Hat er gesagt

A few years ago, during a summer visit to Israel, we took my then-toddler to the beach. He waded and splashed and, at some point, when the elastic on his swimsuit bothered him, he took it off. A man on the beach took great offense to this and came over in a huff to give me a talking-to about the lack of modesty of my three-year-old. “You have no dignity! There are women here!” Etc. etc. I was quite shaken. My dad was sitting nearby and I told him, “did you hear this guy! What a dirty mind he has if he sees sexuality and indecency in little kids!” etc. etc. My dad chuckled, shrugged his shoulders, and said, “hat er gesagt.” It is a Yiddish expression that means, “so, he said.”

I think about this vignette a lot when I see the enormous graphomaniac outpour on issues of campus speech. Group A put up a flyer! Person B tweeted a thing five months ago! Administrator C censored student organization D for a thing they said! University administrator E said something about faculty member F who said something about group G’s heckling of speaker I! Endless recursive applications of the First Amendment to endless interactions. It seems like we pay so much attention to what this person or that group said that we have no energy left to find out what it is that they even spoke about. Instead of feeling the anguish of war and loss, we drown it in righteous anger over what has been said about war and loss or, worse, what has been said about what was said about war and loss. Perhaps feeling righteous anger is easier than feeling fear and groundlessness. Perhaps being removed from a perilous, terrifying situation urges people to find some connection to the situation, so they tangle themselves in some speech imbroglio. I don’t know.

Here’s what I do know: many opinions about political matters are espoused around me. Some of them I find reasonable. Some of them I disagree with but learn something from. Some of them are stupid or ignorant. Other people’s opinions, if they are not expressed directly to me and ask for my response or are in my field of expertise, are not espoused at me, nor are they necessarily my business unless I choose to make them my business. How much of other people’s opinions I choose to make my business is a function of how knowledgeable I am in that area, whether or not I have energy to spare, and what good I think will come of it. Sometimes, when campus speech veers toward hatred and discrimination that I find acute and dangerous, I say something. Sometimes I let it go because I have bigger fish to fry or because I don’t see the upshot of speaking up. There are short term and long term considerations, all of which are mine to make.

I am not going to singlehandedly improve the quickly eroding standard for civil discourse. Neither are you. We do what we can, where we think it will make a difference, and we dole out our energy wisely.

Welcome Home: The Value of a Human Life

The wonderful videos are up and tears are rolling down my cheeks: children hugging their parents, families hugging grandparents. The first hostages are being returned. I wished for nothing more than to live to see these videos and my heart flows with gratitude. I have been watching Ohad Munder’s first hug with his dad again and again, sobbing with joy. But I feel so much inquietude around all this, mostly paralyzing fear for the fate of the remaining hostages. And I fear that some of this dark teatime of the soul has to do with confronting the transactional value of human life.

Recently, I got to read a classic anthropological text from 1923 by Marcel Mauss called The Gift. Mauss marshals evidence from various societies in which gift-giving is common to show that gifts are not spontaneous or selfless; rather, they are surrounded by elaborate social norms that dictate how to give, how to receive, and how to reciprocate. Gifts are an important and thoroughly ritualized social adhesive. At no time is the issue of reciprocity and value-setting clearer than when witnessing a hostage exchange, which makes a transaction out of the gift of human life between parties whose animosity is at its peak. As I read coverage about the Israeli hostages and the released Palestinian prisoners I think, who is being valued more? Whose children are coded as “children” and who are coded as “prisoners,” “Palestinian terrorists,” or “Zionist occupiers”?

The transactional nature of the releases brings into stark relief the range of values that the many stakeholders and parties to this conflict affix to different human lives. A few years ago, I read Peter Singer’s The Most Good You Can Do, where he makes an impassioned argument against parochialism. By contrast to Rashi’s adage that “the poor people of your own town come first,” Singer argues that all lives have the same value and that altruistic giving should therefore eschew parochial considerations and, instead, maximize the good for as many people as possible. I understand, cognitively, what Singer is trying to say, and of course I cognitively comprehend that every life is precious. But I think that, in his admonitions, Singer is being less than responsive to the basic workings of human psychology, which I am observing in my own soul as well as in the souls around me. A Gazan family will be welcoming a released teenager soon with their own joy, adjacent to the Israeli joy but not touching it. The folks online reminding and admonishing and lecturing about how you can feel for both sides are able to host a modicum of generalized warmth because they are not psychologically invested and wound up in one side of this conflict or in another. This is not about who has a heart and who is heartless, but about where people are positioned. And I’m beginning to think that Rashi did not issue an edict so much as offered a description of where people’s natural sympathies flow.

(As an aside, it is such a psychologically bizarre experience to scroll through Facebook posts, finding Israeli and, to a lesser degree, Jewish posters concerned with the fate of the hostages and posting incessantly about them and about the war, while other people post silly memes and their Thanksgiving tables. The folks who post thus are not bad or evil or lacking in empathy. It’s just… not their thing. How many horrific human disasters in faraway lands have I heard about and, while feeling keen sorrow for those involved, moved on with my life, largely unaffected?)

Along these lines: twenty-four people were released yesterday, 11 of which were Thai and Nepalese workers. What a heartache, to be thrusted into the heart of hell in a conflict unrelated to you, because you had to move away to a far away land to make a living; to find yourself caged and tortured, caught between parties in a war zone. Initially, their names and pictures were unavailable, anonymous in captivity and in liberty as they were when trying to make a living in a cruel global economy. This morning I finally saw their picture. I was so moved to see Jimmy Pacheco’s release and how he was embraced by kibbutz members. The man for whom Jimmy worked as a caregiver, Amitai Ben-Zvi, was murdered by Hamas, and Jimmy was kidnapped and manhandled with horrific violence. The world devalues the lives of foreign workers so systematically and deeply. The hug between Jimmy and members of the Ben-Zvi family was a balm to my heart.

