The Layaway Angels

Sometimes, it takes just a single flicker of light in this often dark world of ours to instill in me great hope for our species. No good deed is too small or insignificant: the world may have its vast problems, often too big and complex to tackle within our life times. But what matters is that we do what we can to make life better for our fellow humans, who often share the same fears, concerns, and desires that we do.

Consider the recent trend in so-called “layaway angels,” individuals who anonymously pay off the layaway accounts of complete strangers. First noticed a couple of weeks ago in a single store in Michigan, it seems to be picking up throughout the country, perhaps as an example of the pay-if-forward approach to altruism that has been observed before.

A 10-year-old boy walked into a Kmart store in San Mateo on Wednesday afternoon, placed $20 on the counter and said he wanted to pay down a stranger’s layaway account.

Sameera Chatfield, the supervisor who helped the young “layaway angel,” an anonymous shopper who pays off layaways for strangers — a recent trend occurring at Kmart stores nationwide — said the boy walked in with his mom and specifically requested an account that included toys for boys.

“It was perfect,” she said. “I wish he had stayed around for a few minutes, because the people whose account he paid for came in.”

She said the family smiled when she told them that the “angel” who paid down their account was a 10-year-old boy.

The boy is one of several such do-gooders Chatfield has helped since Friday, when people started coming in and offering to pay down layaways.

“It has been absolutely fabulous,” Chatfield said. “It makes me want to go out and do something for someone else.”

The contagious good will, which has spread to Kmart stores around the country, appears to have its roots at a store in Michigan, where an anonymous woman reportedly paid about $500 toward the layaway accounts of strangers earlier this month.

The “angels” vary in age and ethnicity, but most request to remain anonymous and that their money go toward paying off accounts that include toys or children’s clothes. On Friday morning, a man in his 30s walked into a Kmart in Hayward with $10,000 in cash.

“He came in and said, ‘I heard what’s going on in other states.’ I’d like to do it,” said John Pawlik, 52, a manager at the Hayward Kmart. He said the man paid $9,800 toward layaway accounts and donated the remaining $200 to the Salvation Army.

Pawlik said in another instance, a couple came in and said they wanted to pay off an account because they don’t have children of their own.

“I think it’s great,” Pawlik said. “It puts your faith back in how you feel about people.”

Michelle Caldwell, 30, said that in the 10 years she has worked at the Kmart in San Leandro, she has not seen anything like this. Since Sunday, Caldwell said she has helped about five people who offered to pay down layaways.

“It’s just really touching,” she said. “If I had the money, I would be doing it myself too.”

John Garcia, a 44-year-old assistant manager at the Kmart in Redwood City, said that when sales associates inform the lucky customers that an anonymous person has paid down their accounts, most of the time their reaction is tearful.

“It’s almost like they’re in shock,” he said. “Like they’ve won the lottery. And in those instances, they have.”

Garcia said the trend is improving morale among sales associates and benefiting Bay Area families who are in need at this time of year.

“I’ve seen lots of demonstrations of goodwill towards people, but never one that gained such momentum,” he said. “It’s something that’s very special that’s happening.”

I’ll say, and that should never been underestimated. For all the confirmation bias we have in focusing mostly on the negative and reprehensible side of our nature – which is sadly quite persistent across our species – we should never overlook our continued propensity to love and be concerned towards one another. We could argue about the amount of good that transpires throughout the world versus all the evil, but it doesn’t remove the magnificence of any act of compassion, no matter how seemingly small or ephemeral. If anything, it’s made even more beautiful.

Now imagine if this sort of thing was to keep catching on, and everyone took it upon themselves to care about each other, if only for a moment. It’s a great thought to entertain, whatever your thoughts on the feasibility.



Survey Shows Decline in Religiosity Among Americans.

Around mid-November, the Pew Research Center, a major polling organization, released the results of its most recent survey, “American Exceptionalism Subsides—The American-Western European Values Gap.” Its purpose was to compare the beliefs and attitudes of Americans with those of four Western European countries: the UK, France, Spain, and Germany.

As with most surveys, it’s vital to understand how the conclusions were reached.* In this case 1,000 participants in each country were asked by telephone the same set of questions, mostly pertaining to notions of “exceptionalism” – i.e. how strongly one feels about their nation’s uniqueness – as well as social and religious values. The overall findings were pretty interesting, and I encourage you all to read it for yourselves. But since it covers a wide range of subjects, I’ll be focusing on the area pertaining to religious.

