Re: Violence and Pain

I've been thinking a lot about the unrelenting wave of violence suffered by black people in America. The onslaught of the lost has shamefully numbed me. I turn my eyes to each new headline and reach into the well for outrage at the injustice only to come up empty.

But people are in pain, a pain that's been built, fortified, and justified, brick by injuring brick, for all of our flawed nation's history. And the storm of violence shows no signs of breaking.

We have to turn towards the pain and the violence if there's any hope for us.

For the pain, the first thing I can say is that it's not my own. This post from Jedidiah Jenkins navigates to what I think is an important conclusion:

I don’t know what to say or do. But I am here. I cannot know what it is like to be you. But I can listen and I can be a better friend. And I should make sacrifices. I love you. And I’m sorry for my frightened selfishness. For my blindness, at first unconscious, and then chosen.

Even if I don't know you, I am here and I love you. If there is any balm in the insignificant compassion I can offer, it is yours.

Even with the pain, which must be recognized, there's also the violence. In thinking about it, I've returned to a powerful documentary I watched last summer called The Act of Killing, which deals with the killings in Indonesia from 1965-66.

The documentary takes you to some of the darkest corners of the human experience. In a conversation with Sam Harris, the documentary's director, Joshua Oppenheimer, offers a valuable reflection at the 42 minute mark:

Recognizing that virtually every act of evil in our history has been perpetrated by human beings like us, it's uncomfortable because it means that we might, if we lived in other situations, do the same thing. If we grew up in any of these perpetrators' families in 1950s Indonesia, come 1965, we might make the same decision. We would hope that we wouldn't, but most of us are very lucky never to have to find that out. And that's uncomfortable.

Oppenheimer continues, digging a little deeper:

But if you overcome that, you quickly realize that recognizing that every perpetrator is human with very few exceptions and shares the same human morality is the only hopeful response. Because if there's just monsters among us then we either have to surrender ourselves to this kind of thing happening again and again and again, in a kind of despair, or we have to isolate the monsters and somehow neutralize them. And then, how do we stop ourselves from becoming the monsters?

Answering his own question:

Whereas if we can build societies in which we foster the widest possible empathy and where we also foster doubt, where we teach children to doubt what authority tells them so that it's more difficult to incite people to join groups that would betray their individual morality, then we ought to be able to build societies where this kind of unimaginable violence truly becomes unimaginable, where it becomes impossible.

Oppenheimer's reflection points us to at least one part of how we can navigate our way out of the violence. We have to recognize the humanity in the perpetrators. At the same time, we have to foster doubt, gut-wrenching, soul-searching doubt. And we have to be wary of tribal politics, for it is tribal politics that led to the systems that meter out violence. We have to build and rebuild a society from first principles that reflect the good in us. I believe that's possible. In light of the alternative, I have to believe that it is possible.

I don't have answers. I mostly have questions. I am ready to learn and to change my mind if need be. But I want to join the conversation, because not doing so isn't a viable option anymore.


Have you ever reached the end of a story -- a book, a movie, or a TV show -- and immediately felt a bittersweet nostalgia? You were so wrapped up in the story that when it released you, an urge to drop back into its warmth is almost overwhelming.

It's not just happy stories that provoke this feeling. All it requires is a good story: one that touches something deeply human like love, loss, growth, or discovery.

There's a lot of uncertainty in life. But this much I know: at the end of each cycle of living -- a day, a week, a month, a year, a life -- I want to have lived a story I wouldn't want to leave.


I was honored to be invited to speak to the incoming class at Carneige Mellon this past Sunday (August 28th) and kick off the University Lecture series along with two other alumni. Here's what I had to share with them.

There is nothing more powerful in this world than a question.

I thought that I got to Carnegie Mellon because I knew the answers. This is true in a limited sense. Like you, I gave enough of the right answers on my exams, papers, and SAT.

In hindsight, I think I knew the answers because I was asking the right questions, like “What if..?” and “Why?”. Curiosity made the answers come naturally.

However you made it to Carnegie Mellon, now you’re here. If you are anything like I was six years ago, your head is probably swimming with questions. During this past week, you’ve probably been met with a barrage of questions from your classmates. What dorm are you in? What are you studying? Where are you from?