And then there are the lists. A huge, painful, never-healing wound in Jewish history involves the Judenrat’s listmaking in ghettos, making horrifying decisions on who must be saved and who must be shipped to the east to be murdered in concentration camps. It is really hard to reckon with the fact that people’s demographics play a horrifying role in setting their price in hostage exchanges. I wake up nightly from horrible nightmares involving the toddlers in captivity, especially baby Kfir Bibas, and shudder when I consider that the monsters who hold them captive understand the psychological value we affix to children. As my beloved late colleague Sherry Colb and her husband, Michael Dorf, wrote in Beating Hearts, there is a special premium on the lives of children. And at the same time, there is a frailty to aging people (which I addressed in several of my works). And I’m so moved by the return of the brave, stoic grandmothers, many of whom lost husbands to sadistic murderers. But this also means that the precious lives of young men are going to be devalued by comparison, and that they will have to withstand captivity longer, and I worry that the calculus of the worth of human lives versus military objectives will change as the war rages on.

Speaking of Colb and Dorf’s book, I also think a lot about the lives of animals brought into this homo sapiens conflict. One brief clip from the horror footage of October 7 keeps sawing through my mind: the murderers and kidnappers drive a truck away with hostages on it, weeping. The family dog chases the truck, barking, running, trying to save his family members. And these evil monsters shoot the dog dead. Why? WHY?! Why the dog? What does the dog have to do with any of this? Is the dog a Zionist occupier? I think about all the families who had to make the tough decisions to leave their dogs and cats outside their safe rooms and shelters. Family members whom they loved and cherished, like we love and cherish Inti and Gulu. What a thing to confront and to reckon with. They were trying to save their children’s lives, their parents’ lives. What choices people have had to make. And what complicated feelings to process amidst the layers of horror and grief.

I’m sure I’m not the only person who is confronting complicated and uneasy feelings about all this. What makes me feel a bit better, a bit more inspired, is an amazing statement made by Yoni Asher, whose wife and two daughters were returned from captivity yesterday. Asher says: “It is okay to rejoice and it is okay to shed a tear, but I am not celebrating and will not celebrate until the last of the hostages returns.”

May we live to welcome them all home.

Self-Compassion for Disillusioned Activists

In the sixties, Todd Gitlin, then a young, passionate student, became involved in the fight against the Vietnam war and in the struggle for equality. Alongside his friends at Students for a Democratic society (he was the president in 1963-1964) he agitated, organized, protested, held movements, registered people to vote in the Deep South, and fought against orthodoxy in the Democratic party and for a New Left. Many years later, already a sociology professor and incisive critic of the movement he helped create, he evocatively wrote about how much activism had meant to him. The first half of his masterpiece The Sixties reads like a manifesto of hope; the second half, though, is rife with confusion. Plans for political action got muddled with self expression and individuality a-la diggers and the Mime Troupe (to read a different perspective on those, read Peter Coyote’s fantastic memoir Sleeping Where I Fall); people he admired and respected as leaders disappointed at best and disintegrated at worst; former comrades slid further and further to the left, established the Weather Report, and engaged in clumsy but frightening violent actions Gitlin could not condone or comprehend (learn more about those in the podcast Mother Country Radicals). Gitlin’s later books reveal an author and thinker who still very much believes in the ideals of socialism and peace, but resents the splintering and performativity of identity politics that he believes shattered the movement in the 1970s.

Today I found myself going back to one of my favorite books by Gitlin, Letters to a Young Activist, which evokes that deep ambivalence and wisdom that comes only from spending years in a movement you both admire and fiercely critique. Gitlin talks about the importance of passionate motivation but also reminds young activists not to “think with their blood”; highlights the crucial role of shining a light on the wrongs of your own side, but also the importance of letting self-flagellation by the wayside; and warns against the dangers of “marching on the English department”, as it were, while one’s opponents “march on Washington.”

What brought me back to Gitlin were a number of recent conversations with younger folks I like and admire a lot about their disillusionment with infighting and lack of integrity in radical movements and organizations with noble goals and true dedication. People admired and respected in positions of leadership turn out to behave in disappointing ways; serious issues get buried or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, debated to death, complete with public denunciations and humiliations; minute complaints turn into struggle sessions that sap everyone’s will to come back; and eventually people come to demonize their comrades and brothers in arms more than they do the bad guys they are fighting against.

Hearing about this stuff is always heartbreaking, especially when I see folks who I know put in countless, tireless, thankless energy, time and effort into organizing and activism express disillusionment and despair. I can offer very little solace in this sort of situation; dealing with big disappointment as an idealist is really hard, and calls for more than one self-compassion break.

Kristin Neff, who has written and spoken extensively about self compassion and mindfulness, offers a three-step formula for anyone who is struggling. The first step is to admit that this is, indeed, a moment of suffering, a low point in the person’s life. The second, which I’ll elaborate more on in a bit, is understanding that suffering is universal, a part of life, and that everyone suffers–sometimes intensely–from time to time. And the third is offering oneself some kindness, either through expressing it or through a gentle hand touching one’s own heart.

I like this exercise a lot, and find the second step especially important, because as Brené Brown explains, one of the traps of shame and self-pity (by contrast to self compassion) is to see one’s experience as unique and idiosyncratic. I see a lot of this horror in young, committed activists, who are so distraught by occurrences in their group or community that they believe it must be prey to some special variety of pathology. This is where I can offer some comfort. As regular readers know, I’ve written and spoken quite a bit about the sixties, and part of my work on Yesterday’s Monsters included learning about cults and movements that swirled around the California counterculture when Manson put together his “family.” When the murders occurred, and when Manson and his followers were identified as the culprits, they evoked a wave of horror because cults and their inner workings were not well known or understood at the time. Indeed, the idea of thought control and brainwashing was associated at the time only with Communist regimes such as China and Korea (see an example of this in The Manchurian Candidate.)

