A Birthday Post: Dreaming of a Currency of Dreams

It's my 30th birthday today -- oh my! -- and as I reflect on this point on my life, I keep coming back to one thing: the concept of dreams. No, I don't mean fuzzy dreams in our sleep, but our life dreams -- dreams that guide us, inspire us, keep us on the right moral path. I have been thinking a lot about dreams lately because the last few months, I have had the great fortunate of being a part of two different sides of dreams, in different eras, and in different ways.

On one hand, each day, I write about Harlem Prep: a community school in Harlem, New York, from 1967 to 1974, that was all about supporting dreams. I've been learning about the dreams of these "students" -- now adults and community elders who continue to add love to those around them, while others, who have gone too soon, made their own indelible imprints on the world. These former students had all been pushed out of school and onto the streets -- "dropouts" and "unfit for learning" they were referred to as. Yet, the remarkable teachers and administrators at Harlem Prep rightfully saw through this slander and prejudice, and during the school's seven years of existence, more than 700 young people who had been out of school had now crossed the graduation stage and their dreams were re-set into motion.

Having the opportunity to tell this unknown story about the beautiful people at this school -- about so many dreams -- is beyond humbling. It was the dream of a better life that kept every student going despite unfathomable hardship and injustice. As the story of Harlem Prep proves, dreams are immensely powerful. They are innate. They are everywhere. They are everyone.

On other days, when I am not writing, I have been working with first year community college students -- and am the witness of their powerful dreams, as well ... but in a slightly different way. Their dreams are still in progress. Their dreams have yet to be fulfilled. Their dreams, on a granular level, are in my hands (and those of educators throughout the college). To be a part of someone's life in that capacity -- to have the agency to help a young person reach his or her dreams -- is overwhelming. I feel that gravitas when I speak with alumni who had their dreams rescued by caring educators, and I feel it deep in my veins when I, myself, am trying to do the same for the young people who look to me for inspiration and guidance (or, perhaps, just a little help on an essay). These moments are sacred and they are special, and each day I am humbled to be a position where I can make an impact on someone's dream.

And then, finally, I have been thinking about my dreams -- not the dreams of past individuals or the dreams of students  -- but my dreams, at this sort-of-young-but-not-that-young point in my life. I have many dreams that ebb and flow on a never ending basis, involving many people, and I so deeply hope that I have the opportunity to reach some of them so that I can help others reach theirs.

In all this thinking about dreams -- and in reflecting on my 30 years of life and the (hopefully) many more years ahead -- I realized that dreams remain one of this world's most compelling commodities (and something that cannot be bought or sold). They are not just "for kids" or a silly vestige of our younger selves. And they are not to discarded, or to be thought of lightly. Conversely, they are our moral compass. Real dreams are soaked in goodness; they invoke humility and kindness. In my opinion we must reclaim our dreams or reach for new ones, for they are what make us human. They are what make us whole. When we lose sight of our dreams -- and that includes our dreams for others, perhaps the most powerful dreams of all -- we lose ourselves. When we stop dreaming, we stop living -- we are stopped from being the best that we can be.

Over the course of my life thus far where I have lived in three very different places (and four if you count Cape Town, South Africa!), I have never met a person -- a child, an adolescent, an adult, an elder -- who doesn't have some sort of dream: a dream for themselves, a dream for others, a dream for the world. Dreams are the world's currency. If kindness is (or, should be, at least) the world's universal language, and love the building block of all human life, then dreams are the way we can understand and emphasize with each other. Every person on Earth has dreams -- and we, as a society, and as an individuals, must be in the business of supporting these dreams. And by dreams, I do not mean goals; they are related, but not the same. A goal is "an aim or purpose of action." A dream, however, is a "vision" for life: for what we hope for, how we strive to live, for how we believe the world (and people in it) should be. Like the more ethereal parts of life, dreams are deeply embedded in our souls. We cannot always describe them accurately, but we can feel them move every fiber of our body when they are present.

