Micah, my nephew, turned one the other day. We had a small celebration for his birthday and it made me think about what those moments can and should mean.

I've never been a big on birthdays. The focused attention often feels uncomfortable and the gift-giving arbitrary. Perhaps having a summer birthday — outside the fanfare that attends the birthdays of our youth during a school year — shaped my view of them. In any event, while I try to use my birthday to reflect on my life, I find it a strange moment to invite others into.

Micah's birthday forced a turn in how I think about birthdays. I've been too selfish thinking about the day means to me. After all, birthdays mark the passing of the time in an individual's life, but they also mark the birth of new identities for others. A birthday is a rippling metamorphosis that adds to a woman the identity of mother; to a husband, father; to parents, grandparent; to brothers, uncle. Our birthdays, then, are celebrations not just of the passing of time, but of our new and renewed identities. The tangled web of relationships is ever further complicated, enriched, and strengthened. Sometimes it takes time for us to truly accept the invitation of our new identities, but it's undeniable that the invitation to be transformed is there.

Birthdays aren't just, or even primarily, about you. The next time you pause to reflect on the last revolution you made around the sun, don't forget to include the community of people whose lives you changed just by being born.

Beyond Resistance

On January 21, 2017, my hand held an umbrella up against a steady rain on San Francisco's Market Street. Like millions of others across the country, I was marching the day after Donald Trump began his term as president determined that it be his last. The election's results sparked a wave civic engagement unprecedented in my lifetime that began with marches like the one I bolstered. As the new president assumed the tools of a powerful office, lawyers prepared to defend the trenches of hard-won rights and core ideals. People who would have never normally protest rushed to airports to demonstrate against a hastily put-together, immoral, and unproductive executive order.

That the stakes are high should escape no one. The Republican Party's domination of politics in these United States is pervasive. They occupy our White House. With multiple Supreme Court justices on the verge of retirement, they may create a durable majority. They control our Congress. They hold a vast majority of state houses and governors' mansions.

But, there is hope. The resistance is here. Whether it's here to stay and here to make a difference is up to us. These initial steps of dissent are important. They form patterns, patterns that will determine our resilience and efficacy. We need to develop a playbook for the resistance — and beyond.

Of paramount importance is that we put love first. By love, I don't mean something weak or uncritical. In an enriching conversation with Krista Tippet, civil rights leader John Lewis's reflections serve as helpful signposts to what love can mean in the context of social justice:

The [civil rights] movement created what I like to call a nonviolent revolution. It was love at its best. It’s one of the highest form of love. That you beat me, you arrest me, you take me to jail, you almost kill me, but in spite of that, I’m going to still love you. I know Dr. King used to joke sometime and say things like, “Just love the hell outta everybody. Just love ’em.”

In that love we hold the promise of repair. Lewis directs us to reflect on why those that harm us do so and inquire into the roots of their abuse of our common humanity. In doing so, Lewis pushes us:

So you try to appeal to the goodness of every human being and you don’t give up. You never give up on anyone.

Importantly, Lewis stresses that love is a "way of being" and a "way of action" that can both "bring peace out of conflict" and "stir things up in order to make things right."

Van Jones echoes this sentiment in an interview:

We have to build a massive Love Army that can take the country and the government back in a better direction. . . . So we have to start there [with the character of the country], and reassert that we want to be an inclusive country where everyone gets treated with dignity and respect. I'll tell you this: If you believe that "love trumps hate," you can't be marching around saying that and looking more hateful than Trump.

The point here is that we cannot walk away from this presidential election with hate in our hearts. With that said, no clear-eyed observer should falsely pretend that this campaign did not reveal deep fissures in our society. Racism, sexism, and bigotry were drawn to the surface. Out of the woodwork came hate many thought had been long extinguished.

That hate can only exist in its own vacuum. If hate meets the current of what Martin Luther King Jr. called agape, it will suffocate itself:

Agape is not a weak, passive love. It is love in action… Agape is a willingness to go to any length to restore community… It is a willingness to forgive, not seven times, but seventy times seven to restore community…. If I respond to hate with a reciprocal hate I do nothing but intensify the cleavage in broken community. I can only close the gap in broken community by meeting hate with love.

Those still stinging from what the 2016 election said about the character of our country undoubtedly will cry out that love doesn't seem to be enough these days. That too many cast their ballot for a man that either unthinkingly condoned hate or, worse, purposefully emboldened it, and for that great injury they are irredeemable. That our organizing should leave them behind as we set ablaze the old country and raise a new one from its ashes because, after all, we won the popular vote by a wide, resounding margin. That the system, through increasingly sophisticated gerrymandering and an outdated Electoral College, unfairly hands the keys of power disproportionately to our political opponents.

