Adonis Diaries

Archive for November 20th, 2016

Pain of deep loneliness? Any tips?

What about the loneliness of the elder people whom nobody care to spend a minute to visit and listen to them?

We’ve all felt lonely from time to time. But sometimes, things can get out of hand. Psychologist Guy Winch lays out some straightforward tips to deal with the pain of deep loneliness.

Loneliness is a subjective feeling. You may be surrounded by other people, friends, family, workmates — yet still feel emotionally or socially disconnected from those around you. Other people are not guaranteed to shield us against the raw emotional pain that loneliness inflicts.

But raw emotional pain is only the beginning of the damage loneliness can cause. It has a huge impact on our physical health as well.

Loneliness activates our physical and psychological stress responses and suppresses the function of our immune systems. This puts us at increased risk for developing all kinds of illness and diseases, including cardiovascular disease.

Shockingly, the long-term risk chronic loneliness poses to our health and longevity is so severe, it actually increases risk of an early death by 26%.

Emerging from loneliness is far more challenging than we realize.

There are many paths to loneliness.

Some enter loneliness gradually. A friend moves away, another has a child, a third works a seventy-hour work week, and before we know it our social circle, the one we had relied upon for years, ceases to exist.

Others enter loneliness more suddenly, when they leave for college or the military, lose a partner to death or divorce, start a new job, or move to a new town or country.

And for some, chronic illness, disability or other limiting conditions have made loneliness a lifelong companion.

Unfortunately, emerging from loneliness is far more challenging than we realize, as the psychological wounds it inflicts create a trap from which it is difficult to break free.

Loneliness distorts our perceptions, making us believe the people around us care much less than they actually do, and it makes us view our existing relationships more negatively, such that we see them as less meaningful and important than we would if we were not lonely.

These distorted perceptions have a huge ripple effect, creating self-fulfilling prophecies that ensnare many. Feeling emotionally raw and convinced of our own undesirability and of the diminished caring of others, we hesitate to reach out even as we are likely to respond to overtures from others with hesitance, resentment, skepticism or desperation, effectively pushing away the very people who could alleviate our condition.

As a result, many lonely people withdraw and isolate themselves to avoid risking further rejection or disappointment. And when they do venture into the world, their hesitance and doubts are likely to create the very reaction they fear. They will force themselves to attend a party but feel so convinced others won’t talk to them, they spend the entire evening parked by the hummus and vegetable dip with a scowl on their face, and indeed, no one dares approach — which for them only verifies their fundamental undesirability.

Breaking free of loneliness and healing our psychological wounds is possible, but it involves a decision — a decision to override the gut instinct telling you to stay away and to play it safe by isolating yourself.

Instead, you must do three things that require both courage and a leap of faith:

Take action

Accept that loneliness is impacting your perceptions and understand that people are likely to respond more positively than you expect. If you feel socially disconnected, go through your phone and email address books, and your social media contacts, and make a list of people you haven’t seen or spoken to for a while.

If you feel emotionally disconnected, make a list of 5 people you’ve been close to in the past. Reach out to them and suggest getting together and catching up. Yes, it will feel scary to do so, and yes, you will worry about it being awkward or uncomfortable. That is why it is also important to:

Give the benefit of the doubt

It is fair to assume that someone who enjoyed your company in the past would likely enjoy spending time with you in the present as well. Yes, maybe they’ve been out of touch, maybe they never called after promising to see you soon, but you must accept that the reason they’ve been out of touch or the reason you haven’t been close lately might have nothing to do with you.

In all likelihood, it is their busy lives, their competing priorities, stresses or opportunities that led to the “disconnect” between you. In many cases, there might not even be a disconnect — in other words, the reluctance you assume on their part might not even exist. So reach out to the people on your list but remember to:

Approach with positivity

Yes, you fear rejection and yes, you’re not in the best frame of mind, but this is one situation where it might be important to fake it. When contacting the people on your list, try to put yourself into a positive mindset.

One safe way to do that is by using text or email so you can use emoticons to create the smiley face you might have a hard time manufacturing on your own face. Review your messages before you send them to make sure they sound appealing.

