How I Won at Life (hint: not because of me)

Aristotle thought that making it in life was a combination of self-directed virtue and luck. I agree. Luck is another way of saying genetic, psychological, and environmental factors. When it comes to the lottery of life – and it is a lottery – I have hit the jackpot. I was born a man. Never have I dealt with sexism in my life. I was born white. Never have I dealt with racism (on the contrary, I had to be convinced it exists). I was born good looking; or, good enough to pass. Never have I dealt with people ignoring me because of the way I look. I was born Christian, and became Christian, the most accepted and celebrated religion in America. Never have I dealt with Islamophobia, anti-Antisemitism or Xenophobia. I am tall. When I was short, I did get made fun of, and it did affect me at the time. I was born to parents who loved me and took care of me, with a brother, sister, and grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles. My mother didn’t smoke, do drugs, beat me, neglect me. On the contrary.

Yes, I hit the jackpot.

Through no virtue of my own.gene

I am not being overly humble or self-deprecating. I do think that I – whatever that means – was a part of this. I steered the ship. I made some good decisions, formed some good habits, and did my best with what I’ve got. I am part of the equation. And now, I enjoy a pretty damn good life. It could only get better from here, which is an amazing position to be in. But eventually we have to be honest with ourselves and realize that, when it comes to so many people, they have not enjoyed the lottery. They were faced with incredible odds.

And with that knowledge, not surprisingly, comes compassion, and humility, and understanding.

It’s a curious position to be in. When thinking about ourselves, as individuals, we must believe that we can do anything. Psychologically, there is no better way to live, even when the odds are against you. It’s the motivation to strive. Pick yourself up by your own bootstraps! You have to push through and beat the odds (and, in truth, you can). But, when thinking about other people, about groups of people, about statistical realities, we must take a more nuanced approach. We must consider all the factors that make up a person’s destiny, none of which are in the person’s control:

  • genetics
  • environment in the womb
  • early upbringing: the first weeks, months, and years matter – a lot. Even the tiny details such as breast milk matter.
  • poverty, income level
  • parental love
  • education
  • cultural factors
  • thousands more…you get the idea

Just take the fact that I had Mr. Jackson for my English teacher in High School. This was a complete accident, yet probably changed the course of my life forever. Had I never met Mr. Jackson, perhaps I wouldn’t have become a reader, a philosopher, a librarian, an intellectual. Sure we all have free will, the ability to make decisions and form good habits and create a good life.

But even free will has it’s limits. I celebrate Thanksgiving every single day. Nowadays, Thanksgiving gives me the single emotion of happiness and sadness, if such a thing exists. I hope for a future where everyone has the same odds in life.

How I Won at Life (hint: not because of me)

My Thoughts on the Old Testament, New Testament, and Qur’an

I am conflicted. On the one hand, I respect all religions as valid paths to the Divine. On the other hand, when I start to dig into particular religions, I seem to prefer some religious texts over others. This comes with a huge disclaimer: I am very familiar with Christianity, but much less so with other religions. Still, I’ll share some of my limited experiences with these holy texts.

The Old Testament is the expression of a primitive culture dealing with primitive issues. I’m sorry to say it, but it’s true. When I started reading the Bible, as a young, impressionable man, I’ll never forget coming across numerous passages that said “God hates,” “God detests,” and stories about God-sponsored wars, and other such nonsense. Even at that time, when I thought the Bible was God’s Word, I knew something was wrong here. God does not hate; God does not condone war. Those are moral facts and follow from the very definition of God as an all good, perfect Being. However, I found comfort and wisdom of the Psalms and Proverbs, two of the best books in the Bible

But at the end of the day, I am not a huge fan of the Old Testament – there are simply too many passages that can be misused, interpreted literally, or downright wrong. This is why Kant called the Old Testament a non-Christian text, which I think is right. Jesus encapsulated the entire thing into the Golden Rule, which I think was also right. Most people are decent and will ignore the silly parts. But some people will take them seriously or literally. Racism, sexism, to name two. That’s dangerous.

The New Testament, on the other hand, in my humble opinion, doesn’t suffer from the same problems. Other than some sexist assumptions from Paul, and a weird violent symbolic apocalyptic story in Revelations, the moral teachings of Jesus throughout the Gospels have stood the test of time. They are extremely hard to critique. In high school and college, I studied every single teaching of Jesus, even looking at the extra-Biblical teachings from other texts (e.g. Gospel of Thomas). I entered every single teaching into a giant Word document, eventually putting them in categories like “love” “knowledge” “Kingdom of God,” etc. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done in my entire life. Sure, I thought some of the saying were cryptic and weird. but morally, it doesn’t get any better than the core teachings of Jesus: love God, love your neighbor, and love your enemies. That is the core message of the Gospels, and yet even still, several people don’t get it. That’s my point. Even if a text is rock solid, it will be interpreted through the lens of the person reading it. The teachings of Jesus saved me, so I am forever indebted to the New Testament.

The Buddhist texts and Taoist texts that I have read – also good spiritual and moral nourishment. I find them a little more metaphysical and intellectual, but the morality boils down to compassion, love, and selflessness. They seem to be quite peaceful, even towards animals and the earth.

As for the Qur’an, I haven’t read it. I know that there are several beautiful moral teachings in it, including the Golden Rule. But, like the Old Testament, I have heard there are several violent passages and stories as well, and that Muhammed was in several wars himself. Perhaps it suffers the same fate of the Old Testement: the expression of a more primitive culture dealing with primitive issues. I recently read a book titled Heretic, written by an ex-Muslim woman, who is critical of the Qur’an. However, on the other side, I am a fan of Reza Aslan, a Muslim thinker and scholar of religions. He basically says that the Qur’an is just like any other religious text. It gets interpreted within a particular society, and through the lens of particular human personalities. We cannot blame the text itself. I agree partially. I’m saying we can blame the text- as long as we are specific about it. We need to call out the bad parts, which is what I’m doing right now.

What’s the takeaway? Religious texts are not written by men. They are mostly inspired by God, and that’s okay. They are still holy. Rather than diminish, this expands our understanding of both God and our beloved religious text. There is God. And there is you. The rest is there to help mediate that connection.That is religion. It’s time for us to let go and face God for the very first time, waiting for us in the greatest recesses of the mind.

My Thoughts on the Old Testament, New Testament, and Qur’an