You might be asking yourself some questions. Am I in the right place? What should I study? What is the deal with buggy anyways? Let me tell you: if you’re asking questions, you’re already off to a great start.

And the questions will keep coming and I hope become more interesting. Bright and early on my first day of class at Carnegie Mellon, I walked into a tiny room in Porter Hall for Professor Nico Slate’s seminar, “Barack Obama and the History of Race in America.” Professor Slate’s class asked questions worthy of answers. What does race mean? How should it relate to our politics? How does our history work itself into the present? You know, the simple, easy questions.

These questions captivated me and I had a community where I could ask them at Carnegie Mellon. They felt challenging, interesting, and important. Having a community when you’re pondering big questions is essential because your questions are enriched by others, expanded upon, and redirected.

Right now, you have a community ripe for your best questions. You can pose questions that shake your respective worlds. In asking questions, dare to be foolish. Be wary of questions that are too small, that betray a poverty of ambition. By small questions, I don’t mean ones that reflect some lack of understanding. To raise one’s hand and ask “I don’t get it, can you explain that again?” is a courageous act and an important question. But once you’re grounded in some knowledge, and knowledge you will surely get here at Carnegie Mellon, the best questions you can offer will reach beyond your chosen discipline and speak to something larger than yourself.

With that said, many of the questions you will ask in the upcoming years will be about you: what you should do and who you should be. And that’s important, because you can’t ask questions of the world without turning your curiosity on yourself. These questions will often feel like the most searching ones. There are only six years between you and I, but I don’t know if these personal questions ever fully resolve themselves.

Nor do I think that I want them to, for there is beauty in that unknowing, in that state of constant, wild becoming. During my time at CMU, I lurched to and fro, trying to get a sense of both what meaningful questions I could ask the world and the place from which to ask them.

I got involved in student life because I wanted to be part of shaping the community at the university. I organized for President Obama during his reelection campaign because I believe that politics is a frustrating yet important lever for change. When Professor Slate asked if I wanted to take part in a pilot service learning program in Qatar and India, I jumped at the chance to learn in a new environment. I felt tremors of resonance in these activities: a sense that I was becoming who I ought to be.

But I still had questions about what I should do and tried on shoes that didn’t fit. I considered journalism. At a fundamental level, I consider myself a storyteller, and investigating the world and literally asking questions is surely a way to shape our collective story. However, I found it wasn’t the way in which I wanted to, as Rilke directs us, to “live the questions.”

I pursued international development. That proved to be closer to home, though I found that there was something missing from the questions I asked there. It was actually while studying abroad in India that I realized that law – in the US – was the place from which I wanted to ask – and live – the questions. Life is funny like that; sometimes you have to travel to find home. Our team was in the midst of working with a foundation that supported women’s self-help groups and though the work was important, I found that there was a limit to how good my questions could be. There was a disconnect. I wasn’t of the communities I sought to serve and powerfully asking some of the questions I was interested in about equality and development might require additional tools.

Three years later, I’m entering my final year at Stanford Law School. I’ve found law is a flexible and powerful way to frame some of the biggest questions of our time. At Stanford, I’ve encountered another community of questioning. In a moment of national uncertainty, fear, and hurt, I’m taking part in a collective questioning of what justice means, what should be the measure of progress, and how we ought to live with one another. I know that if I’m asking these kind of questions, I’m doing okay, even if the answers feel so far beyond my reach.

The next steps in my profession as a lawyer are still uncertain. But I know how I will take them: with questions and with hope.

I think that hope is a misunderstood word. To some, it implies a naiveté – a certain kind of foolish knowing. But I’ve come to realize that hope is one of the most important instruments available to communities of questioning because questions asked with hope lead us to worthwhile, interesting places.

I don’t take hope to be some passive, flimsy thing. The hope that I know, the one that I viscerally feel animates my heroes and my communities, is a demanding, powerful force.

I’ve meditated on these 145 words from the essay “The Small Work in the Great Work” too many times to count in the last few years:

You know I cannot save them. I am not here to save anybody or to save the world. All I can do — what I am called to do — is to plant myself at the gates of Hope. Sometimes they come in; sometimes they walk by. But I stand there every day and I call out till my lungs are sore with calling, and beckon and urge them in toward beautiful life and love…

There’s something for all of us there, I think. Whatever our vocation, we stand, beckoning and calling, singing and shouting, planted at the gates of Hope. This world and our people are beautiful and broken, and we are called to raise that up — to bear witness to the possibility of living with the dignity, bravery, and gladness that befits a human being. That may be what it is to “live our mission.”

