On Good Weather and the Good Life

I am taking a brief break from my usual (as of late) posts on economics, politics, and global affairs, to share a fairly unexpected life-affirming experience.

The other morning, I awoke gorgeously temperate weather, that rare perfect combination of cool breezes, clear skies, and bright sun. It was the perfect way to start a workday, especially as I had slept poorly the night before, and had to look forward to a grinding commute on the way to my increasingly busy job.

It reminded me of how important it is to be mindful of even the smallest pleasantries in our daily lives. Of all the things that help mitigate my anxiety and depression, I find that it is often the most seemingly mundane that help –comforts that I take for granted but am extremely fortunate to enjoy — companionship (on and offline), a warm bed, relaxing music, hot tea, good books, well enough mental and physical health.

This is hardly a new revelation, for either myself or most of those reading (heck, the Ancient Greeks, among others, made similar observations). But it is nonetheless easy to lose sight of without conscious effort, especially during the over-stimulating hustle and bustle of modern life. I need to make a habit of pausing whatever is bringing me down at the moment, whenever possible, and just think of the bigger picture.

I hope everyone reading this is having a fantastic day.

Hero Highlight: Kailash Stayarthi

As many readers know, the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize rightly went to Malala Yousafzai, who at 17 is the youngest Nobel laureate in history, for her courageous advocacy of women’s rights to education and equal opportunity (both in her native Pakistan and across the world). For this she was subject to a high-profile assassination attempt that nearly claimed her life and forced her and her father (the equally courageous Ziauddin Yousafzai) to flee to the U.K.,from where they nonetheless continue to fight for various human rights causes).

Although an already (justifiably) global figure by the time of her widely anticipated award, Malala’s co-recipient was unfortunately lesser known outside humanitarian circles and his native India: children’s rights activist Kailash Satyarthi (the Prize Committee was explicit about the symbolic message of selecting a Pakistani Muslim and Indian Hindu to share the prize). Such a pairing is well-warranted, for together with Malala, he has helped bring attention to, and advance the cause of, helping one of the world’s most vulnerable demographics.

Satyarthi has been a leading figure in fighting child slavery and labor exploitation for nearly three decades, beginning with his founding of Bachpan Bachao Andolan (Save Childhood Movement) in 1980, which campaigns to free children from bondage and promote their education. It has so far freed over 80,000 children from servitude, also helping to successfully re-integrate, rehabilitate, and educate them.

Since that time, his storied career in human rights has spanned numerous other movements and groups — he has served as secretary general for for the Bonded Labor Liberation Front; has been involved with the Global March Against Child Labor and its international advocacy body, the International Center on Child Labor and Education (ICCLE); founded Goodweave, the first voluntary monitoring and certification system for rugs manufactured without the use of child-labor in South Asia; and co-founded the Global Campaign for Education, for which he served as president of from its inception in 1999 to 2011.

A clearly energetic and dedicated figure, a recent article in The Guardian highlights just how active Satyarthi is on this front, going so far as to involve himself directly in the risky operations on the ground:

He would show the scars from the interventions that had gone really badly, like the time a group of men from the Great Roman Circus – who were employing trafficked teenagers from Nepal as dancing girls – attacked him with iron rods and cricket bats.

And we would discuss the industries and the places that were proving harder to rid of the “scourge of child labour”– his phrase – than others.

With Kailash’s guidance and contacts, I pursued stories on Indian children making footballs for sale in Australia; girls sold into bonded labour schemes in textile mills; boys from poor families trafficked thousands of kilometres to work in tiny, collapse-prone ‘rat-hole’ coal mines; girls from itinerant families forced by economic circumstance into mining mica, the mineral that goes into makeup to make it shiny.

From direct intervention, to constantly shining a spotlight on this often ignored issue, Satyarthi is as unrelenting as Malala in ensuring that the fight for human rights continues onward, unabated. Quoting a telling part of The Guardian piece:

But always there was more with Kailash: more stories the media could cover to highlight the problem; more that the government could do to enforce the legislation parliament had passed to outlaw child labour and mandate education; more police could do to stamp out the corruption that meant officers looked the other way; more that multinational companies in the developing world could do to ensure they weren’t making their money from the bent backs of children.

