Sexual Harassment is a Men’s Issue

Sexual Harassment is a “Men’s Issue”

I realize that the topic for my column may be seen as a controversial one for a family newspaper.  But precisely for that reason, I have chosen this week to write about sexual harassment and assault.  This is a relevant story in the national headlines, because of the cases of men like Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Mark Halperin, Bill O’Reilly, and Roger Ailes.  But let’s not fool ourselves that sexual harassment and assault are isolated to the wealthy and powerful.  Far more numerous are the cases we don’t hear anything about, because the victim stays silent.  I have heard of multiple cases of sexual harassment and assault recently here in our own town, so this is not a topic we can leave to others.

The one safe place to talk about sexual harassment and assault, apparently, is with women.  We have courses on “Rape Prevention” and “Avoiding Sexual Harassment” that are geared almost entirely toward women.  A student of mine told me a little bit about a rape prevention course she took, where not only were women the only ones invited, but they were told not to talk about what they learned with men.  How many men have taken a course like  “Preventing Rape & Sexual Harassment” focused on what men can do to stop sexually harassing and assaulting women?  If you are like me, never.

The problem, of course, is this: If men are the primary perpetrators of sexual assault and harassment, why is it that we think women need to be taught rape prevention courses?  Why do we cover these topics in courses as “women’s issues?”  This assumes that somehow women are responsible for avoiding being harassed or assaulted, rather than men being responsible for doing the harassing and assaulting!  Our attitude, absurd though it seems, is that sexual harassment and assault are inevitable and women just have to learn to deal with it.

Instead, should we not teach rape prevention courses to boys and men?  Should we not have courses on “men’s issues” that involve how to prevent and stop sexual harassment?  And why don’t we?  I was talking to one of my teenage daughters about this just yesterday.  I asked her, “Why don’t you think parents talk to their boys about these things while we feel obligated to talk to our girls?”  Her answer was spot on: “People don’t want to talk to their sons because they don’t want to assume that their boy would do such a thing.  And they don’t want their sons to think that they see them that way.”  

But we don’t simply stop teaching “Thou shalt not kill” because we don’t want people to feel like we believe they are budding psychopathic killers.  We teach because we know that people do these things and because we know they are wrong. The conservative estimate is that 25% of women experience sexual harassment in the workplace.  If it is happening that often, clearly there are a lot of men doing it, right?  So we must have the courage to talk to boys and men about why sexual harassment occurs, how to stop ourselves from doing it, and how to deal with times when other men are sexually harassing women and we know about it.  

So in your next family meeting or discussion, talk to your children (I would personally recommend ages 12+) about sexual harassment.  And if I may, as a father of only daughters, let me suggest a few things you might discuss.

First, sexual assault and harassment are about power, not sex.  In workplaces where women and men make close to the same salary and have equal opportunities for promotion, cases of sexual harassment are much less common.  So talk to your boys about how to use power to benefit and help others rather than to abuse and demean.  Ask them why they think men engage in such behaviors–what they think these men get out of it.  In fact, be sure to ask a lot of questions rather than just lecture.

Second, talk to your sons about why it is common in real life, as well as movies and television, that boys push the girls sexually as far as they will “let them.”  Talk to them about how often boys feel like they can take as much as the girl is willing to give, rather than putting limits on their own behavior.  Is the real limit what Trump said in his bragging to the TV host, “They let you do it!”?  Or Bill Clinton’s admission that his affair with an intern was “because I could”?

Lastly, and most importantly, teach by example.  How you treat your wife and daughters, your co-workers and employees, will teach more than any sermon.  I don’t mean holding the door open or practicing “ladies first,” but your genuine respect for women and girls as your equals.  If you don’t live this, start now.  And men, if you know about these things happening in your workplace or social world, do something about it.  Real respect for women is not about courtly manners, but about the courage to do the right thing and the self-control to deal with your own impulses.  

This column appears in the Rexburg Standard Journal and the Idaho State Journal on October 31, 2017.