That fires me up. I hope – in that larger, powerful sense – that there is something there for you, too.

I don’t know what living my mission will look like in the upcoming years. It may be in nonprofit work, or in the government, or in politics. But I know that wherever I am, I will be standing at the gates of Hope, shouting the biggest questions that I can dream of.

But what about you? What will you ask the world?

Intermittent Connectivity

My reflections on visiting the temple of the subway made me think about the value of intermittent connectivity.

Discussions focusing on intentional living are replete with tips on how to embrace intermittent disconnectivity. Don't check your phone when you wake up. Leave the house with your phone in it. Experiment with digital sabbaths.

Here's an idea: Maybe we should bounce between small periods of connectivity as opposed to finding the times to disconnect. If we change the defaults from connectivity to fruitful solitude, perhaps we will be mindful of and find more value in the moments where we plug into the network. For example, I greatly enjoy those times when I can disconnect, read, reflect, and write. However, like Thoreau, I ought to return from Walden, rejoin my communities, share what I'm thinking about, and get inspiration from others.

A default of disconnectivity might play out in interesting ways on the scale of days, weeks, and months and could potentially alleviate the tension between creating and sharing. At the same time, we can dive deeper into presence, both personally and professionally, when things are switched off knowing that connectivity will, like on the subway, come at the next stop (if we need it).

Now, excuse me for a little bit. I'll see you at the next stop.

See also Disconnect; "Don’t Take Breaks from Distraction. Instead Take Breaks from Focus" in Cal Newport's book Deep Work (beginning at p. 159).

I am not so busy

Just like that, the summer skated by. When friends and family have checked in with me to see how things are going, I've told them a similar story:

I'm busy! Lots of projects in my queue at the internship and I'm constantly working on fellowship applications. You know how it is.

There's some truth to this story. I did, in fact, work on a bunch of different projects this summer at the Brennan Center. I did, in fact, log a number of hours in the pursuit of job opportunities after I graduate law school.

But the story is bullshit. I am not so busy. I've spent many hours in a state of fractured focus getting an astonishing nothing done. I've passed evenings lazily in Central Park. I've gone to shows. I've strategically visited different pizzerias to determine which has the best slice.

I say I'm busy because I think that busyness means business, that it's some badge of honor. It's not.

I am not so busy.

But I'm scared. I am in the state of flux, where the future is unknown. I don't know where I'll be next year or what I'll be doing. Often, that not knowing can be exciting: you can slip into a hopeful place of possibility. Other times, it's debilitating. And when the fear sets it, it's easier for me to talk about being "busy" than about being afraid.

When we say we're busy, it doesn't always have to be about fear. It could be a mask for our lack of prioritization. We say we're busy so that it's understandable when we drop the ball on some things, or if we don't offer the world the best we have. But instead of confronting those deeper tensions, we present ourselves as sympathetic hard workers.

If you ask me, "How's it going?" and I reply, "Busy!", I give you a free pass to call me out. I invite you to join me and think:

I am not so busy.

See also The 'Busy' Trap, The Busy Person's Lies

Holiness is a Choice

This summer, I rode the subway to and from work every day. I had a short, 20 minute commute on the C train. Though I often spent the commute with a podcast in my ear, occasionally I punctured my routine with some music or some silence. As the subway travels underneath the city, the intermittent, forced unplugging gave me the chance to reconnect with myself and my thoughts.

In those moments, the subway morphs into a pop-up temple of reflection as I join a fleeting, ever-changing community. Standing in the pews over the summer, one of the most important things that I came to realize that holiness is a choice.

Trains are often delayed and crowded and the swelter of a summer day can try even the most resolute. Echoing DFW, therein lies the holiness. But that holiness -- or, if you prefer, that sacredness, that tranquility, that transcendence -- is only accessible by choice. The temple doors don't open from the inside: there is no one beckoning you in.

The inferno of the subway can either be the breeding ground for the sacred or just another annoyance. On the subway and beyond, holiness is a choice.

See also This is Water