Like Malala, he places a considerable emphasis on education as a means to uplift the plight of children and, subsequently, improve the condition of millions of people worldwide for years to come:

Children in schools will change the world.

Girls born to a literate mother are 50% more likely to survive until the age of five.

Boys who have the chance at a genuine education and a working life beyond don’t become radical fundamentalists.

Universal education will transform developing nations such as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, places where the practice of keeping children (especially girls) from school – to work, to be married, to raise siblings – stubbornly persists.

Across those three countries, an estimated 22 million primary-school aged children are not in school. But, overwhelmingly, the obstacles that keep them from class are solvable.

Malala was stopped from going to school by the vile fanaticism of the Pakistani Taliban. But for every girl stopped by fundamentalism, there are 10 in her part of the world who are not at school for much more prosaic reasons.

They don’t go because the school is too far away, because it is not safe to walk there, because there is no segregation of boys and girls, no modesty wall, or working toilets.

They stop going because the teacher turns up only to mark the roll and get paid, or because there are no books or pencils.

They stay at home because they have to care for younger siblings, because they have been married off as children, or because they are made to go to work.

In the wake of his Nobel win, Satyarthi promised to “join hands” with his fellow laureate. But the Indian man rescuing children from slavery and the Pakistani teenage girl encouraging them into school are already working hand in hand.

With an estimated 168 million children still living in bondage, deprived of an education and decent standard of living, their work is as relevant as ever. But with the number of such victims declining by a considerable 78 million since 2000, it is clear that the work of such tireless advocates is having an incredible impact. Let us hope that the spotlight of this year’s Nobel Prize does a bit more to advance this worthy cause.

Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai (Source: India Today).

Forgotten Hero: Henning von Tresckow

The whole world will vilify us now, but I am still totally convinced that we did the right thing. Hitler is the archenemy not only of Germany but of the world. When, in few hours’ time, I go before God to account for what I have done and left undone, I know I will be able to justify what I did in the struggle against Hitler. God promised Abraham that He would not destroy Sodom if only ten righteous men could be found in the city, and so I hope for our sake God will not destroy Germany. No one among us can complain about dying, for whoever joined our ranks put on the shirt of Nessus [a source of misfortune from which there is no escape]. A man’s moral worth is established only at the point where he is ready to give his life in defense of his convictions.

Last words of Henning von Tresckow, a Generalmajor in the German Wehrmacht who organized German resistance against Adolf Hitler, most famously the Valkyrie plan to overthrow the Nazis (known as the July 20 Plot).

Born into a Prussian noble family with 300 years of military tradition, he was the youngest lieutenant in the German Army during the First World War, earning the nation’s highest military honor — the Iron Cross — for outstanding courage and independent action against the enemy.

The young Tresckow (Wikimedia Commons).

A worldly man well versed in poetry, foreign languages, economics, and law, Tresckow nonetheless remained a career soldier, rising to the General Staff after graduating best in his class in 1936. He opposed many of Hitler’s military and foreign policies, such as the Anschluss with Austria and the invasion of Czechoslovakia, even predicting that Germany would fall from an overly aggressive foreign policy.

Although once an enthusiastic supporter of Nazism due to its opposition to the harsh Treaty of Versailles, he became quickly disillusioned following the Night of the Long Knives in 1934, when the nascent SS murdered numerous political opponents and rivals. He regarded the infamous Kristallnacht, the state-sanctioned pogrom against Jews, as personal humiliation and degradation of civilization. He immediately sought out civilians and officers who opposed Hitler, proclaiming to a loved one that “both duty and honor demand from us that we should do our best to bring about the downfall of Hitler and National Socialism to save Germany and Europe from barbarism”.

During the campaign against the Soviet Union, he became further appalled by Nazi brutality, including the treatment of Russian prisoners of war and the mass shootings of Jewish women and children. When he learned about the massacre of thousands of Jews at Borisov, Tresckow appealed passionately to a fellow officer: “Never may such a thing happen again! And so we must act now.”

Thus, as the chief operations officer of Army Group Center, he took great risk to seek out other officers who shared his views and place them in key positions to build up a strong base for internal resistance. He tried to persuade other high-ranking officers to join his conspiracy, to little avail (notably, all those he did manage to recruit cited the massacre of Jews and others as the catalyst for their opposition to Hitler and the Nazis).

