Wednesday, January 27, 2010


I have never participated in organized religion. I wasn't brought up in a religious household, there was little to no talk of spirituality in my upbringing. And yet I've had a strong sense of it for as long as I could remember. Of course I went through the rebellious anti-establishment phase, where god was as bad as government and nothing was important, and I keep a few tinges of that attitude in my personal philosophy still. I think religion as an establishment, especially as a powerhouse, has predominately negative consequences. But as far as my spiritual identity is concerned, I am open to many philosophies and am often inspired by religious doctrine and ritual.

Piscine Patel’s spiritual identity crisis in Life of Pi is something I can particularly relate to. When I was in elementary school, all of my friends were very active in the Christian church. I went to their houses and prayed before dinner. I woke up after a slumber party and went to church with them. I even spent a summer at vacation bible school. To my parents, this was just a side-effect of my social life. But one night at dinner when I asked them why we didn’t pray, and suggested we should, they did not take my new-found religious passion seriously. And rightly so, it was just part of an identity crisis resulting from my unconventional upbringing in a highly conventional neighborhood. But what if I had been serious? What if like Pi, "I just want(ed) to love god(p. 87)?” What if I had felt there was some spirituality, some sense of wholeness, that I was lacking because of my family’s lack of religious faith? They wouldn’t have understood. But at that point, it wouldn’t have mattered. But because my ‘quest for God’ was just an effort to fit in, they made me realize that that kind of conformity is what’s dangerous about religion. By not taking me seriously, they made me realize that spirituality is not about praying before dinner, that it’s not about going to vacation bible school. It’s highly personal, and like for pi, it transcends the boundaries of establishment.

fun-times at vacation bible school


I started my true spiritual journey as an atheist. I did not believe in a singular god who had a continuous presence in our daily lives. But I still believed in a greater meaning – whether it be the harmony of nature or personal success, or simply the quest for joy in life. But as Pi says about atheists, “they

go as far as the legs of reason will take them – and then they leap (p. 35).” My leap is the one that I see all serious scientists –

especially physicists – having to take at some point in their careers. My leap is faith in the infinite, or more precisely, the infinitely small uniform composition of matter. Within that infinite rests a force – the force that causes all physical reality, the first force that determined the history of everything. To believe in this force is to have faith, my faith, in the idea that everything is connected, and everything follows a path of elegant uniformity.

an elegant, uniform universe


My faith may seem to be purely philosophical in nature, an abstract concept meant to create an elegant meaning of the universe, but I think, like all religion, it has greater humanitarian applications. Like Pi, “to me religion is about our dignity, not our depravity (p. 90),” and in a universe where all pheno

mena can be explained by activity occurring on infinitely smaller scales, our dignity is always maintained. All people – all matter – follow the same laws, despite seemingly different intentions.

Monday, January 25, 2010


Lately it seems the world is trying to tell me something. Everywhere I go, the classes I take, the books I glance through, what I hear on the news or read in periodicals - a common vein of thought has emerged. Apparently, I'm supposed to go out and affect some kind of change. Reach out in the community. Start to organize. The signs are coming at a tough time for me, caught up in a new semester, faced with constant questions of my values, my priorities, my goals. I think its a wakeup call. I need to stop asking so many circuitous questions and start making decisions, start acting on the few things I know for certain. What the world is telling me: I can analyze every angle indefinitely, but I won't get any perspective without experience.

Is changing the world my destiny?

