Monday, February 25, 2008

Learning to See From Another Perspective

This weekend I rented a movie I really enjoyed, the 2003 release House of Sand and Fog. The plot revolved around a home in California that is owned by a young woman, Kathy, struggling with a failed marriage, addictive tendencies, and depression. She is evicted due to non-payment of taxes which she did not rightfully owe. She failed to see the notices sent to her because in her depression she stopped opening her mail. The home is purchased below market value by Mahmoud Behrani, a Persian immigrant to America who had a successful career in Iran and now was working menial jobs to support his family. The purchase and resale of this home would enable Behrani to regain some of the financial and social status which he left behind in Iran. The plot is an exciting and compelling tale of the struggle between these two parties and a series of incidents which lead to a downward spiral and an unpredictable tragedy.

What was so fascinating about the plot was that there was no clear cut hero or villain, these are complex characters with many external influences and internal motivations. Each character acts out of the depths of human selfishness, stubbornness, and greed, but it is also clear that they are at the same time working for noble motives, such as justice or the return of human dignity. The true tragedy is that they do not understand each other.

Human beings, especially under stress, often attribute the behavior of others due to unchangeable characteristics. For example, Kathy sees Behrani as greedy and selfish, simply looking to make money from the deal and take advantage of her misfortune. Behrani sees Kathy as lazy and irresponsible, her inability to maintain ownership of her property is not his problem. However, we also attribute our own behavior to the external circumstances we are subjected to. Kathy understands she was unfairly treated by the justice system, Behrani understands that he needs to support his family and regain the dignity he feels they have lost due to the changing politics of his home country. Certainly it is in our nature to be sympathetic to our own cause, no one can know our internal motivatons as well as we can. This error in perception is so common social psychologists even have a name for it, the fundamental attribution error.

I enjoyed this movie not only because of the exciting plot (go see it!) but also because of the insight into human nature and conflict. With a little reflection, it is easy to see how this attribution error is at work in our own lives. Perhaps we can learn to benefit from seeing from another's perspective, and being sympathetic to their situation and motivations, just as we would to our own self.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Total Lunar Eclipse

Uploaded on February 20, 2008 by jaymzx licensed under Creative Commons

Last night we were treated to a spectacular astronomical event, the total eclipse of the moon surrounded by bright Saturn and Regulus. The color was just beautiful, a glowing coppery red. The clouds parted long enough for us to see full totality.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Returning Love for Violence

Act in accordance with the counsels of the Lord: that is, rise up in such wise, and with such qualities, as to endow the body of this world with a living soul, and to bring this young child, humanity, to the stage of adulthood. So far as ye are able, ignite a candle of love in every meeting, and with tenderness rejoice and cheer ye every heart. Care for the stranger as for one of your own; show to alien souls the same loving kindness ye bestow upon your faithful friends. Should any come to blows with you, seek to be friends with him; should any stab you to the heart, be ye a healing salve unto his sores; should any taunt and mock at you, meet him with love. Should any heap his blame upon you, praise ye him; should he offer you a deadly poison, give him the choicest honey in exchange; and should he threaten your life, grant him a remedy that will heal him evermore. Should he be pain itself, be ye his medicine; should he be thorns, be ye his roses and sweet herbs. Perchance such ways and words from you will make this darksome world turn bright at last; will make this dusty earth turn heavenly, this devilish prison place become a royal palace of the Lord -- so that war and strife will pass and be no more, and love and trust will pitch their tents on the summits of the world. Such is the essence of God's admonitions; such in sum are the teachings for the Dispensation of Baha.
(Abdu'l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu'l-Baha, p. 34)

