this point will cause many people to make the argument that it’s a CHOICE, so let me explain why that assumption is wrong both with science and basic logic.

If you think about it rationally, why would people willingly choose a lifestyle that they know will make their life more difficult and that some, usually very vocal people, will say is repulsive or wrong?  Think about it! People have been BEATEN AND KILLED for being gay, so why would millions of people willingly choose to take on those risks unless they were strongly compelled by their nature to do so?    Choosing to be gay would be akin to choosing to be a black woman in 1800 America instead of a white man.  Neither is inherently better than the other, but during that time period (and probably now), it was much easier to be a white man than a black woman.  Similarly, since all humans desire acceptance and respect, why would any person DECIDE to be gay when they know that it will make these two things harder to achieve in most societies?

If you don’t agree with my logic, I hope you will listen to science.   According to Jason Koebler’s December 11, 2011 article in U.S. News & World Report:

“Scientists from the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis say homosexuality …is linked to epi-marks — extra layers of information that control how certain genes are expressed…. In homosexuals, these epi-marks… [are] passed from father-to-daughter or mother-to-son, explains William Rice, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California Santa Barbara and lead author of the study….Most mainstream biologists have shied away from studying it because of the social stigma,” he says. “It’s been swept under the rug; people are still stuck on this idea that it’s unnatural. Well there are many examples of homosexuality in nature, it’s very common.” Homosexual behavior has been observed in black swans, penguins, sheep, and other animals, [Rice] says.”

The article doesn’t mention that homosexual behavior is also extremely prevalent in Bonobo chimpanzees, which are the most peaceful of all the primates and very closely related to humans.

Furthermore, in Paul Mountjoy’s April 2013 article on The Washington Times website, the science of psychology provides additional support:

“40 years of study indicates homosexuality is not a personal choice. [In fact,] the APA has declared LBGT is not a mental illness or disorder…as both heterosexual and homosexual behaviors are normal aspects of human sexuality….[Moreover], sexual orientation is not simply a personal characteristic but defines a group of people in which one is likely to discover satisfying and romantically fulfilling relationships as essential components of personal identity.”

As both these sources and many others have suggested, heterosexuality and homosexuality are something significantly or wholly predetermined before we are born.   And if you still aren’t convinced being gay is not a simple choice, ask yourself when you chose to be straight?  At what moment in your life did you make that choice?

Maybe you’re not convinced you’re a bigot yet. Maybe you say you love gay people but hate their lifestyle, thinking this absolves you of bigotry.  Well, you are mistaken, especially when you consider that “discrimination against LGB’s in society-at-large, workplace and social settings produce increased levels of anger, stress and anxiety providing fertile breeding ground for depressive disorders and … suicidal thoughts” (Mountjoy).  Basically, you can’t say you “love” someone and then say things about their sexuality that would make them want to kill themselves.

Even if you say you are merely “for traditional marriage” as Bristol Palin did when commenting on the scandal, that’s just another way of saying you believe a certain group of people should not be accepted or have the same rights as you, which is bigotry.  And you believe this, not because of a crime they committed or because they have done you personal harm, but because of WHO THEY ARE and WHO THEY LOVE.    So no matter how you try to spin your anti-gay marriage position, you are a bigot.

Again, I’m not saying Bristol and Robertson and others who personally feel homosexuality is wrong (for what I’m assuming are religious-based reasons as I’ve yet to meet someone who is against gay marriage and not religious) should not be allowed to hold or express those opinions under the first amendment.  However, their opinions, which do HURT others who have NOT harmed them in any way, make them bigots.

Well, “you’re a bigot too!” someone like Bristol Palin would counter.  In fact, in today’s article by Tim Molloy of The Wrap, she claims that people like me are hypocrites and are merely being bigoted against people like her and Robertson who hold different beliefs.

Here’s why I’m not a bigot.  I am against your OPINIONS and NOT who you are as a human being.  Opinions are chosen and can and should change as one gains knowledge and experience whereas your sexual orientation, as proven above, is not something one can alter or something one chooses.   I’m not a bigot because I would never say, “Asian people shouldn’t be allowed to marry” or express disgust toward someone who has freckles, both uncontrollable and unchosen traits.  Even when it is a matter of personal choice, like with religion, I would still never tell someone they can’t practice their religion even though I find much about organized religion irrational and divisive (and being raised Catholic, I actually know what it’s like to be religious unlike homophobic people who are judging something they haven’t experienced and don’t understand).   Furthermore, I can bet that after reading this, no traditional marriage supporters will feel horrible about themselves or want to commit suicide, which further differentiates people like me from people like Robertson and Palin.  And this is the reality people like Palin ignore when they argue that LGBT and their supporters are hypocrites because they think everyone has to accept their lifestyle.   Because that’s not what all the outrage is about.  It’s not that you HAVE to accept them.  People are entitled to their beliefs regardless of how idiotic they might be. What they are upset about is people like Robertson feeling the need to share their intolerant views in a public forum when it has such a detrimental and harmful impact on those he is talking about.