Unsurprisingly, the data bears out the findings of previous studies that show Americans to be far more religious than their European (and other developed world) counterparts.

Half of Americans deem religion very important in their lives; fewer than a quarter in Spain (22%), Germany (21%), Britain (17%) and France (13%) share this view.

Moreover, Americans are far more inclined than Western Europeans to say it is necessary to believe in God in order to be moral and have good values; 53% say this is the case in the U.S., compared with just one-third in Germany, 20% in Britain, 19% in Spain and 15% in France

Compared to our own historical standards, these proportions are far lower (though not dramatically so). In fact, this very questionnaire has been carried out before, as part of the Pew Center’s Global Attitudes Survey. Since the same demographic sample size has been asked the same questions regular for a decade, we can determine the trend over time.

For example, the question “Do you consider religion very important?” showed a 9% decrease since 2002, (falling from 59% to 50%). In contrast, the European results for the same question remain far lower than the US in both periods, and much less variable – Europeans remain consistently secular.

But despite the trend, we’re still uniquely religious for a nation with our level of overall human development, the result of many complex social, political, and even economic factors (which will be discussed at a later post). But the survey didn’t just reinforce already established observations, since the levels of religiosity were broken down by demographics, yielding interesting results. I’ve posted the data below, with my own analysis.

One interesting confirmation that has been established anecdotally is that attitudes to religion vary pretty considerably based on gender: women are much more likely than men to consider religion as being very important to their lives (59% versus 41%) and to believe that a belief in God is necessary for morality (58% versus 47%).

Indeed, as I discussed in a previous post, the nonreligious community is quite male-dominated, especially the further up you go in terms of disbelief (irreligious women tend to be more spiritual and take a friendlier stance towards belief; the more anti-religious or outright disbelieving the group, the fewer women you’ll find represented). Most people who identify as explicitly atheist, or who are public advocates of religious skepticism, are males, including the most prominent figures in the movement. This sex-imbalance isn’t lost on the secular community, and there’s much internal debate as to why it exists (again, best left for another post, though you’re free to share your thoughts).

Perhaps a little less surprising, but still important to consider, is that older people (50+ years) tend to be far more pious than young ones (18-29) at around 56% versus 41%. Even the middle-aged group (30-49) was slightly more religious at 48%, suggesting a generational correlation – the further down the age bracket you are, the more secular you tend to be (note, by the way, the distinction between secular and atheist – you can still have a religion and be the former – it just means you’re less pious, such as not going to church or not following all the doctrines). Interestingly, there is far less difference between these age brackets when it comes to the question of whether theism is a necessary prerequisite to moral behavior, suggesting the pervasiveness of the myth that godlessness leads to evil (a sentiment I’ve discussed at length).

Then there is the effect that a college education has on religious attitudes. A common assumption is that a higher level of education, particularly in the sciences, erodes religiosity. While there are a lot of caveats, by and large the majority of scientists, academics, and philosophers identify as secular (as far as we can tell). In any case, it’s interesting to note that there is little difference between those with a college degree and those without a college degree, as far as the importance of religion (47% vs. 51%).

Yet, the gap is far wider when it comes to the question “is it necessary to believe in God to be moral.” Among non-college degree holders, 59% believe there is a connection between belief in God and goodness, while only 37% of college-educated people agree. My theory for this concerns public consciousness: the average university body is both secular and diverse, so you’re much more likely to encounter more non-religious people (among others) than you would elsewhere. This exposure to godless folk, many of whom may leave a good impression, forces many to moderate their view as far as making this connection.

It is also worth mentioning that the religious attitudes of self-described political moderates are a lot closer to conservatives than to liberals. When asked whether it’s necessary to believe in God to be moral, 66% of conservatives agree, compared with 52% of moderates and 26% of liberals. Generally speaking, American society has traditionally been far more conservative comparatively speaking, than those of other wealthy nations (even our resident leftist party, the Democrats, is tame by the standards of other nations). People who describe themselves as politically moderate may therefore be conservatives in practice, although that goes into a whole other issue concerning self-reporting bias and defining political identity.  It could simply be that religious is so prevalent in our society that religion pervades even those groups who, in other countries, would otherwise be secular.