These are wonderful, inspiring, amazing words, but how can we live them out in our daily lives? For most of us this will be forgiving the relative who is unkind, helping the co-worker who may have slighted us, offering a helping hand to a neighbor who may have been uncaring. But today I listened to the Speaking of Faith NPR podcast No More Taking Sides, which illustrates living these words despite a seemingly unbearable amount of pain: for Robi Damelin the loss of her son to a Palestinian sniper, for Ali Abu Awwad the loss of his brother Yousef to an Israel soldier. In the midst of their grief, these inspiring people refused to return hate for hate. Ali Abu Awwad says that the pain and suffering of his people is too great to be used for political ends, he cannot imagine creating this same pain in another human being in an act of retaliatory violence. He meets Israelis who have also suffered loss, and he begins to understand the common humanity which unites them and the fear they all carry. Robi Damelin knows the searing grief of a mother who has lost her child, and she reaches out to mothers on all sides of the conflict who share the same common human pain. She says "the biggest problem that we have as two nations is that we don't know each other".

I recommend listening to No More Taking Sides as a wonderful example of living peace in time of war, and the healing power of forgiveness in the midst of conflict.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Celebrating Love - Happy Valentine's Day!

Jalal al-Din Rumi's exquisite ode to the beauty of losing Self in love, the Sunrise Ruby.

Uploaded on October 8, 2005by *Tom* licensed under Creative Commons

In the early morning hour,
just before dawn, lover and beloved wake
and take a drink of water.

She asks, “Do you love me or yourself more?
Really, tell the absolute truth.”

He says, “There's nothing left of me.
I’m like a ruby held up to the sunrise.
Is it still a stone, or a world
made of redness? It has no resistance
to sunlight.”
The ruby and the sunrise are one.
Be courageous and discipline yourself.

Completely become hearing and ear,
and wear this sun-ruby as an earring.

Work. Keep digging your well.
Don’t think about getting off from work.
Water is there somewhere.

Submit to a daily practice.
Your loyalty to that
is a ring on the door.

Keep knocking, and the joy inside
will eventually open a window
and look out to see who’s there.

From "Rumi, the Book of Love, Poems of Ecstasy and Longing" Translations and Commentary by Coleman Barks

Tuesday, February 12, 2008


I'll admit it, I have a weakness for self-help books. I have convinced myself that the path to lasting love, professional success, and true happiness, or at the very least, an organized closet, is just a page away. As I'm busy discovering the Secret, following my own North Star, awakening my Emotional Intelligence, and contemplating What Color is my Parachute, I occasionally come across a real gem. Harvard professor and psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar's enjoyable new book Happier is one of these lucky finds. Based on a class he has taught to literally thousands of Harvard undergraduates, Happier combines an academic study of Positive Psychology, a favorite topic of mine, with suggestions for applying these principles in our own lives. Ben-Shahar is influenced by Freud, who studied the pursuit of pleasure, and Frankl, who contemplated the search for meaning. Happiness is found in a combination of enjoying pleasure in the present moment along with the pursuit of meaning, purpose, and contribution as a future goal. Our goals keep us on the right track and grant us the freedom to enjoy the journey along the way. Hard work and achievement are paths to happiness, along with the simple joy of the fulfillment of the present moment. Ben-Shahar guides us to applying these guidelines to our education, our workplace, and our relationships. This book is a very entertaining and enjoyable read with valuable lessons to enhance our own happiness.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Shining Spark of Truth

Uploaded on May 12, 2006by SCholewiak licensed under Creative Commons

I like to read books from a wide variety of sources: psychology, spirituality, philosophy, science, culture, travel, fiction, adventure.... Many of the books I read have widely varying opinions, I read books about diverse religions and philosophies and even atheism. There is such a debate in our society now on the role of identity and religion that many books are coming out with completely different viewpoints. Depending on which side of the debate one is on, some people may even find these ideas personally hurtful.

