Moving Past Tribalism

When I was growing up in India in the 1990s, Pakistan was the enemy and Pakistanis were evil people. It was a “fact” that wasn’t readily questioned. Once I immigrated to New York City and befriend countless Pakistanis in high school, those “facts” were starting to create cognitive dissonance within me. Some Pakistanis were good people and some were not, but more importantly they were no different than the Indians I encountered in New York. As a socially progressive individual, I read liberal-leaning newspapers from India and Pakistan whose opinion sections tend to be more self-critical of their respective countries. Yet when it came to the hard news of who started cross-border firing, in these progressive media outlets it was reported that the other country always fired first. Statistically, it seemed improbable to me that one side was always the innocent victim and the other side was always the heartless aggressor.

I spent years pondering over these logical fallacies and trying to understand these contradictions that people readily assumed to be true. Evolutionarily, being part of a tribe ensured our survival. If a member’s betrayal can put the entire tribe at risk, such actions carried a heavy penalty. And while modern society has advanced at an exponential pace and borders are becoming fluid, the slow pace of evolution has ensured that our tribal mentality is always at conflict with a globalized world.

We tend to portray the best examples of our side and the worst examples of the other side to make universal judgments of each other. We pick on outrageous comments or actions of individuals on the “other” side and paint them as a monolith. Yet when someone does the same on “our” side, we say these individuals don’t represent us all. We make excuses and rationalize actions of our side, which we would never tolerate of the other side. We turn policy differences into a zero-sum game where any win for them means a loss of us, and vice-versa. Compromise from our side is a dirty word because we think we have already compromised much, while the other side refuses to meet us in the middle.

I have read numerous arguments in the India-Pakistan rivalry or Hindu-Muslim tensions where we seem to always bring up the past and air old grievances to create diversions from current issues. Sins of our ancestors should be not over descendants’ heads forever. In human history, no group has been innocent of wrongdoings. In the current American political environment, an example of such tribalism would be the way attitudes of Democrats has evolved towards former FBI director James Comey, and the way President Trump and his Republican base, the so-called supporters of law enforcement, and are turning on the premier law enforcement agency in the United States.

We can begin to move past our tribal differences by having more people-to-people contacts. Majority of our prejudices and us-vs-them thinking stems from ignorance and lack of personal relationships with the other side. What makes the internet so polarized is that we can unload our vitriol on the unseen and unknown other. In contrast, we tend to be more civil with people we already have a relationship with despite any political or religious differences. Arts, culture, and travel expose us to different mindsets that might challenge what we already “know” about a certain nation or culture.

We might be proud of our customs and beliefs and wonder how others have such strange and immoral traditions. Yet immersing ourselves with people of a different culture might make us realize that they are just as proud of their beliefs and customs as we are, and who might consider our traditions to be wrong. Such exposure might let us see that fundamentally we aren’t much different from each other. It might allow us to see that our political, religious, or cultural differences are subjective and not objective Truths. If we can get past the cognitive dissonance, we might start seeing each other as individuals with our unique stories. We might not reflexively defend an individual or an issue because they are on “our” side, but isolate the issue and decide it on its individual merits and our own innate beliefs. In the 21st century, if we can strive for an interconnected world, I am hopeful we can come together and move away from group mentality. On a personal note of moving past tribalism. – something I would not have imagined 20 years back – my closest friend is a Pakistani woman.


Cambridge Analytica and the Hacking of Free Will

Stephen Hawking had written in his book The Grand Design that if you give him enough time and enough computer speed (both physically impossible), he can predict all of human behavior based on our molecular information. I think we have some free will, and many things that will happen defend on chance which cannot be predicted. Chaos Theory, and the Butterfly Effect as an example, says that minor actions/changes in the present can lead to major consequences in the future. But I do not know how much of our actions in the present are deterministic, and how much are free will/pure chance. Although I don’t think we can always determine when a butterfly will flap its wings, I think we can predict much of its behavior based on a lot of environmental reasons. And the same is true for humans because we too belong to the animal species and we too share traits common to us as a species, and even as individuals we have certain nature where our reactions to certain can be predicted with good probability.

What Cambridge Analytica did is something I have written for years, and something I knew can be and will be eventually done. For most of the last six to seven years, the question I have pondered the most is “why do humans believe and behave the way they do?” The deeper I have dived into neuroscience and psychology, the less I have believed in the concept of complete free will. As I have studied humans as a species and observed individuals and their nature, many of what we do can be predicted. At the very least, nothing about human behavior has surprised me in the last 4 years or so, not even the election of Donald Trump. We might consider ourselves to be rational species, yet we react according to our nature. It just so happens that the team we support is the team we were raised with – be it nationality, ethnicity, religion etc. Even the most moderate and rational amongst us will fall for partisanship in certain issues.

We know how certain animal species behave. And as such, we know how to manipulate their behavior and train them according to our needs. We also know the nature of our individual pets along with the general nature of their species. Therefore, how much free will do we really think other animals possess? As such, why should humans be any different because we too are an animal species. We already know how traits are transferred across generations. We can tell if a person inherited an angry nature or a calm nature from their parents or grandparents. We can make good probabilistic predictions as to how a person will react in a certain situation. And that is exactly what Cambridge Analytica did. Although it saddens me how easily voters were manipulated, as a scientist and lover of neuropsychology I am also fascinated at the use of data and understanding of human behavior to predict and influence our actions.

During the 2016 election season I was surprised and annoyed at how nearly all the negative leaks and news were against Hillary Clinton. Considering how extremely popular she was as the Secretary of State up till she declared her candidacy among liberal voters, the sudden change in attitude towards her was certainly surprising. The same voters who despised her also loved Obama, and how much did they really differ? Sure, she supported the Iraq war which he opposed, but then again Obama’s drone campaigns killed countless of innocent civilians. His attitude towards big banks and the corporate elite wasn’t exactly socialistic, regardless of what his Republican detractors said. I saw numerous memes on Facebook about how Bernie’s election would bring in liberal utopia and how there was no difference between Hillary and Trump. Even as someone whose personal beliefs aligns more closely with Bernie Sanders, such messaging and beliefs annoyed me because Presidents cannot make unilateral changes. Just like Obama struggled to keep his promises, Trump is struggling with his promises, Sanders would have struggled in a Republican-controlled Washington. As Obama loved to say and something I believe in, change and progress happens in increments and sometimes in zig-zag fashion. Although the arc of history bends towards justice and progress, such arcs bend over decades and generations. And in these great arcs of history, there would be countless examples of going backwards and forwards while eventually moving towards justice and progress. Too many people felt the primaries were rigged and that baffled me. It is as if the citizens of the oldest democracy in the world did not know how politics worked. As Bernie correctly said, if his campaign’s emails were hacked they wouldn’t have much nice things to say about Hillary. And it was within the right of the DNC to want one of their prime candidates to win their party’s nominations over someone who had never been a member of the party. Unless the elections themselves were rigged, this cannot in the remotest of terms be called rigging. Politicians say and do what they must to win. Obama’s “evolution” on gay marriage and his trying to act religious are just par for the course in politics, when people who know him well say he doesn’t have a religious bone in his body and he was for gay marriage since the 90s, except when he conveniently became against it as a candidate in 2008.