Thus, dreams come in all shapes and sizes, big and small, and motivate people in vastly different -- but all equally valid -- ways. Some people help others reach their dreams, like teachers or social workers. Some people sustain dreams or make them more accessible, like accountants, lawyers, or city planners. Some people even save or rescue dreams, such as doctors or firefighters. Some people build dreams (and impact other peoples' dreams along the way), like entrepreneurs and business folks. And, all people protect the dreams of family and friends -- and have their own.

Ultimately, when we are young we are told to "reach for our dreams," perhaps playfully, and not too seriously. But when we are older, we are told to table our dreams, to cast them aside as impossible fantasy. To be sure, dreams do not always come true ... perhaps they usually do not. I am not naive to the harsh reality that our circumstances affect our ability to reach our dreams: our finances, our abilities (or lack thereof), systemic inequality in countless facets of society, or just plain bad luck. After all, life can be really hard (and as a result, we must cherish the small moments of joy each day). But, just because our dreams do not always come true as we envisioned them, does not mean we should stop dreaming. In my (at times) tumultuous journey to a Ph.D., my dreams have seemingly been shattered or placed out of reach -- or so I thought. And, surely, some of these dreams have had to be adjusted as I have gotten older and the realities of adulthood have taken hold. Others were not dreams at all, more professional goals or personal aims. But to dream, to really dream, is an action -- a way of being -- that can never be taken away if we so choose. Dreams keeps me going. They gives me hope. They fill me with promise, unclaimed or not.

Coming full circle, my goal -- no, my dream -- for the next 30 years of my life is to try and help others' dreams come true. Those of my parents, my wife-to-be, my nephews and brother, my family, my friends, and hopefully, if I can reach my goal of being a professor, of my future students. After 30 years of living, I certainly do not have any more insight on understanding what life is about or the secret to happiness or to any of life's biggest questions. (Sometimes I feel like I know less each year!) But I do know that like love, like kindness, life selflessness, dreams -- ours and others -- play at least a partial role in figuring it all out.

I've reached 30, and I am so, so very thankful for more than I can describe. And, although I've certainly had setbacks on this life journey so far, I realize that I have to keep dreaming. I hope you -- no matter what  -- keep dreaming, too.

With love and endless gratitude,

-Barry

"Love is Real, Real is Love"

Last week I went “home”—or, at least, my Los Angeles home—to visit my mom who broke her wrist and then her foot recently. (Bad luck, I know, but she will bounce back, as she’s the strongest person I know. Or, as Shakespeare once said, "Though she be but little, she is fierce!") We spent a lot of time together, and in the final day of my trip, we pulled out the three remaining boxes of my old school work, dusted them off, and peaked inside. I don’t often spend time thinking about the past (and can’t remember the last time, if ever, I’ve opened up those boxes); I feel as if people are much too often consumed by the moments of yesteryear—both those heartwarming and those heartbreaking. I’m a fervent believer that we must live in the present, for as if there is one thing that we all know for certain is that time only moves in one direction.

But, once in a while, it’s nice to look back. Looking at our past can tell us who we are and where we’ve been, and where we must go. It can remind us of important ideas or concepts that we should continue to think deeply about in our future days. For me, in this instance, it was love.

As I perused those boxes I realized that there was a lot of love—love that made me who I am today and, as I look forward to my upcoming marriage (and hopefully kids not long after), who I want to be. It was overflowing with so much love. I was, and still am, beyond fortunate to have been surrounded with so much love, a nod to a poem my brother once wrote at my grandparents' 45th anniversary many years ago.

There was one letter in particular in these boxes that caught my eye that mentioned love: a letter that I wrote to my former high school principal almost a decade ago. In this letter I thanked him for all he did on the eve of my graduation, and how I constantly thought about one phrase he would repeat that the principal before him would always say:

Driven by dreams, inspired by love.

I’ve always agreed with this statement—it’s powerful, poignant, admirable even. But, this message got me thinking. I actually think it’s the other way around:

Inspired by dreams, driven by love.