Avoid accusations (“You haven’t called me in months!”) or statements of disconnect (“I know it must be weird to hear from me…”). Express positive sentiment (“Was thinking about you!” or “Miss you!”), an invitation (“Let’s grab coffee,” or “I’d love to get dinner and a catch-up,”) and be specific in terms of time frame (“How’s next week looking?” or What’s a good day this month?”).

Loneliness is extremely painful, but once you recognize the perceptual distortions it causes and the psychological trap it creates, you will be able to marshal your courage, take that leap of faith, and plan your escape. Freedom will be sweet once you do.


Illustration by Anna Parini/TED. 

It can be cured: Alzheimer’s is Not normal aging

In the year 1901, a woman called Auguste was taken to a medical asylum in Frankfurt. Auguste was delusional and couldn’t remember even the most basic details of her life. Her doctor was called Alois.

Alois didn’t know how to help Auguste, but he watched over her until, sadly, she passed away in 1906.

After she died, Alois performed an autopsy and found strange plaques and tangles in Auguste’s brain — the likes of which he’d never seen before.


0:41 Now here’s the even more striking thing. If Auguste had instead been alive today, we could offer her no more help than Alois was able to 114 years ago. Alois was Dr. Alois Alzheimer.

And Auguste Deter was the first patient to be diagnosed with what we now call Alzheimer’s disease. Since 1901, medicine has advanced greatly. We’ve discovered antibiotics and vaccines to protect us from infections, many treatments for cancer, antiretrovirals for HIV, statins for heart disease and much more. But we’ve made essentially no progress at all in treating Alzheimer’s disease.

I’m part of a team of scientists who has been working to find a cure for Alzheimer’s for over a decade. So I think about this all the time.

Alzheimer’s now affects 40 million people worldwide. But by 2050, it will affect 150 million people which, by the way, will include many of you.

If you’re hoping to live to be 85 or older, your chance of getting Alzheimer’s will be almost one in two. The odds are you’ll spend your golden years either suffering from Alzheimer’s or helping to look after a friend or loved one with Alzheimer’s.

Already in the United States alone, Alzheimer’s care costs 200 billion dollars every year. One out of every five Medicare dollars get spent on Alzheimer’s. It is today the most expensive disease, and costs are projected to increase fivefold by 2050, as the baby boomer generation ages.

It may surprise you that Alzheimer’s is one of the biggest medical and social challenges of our generation. But we’ve done relatively little to address it. Today, of the top 10 causes of death worldwide, Alzheimer’s is the only one we cannot prevent, cure or even slow down.

We understand less about the science of Alzheimer’s than other diseases because we’ve invested less time and money into researching it. The US government spends 10 times more every year on cancer research than on Alzheimer’s despite the fact that Alzheimer’s costs us more and causes a similar number of deaths each year as cancer. (Focus on cancer in healthy people?)

The lack of resources stems from a more fundamental cause: a lack of awareness. Because here’s what few people know but everyone should: Alzheimer’s is a disease, and we can cure it.

For most of the past 114 years, everyone, including scientists, mistakenly confused Alzheimer’s with aging. We thought that becoming senile was a normal and inevitable part of getting old. But we only have to look at a picture of a healthy aged brain compared to the brain of an Alzheimer’s patient to see the real physical damage caused by this disease. As well as triggering severe loss of memory and mental abilities, the damage to the brain caused by Alzheimer’s significantly reduces life expectancy and is always fatal.

Remember Dr. Alzheimer found strange plaques and tangles in Auguste’s brain a century ago. For almost a century, we didn’t know much about these. Today we know they’re made from protein molecules. You can imagine a protein molecule as a piece of paper that normally folds into an elaborate piece of origami.

There are spots on the paper that are sticky. And when it folds correctly, these sticky bits end up on the inside. But sometimes things go wrong, and some sticky bits are on the outside. This causes the protein molecules to stick to each other, forming clumps that eventually become large plaques and tangles. That’s what we see in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients.

We’ve spent the past 10 years at the University of Cambridge trying to understand how this malfunction works. There are many steps, and identifying which step to try to block is complex — like defusing a bomb. Cutting one wire might do nothing. Cutting others might make the bomb explode. We have to find the right step to block, and then create a drug that does it.

