Why we’ve already won.

I’m writing this on a lunch break from campaigning for Barack Obama in Henderson, NV. My friends Robi, Jenni, and I flew out from San Francisco (*early*) Saturday morning, and have been knocking on doors pretty much non-stop since.

It’s finally Election Day, and we’re each coping with the anxiety/excitement in our own ways.
When we got up at 5am, I was pretty freaked out about all the things that could go wrong today. Michelle Obama in North Las Vegas But, getting out there knocking on doors has been a great (and productive) distraction.  

Now as we sit here with MSNBC on 3 tvs at the bar, it’s impossible to avoid the significance of the historical moment soon at hand. Obviously, I have a tremendously vested interest in the outcome of the presidential election. And, I strongly urge everyone to act still today – if you haven’t voted, do it; if you’ve voted, phone bank or just call or text your friends and remind them to vote.

However, I feel we’ve already won a great victory for democracy in this country just by getting to this point:

  • First of all, Obama’s candidacy and his campaign’s focus on the youth vote has succeeded in engaging a generation of voters who have spent their entire lives aliented by the political process. This is a momentous shift that’s impact will resonate for many election cycles to come. 
  • Secondly, the nature of Obama’s (largely) issue-oriented and positive campaign (and for that matter, the early part of McCain’s campaign as well) has pulled us back from the antagonistic campaigning armageddon brought about by the disciples of Karl Rove. Though we still have a long way to go in raising campaign discourse back to the level such an important process deserves, I see this election as the first step in the electorate repudiating the political conventional wisdom that negative campaigning is an effective tactic. 
  • And finally, I am relieved that a candidate like Obama, who talks *up* to his audience (as does his wife), has overcome both the anti-intellectual attacks of the W. era and defied the sound bite-centric campaigning that has been on the rise since Reagan (and greatly accelerated by Bill Clinton). Not dumbing down the message and talking to voters like adults is the first step to restoring constructive political discourse in this country. <update>Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times echoes this sentiment in a much deeper analysis of anti-intellectualism in America.</update>

I’m extremely happy all of this has already been achieved. And to be honest, I’m not sure I would have believed that even these things were possible just a few years ago. But I’m greedy, and as great as these achievements are, they’re not nearly enough!

Now, let’s get out there and use the rest of this day to do what we can to elect Barack Obama and defeat CA Prop 8!!!

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Why I’m voting No on Proposition 8

I just returned from doing some volunteer work for No on Prop 8 at their SF office. Other than the presidential election, this is the most important issue for me this election day. For those who aren’t aware, Proposition 8 is a California statewide ballot initiative that would amend the state constitution to ban gay marriage.

While this wouldn’t affect me personally, I have many friends who it would. And, I have a serious problem with denying a certain group of citizens the same rights as everyone else. If you don’t have a position on this issue, you should. To stand silently by while someone else is deprived of their rights is to be complicit in that act.

Here is a poem that pretty well captures my motivations:

When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for the Jews,
I remained silent;
I was not a Jew.

When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.

– “First the came…” by Martin Niemöller

There is plenty of time left to help, and this is going to be a very contentious race. So, please do what you can to help stop the codification of discrimination. The campaign can use your money, your time, or just your voice.

DON’T REMAIN SILENT!

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Debunking Lies about Military Fatalities by the (Actual) Numbers

I received an email forward from my mom this morning with the Subject: Surprising Facts, which claimed the hard to believe conclusion that there were more deaths of military personnel under the Clinton administration than that of George W. Bush. The conclusion was backed up with convincing looking “facts” in the email, but it still violated common sense. So, I decided to go to the source and see for myself. Unfortunately, what I found wasn’t much of a surprise — the supposed “facts” were lies and the conclusion they supported was simply not true.

Instead of 14,107 deaths under Clinton and 7,932 deaths under George W. Bush as claimed in the email, the actual totals from the Department of Defense are 7,500 for Clinton and 10,946 for W. More on the actual numbers in a minute, but first I’d like to talk about one of the worst (and most potent) forms of disinformation — the email chain-letter.

Jessica Gray, whose husband, Staff Sergeant Yance T. Gray, was killed in Baghdad last year while serving with the 82nd Airborne. Photo by Platon

Chain emails are totally unaccountable, and thus a favorite tool of slimy political operatives to spread disinformation (deliberately false or misleading information) they can’t be caught spreading. It is a horribly underhanded tactic, and a special place in Hell should be reserved for those who make use of it.