I feel as if the prospect of maybe one day reaching our dreams is what inspires us to act—whether those dreams are big, small, or somewhere in between, whether professional or personal. Healthily, we all aspire to different life dreams, dreams that are adjusted as the realities of the world seep into our veins in each subsequent stage of our lives. Yet, it is love that drives our ambitions to reach those dreams; in fact, it is love that drives every single human, in every facet of life. Every thing we do in life is, on some level, because of or for love. Stripped down to the core of our motivations, it is why we go to work each day: out of love to provide for our family and friends (or our own life). Or, for some, love for a profession—we operate out of a love for a product we are building, a company we are growing, a book we are writing. For the best of us, love for our neighbor or a person less fortunate. Love takes infinite forms, and can be applied to infinite people—to friends, mentors, family, co-workers, and strangers.

My point is this: we often speak of love as if it’s some idealistic notion, something imagined or something we strive for out of optimism or some other ethereal feeling. But I’ve come to the conclusion that love is not any less “real” than other things deemed more “real” in society such as intelligence—something humans have constantly tried to measure in people (unsuccessfully and incompletely, in my opinion). Just because we cannot fully quantify love does not negate its existence, or its practicality. If kindness is, in my mind, one of the most important characteristics a person can possess, love is a “thing” that, while uniquely different and malleable for each individual, it is not only the foundation of lives but the glue to our society.

Take this recent example about the shootings by police officers and on police officers in various cities the last few months that have received high media coverage. In an article on the conservative blog RedState.com—yes, I do read a wide variety of news outlets!—the author in part discusses the social contract between individuals in society that are taken for granted. He writes (with my emphasis in bold):

Here's the reality that we don't often talk about - that societies are held together less by laws and force and threats of force than we are by ethereal and fragile concepts like mutual respect and belief in the justness of the system itself.
In America, there are 376 police officers per 100,000 citizens - or one police officer per every 266 citizens. Stop and think about that. Could every police officer in America maintain order over 266 unruly people who had no respect for him or the badge he wields? Absolutely not. The only thing that makes the situation even a little bit tenable is that the vast majority of people never think about confronting or challenging a police officer, and instead get up each day with the commitment to live their lives peacefully and lawfully, because they believe a) that they live in a society that is basically just and b) they believe that the few policemen who do exist will be there to protect them if something goes wrong and c) they have faith, by and large, that if someone commits a crime against them, they will be caught and punished.
Think, though, about what happens when these invisible bonds that are the most important part of maintaining law and order begin to dissolve - especially within a given subcommunity.

Of course, the article was written at the height of these events, and the urgency of the author’s prose is noticeable. He goes on to explain how when one group, such as Black citizens, rightly feel as if the (justice) system is broken—feelings that are backed up by decades of statistics about lack of police indictments, more frequent subjection to force, higher likelihood to be killed, serving longer criminal sentences, and so on (not to mention decades of discriminatory policies in housing, education, the workplace, etc.)—then society breaks down. Here, the problem is not just the crime, but that the crime too often goes unpunished—the system fails to work as it should. It’s a thoughtful (if imperfect), accessibly written article and I highly recommend reading it.

However, I bring up this article not to discuss the author's main conversation on the pertinent issues of race in America here—as central as they are and as passionate as I am about them—or about police brutality from a white, suburban perspective, but of the author’s suggestion that what holds society together is not only laws (or police officers, for that matter) but mutual understandings of respect and human decency. However, I would take this tangential idea and go one step further: love also holds our society together via this same notion, and has even greater potential. It drives our daily lives, and those around us—both strangers and friends—to do “good” every day. Quite simply, a world devoid of love is a world devoid of order—a world of chaos and indifference. Recognizing the realness of love, however that love manifests is essential to not just personal happiness, I believe, but an important step in making society better.

Of course, love is not the simple solution to our many world problems. It won’t alone solve the deep legacy of racism, the complicated hazards of terrorism, or the existential threat of climate change nor will it fix the challenges of globalization or the increasing economic inequality, for example. We certainly need tangible and smart, research-driven policy. However, I do believe love is where it all starts; it is an essential vital ingredient. And this is where the clichéd saying of the "power of love" rings true. To me, love has always felt so "real"—I have emotions that I may not be able to measure, but they are so potent that they physically move me to tears or to laughter, or to get up early on Saturday morning to put in a few extra hours of work (or to write this blog!).