Until recently, we for the most part have been cutting wires and hoping for the best. But now we’ve got together a diverse group of people — medics, biologists, geneticists, chemists, physicists, engineers and mathematicians. And together, we’ve managed to identify a critical step in the process and are now testing a new class of drugs which would specifically block this step and stop the disease.

let me show you some of our latest results. No one outside of our lab has seen these yet. Let’s look at some videos of what happened when we tested these new drugs in worms. So these are healthy worms, and you can see they’re moving around normally. These worms, on the other hand, have protein molecules sticking together inside them — like humans with Alzheimer’s.

And you can see they’re clearly sick. But if we give our new drugs to these worms at an early stage, then we see that they’re healthy, and they live a normal lifespan. This is just an initial positive result, but research like this shows us that Alzheimer’s is a disease that we can understand and we can cure.

After 114 years of waiting, there’s finally real hope for what can be achieved in the next 10 or 20 years. But to grow that hope, to finally beat Alzheimer’s, we need help. This isn’t about scientists like me — it’s about you.

We need you to raise awareness that Alzheimer’s is a disease and that if we try, we can beat it. In the case of other diseases, patients and their families have led the charge for more research and put pressure on governments, the pharmaceutical industry, scientists and regulators. That was essential for advancing treatment for HIV in the late 1980s.

Today, we see that same drive to beat cancer. But Alzheimer’s patients are often unable to speak up for themselves. And their families, the hidden victims, caring for their loved ones night and day, are often too worn out to go out and advocate for change.

So, it really is down to you. Alzheimer’s isn’t, for the most part, a genetic disease. Everyone with a brain is at risk. Today, there are 40 million patients like Auguste, who can’t create the change they need for themselves. Help speak up for them, and help demand a cure.

Own your body’s data

What you really need to tell your doctor

If Medical doctors are experts on the population, are you the expert on yourself?”

As a kid I always loved information that I could get from data and the stories that could be told with numbers.

I remember, growing up, I’d be frustrated at how my own parents would lie to me using numbers.

“Talithia, if I’ve told you once I’ve told you a thousand times.” No dad, you’ve only told me 17 times and twice it wasn’t my fault. (Laughter)

“Medical doctors are experts on the population, but you are the expert on yourself.”

 Talithia Williams. Posted Aug 2014

0:39 I think that is one of the reasons I got a Ph.D. in statistics.

I always wanted to know, what are people trying to hide with numbers?

As a statistician, I want people to show me the data so I can decide for myself. Donald and I were pregnant with our third child and we were at about 41 and a half weeks, what some of you may refer to as being overdue.

Statisticians, we call that being within the 95 percent confidence interval. (Laughter) And at this point in the process we had to come in every couple of days to do a stress test on the baby, and this is just routine, it tests whether or not the baby is feeling any type of undue stress.

And you are rarely, if ever, seen by your actual doctor, just whoever happens to be working at the hospital that day. So we go in for a stress test and after 20 minutes the doctor comes out and he says, Your baby is under stress, we need to induce you.”

Now, as a statistician, what’s my response? Show me the data!

So then he proceeds to tell us the baby’s heart rate trace went from 18 minutes, the baby’s heart rate was in the normal zone and for two minutes it was in what appeared to be my heart rate zone and I said, “Is it possible that maybe this was my heart rate? I was moving around a little bit, it’s hard to lay still on your back, 41 weeks pregnant for 20 minutes. Maybe it was shifting around.”

He said, “Well, we don’t want to take any chances.”  I said, “What if I was at 36 weeks with this same data? Would your decision be to induce?” “Well, no, I would wait until you were at least 38 weeks, but you are almost 42, there is no reason to leave that baby inside, let’s get you a room.” I said, “Well, why don’t we just do it again? We can collect more data. I can try to be really still for 20 minutes. We can average the two and see what that means. (Laughter)

And he goes, “Ma’am, I just don’t want you to have a miscarriage.” That makes three of us. And then he says, “Your chances of having a miscarriage double when you go past your due date. Let’s get you a room.”

Wow. So now as a statistician, what’s my response? Show me the data! Dude, you’re talking chances, I do chances all day long, tell me all about chances. Let’s talk chances. (Laughter) Let’s talk chances.

I say, “Okay, great. Do I go from a 30-percent chance to a 60-percent chance? Where are we here with this miscarriage thing? And he goes, “Not quite, but it doubles, and we really just want what’s best for the baby.”