If that is where this moment has left you, then I can promise that the despair will only keep coming. The truth of that promise is revealed if we reflect for a moment on the 2016 campaign. There's no shortage of election post-mortems these days. I'm wary of the danger in over-learning from 2016, though the circumstances demand careful introspection because we lost. This piece — f-bombs and all — navigated it well enough. The author concludes:

You don’t have to like it or excuse it, but you have to understand it. If, indeed, there can be no hope for Trump voters; if the divide is unbridgeable; if no politics exists that can reach even a few percent of them and turn them toward a project of mutual, shared well-being, justice, and fairness, then there is no hope. They’re lost, and we’re fucked forever. If the people who stayed home are offered nothing but some vague promise of innovative jobs in an endlessly new economy, then there is no hope. They’re lost, and we’re fucked forever. Politics is at its most basic level transactional. A vote is purchased with a promise. Hillary Clinton: “America is already great.” Donald Trump: “I am your voice.”

At the end of the day, politics is competition and power the reward of the victors. No matter how right we are, if we want to advance the ends of our politics, we need the means, and that necessitates that we win. So, a relentless agape has to meet the hard work of politics. When noble resistance creates a crack, we have to be ready to advance a bold, revitalized vision for tomorrow. It is not enough that we play defense against the onslaught of Trump and his Republican allies' overreach and destruction. We have to block those attacks and then counterpunch.

The message can be deceptively simple, this one borrowed from Freddie de Boer:

It’s not about red state vs. blue state or rural vs. urban. It’s about building a country where everyone has their basic necessities, where everyone is free from poverty and despair. Yes to affordable housing and health care, yes to public education, yes to food for the hungry and warmth for the cold. No to poverty, no to racism and sexism, no to exploitation and greed. They stand with the comfortable and the rich, we stand with those who suffer and need. Everywhere. Because we’re all in this together.

The point isn't that the above is our message, it's that we have one ready. Every time we deflect a blow, we must sound our own message, whatever we decide it may be. The story must reach beyond the tight squeeze of our accelerating news cycles into the distant tomorrow, and beyond. We need a story for the next decade — and the next century.

How, then, do we translate resistance into power? Love the hell outta everybody. Embody that love in consistent, nonviolent action. Hold onto the hope that a politics exists that can both reach beyond our political tribe and underpin a bold vision for our country. And, so goes the African proverb, when you pray, move your feet.

The Three Advocates

Riding the Intellectual Roller Coaster
A few months ago, Asha and I attended a conversation between Rebecca Solnit and Maria Popova. Both are insightful writers that I deeply admire. Throughout the evening of wide-ranging discussion, I found myself in the strange position of oscillating between heartfelt agreement and staunch disagreement. Strange as it was, there’s value in riding this intellectual roller coaster.

In a world where everyone along political, cultural, and religious spectra is at risk of epistemic closure, the work of exposing yourself to differing opinions has never been more essential for the healthy functioning of our democracy and society. The effort inoculates your own thinking against the expression of dogma and sharpens the edges of your persuasive endeavors.

A Model for Clear Thinking
I’ve formulated a model — what I call the Three Advocates — that aids this effort:

In order to effectively engage in public discourse, expose yourself to three “advocates”: the Angel’s Advocate, the Devil’s Advocate, and the Autonomous Advocate

The Angel’s Advocate
The Angel’s Advocate is part of your tribe and espouses your deeply held values with sincerity, clarity, and force. At the same time, the Angel's Advocate knocks down steelmanned counterarguments and criticizes with kindness. Listening to the Angel’s Advocate makes you think, I wish I had thought of expressing it that way. Though there are many who are on your side, the Angel's Advocate is a rarity.

The Devil’s Advocate
The Devil’s Advocate is like the Angel’s Advocate in every way, except they labor in support of the opposing viewpoint.

The Autonomous Advocate
The final — and perhaps the most valuable — advocate you should pay attention to is the Autonomous Advocate. In addition to pressing a point with all the tools that a good Angel’s and Devil’s Advocate uses, the Autonomous Advocate’s efforts place you on the intellectual roller coaster. You follow them in agreement only to lose them around a corner and feel like you've stumbled upon a different person. You are left uncomfortable and sometimes, confused. You're thinking.