But, they continue to do it because it works. And it works because people are too lazy to check the facts. If you know how to use email, you know how to use Google (or Yahoo! Search). But, even smart people, like my mom and her friends, blindly forward this crap on — thereby personally endorsing the lies and becoming complicit in their creators’ attempts to deceive the American public. In this case, a quick web search for “military fatalities” returns two pages debunking this specific email as well as the real data from the Department of Defense, all above the fold. Sites like the non-partisan http://www.factcheck.org exist for just this purpose, and it really only takes a minute to check these things out before forwarding them on and spreading lies to your friends.

So next time before you hit that Forward button in your email, please do yourself, your friends, and this country a favor by taking two minutes to check the facts you’re about to put your name on.

I found this email particularly repugnant because it appeals to our appreciation for the ultimate sacrifice made by brave American servicemen and women and then dishonors their memories by distorting the truth about their lives lost. So, I wanted to dig deeper than someone else’s response to the email and do my own analysis.

All the official data I accumulated is direct from the Department of Defense, and here is the full spreadsheet I put together to come up with the below conclusions. (DataVis geeks, knock yourselves out!)

Ronald Reagan (1981-1988):
Total Military Deaths – 17,201
Deaths as % of Total Military – 0.09%
Deaths from Hostile Action or Terrorist Attack – 353 

George H. W. Bush (1989-1992):
Total Military Deaths – 6,223
Deaths as % of Total Military – 0.07%
Deaths from Hostile Action or Terrorist Attack – 172

Bill Clinton (1993-2000):
Total Military Deaths – 7,500
Deaths as % of Total Military – 0.06%
Deaths from Hostile Action or Terrorist Attack – 76 

George W. Bush (2001-2007):
Total Military Deaths – 10,946
Deaths as % of Total Military – 0.10%
Deaths from Hostile Action or Terrorist Attack – 3,513 

However, the absolute total numbers aren’t particularly illustrative of policy differences. Over the 28 year period for which there is data, only 9.30% of the military fatalities were classified as Sergeant Tim Johannsen and his wife, Jacquelyne Kay, in a rehabilitation unit at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Photo by Platon for The New Yorker resulting from Hostile Action or Terrorist Attack. Since the vast majority of deaths in this period are classified as Accidents (53.22% ) followed by Illness (17.54%) and Self Inflicted (13.61%), the total number of deaths in a given year is more an indication of the total size of the military at that time than anything else. What is most likely the best metric for understanding the effect of policy differences is deaths as a percentage of the total military, which was an average of 0.08% over the entire period. By this metric, George W. Bush’s policies have been the most costly (0.10%), followed by Ronald Reagan (0.09%), then George H. W. Bush (0.07%), and finally Bill Clinton (0.06%).

But, I think the best measure is to look at the total human cost of each individual conflict, which the Department of Defense also provides. 

Iranian Hostage Rescue Mission (April 25, 1980):
President: Jimmy Carter
Total Casualties: 8*

Lebanon Peacekeeping (1982-1984):
President: Ronald Reagan
Total Casualties: 265*

Urgent Fury, Grenada (1983)*:
President: Ronald Reagan
Total Casualties: 19*

Just Cause, Panama (1989)*:
President: George H. W. Bush
Total Casualties: 23*

Persian Gulf War (1990-1991)*:
President: George H. W. Bush
Total Casualties: 383*
Total Wounded: 467**

Restore Hope, Somalia (1992-1994):
President: Bill Clinton
Total Casualties: 43*

Uphold Democracy, Haiti (1994-1996):
President: Bill Clinton
Total Casualties: 4*

Enduring Freedom, Afghanistan (2001-2008):
President: George W. Bush
Total Casualties: 606***
Total Seriously Wounded****: 8,601***

Iraqi Freedom, Iraq (2003-2008):
President: George W. Bush
Total Casualties: 4,169*****
Total Seriously Wounded****: 43,787*****

**** Total Seriously Wounded is total number of wounded requiring medical air transport

Afghanistan and Iraq have cost 4,775 lives and 52,388 serious injuries from 2001-2008, while all other major military engagements since 1980 (including the Persian Gulf War) had a combined total of 745 casualties. In comparison, the Vietnam Conflict resulted in 58,220 American military personnel dead and 153,303 seriously injured from 1964-1973 (** above). So, the Global War on Terror thus far has resulted 8.2% as many deaths and 33.7% as many serious injuries as Vietnam.