Undaunted, I try a different angle. I said, “Okay, out of 1,000 full-term pregnant women, how many of them are going to miscarry just before their due date? And then he looks at me and looks at Donald, and he goes, about one in 1,000. I said, “Okay, so of those 1,000 women, how many are going to miscarry just after their due date?”

 “About two.” (Laughter) I said, “Okay, so you are telling me that my chances go from a 0.1-percent chance to a 0.2%chance.”

At this point the data is not convincing us that we need to be induced, and so then we proceed to have a conversation about how inductions lead to a higher rate of Caesarean sections, and if at all possible we’d like to avoid that. And then I said, “And I really don’t think my due date is accurate.” (Laughter)

And so this really stunned him and he looked sort of puzzled and I said, “You may not know this, but pregnancy due dates are calculated assuming that you have a standard 28-day cycle, and my cycle ranges — sometimes it’s 27, sometimes it’s up to 38 — and I have been collecting the data to prove it.

And so we ended up leaving the hospital that day without being induced. We actually had to sign a waiver to walk out of the hospital. And I’m not advocating that you not listen to your doctors, because even with our first child, we were induced at 38 weeks; cervical fluid was low.

I’m not anti-medical intervention. But why were confident to leave that day? Well, we had data that told a different story. We had been collecting data for six years. I had this temperature data, and it told a different story.

In fact, we could probably pretty accurately estimate conception. Yeah, that’s a story you want to tell at your kid’s wedding reception. (Laughter) I remember like it was yesterday. My temperature was a sizzling 97.8 degrees as I stared into your father’s eyes. (Laughter)

Oh, yeah. Twenty-two more years, we’re telling that story. But we were confident to leave because we had been collecting data. Now, what does that data look like?

Here’s a standard chart of a woman’s waking body temperature during the course of a cycle. So from the beginning of the menstrual cycle till the beginning of the next.

You’ll see that the temperature is not random. Clearly there is a low pattern at the beginning of her cycle and then you see this jump and then a higher set of temperatures at the end of her cycle. So what’s happening here? What is that data telling you?

Well, ladies, at the beginning of our cycle, the hormone estrogen is dominant and that estrogen causes a suppression of your body temperature. And at ovulation, your body releases an egg and progesterone takes over, pro-gestation. And so your body heats up in anticipation of housing this new little fertilized egg.

So why this temperature jump? Well, think about when a bird sits on her eggs. Why is she sitting on them? She wants to keep them warm, protect them and keep them warm. Ladies, this is exactly what our bodies do every month, they heat up in anticipation of keeping a new little life warm.

And if nothing happens, if you are not pregnant, then estrogen takes back over and that cycle starts all over again. But if you do get pregnant, sometimes you actually see another shift in your temperatures and it stays elevated for those whole nine months. That’s why you see those pregnant women just sweating and hot, because their temperatures are high. Here’s a chart that we had about three or four years ago.

We were really very excited about this chart. You’ll see the low temperature level and then a shift and for about five days, that’s about the time it takes for the egg to travel down the fallopian tube and implant, and then you see those temperatures start to go up a little bit. And in fact, we had a second temperature shift, confirmed with a pregnancy test that were indeed pregnant with our first child, very exciting.

Until a couple of days later I saw some spotting and then I noticed heavy blood flow, and we had in fact had an early stage miscarriage. Had I not been taking my temperature I really would have just thought my period was late that month, but we actually had data to show that we had miscarried this baby, and even though this data revealed a really unfortunate event in our lives, it was information that we could then take to our doctor.

So if there was a fertility issue or some problem, I had data to show: Look, we got pregnant, our temperature shifted, we somehow lost this baby. What is it that we can do to help prevent this problem? And it’s not just about temperatures and it’s not just about fertility; we can use data about our bodies to tell us a lot of things.

9:15 For instance, did you know that taking your temperature can tell you a lot about the condition of your thyroid? So, your thyroid works a lot like the thermostat in your house. There is an optimal temperature that you want in your house; you set your thermostat. When it gets too cold in the house, your thermostat kicks in and says, “Hey, we need to blow some heat around.” Or if it gets too hot, your thermostat registers, “Turn the A.C. on. Cool us off.” That’s exactly how your thyroid works in your body. Your thyroid tries to keep an optimal temperature for your body. If it gets too cold, your thyroid says, “Hey, we need to heat up.” If it gets too hot, your thyroid cools you down. But what happens when your thyroid is not functioning well? When it doesn’t function, then it shows up in your body temperatures, they tend to be lower than normal or very erratic. And so by collecting this data you can find out information about your thyroid.