Yet, to be sure, because love is so powerful, we must also refrain from using love as a shield for hate—as a justification for loving ourselves or someone close to us just to mask our conscious (or unconscious) prejudice for others. We all have equal claim to love and to being loved, and acting on love in a way that prevents others from doing the same is not love at all.

I think it goes without saying that we all understand to love to be the world’s common language—it has no discrimination, no preference, no barriers. We all love. We all seek to be loved. And it is this love that drives us each day that we should recognize when interacting with others or writing policy with regards to our fellow woman and man. It is love, in partnership with mutual respect and kindness, that keeps civilization together (and the lack of it that has the potential to tear us apart). And so, we must be driven by love, not by hate, fear, apathy, or indifference. Every thought and every action, must be driven by love. Using love as a guide in each action and each thought will then not only enrich our own lives, as we all well know, but, cement stronger bonds between the invisible forces—or, as the author above writes, the “fragile concepts” of things like mutual respect—that keep our society functioning. To me, we must bolster these fragile concepts that make the world "work," wrapping them with an undying love for everything we do, in everyone we meet, in everything we are.

Coming full circle, I pledge to not speak blindly about love, as if its to broad or an imaginary idealistic force. I want to recognize its true power, not just in thought, but figure out how it works in practice. And, so, let’s not just be inspired by love, but let us be driven by it—let it guide us—as we navigate life. We must reclaim the potential of love and recognize that a life without love is not only a life without meaning, but a world without love is a world without reason, a world without order. Some of the most extraordinary people who walked this Earth spoke about love—MLK, Einstein, Mother Theresa, to name a few. I think they knew what they were talking about.

A Theory of Kindness: My Birthday Post

It’s my birthday today. My wonderful fiancé has a surprise evening planned for me, and I am truly giddy with excitement for tonight.

But, until then, it’s a normal day—I’m working, writing, thinking, as I continue my research and daily work commitments. It’s that last one that tickles my soul though…it’s not a normal day, right? So, I decided to post a few reflective thoughts. Another year alive has probably brought a touch more cynicism—that's to be expected, I guess—but my added year of life has also led me to believe, more than ever, in the power of kindness.

Kindness: it doesn’t mean less diligent, it doesn’t mean weak, it doesn’t mean idealistic. It’s a word about ethics, about disposition, about virtue. People who understand and practice kindness are the essence of true strength—they have the power to control their minds in work or at home, the wisdom to recognize the impact of kindness in stressful situations, the humility to let it seep into their emotions during memorable life moments.

A few months ago, I was picking up a loaf of bread—a delicious whole wheat quinoa loaf!—at this great French bakery by our apartment. I stop by semi-frequently, and, I suppose, enough to recognize some of the employees. It was late in the evening, and I was pretty tired from my day. I walked in, and one of the employees behind the counter predictably said: “Hi, how are you? What can I get you?” And I replied instinctively, without thinking: “I’m good, thanks, how are you?” followed by a pause. The employee gave a subtle, but noticeable, look of bewilderment. He then said: “Oh! I remember you—you are the person who always comes in, and asks us how we are, and then waits for us to answer.” He then goes and tells his co-worker that this is the guy who is always so kind—she turns around, smiles, and recognizes me—and he continues to tell me how no one actually waits for him to answer, and how much he appreciates it. We small talked for a second, he placed my bread in the slice machine (and also gave me a complimentary dessert!), I paid, and walked back home. It was the best compliment I had received in a very, very long time. But I did not do anything special—it was just kindness working its magic within the confines of the most routine, everyday action and interaction.