Long story short, people who say bigoted things should not act offended or surprised when others call them bigots.  If you are bigot, own it.   That doesn’t automatically make you the worst person in the world or evil or even inhumane.  It doesn’t mean you have no redeeming qualities.  It doesn’t mean I’ll hate you or call you horrible names.  It just means you are a bigot.

*on a side note, I’ve participated on comment boards where I expressed similar sentiments only to be met with hatred and vitriol from people who profess to be “good people or Christians”.  So my question to anyone about to write a spiteful or mean or just plain idiotic comment (one I recently read said, “if my dog was as dumb as you, I would shoot it.) How does that support your position of moral superiority?   Or how does that support Jesus’s message of love and acceptance, Jesus the man who was often in the company of prostitutes and lepers and the outcasts of society?

~ On Whether to Lie to Your Child about Santa

One of the benefits of waiting until you are older to have children is that you have more time to think about your childrearing philosophy.  You watch others – friends, family, and strangers – interact with their children, noting what you wish to emulate and what you wish to avoid.  You spend years developing your opinions on serious questions: do I want him or her to intently focus on one interest or to indulge in a myriad of activities? Should I raise my kids in a specific religion or expose them to many?  How will I explain death, war and the existence of bad people to my child? These are some of the “big” questions I’ve considered.  However, I recognize as I’m sure most actual parents already know, questions arise daily and as with most things in life, we can only hope to get some of them “right”.

Because of the holiday season, my future parent ponderings have recently been focused on whether I want to lie to my children about Santa (although the same ideas apply to the tooth fairy, the Easter bunny, superheroes, and other assorted childhood legends.)  I say lie because essentially that is what we are doing when we spread the myth of a man in a red suit who slides down chimneys and rides on a sleigh led by flying reindeers.

Now, as a rule, I hope to be open and honest with my children, even about death, violence, and other aspects of life I’d like to shield them from.  I understand the urge to protect young ones from the ugly realities of the world.  Yet, ultimately, is it a good idea to keep out the harsh light of human failings for as long as possible and to raise children on these myths of magical beings who can perform miracles?

Don’t get me wrong.  I realize that there are some truths we should gradually introduce to children, that watching Breaking Bad or The Sopranos or Schindler’s List with a 7 year old might not be the best idea.   Yet, while most adults and parents would quickly agree to this, the majority of these same people have no problem convincing their children to believe in St. Nick, the North Pole, Elves on Shelves, and so on without seeing any danger in exposing their children to these stories.  In fact, not only do these cultural myths seem harmless; they are actually a lot of fun for children and adults.

But are they really good for us, particularly in the long-term?  And are we adults using these stories to cling vicariously to that childhood innocence we lost so long ago?

I can recall when I learned that Santa wasn’t real.  I felt betrayed and saddened, feelings similar to those I would experience years later when I realized that many of the stories I’d heard about Jesus and God were potentially untrue as well.  As an adult, I cannot help but wonder if this manipulation and deceit, however well-intentioned, might actually create children who are distrustful of adults and disillusioned about life.  I cannot help but feel there is something problematic about filling your child’s world with magic and miracles when they will inevitably learn that this is not the world we inhabit.   Is the temporary excitement and anticipation really worth the unavoidable letdown and disappointment?  Wouldn’t it just be better to help children slowly shed their innocence with carefully phrased truths rather than prolonging their naiveté with fantastical stories and logic-defying legends?

At the same time, while I want to always err on the side of honesty, I cannot imagine depriving a child of the wondrous world these myths create.  Not only would it be nearly impossible to avoid the ubiquitous Christmas references everywhere you go, but it might also be neglectful.  After all, childhood is the only time where the impossible is possible, when miracles can happen. * Because for there to be magic, there needs to be belief.  And unlike an adult who reads Harry Potter and is critical of the inconsistencies in the curses and spells the characters levy against one another, a child simply believes.  They have been given no cause to doubt what they are told is true and therefore it is true.  But as we get older, we lose this capacity for unmitigated belief.  To be an adult, for better or worse, is to see the world for what is really is, people for who they really are.  That is not to say that you are pessimistic and dispirited, only that you are more realistic in your endeavors and expectations.

So what is a parent or future parent to do?  Do you perpetuate the magical world of fairy tales and fantasies or do you simply help your child see the world for what it is and teach him/her how to make the best out of that reality?

As with most things in life, there is no clear answer, no definitive right or wrong.

Yet, while my ambiguous conclusion might make it seem like all my contemplations have been in vain, not having helped me arrive at a decisive answer, this is not entirely true.

