Empathy for Immigrants

M.S. St. Louis, 1939, which carried 930 Jewish refugees who were turned away from the U.S, Canada, and Cuba

M.S. St. Louis, 1939, which carried 930 Jewish refugees who were turned away from the U.S, Canada, and Cuba

To those hard-liners against amnesty for people who immigrated here illegally:

Remember that many, perhaps most, have done so because they’re rescuing themselves and their children from dire poverty, from murderous drug cartels, or from other dangers. They aren’t able to immigrate legally, even if they wanted to, due to the long wait times, high cost, and stringent requirements.

Do you think that all people, morally, should always place a higher value on obeying immigration laws than on the lives and well-being of themselves and their children?

This brings to my mind a famous example of people denied entrance to this country who were fleeing danger and oppression, and were forced to return to Nazi-terrorized Europe. Untold numbers of people died as a result.

Think of your own children, family, and loved ones, and of what you would be willing to do to save them from harm. I’m betting every one of you would break a law or two.

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Believing in a ‘Grand Plan’ to Comfort Oneself

When facing the news of yet another disaster taking place in the world (a devastating earthquake, a genocide, an epidemic, the murder of schoolchildren, wrongdoers escaping justice, and so forth), who hasn’t heard a thought of this sort follow the initial horrified reaction: ‘Well, we must remember that in the end, it’s all a part of the Grand Design / God’s Plan / The Will of God…’ and so on and so forth. It’s pretty much always implied, and often said, that this means we must resign ourselves, on some level at least, to the situation. And everyone who expresses this sort of explanation seems to find it comforting.

I know I’m not the only one who finds this tendency disturbing, I can’t be the only one who’s discomfited at the idea that so many people think there must be some sort of justification, a ‘grand plan’ that makes all the suffering and death that occur in the world okay, just so they can feel better about it and move on. When someone who’s suffered such a blow themselves, the death of friends or family, the loss of their own health, the destruction of their community, I understand needing an immediate source of comfort to get through the worst of it as they try to carry on living, faced with such burdens. But for others who make such comments, I must ask: is it really a good thing to comfort yourself in this way?

I’ve never found this sort of thing helpful or good. Putting aside the weird idea of ‘choosing to believe’ something (this doesn’t square with my notion of belief as a spontaneous reaction to personal observation, or to an argument, or to scientific evidence, not something I can just adopt like a new style of dress), the very idea of trying to comfort myself in this way seems pretty selfish. I don’t want to feel better about the fact that there’s suffering in the world. I don’t want to think that death and disease and pain have some sort of ultimate moral justification. I want to feel awful about suffering because I want to keep that fire lit under me to spur me to do something about it, even if I can only help in small ways. I want to always feel that I and the rest of humanity can and should do as much about relieving suffering and correcting injustices as we can, because we’ve decided those things are bad. Trying to justify the wrongs in the world as a necessary part of ‘something greater’ can end up sabotaging the best in ourselves, the empathy and righteous anger that we need to drive us to make the world a better place.

That ‘Grand Plan / God’s Will’ excuse, in the end, sounds to me like a trite phrase, a Hallmark-card-worthy empty sentiment, a platitude, little more than a thumb to suck.

Review: Blue Danube in Alameda, CA

Hungarian Coffee Cake and House Coffee
at Blue Danube, Alameda

Coffee Shop: Blue Danube, downtown Oakland

What I had: mug of house coffee, a slice of ‘Hungarian Coffee Cake’, and a bagel melt with tomatoes and cheese

Prices: Reasonable

Decor: Cozy, painted walls, rugs, a rather antique home-y feel, a world traveler’s aesthetic combined with shabby chic. Nice Eastlake door pull!