One of the websites I really love to read—when I have the time—is a blog called “Wait But Why.” The author generally picks topics that are often abstract, if not mundane, and breaks them down in rational ways. In his post about the life-spans of humans, he created a visual representation of a long human lifespan of 90 years. And, when, breaking it down by weeks, he writes:

"Sometimes life seems really short, and other times it seems impossibly long. But this chart helps to emphasize that it’s most certainly finite. Those are your weeks and they’re all you’ve got.
Given that fact, the only appropriate word to describe your weeks is precious. There are trillions upon trillions of weeks in eternity, and those are your tiny handful.”

You can read the rest of his post here (and look at his chart) about comparing the weeks of our lives to precious gems—it’s quite fascinating, if not eye-opening (and also a bit scary, too!). But, taking to heart his point about making the best use of our weeks, I think about how a theory of kindness helps us to do this. In fact, kindness is one of the most practical and significant characteristics in making each year great—and making each day, yes, precious. I think about how kindness contributes to my own self-happiness, such as feelings of personal joy with exhibiting kindness with friends and family, whether that a gift, or a simple smile or hug. I think about how kindness contributes to business success, such as how my brother, CEO of a large fashion company, shows kindness to his employees, which increases their morale and productivity. I think about how kindness can turn mundane moments into memorable moments for people in routine situations, such as my encounter with the employee at the bakery. I think the kindness shown by one of my mentors, that, no matter the situation, will find a way to inspire that student in a way that brings out the best in him/her. And, I think about how kindness is the greatest indicator of meaningful, lasting relationships: the people in our lives who bring us down, who show negativity, will eventually fade away, but the people who are kind—in all facets of life—are those who we remember and who help make our lives precious.

So, be kind today and everyday. Kindness is a trait; it is both inherent but also, I believe, learned and practiced. I hope, one (far away!) day from now, when I am no longer celebrating birthdays, that I will be remembered as someone kind—like my grandpa, like my mom, like my brother, like some my co-workers and mentors, and so many other people in my life. I thank you for your kindness, and I promise to continue my pursuit of lasting kindness, too.

With love,

-Barry

P.S. I'll leave you with one of my favorite poems, about education, about fatherhood, about kindness, that my beloved English teacher shared with me almost a decade ago.

September, The First Day Of School by Howard Nemerov

My child and I hold hands on the way to school,
And when I leave him at the first-grade door
He cries a little but is brave; he does
Let go. My selfish tears remind me how
I cried before that door a life ago.
I may have had a hard time letting go.

Each fall the children must endure together
What every child also endures alone:
Learning the alphabet, the integers,
Three dozen bits and pieces of a stuff
So arbitrary, so peremptory,
That worlds invisible and visible

Bow down before it, as in Joseph's dream
The sheaves bowed down and then the stars bowed down
Before the dreaming of a little boy.
That dream got him such hatred of his brothers
As cost the greater part of life to mend,
And yet great kindness came of it in the end.

A school is where they grind the grain of thought,
And grind the children who must mind the thought.
It may be those two grindings are but one,
As from the alphabet come Shakespeare's Plays,
As from the integers comes Euler's Law,
As from the whole, inseperably, the lives,

The shrunken lives that have not been set free
By law or by poetic fantasy.
But may they be. My child has disappeared
Behind the schoolroom door. And should I live
To see his coming forth, a life away,
I know my hope, but do not know its form

Nor hope to know it. May the fathers he finds
Among his teachers have a care of him
More than his father could. How that will look
I do not know, I do not need to know.
Even our tears belong to ritual.
But may great kindness come of it in the end.

The Unwritten Words

Yesterday was the one-year anniversary of my grandfather's passing. I saw his tombstone for the first time.

His epitaph, like that of many others (although, few are fortunate enough to experience 90 years of life), read: BELOVED HUSBAND, FATHER, GRANDFATHER & GREAT GRANDFATHER. Nestled beside the small bronzed plaque engraved with "VETERAN, U.S. MILITARY," those five simple words chiseled in stone say so much yet so little about him.

My grandfather, or my "PaPa" as I called him, was indeed all those things. Just as I echoed during his eulogy that I read a year ago, he was a man who was content to love, and be loved, by his family and friends. Although family was certainly a key avenue through which he found meaning in life, inevitably, he was also far more then those six engraved words.