Regardless of how you feel about any or all of these military operations, it is important that we all recognize and value the very real costs paid by the men and women of our armed forces. So if you received or forwarded this erroneous email, I sincerely hope you will take the time to follow up with the correct information and make sure we properly honor the sacrifices of these brave soldiers.

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So, what if he were a Muslim?! or On Intolerance and National Security

Rock on Colin Powell!

I think the most important aspect of the General’s much talked about endorsement of Barack Obama on Meet the Press today was his head-on repudiation of the despicable whisper campaign to spread the misconception that Obama is a Muslim (ironically — or not — enough, similar to another presidential disinformation campaign in recent memory):

I’m also troubled by, not what Senator McCain says, but what members of the party say and it is permitted to be said. Such things as: “Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim.”

Well, the correct answer is he is not a Muslim, he’s a Christian. He has always been a Christian.

But, the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being Muslim in this country?

The answer is no, that’s not America.

Amen! If you haven’t watched the whole thing, you really should — it’ll make you want to write in Colin Powell in November. 

In the immortal words of Sarah Silverman: “Yes, Barack Hussein Obama, it’s a super-fucking-shitty name. But, you’d think that somebody named Manischewitz Guberman might understand that.” Otherwise put, we are a nation of immigrants, a conglomeration of people who represent ethnicities, cultures, and religions from all over the world. This country began as a safe-haven from religious persecution, and made history by being the first to enshrine measures against intolerance (i.e. separation of church and state) in its founding documents. The sad irony of the long and violent history of xenophobia in America is that it is generally the last people to be shit on who are first in line to shit on the new arrivals. It’s like the frat boys (full disclosure: I was in a fraternity 😉 ) who haze the pledges because they had themselves been hazed.

But in this case, this latent anti-Muslim sentiment being exploited isn’t just un-American, it is a threat to our national security. Not just our nation, but our entire way of life, is under siege by Islamic Fundamentalism. However, the operative word here is the second, fundamentalism, *not* the first. We are not being attacked by Muslims, we are being attacked by fundamentalists, who happen to be hiding behind the banner of Islam. They are painting the western world, led by the US, as modern day Crusaders intent on wiping Islamic culture from the earth. We, they argue, are the ones who have made this an all-or-nothing battle for the very survival of Islam — it is *our* intolerance and need for Judeo-Christian culture to dominate that dictates the inability for our two worlds to peacefully coexist. So, for Americans to let the heinous acts of extremists foment mainstream intolerance of Muslims in our country is truly to let the terrorists win.

I believe the true front-line in the “War on Terror” is not on the ground in Iraq or Tora Bora, it is ideological. There is no doubt that we must find and bring to justice the leaders of these terrorist organizations. That is absolutely necessary, but it is also far from sufficient. Because without winning the ideological battle, new leaders will spring up to replace them. The only way to truly win the war for the possibility of peaceful coexistence is to starve these organizations of their oxygen — to take away the support of the people. It is not Osama Bin Laden who is blowing himself up at US checkpoints in Iraq, and it is not true believers who are providing food and supplies to the Al Qaida leadership hiding in the mountains of Pakistan. The Fundamentalists have successfully convinced an ever growing portion of the Muslim world — the individual people, not the governments — that it is us or them, and the support of those people is the true source of their strength.

More than 20% of the world’s population is Muslim, including over 150M Muslims in each Pakistan and India, both with nuclear weapons, and 70M in Turkey, which is likely to become a member of the EU in the next 15 years. And in France, the Muslim population is estimated to be as high as 10% (the French census doesn’t ask religion). Our way of life cannot survive if we continue to let the Fundamentalists’ campaign of disinformation persist, or even worse, if we contribute to it. We must demonstrate to the people of the Muslim world, with our words and our deeds, that ours is a culture of tolerance and that there is another choice beyond having their culture destroyed or supporting terrorists. And, the responsibility to spread this message of coexistence does not just lie with our governments, it is ours as citizens as well.