Today we know that numerous of these pro-Bernie, pro-Stein news and memes on social media were made by foreign actors to target the DNC and Hillary. Many of these ads and pages were targeted towards African-Americans to turn them against Hillary and depress their turnout. Even if it took us a while to figure out what happening, this campaign of foreign agents to influence our elections worked. They used our data, our nature, and our beliefs to target us. They did so with the full understanding of how we will react when he see something on social media, and they took advantage of our rush to emotions and tribalism over sober practicality. And they will do so again. Unless speech and the entire internet itself is censored, there is not much we can do about it except training ourselves to not fall for something instinctively because it tugs at our emotions. These ads, pages, groups, messages, and memes appealed to our emotions, our deepest fears, and our strongest beliefs. Since they used our data to influence us, how much free will do we really have? The foreigners did not hack our election. They used our nature and our likes and dislikes against us. The machines who learned our behaviors through algorithms manipulated us the way we manipulate other animals. This must make us think about the concept of free will and whether we have the power to make completely rational and free decisions. And we must steel ourselves for the future because machines will only get better at learning, and corporations and politicians will use these powers to target us into doing their biddings. Just because we see something on social media doesn’t mean it is true. And even if it is, we must research the context and question why that ad/message/meme exists. Without context any topic might lose its meaning. And we would remain as guinea pigs for these algorithms. We must eschew partisanship and we must stop supporting the puritans and extreme partisans on our sides. The more we remain divided, the more we will fall for these algorithms in a positive feedback loop. Prophets and politicians have always hacked our free wills before, but machine-learning and their ever-improving algorithms are a completely different ballgame. Whatever free will and independent thinking we have as a human species, we must try our best to maintain our equanimity in the face of emotional pulls, to stay away from hyper-partisanship, and to think, analyze, and understand the context before we react to any situation or information.

Pondering Parenthood

I have wanted to be a parent since I was in my late teens, as strange as it might sound. I guess the parent mind-set entered into my brain when I became a big brother a few months before turning four. I had to help my mother in taking care of my baby brother; I had to be a role model, mature, and act like grown up. Part of it might be genetics, but the concept of responsibility was inculcated into my brain at a very young age.

As I grew older I understood the sacrifices my parents have made for us. My extremely qualified mother had to stay home to ensure our education was never neglected. My parents never went anywhere or did anything fun for themselves so that we can have a disciplined life at home. They did not take cable TV when we were young so we won’t be distracted from our studies. They spent their entire life savings on our education, and my dad left a stable career where he had worked nearly 25 years and stayed back in a country for our education. Along with these major sacrifices, we cannot quantify the infinite smaller sacrifices they have made for us nearly every single day of our lives, from financial support to emotional support to cooking for us every time we are home, and packing a week’s worth of food when we leave!

Even though our parents have loved us unconditionally, as children we weren’t always grateful. Many a time we never appreciated or understood their love. One of the sad facts of life is that many of us don’t understand someone else’s love until we have loved ourselves, and many of us don’t understand the love of parents until we ourselves have been parents. That is a mistake I might have made in adolescence, but something I have actively tried to avoid since my mid-20s. I do not want to be the person who appreciates someone else’s love, caring, kindness, and sacrifice when its too late.

As such, being a parent for me is giving back to 1-2 more lives what my parents have done for me. It is passing on what I have learned in my life, my experiences, knowledge, my mistakes. Each generation should learn from their’s and previous generations so they can make the next generation’s lives better. I want to have a kid or two, and give them all my love and affection. I might not be the most verbal individual in the world, but I hope they can understand my love for them through my actions. I want to be a role model for them so they have healthy childhood, and they in turn can be a role model for their own children. Not only as a father, I want to be a role model to them as a husband to my wife so they learn from childhood that both genders are equal. If they see me doing household chores, cooking, cleaning, and grocery, maybe they will grow up with a progressive mindset towards gender roles. Marriage, or any relationship, should be a partnership – a teamwork, where both couple complement each other. Today I might cook, and tomorrow she might cook. Or I love cooking more and she loves cleaning more, maybe I will cook more often and she will clean more often. There should be no defined roles, but a true partnership based on our interests, desires, and compromise.

Being a parent also means living a disciplined live so they have a stable childhood. It also means being disciplined financially so they can pursue whatever they want to do, whether it be a doctor, tennis player, or a musician. My parents gave me a better life than they had. And I want my kids to have a better life than I do. I hope they can travel more, learn more cultures and languages, and see the world more. But that can happen if I can provide a stable foundation as a parent. The responsibilities are enormous, but nothing can compare when you see your loved ones being happy. When you unconditionally love someone and see they succeed, prosper, smile, and be happy…that is a reward in itself for all your efforts.

I am under no illusion about how hard it is to be a parent. I will have months of sleepless nights. I will be worried about them for the rest of my life. I will be hurt by them. It might be a disaster. But when I see my parents do it all, see so many people sacrifice so much for their children, I want to too. Whatever my strengths or weaknesses, I know when I decide to love someone with everything I have, I can go farther than most people. And that is what I hope to do, love my kids and wife…have a loving family where we can build our own stories, our own laughter and tears, and hopefully leave my children with a better world and a better future. That must be the goal of every generation – leave a better planet than what we found. And if we can do that successfully as a good role model, hopefully our kids can learn from us and leave an even better world for their children and our grandchildren.

Finding meaning, purpose, and beauty in life

How do I find meaning, beauty, and purpose in life? This question has been asked of me many times over the last few years. Considering the fact that I come from a conservative culture, many people still wonder how one can not label himself after a theological doctrine. Being a ‘non’ is still scandalous for many people, who cannot imagine how someone can get morals or the desire to be good without a punishing (and rewarding) deity, even for someone like me who is a deist without following any organized beliefs. This week’s detection of gravitational waves is a good time to explain how I find meaning, beauty, and purpose in life.

All of us, and everything we know, come from the stars and supernova. The nuclear core of a star can only create elements up to iron, and any higher elements (including basic elements in our body like zinc, copper, or iodine) come from the extreme energy created when a star explodes as a supernova. To paraphrase Carl Sagan – we are all stardust, born in the cosmos from some of the most violent events in the Universe. When compared to the history of the universe, we are a very young species. Heck, we are extremely young when it comes to life on Earth. Our civilization is only about 10-12 thousand years old. Not too long back we used to sacrifice virgins to seek favors from the gods. Today we can detect gravitational waves. We can fly into space; we can create organs in the laboratories; we can detect viruses; we can predict hurricanes. Science now has explanations for which women were once burned and killed. It is amazing to know how far we have come as a species, but it is even more humbling to think about how far we have to go – how much we have to change, improve, and learn about reality and our universe.