But while this group stood out in the heinousness of their crimes, they were by no means the only group led by charismatic leaders and/or a vision to be plagued by exploitation, violence, and oppression. In the mid-seventies, the California legislature held a hearing for family members of young adults who had joined cults, hearing testimony after testimony about how their loved ones fell in thrall to some charismatic leader or other, started believing some stranger things, dramatically changed their appearance or habits, isolated from them to the point of estrangement, and gave all their effort and resources to the cult. Witnesses testified about the Moonies and about a variety of Christian apocalyptic cults. The legislators at the hearing tiptoed between expressing deep concern and sympathy and reminding everyone that cult members were adults with the freedom of religion and expression.

To this day, whenever I see people criticize radical activist movements that fall prey to unsavory activity and conflict, the demonizing language compares the movement to a cult. This is not a scientific or easy process, because cults turn out to be quite a malleable category. But one need not go into the reeds to identify pathological cultish elements in pretty much every activist movement, including influential and notable ones. Three years ago I wrote a post about this stuff that identified a lot of the obvious issues: betrayals of the cause, identitarian splintering, sexual exploitation or perceived exploitation, financial malfeasance, etc. Having read a lot about movements in the 1960s and 1970s, I see situations where the FBI were infiltrating and persecuting organizations and cells and eventually didn’t have to do anything to hasten their demise: these outfits crumbled on their own, without the malignant interference of the feds, because they suffered from these inherent issues. Stanley Nelson’s fantastic documentary about the Black Panthers is a case in point: there’s nothing the FBI could have done to dissolve the Panthers that Huey Newton didn’t do himself. Larry Kramer’s acerbic account of ACT UP in The Normal Heart shows the awful indifference and demonization the activists were working against, but also how they sabotaged themselves through horrendous infighting. I see this stuff again and again.

Here are some factors–and this is by no means an exhaustive list–that are part of this malignant cocktail. Oftentimes, radical organizing draws people who seek the type of camaraderie and belonging that membership in a close-knit group of likeminded people working for an important cause can provide. Some young folks get swept in this energy because home life is rife with trauma or neglect, or because their school or employment networks haven’t improved their lot socially. I’m not saying their commitment to the goal is not genuine; all I’m saying is that excitement about a common vision is infectious and promises an embrace that is very difficult to resist if one feels lonely or traumatized. The fact that a lot of radical movements strive toward ideological purity is also part of this. It isolated people and drives them further into the insular experience of the group, with no reality checks and balances on the outside. I’ve spoken to mixed-race couples that broke up on account of a commitment to racial justice that was so strong that it eclipsed years of love and commitment. I know of people who took the Liberation Pledge (not to eat where animals are served) and ended up unable to eat with anyone from their family or friend group outside vegan movements. Not only does this mean all of one’s social efforts are invested in a relatively small group of people, but that group ends up being an echo chamber and it’s very difficult to test ideas in the real world. And moreover, anytime purity and adherence to principles are the yardstick for worthiness, people turn on each other and compete over who is a more zealous advocate for social change. This process of eating each other seems to accelerate as shit starts hitting the fan, because people who are afraid and fighting for their own survival are sure to lash out at the people standing closest to them.

The fact that crappy things are happening to committed activists throughout the social justice field is not cause for cheer, but I think that anyone who thinks their organization is uniquely pathological might derive some comfort from knowing that, apparently, homo sapiens seems to find a way to ruin communities centered on ideals and struggles pretty much all the time. I don’t think we’ve found a way to organize and seek social change that doesn’t end up marred in these kinds of self destructive crap. I wish we could, but I’m in my late forties, have organized and agitated plenty, and I’m just not seeing it. The one that came closest to being a healthy organizing container, for me, was the #StopSanQuentinOutbreak coalition; it wasn’t without its warts, but it was highly effective and overall a really positive, supportive environment. I suspect the magic had something to do with the fact that, in addition to the long-term decarceration vision, we had tangible, short-term emergency goals, and thus no time for faffing. Perhaps human nature, like nature in general, abhors a vacuum, and will fill any available space with infighting and oneupmanship.

I don’t know what the answer is. But I do think that understanding we’re talking about universal phenomena that radical movements go through can be helpful to people who think they’re stuck in a uniquely dysfunctional scenario. Every unhappy family, as Tolstoy famously wrote, is unhappy in its own unique way, but they are still all unhappy. And that means that any person who believes in an ideal, a vision, a blueprint for far-reaching social change, and is committed enough to put a lot of work into it, will experience heartbreak from time to time. If this is you now, then it’s simply your turn. Offer yourself all the kindness you need to get through the rough patch, and then see if there’s another path for you to change the world or bring about your values in a way that supports your heart better.

A Secular Kaddish Yatom for My Father

Today we held my father’s funeral, which was heartbreaking and moving. Hundreds of people whose lives he touched came to help us say goodbye and many spoke of him with such love and admiration. I officiated the funeral and said the final kaddish, which I based on Tally Ornan’s secualr kaddish:

יִתְגַּדַּל וְיִתְקַדַּשׁ בֶּן הָאָדָם עַל שֶׁיָּדַע כִּי מִן הֶעָפָר הוּא וְאֶל הֶעָפָר יָשׁוּב, וְעַל אַף זֹאת בָּחַר בַּחַיִּים וְשָׂמַח, וְעָלַץ, וְרָגַשׁ, וְאָהַב.