Ultimately, he teamed up with several dozen fellow resisters — chief among them Ludwig Beck, Carl Friedrich Goerdeler, Colonel Hans Oster, General Friedrich Olbricht, and Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg — and devised the Valkyrie plan to kill Hitler, seize control of the government from the Nazis, and make peace with the Allies. A few days before the coup attempt, Tresckow confided to a friend that “in all likelihood everything will go wrong”, and when asked whether the action was necessary nonetheless, he replied, “Yes, even so”.

Unfortunately, as we all know, it did go wrong, with many of the plotters later being caught and executed. When Tresckow, who was stationed on the Eastern Front, learned of this failure, he opted to commit suicide after issuing the last words quoted above to his liaison. In order to protect his co-conspirators from suspicion, he staged his death to look like an enemy attack, firing several bullets from his pistol before detonating a grenade beneath his chin. His words from months before ring true to this day, if unfortunately forgotten:

The assassination must be attempted at all costs. Even if it should not succeed, an attempt to seize power in Berlin must be made. What matters now is no longer the practical purpose of the coup, but to prove to the world and for the records of history that the men of the resistance dared to take the decisive step. Compared to this objective, nothing else is of consequence.

It is a shame that his story, like that of so many other resisters to the Nazis, remains widely unknown outside Germany (recent attempts by Hollywood notwithstanding).

Tresckow c. 1943 (Wikimedia Commons / German Federal Archives).

 

 

Twenty Inspiring Atheist Quotes

One of the most pervasive misconceptions about atheists is that we lack any purpose in life by virtue of not believing in a higher power (be it a monotheistic God, transcendent spiritual force, or some other supernatural entity or concept). Moreover, this lack of belief is said to not only deprive us of meaning, but also leaves us devoid of morality, happiness, and self-fulfillment — e.g. the angry, nihilistic atheist trope.

As an agnostic atheist myself, I can certainly attest to this not being the case. Not only do I adhere to the values of secular humanism — which include a firm, universal commitment to promoting the flourishing of the human species — but I find purpose in the beauty and experience of life itself: art, love, discovery, creativity, compassion, and more. The joys of connecting with people, improving the lives of others, broadening my sensory and intellectual horizons — these are what drive me to enjoy every day of my finite but fortunate experience.

Of course, I am but one person, so thankfully, an enterprising photographer named Chris Johnson has taken the stereotype to task by directly asking 100 atheists from where they derive joy and meaning in life. He plans to compile these answers in a book, A Better Life:  100 Atheists Speak Out on Joy and Meaning in a World without Godwhich will hopefully go a long way to dispelling this widely held notion.

Salon has highlighted 20 of these inspiring quotes, which I have listed below.

“Knowing there is a world that will outlive you, there are people whose well-being depends on how you live your life, affects the way you live your life, whether or not you directly experience those effects. You want to be the kind of person who has the larger view, who takes other people’s interests into account, who’s dedicated to the principles that you can justify, like justice, knowledge, truth, beauty and morality.”  – Steven Pinker, cognitive scientist

“In the theater you create a moment, but in that moment, there is a touch, a twinkle of eternity. And not just eternity, but community. . . . That connection is a sense of life for me.” – Teller, illusionist

“We are all given a gift of existence and of being sentient beings, and I think true happiness lies in love and compassion.” – Adam Pascal, musician and actor

“Being engaged in some way for the good of the community, whatever that community, is a factor in a meaningful life. We long to belong, and belonging and caring anchors our sense of place in the universe.”  – Patricia S. Churchland, neurophilosopher

“For me the meaning of life, or the meaning  in life, is helping people and loving people . . . The real joy for me is when someone comes up to me and they want to just sit down and share their struggle.”  –Teresa MacBain, former minister

“Joy is human connection; the compassion put into every moment of humanitarian work; joy is using your time to bring peace, relief, or optimism to others. Joy gives without the expectation—or wish—of reciprocity or gratitude. . . . Joy immediately loves the individual in need and precedes any calculation of how much the giver can handle or whom the giver can help.”  – Erik Campano, emergency medicine