We come up with beliefs when we have no other way of explaining nature. We came up with rituals and incantations when meteorology or medicines weren’t available to us. The universe has had 14 billion years to evolve. Our planet and life itself has had nearly 4 billion years to evolve. In a quantum universe with infinite probabilities, any outcome is possible (steering clear of parallel universes in this essay!). We are just one of those outcomes, selected by nature through trial and error. Natural selection keeps improving us, but we still aren’t perfect. I find that to be beautiful and humbling. Through billions of years of trial and error, we have developed concept of love and empathy. Not just us, even other species have evolved to have emotions. We aren’t even the only hominid species to have evolved. Others have come before us who have gone extinct – others with their own rudimentary beliefs about themselves and the afterlife. The fact that they have gone extinct makes me appreciate our existence even more. It makes me want to work hard to make sure our species survives any natural or self-inflicted calamities.

Yesterday we would call people ‘crazy’. Today we have a greater understanding of mental illnesses. We are trying to treat depression by balancing chemicals in the brain. We are learning about microbiota and how it affects our health and body. Despite all the advances we have made in science, we have barely scratched the surface. If we look back and see how far we have come from superstitions, we should be able to appreciate how far we will go in the future. We are not limited to our present. One of the debates I have had with friends over last 5-10 years is about social progress. Many think the beliefs/practices/understanding we have today is how it will be forever. Yet the same people have progressed a lot in the last few years. Doctrinal beliefs had made them homophobic and they had strict ideas about gender roles. Yet today most of them have changed. Unfortunately, the idea still persists that how the world is today will always be in the future. That is something I am trying to change. If we can only see how far we have come as a species, we should not limit ourselves to the past or the present. The future will not be what it is today. And that idea is humbling to me.

When we consider our place in the universe, our parochial attitudes and differences feel too small. Many of our beliefs feel too small. We are more than our regional allegiances. We are more than our beliefs, race, ethnicity, or nationality. In the vast arc of time and history, we are all one and the same. We all came from the stars, and we are all going to the stars. Isn’t that information humbling? We belong to the human race. We share the same building blocks of life with every living being on planet Earth. Life has survived through extinction events. Life from this planet has the potential to spread in the galaxy. Considering we are designing artificial chromosomes, would it be shocking if we in the future become ‘gods’ and create different building blocks of life itself?

I have a Hindu Brahmin background, and I was quite religious most of my life. I believed I was quite special, that my Best Friend Upstairs was listening to me and doing everything for me. Childhood was good times, living in a happy and protected bubble. Religion, prayers, meanings, and purpose was a lot about me, me, and me. In a way similar to Buddha, growing up and seeing reality started changing things. I remember telling someone 10-11 years back while I was still very religious, that “I am not interested in heaven until hell is empty and everyone is in heaven”. The notion of eternal damnation was unacceptable to me. Finally, seeing all the suffering in the world, especially of children, knocked me off the notion that everything in the world was just, fair and that everything had a divine purpose. I got to realize how lucky I have been where I was in life and how much I have in life. There are adults and children who have known nothing but misery and abuse. Parents bury their kids. Children are born with painful deformities. Old people die in pain and neglect. With so much suffering in the world, I felt very guilty and selfish in my beliefs. Just because things were great for me doesn’t mean it must be great and fair everywhere. Whenever I hear “there is a reason behind everything”, I ask – what is the reason a child is sexually abused for years? If a leaf cannot move without the will of a deity, what is the reason a child would suffer that torment? Around this point in my life, religion was no longer about me. It was about what was good for everyone throughout space and time. And with countless dead and living religions, and every person having their own interpretations of the same doctrine, there were no singular meanings or purpose to existence.

Yet we as a species have evolved to ask questions about our place in the universe. Every indigenous group in every corner of the planet came up with their own beliefs. Despite what science can answer, and we have unimaginable years of scientific discovery ahead of us, there are questions about the natural world that we can never answer. For some people the universe has always been, without any creator or reason. For many others, god is the reason for everything. But neither can answer – why is there something rather than nothing? Even if we invoke a deity, ‘why is there a god?’ cannot be answered. For me personally, god is the end-answer to why is there something. I know that doesn’t answer who made god. But all of us will reach a point where we cannot answer why is there something rather than nothing. I have seen and learned enough about the natural world and life around me that belief in a personal god has become impossible. Such ideas seem childish to me, like it did to Albert Einstein. And I don’t even know how to explain a god. Maybe the universe or multiverses itself are god. These spiritual questions can never be answered. And even if we have figured out the function of every pathway in the cell and every neurotransmitter, even if we can design a human being on a computer and build it in a lab, we will always have these spiritual questions about the meaning of our existence.

The difference between science and organized religion is that science cannot provide black and white answers. Our technology and knowledge of the universe is still too rudimentary. And in a quantum universe with infinite possibilities, it is impossible to come up with “reasons” for something. Yet our brains haven’t evolved to accept probabilistic answers. We desire Truth. We want Yes or No. We want to know what works and what doesn’t. In a universe governed by random errors and mutations, by probabilities and chances, giving absolute answers about the natural world is impossible. Such answers might feel hollow when we crave certainty. Yet, isn’t it humbling and beautiful to see how small we are in the vastness of the cosmos, how small we are to come up with absolute answers? I certainly consider myself lucky that I exist, even if I don’t know why. I consider myself lucky to be able to experience reality, friendships, love, kindness, compassion, and laughter. Considering my uncertainties about any afterlives, I feel a great obligation to fight for justice, equality, and human rights. Knowing how lucky I am to be alive, I have tremendous motivation to treat everyone right. Any and all negative emotions aren’t worth it anymore. Hatred, bitterness, and jealousy is a waste of emotions and time when we only have this one life. I cherish every moment that I am with someone, knowing I might not see them again. When justice is uncertain in an uncertain afterlife, it is paramount to fight for justice today. It has become extremely important to understand the human body so we can have a world without mental illness and pain and suffering in this life, not a hypothetical afterlife. Reducing human beings, their emotions, and ‘sense of self’ to neurotransmitters, epigenetics, genes, and environment might take away the sense of ‘specialness’ we have about ourselves. And I accept that scientific reductionism isn’t for everyone. But my emotional pain and intellectual pursuits over past 10 years has led me on a path where it is less important to feel special about my personal existence and more important to understand ourselves at the molecular level. This can lead us in providing better quality of life for generations to come – for humanity and any other species.

I hope I have shown that those without any organized beliefs can still find a lot of meanings and beauty in life. We aren’t dead inside nor living a life without purpose. Our morals come from having a sense of empathy. I care about the happiness and suffering in this life. The scientific method has brought a lot of understanding to our lives and our place in the universe. If we look at the exponential growth of discoveries over the last few decades, just imagine where we are going to be a few hundred or thousand years from now. I hope we can come to an acceptance that whether we are theists or atheists, agnostics or deists, or whatever else we want to define ourselves – that all of us are capable of finding meanings, purpose, and beauty in life. I hope it will lead to all of us accepting each other for who we are because we are all on the same path to the same place. We are all evolving in our beliefs and values. So let us accept each other and support each other – our friends and parents, children and spouses, and everyone else. Let us celebrate and accept our differences, knowing no one has the right answer, yet everyone has something to teach us.

