Quote from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

I recently ran across this quote from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, from his book “The Gulag Archipelago.” He said what I believe, but in a much more poetic way than I could have.

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

During the life of any heart this line keeps changing place; sometimes it is squeezed one way by exuberant evil and sometimes it shifts to allow enough space for good to flourish. One and the same human being is, at various ages, under various circumstances, a totally different human being. At times he is close to being a devil, at times to sainthood. But his name doesn’t change, and to that name we ascribe the whole lot, good and evil.

Each person is the hero in her own story. People typically don’t do evil things because they’re evil – they usually feel that they’re justified in some way.

I’m not aware of anyone who is completely good, who lacks any trace of selfishness or insecurity, and always does the kind, compassionate thing. I’ve also never met anyone who lacks any compassion, who doesn’t want to do the right thing when they can, and who doesn’t feel like they are doing the right thing at least a majority of the time.

The division between us and them, between the saints and the sinners, the righteous and the evil, is a false dichotomy. In this life, everyone always belongs to both groups.



Sometimes things don’t go, after all,
from bad to worse. Some years, muscadel
faces down frost, green thrives, the crops don’t fail,
sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well.

A people sometimes will step back from war,
elect an honest man, decide they care
enough, that they can’t leave some stranger poor.
Some men become what they were born for.

Sometimes our best efforts do not go
amiss; sometimes we do as we meant to.
The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
that seemed hard frozen: may it happen for you.

– Sheenagh Pugh

Wise Words from Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman, at about 50 years old

“This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.”

– Walt Whitman, from the preface to Leaves of Grass

The Golden Rule

The Golden Rule shows up in many different religions and ethical systems. Christianity states it this way: “And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.”  -Luke 6:31

Confucianism, Buddhism, and Hinduism state it in the negative; basically, don’t do things to others that you yourself would find hateful. Most other religions have some form of this, as well.  I think we can all agree that it’s a worthy rule to live by.

George Bernard Shaw, however, pointed out a flaw.  He said, “Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same.” A better law might be to treat people as they would like to be treated, rather than as you would like to be treated. This is harder work, because it requires a greater level of understanding and compassion.

How to apologize, according to Hank Green

I ran across an excellent and entertaining video, done by Hank Green of the vlogbrothers channel on YouTube.  It discusses the right (and wrong) way to apologize for something.

If I recall the statistics correctly, zero percent of people are perfect.  So we all will get the opportunity — some of us more than others — to apologize for things.  Doing it sincerely and thoughtfully will improve your life and that of the person to whom you’re apologizing.

He makes several outstanding points in this video.  Here are a few of my favorite quotes:

You have a choice after you’ve done something crappy.  You can transform into one of two things.  Either you can regain your awesome through actual apology, or you can become a fartbag.  A fartbag – this is a technical definition – is a person who hurts someone, and then blames the person they hurt for their pain.

This one, too:

You.. have to accept the blame.  You are not sorry that your friend is hurt; you are sorry you hurt your friend.


It turns out that people who apologize feel weaker, but are perceived as stronger people; whereas fartbags feel stronger, but they are perceived by the people around them as weaker.

Oh, *That’s* What Friends Are For!

An article in the January 2014 issue of Monitor on Psychology, a journal from the American Psychological Association, has some surprising conclusions about the benefits of having friends.  The article is called “Friends wanted.”

One of the most interesting lines in the article is from a study done by Brigham Young University.  They “…found that participants with stronger social relationships were 50 percent more likely to survive over the studies’ given periods than those with weaker connections — a risk comparable to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day and one double that of obesity.”  That’s pretty significant.  Being lonely is worse for your survival than smoking or obesity.

The conventional wisdom has been that social connections help survival because people are there to drive you to the doctor, or remind you to take your medication, or other direct reasons.  But this article suggests that the actual feelings of loneliness may be the culprit, and may be connected to blood pressure, immune response, and disease recovery speed.

They also found out that people are becoming less connected.  Family, church, and other real-life social networks are becoming less a part of our lives. People are marrying later and divorcing at a higher rate, leaving a larger number of people living alone.

The conclusion is that adult platonic friendships are important, and we should put effort into building and maintaining those relationships.  The article goes on to suggest several ways to make friends and keep those connections.

My wife and I have often talked about how nice it would be to have a group of friends with whom we could go out to dinner, or something.  This article may motivate me to get off the couch and give someone a call.

No Mud, No Lotus

"Sacred lotus Nelumbo nucifera" by T.Voekler - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sacred_lotus_Nelumbo_nucifera.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Sacred_lotus_Nelumbo_nucifera.jpg

I had an experience a few years ago that psychologists call a “peak experience,” where my perspective radically shifted.  I was doing the thing where you feel sorry for yourself for having to get up and be at work every day, and I was fantasizing about having all the money I needed, so I didn’t have to do anything I didn’t want to.  It occurred to me that this wouldn’t be a good thing at all.  I suddenly realized how much of the good in my life came not in spite of the hard stuff, but because of it.  And how much of that hard stuff was the good stuff – that was the real epiphany.

Working a difficult job that I was barely qualified for, for instance, required me to learn new skills.  The huge mistakes I’ve made have taught me new lessons, and made me more compassionate to others in similar circumstances.  Raising children has been among the most challenging and rewarding things I’ve done.

Thich Nhat Hanh, a Zen Buddhist teacher, has a favorite saying: “No mud, no lotus.”  He goes into detail here:

“It’s like growing lotus flowers. You cannot grow lotus flowers on marble. You have to grow them in mud. Without mud, you cannot have a lotus flower. Without suffering, you have no ways in order to learn how to be understanding and compassionate. That’s why my definition of the kingdom of God is not a place where suffering is not, where there is no suffering .. I would not like to go to a place where there is no suffering. I would not like to send my children to a place where there is no suffering, because, in such a place, they have no way to learn how to be understanding and compassionate.”

(From Brother Thay, A Radio Pilgrimage, June 4, 2009.)

Instead of fearing and retreating from the hard parts of life, now I try to embrace and appreciate them.