10:08 Now, what is it, if you had a thyroid problem and you went to the doctor, your doctor would actually test the amount of thyroid stimulating hormone in your blood. Fine. But the problem with that test is it doesn’t tell you how active the hormone is in your body. So you might have a lot of hormone present, but it might not be actively working to regulate your body temperature. So just by collecting your temperature every day, you get information about the condition of your thyroid.

So, what if you don’t want to take your temperature every day? I advocate that you do, but there are tons of other things you could take. You could take your blood pressure, you could take your weight — yeah, who’s excited about taking their weight every day? (Laughter)

10:48 Early on in our marriage, Donald had a stuffy nose and he had been taking a slew of medications to try to relieve his stuffy nose, to no avail. And so, that night he comes and he wakes me up and he says, “Honey, I can’t breath out of my nose.” And I roll over and I look, and I said, “Well, can you breath out of your mouth?” (Laughter)

And he goes, “Yes, but I can’t breath out of my nose!” And so like any good wife, I rush him to the emergency room at 2 o’clock in the morning. And the whole time I’m driving and I’m thinking, you can’t die on me now. We just got married, people will think I killed you! (Laughter) And so, we get to the emergency room, and the nurse sees us, and he can’t breath out of his nose, and so she brings us to the back and the doctor says, “What seems to be the problem?” and he goes, “I can’t breath out of my nose.” And he said, “You can’t breath out of your nose? No, but he can breath out of his mouth. (Laughter)

He takes a step back and he looks at both of us and he says “Sir, I think I know the problem. You’re having a heart attack. I’m going to order an EKG and a CAT scan for you immediately.” And we are thinking, no, no, no. It’s not a heart attack. He can breathe, just out of his mouth. No, no, no, no, no. And so we go back and forth with this doctor because we think this is the incorrect diagnosis, and he’s like, “No really, it’ll be fine, just calm down.”

And I’m thinking, how do you calm down? But I don’t think he’s having a heart attack. And so fortunately for us, this doctor was at the end of the shift. So this new doctor comes in, he sees us clearly distraught, with a husband who can’t breath out of his nose. (Laughter) And he starts asking us questions. He says, “Well, do you two exercise?” We ride our bikes, we go to the gym occasionally. (Laughter) We move around. And he says, “What were you doing just before you came here?” I’m thinking, I was sleeping, honestly.

But okay, what was Donald doing just before? So Donald goes into this slew of medications he was taking. He lists, “I took this decongestant and then I took this nasal spray,” and then all of a sudden a lightbulb goes off and he says, “Oh! You should never mix this decongestant with this nasal spray. Clogs you up every time. Here, take this one instead.” He gives us a prescription. We’re looking at each other, and I looked at the doctor, and I said, “Why is it that it seems like you were able to accurately diagnose his condition, but this previous doctor wanted to order an EKG and a CAT scan?”

And he looks at us and says, “Well, when a 350-pound man walks in the emergency room and says he can’t breath, you assume he’s having a heart attack and you ask questions later.” Now, emergency room doctors are trained to make decisions quickly, but not always accurately. And so had we had some information about our heart health to share with him, maybe we would have gotten a better diagnosis the first time.

14:13 I want you to consider the following chart, of systolic blood pressure measurements from October 2010 to July 2012. You’ll see that these measurements start in the prehypertension/hypertension zone, but over about the course of a year and a half they move into the normal zone. This is about the heart rate of a healthy 16-year-old.

What story is this data telling you? Obviously it’s the data from someone who’s made a drastic transformation, and fortunately for us, that person happens to be here today. So that 350-pound guy that walked into the emergency room with me is now an even sexier and healthier 225-pound guy, and that’s his blood pressure trace. So over the course of that year and a half Donald’s eating changed and our exercise regimen changed, and his heart rate responded, his blood pressure responded to that change that he made in his body.

15:18 So what’s the take-home message that I want you to leave with today? By taking ownership of your data just like we’ve done, just by taking this daily measurements about yourself, you become the expert on your body. You become the authority. It’s not hard to do. You don’t have to have a Ph.D. in statistics to be an expert in yourself. You don’t have to have a medical degree to be your body’s expert.