[As an aside, this would explain the Obama administration’s tendency to pander to conservative views about contraception and gay marriage, or why the healthcare reform that it pushed through was more akin to a previous Republican plan than a  more leftist single-payer system – heck, a lot of Democrats opposed it as well.]

So the religious the make-up of this country is pretty complex, and is rather uneven depending on one’s background. Also consider that this poll was relatively simple as far as determining the extent of American piety (for example, belief in creationism, the Rapture, etc). But it gives a pretty good picture, and reveals that the US is slowly but surely becoming more secular overall. Consider the changing attitude towards homosexuals, with 60% of Americans saying that homosexuality should be accepted, a 9% increase since the 2002 (though still far lower than in Europe, with 81% support in Britain or  91% in Spain). There’s a similar and gradual increase in the acceptance of evolution and gay marriage, especially, once again, among the young.

If current trends continue along the same pace, the United States may eventually become as secular as the rest of the developed world, which will have vast implications for our society and politics (which are both becoming more polarized along religious lines). Consider that an increasing number of younger people are more secular, tolerant, and pluralistic than the proceeding generations, suggesting that such changes may be inevitable, barring any significant changes (such as another “Great Awakening”).

*I understand that most surveys, like social studies as a whole, should be taken as rough approximations rather than watertight measurements. The nature of studying human beings, especially their beliefs, is complex and can only be accomplished with sample sizes that reflect different demographic groups. Of course, sociological research shouldn’t consequently be dismissed outright, but should instead be reviewed with an understanding of the caveats. My analysis takes all this into consideration.




Polarization, Paralysis, and Stagnation

There are many reasons why our political and economic systems remain mired in stagnation and inefficiency, with increasingly glum outlooks. Perhaps the most troubling factor is the rise of partisanship and parochialism within the public sphere, especially among the political right. The chart below, taken from a RAND study on the subject, illustrates this clearly (many thanks to the friend who raised it to my attention):

It’s long been argued – by yours truly at one point – that our present-day circumstances are actually no worse than previous time periods; that every era and every generation is mired with socioeconomic and political problems that it considers to be particularly bad or otherwise unprecedented – basically, that this is yet another phase that we’ll get through once again, just as before.
But the chart above, as well as the analysis of veteran politicos, gives lie to the notion that all this is part of a regular cycle of collective anxiety bolstered by confirmation bias. The fact is, we’ve never before contended with this level of ideological polarization and political conflict. Not since the Civil War has politics been so vitriolic and tribal that we can’t seem to get anything done (or at least most things of major importance; obviously, we’re managing at least the bare minimum).
This isn’t limited to our politicians and public officials, despite all the blame that is heaped upon them (not entirely unjustifiably). If anything, their behavior is more a projection of our own: we the people are just as at odds, angry, and uncooperative as our representatives. We elect them, and they therefore reflect our sentiments and demands (even though many of them still capriciously heed the interests of only a select few).
All across the board, division are growing: there is the more well-known socioeconomic divide, for starters. The middle-class is at best stagnating, and at worse shrinking, as the wealth and income gap between rich and poor widens to record margins. But it runs deeper than that. In correlation with, or perhaps because of, the plight of Middle America, politics is losing its center too. Though most Americans still identify themselves as moderates, both the left and (especially) the right, find that the farther apart on most issues than ever before. Moderates are either dying off or forced to play along with the die-hard trend of their constituents, particularly within the GOP.
Polarization has even entered into the religious spectrum. The politically and socially liberal Mainline Protestants are shrinking at a rapid rate, as an increasing number of Americans are either becoming hard-right evangelical Christians, or mostly left-leaning secularists. The growth in non-religion is particularly prominent among the youth, who are in-turn increasingly at odds with the politically powerful block of older voters, who differ in almost every way from the younger generation.
I haven’t even addressed the wedge between political progressives and libertarians (both of whom have mobilized considerably over the last few years), between multiculturalists and nationalists, traditionalists and social progressives, between corporations and consumer advocates, labor and business, and so on. Most of these divisions aren’t new or unique to this country or this era. If anything, they’re perfectly healthy, an indication of a mature, diverse, and ideological vibrant populous. What more could we ask for in a democratic and free society?
The problem is that they’re all intensifying along increasingly hardened borders, and converging at a time when this country, and the world at large, faces very onerous challenges (particularly climate change, yet another area of intense division among the public). Civil debate and dialogue are being eroded, and people are cocooning themselves within their own perception of reality. The other side isn’t just wrong, but evil. There’s simply nothing to discuss, nor anything to prove. I’m wrong and you’re right.
None of this bodes well for a political and legislative system that was explicitly designed to promote compromise and moderation. I can’t imagine we’ll ever be able to pass a constitutional amendment – which requires significant prerequisites – given the entrenchment and pervasiveness of all these differences.
What concerns me most is that even scientific and empirical approaches, long the most effective and proven means of validating most truth claims, are being attacked, perverted, or simply ignored. It seems like reality itself has a bias of some sort (usually described as liberal), and there seems to be no universally accepted arbiter or standard from which we can reach agreement. The information overload which has come to define 21st century society certainly hasn’t helped things either. Who has time to sift through all these studies or claims in order to determine who’s right? Who do you trust out of so many purported “experts”?
The only comfort I can derive from this grim and uncertain picture is the concurrent growth of “independents” – those who are mostly uninvolved in many of these culture wars, and whose tone and disposition is far more amicable to discourse and pragmatism. These are the folks who may have a strong stance on an issue, but are nonetheless open to carefully argued alternatives. They tend to be politically and/or religious unaffiliated, and to reject parochialism in any form. If anecdotal and empirical evidence is to be believed, these folks tend to be young, pluralistic political moderates. These are just a few of the more general qualifiers.
Of course, the “no-label” or non-affiliated camp has its own problems and flaws, not least of which being a tendency to be skeptical of politics to the point of apathy, which doesn’t suit the desperate need for political change. There is also the perennial problem of the overly open-minded: indecision and a weak or absent commitment to any strong position. At least the partisans and ideologues have dedication – that is precisely why their prominence seems to be rising, and why they’re effective at mobilizing other people in their favor. It’s difficult to win people over with calls for civility, open-mindedness, and rational-thinking – none of that inspires as much passion and enthusiasm for most people as folksiness, romanticized allusions, raw rhetoric (besides, the shriller ends of the spectrum will shoot you down).
So what will it be? Will society come to be divided between narrow-minded dogmatists and dialectical but inactive independents? Will we ever return to a broad consensus on anything, or will we be trapped in perpetual brinkmanship? Mine is just one take on the matter – I’d like to see others, especially if you disagree with my analysis.