What I do know is that a year after I determined there was no Santa, I stayed up all night on Christmas Eve, waiting anxiously on the couch by the fireplace and tree hoping for my misgivings from the previous year to be proven wrong.

Well, we all know the outcome of my standoff; my doubts were confirmed and my betrayal complete, an experience that should make me want to avoid replicating the same event with my children.   Instead, however, it taught me that it is not always the lie itself but rather the lack of explanation about why the lie was told that creates this sense of betrayal.

So for now, my working theory on how to approach this aspect of childrearing is to help children as they shed their naiveté, to not let them feel abandoned in this new world devoid of magic and myth.  Perhaps if someone had talked to me about why I had been led to believe in Santa or why we continued to pretend he was real for my younger brothers even though we all knew it was a lie, I wouldn’t have felt so disheartened and deceived.

And then again, maybe that wouldn’t have mattered.

The good thing is that I have some time to think about this decision although in the end, I think it will ultimately be a choice made by the heart rather than the mind.  Still, until then, I will be watching, contemplating, and listening, hoping to learn from those of you who have already tackled the toughest and most important job on earth.

**in my opinion, the word ‘miracle’ is overused and a misnomer.  For example, while a child being born, even one delivered during an earthquake under ten tons of rubble, is amazing and wonderful, it is not miraculous.  A miracle is something for which there is no logical or scientific explanation, which means there is no such thing as a miracle unless you can cease to believe that there is a scientific or logical explanation for everything.

~ On The Beliefs We All Share

Religion gets a bad rap nowadays.  And it’s not entirely unjustified.  Recently, there’s been the Catholic priest scandals, the religious extremists turned terrorists, and the glaring hypocrisy between many followers righteous beliefs and their poor treatment of other human beings.  Before that, there were the Crusades, the burning of witches, the Spanish Inquisition, and so on.  All these atrocities committed in the name of God, Yahweh, Allah, or some other deity.

So it’s easy to see why more and more people identify as “spiritual”, agnostic, or atheist than ever before.

But these people can be just as near-sighted as those they criticize.  They often fail to acknowledge the gifts bestowed on humanity by those who believe deeply in an entity or a being greater than themselves. For example, the Catholic Church, despite its many flaws, provides an estimated $5 billion dollars to charities each year according to The Economist. (It could do more, however, as this is less than 3% of its annual budget).  Religions have also given humanity beautiful stories with wonderful messages.  From the Bhagavad Gita to the Torah to the Bible to the Koran, these stories help us understand what it means to be a human and how to live a moral life.  More tangible testaments to religion exist in some of the world’s most lasting and awe-inspiring buildings and art.  There’s the Sistine Chapel, the Hagia Sophia, Michelangelo’s David, the Pantheon, the Acropolis, and even the great pyramids – all of which are tributes to faith, demonstrating the great heights mankind can achieve when it is united in a common belief.

So how do we reconcile the gifts religion has bestowed on our world with the many atrocities that are committed in its name?  What is the takeaway from this glaring contradiction?

Not that religion itself is bad but that belief is a powerful weapon we must use wisely.  What is wrong with many religions is not the religion itself; it’s the people who follow them, particularly those who use belief as a means of division rather than unification.   These people, who focus on narrow excerpts of doctrine to justify violence, hatred and bigotry, cast a long shadow over organized religion, causing more and more people to distance themselves from these institutions.

I include myself in this group.  Personally, I will always be a searcher, trying to find peace with all that I don’t know as well as all that I do.   Even though I went to Catholic school, as a teen I struggled to maintain the beliefs I was raised in despite overwhelming evidence that undermined everything I had been taught.  Eventually, I found myself looking at those who still believed with condescension and incredulity, my sense of superiority at having freed myself from an irrational creed and meaningless ritual hard to suppress.  And yet my smugness never brought me the same peace and sense of purpose that my faithful friends possessed, leading me to look more kindly on followers of all faiths.    After all, life is difficult and filled with sorrows so whatever helps people cope with disappointment and death does not deserve my scorn and resentment.

And more importantly, the beliefs I now hold dear, beliefs that have become my sacred text are also present in nearly every sacred text ever written.

This is where I go a little hippie on you dear reader, so bear with me.

My religion is love; my gods – compassion, education, tolerance, patience, honesty, generosity –far worthier ideals to worship than anthropomorphized gods that are vengeful and often contradictory; furthermore, almost every religion praises these virtues, exhorting their followers to be the living embodiment of these ideals.

In the end, what I believe and what most people believe is that life is sacred, if not because it is sanctified by god, then because it is the only existence we will ever have.  And because none of us will ever be able to prove our god is the true god, that what we believe is the truth while we are still living, we need to focus on the ideals that unite us rather than the labels – Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Conservative, Liberal, American, European – that divide us.  If we can harness the power of our shared belief in these ideals, imagine the world we would live in.