WiFi: Yes, two hour time limit; they’ll give you more time so long as you order another item

Seating: oodles of comfy places to sit

Would I come back: Yes

Bagel Melt at Blue Danube, Alameda

I am not in the best position at the moment to offer a qualified assessment as to the taste of the items I ordered, since I’m in the healing phase of a nasty chest cold and my sense of taste is almost entirely gone. What I could taste of the coffee is nice and earthy, as I like it, and the coffee cake seemed fine too. A little quibble: the cake came out of a refrigerated case, which is good for freshness, I know, but a cold slice of cake is a less tasty slice, and it spoils the texture a bit. If I wasn’t so hungry (I woke up early to get my teeth cleaned and then came straight here, so this is my breakfast) I would have let it reach room temperature before I gobbled it up. The bagel melt was perfectly toasted, the real cheddar cheese had that lovely crispy bubbly outside and melty inside that a melt should have. All in all, a pleasant experience. 

Piece I’m working on: Free Market Fundamentalism’: A Moral Objection
July 17th, 2013

The Value of People’s Lives Versus Our Love of Stuff

The more thuggy-minded among us seem to be taking the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case as cultural validation of their ‘tough-guy’, violence-glorifying, trigger-happy, vigilante mindset, as evidenced by some of the reactions I’ve seen.

And it’s not just the culture of violence that’s being celebrated by so many that concerns me. Racism permeates this case, from the circumstances that led to the original confrontation, to the killing itself, to the conduct of the court case, to the public’s perception of it all. It’s all-important we confront the issue of racism and figure out how to solve the problem, and there are countless passionate and thoughtful people taking this on right now. Here, however, I’d like to address another little-discussed American prejudice exemplified by this case and by the controversy surrounding it.


George Zimmerman may have been suspicious of Trayvon Martin simply because he hadn’t seen him before and he fit the description of burglars recently in the neighborhood, or Zimmerman may have profiled Martin as a criminal just because he’s a malicious racist. No one can read his mind, and he may not even know his own; we can only base our judgments of his motivations on our interpretation of the evidence. Since race was a factor in this case and racism has long been endemic in American culture, this has been among the hottest subjects of debate from the outset. But there’s another assumption implied in the public discourse that I wish was also a prominent part of the discussion. Even if Zimmerman really thought that the young man he saw might be a burglar, even if he knew for certain that he was one, why would chasing him down with a gun, provoking a potentially deadly confrontation, be justified in the first place? Since there had been burglaries reported in Zimmerman’s neighborhood prior to the Martin killing, Zimmerman and his defenders claim Zimmerman’s sole motive in pursuing and confronting Martin was to protect the community. Other more enthusiastic Zimmerman defenders try to make the point that Martin was a troublemaker, implying that if Martin had committed property and/or drug crimes before, Zimmerman’s suspicions and actions are somehow validated. Perhaps they see these rumors about Martin’s past as evidence that he was probably given to acting like a stereotypical troublemaker or criminal? But, again, even if Zimmerman has good reason to suppose that the young man he saw was a burglar or a petty criminal, why would this, in any way, justify the actions he took that night?

It seems to be that Americans are so obsessed with property rights, are so attached to and in love with the stuff we own, that we assume that anyone who messes with it is ‘asking for it’: deserving of physical harm and even death.  Another controversial case, of a man who picked up a knife and chased down a man for stealing his car radio , killing him, then being excused on the basis of ‘Stand Your Ground’ legislation, provides another telling example of this common American attitude. The controversy over the latter case, it’s true, does include more dismay over the fact that a man lost his life over the comparatively minor infraction of stealing such non-essential luxury items as radios. And the stabber’s argument, that he feared for his life because the thief swung a bag of radios at him, appears ludicrous to most, myself included.

To be clear, there are times when theft can mean life-or-death to the victim of it, such as horse-stealing in the frontier days when a horse was essential to one’s livelihood, or when someone’s life-saving drugs or medical equipment is stolen. In this sort of case, there is much more justification for aggressive defense from thieves. But I’m quite certain such cases are relatively rare. And, of course, there’s armed robbery, which is different, because in this sort of situation the thief is the one who first introduced the life-threatening element to the situation. I would agree there’s much more justification for self-defense here. But, when you consider two important pieces of evidence, that widespread gun ownership does not correlate world-wide with low rates of gun deaths (as deterrence theories would predict), and that most people, in conditions of stress, are terrible shots and often mistakenly hit innocent people, it seems clear that avoiding confrontation, if possible, is more often the way to preserve the lives of everyone involved. But, we do have a strong instinct for self-preservation and for defending the lives of our loved ones, and I argue, the right to do so, so self-defense cases such as these are not what I’m talking about here.