My mistakes – searching for self-forgiveness

As a perfectionist, I am extremely tough on myself for making any kind of mistakes. No matter how big or small, no matter how new or old. Not being able to forgive myself holds me back in a lot of things, but it also stays in the back of my mind as a hopeful deterrent against repeating the same mistake. One thing I hardly ever agreed with was an ‘eye-for-an-eye’ behavior. “He/she started first” doesn’t mean a lot to me, because if we repeat what the first person started then how are we any different from them? Yet, I have left myself do the exact same thing.

I have faced situations over the last 5 (or 10) years that I had no idea how to deal with. I doubt anyone in my situation/age would have. Many decisions I have made are regrettable, out of inexperience. Most of those mistakes were meant to fix things or make things better, but without experience or knowledge there is no way to know if the decision is right or not. Yet with the level of expectations I have of myself, I do expect myself to know how to handle every situation. It is physically impossible, but in hindsight not being able to handle something perfectly eats away at me.

When I hear a problem, my goal is to fix/solve the problem. Complaining about a problem without trying to solve it makes no sense to me. But sometimes one must listen to the complain without offering solutions right away. Sometimes people just want to be heard. I wasn’t (not sure if still am) good at that. But one thing I also learned in counseling – how long do you listen to same complaints where no meaningful action is being taken? At what point do you become an enabler for others who want to feel better by talking it out, without taking the tough choices of changing their situation? I still don’t know the answer to that. Because I still see myself as a problem solver.

If another thing I would change, it would be to learn about mental illnesses at a younger age. I wish for a world where we would all learn about it in college. Because mental illness is too stigmatized, because those suffering from it are blamed for it or judged for it, and too many are criticized for being ‘crazy’ and not being able to get the marbles together. We never make those comments about any other organ. Yet for inexplicable reasons we don’t even remotely give the same respect to the most complicated object in the known universe – the human brain. I have never been prejudiced against anyone with a mental illness, but I certainly wish I knew better to handle it around those who might be suffering from some kind of mental illness. Sometimes good intentions don’t always produce good results, because of our ignorance of the steps that would produce good results. That is definitely one of my biggest regrets, yet I don’t know how I could have ever prevented it. Some situations come out of the blue and there is no way to be prepared for it. And by the time you are, too much damage might be done and there would be nothing left to fix.

And that brings me to the last point. Because of other people’s actions/behavior, we sometimes lose respect for some people. I think respect is earned, and no one is entitled to it. But even if we lose respect for someone, we should be ultra careful that we never even inadvertently disrespect them. First of all, disrespecting someone knowingly is extremely wrong and mean-spirited. When we have respect for someone, it shows in our actions. But when we lose it, we might not know how our actions might not always be respectful. Let’s say we have been mistreated a lot. That doesn’t mean we can do whatever we want and tell ourselves that “it is all going to end the same way, so why should I make any extra effort to be nice.” Maybe the other person who was disrespectful or mean wasn’t doing it on purpose. Maybe they can’t help or control their behavior without professional help. But if we can control our behavior, it is our moral duty to never disrespect anyone knowingly, and do our best not to disrespect them unknowingly. If our actions become a little careless because we aren’t watching our behavior closely, it is better to build a distance so we don’t disrespect or hurt someone, than to stay at the same place and inadvertently disrespect them. As this point, saying “but they have done it a billion times worse” is not an excuse.

These are some of my mistakes I wish I can take back. Sure, we learn from experiences, but sometimes getting that experience might be too late. But we can never learn about every single issue in the planet? So what do we do when we experience something we have never seen before? What do we do that by the time we figure it out, it is already too late? Life doesn’t give easy answers, does it….

My journey through religion and spirituality

Nearly two months back I was asked by a friend – “do you believe in God?” I replied – “yes, but depends on what you mean by the definition of God”. There has been a lot of speculation and interest over the years as to my beliefs. As someone who came from a different culture and country at the age of 15, I have experienced and seen many different perspectives. Growing up and practicing an Eastern religion, it took some time to get used to Abrahamic religions. The cultural battles in the United States over doctrines and practices still feels funny to me, because growing up I wasn’t exposed in depth to Judeo-Christian-Islamic beliefs. Honestly, over the past 11 years I have evolved a lot when it comes to my personal beliefs, and hopefully I will keep evolving throughout my life. But I do have a framework about what I believe and don’t. I have held off on writing explicitly about it because my ideas might offend or hurt many people close to me, considering the fact that I come from a conservative/religious society. After a lot of reflection, I have decided to write honestly about my own personal beliefs and my views about religion itself. I have tried to take as many views into account as possible, but I am also not holding my thinking in check to protect anyone’s feelings. I don’t take my beliefs or any beliefs for that matter, as facts. There are over 7 billion people on this planet, and I don’t think there are any two human beings who believe everything exactly with equal intensity. Therefore, my beliefs are subjective, and they fulfill my desire and needs about spirituality. I have divided this essay into three parts – my personal beliefs; my criticisms of organized religion; and my acceptance of religiosity/spirituality. I am going to avoid science as much as possible because it is impractical to take apart each theological doctrine in an essay. I will do my best to stick to logical arguments in tackling various doctrines and ideas. And finally, I will also empathize with our species’ needs for spirituality. So let us take a travel back in time to the evolution of my beliefs and my mindset regarding religion.

A personal journey of love and faith –

I come from a Hindu background, and growing up I was quite religious. More likely, I was religious trying to gain favor with a deity and my community, where religiosity mattered a lot. In short, I wanted to impress God and people around me. After coming to the United States at the age of 15, I encountered doctrines of other religions. Growing up in a pluralistic society like India, I had a general knowledge of all major religions. But meeting people who deeply believed in different doctrines increased my interest in learning about other religions. Even though I had a ‘conservative’ nature when it came to religion and some traditional mindset, I always had a curious mind. And for the first few years in the US, I treated other religions the way I treated them in India – my religion’s doctrines are correct/accurate, but all religions are also correct because they lead to God. I hadn’t thought about the inherent contradictions when it came to the actual doctrines.

15 years back, or half a lifetime ago, I got interested in a Muslim girl in school and it piqued my interest in Islam. Three years later we were in the same college and I spent my summers reading up on Islam. It was the first time I questioned my own beliefs, whose doctrines seemed so different from Islam. I had an existential crisis of how this amazing girl could believe something that was so ‘different’. Her extreme devotion to following her doctrine told me that there must be something correct with her religion. Ten years back I had a broad knowledge of Islam; I had read two different English translations of the Quran and I was ready to convert to Islam for her and started practicing for a year. Conversion wasn’t hard for me because I took the Scripture literally – that all other religions had been corrupted and Quran was the final and perfect Word of God. For someone who loved to impress God, I thought I had found my path. One of the interesting things, which will matter later, was me telling her “how God seems so angry in the Quran”. She left once her family found out about us, and I continued practicing for 7-8 more months. In the 12 months after she had left, I had become more judgmental and self-righteous. I took pride in living a life of self-abnegation, and secretly and sometimes openly I was judgmental of my friends’ ‘immoral behavior’ (alcohol) and my own self-righteous behavior of avoiding anything God prohibits. It was 8 years back, around the time I turned 22, that two of my best friends took me aside one night and told me “just because we drink alcohol and you don’t doesn’t make us bad people and you a better person, and you don’t have to go around telling everyone that”. That was the wakeup call I needed and started my evolution towards understanding religion, spirituality, and human behavior from an academic and intellectual point of view.