This Week’s Nuclear News

This week brought into stark contrast two approaches to nuclear weapons: one, I think is good news, the other not so much.  Ever since the 1940’s, the question about the morality and use of nuclear weapons has been one of the most fraught and dangerous questions facing mankind.  I say mankind, not just a particular nation, because there are enough nuclear weapons in existence to destroy all life multiple times over.  Hydrogen bombs are nothing like traditional incendiary weapons, they can destroy life on a scale that would be catastrophic for the human race.

The good news this week is that the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) was awarded the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize.  In their citation, ICAN was praised “for its work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its ground-breaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons.”

I had the chance to interact with some of the leaders of ICAN in 2015 at the World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates.  They are a dedicated and creative group of people who have devoted great time and effort to rid the world of these horrific weapons.  The outpouring of support from world leaders and former Nobel Peace Prize laureates brings the nuclear issue back into our minds at a time when it feels more at risk than it has for a long time.

ICAN reminds us that there is no legitimate use of nuclear weapons, even in war, and even when used after first being attacked by nuclear weapons.  Since the USA and Russia are by far the most nuclearized of all nations, let me give an example of why this is not a legitimate use of nuclear weapons.  Let’s imagine that Russia attacks the USA and destroys two major cities.  This would only require the use of two out of seven-thousand of Russia’s hydrogen bombs.  Not only would this cause immediate death of millions of people, but a humanitarian and medical crisis that simply could not be met successfully.

Imagine, then, the decision for the USA.  Clearly Russia would have committed an atrocity unmatched in the history of humanity.  But would an attack on Russian cities be justifiable?  I say that it would not.  Since a decision to drop a nuclear weapon would be made by a government official or officials, let’s estimate that the fault for the initial attack rested on 25 people.  Would it then be permissible to kill 25 million Russians in a counter-attack to punish the actions of a few?  Again, my answer would be no.  There is simply no case in which the use of a nuclear weapon would be justified, period.

Now, I mentioned that there was good and bad news this week.  The good news is that ICAN is being recognized for their effort to ban nuclear weapons from all nations of the earth.  The bad news is that nuclearization is happening right now.  And with the risk of the nuclearizing of Iran and North Korea, the world gets that much more dangerous.

In the Fall of 2015, Iran was on the path to getting a nuclear weapon.  After the treaty was signed between Iran, the United States, UK, China, France, Russia, and Germany, Iran has shipped out its nuclear fuel to Russia, dramatically reduced its centrifuges used to create weapons-grade uranium, and has begun work to change one of its major nuclear plants to no longer be able to produce weapons-grade plutonium.  If you remember back just a few years, the prospect of Iranian nuclear weapons seemed like a given.  We have since not heard much about Iran’s nuclear program because it has dramatically scaled back its nuclear ambitions in return for the ending of sanctions.

However, this week the Trump administration has hinted that it will pull out of the treaty with Iran.  Since this wasn’t a bilateral treaty, no one knows exactly what will happen (since all the other nations will still be part of the treaty).  But the one thing we can know for sure is that the world will get less safe.  We will have the question of Iran’s nuclearization back on the table.  This is a step in the wrong direction.

Add to this the cryptic statements from President Trump like, “This is the calm before the storm” and his tweet about North Korea saying, “Only one thing will work.”  These are incredibly destabilizing actions and not only guarantee that North Korea will speed up its nuclearization–they also increase the chance that North Korea will use one of these weapons.

No country has given up its nuclear weapons or nuclear ambitions through military threats or attacks.  The only path to peace and decreased nuclearization in North Korea and Iran is careful, intelligent, and hard-fought diplomacy.  We should all hope that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his negotiators are up to the job, and that they are not further undercut by tweets from President Trump.  Nuclear war is so catastrophic, so dangerous for all life on earth, that we must all work to rid the earth of these weapons.

This article appeared in the Idaho State Journal and Rexburg Standard Journal on Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Resisting Prejudice Begins with You

In a now famous study by psychologist Stanley Milgram at Yale University in 1963, he observed how far people would go in causing harm to others if they were pressured to do so by an authority figure.  It was post-WWII and the time of the trial of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann.  One of the questions to social scientists at the time is whether or not we were all the same as Eichmann, who said that he was simply obeying orders.  Would we, like him, commit horrendous acts and justify ourselves by saying that we were just being obedient, or in Eichmann’s words: “A good German.”?