Because of this, I wanted to post a comment on the spirit in which I read these books and in which I post to my blog. Many times I agree with many of the ideas, and many times I disagree yet I find points of agreement or bits of wisdom or a new way of looking at things. I am a firm believer in these words of Abdu'l-Baha: "The shining spark of truth cometh forth only after the clash of differing opinions." I also found a very helpful concept in the book "Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High". The concept is "filling the pool of shared meaning". We all enter conversations with our own history, opinions, thoughts, and feelings. When entering into dialogue, it is critical for all participants to feel safe adding their meaning to the "shared pool", even ideas that are controversial. When all ideas are exposed and in the open, wiser and more informed decisions can be made. To me, this is also very similar to the Baha'i concept of consultation, in which we all freely share our ideas and opinions, and, once shared, the ideas no longer have to be personally defended but belong to the group to discuss on their own merits. Sometimes one idea can spark an idea in another person.

It is in this spirit that I enter into dialogue and I offer my opinions and I seek the opinions of others. I also believe it is in this spirit that we can learn to value each other's ideas, contributions, and unique perspectives and cultivate the beauty of our diversity.

A Wider Loyalty

I just finished reading Jared Cohen's "Children of Jihad, A Young American's Travels Among the Youth of the Middle East". Jared traveled through Iran, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq speaking to and interacting with young people throughout the war torn Middle East. In many ways, he experienced a society deeply divided along historical, cultural, ethnic, and religious lines with long histories of contention and violence. Yet, in all of these conversations, he found common concerns. Young people want access to better education, they want technological advancements, they want a voice in their future, they want to be globally connected, and they want opportunities for a better, meaningful, purposeful life. Jared's message remains hopeful for the future because despite the deep divisions he has witnessed, he has also seen the growth of a common ground.

I also read Sam Harris's highly controversial "The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason". Sam Harris also notes the deep division amongst people of various religions and the violence that it can lead to. He sees the need for a "civil society" with some agreed upon measure of human rights, but he sees religion as an obstacle to this unity, and states "it is at present unthinkable that human beings will ever identify themselves merely as human beings, disavowing all lesser affiliations".

However, I believe it is possible that human beings can maintain the beauty of their religious beliefs and cultural heritage and, in addition, feel a wider loyalty to humanity as a whole. I am hopeful that we can abandon our hostilities and prejudices and find a common ground in our mutual humanity and desire for a peaceful, stable, just society for ourselves and our children. I recently re-read parts of The Promise of World Peace, a statement to the people of the world in 1985 from the administrative body of the Baha'i Faith, the Universal House of Justice, which for me gives me hope for the future. In this document, they call for the abandonment of all prejudice and the development of an "unshakeable consciousness of the oneness of mankind" which is "essential to any successful attempt to establish world peace". They also give examples where international cooperation is beginning to happen.

So although the immediate future looks very grim indeed, as seen in both books, perhaps there is a glimmering hope for a more unified planet as we increasingly realize our interdependence. Reading Jared Cohen's book helped me to see that the world's youth are gradually developing this consciousness. To see another young person's view, I also encourage you to pop on over to Nikhil's posting A Common Vision on his blog.

The well-being of mankind, its peace and security, are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established.(Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, p. 286)

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Happy Chinese New Year!

Wishing everyone a joyous and peaceful Year of the Rat 4706. Happy Chinese New Year!

Uploaded on February 18, 2007 by countrygirlatheart licensed under Creative Commons

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Aida Celebrates Her First Birthday!!!

Nephew Scott and Kendllena's beautiful daughter Aida celebrated her first birthday in style with her very own carrot pumpkin spice cake! Rumor has it that she is already developing quite a charming personality. Mommy and Daddy took a family trip to the National Art Gallery in Washington, D.C. so Aida is already part of the art scene!

Charming baby blues....

Beep beep! A girl's gotta have her own wheels!

Relaxing with toys......

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Promise of Spring

Because the promise of Spring is right around the corner, here are some beautiful Irises as a reminder of the hope of the coming season....

Now is the springtime and the bounty of heaven is pouring on earth and the fields and rose-gardens are in growth and development. Exert thyself as much as thou canst, in order that through this everlasting bounty and the sprinklings of the clouds of the divine gift, thou mayest grow and thrive like unto a fruitful tree, with the utmost freshness and purity.
(Abdu'l-Baha, Tablets of Abdu'l-Baha v1, p. 207)

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