“Raising curious, compassionate, strong, and loving children—teaching them to love others and helping them to see the beauty of humanity—that is the most meaningful and joyful responsibility we have.”  – Joel Legawiec, pediatric nurse

“Anytime I hear someone say that only humans have a thoughtful mind, a loving heart, or a compassionate soul, I have to think that person has never owned a dog or known an elephant.”  – Aron Ra, Texas state director of American Atheists

“I find my joy in justice and equality: in all creatures having opportunities for enjoyment and being treated with fairness, as we all wish and deserve to be treated. . . . While I enjoy the positive feelings of self-improvement, this fire pales compared to the feeling of joy that comes from having contributed something to the greater good.”  – Lynnea Glasser, game developer

“You’re like this little blip of light that lasts for a very brief time and you can shine as brightly as you choose.” – Sean Faircloth, author, lawyer, lobbyist

“Play hard, work hard, love hard. . . .The bottom line for me is to live life to the fullest in the here-and-now instead of a hoped-for hereafter, and make every day count in some meaningful way and do something—no matter how small it is—to make the world a better place.”  – Michael Shermer, founder and publisher, Skeptic Magazine

“I hope to dissuade the cruel parts of the world from their self-imposed exile and persuade their audiences to understand that freedom is synonymous with life and that the world is a place of safety and of refuge.”  – Faisal Saeed Al-Mutar, writer

“I look around the world and see so many wonderful things that I love and enjoy and benefit from, whether it’s art or music or clothing or food and all the rest. And I’d like to add a little to that goodness.” – Daniel Dennett, philosopher and cognitive scientist

“I thrive on maintaining a simple awe about the universe. No matter what struggles we are going through the miracles of existence continue on, forming and reforming patterns like an unstoppable kaleidoscope.”  – Marlene Winell, human development consultant

“Math . . . music .. . starry nights . . . These are secular ways of achieving transcendence, of feeling lifted into a grand perspective. It’s a sense of being awed by existence that almost obliterates the self. Religious people think of it as an essentially religious experience but it’s not. It’s an essentially human experience.”  – Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, philosopher and novelist

“There is joy in the search for knowledge about the universe in all its manifestations.”  – Janet Asimov, psychiatrist

“Science and reason liberate us from the shackles of superstition by offering us a framework for understanding our shared humanity. Ultimately, we all have the capacity to treasure life and enrich the world in incalculable ways.”  – Gad Saad, professor of marketing

“If you trace back all those links in the chain that had to be in place for me to be here, the laws of probability maintain that my very existence is miraculous. But then after however many decades, less than a hundred years, they disburse and I cease to be. So while they’re all congregated and coordinated to make me, then—and I speak her on behalf of all those trillions of atoms—I should really make the most of things.” – Jim Al-Khalili, professor of physics

Note that most of these statements are hardly exclusive to atheists; I am sure many spiritual and religious folks can relate with the sense of wonder that is inherent in the world around us, and derive their purpose from the pursuit of knowledge, experience, and a better world. But for atheists and others who do not find meaning from a higher power , these motivations and activities are potent enough in themselves, in essence taking the place of any religious or spiritual prescriptions.

I could go at length about this complex and personal topic, but as always these days, time is short, so I will leave you all to reflect on these quotes and perhaps share your own thoughts and motivations. As always, thanks for reading.

The Importance of Making Civility a Habit

Civility really is a more broad term compared to being considerate. Civility is simply just being nice, and it’s not only an attitude of benevolence, thoughtfulness and relating to other individuals. It also entails a real, active interest in the well-being of communities and even concern for the health of the planet. You have to really do an effort in order to be civil. And being considerate is a part of being civil.

– Abdulla M. Abdulhalim, in Seven Habits Of Considerate People by Alena Hall of HuffPo

As someone who was steeped in the values of good manners and conscientiousness from early childhood — thank you mom and dad — I am fortunate to know firsthand how personally and existentially fulfilling it is to do good in the world; whether it is going out of your way to help a loved one or strange, offering a kind word, or simply smiling, we must not underestimate the value of any kind deed, however seemingly mundane in the grand scheme of things.

