Monday, August 25, 2014

Paying It Forward is Contagious!

The idea of paying it forward caught the public’s imagination when Catherine Ryan Hyde’s 1999 novel “Pay It Forward” was turned into a movie in 2000, starring Haley Joel Osment, Helen Hunt and Kevin Spacey.

The idea is simple: Act on an impulse of spontaneous generosity toward a stranger and hopefully you will start a chain reaction. At each step, the receiver of generosity becomes a giver. Rather than repay the help you receive, “pay it forward” by helping someone else.

Does this work in practice? In other words, if you receive or merely observe (bystander effect) an act of help, are you more likely to help someone else? Is the sequence socially contagious?
In their hectic lives, in which hard-up college students juggle between studies, work, and family, how contagious can the ideas of “paying it forward” be for them?

Hilda, a community college student, who also works for a non-profit health facility, remembers giving a disabled woman her bottle of water on a hot day. She has no idea whether any ‘pay it forward’ occurred in the days that followed. On another occasion, she saw a homeless man sleeping in front of a Walgreens store. She gave him a water bottle, a cup of yogurt, some cheese sticks and an apple that she had left over from lunch. She saw a woman observing her. As she was leaving the store, Hilda saw the woman giving the homeless man some money. Since then, Hilda has started an Instagram project in which she posts pictures and stories about ‘paying it forward,’ in the hope of sparking spontaneous generosity among people.

“I have read many stories about paying it forward,” says Cristina. “Reading about random acts of kindness gives me hope. I see the good in people in a society that can be mean and cruel. I have never been in a “chain” of giving, but several times I have given food to a homeless person, taken groceries to a family in need, given a ride, helped a family whose car had broken down. It makes me feel good that I can do something for someone, just to do it. This is not easy for me to talk about, because it is not about me and my actions. I have given from the heart and not thought twice. There is a phrase I have passed on to my children and grandchildren: ‘Do not let the right hand see what the left hand is doing.’” 

Nina believes that long-term happiness depends on giving rather than receiving. “My random act of kindness consists of lending someone a pencil or tutoring them in a subject for 10 minutes or so. These things cost me nothing, yet they make me feel good. These small habits can develop into something more. Recently, my 10-minute tutoring sessions have turned into several hour-long sessions on Fridays. It's gotten to the point that almost all the students in my school  knows me as ‘that girl who can totally help you pass math, no matter what grade you're in!’ In turn, I see students I teach helping their peers when I'm busy. So those students, without thinking about it, are paying it forward!”

Rigoberto is grateful for the chance of helping a poor family member living in Mexico, a place where food is hard to come by and money is scarce. It happened that this man needed surgery. Rigoberto sent him the money he needed. “I know I am not rich but with the little that I have, I know I can always help someone. I am confident this spirit will rub off on him. Who can predict where this will end?”

To Derek, the idea of “pay it forward” gives him faith in humanity. “There is nothing I like better than seeing people from small towns coming to the craziness that sometimes can be San Jose. I remember a man in his thirties at Costco saying ‘Hi’ to everyone he passed and tipping his hat. If you have ever been to Costco you know that’s a lot of hat tipping!”

Genevieve feels that people often forget what it means to be generous and to give without expecting anything in return. “People have become selfish. To them, paying it forward would be going too far out of their way. Fortunately, I have been at both the receiving and giving end of ‘paying it forward.’ Several times, people in front of me have paid for my order at places like Starbucks and Jamba Juice. I remember the first time someone paid for my toll. As I approached the booth, I realized that I did not have any cash on hand.  Luckily, the attendant told me that it was paid for by the SUV in front of me. I cannot describe the relief and appreciation I felt at that moment! Since then, I have paid the tolls for people behind me on several occasions.”

Allison has been on the receiving end of a pay-it-forward system. “I grew up very poor and often had difficulty getting the food we needed from the grocery store. I watched as strangers opened their wallets and handed my mother a five-dollar bill so my sister and I could get the fruit we wanted. My mom has also paid it forward when she has seen a struggling mom in the same situation. Whenever I have run into an instance that someone has paid for me, I feel like I am obligated to either pay them back or pay it forward for the next person. I have bought food for a co-worker who didn’t have money, and the same has happened to me. The growing trend of picking up someone’s coffee tab has happened to me at Starbucks. When I got to the counter to order my drink, the guy just waved it off because the girl in front of me, a complete stranger, had paid for it. I ended up paying for the person behind me. Paying it forward just makes me happy!”

