Are You a Thinker or a Doer? (P.S. This is a trick question.)

Do you have a scripture or an inspirational thought that you turn to whenever life is tough—one that uplifts and comforts you? I can think of a few of those. Now let me ask you this: do you have a scripture or an inspirational thought that completely terrifies you? I have one of those, too. It’s Doctrine and Covenants 82:3: “Where much is given, much is required.

We have been given much. We have been given life in an incredible time in history. We have been given miraculous physical bodies. Most of us, at least most of the time, don’t have to worry about where our next meal is coming from, or whether we will have a home tomorrow, or whether we will survive another day of war and political turmoil. Most of us have been given vast opportunities for education. Most of us have loving and supportive family, or friends, or even both around us. Many of us who have religion in our lives enjoy the peace, purpose, and perspective that it provides.

We have also been given intellect, talent, ambition, diligence, and curiosity—gifts that enable us to take advantage of our privilege and opportunities. Sometimes we are hesitant to acknowledge these gifts for fear of being proud. A friend of mine recently posted a quote from C.S. Lewis, who said, “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” Not only is it okay to acknowledge our gifts, we must acknowledge them. But we must also recognize that they have been given to us for more than just our own benefit. Just among the people who will read this post are the talents, perspectives, and experiences that, if used with purpose, could change the world.

The philosopher Rene Descartes coined the Latin phrase cogito ergo sum, or, “I think, therefore I am.” This short phrase encapsulates the idea that our ability to think is what assures us of our existence. In my mind, often coupled with this statement is an image of Auguste Rodin’s bronze statue, The Thinker. Sitting on a rock, crouched over, with his chin resting on his hand, the pensive image of the Thinker has become a worldwide icon of the power of thought.

The thinker.jpg

Many people have recognized, however, that thinking alone does little to solve the problems that the world faces. The Thinker on his pedestal may be brilliant, but he does not accomplish much from there. I recently saw this comic depicting The Thinker:

The Thinker and the Doer.png

The post was shared on Facebook, where a few comments followed, hailing the virtues of the doers in the world. Yet I couldn’t help but think that the world has plenty of “doers” who don’t think…and they’re usually the ones creating the problems that the “thinkers” are trying to solve! So the Thinker has great ideas, but doesn’t accomplish much. The Doer, on the other hand, accomplishes a lot—but not necessarily for the better. Isn’t that depressing? But it doesn’t have to be, because we can choose to be both.

Now let me draw attention to one other figure, who was not alongside the Thinker and the Doer in this comic, but who perhaps could have been. This figure is the Feeler. I don’t know what the Feeler would have been doing in the comic—perhaps crying over a tub of ice cream and an episode of Grey’s Anatomy. But we can’t ignore the value of our feelings. As human beings, we have been given an immense capacity to feel—to feel love and care for others, to feel sadness for the misfortunes of our brothers and sisters (and for our own misfortunes), to feel righteous indignation at the injustices in the world, to feel wonder and joy and hope. Though we sometimes dismiss them as weaknesses, these emotions are often the motivating forces to turn our brilliant thoughts into productive actions. Eventually, as those thought-out and heartfelt actions pile up, we find ourselves waking up to a better world.

You can be a thinker—and a feeler—and a doer. The brighter future that you want to see is waiting right now in your mind and in your heart. I look forward to seeing it.

Advertisements

Sharing Humanity and a Setting

Acropolis.jpg

This summer, Jordan and I went on the trip of a lifetime. We spent five fast-paced weeks in Europe, visiting friends from our missions (to learn more about what Mormon missionaries do, visit this page) and seeing some incredible sights.

Among our unforgettable experiences was a particular night in Athens. To back you up, at this point we had been travelling for almost two weeks. Because we had had three flights at crazy hours, we had never properly gotten over jet lag and our bodies’ sleeping and eating schedules were all weird. So on this particular night, we found ourselves wide awake at midnight—and hungry.

Well, Europe isn’t as accommodating of late-night cravings as America (probably for the better), so most places would be closed and it probably wouldn’t be the best idea to go exploring Athens as lost tourists in the middle of the night. So we went downstairs and asked the man at the reception desk of our hotel if he knew of any ideas of places we could eat.