~ On Laughing at Life’s Absurdities

“Man is the only animal who enjoys the consolation of believing in a next life; all other animals enjoy the consolation of not worrying about it.”            ~Robert Brault

Laughter is so quintessentially human.

Hyenas may sound like they are laughing, but that is just us anthropomorphizing as always, trying to see ourselves in everything.   Thus, while scientific studies have shown that certain species emit laughter when tickled1, human laughter goes beyond a mere physiological response to stimuli.    “Although nonhuman primates laugh, human humor seems to involve more specialized cognitive networks that are unshared by other species…. A sense of humor—especially adult humor—requires cognitive mechanisms that may not be present in other species.”1

So while there is some basis for laughter in other animals, a sense of humor appears to be unique to human beings.

But why?  What about our existence makes laughter so necessary?

Interestingly, I only seriously pondered this question while teaching Hamlet, arguably one of the most famous tragedies in all of literature. Towards the end of play, there is a scene where a gravedigger sings as he tosses skulls about, making puns about the living and the dead, seemingly unfazed by the evidence of human frailty and impermanence that surround him.  This attitude sharply contrasts with the depressed prince of Denmark’s who is somewhat disturbed by the gravedigger’s irreverent humor.

Studying this scene led to an interesting question: why did Shakespeare decide to include this bit of comedy in what is otherwise so obviously a tragedy?

And while there are many possible answers, I found the most compelling argument to be that this is Shakespeare demonstrating humor as a healthier reaction to the absurdities of life, and specifically in this play to the awareness of one’s own mortality, than depression or inaction, which is how Hamlet deals with death.

Because life and in particular, death, is just that – absurd.   It is hard to digest the ridiculous fact that one moment we are here – living, breathing, feeling; a whole network of neurons making meaning out of the meaningless – and then in another moment, we are gone.   Poof.  No return.  No proof of anything after.

Writer and philosopher Albert Camus explored this harsh reality.   He proposed that there are several possible reactions when confronted with life’s absurdities:  like Hamlet is for the majority of the play, we can be defeated by it (depression or suicide); or we can invent stories that help us cope with it (religion); or we can be courageous and keep striving for goodness and greatness regardless of the potential futility of our struggles.

Or in other words, we can laugh in the face of death.   We can find humor in what should be an utterly humorless subject and thus prove that we are not undone by our awareness.   We can choose to be brave by chuckling, giggling, and guffawing even though we are creatures that live day after day, knowing that each one may be our last.  As beings who ponder the purpose of our existence and its finite nature, we need laughter.  It is a way of giving the Grim Reaper a big fat middle finger, an act of defiance, a refusal to submit to the absurdity that is life.

This defiant aspect of humor is thoroughly explored in Rudolf Herzog’s book Dead Funny: Telling Jokes in Hitler’s Germany.  In it, Herzog demonstrates how the German people found what little voice they had through humor.   For example, there’s the one about Hitler and Göring standing on top of the Berlin radio tower. Hitler says he wants to do something to put a smile on the Berliners’ faces. Göring says, “Why don’t you jump?”

When a woman told this joke in Germany in 1943, she was arrested by the Nazis and sentenced to death by guillotine.   While I’m sure she didn’t consider her little joke an act of sedition, the fact that by 1943, 1192 people were executed for similar offenses demonstrates the subversive power of humor.

Jokes are not merely something to be dismissed; they carry a weight, a spirit of resistance that those in power fear.   To find humor in the difficulty, the unpredictability, and the unfairness of life is a form of rebellion in itself.

Yet, some people might argue that this type of humor is not always a good thing, that to laugh at poverty or war or cruelty is to downplay or distract from these serious issues.  But this criticism assumes our entire existence consists of jokes, which unfortunately it does not.    Comedy is only a momentary reprieve from reality.  It is merely a pressure valve, necessary for venting the vapors of sorrow that might otherwise suffocate our existence.

This is exactly the sensation I experience when watching The Daily Show or The Colbert Report.    Both force me to face the idiotic action (or inaction) of our government and the bigotry and ignorance of human beings without wanting to cry in frustration or hopelessness…or at least they help me to laugh through the tears.   Similarly, a show like the new Ricky Gervais series, Derek, helps me to confront aging, dying, and mental disability, subjects I would otherwise be likely to avoid, with humor and grace.

And in this way, we are lucky.  Because even though life can be painful and filled with injustices and hardships, human beings will always have humor to help them cope.

Works Cited

1Bering, Jesse. “Rats Laugh, but Not Like Humans.” Scientific American.  A Division of Natural America, Inc. 22 June 2012. Web. 23 October 2013. <www.scientificamerican.com>.