Some links of note:

<update>
Credit where credit’s due. As much as I like to malign cable news, props to CNN’s Campbell Brown for tackling this issue (with an almost identical title) before Colin Powell (and even before The Daily Show!). Thanks Sean for the find.
</update>

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Dealing with Death

[Originally posted on my 360 Blog]

I found out on Friday night that my best friend from grade school had committed suicide. His funeral is in a couple of hours and I’m trying to write a eulogy right now. I’ve got a bit of experience dealing with death — too much for my tastes. When I was a junior in high-school, my paternal grandmother passed away followed by my father’s sister and his uncle all in the same year. And then the next year, one of my best friends had a skiing accident right in front of me that required 14 hours of brain surgery and put him in a coma for 3 days. Mercifully, he survived and is largely ok now. But, the confrontation with mortality was as jarring I have ever experienced. Subsequently, I’ve lost a fraternity brother to a car accident, a friend to a shooting, and more family, including three uncles with whom I was close and my maternal grandfather.

Everyone has their own ways of dealing with death. But, I think there are some consistent things we all feel when our own mortality pulls back the curtain and stares us in the face. Life is fragile and fleeting, and if we truly grasped that fact on a daily basis, we wouldn’t be able to function. And so most of the time, we live in a state of willing delusion — we refuse to confront ourselves with the reality of the human situation, that the life that is the center of our being can and will terminate. And that’s why death is always such a shock to us. It’s the finality of it all; the reality that sometimes there are no more tomorrows invading our necessary fantasy that the sun will still rise no matter what (or, more accurately, that we will be around to see it when it does).

I remember what I felt when my paternal grandmother died. I was 16 and it was the first time I really had to deal with death. There were two main sources of sadness, and I realized later that they were both rather selfish. It was the shock of the absolute finality that made me cry. I cried about the fact that *I* would never see my Grandma Lu again and that she wouldn’t be there to chide me and impart her pointed wisdom. I cried from the realization that there were no more fond memories to make and that the existing ones would inevitably dull and fade with time. And I cried from regret, and the fact that there was no longer any way for *me* to right those wrongs. I regretted every time I had been a brat to her (and there were a lot), and I most regretted not going to visit her (she lived in Chicago) the last time my parents went before she died. Of course they didn’t tell me quite how sick she was, but it was football season and if I missed a game I might lose my starting position. The fact that I chose high-school sports over my family was not as much a statement of selfishness as it was of obliviousness — it never entered into my mind that she wouldn’t be around when football season ended. The only unselfish reason I cried during that time was for my father. For knowing that he must be feeling those same things I was feeling only stronger. 

I never actually cried for my grandmother. She was a dignified woman, who lived a long and full life, and she wouldn’t have been happy living on in a state that required constant care. When my Grandpa Wolfi passed away several years later after a long hospitalization, I was actually happy for him. I cried a little for myself, but mostly for my mom and grandma. Of course, it is quite different when someone passes away as young in life as the friend whose grave I will be standing over later today. The prospect of a life cut short and opportunities not lived is a tragedy. But it is a tragedy with no possible remediation. That is the finality of death that we struggle not to grasp. There is nothing we can do to change things now, and so there is nothing gained in crying for what will not be.

If you want to truly mourn, don’t do it for yourself. Don’t cry over memories that won’t be made, put that energy into cherishing the memories that you already have and making them last as long as possible. Don’t cry over regrets you won’t be able to make right, put that energy into righting the wrongs against others with whom you still have that chance, and do it in the memory of your friend who reminded you that you might not be able to fix things tomorrow. And don’t cry for the life not lead and the opportunities not realized, put that energy into honoring your friend’s loss by living your own life to the fullest. But do miss your friend. Miss him every day, because that is the highest honor you can show someone who is gone. But do it with happiness and laughter and with friends, because that’s what he would want.

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Odds & Ends

I am trying to be productive by sorting through all the miscellaneous crap (like expenses, taxes, bills, etc) that you manage to justify ignoring when you are super-busy. I should have taken a before picture of the coffee table in my room that was piled high with the paper detritus of a modern life unattended.

As part of the process, I finally bought a bunch of things I had been meaning to get from Amazon. And as lip-service to the notion that I’m going to improve my record of bi-polar behavior in dealing with personal matters, I threw in a copy of David Allen‘s Getting Things Done. I hope I have better luck with it than Russ has had. For those of you not in the know, David Allen is like the Malcolm Gladwell of personal organization — they have both become famous putting common sense into book form. That alone has been enough to keep me from joining the GTD cult thus far; then there’s the small matter of the GTD cult itself, which I was exposed to in its full glory at BarCampLA.