The Dance of All Three
Each of the three advocates has a role to play. The Angel's Advocate equips you with the sharpest tools with which to press your viewpoint. The Devil's Advocate challenges you by poking holes in your thinking. The Autonomous Advocate keeps you just enough off balance in order to escape the traps of dogmatic thinking. You can use this model to dive deeply into a particular topic or to curate a conversation of voices on a diversity of questions. No matter the use case, I've found it essential to ask myself: Do I have my Three Advocates in order?

Regret and the Fog of Life

Regret is a dangerous emotion. You can't act on it. What little you may learn from regret risks being fruit from a poisonous tree. Too often, regret pulls you into a space of despair.

The flavor of regret that I regularly feel is what I call "Groundhog's Day regret." The perfectionist in me fantasizes about perfectly executed stretches of time. If only I could carpe diem as Bill Murray eventually does in that classic film, I might fill a day like an expertly played game of Tetris.

But the truth is that we are actors in a hazy fog, the fog of war, the fog of life. Remove the fog with piercing hindsight and we are only watching a fictional and personal Groundhog's Day.

That is why regret is so useless — and so pernicious.

Not only can we not do anything about it, but it's a false view of the past we seek to change because no memory of the past is accurate without the fog. Without the fog of war, there is no messy battle and that messy battle is everything.

What can we learn? Is there anything we can do to avoid the poison of regret?

Maybe. Perhaps we ask ourselves some careful questions. Is there something I should have (and could have!) considered, but didn't? Could I have removed any small piece of the fog to reduce the uncertainty? Does the regret that I feel have any bearing on this moment, or am I, as before, caught in a fog and should only commit to making the best of the confusion?

In asking those questions, we ought to be mindful that we don't fall into the trappings of regret. However, if we navigate the introspection carefully, we just may find some fruitful wisdom free from contamination.

Elect a President Who Reads

A couple of years ago, I encountered a meme circulating: date a girl who reads. Best expressed in a letter from Rosemarie Urquico, the meme espouses the attractiveness of a reading mind.

It should be no different for the person we send to work in our highest public office. We should elect presidents who read.

A year ago, I shared a short excerpt about how Lincoln was a reader. Barack Obama is a reader. The man set to replace him isn't interested in books.

To be clear, simply reading books doesn't a good president make. However, understanding the way one thinks about reading illuminates how one thinks about leading. A recent interview affirmed the gratitude I have for the current president — and the importance of reading. On its surface, it's a conversation about books. In truth, it's a conversation about life. I'll pull from the transcript at length because it hits on so much of what makes storytelling and books powerful.

A younger Obama turned to books while traveling because the "idea of having these worlds that were portable, that were yours, that you could enter into, was appealing. . ." As a college student, he used "writing and reading and thinking . . . as a way to rebuild [himself]."

Reflecting on a period of life that he labels "hermetic," Obama notes a key discovery he found through reading:

[I]t reintroduced me to the power of words as a way to figure out who you are and what you think, and what you believe, and what’s important, and to sort through and interpret this swirl of events that is happening around you every minute.

Obama notes how the power of stories was evident in his earlier work as a community organizer, previewing who he would become on the national stage of politics:

The great thing was that it was useful in my organizing work. Because when I got there, the guy who had hired me said that the thing that brings people together to have the courage to take action on behalf of their lives is not just that they care about the same issue, it’s that they have shared stories. And he told me that if you learn how to listen to people’s stories and can find what’s sacred in other people’s stories, then you’ll be able to forge a relationship that lasts.

But my interest in public service and politics then merged with the idea of storytelling.

Throughout the conversation, Obama shares some thoughts on how reading helped with the difficult job of being president. On the value of cross-training as a reader:

But this is part of why it was important to pick up the occasional novel during the presidency, because most of my reading every day was briefing books and memos and proposals. And so working that very analytical side of the brain all the time sometimes meant you lost track of not just the poetry of fiction, but also the depth of fiction.

Obama relays that reading helped him understand the minds of others — and get out of his own:

And so I think that I found myself better able to imagine what’s going on in the lives of people throughout my presidency because of not just a specific novel but the act of reading fiction. It exercises those muscles, and I think that has been helpful.

And then there’s been the occasion where I just want to get out of my own head. [Laughter] Sometimes you read fiction just because you want to be someplace else.

On Shakespearean tragedies as a touchstone during his presidency:

[Digging into the tragedies] is foundational for me in understanding how certain patterns repeat themselves and play themselves out between human beings. . . It gives me a sense of perspective.