Even before my interest in Islam, my idea of God during my late teens lined up with Spinoza’s God. I hadn’t heard of “Spinoza’s God”, but I believed God is everything and God is everywhere. As I grew older, the religious stories seemed too ridiculous to be true. As you can imagine, believing in a Spinoza’s God and Islam (along with a Hindu background) was contradictory. And those couple of years were confusing periods in my life. With time, I saw a lot of hypocrisy in the name of religion. Along with my personal experience with conversion and being insulted for being an infidel, I became very anti-religious. Time, and focusing on good people has calmed me down about religion over the last couple of years.

I don’t know how to label myself, or if a label exists that would define me. I do not believe in any existing religions. I don’t believe in supernatural occurrences because none has ever been documented and proven in the age of science, and none have broken the laws of science. Our universe is governed by natural laws, not the supernatural. Is there a God or deity beyond the natural world, beyond our universe/multi-verses or whatever reality might be? Maybe. But we do not possess the tools to study the non-natural. This is where I reach a philosophical point. Maybe our universe is part of a multi-verse. Maybe there are infinite multi-verses. It is a fact that we exist. Even if we exist in something else’s dream, then that something else exist. But there is something called reality that is in existence. I don’t know what a God might be, but for me a God would be the beginning and the end of everything. If there is something, there must have been a beginning. And that beginning is God. What is the beginning of God? I don’t know. That is a question that keeps me up at night, but no one can answer that question. Even the answer – God has always been – is a non-answer to me. If something is, it must come from something. But none of this can ever be proven, because none of this belongs to the natural world. Therefore, I do believe in the existence of some higher ‘power’, but I don’t know what is that higher power or how to describe it. And my beliefs are my personal beliefs and no one else has to agree with them. I don’t even take them as facts because there is no way for me to know what is a ‘fact’ when it comes to the non-natural. So, that’s my belief – if you want to call it a belief.

A question non-religious people are asked a lot by religious people is – “how do you enjoy the beauty of Creation if you don’t believe in a God?” The magnificence of nature is beautiful enough that I do not need a personal God to appreciate it. And moving away from religion has made me become more aware about human suffering and made me more focused in trying to fix it now – in this ‘life’. I don’t know about the existence of life after death, and that has made me greatly appreciate life, time, and relationships. I want to fight for justice and fairness. I want to fix mental illnesses and bring harmony to my species. I do not have the luxury in the thought that there will be justice in the after-life. I want to create utopia in this world, not in an imaginary heaven. This thinking has also helped me control my anger, emotions, and any negative feelings. I try to maintain the best relationship with everyone, not have a fight, and just be good to everyone. We don’t know if tomorrow will come, and if it doesn’t we don’t know if this life is all there is. So why not be the best we can be every moment, and be the best we can be to everyone on this planet? People also worry about inter-religious marriages because they don’t know what will they teach their children. My answer is – can’t we be humble enough to know that no one knows what is the ‘right answer’. Can’t we teach our children good morals, character, without enforcing doctrines on them at a young age. Or teach them doctrines while also teaching them that there are numerous doctrines followed by numerous people and that we have no way of knowing a ‘right doctrine’. And respect those kids’ own intelligence and personality and support them in their own spiritual and religious evolution into adults.

In summary, this is my personal belief – God is in everything, God is everywhere, but I do not know what God is or how to describe it. God is beyond space and time, God is impersonal. God doesn’t answer prayers; God doesn’t work in mysterious ways. God is nature, God is laughter. All good is God, all bad is God. God is the ultimate unknown. Unless some God decides to definitely make itself known to us in every generation, we will never know what God is. So any and all ideas about God/s are personal and unproven ideas. So why can’t we leave it at that? Why must we insist in the supremacy of religion or our own religions? Why must we insist that our own family members/children/spouses follow our own beliefs? Why can’t we respect everyone’s right to believe or disbelieve – whatever makes them happy. Why can’t we do this without intruding on other people’s personal space and their inherent right to find their own spirituality?

Shortcomings of organized religions –

So what exactly caused my detachment from religion itself? It started with my own experience – the more religious someone called themselves, the more uptight, judgmental, and self-righteous they were. It was not pleasant to be in their company. Whenever a topic came up if we should do something, the answer was mostly ‘no’ because religion didn’t allow it. Or the answer was they had to check if it was permissible to do in their respective religions. There was a bigger focus on the after-life than living in this life. There was too much guilt associated with the simple pleasures of life. Laughter, movies, music, love, jokes, clothing, food, drinking – anything that could bring joy was subjected to guilt. And I couldn’t understand how grown adults could believe their religion, the one they were brought up with as children, is the One True Religion. Religious stories seemed like children’s fairy tales meant for adults. And adults believing in supernatural fairy tales became too much for me. Every religion takes it flavors and ideas from its own geographical location/culture. Religions that were found in the same area share similar traits. For example, Quran is a compilation of The Bible, local Arabian customs and culture, and other Greek mythologies and science already prevalent in the Middle East. It is the same reason why Indian religions share a similarity among each other, but not with Abrahamic or other African or indigenous American religions.

Religions originated for many reasons. One of the original reasons was for a primitive species to make sense of the world around them. That required having gods and supernatural beings who controlled nature and our own lives. As we progressed with time, our gods progressed with us. As humans organized themselves into large nation-states, they needed a singular and powerful God instead of many gods. But this all-powerful God still provided answers that humans themselves couldn’t provide. This God provided the ‘there is a reason for everything’. And religious superstitions also originated when people tried to make sense of the world around them. And I do respect our ancestors for trying to come up with answers, even if it doesn’t stand up in our times. They did the best they could with the technology and understanding of the world that they had. Human civilization has been constantly progressing, as are our answers to existential questions. So I do respect every age that tries its best to understand reality. But what I do not get is today’s age trying to hold on to discredited answers from the past. When our society, science, technology has moved forward, I don’t understand how many people still look backwards. If I have respect for our ancestors who came up with answers that seem nonsensical today, I am befuddled for those holding on or enforcing nonsensical answers on rest of society. For example, there is no reason to hold on to homophobia, or religious supremacy, or any kind of beliefs that have been discredited by science. The answers we come today might still not be perfect or accurate, but it would be illogical for posterity to copy our answers like monkeys if in their own time period science and rationality has come up with different and better answers.