Of course, none of us are consistent in this regard; I have had many regrettable lapses in patience, courtesy, and altruism. We all do. But that’s what makes being considerate and civil so valuable: it takes effort and mindfulness, and therefore shows a strong commitment to be as continuously thoughtful as possible. That sort of active interest and concern, as highlighted by Abdulhalim, is precisely why we must all strive to make such behavior a collective habit. It inspires others to do good and in the aggregate leads to a better world.

I am fortunate to have had a broadly positive experience with humanity; to have encountered and continued to encounter good, decent, and well-meaning people who display the better (but woefully underrated) aspect of human nature. Were it not for my fortunate and loving upbringing, and the example set by all those who were kind to me and kind in general, perhaps I would not hold onto the optimistic view I have of human nature (one that has nonetheless been tested time and again).

But ultimately, being civil and considerate should be a given in almost every circumstance or interaction. While the article highlights the importance of balance — of learning when to say no, for example — it is also clear that we have to dare to be kind to our fellow humans even if it seems counterproductive and hopeless in the first place. After all, change has to start somewhere, and how will we ever bring out the best in ourselves and others — and in doing so, help elevate the human condition — if we do not take that first step in showing just how we are capable of?

Happy Birthday Red Cross

On this day in 1864, twelve European nations signed the seminal First Geneva Convention, which established “the basis…for the protection of the victims of armed conflicts” and with it what is now called the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), conceived and founded by Swiss businessman and social activist Henry Dunant and Swiss jurist Gustave Moynie. 

The organization served as both the catalyst and enforcer of the convention’s articles, which were history’s first legally-binding rules guaranteeing neutrality and protection for wounded soldiers, field medical personnel, and specific humanitarian institutions in an armed conflict.

The first of several such conventions, this watershed moment for both international law and humanitarianism launched the wider Red Cross Movement (now known as the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement), which is comprised of several distinct humanitarian organizations geared towards protecting human life and health, ensuring respect for all human beings, and preventing and alleviating human suffering.

The ICRC is one of several institutions in this broad movement, along with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), and 189 National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Together these groups number around 97 million volunteers, members, and staff across the world, making it by far the largest movement of its kind in history. The Red Cross and Red Crescent remains the most enduring and universally recognized symbol of humanitarianism and compassion. 

Video — The Transformative Power of Classical Music

As I write this post, I am listening to a compilation of classical music that includes such greats as Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, and  Tchaikovsky. Rarely do I feel more focused, motivated, and at peace than when I indulge in such music. It has helped me endure many of my darkest or most stressful moments, helping to both rouse my spirits and soothing my soul (in fact, work has never been better since I made a point to listen almost exclusively to classical music — just a correlation to be sure, but still a strong one).

The following TED Talk by British-born composer Benjamin Zander takes a delightful look at the power of classical music, not just in terms of its technical and artistic qualities, but with regards to its impact on one’s thoughts, emotions, and soul. As he sees it, classical music cultivates and unlocks our love for all new possibilities, new experiences, new connections. It is an enchanting argument I am inclined to agree with, both from experience and his video.

While we are on the subject of classical music, you can find a downloadable album of 99 classical music pieces for just $5.99 on Amazon (the series also has 99-track albums for a number of other classical greats, such as Chopin, each ranging in price from $4.99 to $6.99 as of this post). My moral and productivity at work have never been greater!

 

 

 

 

Hero of the Week — Maria Bashir

Maria Bashir II Maria Bashir

 

Maria Bashir is the Chief Prosecutor General of Herat Province Afghanistan (the second largest jurisdiction in the country), the only woman to hold such a position thus far. Her fifteen years of experience as a civil servant has brought her into conflict with criminals, the Taliban, and corrupt policemen. When the Taliban took power in 1996, she was barred from working and instead spent her time illegally educating girls at her home. 

She was called back into service in 2006, focusing on rooting out corruption and eradicating the oppression of women. She has handled hundreds of cases amid death threats and assassination attempts, one of which nearly killed her children; subsequently, she has a retinue of around 20 or so bodyguards while her children are in virtual hiding.

For her courage and tenacity, Bashir has received the 2011 International Women of Courage Award and been recognized among The 2011 Time 100. I recommend reading her interview with the United Nations here; unfortunately, most of the information about her is three or four years old, so I am unaware of her current efforts and predicaments. Thankfully, she seems to still be alive and working as a prosecutor, doing everything she can to better her country and its future .