I’m talking about the very idea that it’s okay for people to defend their non-essential property in such a way that someone might be killed as a result. If evidence was presented that the burglaries in Zimmerman’s neighborhood resulted in a life-threatening situation because of the thieves, we can place this in the frontier-horse-stealing category. Same would go for the second case, if we found out that there was some crazy science-fiction scenario going on where the radio in the man’s car was the one thing that kept him alive. Now, no-one, myself included, would argue that thieves should be allowed to go on stealing to their heart’s content, unmolested by anyone. They should be captured, put on trial, made to pay restitution, and jailed if that’s what it takes to protect others from being preyed on. We rely on our police force rather than vigilantes to make sure people are forced to take responsibility for their actions, so that the protectors of society are well-trained to preserve human life whenever possible, and are publicly accountable if they abuse their power. (As we’ve seen with some historically corrupt police forces, such as the LAPD, we sometimes need to do a much better job at keeping them accountable. Most police officers, however, I think are in fact honorable and do care about the well-being of their communities. But we don’t hear about the good ones in the news, just the bad ones, so many have a distorted view of the police community as a whole.)

I hope the DOJ does prosecute Zimmerman, as the NAACP is urging, for the very reason that Zimmerman took it on himself to go out and chase down a man he suspected of stealing, with a gun at his side. This was a grown man, who should have been old enough to know better, who made decisions that resulted in a minor’s death. Zimmerman disregarded the instructions of the police, our trained and accountable public representatives, not to confront anyone. He thought that his own private evaluation of the situation was more important than other considerations, and it appears to me that he placed Martin’s, his own, and potentially, innocent passers-by’s lives at risk because he thought that some stuff being stolen justified his doing so. And not enough people, it seems to me, are willing to question this one aspect of Zimmerman’s whole mess of unjustified assumptions.

But, sadly, Americans as a whole are just too obsessed with stuff, and so much so that we’re not likely to consider whether getting and keeping the stuff we want is worth the cost to others. (I can’t speak for other cultures as well as I can for my own, perhaps we’re not unique in this sort of perverted set of priorities. Some cultures tolerate or promote killing to preserve their own honor, for example.) It’s not only these ‘stand your ground’ cases. We all thoughtlessly consume products that we know or suspect are made in conditions where the workers are treated horribly and work in dangerous, even deadly, circumstances. We buy our cheap fashions and chat on our smartphones, never demanding that companies that make these things improve their factory conditions and stop polluting, and even worse, keep giving our tacit consent to the whole system by pouring our consumer dollars into it without a murmur. I just went and checked right now in my underwear drawer, and confirmed that some panties I bought were indeed made in Bangladesh, even though I have several pairs I started making and set aside. Sewing underwear is tedious, and it was so much easier to just run out a buy a few cheap pairs. I bought them as thoughtlessly and innocently, American-style, as anyone else, even though I should know better. I’ve been an indie fashion designer for years and decided I didn’t want to be part of the mainstream fashion industry after my research revealed that cheap fashion is among the most polluting, wasteful, and human-rights-violating industries in the world, worse than coal, I’d argue. But there it is, I bought those panties anyway.

I’m not making the point that buying a smartphone or panties made in Bangladesh is like gunning a young man down. I’m making the point that perhaps we Americans, indeed, all human beings a little too obsessed with stuff, need to reassess our priorities. I’m making the point that our attitude about stuff, that we are entitled to have as much as we want and can afford, has led us to make some very misguided moral judgments. I think it’s made us too blind to the various ways in which our love of stuff, from everyday purchasing of goods we suspect but don’t know are made in miserable sweatshops, to the well-phrased philosophical argument that there’s an essential link between property rights and liberty, have made us thoughtlessly accept some things we shouldn’t accept. Whether we think we can or can’t condemn Zimmerman because we think he’s a racist or lawless vigilante, I think we absolutely should condemn his and all of our attitudes that place the acquisition and protection of our stuff as more important that the lives and safety of our fellow human beings. Trayvon Martin was not, arguably, only a victim of racism and vigilantism: he may also be a victim of our love of stuff.