Another reason for the existence of religion is control through fear. One of the unattributed quotes to Mark Twain is “religion was invented when the first con-man met the first fool”. And I would say that con-men have used religion as vehicle to propagate fear and gain control over the masses. Humans have used fear for their own needs since the beginning of time. Fear is an innate emotion that has played an important role in evolution and our survival. It is fear of the unknown and fear of the other that kept us safe from beasts and hostile tribes. And the same fear is being exploited today to turn us against each other in the name of religion, race, nationality, ethnicity etc. But religious doctrine gave us the fear of eternal punishment to force us on the moral path (varies by culture), but also to gain a control over our lives. Men came along teaching us about vengeful and punishing gods and the concept of eternal hell. And the same men promised to turn vengeful and punishing gods into loving and forgiving gods if we followed their, and their word, only. The fear of hell had been planted. And the antidote to hell had been promised. As such, religions had evolved from spirituality and trying to make sense of the world into codified and rigid doctrines.

The more I thought about it, the less sense the concept of a personal God made to me. And it was something I truly believed in. God was my best friend. God was listening to me and watching me. God was doing everything for me. It was a lot of me-me-me. There was a reason for everything. The reason was definitely for my benefit, even if I cannot see it now. With this attitude, I was looking more inwards than outwards at the world around me. Even if something bad happened in the world, there must be a big Plan behind it. But as I grew older and saw how evil the world is, how I saw the quality of life elsewhere in the world – the concept of me-me-me melted away. There is no ‘reason’ why a parent should lose a child. There is no ‘reason’ or ‘plan’ or ‘meaning’ why children should face abuse. There is no ‘reason’ why a personal God would bless some places yet starve children to death in other places. I was only looking at my personal situation, without looking at the world around me. Knowledge, logic, and empathy destroyed the idea of a personal God for me. It felt too childish. A watching protector. It felt like stories we tell children. When it came to the idea of a personal God, I felt like a narcissistic child trying to impress his/her parents and thinking everything is about him/her. Eventually it felt ridiculous to believe in such an idea as an adult.

Finally, one of the biggest reasons that the idea of a personal God troubled me so much was the concept of an eternal hell/punishment and the concept of the end of the world. The deeper I get into neuroscience and psychology, the less I believe in ‘evil’. The more I learn about human biology and behavior, the less I believe in moral absolutes. The idea of a Creator who would also create a hell for Its’ creations is brutal and unacceptable to me. The idea that we should wait for some rapture and the end of the world where only the True and Righteous believers would be saved is unacceptable. The fact that too many religious doctrines place higher emphasis on ‘right’ beliefs rather than ‘right’ actions is unacceptable to me. There have been innumerable religions and there will always be religions coming up in the future. It is part of our genetic identity. The idea that only one sub-sect of humanity is marked for ‘saving’ is unacceptable to me. And the goal of life should not be to wait for the end of the world so that a chosen few will rise to heaven and get rewarded with beautiful real estate in heaven. The goal of life, and our species, should be to spread across the stars and propagate life in other worlds. Life on Earth will exist for only finite amount of time. Our goal should be to preserve life by transplanting it to other worlds across the galaxies. The fundamentals of religious doctrines should stop celebrating death, after-life and ‘true beliefs’, and start celebrating life, joy, and good actions. If there is a God, this life and universe we have is too magnificent and beautiful to not be the greatest gift of a God.

Getting back to doctrines, as a logician I was torn between following scriptures literally vs picking and choosing which parts to follow and ignore, and with what interpretation. I think specifics triumph generalization. Scriptures have generalized teachings for mankind as well as specific teachings about various topics. And I think the generalized teachings present an overall guideline while specific teachings tell us how to act in any individual scenario. So even though scripture might have a generalized teaching about ‘do not kill’ or ‘love everyone’, it has numerous exceptions to those teachings where it condemns various behaviors and acts and prescribes punishments that include death. A simple example is homosexuality. There are scriptures that condemn it and prescribe punishment for it – including the death penalty. Today there are many progressives who oppose any such punishment and preach acceptance and love citing generalized teachings of scriptures. And it pains me to say that textual literalists have the better logical argument. If we accept scripture to be the word of an infallible god, and such a god condemns homosexuality, then the logical argument is on the side of the religious people who don’t accept homosexuality. Even if the practical and humane argument is on the side of the progressives. No matter how much we promote tolerance for our differences, as long as the ideologies exist unchallenged, there will be human beings who will fetishize the past and take scripture literally. We will always have individuals seeking a deeper and different meaning. We will always have individuals seeking to ‘purify’ society from religious interpretations, innovations, and deviations from scriptures. We have seen it in every age; we are seeing it is our age. It is these logical inconsistencies, along with innumerable contradictions, that was the final straw in me letting go of organized religion – because organized religion is built on its doctrines, and I couldn’t stand the illogic and contradictions in the doctrines.

Humanity’s need for spirituality –

Despite my objections to organized religion, I understand that a lot of people have a need for spirituality. And if religion and spirituality give them peace, comfort, and happiness, then I am no one to criticize them for it. Every individual creates their own meanings for their religion. The meanings they create depends on their nature and upbringing, and it keeps evolving throughout life. No one knows the answers to these questions, even the people who are absolutely certain they do! Two people of the same family following the same religion can practice it differently. When it comes to the practical aspect of religiosity (and leaving behind science and logic), I fully support everyone’s rights to their own beliefs. But with a caveat – beliefs should never be forced on or be expected from anyone else. Not your children, spouse, parents, siblings, community, or the world. Beliefs are subjective, and expectations and pressure creates conflict. We can be religious and humble enough to accept that no one knows the real answers, and as such we should support each other in whatever answer gives them peace. And just make sure that the answers we pick does not intrude on anyone else.

Faith, spirituality, religion keeps many of us going in the darkest of times. It transcends the analytical mind because the logical brain deals with facts. When a parent loses their child, it is faith that keeps them going that their child is in a better place. Try telling such a parent that their child’s life meant nothing and that it is now reduced to the dust of time. Faith gives many of us hope that our good actions will be rewarded, the injustice we face in this life might be rectified in an afterlife, or that we will once again be able to see our loved ones whom we have lost.

For the practical purposes of day-to-day living, picking and choosing from scriptures is much better than winning the logical argument and following scripture to the word. Even the most religious of people have issues with many aspects of scriptures. Most human beings transcend their own scriptures and are nice and kind to those of different or ‘wrong’ beliefs. Despite being the logician, I absolutely support this because religion to me is a personal matter. Yes, it bothers me if someone says that no bad things exist in their scripture, because that is factually untrue. But most people realize they cannot follow scripture to the word, and the same people do the best they can to meet their own spiritual needs and be good to their fellow human beings. With religiosity, spirituality, or neither of those coming in over 7 billion flavors, I am in favor of people living their lives based on what gives them peace and happiness – as long as their beliefs do not intrude on someone else’s space and personhood.