Another text that Obama turned to was a handwritten copy of the Gettysburg Address in the Lincoln Bedroom:

And there have been times in the evening when I’d just walk over, because it’s right next to my office, my home office, and I just read it.

And perspective is exactly what is wanted. At a time when events move so quickly and so much information is transmitted, the ability to slow down and get perspective, along with the ability to get in somebody else’s shoes — those two things have been invaluable to me. Whether they’ve made me a better president, I can’t say. But what I can say is that they have allowed me to sort of maintain my balance during the course of eight years, because this is a place that comes at you hard and fast and doesn’t let up.

Lincoln was just one of many in a cabinet of the past that he turned to as a reader:

I think that during those periods, Lincoln’s writings, King’s writings, Gandhi’s writings, Mandela’s writings — I found those particularly helpful, because what you wanted was a sense of solidarity.

For Obama, books were a way of unlocking the power of story, a force in society whose necessity never diminishes:

When so much of our politics is trying to manage this clash of cultures brought about by globalization and technology and migration, the role of stories to unify — as opposed to divide, to engage rather than to marginalize — is more important than ever.

He continues, noting that the act of reading can be a rebellion against the pressures of the present:

There’s something particular about quieting yourself and having a sustained stretch of time that is different from music or television or even the greatest movies.

And part of what we’re all having to deal with right now is just a lot of information overload and a lack of time to process things. So we make quick judgments and assign stereotypes to things, block certain things out, because our brain is just trying to get through the day.

With an eye to the next chapter, Obama still finds a place for stories as an antidote to despair:

I think that what one of the jobs of political leaders going forward is, is to tell a better story about what binds us together as a people. And America is unique in having to stitch together all these disparate elements — we’re not one race, we’re not one tribe, folks didn’t all arrive here at the same time.

What holds us together is an idea, and it’s a story about who we are and what’s important to us. And I want to make sure that we continue that.

We should elect a president who reads.

Seeing What Could Be

There's a great scene in the movie Begin Again where Dan (Mark Ruffalo) hears Gretta (Kiera Knightley) singing solo with just a guitar at a bar. As the song progresses, Dan slowly sees the other instruments on the stage come alive and transform Gretta's song into something special. The rest of the bar pays little attention to the performance and the end of the song is met with a smattering of applause. Dan, however, is enthralled and immediately offers to produce her.

I really enjoyed the whole movie, though I resonated with this scene in particular. Dan doesn't just see what's there — he sees what could be. He's what Frederick Douglass calls a "picture-maker":

Poets, prophets, and reformers are all picture-makers, and this ability is the secret of their power and of their achievements. They see what ought to be by the reflection of what is, and endeavor to remove the contradiction.

The rest of the movie involves Dan and Gretta working together in order to unlock Gretta's full potential as an artist. Where others only heard background noise, Dan heard something more — and he was right.

I wonder if we can't switch ourselves to "picture-making" mode more often. We would build up instead of tear down. We would embody charity in interpretation of another's actions instead of judgement. We would make the world a better place by closing the gap between what is and what ought to be whenever the opportunity presents itself. I can see this world in my head. Can you?

Praising Praise Music

On Sunday mornings, you'll likely find me en route to Devil's Teeth Baking Company to grab some breakfast sandwiches and beignets with Asha. There's a good chance that in the car ride over we will be getting our weekly sermon from Chance the Rapper's beautiful song "Blessings." The hook unapologetically resounds:

When the praises go up
The blessings come down

You'll find me — the self-proclaimed atheist — unironically singing along for the entirety of the song, one of many gospel-infused tracks on Chance the Rapper's excellent album, Coloring Book. In a later track, "Blessings (Reprise)," Chance proclaims "I speak to God in public." In a stirring musical tribute to Muhammad Ali, he makes it clear that he wants to wear his faith on his sleeves. I love Chance's genuine gospel music.

Does this present a contradiction? Alain de Botton's intriguing book Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion says no. He begins with a controversial statement: "The most boring and unproductive question one can ask of any religion is whether or not it is true.” I have some qualms with that, though I resonated with de Botton's overarching message. He writes:

I never wavered in my certainty that God did not exist. I was simply liberated by the thought that there might be a way to engage with religion without having to subscribe to its supernatural content - a way, to put it in more abstract terms, to think about Fathers without upsetting my respectful memory of my own father. I recognized that my continuing resistance to theories of an afterlife or of heavenly residents was no justification for giving up on the music, buildings, prayers, rituals, feasts, shrines, pilgrimages, communal meals and illustrated manuscripts of the faiths.