Anxiety and Depression: An Experiential Account

Anxiety and depression have been recurring themes throughout my life, ravaging my emotional life now and again and causing me quite a bit of trouble when they do. It’s often called ‘Mixed anxiety-depressive disorder‘ when people are generally prone to suffer from both at once, and is actually quite common, about 8 in a 1,000 people. There’s still some debate among professionals as to whether this tendency should have its own diagnostic category, or whether these are really two separate health problems people just often have together for other reasons. Anyway, the clinical distinctions not really what I’m interested in today, though I’m very grateful to professionals who have helped me get through it in the past. I’ve been diagnosed with this and one or the other separately at different times (more often anxiety), and the descriptions and risk factors are present: a family history of anxiety, depression, and other mental issues, substance abuse, lack of socialization in youth, emotional and behavioral characteristics, and so forth. But I don’t think of myself as a broken person, or as having a ‘condition’, or as a victim, or anything like that, because I’m really a very lucky person who has lots of joy, and love, and beauty in my life. I’m also a very optimistic and happy person generally, often goofily so, who loves life. I just think of myself as having certain darker tendencies that I need to deal as they arise, placing myself in a more nurturing and peaceful environment as my emotional state requires.

Its prevalence in my life has been lessened significantly for many years now, since I’ve been in a loving, stable, supportive relationship with one who has a most beautifully healthy and balanced mind. (Such a ray of sunshine and constant comfort to me!) I’ve also learned many tools over the years to keep it at bay, instilling habits and practicing behaviors that keep me from falling back into that anxious state. I recently listened to a talk by Temple Grandin describing how important it is for people with emotional and other issues to diligently practice good, learned social behaviors, and I was struck by how well her recommendations for some autistic people fit with the set of practices I’ve developed for getting through an episode and staving off another one. Like many on the autism spectrum, anxious-depressive people can suffer from debilitating social awkwardness that makes it difficult to conduct one’s public life successfully. However, anxiety-depression is not a constant state like autism or some other emotional disorders: rather, it’s more like a recurring medical condition which requires diligent care and healthy practices to lessen the frequency and impact of flare-ups. Since I hadn’t dealt with a major anxious-depressive episode in such a long time, I had forgotten to be diligent with my good habits, and some stressful circumstances combined in such a way as to kick off a new round. Anyway, it’s been gradually coming on for months, and within the last month or so, I’ve experienced the worst of this particular episode. It really does derail one’s life in so many ways, causing one to miss opportunities and lose jobs, relationships, a sense of purpose, and hope, and so much time and energy that could be spent productively or simply enjoying life is wasted on the enormous effort of just trying to get by and not screw up another day.

This time around, though, I want to openly, publicly describe what it’s like to experience anxiety-depression while I’m actually going through it. Once I’ve gotten through an episode, I’ve always avoided thinking about it at all. It’s just too easy to slip back in again if I dwell on it, and I want to avoid the whole thing like the plague because it’s really, really awful. So I’m not writing about it to be depressing, I assure you, I wouldn’t ever try to spread that feeling to anyone! And this is not a complaint, either: again, my life is full of beauty and joy and love, and I know I’m one of the fortunate ones of the earth, living without real poverty, disease, or oppression, and living with the most beautiful man I’ve ever known. But I thought an account of the experience might be of interest to three groups of people. First, to those who have friends who suddenly seem distant or ‘weird’ and they’re at a loss to understand why (perhaps some of my friends feel this way about me!). Second, to the medical professional or researcher who just might stumble on this account and value these tidbits of information, who knows? But this is mostly written for others like me who have their own struggles with anxiety-depression, because they (perhaps you, dear reader!) know the loneliness that accompanies this state, a really crushing, deep loneliness, and maybe you’ll read this and feel as if you have an ally and companion.