Norman Borlaug

Few people have ever head of Norman Borlaug, from the tiny town of Cresco, Iowa. This is despite the fact that he is one of only 5 people to have ever won a Nobel Peace Prize, Presidential Medal of Freedom, and Congressional Gold Medal, in addition to the National Medal of Science, the highest scientific achievement award in America. Mr. Borlaug is quite possibly one of the greatest humanitarians in human history – and the most unknown, his death in 2009 attracting little attention despite his monumental contributions.

An agronomist with a PhD in plant pathology and genetics, he is considered the father of the Green Revolution, a pivotal development in agriculture that increased food production to astounding levels and reversed decades of starvation in the developing world. It all began with his research in Mexico during the 1940s, in which he was seeking to develop a strain of wheat that was more resilient and provided higher crop yields. Growing up in a farming community of Norwegian immigrants in Iowa, he often noted with curiosity as to how some crops grew different in certain areas. This observation of plant variance, along with his innate sense of inquisitiveness and compassion, put him on the humbly heroic path to saving millions.

During the years of backbreaking work in Mexico, where he worked with locales and lived in austerity, he cross-bred and experimented with varieties of wheat before creating several strains that were resistant, faster growing, and yielded more grains. He had a promising career waiting for him in the DuPont corporation, but he declined the offer in order to go to Mexico and work on the field to help poor farmers feed themselves and make a profit as well. Within two decades after his work, Mexico reported their wheat yields as being reached 6-times higher than the year that Borlaug arrived. Now only was Mexico free of having to import food, but it’s farmers were able to feed themselves and have enough left over to sell in the market, enriching themselves and the entire country. made developing countries surplus producers of food.

Soon, Borlaug’s wheat strains – in addition to his methods and ideas, which were applied to rice as well – spread to other countries, namely India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, which also had to rely on imports and deal with horrific famines. Long predicted by scientists at the time to be approaching a Malthusian catastrophe, India soon recorded some of the largest crop yields in it’s history, after having invited Borlaug to conduct research with their own scientists. Neighboring Pakistan eventually got access to his wheat varieties as well, reporting similarly historic gains. Soon, scientists in China and the Philippines, with the help of philanthropists organizations, began following those remarkable examples and soon too brought bountiful harvests to their nation. Borlaug and his colleagues eventually distributed strains to numerous other nations in Latin America, the Middle-East, and Africa.