In Milgram’s study, participants were told (falsely) that it was a learning experiment using punishments to see if they improved learning.  They were put in front of a set of switches, showing voltages from 15 volts (labeled “slight shock”) to 450 volts (labeled X X X, even further along than the “DANGER: SEVERE SHOCK” that accompanied the 375 volts switch).  The participant heard an actor shouting “Stop!  You can’t do this to me!” and screaming in pain.

How many people do you think would administer shocks to another person all the way past the DANGER: SEVERE SHOCK to the X X X just because a researcher is telling them prompts like “The experiment requires that you continue.”? Disturbingly enough, nearly two-thirds of the participants pressed the levers all the way up to the maximum 450 volts.  They were never threatened physically or verbally, simply told that they must go on.  Those that refused—that one-third of participants—simply stopped obeying.

When I teach my students the Milgram study, most of them assume that they would be in the one-third who refused to shock another human being so cruelly.  But this is not the lesson I think we should take from the study.  I think we should say: “What would make me act that way toward another human being?”  As you picture yourself in such a situation, imagine the enormous pressure you would feel to conform and obey.  And decide now that you would find a way to stand up to the person demanding that you harm another.

Because prejudice and judgment by outward appearance are part of human nature, resisting the impulses toward racism, weight-ism, religious prejudice, sexism, or elitism takes courage and strength of character.  Psychologists would tell you that it is our nature to make short-cut judgments about others, to be prone to prejudice.  But that does not make it inevitable.  We have the power and responsibility to resist.

We like to think ourselves as superior to those who fall prey to violent ideologies.  We like to look down on them, knowing that we would never do such things.  We like to think highly of ourselves, maybe as something like the “fine people” that Trump described as part of the crowd marching with the neo-Nazis and white supremacists.

Some years ago, I was talking with a colleague of mine about war, terrorism, and torture.  In our debate, he took the side that we are justified in pre-emptive war, that it is permissible to torture other human beings (if they were Muslim), and even said that we ought to “carpet-bomb the entire Middle East.”  I asked him this: “Did you ever wonder how you got here?  That you are advocating for the mass-murder of over 200 million people, the torture of other human beings, and pro-war?  Did you ever think you would be on that side of this argument?”

This friend of mine, I have no doubt, considered himself a “fine person.”  And to others I defended him, saying that I disagreed with his views but he was a “good person.”  But there is a problem here.  Either he is lying and doesn’t really believe what he is saying, or he is only a “good person” because he lacks the power to implement his campaign of mass-killing and torture.  We can think the best of others, and we should, but when do we need to stand and judge what is right?

What causes might lead you to march with such groups?  What beliefs do you have that might lead you to support violence, hatred, and bigotry?  Be honest with yourself about your own prejudices.  And for heaven’s sake, have the strength and guts to resist and defeat these ideas in yourself!

You cannot march with neo-Nazis and white supremacists and justify yourself by saying it was all about the removal of a Confederate statue.  You should not march with these people no matter how much you agree with the immediate cause.  If so, you must admit to yourself that a Confederate statue means so much to you that you are willing to march with those who espouse ideologies that are inhuman and un-American.  A little piece of advice: If the KKK wants to support your cause, refuse—and rethink your cause.  And if the Nazis show up at your rally, go home.

A slightly modified version of this post will be published as part of my weekly column, A Drop of Ink, in the Idaho Standard Journal and the Rexburg Standard Journal on Tuesday, August 22nd.

The (Actual) Textbook Narcissist

For some reason (I will leave that to you, dear reader), the term “narcissist” has been used a lot recently in the media and in personal conversations.  Sometimes people even use the term “textbook narcissist” to describe a well-known public figure.  Since I am both a psychologist and columnist, I thought I would share with you the actual textbook definition of narcissist—then you can see how it may or may not apply.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder (I will use NPD for the sake of brevity in this article) is found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association, most recently in its 5th Edition (DSM-V).  The DSM-V contains no particular mysteries, though the actual use of it to diagnose really ought to be left in the hands of those with experience and expertise.  What I will show you today is what the actual criteria are like to make a diagnosis of NPD.