Matthew feels that random acts of kindness are not seen much in today’s society. “We are living in a society where we are too busy and completely caught up in our own lives. The more considerate people are to each other, the better this place will be. My personal random act of kindness was when I was renting out a room to a friend. We had a pretty close friendship. He was always respectful and paid his rent on time. A year and a half later, he lost his job and was stressing because even if he were to go on unemployment, he wouldn’t have enough money to pay his bills and the rent. Having been in a similar situation, I told him to focus on his school and not worry about the rent. I considered him a part of my family. He was forever grateful for what I did and is living much better now. It happened that for a class for which I had enrolled, I didn’t have the appropriate calculator. I posted a Facebook listing asking if anyone was willing to sell his calculator. That same night, he showed up on my doorstep and simply gave me his!” 

Charles was introduced to paying it forwards as a bystander in a redwood forest in the Santa Cruz Mountains. “I was mountain biking with a buddy. We had paused to drink some water and take in the scenery when, in the distance, we heard a loud explosion. Two men came into the clearing where we were resting, pushing their bikes. The inner tube of one of the bikes belonging to a middle-aged man had exploded because it was installed incorrectly. His companion, an athletic looking Irishman with a matching bike, rummaged through his backpack and came up empty. They didn’t have a spare tube but my friend did, which he promptly offered it to the older man. The man was grateful, asked for my friend’s address and told him he would send him money for the tube. My friend said: “It’s cool, just pay it forward.” Merely witnessing my friend’s generosity was enough to instill this concept of paying it forward in my heart. Several months later, I left home alone on a mountain bike excursion with no spare tube and got a flat tire. I wandered about in the woods, soliciting help from groups of mountain bikers until a kind man gave me a tube. “I’ll buy you a tube, what’s your number?” I asked. “Pay it forward,” was his response. I would like to propose a P.I.F.R. (pay it forward revolution) to soften the hearts of Americans and make the world more hospitable for people without large networks of support.

Jon was once part of a ‘car chain’ at an In-N-Out Burger. “I was with my baseball team in Tracy when we stopped for lunch. One of the parents in front of me paid for my food. I was genuinely surprised when I reached the booth and decided to add to the chain as the few cars behind me were also parents from my team. I'm not sure how far back we went but it was pretty cool and I definitely felt like extending the generosity. I knew all these people so they were not strangers but it was still one random act of kindness extending from one person to another to another. These are the kind of simple pleasures that stand out in memory!”

Thursday, August 21, 2014

We Must Unite to Defeat the Islamic State

The Islamic State (IS) extremists are on a gruesome killing spree. The video of the beheading of American photojournalist James Foley, 40, disseminated worldwide, is only the latest reminder that, unless nipped in the bud, IS will kill and maim anyone crossing its path as it attempts to enforce its nihilistic ideology in large swaths of Syria, Iraq, Kurdistan, and elsewhere.

As President Obama rightly observed of the IS, “They have rampaged across cities and villages killing innocent, unarmed civilians in cowardly acts of violence. They abduct women and children and subject them to torture and rape and slavery. They have murdered Muslims, both Sunni and Shia, by the thousands. They target Christians and religious minorities, driving them from their homes, murdering them when they can, for no other reason than they practice a different ­religion.”
Religious minorities targeted by IS includes the Yazidis, practitioners of perhaps the oldest religion of the world. These peace-loving but vulnerable people whose ancestry goes back 6,000 years are now facing literal extermination through the satanic cruelties of IS fanatics.
People of conscience everywhere, particularly Muslims, must rise to stop the IS.
Why particularly Muslims?
Because the IS consists of so-called Muslims who have vowed to establish a blood-drenched Caliphate in which only their distorted version of Islam - a fusion of misogyny, intolerance and mayhem – will hold sway. We have an obligation to snatch our faith from the clutches of fanatics.
It is no use trying to reason with these killers with verses from the Quran, that there is no compulsion in religion, or that Allah loves those who are merciful.
Scholarly arguments have no sanctity with killers.
But it is also impractical to suggest that ordinary Muslims should travel to IS-held territories to fight the fanatics, although it has become evident that would-be jihadists from Britain, France, Germany, Australia and America have strengthened the rank and file of IS forces.
To defeat this lethal organization will require the organized military forces of nations. The United States has started bombing areas around Mosul in Iraq and other IS strongholds. Muslims nations must leave politics aside and unite to support the United States in whatever capacity they can.
Meanwhile, ordinary Muslims everywhere must unequivocally condemn the IS and its practices. In mosques from coast to coast in America, for instance, we must use the platform of the Friday sermons to take a stand against the IS. The black banner of the IS and all the cruelties it represents must be torn down before it has a chance to flutter in the wind.
At the same time, a few western pundits claim that (in the word of just one of them) “Muslim street from Turkey to Saudi Arabia follows the Islamic State like a sports team.”
Really? (As an American-Muslim, I request these opinionators to provide us with hard data, along with defining exactly what is meant by "Muslim Street!")
These pundits surely know how hard the clergy in Saudi Arabia, for instance, came down on the Islamic State. Grand Mufti Sheik Abdul-Aziz Al-Sheik, top cleric of the Kingdom, has said that extremism and ideologies of groups like the IS and al-Qaida are Islam’s number one enemy and that Muslims have been their first victims. He went on to say that terrorism has no place in Islam, adding “These foreign groups do not belong to Islam.”
Saudi Arabia is, of course, no model of Islamic restraint and moderation. But that is not the point. Where the Islamic State is concerned, Muslims of all nationalities and origins must unite to stop the murderous advances of this organization.
One area where ordinary Muslims can counter the Islamic State is Social Media. Within the Islamic State exists a section that is savvy with YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and such. We too can post our thoughts and opinions in these media to unequivocally condemn the group. The battle is fought on the ground and in the air but also, and equally importantly, in the cyber world, which is open to all.
We must not give in to wishful thinking. The Islamic State will not fold at the first hint of defeat. It is led by one Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who has the audacity and the arrogance to claim Prophet Muhammad’s (saw) lineage. He and his battle-hardened deputies will attempt to continue their reign of terror overtly and covertly for as long as they can.
But their defeat will be permanent when, along with unbearable losses on the physical battlefields, they also realize that Muslims have rejected them by countering their barbaric propaganda on the digital battlefield with the truth.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Robin Williams (1951-2014): In the Role of a Great Teacher