But despite my self-righteousness, I can admit that I have an issue dealing with the mundane but mandatory administrative tasks of our age. Plus, as one of David Allen’s minions astutely paraphrased, getting things done just feels better than procrastinating. The scary thing is that I can’t really remember a time when I didn’t feel like there was something else I was supposed to be doing (I always *HATED* homework, and rarely did it).  And if that isn’t enough, Ian recommends this book and he is astonishingly productive. So, we’ll see how it goes.

As part of my productivity spree, I am also catching up on the charitable donations I’ve been meaning to make. The Yahoo! Employee Foundation will match any employee donations up to $1,000 per year if they are made through the GivingStation (internal link). So, I have spent a few minutes navigating through the clunky GivingStation UI adding my charities. And even though I already knew to which charities I wanted to donate, I spent some time surfing around Charity Navigator, which does financial analysis of non-profits’ public filings (check out the CEO pay numbers!).

The charities I am giving to are:

And finally, there’s a little newspaper clipping that I have been carrying around for months. It’s from a NY Times review of a book called The Big Why by Michael Winter. The review was lukewarm, but it excerpted the title passage from the book, which I vowed to blog:

The question is not were you loved. Or did you love. Or did you love yourself. Or did you allow love to move you, though that’s a big one. Move you. The question, Rockwell, is did you get to be who you are. And if not, then why. That, my friend, is the big why.

How do we know if we are really being ourselves? That’s definitely one to ponder.

 

The Discipline of Gratitude

Many of you who know me, would say that I am not a particularly religious person…in fact few of you probably know that I’m Jewish. That’s ok, because, although I am proud of my heritage, I believe that religion is a relatively personal thing that needn’t be advertised (my late grandmother taught me there are 3 things that should not be discussed in polite conversation: money, politics, and religion).

Both my parents are Jewish, but growing up I was exposed to two very different cultures. My mother is a first-generation American, whose family came here as World War II refugees. That side of the family spans the spectrum from Orthodox  to Conservative; many of them keep kosher, and all of them attend temple on a regular basis. My father’s family has been in the US so long that there is some dispute of our country of origin (my late grandmother always maintained that we were of German descent, but many think she was just trying to cover up Polish roots). Wherever they started, my great-great-grandparents ended up in Chicago in the middle of the 19th Century. There, in order to survive, they assimilated…my late grandmother, who was a theater actress, took the stage name Colbert (instead of Goldberg) and forbade her children from using Yiddish phrases (like “oy vey”). Members of this side of the family are Reform Jewish (the least traditional) if not agnostic, and few ever go to temple.

Growing up against this backdrop and being a student of philosophy, which owes many of its great works (Rene DescartesThomas Aquinas, David Hume, etc) to the inspiration of religion, I had a lot of data points on which to base my theories of religion. Behind the veneer of dogmatic faith that is the most visible and often problematic (a very wise man once told me that “all the trouble in the world is the fault of true believers”) aspect of religion, I believe there are two primary components: tradition and spirituality. My own practice of religion is a personal combination of the two, as exemplified by my observance of the High Holy Days this year: traveling to New York to celebrate Rosh Hashanah with my mother’s family at extremely Conservative Park East Synagogue and returning to LA for Yom Kippur, where we  attended services at the very Reform Temple of the Arts. While there are many things (and people) at Park East that I find distasteful, I am proud to sit in the seats that I shared with my late grandfather when I was younger and to carry on the traditions that were so important to him. And while some members of my family would likely scoff at Temple of the Arts’ avant garde service conducted mostly in English, I find Rabbi David Baron‘s flair for the dramatic (link irony) to be powerfully effective in evoking the spirit of Yom Kippur, especially in those who do not have the same connection to the traditions as myself.

All of this has been a long-winded introduction to talk about the speakers I heard at temple this Yom Kippur and the resonance of what I took from them. (I will digress a little more to give mad props to Rabbi Arthur Schneier, who gave a surprisingly provocative sermon on Rosh Hashanah that castigated his affluent and insular congregation for failing to take responsibility for their role in the problems that plague the world today [e.g. oil consumption].) The message of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is one of repentance, forgiveness, and renewal. Much like the Christian tradition of Confession or Lent, the 10 “Days of Awe” between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the time when through prayer, atonement, and charity your sins of the past year can be forgiven allowing you to enter the new year with a clean slate. In order for us to have such annual renewal among our fellow man as we are to have in the Book of Life, it is incumbent upon each of us to not only ask forgiveness from others but to do what can be even harder than that, forgive those who have hurt us.