יִתְבָּרַךְ וְיִשְׁתַּבַּח בֶּן הָאָדָם אֲשֶׁר מִן הַחֹמֶר בָּא וְאֶל הַחֹמֶר שָׁב, וְעַל אַף שֶׁיּוֹדֵעַ הוּא כִּי סְפוּרִים יָמָיו עַל הָאֲדָמָה, הָיָה חַי וְשׁוֹקֵק, תְּאֵב דַּעַת וְשִׂמְחָה, צוֹחֵק וְדוֹמֵעַ , אוֹהֵב וְאָהוּב עַל כִּי אָדָם הוּא.

יִתְפָּאַר וְיִתְרוֹמַם בֶּן הָאָדָם עַל כִּי יָדַע שֶׁעָמֹק הַבּוֹר הוּא וְרָחָב וְלֹא יִמְתְּקוּ לוֹ שָׁם הָרְגָבִים. עַל כִּי יָדַע שֶׁאֵין בִּפְנֵי מִי וְאֵין עַל מָה לָתֵת אֶת הַדִּין כִּי אֵין אַחֲרִית בַּשַּׁחַת. רִיק וַאֲבַדּוֹן יִשְׁכְּנוּ שָׁם לְעוֹלָם וּלְעָלְמֵי עָלְמַיָּא.

וְעַל אַף זֹאת דָּבַק בַּחַיִּים, וְלָחַם עֲלֵיהֶם בְּפִכָּחוֹן, בְּאֹמֶץ, בִּגְבוּרָה, וּלְלֹא מוֹרָא.

יִתְנַשֵּׂא וְיִתְהַדָּר בֶּן הָאָדָם עַל כִּי יָדַע כִּי רַק בּוֹ מְצוּיָה מִדַּת הָרַחֲמִים. עַל כִּי קִוָּה, הֶאֱמִין, וְשָׁאַף לָשִׁית שָׁלוֹם עַל הָאָרֶץ בְּיוֹדְעוֹ שֶׁרַק עָלָיו וְעַל שֶׁכְּמוֹתוֹ מוּטֶלֶת מִצְוָה זוֹ וְאֵין אַחֵר זוּלָתָם שֶׁיָּשִׂימוּ שָׁלוֹם עַל הָאָרֶץ וְעַל כָּל יוֹשְׁבֶיהָ.

עַל כָּל אֵלֶּה וְעוֹד יִתְגַּדַּל וְיִתְקַדַּשׁ, יִתְבָּרַךְ וְיִשְׁתַּבַּח, יִתְנַשֵּׂא וְיִתְהַדָּר, וְיִתְעַלֶּה בֶּן הָאָדָם, חיים בן שרה ושמואל יוסף, בעלה של אמי יעל אהבת חייו, אבי הנהדר והמסור, חותנו האוהב והחם של אישי צ׳אד, סבו המאושר של בני ריו בבת עינו, אח וגיס למיכל, עודד, אתי, נוני ואסתר, דוד לטל, דן, אנאבל, שרון, שי, שחף, ילדיהם של אחותו אסתר ואחיו דוד ז״ל, חתן מופלא לשמואליק ז״ל ואביבה, חבר שלא יסולא בפז ועמית תומך לאלפי אנשים ברחבי העולם, מורה נערץ, מרצה בחסד וחוקר דגול שהעמיד דורות תלמידים, מהנדס, כלכלן, ומתכנן תחבורה מחונן, סופר מוכשר, רב לעת מצוא בקהילות ברחבי העולם, הראשון להתנדב לכל מטרה ראויה, לוחם עשוי לבלי חת לשלום, לשוויון ולזכויות אדם ואזרח, איש דעת מבריק רב תחומי, ברוך כשרונות כשם שהיה צנוע הליכות, איש שנשמתו זהב טהור ופיו וליבו תמיד שווים, שצחוקו הגדול ועיניו הטובות שימחו כל לב עצוב, ושכשרונותיו הגדולים האירו באור יקרות של קידמה ופיתוח אפילו את הפינות החשוכות, הנידחות והנחשלות ביותר בעולם. יתגדל ויתקדש ויתברך וישתבח ויִתְנַשֵּׂא וְיִתְהַדָּר, וְיִתְעַלֶּה שמו של אבא היקר מפז לְנֶצַח נְצָחִים, לְעוֹלָם וּלְעָלְמֵי עָלְמַיָּא.

וְאָנוּ כָּאן, הַנּוֹתָרִות: נִדְהָמִות, המומות, כאובות, נְטוּשִׁות, וְגַלְמוּדִות, ומתנת חייו עמנו צרי ללבבותינו השבורים. וימצא זכרו הנפלא מכל מנוחה נכונה, בעגלא ובזמן קריב, בנשמותינו האוהבות והבוכיות. וכל אשר נזכר, חי.

English translation:

May the human being be magnified and sanctified, knowing that they come from dust and shall return to dust. Yet, despite this, they have chosen life and found joy, delight, emotion, and love.

Blessed and praised be the human being who knows that they come from clay and shall return to clay. Although aware that their days are numbered on the earth, they lived and yearned, thirsted for knowledge and joy, laughed and wept, loved and were loved because they were human.

May the human being be glorified and exalted, for they knew the depth of the pit and its vastness, and the bitter taste of its earth. For they knew that there is no one to be judged by and nothing to face judgment for as there is no future in destruction. Emptiness and oblivion dwell there forever and ever.

Yet, despite this, they clung to life, fought for it fiercely, with courage, bravery, and without fear.

May the human being be elevated and adorned because they knew that only in them resides the measure of mercy. Because they hoped, believed, and aspired to establish peace on earth, knowing that only they and their kind can bring peace to the earth and its inhabitants.