For a personality disorder of any kind to be diagnosed, the impairments in personality must be significant both within the self and in interpersonal relationships.  Those traits must be relatively stable over time—in other words, they must represent a pattern of behavior that has stayed the same over time and across situations.  The traits or symptoms can also not be better understood as normal for that person’s stage of life.  For example, some narcissistic traits might be more normal if the person is a young child who hasn’t developed the ability to see the perspective of others.

Now to the criteria.  The impairments in self-functioning should be one of the following.  Either the person is egocentric or they set goals only in terms of self-benefit or personal gratification.  An egocentric person derives self-esteem from personal gain, pleasure, or power.  This kind of person would likely brag a great deal about how wealthy they are, or how many women they have “scored” with, or how much more intelligent or stronger they are than others.  They would also be motivated to succeed only for personal gratification.  They would struggle to perform duties for the “public good” because they only see the world in terms of what they get out of it.

The impairments in interpersonal functioning would be someone who shows either a lack of empathy or a lack of mutually intimate relationships, or both.  They show a lack of remorse after hurting others and a lack of concern for the needs and feelings of others.  They also lack the capacity to have mutually intimate relationships.  Instead, they see relationships in terms of dominance, control, and intimidation.  For both these reasons, people showing the symptoms of NPD tend to have difficulty staying married.

Another primary cluster of traits is that of antagonism.  A person with NPD is manipulative.  They lie frequently and use charm, seduction, or ingratiation (flattery) to get what they want from others.  They misrepresent themselves in ways that make them look richer, more powerful, or more intelligent than they actually are.  People with NPD show a callousness towards the feelings of others.  Because of this they often name-call or bully others to get what they want.  They exhibit persistent hostile and angry feelings toward others.  They respond in vengeful ways to even the minutest slights or insults.  Because the narcissist only sees the world through their own self-importance, they cannot bear mockery in any form and often respond with large-scale retaliation for the slightest of insults.

The final group of traits for NPD is disinhibition.  Disinhibition just means that they are not able to restrain their own desires or actions.  The first symptom of this is irresponsibility.  They do not honor their financial obligations and have a lack of respect for keeping promises.  For example, they might make big promises to show how great and powerful they are but care little about fulfilling those agreements.

The person with NPD is impulsive, acting on whatever they feel in the moment.  They are often unable to restrain urges and act on whatever they think or feel without considering outcomes or making plans.  They are also high risk-takers.  They engage in risky behaviors that can be potentially self-damaging, without regard for the consequences.  They are easily bored and have little concern for their own limitations.

So, there it is, the actual textbook definition of narcissism.  In my own work as a psychologist, I have worked with people like this before, though they rarely ever seek treatment because they don’t ever see themselves as having problems—it’s everyone else!  Beware of going into business with people with these kinds of traits and do not let them lead your organization.  They will lie, manipulate, bully, and act in impulsive ways that will be destructive to themselves and to the organizations they lead.  And for heaven’s sake, don’t get into a relationship with them!  Wrong!

Don’t Put Tribe Before Truth

Just when we thought the race for president couldn’t get more discouraging to watch, this week we were faced with the publishing of a tape where the Republican nominee was unspeakably crude, sexually aggressive, and lewd.  I wish that my teenage daughters didn’t have to see or hear Trump talk about women in the way that he did.  But more destructive has been the defense of such speech as mere “locker room talk.”  From conservative friends and relatives, they are hearing that this is the way that all men talk or that “boys will be boys.”

Let me say to my daughters and to the other girls and women who have had to encounter Trump’s trashy talk: I have never in my life heard someone speak that crudely and callously about acts that are clearly sexual assault.  I have been in sports all of my life and been in a lot of locker rooms.  Even now I am in a locker room multiple times every week.  I have never heard a man brag about grabbing a woman’s genitals.  I have never heard someone brag about pushing himself on a married woman.  This is not mere locker room talk and it is not typical of all men when they are left to express their real feelings.