In short, my aversion to the supernatural shouldn't prevent me from engaging with the good stuff. So, I'll praise praise music if it resonates with my soul. I'll enter churches and reflect deeply on the nature of our existence. I'll walk the pilgrim's path in the mountains.

The religious might object to my secular participation in what they find sacred. That's okay — I'd understand. I'll take my chances at offense if it means that I feed my own becoming.


On retreat at a meditation center, I inadvertently broke my silence on the last of five days of quiet. I hadn't faced much difficulty with staying silent on the retreat. There were, of course, moments where automatic reflexes kicked in and I felt an urge to utter an apology when bumping into someone. However, I quickly found myself dropping further and further into the Noble Silence.

Part of what made it easy to settle in had to do with the sense of temporary community at the center. Everyone arrived ready to respect the quiet. We took seriously our responsibility to collectively nurture the silence. Quiet is a public good mauled by the tragedy of the commons. To enter a community of intentional silence was a breath of fresh air. Or, rather, it was an earful of fresh silence.

The ease of settling in made my inadvertent breaking of the silence all the more memorable. During the retreat, I quickly adopted a routine of getting up early and making a cup of coffee before our morning sit. I found that the ritual not only comforted me in a unique way — the solitude of the dining hall was an even deeper kind of quiet found only at the bookends of the day — but also the energizing caffeine banished the haziness that too often can visit during morning practice.

Before dawn on that last day, I began walking down the path to the kitchen to brew a cup when the immensity of the night sky halted me in my tracks. Piercing, radiating starlight punctured my chest, swelled, and then I gently breathed, "Wow."

I've experienced wonder and awe many times in my life. The moments of rapture come in many beautiful shapes and sizes. The release of "Wow" in the starlight may have been the most pure expression of awe in my life as yet because of the quiet that preceded it.

Silence, solitude, quiet, sanctuary — whatever you call it — offers fertile ground. So much grows there: reflection, transformation, healing, tranquility. So much can flow from a rest in that space, too. As we move on from a moment of quiet, we carry with us the fruits of its fertile ground. Often, we don't even know that we still carry them. Resting in the quiet, we tip silent dominoes that fall for many moments in the future.

Where is your quiet? What grows there? How can you come again to that space as to nurture you for the road ahead?

Off to find mine.

Forward, Forward, Forward

I'm still in a daze after our country elected Donald Trump. I've been searching for something to hang my hat on. Eventually, I remembered an old ad from Barack Obama's 2008 campaign. The ad's source material comes from a stump speech that Obama gave in Fredericksburg, Virginia in the pouring rain. It's vintage Obama on full display: enthusiastic and full of promise. So much has happened since we first elected Obama, but I still find the ad a salve in these complicated times. It's sappy, I know. But I think the words are instructive.

Throughout his speech, Obama plays with literal and metaphorical references to the storm they are in:

I understand times are hard. This won't be easy. The storm hasn't quite passed yet. Sometimes the skies look cloudy. And it's dark. And you think, "The rains will never pass."

I definitely feel a fear for the future. So much feels unknown and what feels known already scares me.

But Obama doesn't stay in this despair for too long. Only as he can do, Obama pivots to the audacity of hope:

But here's what I understand: that as long as all of us are together, as long as we are all committed, then there's nothing we can't do. That's why we started off this campaign saying, "Yes we can."

Then, he brings us all into a community of hope:

That's why we understood that black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native-American, young, old, rich, poor — it doesn't matter, we're all Americans. And our destiny will be shaped by us.

I think the inclusivity of hope is so important and an antidote to the vitriol of the 2016 campaign.

He then turns to the young generation so crucial to his organizing and election:

And this young generation that's out here... The young people of America understand that the clouds, these too, will pass. That a brighter day will come.

I like to think that Obama is referencing one of my favorite adages: "This too shall pass." I'm sure folks have seen the map of how young people voted in 2016, showing that politics might look different in the future.

Crucially, hope is an active thing. Obama closes with his call to action:

That you if you are willing work for it. If you are willing to roll up your sleeves. If you are willing to lock arms and march and talk to your friends, talk to your neighbors, make a phone call, do some organizing, yes do some community organizing. Then I promise you, Fredericksburg, we will win Virginia. We will win this general election. And you and I together, we will change the country and change the world.

The only way out is through. Know hope and move forward, forward, forward.