Three Winners

Sometimes the weather says it all: cold and bitter, turbulent, frustrated and uncertain–should it rain? Turn to ice? Remain indecisive, unfulfilled, until it blows aside?

Earlier this week three Muslim students at the blue school up the road (UNC Chapel Hill) were shot and killed over an alleged parking dispute, but in my heart, in my gut, I believe it truly was a hate crime. The small-town feel of our campuses was shaken, shattered.

The students, filled with fear, tragic loss. The weather said it all. A good friend, when I crossed her path yesterday, said it better: “They were our age, Darren. Our age.”

Since Wednesday I’ve heard nothing but the inspiring and heartwarming stories of these three students, their compassion, their faith, their service toward building bridges of understanding and commonness between diverse groups. And I can’t even bring myself to say their names, or write them, because to do so brings them too close, closer than I can handle. I didn’t know them, but I feel now as though I do, and it’s a loss I cannot bear.

I’ve thought all day, repeatedly for days, that hatred against anyone is hatred against everyone; violence against one is violence against all. And the oppression of Islam and Muslims in a Christan-dominated society recalls the same oppressions once faced by Judaism and Jews, and still often experienced if not at the same explicit and violent level as that experience by my Muslim sisters and brothers. I recall, as long as I can remember, the police officers guarding my synagogue’s doors, but what must they go through daily?

It’s rather atrocious, to think of it, that anyone should need security outside a house of worship, but that’s the virulent symptoms of a one-minded, belligerent society.

That’s not what I was trying to say. What I was trying to say is that today they were Muslim, but they could’ve been Jewish. They could’ve been gay. They could’ve been me.

Our age, my friend said. I think too often of death, but death is abstract, and in my mind I run through my obituaries, hopes and dreams of what my life should be: …survived by his husband and their children… well-known for his books of poetry and fiction series… They don’t stop at 25. They stop at 70 or 80 or 90. My greatest achievements are not serving in student leadership roles or working as a tutor–in these obituaries I’m praised for inspiring a hundred mathematicians, for being senator or governor or even president.

They don’t end at today. They certainly don’t end at the end of a gun.

It’s tragic, but that’s the wrong word. It’s sickening. Vile. Evil.

The Sages once asked, “Why was the Temple destroyed?” And their answer was sinat chinam, senseless hatred–and I believe that it is this same senseless hatred that has shook our community and every day still threatens to topple our entire world.

God, however, has provided an alternative: Chesed, compassion and loving-kindness, the lifeblood of these three students and the service that defines their all-too-short lives. Binah, understanding, the open-minded willingness to accept and learn. And gevurah, courage, strength, the candle flame flickering in the wind that holds on, burns brighter, stays alight.

I pray. I cry. What else can I do? I keep breathing, living, believing.

The Obvious and the Unseen

This morning I spent two hours proving (-1)a = -a. I tell my friends I finally figured it out and they stare at me a moment, narrow their eyes a bit, and say, “But isn’t it obvious?”

That’s the problem. It is obvious. We’ve been raised in a culture wherein elementary math education is spewed to the masses–but it’s all given in bits and bytes of data, none of which is strewn together with any understanding of the processes at work beneath them.

That’s why it took me so long to solve the problem–I kept getting stuck on claims of “This is obvious” and had to turn back to step one–to the rules that govern real numbers, the foundation upon which the world was built.

But figuring it out wasn’t the most amazing thing to happen today.

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The Point of Privilege

That’s not me.

We hear stories of privilege and think of old white men in suits sipping on drinks at the bar in their kitchen–but it looks like a real bar, it’s just that big. We think of privilege and we think of CEOs and politicians, those the media has deemed corrupt–might as well toss in a few celebrities, just for for kicks. We say the word privilege and the first thing inevitably to cross our minds is this three-word phrase.

That’s not me.

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Science and Faith

I recently read David Berlinski’s A Tour of the Calculus, a wildly imaginative and lyrical look at the intuition and origination of one of math’s most recognizable elements. I was delighted as he described the wondrous experience of seeing mathematical functions in everyday life (an experience I’m prone to myself), and I was lulled into a certain sense of dualistic comfort when he uncovered the natural yet unexpected partnership between differentiation and integration, the two processes wholly defining the calculus.

While I read today’s teaching, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Berlinski’s musical prose, of the unambiguous manner in which he related unassuming but intimately connected ideas–which is, as you’ll soon see, precisely the challenge presented today.

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Fire and Fuel

My greatest vision has always been a world without discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. This hope brought me to discover my own potential for leadership, and this compulsion has enabled me to push myself further from my comfort zones and make the greatest impact than anything else.

In part it’s probably obvious why I care (indeed it would be a greater mystery if I didn’t care), but in the spirit of the week–my vision quest–it seems only fitting to dig deeper.

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When Our Names Expire

There’s a man in my writing class who is perhaps one of the most beautiful people I’ve ever met at N.C. State. He’s a little scruffy, has an adorable smile, and says some pretty cool things sometimes. For our second round of short stories, his protagonist was gay, and it made me think, here’s my chance to see where things could go.

So after class, I told him again how believable the character’s voice was (because honestly, it was) and then I asked, “Are you gay?”

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The Vacancy of Freedom

When the world didn’t end on Friday, I thought I’d post a revelatory message on Saturday. Instead, I got carried away applying for a scholarship and lost track of time. So, I figured, let’s just read the next lesson of the Pirkei Avot and post it promptly on Sunday. Well, as I decided to finish said application this evening and took something of a nap earlier in the afternoon, time has once more gotten away with me. Regardless, learning is learning no matter what time it happens at (although, arguably, midnight learning is best left for Shavuot).

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Asking Why

One of my first and favorite math teachers used to say it’s not about the “x,” it’s about the “y.” I came to a similar assumption last week, whether I articulated it or not, when I began looking at the Pirkei Avot again: It’s something I learned repeatedly in my political theory course, that it doesn’t matter who tells us something or whether it’s true or wise, but that before we accept it, we consider it critically.

If “x” marks the spot, we must then derive “y.”

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Proving Wisdom

Endurance training is pretty basic. It simply involves proper pacing, commitment, and determination. Through continued exercise, stamina and endurance are increased accordingly. But how does one make wisdom enduring? Last time we spoke about reverence and how it roots our wisdom, and this time we’re going to continue the narrative.

After all, if we are enduring, we’re practically immortal.

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Reverence for Wisdom

I teased today’s teaching last week when I explained my recent absence from writing and today I bring it back, but before we get to it, I offer a question to consider: What is wisdom? Who is wise? And why would–or would not–wisdom last over time?

It may be beneficial to take a moment to think thoroughly of these things before reading onward, but if you’d rather rush ahead, that’s okay, too–just keep all these thoughts in mind for later.

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