Trump’s sexually explicit tirades for years on the Howard Stern show and on the tape revealed this week are to me a great offense to women and girls.  To defend those remarks as something all of us do is a great offense to men and boys.  Men and boys with dignity and respect for women are careful in our thoughts and speech whether or not we are around women or not.  For Trump to say “Nobody respects women more than I do” is patently false.  I have never cheated on my wife of 18 years.  I have never spoken about girls or women in the way that he has.  Ever.

Stop defending his speech as commonplace when the defense is really about tribalism and politics.  I get that both parties this election are having to reconcile themselves with nominees that violate some of their own ethical and political values.  But let’s be honest about it.  Admit that if a Democratic nominee was found saying the same things you would call for their resignation.  You would call their comments indefensible and tie it to the moral laxness of their political party—as you see it.  You wouldn’t accept it as mere locker room talk.  You could call it what it is because it came from the “other party.” And if you are a Democrat, you must admit that Clinton’s “mistakes” of judgment would look much more menacing if they came from a Republican candidate.

Whoever wins this election is not going to come into the presidency with a mandate from voters.  Both are historically and exceptionally weak candidates.  The one who wins will primarily win because of the more extreme liabilities of their opponent.

Loyalty to party over country is not patriotism.  Electing a candidate who has no respect for constitutional separation of powers is not worth keeping the power in your own tribe.  Perhaps the losing party in this election will be in a better place anyway.  The losing side will be forced to change and rethink why they nominated such a flawed and weak candidate.  The losing party will have to reckon with how they lost the trust and loyalty not just of the other side, but even large parts of their own tribe.

The winning party will be stained with a weak winning candidate.  In particular, if Clinton wins the Democratic Party may be headed for some serious problems.  They are a party with so few young people in leadership.  The two leading candidates were 68 and 75 years old.  The young progressives found themselves aligning behind a charismatic but aging candidate with little time left in politics.

But Republicans need to remember that the two top candidates for their nomination, Trump and Ted Cruz, were reviled by large groups within their own party let alone the country at large.  This week’s only bright spot for me was that large numbers of Republican leaders withdrew their support for Trump over another scandalous revelation about his character.  This willingness to risk their own political party’s power to stand up against such lewdness is refreshing and a good sign for the future of the party.

Don’t defend the indefensible because it is “your side.”  Speak up against the sexualizing of women regardless of who says it.  Stand up for goodness and virtue wherever you find it.  In the long run, losing a single election is preferable to selling the soul of your party.

Thank you to all those Republican leaders who set the example for my daughters this week by denouncing and disassociating yourselves from such nastiness.  It takes courage to stand against your own.

Happy Birthday to My Older Brother

Watch this first:

There is a devotion of a boy to his older brother that defies any kind of logic.  My brother Scott, three years older than I am, was always there.  And maybe that is part of the mystery.  A younger brother has never known a life without his brother there.  He was always bigger than me, faster than me, knew more about the world than I did.  Even my preferences somehow always started with him.  As a boy, when people asked me why I liked a particular sports team over another, I had no answer.  I mean, I knew why.  Because my brother liked them first.

Over the years my brother and I spent more time together than with any friends.  We could find numberless games to make up and play—all it required was a ball of some kind.  We wrestled, played football, baseball, some games on our trampoline, and dozens of games that involved throwing a racquetball against the house.  Sometimes I would get tired of always being outplayed by him, and he would bribe me with some coveted baseball card or Star Wars figure to keep me motivated.  And I always fell for it, even though I still always lost.

I think a younger brother just starts every question looking to what his older brother has done.  Scott seemed to be so effortlessly cool and liked by everyone.  I wanted to be like that.  He was an amazing student and scholar at university—I wanted to be like that, too.  His choice of profession showed his concern about the well-being of others, of his fellow human beings all over the world—though he would never claim that mantle of hero.

Then in the early 90’s I went off to England for a couple of years.  A few months before I came back home, he left for his years in the Peace Corps in South America.  And since then our lives have been a series of intersections at the infrequent moments that our orbits crossed each other.  Over the past 25 years, I think we have lived on the same continent for only maybe 3 years.  As I write this he lives about 10,000 miles from me in southern Africa.