Norman Borlaug is believed to have saved anywhere from 245 million to even 1 billion lives, not including the millions more that might never had been born from the surplus his research contributed to. One estimate claims that half the world’s population is fed from one of the high-yield crops he and his fellows helped create. Granted, he didn’t do all this single-handedly: he had the financial support of numerous host governments, in addition to universities and charitable foundations.He worked with hundreds of researchers the world over. But that doesn’t dilute the fact that this simple, humble man, who refused to believe he even won the Nobel Prize when told so in 1970, did all this out of simple will and compassion. Even into his 80s and 90s he continued to work, notably helping to bring higher yields to dirt-poor and famine prone Ethiopia.

The Green Revolution he helped create wasn’t perfect, and it brought problems of it’s own, though it was hardly his fault. All he wanted was something simple but wholesome: to help the world. As he himself said, only a few years ago, “You can’t build a peaceful world on empty stomachs and human misery.” I dearly hope I can come within a fraction of such compassion and humanity.

Final Christmas Reflections

As a child I always saw holidays, most of all Christmas, as something magical, even when discounting the mythology of Santa Claus. Such a joyous and festive time seemed otherworldly, almost as if the entire world – and all its horror – paused for just a few days to allow everyone a happy respite. When you’re caught up in having a good time, you forget all the things that worry you, and all the bad in the world – you escape physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Such a sentiment still lingers in me to this day. When I’m having a good time, I like to think that everyone else is too. I’d like to think that time has stopped while we all engage in festivities, spend time with loved ones, and reinforce one another’s good spirits. This perception (or wish) isn’t limited to Christmas or other holidays: it’s any occasion or moment when I’m content, and everything and everyone around me seems to be as well. Otherwise, it’s hard to enjoy yourself when others can’t – it brings you down, and drags you back to a more unpleasant reality.

I for one feel guilty or undeservedly privileged – why should I have fun while others suffer, many of them good and honest folks? How can I enjoy myself and indulge in rich-world pleasantries while the majority of the world is mired in poverty, disease, and injustice? Even in my own community, there are thousands out in the streets or barely scrapping by, and many more working during what would otherwise be a vacation. I’m having fun, and they’re toiling, struggling, or both.

I don’t like to imagine all these bad things still going on while I enjoy myself. I don’t like to accept that wars still continue, people still clock into their low-wage jobs, and personal tragedies are befalling millions even on a day when we’re supposed to be having a magical time (even a nonbeliever like me can’t shake away that traditional outlook, as my prior post explains). We all deserve a chance to enjoy  ourselves and just take a break, if only briefly.

A little bit before Christmas Eve, two bombs went off in Syria, killing over two dozen people, and reminding me how thousands are still dying in the name of freedom. A similar tragedy befell Iraq around the same time, killing scores more. Nigeria began its Christmas day with a gruesome terorrist attack against a church, just as devout worshipers were leaving mass (several other minor but still fatal attacks occurred concurrently). These are just a handful of the horrors that claim our fellow humans at an unending rate – it stops for nothing. The planet still turns, and a fun holiday in one part of the world, for just a handful of the globe’s denizens, means little else to most people. If only it still meant for me what it did as a child.

I still like to reflect on the positive acts that nonetheless transpire concurrently, often unnoticed: acts of charity or justice, to name a few. I know there’s still a lot of good in the world, and that even the most oppressed and impoverished people manage, through sheer willpower and perseverance, to care a little happiness for themselves whenever they can. But it’s small comfort compared to the magnitude of needless human suffering that still goes on despite our our presumed technological, medical, and ethical advancements. I’m reminded of this video my friend posted on my Facebook group not along ago:

I don’t mean to be such a downer so soon after the holidays. I had a very pleasant season, and one of the best parties in years. I’m not at all glum today, despite the somber reflections. I simply feel a bit unfilled now that a nostalgically happy time is behind me, and I’m forced to confront the real world once more, even though as a news junkie, I still got wind of these tragic events (albeit with a level of cognitive dissonance). I just wish more of the world could share in my good fortune. If there’s one silver lining to all this, it’s how strongly it reminds me to be grateful for all that I have, you readers included.

I hope everyone has a great holiday, and better still, a great life. Never forget what and who you have.