Rabbi Baron always does an excellent job of finding speakers with particularly poignant personal experience with the theme of the day. A few years ago, he arranged for Scott Waddle, commander of the USS Greenville when it sunk the Japanese fishing trawler Ehime Maru, to speak about his story of repentance. This year, Hillary Clinton spoke to the congregation (pictured) on a subject of great personal significance to her, forgiveness. Though people are having little trouble drawing a connection between Senator Clinton’s West Coast tour and rumors of her presidential candidacy, she spoke sincerely and eloquently about her journey of discovery on the road to forgiveness (a few elegant euphemisms were the only references to the impetus for this journey).

She began by telling the story of Nelson Mandela‘s inauguration, at which he asked three particular guests, among hundreds of dignitaries, to rise so he could thank them for coming. They were three of his prison guards on Robben Island, where he spent much of his 27 years in jail. Senator Clinton went on to tell of how, on a subsequent trip when she had the opportunity to spend some more time with Mandela, she asked him about this. She said that she understood how such a gesture was politically expedient at the time, when Mandela was trying to preside over a peaceful transition from Apartheid, but she could not fathom how he was able to sincerely forget what was done to him and forgive those who were instruments of his oppression. In response, Mandela told her of a particular day when he was smashing limestone in the quarry on Robben Island, his blows fueled in no small part by the hatred he felt for both those who were the instigators and the executioners of his torment. He said that on that day, he reflected on everything that they had taken from him, his freedom, his friends, his family…and he realized that all he had left that they couldn’t take were his heart and mind. He realized, by remembering, not forgetting, everything his enemies had done and every hardship he had to endure, that if he came through it all with hatred on his mind and bitterness in his heart, there would have been no point to any of his suffering.

Forgiveness, as Senator Clinton knows from her own experience, is hard work. Our natural instinct is to inflict pain on those who have hurt us, forgiving is a triumph of reason over emotion; in the words of Aristotle, it is one of those things that separate true happiness from mere contentment. In many ways, forgiving is a selfish act. It enables one to move on from the hurt and enjoy the life’s pleasures instead of dwelling in past pains. After her Mandela story, Senator Clinton spoke of the many other influences that helped her to make peace with those who had wronged her. Among these was the very Yom Kippur service in which she was participating, as well as the writings of a Dutch priest and philosopher, named Henri Nouwen. In Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son, he writes of “the discipline of gratitude,” a phrase that immediately resonated with me. It is an incredibly elegant phrase that concisely captures the difficulty of resisting the natural inclination to take life for granted. Training ourselves to appreciate every day as a gift is necessary preparation for the hard work of forgiveness.

Now, it shouldn’t take any half-way decent first-year philosophy student more than 30 seconds to make a logical attack on the conclusion for which I appear to be to be heading, the assertion (popularized by the Christian Right) that life is so inherently precious that it is not within the mortal purview to end it. I therefore concede the boundary cases, like that of Terry Schiavo, where the likelihood of mitigating suffering is so low that a personal judgment call must be made. However, I do hold that no matter how slim the chance, as long as there is life there is always a chance for things to get better. Whether or not humans should be allowed to close that door for themselves (suicide) or others (abortion, euthanasia), is controversial and not material to this conversation. What is incontrovertible is the fact that we cannot open the door on our own and we often have little control over when it will be closed forever. No matter how tortured your existence today, the fact that there is a tomorrow in which you might have a chance to improve your situation is something for which we each should be grateful.

This message of gratitude for the daily opportunity of renewal that life grants us was driven home by the second speaker of the day, Aron Ralston. Aron is the hiker who cut off his own right hand in 2003 in order to free himself after being trapped for 6 days in a canyon in Utah. I had heard of his story, and I was admittedly a bit squeamish about sitting through a recounting of the gory details. But instead of talking about what he had done, Aron talked about why he did it. In that canyon, he made a conscious decision to keep living, knowing that it would be a very different life than the one he had led up to that point. Recognizing that he would be handicapped for the rest of his days, Aron decided that just having those days and the opportunities that come with them mattered more. When he spoke, there was not a hint of self-pity, there was no regret or sense of loss. Aron has mastered the discipline of gratitude; he thinks not of what he lost but what he gained…in fact, he says that this incident was the best thing that ever happened to him. Reading this, it may be hard to believe that he really feels this way, but I watched and listened closely, and I believed him. In closing, Aron quoted a passage from the Old Testament, Deuteronomy 30:19, and I will do the same:

“This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.”

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