The last chapters of 'How Can I Help?' were just another drop in the bucket of instructions I've been receiving from the universe. When I first saw the chapter titled 'The Way of Social Action', I almost had to laugh. Last week I started out in my TC course, Pathways to Civic Engagement. Already this class - after just two meetings - has brought back so much inspiration that was lying stagnant for a long time. Professor Walker's career history is enough - his path through corporation to non-profit to teaching is exactly the kind of life I've seen for myself. Already I've started picking up books by authors he's suggested. The first I checked out from the library yesterday, and I haven't been able to put it down. The funny thing is that Dass' last few chapters are a near regurgitation of this book, Saul D. Alinsky's 'Rules for Radicals'. Granted Dass uses different language - appealing to those not already attracted to the role of community organization and social action. Dass also makes an assumption that Alinksy directly refutes - that man is fueled by compassion and that it is the motivator in his acts of service. To give a sample of Alinksy's opinion, and his overall civic perspective, he speaks of innate compassion thusly, "the myth of altruism as a motivating factor in our behavior could arise and survive only in a society bundled in the sterile gauze of New England puritanism and protestant morality and tied together with the ribbons of Madison Avenue public relations. It is one of the classic American fairytales." I feel that although Dass makes good points on the nature and requirements of social action, he buys too much into this 'fairytale' of altruism.
Alinsky's 'Rules for Radicals', an especially
inspring book for me.

Both books give a good account of the steps towards social action and the type of thinking required to carry them out. In both cases, I feel that communication is one of the most essential aspects to affecting social change within a community. As Dass says, "even the slightest bit of self-righteousness can get in the way (p. 161)," when trying to help people, directly or indirectly. In terms of organizing around an ideal, people have to see you on equal footing before they take you seriously, and self-aggrandizement can only cause trouble. And yet organizers, leaders, 'helpers', must retain a sense of right-ness, not necessarily righteousness. They must have courage and a strong sense of identity in order to make change happen - to help others help themselves to make the necessary changes. The sign of a truly great organizer is one who can affect change without making any direct movements of control, one who manipulates situations not through power, but through understanding and strength of character - an infectious and positive strength. To do this one must do as Dass suggests, "if we are serious in our criticisms of the practices and habits of helping organizations… we've got to be light, free, and sufficiently above it all to see where we can untangle the knots and bring about change. (p. 199)"

I plan to change something in my life. Be it an organization, a community, a standard, or the world. Now more than ever I realize the paths to doing this are open and varied, but they don't have to be unnavigable, and there are countless stories of success. I hope that by the time I come into my prime, Dass' words will be true that "we're an environment, not an argument for social change. (p. 163)"

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


I've been bitter about this book from the very beginning. Perhaps it's because I don't agree with some of Dass' fundamental concepts - that helping others is an innate human quality, that it makes us feel good, that it is the truth of the human condition.

Is this kind of compassion truly innate?

Now I may be taking too much of what Dass says at face value - his rhetoric is filled with abstractions and contradictions, so I can really only respond to what I feel are the points he's trying to make through a somewhat subjective analysis of the words he's actually using. I understand the merit of trying to free ourselves from barriers to compassion, but I believe there are some barriers that must stay intact. We can't grant everyone our full attention all the time, we can't sacrifice so much of our ego - our sense of self - that there is nothing left to identify with besides the effect that sacrifice has had on those to whom it was delivered. And what if there is no effect? What if despite all of our openness, our earnest caring and understanding, our constant sacrifice of selfishness - there is no beneficial result?

Is that the equivalent of what Dass calls helplessness? Is this the point at which, "having surrendered into helplessness we can now get on with help (Dass p. 146)?"

I think the contradiction here is obvious. When we get to the point where
we are overwhelmed by the seeming fruitlessness of our labors, when we have spent all we can spend on our own happiness and another's, should we really call ourselves helpless? We have been helping this whole time, to our greatest ability, and yet nothing comes of it. This is not our own helplessness, but rather the inability, the unwillingness, of others to be helped. This is not the time to pick up another's burden once more - to toil on someone else's fallow land.
We should not be expected to
continue to toil on someone else's
fallowed land.

These are the times that remind me, that have reminded me throughout my life, that I am primarily responsible for myself. Dass has warned me of "false facades of courage or self-sufficiency (Dass p. 136)," the things limiting my ultimate acceptance of helplessness and selflessness. But it is exactly those things - courage and self-sufficiency - that make up a large part of who I am, and give me the competence and opportunity to truly help others, if they are willing to accept it, in meaningful and lasting ways. And if that is merely a "false facade", well, I'm going to need a lot more help than anyone outside of myself can give me.