Season’s Greetings

Whatever Christmas means to you, I wish you all the best, and hope this hectic season has gone well. I personally cannot stand this absurd and increasing controversy involving the meaning of Christmas, or the trivial semantic disputes between wishing someone a “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays.” As an agnostic atheist, my stance is somewhat obvious: even as a believer, I didn’t put much stock into the significance of Christmas (indeed, historically it was never really an important holiday, which makes all this reactionary concern about its eroding importance rather quaint – click the link to learn more).

But I still make the most of the season, spending time with my loved ones, enjoying the well-needed time off, and taking the moment to reflect on all that I am grateful for. Most of my family remains at least nominally Christian, and I have a diverse circle of friends with all sorts of beliefs and degrees of piety. In the end, we gather together in the holidays simply because it’s an opportunity for everyone to spend time with their loved ones and enjoy their good fortune, whatever the complex origins of such a tradition, or one’s personal views on it. It’s the one thing most people – regardless of faith, piety, or culture – can relate with.

Obviously, such things should be done as much as possible, and not be relegated to specific time periods or occasions. But in a world as busy, divisive, and increasingly uncertain as ours, any moment to pause and be merry is to be welcomed and made the most of. However the culture war goes, the average person couldn’t care less, as far as I’ve seen: most of us just want to have a good, loving time. The commercialism, selfishness, and polarization that have increasingly taken hold of this time is lamentable, but expected: nothing is immune to the vagaries of human nature, negative or positive, and few traditions are ever as static or wholesome as we romanticize them to be.

But ultimately, most people are just trying to be courteous, wish their fellow human beings well, and take this rare opportunity to just enjoy themselves in the company of their cherished companions (something we should always strive to do as best we can anyway). So just take whatever well-wishes you get as a kind gesture and move on. Don’t make any assumptions as the the greeters intent, and if it’s obvious they’re trying to impose upon you obnoxiously, state your position politely and leave. Life is too short, and so are these moments to make the best of them.

Update: I wish to explicitly extend my greetings to those who are stuck working during this (and any other mostly non-working) holiday. My heart goes out to the countless laborers whose selfless occupations, or otherwise desperate circumstances, necessitate that they toil away while most of us enjoy our rest. Thank you.

The Christmas Spirit

It is lamentable, if the data is to be believed, that acts of charity and compassion increase during the holidays only to fall precipitously thereafter. We shouldn’t devote a particular season or time period to acts of human decency – it should be a constant concern, to the best of our individual ability.

Granted, I don’t want to come off as a scrooge, in that we should certainly be grateful for any level of altruism no matter how ephemeral. The pragmatist in me knows to appreciate whatever good may come, even though I’d much prefer that such decency be more sincere and deeply-rooted. In the end, any light of good-will in this often dark world of ours is better than not.

But I don’t want to be to glum. Enjoying the fruits of our fortune and helping out others needn’t be mutually exclusive: religious or not, most of us spend this season with our loved ones, pondering all that we’re grateful for. To me, such gratefulness is best applied to bettering the lives of others in any way we can. Nothing lightens the soul of any decent person more than seeing others share in this love and kindness. Most people are good at heart in my opinion – we just need to make it a full-time consideration.

On Regret And Letting Go

It’s a widely-accepted canard that letting go of something is one of the hardest things in life. Humans are very prone to attachment: to loved ones, possessions, memories, and the past. Once we hold on to something and call it ours, we find it so difficult to give it up.

There are all kind of reasons why this is the case: because we find the familiar to be secure and comfortable, compared to the unknown future; because we live in a scary world and need all the comfort that we can get; because we live in a world where everything eventually dies, and such a fleeting existence leaves us defiantly holding on to things for however long we can. Or maybe it’s something that is just inexplicably ingrained in our psyche.

In any case, life is too short to be so entrenched in something, be they tangible possessions or nostalgic times. Change is the only constant in the universe, and as the world around us progresses forward beyond our control, we find ourselves in the tragic circumstance of being stuck in the past, wishing to be there, wishing to keep things we have no use for, or people we’ve long grown apart from.

That’s what makes regret so terrible. We dwell on things that have long been beyond our control. We let our present and future get bogged down by a past that exists only in memory. Ex-lovers, lost friends, familiar and good times that have since passed – these all continue to hold power over us even though they, in a sens, no longer exist. It’s literally all in our heads. And no matter how much we may tell ourselves that it’s over, that we did the right thing or that there is nothing we could’ve done, we retain that ever pervasive thought of “what if.”