Neither of us are very good about phone calls and other ways of staying in contact.  We see each other’s orbital patterns, but seem to always wait until our planets intersect.  And it is not that often.  We have families, jobs, joys, worries.  We are drawn into our work, pulled into the needs of our children, caught up in our separate universes.

But there is something about not being around my brother that seems off.  We are the only direct male relatives in our families.  No grandfathers, no father, no uncles in our bloodline.  And if I want to see what I will look like in three years, I can just see what he looks like now.  So though we are so often separated, we are still interconnected.  It’s not quite like having a distant twin, I suppose, but somehow the separation still feels strange, not right.

And in the end, this is all we’ve got.  What will be the tragedy that will make me realize that my brother is the only one I have?  If you watched the video, you see how the brothers are brought together by the impending loss of each other.  But isn’t that the reality for all of us?  Our time is so short, incredibly brief.  And if not now, when?  I am sorry, brother, for not working harder to keep our lives in contact with each other.  I don’t want some tragedy to make me realize how much I regret losing touch with my brother far sooner than I had to.  I want to tell you that I love you, my older brother.  I want to tell you that I am with you, always, from life until death.  But I have to keep the promise to be with you now, in life.  I miss you, brother.  Happy Birthday.


The Lies I Want To Hear

As I have watched the political dialogue in this presidential election cycle, my mind has gone back to a story from my childhood by the great Ray Bradbury. The short story, called The Toynbee Convector, told of a time traveler who traveled 100 years into the future.

The time traveler came back to the present, saying “We made it! We did it! The future is ours. We rebuilt the cities, freshened the small towns, cleaned the lakes and rivers, washed the air, saved the dolphins, increased the whales, stopped the wars, tossed solar stations across space to light the world, colonized the moon, moved on to Mars, then Alpha Centauri. We cured cancer and stopped death…Oh, future’s bright and beauteous spires, arise!”

At the end of the story you learn that the time traveler had lied. He had concocted an elaborate hoax. He created pictures, video recordings, and drawings to show everyone a future that he had never seen. When asked why he had lied to everyone, the supposed time traveler says, “Life has always been lying to ourselves!…to gently lie and prove the lie true. To weave dreams and put brains and flesh and the truly real beneath the dreams. Everything, finally, is a promise. What seems a lie is a ramshackle need, wishing to be born. Here. Thus and so.”

Because everyone had believed him, the fake time traveler created in the minds of all people on earth the hopes and dreams that he had invented. The end of wars, the healing of the environment, and travel into space were all accomplished because people believed it would happen. They fulfilled his vision because he led them to believe it was possible.

Contrast this vision with our current political environment. Politicians seem to have taken their cues from the dystopic visions of our cinema. Their speeches reflect more Hunger Games than Reagan’s vision of a “shining city on a hill.” The Republican candidates are clearly spreading a gloomy picture of America where one should have a fear of immigrants, Muslims, and Obama. However, the Democratic candidates also present themselves as the only solution to a dystopic future America. The difference between the parties is more about what to fear rather than whether to fear.

Either these politicians really stay up at night fearing the imminent destruction of America or they are stoking fear to garner support. I am not sure which is worse, politicians so paranoid about America and its citizens or politicians willing to spread fear and bigotry of the “Other.” For conservatives, the “Other” is liberals, Muslims, or immigrants. For the liberals, it is the devoutly religious, the gun-toting conservatives, or the top 1%.

Where did hope get lost along the way? This despair is not created by politicians, but is exploited by them for gain. Can you think of a single popular movie that is set in the future where things are better than they are now? Do we have any visions of a future where we solve the big problems of today? It seems to me that our media is populated with dystopic futures that are filled with environmental degradation, extreme violence, and tyranny. And zombies. Politicians of both parties regularly receive fact-checker ratings of “totally false” and “pants on fire.” They tell lies in order to spread these anti-ideals of fear and despair. And their ratings go up.