For all these reasons and more, may the human being be magnified and sanctified, blessed and praised, elevated and adorned. May the human being, Haim son of Sarah and Shmuel Yosef, beloved husband of my mother, Yael, my noble and devoted father, the loving and warm father-in-law of my partner Chad, the doting grandfather of my son Rio, the apple of his eye, the brother and brother-in-law of Michal, Oded, Eti, Nuni, and Esther, the loving uncle of Tal, Dan, Annabelle, Sharon, Shai, and Shahaf, and the children of his sister Esther and his brother David (may he rest in peace), the wonderful son-in-law of Shmuelik (may he rest in peace) and Aviva, a friend and colleague more precious than gold to people around the globe, a beloved teacher, gifted lecturer, and distinguished researcher who has educated generations of students, an accomplished engineer, economist, and transportation planner, a talented writer, a beloved ersatz rabbi in communities worldwide, the first to volunteer for any worthy cause, a fearless warrior for peace, equality, and human rights, a renaissance man of brilliant and versatile intellect, blessed with talents and yet modest in his ways, a person with a pure soul whose inner thoughts and outer words were one and the same, whose big laughter and kind eyes brought joy to every saddened heart, and whose immense talents shone a bright light of progress and development even upon the darkest, neglected, and most decrepit corners of the world. May his name be magnified and sanctified, blessed and praised, elevated and adorned, and may his name, brighter than gold, live on in eternity, forever and ever.

And we, who are left behind: stunned, shocked, grieving, abandoned, and bewildered, the gift of his life a healing salve for our broken hearts. May his wondrous memory find a proper resting place, quickly and soon, in our loving and tearful souls. And whoever is remembered, lives.

Love Makes a Family: Does Reproductive Justice Include Only Biological Reproduction?

Recently I listened to Chen Zausmer’s fascinating podcast “What Are You Waiting For?”, which documents her egg-freezing journey. The podcast is moving, disquieting, and extremely well done, documenting Zausmer’s emotional process as well as the physical and financial practicalities of the procedure. Among the things that make this a worthwhile listen are the embedded recordings of personal conversations between Zausmer and her friends and family, in which they raise uncomfortable, emotionally loaded subjects such as “giving up” on couplehood and a two-parent framework, questions on reproductivity and self worth, womanhood and femininity, and other complicated, soul-searching issues. It is also an admirable example of honestly and vulnerably offering a meditation on subjects that can be, and are, deeply private issues for wide public consumption.

When someone does make the choice to make their very private affairs public in this form (the podcast is accessible on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and pretty much anywhere else podcasts can be found), though, the audience’s thoughts about it are not merely nosy/judgmental commentary on another private person’s journey. Each of us consumes art and media through personal eyes. And, in my case, that meant listening to four lengthy episodes detailing a plethora of emotional, physical, and financial trials and tribulations focused on a very particular biological choice, without even a brief mention, a suggestion, or a whiff of possibility, around nonbiological parenting through fostering and adoption. And as an adoptive mom, this was crazymaking.

This is not a personal critique of Zausmer’s options–she is, of course, free to do as she wishes with her body, soul, and financial resources–and for what it’s worth, she comes off as a thoughtful person who engages in unflinching self-inquiry, which is admirable. But those who don’t want their deepest personal struggles to evoke a range of emotions, thoughts, and reactions, seldom make podcasts out of them, so I’m offering some thoughts in that spirit.

As in the pro-choice/pro-life debacle, becoming a mom through adoption has gifted me with a more nuanced perspective that untethers parenting from biology, which I elaborated on elsewhere (here and here.) I always feel like these perspectives are left unexamined because of the strong bias in favor of biological parenting. The conversations about reproductive justice that I’ve been privy to not only prioritize biology but actively push any notions of nonbiological parenting out of the conversation. For a number of years I’ve been surrounded by people, some of them close friends, who have gone through numerous circles of IVF hell, back-and-forth with surrogates and the adjacent ethical issues, and the deep tragedies of miscarriages and losses. And yet, suggesting adoption or fostering to people who are undertaking unbearable physical, emotional, and financial difficulties in their torturous journey to become biological parents is considered terribly rude, and the social consensus is that people’s willingness to jump through absurdly challenging hoops to ensure that they go through pregnancy/birth, or even just that their genetics are passed on, should be unquestionable accepted, without opening other doors and possibilities.

I remember noticing this when I attended an event celebrating Dov Fox’s new book Birth Rights and Wrongs. To his great credit, Fox provides a thorough and thoughtful overview of the myriad problems caused by reproductive technologies, including unreported medical conditions of sperm donors. The book’s agenda, however, is clearly to empower parents to address these serious technological and medical challenges through lawsuits in torts. One walks away with the sense that any procedure for procuring biological children–as complicated, experimental, expensive, and taxing as it might be–should be the unshakable right of any prospective parent, complete with the legal power to sue at every wrinkle at which something goes wrong. Expanding these litigation rights is a tacit expression of the law’s preference for, and encouragement of, biological reproduction.

This may be outside the cultural/biological/social norm, but I know I’m far from the only one: I have never wanted to get pregnant or to give birth, and at the same time I am thrilled to be a mom and my son is the light of my life. I accept that many, perhaps most, women do want to experience pregnancy/birth. But it is hard for me to responsibly participate in conversations with people who are experiencing horrific suffering and sorrows through their pursuit of biological parenting at all costs, and are completely unwilling to even consider other paths to parenting. Because we are very open about our adoptive journey, over the years I’ve happily had several lengthy conversations with friends and acquaintances who, throughout this journey started “despairing” and “thinking about adoption”–as if it’s a secondary choice to biological reproduction, only to be pursued if the “normal” path has failed, because multiple IVF rounds involving extensive travel and six-figure-dollar amounts is apparently more “normal” than offering a home to a newborn that also saves the life of young people saddled with an unwanted pregnancy. Afterwards, sometimes I get a phone call saying that they discussed it amongst themselves and at least one of them was adamant that what they really wanted was “a child of our own.” Get it? A child of our own–as if your kids through adoption or fostering are not really “your own”, or it’s some testament of your inferiority that you chose nonbiological parenting. I always want to ask: Why is it so important for you to propagate your specific genes, and how are they uniquely better or more important to propagate than those of other members of the human population? It’s especially jarring when, in opposite-sex couples, virtually all of the physical suffering is endured by the woman, and it’s the man who clings to the genetic imperative at the price of his partner’s health and wellbeing. Can I say something about this, compassionately and gently? Of course not! It’s none of my business, and there’s such a taboo against suggesting this even in the most compassionate way–and I submit the taboo exists because we harbor a deep bias against nonbiological parenting.