It’s always easier to question our past actions or decisions in retrospect, once we’ve already gone through them and thus learned the facts. We wonder if we could’ve done more or changed things. We realize that, had we known a certain outcome or consequence, we would have acted differently. But we need to accept that, at the time, we could not have understood what our decisions would’ve led to.

And even if we were culpable, so what? What is done is done. Regretting it and holding on to it won’t fix anything. Only learning from the experience, and trying to ensure it doesn’t bog you down a second time in life, is what matters. Of course, all this is easier said than done, and one simply can’t help the way the mind dwells on things sometimes. But it is still something we must train ourselves to accept.

Letting go is so liberating. Realizing that life goes on anyway is what keeps me going. Who cares if I lost some argument, if I messed up in the past or lost my chance at something big. I’m still alive. I’m still on a path. I’m still in some degree of control. Inevitably I will, like everyone, continue to dwell on the past. It’s human nature to ponder and look back on our experiences. But I will do everything in my power never to let it dominate me. As long as I’m alive, things can change and I can learn from my sources of regret rather than unproductively wallow in them.

(Curiously, I used the term “we” for most of this post, and I didn’t even notice it until now).

Atheist Threatened With Death Once More

A few months ago, I posted about the lamentable display of hostility and outright murderous intent on the part of religious people towards atheists. This awful expression of vitriol was in response to a news piece on Fox News about American Atheists, which was pursuing a lawsuit again the 9/11 cross at the memorial (read more about that here).

Now, whatever your views on the subject, I think any decent or sane person would object to some of the violent and nasty reactions that erupted throughout the web. No one deserves that sort of treatment, especially if they’ve done no harm to anyone, other than to offend religious sensibilities.

Of course, give the well-established deep-seated animosity towards nonbelievers, it’s unsurprising that such views were expressed in the first place – much less that they’d surface once again, in an eerily similar fashion. The following samples were posted by the online group, Atheist Underground, which was one of the first to call attention to this barbaric response to a Twitter hashtag, #Godisnotgreat, which was the title of a book written by the late Christopher Hitchens, in whose honor it was trending.

All this over a contentious hashtag? Tasteless, mean, or provocative – whatever you want to call it, it doesn’t merit this disquieting level of contempt and even intent for violence. I know these believers don’t always speak for their coreligionists, and I’m certain the overwhelming majority of religious folks I know would be equally horrified. But unfortunately, it’s this sort of behavior – from the self-righteous members of a loving religion no less – that pushes many people, particularly the young, away from faith. As the article best put it:

We have the right to put up our billboards, mock your religion, and unashamedly shout god is not great. Just as you have the right to profess your love for you imaginary divinity…

Free speech is paid for by hearing words we hate, words that challenge our deepest ideals.

A line is crossed when you threaten violence and death in response to the types of speech you detest. It shows how weak minded you are, fearful of losing your faith. If this were another time or place the threat of violence would be followed by carnage. The wish to kill someone and the act of carrying it out are separated by scant millimeters of ethical judgment. For people who claim to hold the keys to righteousness and morality I expect more. While I have come to learn I can expect less than I ever thought possible, I still expect more. Put on the mask of morality while in public and release your hate filled ruminations inside the walls of your church.

I for one do my best to avoid being belligerent or provocative if I can help it, and I try to keep my tone civil and conciliatory at all costs. I would never taunt, mock, or personally insult a believer, unless they did so to me first (at which point I must level the playing field sometimes, though even then I rarely stoop to their level to the very same degree). Most of all, though, I’d never threaten someone I disagree with with death, or wish them dead in any capacity in the first place.

I don’t need a religion to see through the lack of decency in such behavior, and to know how wrong it is to treat others this way, especially within a free and democratic society in which such beliefs are to be scrutinized, discussed, and addressed. Thankfully, it seems more people, regardless of their convictions or lack thereof, would agree – although I wonder how prevalent this reactionary bigotry is among the wider population.