When I first recognized I was not just ‘in a mood’ that day, but had slipped back into an anxious-depressive state, it was because I realized I’ve been, gradually, avoiding more and more people and events. ‘Avoiding’ becomes a habit, a way of life, when you’re anxious and depressed, because like so many times before, I find that my emotions, normally so useful and meaningful, have gathered into one large, undifferentiated, super-sensitive mass in the center of myself, easily wounded, flinching at the merest touch.

So dramatic outbursts, quarrels, and gossip of friends, family, and co-workers, which I normally might find amusing or interesting, whose jokes and teasing I normally find funny or silly, whose clique-ish behavior I normally view as a natural expression of the clannishness of human nature, whose criticisms I would take in stride and learn from, are all transformed into sources of pain. The rational, friendly, easygoing side of myself recognizes, as always, that these traits and behaviors are interesting and often delightful foibles of human nature. But in my anxious state they’re alienating, and appear to be destructive attacks, indicative of the darker side of human beings who seek to exclude and tear each other down. Social events are often, therefore, overwhelming, protracted exercises in excruciating awkwardness. In the very worst episodes in the past, I’d want to avoid almost everyone, even strangers, since they’d inevitably bring up a painful subject, or I’d feel them look at me oddly, or even worse, they’d ask me what’s wrong; it was just too painfully tedious, embarrassing, and confusing for me to explain. But this time around, I mostly just feel the need to avoid everyone except strangers and the nearest, dearest, and gentlest people I know. The presence of the near, dear, and gentle are comforting, and strangers are company with whom I can remain delightfully anonymous. Even as the anxious-depressive state subsides, I still, as always, remain cautious for awhile with relationships and other situations in my life, until the episode is a distant memory and I feel my robust self again.

But this avoidance is never because I want to separate myself from people, it’s precisely the opposite: I long for companionship and a sense of belonging all the more as the sense of alienation grows. All that avoiding leads to such a deep sense of loneliness, that the divide between myself and everything else feels like I’ve been physically ripped apart from the world I need. The ache is physical, sometimes just as a tightness in my chest or like muscles straining around and behind my eyes and throat, sometimes involving my whole body. Other times (thankfully, not so much this time around!) my heart skips or beats out of rhythm, accompanied by a strange hot wave that flows out to my hands and feet, and a sudden wave of dizziness that lasts from a few seconds to a several minutes at a time. These opposing needs, to avoid pain and to grasp for human connection, is extremely confusing, and leads to an awful, awful self-consciousness. I’ve always had a shy side to my personality, but is blown up into a such a all-pervasive self-consciousness that I feel immensely awkward most of the time. I mean, how can you talk or act naturally when you want to flee, and cry, and embrace, and explode, or some combination of these, all at the same time whenever you’re with people?

This leads to the incredibly odd, frightening, awful sense of being separated my own personality.

It’s not as if I feel like I’m totally disassociated from myself, or that I have a split personality, or anything like that. It’s just that the parts of myself that I know and like and love best, the personality that I identify with, is not accessible, or is just not coordinating at all with my anxious self. My emotions so askew that I don’t and can’t react in a natural way. So conversations feel forced, and because the ordinary emotional responses that prompts human interactions are working together, I often can’t think of a single thing to say besides trite commonplaces, and the awkwardness builds up to unbearable levels. I’m a person who’s no good at small talk anyway, preferring more direct and in-depth conversation, and not particularly big on pop culture either, so I don’t have the these handy discursive tools to hide my confusion behind. (I guess I could ‘fake it’ and, weekly, try to memorize examples of pop culture to talk about, but I’m not so good at this sort if dissembling either, dammit.) My usual, easygoing self finds it easy to ask questions about what my companion of the moment is up to, what they care about and what it’s like, and what experiences we share. But my anxious self freezes and can’t readily formulate questions, because the flurry of conflicting emotional responses leads to such confusion that organized thought becomes almost impossible. So I flee and hide, or I blurt out a long enough series of commonplaces that the mere appearance of conversation gradually assuages the awkwardness, or, if I’m really lucky, the other person just wants to talk to a good listener.