But this is not just an issue of people’s personal choices, for whom I have all the compassion in the world (another person’s suffering is 100% understandable and relatable, and gets 100% support and love from me, even if I’m not on board with the cause of the suffering.) It raises serious questions for all of us as a community. Societies that do not fully support solid, comprehensive sex education, keep young people ignorant of their bodily functions, allow young men to walk away from the consequences of their sexual activity, sticking young women with the agonizing expectation that they carry unwanted pregnancies to term, are societies that produce babies born into untenable situations who need stable, solid, loving homes. And such societies should do everything in their power to guarantee a good starting point for all these babies–starting with completely destigmatizing, and even encouraging all forms of nonbiological parenting, through resources, education, and unwavering social support. Investing enormous amounts of medical progress, public funding, and unquestioning social validation in biological procreation for the wealthy at all costs has a price, and that price is delegitimizing and neglecting fostering and adoption. And in the current political climate, this does not strike me only as precious and capricious, from a governmental perspective, but also as morally untenable.

My great aunt Carmella had a beautiful child-free life: she had her own business and traveled around the world with a lovely and similarly adventurous husband. They worked hard and arrived at a place of wealth and financial comfort. And yet she was deeply unhappy throughout it all. One of the main reasons: She desperately wanted to be a mother, bitterly envied her siblings (including my grandma) who had kids, and this filled her with frustration and contempt. Toward the end of her life, which she spent giving backhanded compliments and insulting family members, my mom called her to let her know that we had a son, and shared briefly about the adoption. There was a long silence on the other end of the line, and then Carmella, who was never at loss of words, said quietly, in a little girl’s voice: “Hadar is very wise.” When my mom shared this with me, my heart broke for Carmella and for the decades of joy and fulfillment she robbed herself of by not even considering fostering and/or adoption.

If you are reading this, no matter where you are in thinking about parenthood, what I most desire for you is to be happy. And what is most important to let you know is that there are many ways for you to find happiness. You can, and definitely should, consider the many possibilities of becoming parents through both biological and nonbiological means. You can, and definitely should, consider the very legitimate possibility of living a wonderful life full of meaning and fulfillment as a non-parent (with or without children in your life in one form or another.) A lot of the suffering we undergo in life when we choose a certain path comes from the stubborn (and incorrect) belief that it is the only viable path to our destination. I don’t want this for you–I want to you to offer yourself more freedom, and this freedom starts in your own mind, outside the socio-cultural expectations, pressures, or inducements. I’m sending you good wishes on this journey.

Guest on The Green Pill Podcast

It was such a pleasure last week to be a guest on Wayne Hsiung’s excellent podcast The Green Pill. Wayne is one of my favorite people, whom I admire a great deal for his selflessness: he is a relentless animal rights activist and one of the founders of Direct Action Everywhere. For his involvement in intrepid open rescues of animals (piglets, chickens) and documentation of the horrific conditions in so-called “humane” and “cage-free” slaughterhouses, he has faced serious criminal charges in multiple states, the latest of which is his upcoming trial in Utah. Wayne is also a deep thinker, a

We took some time to talk about the trial, from legal and emotional perspectives, but also about so much more. Our conversation, which you can listen to here, revolved around animal rights, prison litigation, and in general–how to remain hopeful and healthy, for oneself and for one’s kids, in a world so full of suffering. I hope you enjoy the program! For those who prefer reading to listening, here’s Wayne’s blog post about our conversation.

Not My Circus, Not My Monkeys

Every week, the incomparable Magi Otsri sends a prompt to aspiring writers with an interesting writing exercise. This week’s exercise involved exploring a forbidden emotion. The example she gave reminded me immediately of a phenomenal piece by early 20th century Hebrew literary giant Gershom Shofman, master of the short story. I couldn’t find an English translation, so I’ll provide my own:

The moralizing poet sat in his room and wrote

an earnest complaint on ‘human indifference’

on the old-new matter of ‘to each his own’

on how one falls in the middle of the street

and no one pays attention.

So he sat and wrote–and was startled; a child’s wail

pierced his ears from the outside, where his children were playing.

Plume in hand he ran to them

alarmed, and a great joy overcame him:

A stranger’s child is crying! A stranger’s child.

I expect all parents are viscerally familiar with the emotion Shofman paints so well in this vignette; I felt it myself as a mom numerous times. Rio was a month old when Chad and I took him to the de Young Museum to take in the Teotihuacán exhibit. Chad wore Rio in a carrier and I ran to the restroom, only to hear Rio’s distinct baby cry (“Laaaaaaa!”) from the next stall. A great fear washed over me, followed with such an overwhelming sense of unmitigated joy and relief at realizing that it was someone else’s baby who was wailing. Only after I gained my bearings did a small stream of shame trickle into my joy, a reminder of the Doctrine of the No Self, of Nonduality, of the Sangha, of all children’s cries being equally important, of the Bodhisattva’s Vow to alleviate all suffering. The shame, like a drop of dark ink in a glass of water, painted my relief light blue.