Of course, those essential descriptors to his life—to all of our lives—are still fitting. They are what we want to be judged by: we want to be loving mothers and fathers, successful professionals, and trustworthy friends. I certainly strive to be each of these things, although not without my own faults.

But as I read those few words yesterday, staring at his stone for the first time, I could not help but imagine what words would come after those engraved ones, in all their eternal permanence. These unwritten words: the words that are not read, are not seen, and that few remember. I then thought about myself, about my actions, about the world, and about the unwritten words that would not be emblazoned on my own epitaph one day, but that, I hope, might also define my existence, even if it’s only in an ethereal manner. I hope they would say that I was kind, caring, and loving; that I was trustworthy, responsible, and loyal; that I was all these things not just to those that I loved, and loved me, but to my advisers, colleagues, acquaintances, and maybe most of all, complete strangers.

It’s a simple concept, of course, and the opposite of profound, as we hear a similar refrain constantly: “be a good person,” quotes about random acts of kindness, or stories about people doing anonymous nice deeds. These are all wonderful, if not idealistic, sentiments—and I certainly try to live my life by these mantras. But let’s be honest: life is hard, and ignoring the day-to-day struggles would be inauthentic. It’s tough enough navigating the many hardships that exist within our daily lives, let alone nationally and globally. Not all of us have the money to donate funds, or the time to volunteer, or, admittedly, the will or desire to do either. And, you know, that’s okay. We are so rightly focused on making sure that the written words—about being a family member or friend and developing a career—come to fruition that we don’t have the ability (or the energy) to do the extracurricular.

Our society’s collective idea of what makes a person great has been so simplified and materialized. We are constantly bombarded by slogans that objectify a person’s civic duty as being so black and white. Those that donate money to charity or volunteer, for example, are applauded while those who don’t are not. These selfless acts, while seemingly unwritten, are, to some extent, still recorded in history and remembered in society—he or she was a “philanthropist” or “activist” or the more chic “social entrepreneur.” To be clear, I deeply admire people who fit these descriptions, and I sincerely hope that I will one day be described as such. The idea of helping those less fortunate is a beautiful thing, and for me personally, it brings meaning and sense of purpose to my life—just as it did for my late grandfather and all of my living grandparents, all whom have donated both ample time and money to various causes over many decades.

These generous actions certainly make us good. But do these actions alone make us great?

That’s why to me, the most noble acts of “goodness” are sometimes the ones that seem the hardest to grasp and the most difficult to recognize—these unwritten words. Words that describe actions that often go unnoticed and unappreciated: namely, treating all people with kindness, love, and respect during the most obscure moments of life. Frankly, treating a stranger with kindness on a bad day can sometimes be harder then writing a check and walking away—it requires a great deal of humility, patience, perseverance (we all do have bad days!), and most of all, an inner sense of love and compassion.

The people I admire most in this world are not only the philanthropists who donate the most money or the activists who spend most time volunteering—although, again, I do admire them and like to think that I could humbly include myself in these categories one day—but those who are consciously kind, even when it’s hard and when you know that moment in time will evaporate. For example, my brother, a successful businessman, who treats all of his employees with respect and fairness, no matter their role in the company. My two professors, extremely successful and in-demand scholars, who treat all of their students with kindness, down from their most established research fellows to random high school students on the street. My mother, who, no matter the time or day, so easily flashes a smile and befriends every person she meets from the bank teller, to the waiter, not out of pretentiousness but out of genuine love.

My grandfather was a good man because he was a loving family member and friend, and because he was so charitable, spending his life donating his time (he didn’t have any money!) to the elderly and the sick literally everyday. That much is true—recorded, written, in the legacy through his family offspring and the tangible lives he improved through his charitable actions. But he was great because he treated everyone with kindness, everyday, all the time, despite his own personal hardships. To me, that’s the testament of true greatness.

So let us all be great. And let us all be conscious of the unwritten words that describe us—how we live when nobody else is looking or listening, the conversations we have with people that will never be recorded, and the actions we perform that will never make it on our tombstone, but define us, the living, in the present, each and every day.