First Post-DADT Kiss

Petty Officer 2nd Class Marissa Gaeta, left, kisses her girlfriend of two years, Petty Officer 3rd Class

The photo above has become something of an internet sensation, at least among the online and social networks I associate with. This is the first time a gay or lesbian person in the military shows such affection in public, a few months after DADT was finally repealed. I doubt it will be the last, and with time this sort of thing will probably not be such a big deal. Details below:

A NAVY tradition caught up with the repeal of the US military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule yesterday when two women sailors became the first to share the coveted “first kiss” on the pier after one of them returned from 80 days at sea.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Marissa Gaeta descended from the USS Oak Hill amphibious landing ship and shared a quick kiss in the rain with her partner, Petty Officer 3rd Class Citlalic Snell.

Petty Officer Gaeta, 23, wore her Navy dress uniform while Petty Officer Snell, 22, wore a black leather jacket, scarf and blue jeans. The crowd screamed and waved flags around them.

“It’s something new, that’s for sure,” Petty Officer Gaeta told reporters after the kiss.

“It’s nice to be able to be myself. It’s been a long time coming.”

For the historical significance of the kiss, there was little to differentiate it from countless others when a Navy ship pulls into its home port following a deployment.

Neither the Navy nor the couple tried to draw attention to what was happening and many onlookers waiting for their loved ones to come off the ship were busy talking among themselves.

David Bauer, the commanding officer of the USS Oak Hill, said that Gaeta and Snell’s kiss would largely be a non-event and the crew’s reaction upon learning who was selected to have the first kiss was positive.

“It’s going to happen and the crew’s going to enjoy it. We’re going to move on and it won’t overshadow the great things that this crew has accomplished over the past three months,” Commander Bauer said.

The ship returned to Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story following an 80-day deployment to Central America. The crew of more than 300 participated in exercises involving the militaries of Honduras, Guatemala Colombia and Panama as part of Amphibious-Southern Partnership Station 2012.

Both women are Navy fire controlmen, who maintain and operate weapons systems on ships. They met at training school where they were roommates and have been dating for two years, which they said was difficult under “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

I can only imagine how long she had been waiting to express her love for her partner, and how long she had to keep the very existence of that relationship a secret. It must have been painful to be away for so long, never able to express those romantic feelings to anyone, for fear of being blackmailed or discharged. This kiss must’ve felt liberating in more ways than one.

 “We did have to hide it a lot in the beginning,” Petty Officer Snell said. “A lot of people were not always supportive of it in the beginning, but we can finally be honest about who we are in our relationship, so I’m happy.”

Navy officials said it was the first time on record that a same-sex couple was chosen to kiss first upon a ship’s return. Sailors and their loved ones bought $1 raffle tickets for the opportunity.

Petty Officer Gaeta said she bought $50 of tickets, a figure that she said pales in comparison to amounts that some other sailors and their loved ones had bought. The money was used to host a Christmas party for the children of sailors.

Petty Officer Snell said she believes their experience won’t be the last one for gays and lesbians in the military.

“I think that it’s something that is going to open a lot of doors, for not just our relationship, but all the other gay and lesbian relationships that are in the military now,” she said.

Petty Officer Snell is based on the USS Bainbridge, the guided missile destroyer that helped rescue cargo captain Richard Phillips from Somali pirates in 2009.

There’s a brief video of their encounter and their thoughts on the matter here.

I believe that if you’re willing to risk your life on my behalf, fight for my freedom, or otherwise serve my country selflessly, then having a consenting relationship with another adult of the same sex or gender is the last thing that will disqualify you in my eyes. It’s astounding how many bigots could condemn and disenfranchise the same people they’d otherwise call patriots (a label these chauvinists would often find applicable to themselves). 

I’m not just making an appeal to pathos – there’s little empirical, scientific, or logical evidence that openly gay troops bear any detriment to the efficiency or integrity of the military. A majority of our NATO allies have long allowed homosexuals to serve openly in their armed forces, and subsequent reviews have yielded no adverse effects. Even the much vaunted Israeli military has opened up service to gays, and its prowess remains well intact.
As in most instances of prejudice towards homosexuals, the basis for opposition is largely ignorance and a lack of empathy. I’m pleased to have my fellow citizens back home, and to see them express their well-deserved happiness (and their patriotism) in a manner no different from anyone else – because it isn’t.
Edit: There’s been some speculation, which I too shared, that this entire event was staged in order to present a more welcoming image for the navy. The attractiveness of these two women, as well as their having won the lottery despite numerous others buying more tickets, has made some suspicious of the genuineness of this kiss. Since this is just conjecture, and my focus is mostly on the wider significance that this event represents, I’m not too concerned about it.