Only yesterday, at the majestic Dolores Park playground, a child spilled sand onto another child’s shirt. My first instinct was to step in, scold, soothe, intervene; then a voice arose within me, whispering, “neither child is yours,” and I kept my attention on my own child, who was calmly driving his toy dump truck with a few of his friends a couple of feet away.

On the way back home–an exhausted child sweetly sleeping in his car seat behind me–I thought about Shofman and other people’s children. Much of my involvement in criminal justice advocacy and in immigration reform efforts comes from the sense that the many horrors we wreak upon children–sentencing juveniles as adults, housing children in dehumanizing dungeons, the current unaccompanied minor nightmare, Flores and “baby jails”–come precisely from the problem Shofman identified: that we instinctively draw a thick line between our child and other children, and as a society, between “our” children, complete with innocence and compassion, and otherized children, whose childhood is deemphasized and denied. In the last few years, whenever I’ve shown Ken Burns’ terrific documentary The Central Park Five to my seminar students, they have expressed shock at the interrogation footage. “How could she treat them like this?”, they say, “It’s so obvious that they are kids.” Yes, I think to myself, it’s obvious now, but it wasn’t obvious in the mid-’80s; as I explain at the end of Yesterday’s Monsters, the “rediscovery of childhood” happened only in the mid-2000s, when neuroimaging technology acquainted us better with the development of the prefrontal cortex.

Contrast these scenarios, in which we must, societally, intercede on behalf of other people’s children, with the oppressive sense that every public foray into the political speech arena, be it a large campaign or a single tweet, can land one in a deep well of irritation, unpleasantness, and social disharmony. I’ve written about the voracious tendency, fed by social media, to make every story a colossal morality tale here and here. These days, every time some twitter scandal does not involve me personally, my default choice is to opt out. Don’t start anything you won’t enjoy finishing, whispers the invisible owl on my shoulder. Why ask for trouble? Whatever you post will be taken out of context by four people and that’ll be the end of you. The Polish proverb comes to mind: Not my circus, not my monkeys.

Our hero John Lewis implored us to get into “good trouble”–and in the tradition of the Jewish drash, I’ll throw in this interpretation: a necessary preamble is the ability to discern “good trouble” from “bad trouble.” Good trouble is the kind we must get into, for our children, for other people’s children, for all children, human, nonhuman, living, breathing. Bad trouble is the sort your heart and common sense tells you will become worse if you step in it. Which is which–your heart’s beat and the drop of disquiet ink in your glass of peace can tell you, if only you listen to it.


A good place to start a conversation about equanimity is the serenity prayer from Alcoholics Anonymous: God grant me the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

And there is a popular meme that has emerged in the activist community that emerged as an answer to that, which says, “I want to change the things I cannot accept.”

I love that meme, because there’s just something so human about railing against our universal predicament. Why are there things I cannot change? There is so much suffering, and I want to fix everything! Especially because so many of the things that are wrong are our fault—climate change, infection, mortality rates, injustice, inequality, access to resources.

But many of us are activists and advocates, and people who do world-improving work, and we have found out, the hard way, that this desire to change everything has a price.

First, the world at large sometimes resists our grand plans. Think about the efforts to educate people to self-isolate. I’ve seen really good people go bananas online in the face of evidence that others are not staying home. It makes so much sense to isolate and stay home, and yet—how can it be that this logic, that is so obvious to you, is not obvious to others? And I’m seeing millennials blame boomers, and boomers blame millennials, and Gen Xers blaming everyone else, and this place of compassion for humanity and care for others just becomes a battlefield of mudslinging—and people get more and more frustrated that the world doesn’t fall in line with their plans to fix everything, and their frustration leads to anger, and the anger doesn’t help, because—have you ever seen anyone being blamed and chided and yelled at smiling a beatific smile and saying, “now that you’re yelling and cussing and offending me and publicly humiliating me, I get it, and I’ll change my ways”?

Second, the indiscriminate struggle to change everything has an impact on the person who is struggling. Psychology Today reports that compassion fatigue used to be a problem that was most commonly seen among health care professionals. Because their work puts them in situations where they commonly see or hear about ongoing and sometimes unspeakable suffering, it is not unusual to see some of the most skilled, caring, and compassionate “helpers” fall victim to compassion fatigue. I’ve seen really interesting and heart-wrenching literature on secondary trauma among human rights lawyers, public defenders, asylum attorneys, people who see awfulness at work every day. However, in today’s world, where every tragedy is instantly broadcast directly into our living rooms (TV), laps (laptop), and/or hands (smartphone), compassion fatigue is no longer unique to certain professions. As Dr. Amit Sood points out in his book, The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-Free Living, “… we are inundated with graphic images of the unimaginable suffering of millions. We can fathom the suffering of a few, but a million becomes a statistic that numbs us.”

Sometimes, this incessant stream of suffering makes us feel burdened by the suffering of others, and occasionally we slip into blaming others for their suffering. We could also develop our own destructive habits – sinking into overeating, or excessive use of drugs or alcohol, or being glued to the TV, and we can start closing our hearts with deprecating humor, and worst of all—we can deny ourselves self-compassion by denying that there’s anything wrong going on.

In fact, according to the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project, “denial is one of the most detrimental symptoms” because it prevents those who are experiencing compassion fatigue from accurately assessing how fatigued and stressed they actually are, which prevents them from seeking help.

I’m going to suggest that this feeling is real, and yet if someone told you to just shut it all out and distract yourself with a new purchase or a bubble bath, that would ring very wrong to those of us who want to open our hearts. Clarissa Pincola Estes writes in Women Who Run with Wolves about talking to women who are very invested in social justice work. Sometimes they’ll tell her, “I just can’t go on with all the suffering that’s going on.” But when she says, well, why don’t you just go ahead and give up, they say, “give up??? How can you tell me to just give up with all the suffering that’s going on?”