Bradbury’s short story was called the “Toynbee Convector” after Arnold Toynbee, a British historian and expert in international affairs. He famously said “Apathy can be overcome by enthusiasm, and enthusiasm can only be aroused by two things: first, an ideal, which takes the imagination by storm, and second, a definite intelligible plan for carrying that ideal into practice.”

This is what I am looking for in a presidential candidate: a positive ideal for which to strive and an intelligent plan for making that ideal a real possibility. We live in great times. We live in the country with the strongest and most stable economy. Most of the major communicable diseases have been eradicated. We have the freedom to worship as we choose. We have safe and plentiful food. In Rexburg we enjoy clean air, clean water, and safety from war and crime. These can be hopeful times.

I am still waiting for someone with a hopeful vision, with an ideal that excites me, and a plan to implement those ideals. The fearful and despairing visions offered by so many of today’s politicians may increase Americans’ desires for “strong” leaders or a more intrusive, security-minded government, but I am looking for something different. I’m still looking to vote for a fake time-traveler with a hopeful lie and a future of promise.  A politician who will “gently lie and prove the lie true.”

This article was originally published on Feb 2, 2016 in the Standard Journal (

To My Non-Christian Friends: The Meaning of Easter

My daughters Asia and Eden at the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem--2007.

My daughters Asia and Eden at the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem–2007.

Today and this last week Christians around the world celebrate the holiday called Easter. Because it is less commercialized and less about buying things, it takes a back seat to Christmas.  That holiday just about everybody knows about even if they don’t know much about its Christian significance. But it is a shame, really, because Easter symbolizes so much more about what it means to be a Christian. So I decided today to attempt to explain to my non-Christian friends a bit about the meaning of Easter and what it is we are celebrating.

If you don’t know the story at all, I can give you just a brief primer. Christians believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and is God incarnated (in body form) on the earth. We believe that Jesus was born and grew up in humble circumstances. In his young years (younger than I am now), he began to teach others about the nature of God and our obligations to each other. He taught people to love, to care for others, and to not return hatred for hatred, violence for violence. He taught that we should forgive all people their sins against us. He caught the anger of the established powers of his day and was eventually put to death, by crucifixion. Christians believe that Jesus was dead for three days and then resurrected (was alive again, risen from the dead) on the holiday we now call Easter. There is so much more to the story, but that isn’t the thing I am trying to explain.

So what does Easter mean to us? First, Easter is about hope. Because of God’s own self-sacrifice, we have hope. Hope of life (Christians believe we will all be resurrected), hope of forgiveness (Christians believe that we can be forgiven of our sins through the sacrifice of Jesus), and the hope of healing (from our own transgressions as well as the suffering caused by the actions of others). So the story of Easter is a reminder that there is hope in the world. No matter how bad it gets, and remember that the story of Easter is also the story of the suffering and cruelty of man, there is always hope. There is hope because God loves the world so much that He chose to suffer for us. Both God as Jesus who suffered death for us and God as Father who suffered, or allowed, His son to die so that we might be saved.  So Easter is about the hope that is available to all of us.*

Easter is also about the celebration of grace. The term grace for Christians describes how God gives us more than we deserve. Have you felt before that sense of inadequacy, not being “good enough”? Sometimes that runs very deep. Modern American culture tells us that the solution is to think of ourselves as amazing, but for most of us I think that falls flat because we still feel that sense of not being good enough. The idea of grace basically acknowledges that sense of not being adequate, but responds in a different way. The grace of God, or the grace of Christ, means that we get more than we deserve. It means that all of us get more than we deserve from God. It is true that we are not good enough, but the price to be paid for that inadequacy is already paid for by God through this sacrifice we celebrate at Easter. This does mean that as Christians we are given grace in order to offer grace to others. Jesus taught that we must love even our enemies, and forgive others without exception. The question of fairness is not longer our main concern. We receive forgiveness by showing forgiveness and grace in order to offer grace to others. In other words, Christians are obligated to sacrifice their own needs and even their own sense of fairness in order to give others more than they deserve. So Easter is the celebration of grace, the receiving of the gift as well as the opportunity to offer it.