A pall of melancholy has descended over the nation, and perhaps the world, over actor Robin Williams’s death at the age of 63.

This irrepressible, gregarious yet lonely, man who made us laugh and cry and brought us in touch with our humanity through several memorable performances will be impossible to replace. He was truly a sui generis, and the heart is inconsolable at the way he left the earth. The comic who chased our blues away could not chase away his own demons.

Lost in the adulation and tributes is any reflection on the role a community college played in Williams’s formative years.

Robin Williams was a student at the College of Marin (COM), one of California’s 112 community colleges comprising 72 districts and serving over 2.6 million students.
From 1970-1973, he was active in the Drama Department at COM’s Kentfield campus.

Studying as a classical actor, he appeared in the college productions of A Midsummer Night’s DreamMacbeth, the Wild West version of Taming of the Shrew and Oliver, among others.

He was a protégé of the celebrated director James Dunn, a COM graduate who founded the college’s drama department in 1964. As Mr. Dunn recalled on learning of Williams’s passing: “I first knew he was more talented than the other kids when he played Fagin in 'Oliver!' We were having light board issues and by midnight had only made it through half the musical. At one point he started talking to a baton he was carrying, and the baton talked back. It cut the tension and he had people laughing in hysterics. I remember calling my wife at 2 a.m. and telling her that this young man was going to be something special.”
While his brilliant, protean roles as an actor will be analyzed and cherished for decades to come, Williams’s insight into what constitutes effective teaching should be studied by teachers everywhere.
At a time when teachers are under siege by the education-industrial complex, Robin Williams taught teachers how to remain true to their calling through performances in movies such as Dead Poets Society (1989) and Good Will Hunting (1997).
As a floppy-haired English professor in Dead Poets Society, Williams pulled out all the stops to get his stuffy, boarding school students excited over the wonders of poetry, and of life. Anyone questioning the employable value of a degree in English poetry is bound to be swept away by the manic energy Williams infused into his character. “In my class you will learn to think for yourselves again,” bellows Williams to his class. “You will learn to savor words and language.”
What comes through with blinding clarity at the end of his performance is the awareness that poetry and literature, if properly taught, can transform us into questioning, civilized and empathetic human beings.
Note to English professors everywhere: Bring up Dead Poets Society on your laptop, savor it one more time and then face your students refreshed and rejuvenated.
In 1993, Alison King, an associate professor of education in the College of Education at California State University in San Marcos, wrote an influential article in the journal College Teaching titled “From Sage on the Stage to Guide on the Side.”

“In most college classrooms, the professor lectures and the students listen and take notes,” she began her article. “The professor is the central figure, the “sage on the stage,” the one who has the knowledge and transmits that knowledge to the students, who simply memorize the information and later reproduce it on an exam – often without even thinking about it.”
She proposed replacing this passive and useless model with one of “active learning” where students take charge of their own learning, thereby taking center stage while teachers become the “guide on the side.”
In many of his hyper-kinetic roles, Williams personified the “sage on the stage” model but in Good Will Hunting, he was the “guide on the side” par excellence, the kind we all dream for as we tried to grope our way toward a meaningful life.
Will Hunting is a janitor at MIT who also happens to have prodigious gifts in math and chemistry. He is unaware that his gifts can rescue from his rough upbringing in South Boston and his frequent brushes with the law. Until, that is, he meets his guide and soul mate, the therapist Sean Maguire.
The rest, as they say, is cinematic history.