Because I don’t feel the ordinary sense of connectedness to other people at these times, I lose my sense of belonging to a community. I get the feeling, even, that I have no place in the world, that I’m not needed by anyone, that talents that I once thought I had don’t exist, or that they don’t have any value for anyone else. So in this anxious-depressive state I feel adrift, with no sense of purpose, and I start to spin my wheels. Making decisions is nearly impossible when every effort feels pointless, futile, when I’m certain that there isn’t a thing I can do that’s meaningful to anyone. This general feeling of being disconnected from people as well as from my own personality and sense of purpose also leads to a general spacey-ness. It becomes very difficult to pay attention to people when they’re talking, or to stick with a task and finish it, or to even to take in and understand an idea or system of much complexity. Concentration becomes a matter of will, but much of the time, the will to concentrate is just not there because being present in the moment is scary. Any given moment is just too full of people and circumstances likely to trigger more pain. And so, I am ashamed to say, I become selfish and withdrawn, and I hate it. All I really want, at these times, is to find the will and the strength to be happy, busy, and engaged with the rest of the world once again.

So that’s what it feels like to be in the throes of anxiety-depression. I suspect this all sounds very dark, and it does feel that way. But as I write this, and even in my worst moments, I recognize that what I experience at these times is only what the world is like in my own mind at the moment, and not what it’s like ‘out there’.

And even when all else appears dark, it’s also part of my personality that I love the feeling of being alive! Not just the joy of experiencing the rest of the world, but the actual feeling of seeing with my eyes, of moving my limbs, of the sensation of something touching my skin, of the life in my body, and I retain this feeling even when I’m at my most depressed. In this way, among others, I am incredibly lucky. I also feel that having these experiences gives me an understanding and strong empathy for people who have a hard time in the world. I feel the deepest sympathy for those who are depressed, like me, but don’t have this visceral love of life to sustain them through the worst times. I also sympathize with socially awkward and disconnected people of all sorts, who are sometimes shunned or even mocked by emotionally healthy, balanced people who just can’t understand (lucky them!) the actual experience of how hard it really is to be unable to connect to others.

Just the act of writing this down is such a relief! I hope this has been a help and not a burden to you, dear reader, and I thank you for making it all the way through such a somber account. It helps me feel a sense of control over my own mind, which is almost inaccessible to me when I’m anxious and depressed, and helps me to distance myself from those dark feelings that surround and choke me at these times. And if you, like me, are burdened with anxiety and depression sometimes, I hope, once again, that reading this makes you feel that you’ve found a friend.

Review: Modern Coffee in Downtown Oakland

Just for fun, I’ve decided to start writing little reviews of coffeeshops and other venues I visit to work on my writing. This is the first in the series.


coffee of the day & a brownie at Modern Coffee

Coffee Shop: Modern Coffee, downtown Oakland

What I had: mug of house coffee (the chalkboard identifies it as ‘Streetlevel’) and a brownie

Prices: totally reasonable

Decor: Sleek, modern, large windows

WiFi: Yes, and no time limit

Seating: Ample for the size of the shop

Would I come back: Yes!

A lovely, tall, blonde woman with a friendly (direct, not gushing) manner was at the counter, and it was a lovely start to my visit. The coffee is delicious, strong but not overly so, of the earthy, chocolately sort I like. (The trend in Bay Area coffee shops over the last couple of years, I’ve noticed, has been to serve coffee of the tart, even sour variety, which I detest, but which is popular with the aficionados, I hear.) The brownie is tasty, of the lighter cake-y sort, and tastes like a cross between a classic homemade chocolate cake and a brownie

Piece I’m working on: Anxiety-Depression: An Experiential Account