Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Most Important English Lesson

School starts up again for me and my kids in a few weeks, and as I was thinking about all the things that I'll teach and my daughters will learn, I remembered that some of the most important and long-lasting lessons aren't even on the lesson plan, and may have just come from a tangential comment from a teacher while discussing something else. I know that was the case with me when I was in high school.

We learned a lot of things in Freshman English at East Orange High School in East Orange, NJ, but the most important thing I learned in Mr Delaney’s class was the meaning of the word believe.

Mr Delaney taught us the difference between belief and knowledge, and that since it’s not first-hand knowledge, belief by definition has to imply some room for doubt. He taught me that when I say that I believe something, I’m also admitting the possibility that I could be wrong. He said that when we believe something, we don’t know that it’s true, but we’re willing to act as if it is until we get convincing evidence to the contrary. This lesson, that I learned at age 14, has stayed with me for almost 40 years, and has had a profound effect on both my intellectual and my religious life.

It seems that too many of us confuse belief with knowledge, and that too many people who profess one belief or another act as if they know for sure that it’s absolute truth. As a Christian, I believe many things, but thanks to Mr Delaney, I understand that I don’t know them to be absolute fact, but believe them based on what I consider to be convincing evidence handed down from a number of different sources. And – I accept the fact that I could be wrong.

When we confuse belief with knowledge, we also confuse knowing where we disagree with someone else with knowing where the other person is wrong. My understanding of the word “believe” requires me to admit not only that I might be wrong, but that there’s a chance that the other person, with whom I so vehemently disagree, may actually be right. I may not like that possibility, but since I’m not perfect, that chance definitely exists. I’d like it, though, if those who believed differently from me accorded me the same intellectual courtesy.

I know where I disagree with Catholics. I know where I disagree with Baptists, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. I even know where I disagree with other Lutherans. But I don’t know for sure where any of them are wrong. Contrary to what many people may think, this doesn’t mean that my faith is wishy-washy at all. By no means! My faith is strong enough to handle knowing not only that I might be wrong, but that I will be wrong from time to time. My faith is also strong enough to handle the onslaught of new information that many “true believers” can’t deal with because their faith is based on never being wrong or having to readjust their worldview. Because I believe, in the Delaney sense of the word, I know that I’ll be constantly readjusting my worldview, and am not afraid to do so.

Indeed, the fact that I believe means that I need to be very careful in how I act. Many great evils have been done by those who were sure that they were right, and were able to count as “enemies of God” those with whom they disagreed. On the other hand, those who understand Mr Delaney’s definition of “belief” tend to be a bit more cautious about forcing their will and beliefs on others, and a little more willing to try to “meet in the middle.”

Other Christians may ask me, “How can you say that you don’t know for sure? We have it all there in the Bible. What more proof could you possibly want?”

Well, the simple fact of the matter is that just as my parents weren’t there for all the fights I claimed I never started (and I really didn’t), I wasn’t there when the events written down in the Bible happened; and so just as my parents didn’t know for sure and had to trust me, I don’t know for sure either, and so I believe.

Amusingly, this brings us to atheists. For you see, atheists are believers of a sort too. Garrison Keillor once said that all the atheists in Lake Wobegon are Lutherans because it’s a Lutheran God that they don’t believe in. Like Keillor, I believe that most atheists are atheists in opposition to some particular interpretation of religion that they’re familiar with. But more to the point, it’s not that atheists don’t believe in God, it’s that they believe there is no God. And as such, they are no more certain than those of us who claim to believe.

And of course, I could be wrong about all of this.

Adapted from my piece in the What I Believe column of the
Syracuse Post Standard on May 12, 2007.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

If I Were A Rich Man

According to an article my wife read, the current recession has even the wealthy starting to worry now. Some of them have taken a big enough hit from the stock market that they're beginning to realize that maybe there's a finite amount of money out there. That maybe they can't have everything. That maybe they'll have to cut back by a yacht or two.

And she's talking about people with millions of dollars.

It's funny. I remember reading about people leaping out of 20th floor windows during the Great Depression because they had been reduced to a "mere" couple of million dollars - in actual cash, and thinking that if you "reduced" me to that much, I'd be a very happy person.

What the heck was going on then, and what the heck is going on now?

These people have absolutely no clue. You know what would make me rich? $200,000 a year. Doesn't sound like much to you? Well maybe that's because my goals are more modest.

You see, to me, being rich isn't about moving out of our cozy little house in a nice city neighborhood and being able to have the castle on the hill (and be able to heat it). It's not even about being able to buy the McMansion on the other side of the county. Those aren't my style. For me, being rich would mean that I could have our soggy basement fixed right now and put a guest room (and another full bathroom) in it without having to take out another home equity loan. Heck, it would enable us to pay off the home equity loan we took out two years ago to have energy-efficient windows installed.

It wouldn't be about having the Mercedes, the Lexus, the BMW, or some other fancy, expensive car. Instead, it would mean that we'd actually be able to pick out the color and features of the next minivan we bought - new, rather than picking a used one up off the lot in whatever colors they happened to have. And if the color we wanted wasn't offered, having that much money would mean that we could have a custom paint job done.

It would mean that when we traveled, we could stay at a Holiday Inn Express instead of a Red Roof Inn or a Motel 6, and that we could stay in the city we were actually visiting, rather than on the outskirts of town, where it was cheaper. Although we'd still stay at the Reeves Motel and the Traveler's Haven Motel when we visited Cape May and Ottawa. Those two tiny little motels seem like home to us now.

Then there are the college funds for my two kids. With $200,000 a year, they could pretty much go anywhere they wanted.