Mainstream media will provide us with all the data we need of Robin Williams’s work in theatre, TV and film. What we need to discover on our own, as we revisit his various roles, is his humanity and his indelible model of a great teacher.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Wanted: "A Most Wanted Man" (Movie Review)

It is spooky how John le Carre’s portrayal of spies and spy agencies so unerringly plays out in real life. Beginning with “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” (1965), through the Smiley saga, including the incomparable “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” (1974), to “A Perfect Spy” (1986), “The Russia House” (1990), “The Tailor of Panama” (2001), and several more, le Carre (pen name of David Moore John Cornwall) explores with shattering effect the moral ambiguity and arrogance of those who set out “to make the world a safer place” but fail disastrously and, more ominously, with no accountability.

The movie adaptation of his 2008 novel, “A Most Wanted Man,” builds on le Carre’s reputation. It is as good as “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” the post-9/11 era replacing the cold war.

Shot in Hamburg, Germany, against the subtext of Mohammed Atta and his fellow conspirators who lived in the city while they plotted 9/11, director Anton Corbijn’s tense and demanding film faithfully conveys le Carre’s recurring theme, that those charged with protecting the innocent are the first to use them as pawns and then fatally betray them.

Seen in the light of Edward Snowden’s revelations of indiscriminate spying by NSA on citizens, lawmakers and heads of state, ‘A Most Wanted Man’ makes for a chilling movie experience.

Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) is a tortured and traumatized young Chechen Muslim with haunting eyes who enters Hamburg illegally by sea. He has no identification papers other than a cryptic letter entitling him to millions of dollars from an international bank. The money is an inheritance from his father, a Russian gangster “killed in action.”

What is the real reason for the bearded, stateless Chechen, whom Interpol has identified as an escaped militant jihadist, ending up at Hamburg? The Germans are particularly sensitive about preventing another 9/11 being masterminded from their gritty city.

There is only one way to find out, and that is to track Issa round the clock.

The responsibility falls on Günther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman), chief of Hamburg’s counter-terrorism squad, the Foreign Acquisitions Unit. Bachmann is a relic, a gruff patriot who has no family ties, no real friends, only a single-minded obsession to nail any potential post-9/11 terrorist.

Annabel Richter, an altruistic immigration lawyer (Rachel McAdams) and head of an organization called Sanctuary North, takes up Issa’s case, determined to hold the law to its letter that anyone is innocent until proven guilty. Thomas Brue, the banker responsible for authenticating Issa’s claim to fortune (Willem Dafoe), bends to Bachmann’s pressure and wears a wire while interviewing Issa.

In this shadowy world where nuance is everything, there is little explicit violence but each scene – rain-soaked streets, trains, ferries, decadent diners, shipyards, the impersonal financial district, minority ghettos - is rife with suggestion of something about to go horribly awry. It is easy to imagine that Hamburg is a city where sinister plots can be hatched to bring the world to its knees.

Issa is a devout Muslim. (The prayer scenes are telling). He is not after his inheritance money for himself: He only wants to distribute it to legitimate charities to bring a modicum of happiness to oppressed, hapless Muslims.

Bachmann and his team want Issa to get his money, convinced that it will eventually lead them to the terror-leaders and arms-dealing groups operating in Hamburg. But Martha Sullivan, the CIA chief stationed in Germany (Robin Wright), and Bachmann’s heartless, Manichaean superiors in Germany’s intelligence service and the interior ministry have different ideas. They pretend to let Bachmann have his way, knowing that, in the end, they will be the ones calling the shots.

Bachmann entices the leader of Hamburg’s Muslim community, Dr. Faisal Abdullah (Iranian actor Homayoun Ershadi) and a fundraiser for moderate Islam, into making a terrible mistake in the distribution of Issa’s inheritance money to Muslim charities. At the last minute, however, Bachmann’s superiors move in and derail his meticulously-planned course of action. You can feel the heat of le Carre’s moral anger emanating from the screen at the deception and treachery of those responsible for upholding the rule of law.

The movie is particularly poignant in that it was Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last full-length work: The gifted actor took his own life after succumbing to his inner demons a few months after the movie was completed. “There is something about that story that spoke to me about where I am now in my life, though it’s not something I could really put into words,” Hoffman said about le Carre’s novel. “I read it and saw myself in it somehow. It’s about being in the middle of your life. It’s as much a story about that, than all of the other things. It’s about a man really confronted with what he’s passionate about pursuing and what that’s done to him.”

We live in dangerous and uncertain times. ‘A Most Wanted Man’ captures the zeitgeist as only a master storyteller like John le Carre can. This taut thriller is a movie to see and to reflect on, and to realize that for people at the top, ideas of right and wrong are malleable and will always remain elusive.