Medical doctors, they’re experts on the population, but you are the expert on yourself. And so when two of you come together, when two experts come together, the two of you are able to make a better decision than just your doctor alone.

Now that you understand the power of information that you can get through personal data collection, I’d like you all to stand and raise your right hand. (Laughter) Yes, get it up. I challenge you to take ownership of your data. And today, I hereby confer upon you a TEDx associate’s degree in elementary statistics with a concentration in time-dependent data analysis with all the rights and privileges appertaining thereto.

And so the next time you are in your doctor’s office, as newly inducted statisticians, what should always be your response?

Audience: Show me the data! Talithia Williams: I can’t hear you! Audience: Show me the data! TW: One more time! Audience: Show me the data! TW: Show me the data.

Is Doubt essential to faith only?

Writing biography is a strange thing to do. It’s a journey into the foreign territory of somebody else’s life, a journey, an exploration that can take you places you never dreamed of going and still can’t quite believe you’ve been, especially if, like me, you’re an agnostic Jew and the life you’ve been exploring is that of Muhammad.

0:40 Five years ago, for instance, I found myself waking each morning in misty Seattle to what I knew was an impossible question: What actually happened one desert night, half the world and almost half of history away?

What happened on the night in the year 610 when Muhammad received the first revelation of the Koran on a mountain just outside Mecca? This is the core mystical moment of Islam that defies empirical analysis.

Yet the question wouldn’t let go of me. I was fully aware that for someone as secular as I am, just asking it could be seen as pure chutzpah. And I plead guilty as charged, because all exploration, physical or intellectual, is inevitably in some sense an act of transgression, of crossing boundaries.

” Abolish all doubt, and what’s left is not faith, but absolute, heartless conviction. You’re certain that you possess the Truth — inevitably offered with an implied uppercase T — and this certainty quickly devolves into dogmatism and righteousness, by which I mean a demonstrative, overweening pride in being so very right, in short, the arrogance of fundamentalism.” – Lesley Hazleton

When Lesley Hazleton was writing a biography of Muhammad, she was struck by something: The night he received the revelation of the Koran, according to early accounts, his first reaction was doubt, awe, even fear. And yet this experience…|By Lesley Hazleton

some boundaries are larger than others. So a human encountering the divine, as Muslims believe Muhammad did, to the rationalist, this is a matter not of fact but of wishful fiction, and like all of us, I like to think of myself as rational.

Which might be why when I looked at the earliest accounts we have of that night, what struck me even more than what happened was what did Not happen.

Muhammad did not come floating off the mountain as though walking on air. He did not run down shouting, “Hallelujah!” and “Bless the Lord!” He did not radiate light and joy.

There were no choirs of angels, no music of the spheres, no elation, no ecstasy, no golden aura surrounding him, no sense of an absolute, fore-ordained role as the messenger of God.

he did none of the things that might make it easy to cry foul, to put down the whole story as a pious fable. Quite the contrary.

In his own reported words, he was convinced at first that what had happened couldn’t have been real. At best, he thought, it had to have been a hallucination — a trick of the eye or the ear, perhaps, or his own mind working against him. At worst, possession — that he’d been seized by an evil jinn, a spirit out to deceive him, even to crush the life out of him.

In fact, he was so sure that he could only be majnun, possessed by a jinn, that when he found himself still alive, his first impulse was to finish the job himself, to leap off the highest cliff and escape the terror of what he’d experienced by putting an end to all experience.

 the man who fled down the mountain that night trembled not with joy but with a stark, primordial fear. He was overwhelmed not with conviction, but by doubt.

And that panicked disorientation, that sundering of everything familiar, that daunting awareness of something beyond human comprehension, can only be called a terrible awe.

This might be somewhat difficult to grasp now that we use the word “awesome” to describe a new app or a viral video. With the exception perhaps of a massive earthquake, we’re protected from real awe.

We close the doors and hunker down, convinced that we’re in control, or, at least, hoping for control. We do our best to ignore the fact that we don’t always have it, and that not everything can be explained.

Yet whether you’re a rationalist or a mystic, whether you think the words Muhammad heard that night came from inside himself or from outside, what’s clear is that he did experience them, and that he did so with a force that would shatter his sense of himself and his world and transform this otherwise modest man into a radical advocate for social and economic justice.