Last of all, Easter represents what is sometimes referred to as the atonement. If you break the words down you get at-one-ment. This is the bringing back together what has been broken apart. So what has been divided that must be restored? First, our connection to God. Our shortcomings and outright sins make us imperfect and separate us from God. The atonement of Christ brings us back together, as one, with God. We are also separated in our relationships with each other. We know that estrangement that comes because we act stupidly or cruelly toward each other. We find ourselves separated from each other sometimes because of what we do and sometimes because of the actions of others toward us. This reconciliation of person-to-person is also accomplished because of the sacrifice of God we celebrate at Easter. We are restored to our relationships with each other through forgiveness and grace.*

So Easter, for Christians, is the most significant of the holidays (holy days). It represents the opportunity for hope, the gift of grace, and the bringing together what has been broken apart in our relationship with God and with each other. So even if you are not Christian, I hope you will celebrate with us the joy of hope, grace, and reconciliation. Happy Easter!


* P.S. I want to add a couple of things that I think are unique to my own particular sect in Christianity because they are a significant part of the meaning of Easter to me, though they may differ a bit from other Christians. I am a member of a church called The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (though commonly referred to as Mormons).

One of the significant differences we believe is that the hope offered by the atonement of Christ is available to all people, regardless of where or when they were born. More typical of Christians is the idea that if you die without accepting Christ, you will go to hell. In the doctrine of my church, we believe that all people will get an opportunity, indeed more opportunities than any of us deserve, to accept God and be saved. We believe that some people will only get this opportunity after this life but that God’s grace extends to all people, not just those in our church or to Christians as a whole. In other words, God does not extend his hope just to those who accept Jesus or Christian church membership in this life.

Also, with regards to this reconciliation my particular church has something to add to the story. We believe that part of what is reconciled is our family relationships. While most people refer to marriage as being only an earthy institution (“till death us do part”), we believe that family relationships are eternal. In other words, marriage and family and children are part of the long-term, eternal scheme of things. This is why you find so much emphasis among us about families, marriages, and children. Because we believe that one of the effects of this holiday we celebrate as Easter is the reconciliation of our family relationships. After all, how could heaven be heaven without my amazing wife and sweet little daughters?  


It is the night of weeks like this that I long for sleep.  For the kind of sleep that is dark, warm, a kind of death from which I can awake in the morning having enjoyed the oblivion of not-being.  As I leave Samara to sleep she tells me “I am not happy being in here by myself.”  So I read Pessoa to her as she falls asleep:

Anyone wanting to make a catalogue of monsters would need only to photograph in words the things that night brings to somnolent souls who cannot sleep.

He is right, it is the tired man who wants to sleep, but either finds himself awake in the dark silence, or asleep consumed by the monsters of nightmares.  Sometimes I cannot decide which to choose—as if it were my choice.  Last night I dreamt, but I dreamt of a sculpture by Rodin.  The man in the sculpture has his head down and he is being mobbed by bodies, flowing robes and anguish.  He is being torn by the demons.  I imagine, in my dream, the sculpture come alive.  What is in waking life a beautiful if melancholy statue comes awake and becomes terrifying.  The wailing, the anger, the desire for relief.  The need for the darkness of sleep.  I awake and find myself consumed by the images, not sure whether to try to sleep or to get up and sit like I do some nights, in the kitchen looking up at the sky through the window. 

Samara’s breathing is slowing down and becoming rhythmical.  That delicious feeling of sinking into the dark, like into warm mud.  I keep reading Pessoa, now for me more than for her:

I would be happy if only I could sleep.  At least that’s what I think now when I can’t sleep.  The night is an immense weight pressing down on my dream of suffocating myself beneath the silent blanket.  I have indigestion of the soul.

She sleeps, the sleep of a child.  At least that what it seems to me now.  But I remember sleeping at her age and the terrors of sleep even then.  The dreams of being abandoned, of the monsters closing in with no one to save me.  I wake now with my dreams of monsters, wishing I had a bed to run to, with stronger and bigger people who love me and soothe me as I fall asleep under the warmth of their comfort.  But I am now the bed to run to, the giver of solace who himself begs for rest.