Needless to say, Maria Bashir is an incredible hero and role model, to say the least. 

An Amazing and Heartwarming Way to Learn a Language

ADWEEK recently featured a simple but innovative way to address two seemingly unrelated issues at once: teaching young people English while giving lonely elderly people someone to talk to.

FCB Brazil did just that with its “Speaking Exchange” project for CNA language schools. As seen in the touching case study below, the young Brazilians and older Americans connect via Web chats, and they not only begin to share a language—they develop relationships that enrich both sides culturally and emotionally.

The differences in age and background combine to make the interactions remarkable to watch. And the participants clearly grow close to one another, to the point where they end up speaking from the heart in a more universal language than English.

The pilot project was implemented at a CNA school in Liberdade, Brazil, and the Windsor Park Retirement Community in Chicago. The conversations are recorded and uploaded as private YouTube videos for the teachers to evaluate the students’ development.

“The idea is simple and it’s a win-win proposition for both the students and the American senior citizens. It’s exciting to see their reactions and contentment. It truly benefits both sides,” says Joanna Monteiro, executive creative director at FCB Brazil.

Says Max Geraldo, FCB Brazil’s executive director: “The beauty of this project is in CNA’s belief that we develop better students when we develop better people.”

Needless to say, this is pretty touching and inspiring stuff. I’d love to see more programs like this take off between other countries. Come to think of it, I wouldn’t mind participating in one myself.

Check out the heartwarming introductory video below. What do you think?

The James Bond of Philanthropy

In my view, with great wealth comes great responsibility. It gives you the capacity to do tremendous good or harm in the world, far more than the overwhelming majority of fellow humans. A little-known Irish-American businessman named Chuck Feeney exemplifies the incredible moral potential that the world’s richest can exercise if they so choose. Forbes did a piece on this amazing philanthropist in 2012, likening him to James Bond for his uniquely low-key and strategic approach to charitable giving:

Over the last 30 years he’s crisscrossed the globe conducting a clandestine operation to give away a $7.5 billion fortune derived from hawking cognac, perfume and cigarettes in his empire of duty-free shops. His foundation, the Atlantic Philanthropies, has funneled $6.2 billion into education, science, health care, aging and civil rights in the U.S., Australia, Vietnam, Bermuda, South Africa and Ireland. Few living people have given away more, and no one at his wealth level has ever given their fortune away so completely during their lifetime. The remaining $1.3 billion will be spent by 2016, and the foundation will be shuttered in 2020. While the business world’s titans obsess over piling up as many riches as possible, Feeney is working double time to die broke.

Feeney embarked on this mission in 1984, in the middle of a decade marked by wealth creation–and conspicuous consumption–when he slyly transferred his entire 38.75% ownership stake in Duty Free Shoppers to what became the Atlantic Philanthropies. “I concluded that if you hung on to a piece of the action for yourself you’d always be worrying about that piece,” says Feeney, who estimates his current net worth at $2 million (with an “m”). “People used to ask me how I got my jollies, and I guess I’m happy when what I’m doing is helping people and unhappy when what I’m doing isn’t helping people.”

What Feeney does is give big money to big problems–whether bringing peace to Northern Ireland, modernizing Vietnam’s health care system or seeding $350 million to turn New York’s long-neglected Roosevelt Island into a technology hub. He’s not waiting to grant gifts after he’s gone nor to set up a legacy fund that annually tosses pennies at a $10 problem. He hunts for causes where he can have dramatic impact and goes all-in. “Chuck Feeney is a remarkable role model,” Bill Gates tells FORBES, “and the ultimate example of giving while living.”

I highly recommend you read the rest of the article, as it eventually discusses the nuances of Feeny’s character and his rather sophisticated philanthropic methods. The amount of wealth he is donating in both proportional and absolute terms is staggering enough without the added humility and strategic approach.

It is unfortunate that amid ever-higher rates of inequality — best epitomized by the fact that a mere 85 individuals own more wealth than around half of the world’s poorest people (3.5 billion) — most of the world’s elites aren’t following in Feeny’s footsteps, or at the very least donating more than a mere percentage of their assets. There’s a lot of untapped potential out there, and even a number of us who are comfortably well-off could be doing more.