I have come a long way in my religious and spiritual journey. And new life experiences, ideas, and learnings keep molding me in newer ways. I have gone from being very religious, to anti-religious, to achieving a truce with organized religion. Over the very long run I do know that organized religion’s influence will keep decreasing, as I think it should. But letting go of doctrines doesn’t mean letting go of spirituality. Religions have come and gone, their meanings and interpretations have changed over time. But our need for spirituality hasn’t changed. Even if ancient doctrines cease to be taken literally and factually, we can always continue our search for the meaning of life and existence. We can always be spiritual and be humble enough to accept that none of us have the right answer. For me, that is the progress, that is the future, and that is what we must strive. Religious doctrines and spirituality aren’t the same thing. Questioning one doesn’t mean giving in to despair and loss of hope. It just means we are maturing as a species and progressing with scientific knowledge. But it also means accepting science might never satisfy our spiritual cravings – unless we figure out every base pair in our genetic code and find where spirituality comes from.

To conclude – I hope I showed the differences between religious doctrines and spirituality. Everyone has the right to happiness – be it through doctrines, spirituality, science, or something else. Just don’t force it on others. Just don’t expect it from others and make them feel guilty for not following your ideologies. And finally, accept that when it comes to the supernatural world, no one has the right answer.

Hopelessness to Hopefulness

After the Peshawar attack last week, I was feeling quite hopeless about the human species. I couldn’t imagine ideologies would go so far as to kill children. Intolerance and prejudice can never be separated from violence. And the intolerance prevalent in our own families breed these monsters who would slaughter children. If a girl falls in love with an ‘infidel’, the abuse she suffers for such a cardinal ‘sin’ is unspeakable. And how many people in her family and community support her? ZERO. This girl might be one of the most talented people I have seen in my life – the type who can touch any activity and turn it into gold – be it art, writing, or anything else. Yet nothing this person does in life matters because she went against faith. Do her family members and friends make things up, or are they fearful after the hundreds of verses they have read? All this in the liberal mecca of New York City. So I could only despair at the ground situation in closed and conservative societies. If the parents in this liberal mecca can threaten to murder and/or commit suicide, what must be parents teaching their children in these other nations. Or why would anyone be surprised at the honor killings? If I could count how many times my female friends from this society have said “my parents will kill me” when I ask them why aren’t they pursuing this or that they clearly like. It seems as a joke, but I wish it was a joke. I was despairing how people create the concept of “otherness” and sin, and act confused when someone commits violence against these others. Then they go on social media claiming we or our flying spaghetti monster never condones violence. Show me how we can create others, teams, groups, and a superiority complex combined with a victim mentality – and how none of this can lead to violence – and I will give you the award for being the smartest person ever born in this universe. I was despairing for humanity. I couldn’t see light because most, not just the majority, were still living in denial with their heads buried deep in the sand.

But I cannot exist without hope. It would be criminal of me to ignore the few who dare to speak up. Over the last year or so two people have spoken to me – “there are a lot of crazy stuff in this book”, and “a lot of this doesn’t make sense”. Two people who had a different tune over the years are starting to open up. There are a couple others who really do not know what is written on a piece of paper, but once it was shown to them, disagreed with any intolerance or prejudice. These women are the heroes and the faces of hope and change. I read Pakistani English newspapers, which naturally have a liberal slant because it is read mostly by the highly educated young people – who naturally have a liberal outlook on life. And more and more writers (who tend to be young) are starting to question the intolerance in their society. Earlier, terrorists were called “unbelievers” by their apologists. I used to think – hey wait a minute, I am an unbeliever and these terrorists should not be labeled with me!! Today, a few are starting to label these terrorists for who they are, radical extremists. Few are openly starting to question their theological leaders. Instead of saying my flying spaghetti monsters treats others with respect, they are openly saying we should respect every human no matter what piece of paper says what. We should stand for humanity over beliefs. Maybe a paper calls homosexuality a sin, and if so, maybe the paper is wrong. These young educated people give me hope. But these voices have existed in the liberal pages of newspapers. But to start seeing them in my own life, where prejudice and intolerance is becoming uncomfortable for some people in my generation gives me great hope. None of these friends are atheists. But they have managed to combine their spirituality with their humanity. Only thing I can tell them is “thanks” and tip my hat. In these darkest of times, they give me hope. And in this war of ideas, rather than criticizing the stupidity of the majority, I have to magnify the voices of these few individuals. They are the future, and they are our hope for a change.

Power of comedy and satire

Comedy and satire are probably one of the most powerful weapons in our society. Authoritarian figures and institutions use a sense of gravitas and seriousness to quell any questioning of their words or actions. They turn someone or something into hero or holy, and any criticism is prevented by invoking their greatness or holiness. It is like the emperor who is not wearing any clothes, but no one can tell him because no one must question the emperor.
Then along comes the satirist who speaks the truth to the masses. By pointing out the ridiculousness of something or someone, it takes away the sense of gravitas. And once that seriousness about an authority topic is gone, people are free from the bondage and are free to question everything else. It is the like the child who finally points out that the emperor has no clothes. Once that ice is broken, everyone else can join in on the laugh. A self-proclaimed holy man might tell me to run between two buildings every morning because it is the holy thing to do. Then the joker comes along and shows me the absurdity of the situation that I can let a man control me to the point of making me run between two buildings every morning.
That is power of comedy – to give power to the people, to show the absurdity of authoritarian institutions and their ridiculous reasoning and rituals to control the masses. If you can make something funny, it stops controlling your life. The same attitude can be used in our day-to-day lives. Life always throws shit at us. But it is up to us to decide whether to dwell in the gloom, or to find the ridiculousness of the situation and have a good laugh about it. In the end, it is the joker and the satirist who speaks on behalf of the masses while bringing a sense of control and power to the masses.

Faith is beautiful – Part I of Faith, Religion, and Me

Faith, now what does it mean? It is a confidence or a trust in something, or someone. Faith gives up hope, it gives us a reason to go on when we cannot see the future or an end. Faith doesn’t have to be in a deity but it could be anything – it could be in our own abilities, our friends and family, or just a positive thinking that if we keep trying something good might happen. One doesn’t have to be religious or even a theist to have faith, because everyone has faith in something. Some might even call faith as positive thinking or vibes, or a belief in hard work, due diligence, and its reward.

For a religious person, faith involves a deity/deities who might answer prayers or our performance of doctrinal rituals. We believe such a deity is looking over us for our well-being and we implicitly trust this deity to bring something good to us, even when bad things are happening to us. For an irreligious person, faith involves in trusting their own actions, abilities, efforts, or just the luck of probability.

Faith keeps us going in the darkest of times. It transcends the analytical mind because the logical brain deals with facts, not with hope. When a parent loses their child, it is faith that keeps them going that their child is in a better place. Try telling such a parent that their child’s life meant nothing and that it is now reduced to the dust of time. Faith gives many of us hope that our good actions will be rewarded, the injustice we face in this life might be rectified in an afterlife, or that we will once again be able to see our loved ones whom we have lost.