Fear was the only sane response, the only human response.

Too human for some, like conservative Muslim theologians who maintain that the account of his wanting to kill himself shouldn’t even be mentioned, despite the fact that it’s in the earliest Islamic biographies.

They insist that he never doubted for even a single moment, let alone despaired. Demanding perfection, they refuse to tolerate human imperfection. Yet what is imperfect about doubt?

As I read those early accounts, I realized it was precisely Muhammad’s doubt that brought him alive for me, that allowed me to begin to see him in full, to accord him the integrity of reality. And the more I thought about it, the more it made sense that he doubted, because doubt is essential to faith.

If this seems a startling idea at first, consider that doubt, as Graham Greene once put it, is the heart of the matter. Abolish all doubt, and what’s left is not faith, but absolute, heartless conviction.

You’re certain that you possess the Truth — inevitably offered with an implied uppercase T — and this certainty quickly devolves into dogmatism and righteousness, by which I mean a demonstrative, overweening pride in being so very right, in short, the arrogance of fundamentalism.

It has to be one of the multiple ironies of history that a favorite expletive of Muslim fundamentalists is the same one once used by the Christian fundamentalists known as Crusaders: infidel,” from the Latin for “faithless.”

Doubly ironic, in this case, because their absolutism is in fact the opposite of faith.

In effect, they are the infidels. Like fundamentalists of all religious stripes, they have no questions, only answers.

They found the perfect antidote to thought and the ideal refuge of the hard demands of real faith.

They don’t have to struggle for it like Jacob wrestling through the night with the angel, or like Jesus in his 40 days and nights in the wilderness, or like Muhammad, not only that night on the mountain, but throughout his years as a prophet, with the Koran constantly urging him not to despair, and condemning those who most loudly proclaim that they know everything there is to know and that they and they alone are right.

the vast and still far too silent majority have ceded the public arena to this extremist minority.

We’ve allowed Judaism to be claimed by violently messianic West Bank settlers, Christianity by homophobic hypocrites and misogynistic bigots, Islam by suicide bombers.

And we’ve allowed ourselves to be blinded to the fact that no matter whether they claim to be Christians, Jews or Muslims, militant extremists are none of the above. They’re a cult all their own, blood brothers steeped in other people’s blood.

This isn’t faith. It’s fanaticism, and we have to stop confusing the two.

We have to recognize that real faith has no easy answers. It’s difficult and stubborn.

It involves an ongoing struggle, a continual questioning of what we think we know, a wrestling with issues and ideas. It goes hand in hand with doubt, in a never-ending conversation with it, and sometimes in conscious defiance of it.

 this conscious defiance is why I, as an agnostic, can still have faith.

I have faith, for instance, that peace in the Middle East is possible despite the ever-accumulating mass of evidence to the contrary. I’m not convinced of this. I can hardly say I believe it. I can only have faith in it, commit myself, that is, to the idea of it, and I do this precisely because of the temptation to throw up my hands in resignation and retreat into silence.

Because despair is self-fulfilling.

If we call something impossible, we act in such a way that we make it so. And I, for one, refuse to live that way. In fact, most of us do, whether we’re atheist or theist or anywhere in between or beyond, for that matter, what drives us is that, despite our doubts and even because of our doubts, we reject the nihilism of despair.

We insist on faith in the future and in each other. Call this naive if you like. Call it impossibly idealistic if you must. But one thing is sure: Call it human. (Is Faith synonymous with Hope?)

Could Muhammad have so radically changed his world without such faith, without the refusal to cede to the arrogance of closed-minded certainty? I think not.

After keeping company with him as a writer for the past five years, I can’t see that he’d be anything but utterly outraged at the militant fundamentalists who claim to speak and act in his name in the Middle East and elsewhere today.

He’d be appalled at the repression of half the population because of their gender. He’d be torn apart by the bitter divisiveness of sectarianism.

He’d call out terrorism for what it is, not only criminal but an obscene travesty of everything he believed in and struggled for. He’d say what the Koran says: Anyone who takes a life takes the life of all humanity. Anyone who saves a life, saves the life of all humanity.

And he’d commit himself fully to the hard and thorny process of making peace.




November 2016

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