And of course there's giving some of it, maybe even a lot of it, away. There are a lot of causes that mean a lot to me, and it's a no-brainer that I could give more to them if I had more money.

But the important thing is that I wouldn't think for a moment that I had access to an infinite amount of money. I'd just have access to a larger finite amount.

And within that larger finite amount I could live very comfortably.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Words We Use - 2

I originally posted on sexual terminology back in June, and asked for your responses. I learned a lot as a result.

One of the things I learned was the limits of a free basic account from Survey Monkey. You're only allowed 100 responses. That explains the people who emailed me saying that they tried to take the survey but weren't allowed. Oh well. I'm sure that getting 500 responses would have given much more reliable data than a mere 100, but what are you gonna do?

The second thing I learned was how hard it is to create a good survey - at least the first time around. Amazingly, of all the people who put in their two cents to tell me what I should've done differently, my sister wasn't one of them, and she's a professional statistician.

The third thing I learned is that sometimes life throws you surprises.

As you may recall, my original premise was that almost no one uses the "proper" the "formal" the "clinical" terms behind closed doors, and I was secure in the knowledge that the survey results would substantiate my hunch.

Well, the first 14 results came in and they proved me right. 67% of the people said that there were "formal" and "informal" terms as opposed to "proper" and "street," and 67% of the people used the "informal" terms in private.

I was totally taken by surprise, however, when the next 16 results came in and flipped the responses almost exactly. That's right - 67% of the people not only thought that there were "proper" terms to use, but they were actually using them in private. So much for those medical terms being cold and clinical.

As the results inched toward the 80s, I could see that they were actually converging on 50/50. This was still an incredible shock to me. I just couldn't wrap my head around the idea that so many couples were using what I considered to be cold, clinical, medical terms when they were being "romantic" (OK, so I guess this tells you a lot about what terms we use).

Some of my colleagues thought I had lost my mind in asking them these questions, even anonymously. One even went so far as to refuse to take part in the survey because she was sure I was collecting this data for some other nefarious purpose. But really, words are my business, and I want to know about what words people really use.

So what are the "final" results from my sample size of 100 people? 32% of the people think that there are "proper" and "street" terms while 68% think that there are "formal" and "informal" terms. That's an overwhelming majority. Surprisingly, however, when it comes to what terms people actually use, 42% used the "proper" or "formal" terms while 58% used the "street" or "informal" terms. The informal people were still in the majority, but the formal people were a much larger percentage than I thought. But then again, as I've already said, this whole thing is probably skewed by the incredibly small sample size (you see, sometimes size does matter).

I still suspect that a much higher percentage of people use the informal terms than this survey was able to show, but I think I'll give up on this project for now and let someone with better resources and a larger potential sample size deal with this.

Anyone know anybody at Redbook?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

A Different Lens

A few summers ago, a student saw me wearing a sweatshirt with Coca-Cola written on it in Hebrew, and asked why I, being African-American, was wearing it if I wasn’t Jewish. After all, why expose myself to all the anti-Semitism that’s out there, if I don’t have to?

I chuckled and said to him, “Kid, anti-Semitism is the LAST thing I’m worried about.”

But as I walked away, I thought about how sad it was that this kid’s entire Jewish identity was probably based on anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, the result of a well-intentioned, but misguided, attempt by his parents to prepare him to deal with people out there in the “gentile world.” He was like the character Alvy Singer in “Annie Hall,” who saw anti-Semitism in every conversation, hearing the quickly spoken question “Did you eat?” as “Jew eat?

But to borrow a line often attributed to Sigmund Freud, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” This comes to mind as I think of the events in what has come to be known as “The Case of the Professor and the Policeman;” the confrontation between Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates and Cambridge police officer James Crowley.

Like my Jewish student who saw everything through the lens of possible anti-Semitism, Professor Gates views the events of last week through the lens of years of racial prejudice and profiling; perhaps where there was actually none of that involved. That is very likely why he “went off” on Crowley, because he felt that this same thing would not have happened had he been white.

But let’s consider another Harvard Gates: William Henry Gates III, better known to most people as Bill. Yes, that Bill Gates. What would Bill do if someone who didn’t recognize him saw him apparently trying to break into his house, and called the police to check it out? I’m betting he’d do what most people would do when the police arrived: thank them for checking it out, and cooperate immediately. I’m betting that despite being one of the richest people in the world, he would not go off on the police officers. Bill Gates would do what most people would do, and be thankful that the police came to check it out; after all, suppose it wasn’t just a simple case of the door being stuck, and it really was a burglar?

And when I say that Bill Gates would do what most people would do, this implies most white people. I don’t know a single white person who would immediately go off on the police for simply checking out something that understandably looked suspicious to someone else. Well, actually, I do know one, but he’s a little hot-headed and full of himself anyway, so we’ll ignore him.

Too many of us in the African-American community have an attitude about dealing with the police, as if “they’re” always out to get “us,” and that says that responding in a calm and polite manner means that you’re letting them trample all over your rights.

Many years ago I read a book by a New York State Trooper about how to get out of a speeding ticket. One of the first things it said was that police officers spontaneously divide people into two categories: citizens and jerks. Citizens understand that the officers are just trying to do their job, which is potentially dangerous, but ultimately is about protecting you, and the officer will generally cut a citizen a break. Jerks don’t understand this, give the officers a hard time, and make life harder for everyone – especially themselves in the end.

Citizens and jerks come in all colors and ethnicities. I wonder which one Professor Gates was being.
Adapted from a piece in the Syracuse Post-Standard on 8.2.09