Similarly, an atheist or an agnostic might have faith that hard work is rewarded. A deity isn’t necessary to have faith. We can have faith in our fellow human beings and trust that they will be kind, compassionate, and just to us. We can have faith that our positive feelings would improve our outlook on life and cheer us up. Some term these positive feelings as prayers and put their faith in a guardian angel or a God.

It is when we lose faith in something is when we give up – be it a job, a person, or even life. Faith is the motivator that promises us of a better future. It is the catalyst that keeps us moving despite hardships and trials. Faith brings us closer to spirituality, because no matter what our beliefs are, the spiritual aspect of faith gives takes us to a deeper place where the analytical brain isn’t capable of entering. Knowledge, logic, and reasoning has its important place in our daily lives, but when we are hoping for a miracle, it is only faith that is by our side. The miracle might not even happen, but isn’t it better to live hoping for a better future than to give up the idea that anything can be different. Now hoping and faith is never going to work if we do not make an effort to change our circumstances, but faith can greatly complement our efforts when we are trying to achieve something.

Faith is too personal to be taken away from someone, or invalidated because it doesn’t match up with someone else’s faith. After all, isn’t faith nothing but hope and trust? So who are we say what gives comfort to a person, and who are we to say that someone’s faith in something is wrong? If it gives them happiness, hope, and a promise for a better future and it doesn’t harm or hurt anyone else, let us respect their faith like we expect them to respect ours. Let us respect that we can coexist together even if we do not share the same faith. Let us acknowledge that faith isn’t fact, it cannot be empirically determined, that there is no wrong faith or right faith. It is only our personal hope for the future.

Choice, control, and respect

Control is about power, not benevolence towards another person. People who do not give choices in life decisions to others do not respect the other person. Control is just another form of emotional abuse. The sad, and ironical part of control is that it perpetuates itself from the abuser to the abused – many who themselves become controlling people. Controlling attitude is prevalent across societies, cultures, and ethnicity. And it generally passes down from generation to generation. It could be nature, but it could also be nurture where if someone never had a choice in life decisions, they do not give that choice to others.

A person might resist a controlling family or spouse, but when a child has known nothing but control since birth, many just accept it as reality and give in to the controlling parents. Some might be strong enough to resist and be rebellious as kids and establish their independence as adults, but many are conditioned to believe that absolute obedience to parents is what makes one a good person. These children grow with an unhealthy outlook on life, where pleasing parents or any authority figure is the only way to receive validation. From a logical standpoint, it would appear that if someone suffered some sort of abuse, that they won’t perpetuate that abuse. Unfortunately, human psychology works in a way where abuse is perpetuated and it passes down in a never-ending cycle because for too many people the abusive life is a reality and they know of no other way of life. Experiencing kindness, compassion, and even freedom could be confusing and sometimes terrifying. When we are in an abusive environment, we learn to stop trusting people and even ourselves. We know that when our so-called well-wishers or loved ones ask something of us, they are actually looking out for their own benefits. As such, we start distrusting other healthy human beings who might show us compassion or love without having any ulterior motives.

The result of being in a controlling relationship is that the abused person tries to get control over whatever aspects of life they can, even at the expense of invading boundaries of newer relationships like friends, spouses, and even children. Besides power, the other aspect of control is a lack of respect for the other person. When we deny someone the life they want to live, we do not respect them. For children, it is an invalidation of their feelings and choices, and if that’s the reality they have known their entire childhood, they grow up to be someone with low self-esteem who needs others’ approval or permission to make any decision. If a child says he feels cold, and a parent says it isn’t cold – it invalidates the child’s feelings. If a child wants to wear something or a teenager says he wants a certain career but his parents say no – it invalidates the child’s choices. Children don’t always make the wisest of decisions, and parents must not agree to every demand. But there is a difference between teaching children how to make good decisions and making decisions for them because of the parents’ controlling and narcissistic personality. If control and a lack of choice is all that a child knows, he/she will grow up to be the same way for two reasons – 1. It is all they know and therefore it the normal to them, 2. They try to make up for the lack of control they had in their lives by trying to control anything else they can. Just like their personal boundaries was invaded by their parents, they invade the boundaries of their partners and children.

Society can be just as controlling as individuals. At the root of it is a lack of respect for individuality. When parents control their children through adulthood, when spouses control their partners, or when government or society makes rules intruding in our private lives, they all disregard the individual. Someone else makes the decision of how we dress, what we eat or drink, what we believe, or whom we can marry. Just like individuals control for power, governments too control the population to perpetuate their power. This is because a population whose thoughts and actions can be controlled isn’t a population that will question its government or leaders.

The opposite of control is choice, and choice is given through respect. When we give someone a choice, we acknowledge their individuality; we respect their thoughts and beliefs. It isn’t choice to tell someone “you must do this or face negative consequences”; it is a threat and an ultimatum. True choice is respecting an individual’s right to shape his or her own life because life is a journey of learning and growing up. What we believe in our 20s isn’t what we believe in our 40s or our 60s. We learn everyday, and we change everyday. I might be a non-vegetarian today, and some day I might become a vegetarian. These same things might become true for my partner and my children. Respecting them is giving them the choice to be what they want to be. It is about respecting their thinking, their personality, and their individuality. If my kid does not believe what I believe, it does not hurt me. But if I prevent him from believing what gives him comfort, then I neither respect his choice, his thinking, nor his happiness. And many people make the mistake that because we are a certain way, our family members must be the same way. Such expectations doesn’t allow others the freedom to grow, learn, or be independent. The only thing we can expect of those close to us is that they treat us with respect, compassion, empathy, love, and kindness. Having expectations of how they should live or believe is disrespecting their personal boundaries. And isn’t this what creates conflict in the world? When we treat our children as an extension of ourselves, not as individual human beings. When we want society to follow our beliefs because we take those beliefs as facts. When we do not respect the rights of others to be different. I might have some personal beliefs, but the difference between beliefs and facts is that beliefs are subjective. Someone else might have equally strong beliefs that completely differ from me. In a controlling or intolerant society, differing beliefs aren’t allowed to exist. Choice and tolerance does not mean giving up our beliefs. It means understanding and respecting that two brains can think and believe differently, and to acknowledge that our beliefs are subjective, and not an universal Truth. Because very few people can treat beliefs as facts and not feel that the other side is Wrong. And if we see someone as inherently Wrong, it becomes less likely to respect them or tolerate their choices. I might believe in God, but I don’t see disbelief as wrong because I cannot prove my beliefs to be a fact. My belief only affects me in a positive way, without negatively affecting others. But if I believe that homosexuality is a sin, I am having a negative belief towards something that does not affect me in any single way. With a negative belief, I am more likely to be intolerant and treat something as a fact that has no basis in objectivity. And once again, we let our subjective feelings invade others’ personal boundaries. When life is a constant journey of learning and growth, beliefs do not stay the same. Seeing them as private beliefs leads to tolerance and harmony. And when we do that, others also see that we respect their choice to think differently, we respect their choice to believe differently, and we respect their individuality. Let us hope for a world where governments, societies, and individuals are less controlling, and more respectful about individuality and personal choices.