Great ecological and spiritual teacher Joanna Macy pioneered “Despair work”, otherwise known as “Despair and Empowerment.” this approach acknowledges despair and “burnout” as honorable, springing as they do from the interconnectedness of all being. Macy posits that if these feelings are not blocked or ignored or covered over, they can be a tremendous source of further energy.

So, equanimity is not ignoring other people’s suffering or being cold. On the contrary, it’s all about sitting with the suffering with a full heart and accepting the nature of the suffering, to the point that your acceptance gives you a moment to make the right choices about where to put your energy. Because of that, equanimity is the virtue that balances the other three immortal virtues. It makes sure that you are not so attached and embroiled in the suffering of others that you can’t make good choices about how to help them.

Now, the traditional phrase used to meditate on equanimity is:

“All beings are the owners of their karma; their happiness and unhappiness depend upon their actions, not on my wishes for them.”

The term “karma” can be rather loaded, because it is used in two very different contexts. The first one is as part of a complicated belief system, which actually precedes Buddhism: as I learned during my work on Yesterday’s Monsters, The Tibetan Book of the Dead contains a very intricate cosmology and a theory about the cycle of death and rebirth that has been, to a great extent, lost in translation and in cultural context. And because of that, the second context is the popular reduction to “do good deeds, get enlightened; do bad deeds, get reborn.” This popular interpretation rankles many people, and understandably so, because many of us understand it to mean that everything bad that happens to someone is that person’s choice. And those of us in the social sciences know that’s not the case: there are a lot of environmental factors that build into the fate. Example: audit studies. Two people apply for the same job and send the same CV. Comparable education, comparable skills. But the one called Brad gets the job and the one called Jamal doesn’t. So how is Jamal an “owner” of his own karma?” If viral testing is available only to wealthy celebrities, is it some sort of divine reward for being good?

So when I say “accepting” this reality I don’t mean shut down your social critique or delude yourself that this is okay. This is where the difference between “is” and “ought” is critical. You can believe that some social or political or economic situation should be better, but it will be very hard for you to make it better if you get caught up in not accepting that it is, in fact, not better now. Come to terms with what is actually going on, and with the fact that many factors come together to create these inequalities, or miscarriages of justice. Not only does it help you shift over faster, but it also shrinks your own complicity in whatever is going on to its true size.

At Al-Anon, a sister organization of AA catering to relatives and friends of people with alcoholism, the slogan is The Three C’s. We didn’t cause it – it is not our fault that the other person drinks, it is their private battle, We can’t control it – we have no power over the other person’s desire to drink, We can’t cure it – it is an illness that cannot be cured through any known medical remedies. This can be very hard for family members to accept, because sometimes a relative who has a drinking problem will accuse us of driving them to drink. And there are of course a lot of conditions and causes that come together in creating a drinking problem, some that are the person’s choice and some that are not. But accepting this, and being able to sit with the suffering of the problem without selling ourselves a story about it, is a key step.

So the idea is not for you not to care. You care deeply and open your heart. And you accept that things involve suffering. And you sit with the suffering, and your willingness to sit with it without leaping to “fix” it gives you the pause that you need to respond skillfully to the task ahead.

Let me give you some examples. One of the aspects of my job is that every day I learn about something that is going on in the world that is absolutely horrible. In 2013—and this is after many years of work!—I sat with a California Senator and he said, “we have to do something about juveniles in solitary.” And my mind began to reel: Juveniles in solitary? And immediately the mind is thrown in a thousand different directions. I get letters from prison every week. People sharing things that are really hard to believe are happening. And having this equanimity practice, developing the capacity to accept that yes, this is a thing that happens in the world, and just sit with it—gives you the pause you need to come up with a plan.

When my colleagues started hearing about COVID-19 in prisons and jails, and knowing what we know about the conditions in prison, the really flawed healthcare. So these places are a real Petri dish for contagion, and the suffering is immense. And a group of friends of mine put together a spreadsheet, and they are collecting information from all the prisons and the juvenile facility and the immigration detention centers about how many people are infected, and what the visitation policies are like, and what quarantine is like. Now each and every one of these stories is a microcosm of suffering magnified, and you can just stare at this and think, “this is unbearable.” But taking the pause to look at this—and yes, we are all collectively responsible for how many people are in prison, but each of us personally is not responsible for the entire crisis. That would be an oversized perspective of the self, and there’s even a little bit of megalomania that can sneak in there. But instead, this pause gives us the chance to make a group effort to propose regulations, to reach out to administrations—each in their own locality, each according to their skills and abilities, and make a difference from a place of skilled response.

Perhaps it would be helpful to end with an anecdote that Frank Ostaseski tells in his book The Five Invitations:

Once during a talk in Germany, Bernie Glassman Roshi referenced Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. The deity is pictured with a thousand arms. In each hand, there is an ear to hear the cries of the world. A thousand arms are there to respond. Bernie was suggesting that compassion is a natural and appropriate response to suffering. A man stood up and said, “This is all well and good, but I don’t have a thousand arms. I have only two arms. What am I supposed to do to alleviate all that suffering?” Bernie paused, then very beautifully said, “You’re wrong.” The man insisted, “No, I am quite sure I have only these two arms.” Bernie asked everyone in the room to raise both their hands up in the air. There were over five hundred people in attendance. “Look,” he said. “A thousand arms.”

Glassman provided the best example of the important mix between compassion and equanimity, which you can also find in the words of Rabbi Tarfon in the Mishna: “It is not upon you to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”

Go forth and build the world; add the one block that is within your power and skills.