He said that the hotel had a deal with a nearby pizza place, and he could call them up and order for us. He even pad with his own credit card and let us pay him in cash (with no extra fee) to make it easier on us. While we waited for the delivery, we sat and talked.

Somehow, this always happens to us when we travel. (Not the late-night pizza thing, but the talking thing.) It’s impressive when you consider that, if you know us, neither of us are terribly social; in fact, we’re both quite the introverts. Yet the highlights of our trips are almost invariably the conversations we have with strangers that make the world just a little smaller and more meaningful.

Thakis, a native Greek, and his partner Patrick, from Holland, owned the hotel. They were working absolutely ridiculous hours to keep it going in its first years. Some nights they didn’t get more than two or three hours of sleep. He told us about how difficult it was to start a business in Greece, especially because of issues with government corruption. For example, though they were called a “bed and breakfast,” they were not allowed to serve breakfast. “It’s as stupid as it sounds,” he said. He told us about the mandatory year he had served in the military, which, though he disagreed with, he felt had given him discipline and other values that had helped him in his business.

He also expressed frustration about his experiences with religion. He saw the Greek Orthodox church hand-in-hand with the government that seemed to be crippling his country. He talked about the high number of Muslims in Athens who still couldn’t build a mosque there because of religious intolerance. He also knew of a nearby religious leader who regularly spouted some pretty hateful things about homosexuals—and Thakis and Patrick are not just business partners; they are a couple.

Intrigued, we sat listening to this man, his experiences and his opinions. We told him that we really hoped his business took off. I really hope it does. I’ve met few people so determined to grow and thrive where they are planted, even if their environment is stale and thorny. We also joked and laughed about some of the experiences we’d had on our trip to that point, and how they aligned with some of his experiences of the vastly different cultures in Europe and the world: the love of the French for their own language, the Greek forwardness that is not always as endearing as it is to tourists, and all the quirks of Americans.

Then he asked about us. When he heard that we were from Utah, he was curious about the Mormons. He asked if they dressed differently, if they integrated with society, etc. (I guess some people might have differing opinions on that!) We told him that we were Mormons, and I guess he thought we were normal enough. He asked questions about our religion and its origins, about our belief system, and about the way being Mormons affected our lives. He was surprised to learn that Latter-day Saints were not just in Utah, or even just in the United States, but could be found even in places like Greece. “I’m glad,” he said, and I think he meant it, “that there are Mormons in Athens.” He listened to us with the same sincere curiosity and empathy he had found in us.

When our pizza arrived, and we began to head upstairs, we wished him a good night, and for once found ourselves glad for our severely interrupted sleep and appetite routines. We had more great conversations over the next couple of days with him and with his partner—who made sure to tell us, as he helped us put our things in the Uber we were taking to the airport, to call them if we ever needed anything in Greece.

It’s a simple story, right? We met nice people. Nothing out of the ordinary. But later I started wondering. How would that conversation have gone if it had happened on Facebook? Maybe just as well, I don’t know. But my gut tells me that it wouldn’t have happened. Because we were strangers, our interaction on the internet would have had to be over some issue, opinion, article, or other post—and probably one we disagree on (because I’ve never seen a comment chain conversation about an agreement). And I’m sure there’s plenty we disagree on. We are from different countries, cultures, religious views, sexual orientations, life experiences. The only things we really had in common were our setting and our humanity. But that was enough.

I think that’s usually enough. I think that—at least most of the time—when we get to know people for people, instead of getting to know people in terms of ourselves or our views or our experiences, it’s hard not to respect each other. It’s hard to care too much about our differences, and when we do, it’s easier to find common ground. It’s easy to assume the best intentions in each other instead of the worst. It’s easy to see the good in others, both in their similarities to and their differences from us. And we’re better for it.

So my challenge is to go meet someone. All you need in common is a setting and humanity. You just might come away with a friend.

The Scientific Reason Not to Worry Too Much About the Future

A little while back I started realizing that I spent a lot more time thinking about either the past or the future than living in the moment. I realized it when I was enjoying a great weekend with a good friend, but found myself unable to properly enjoy my time with my friend because I was thinking about how the weekend was almost over and I was consoling myself by trying to mentally plan out my next trip to visit this friend. At one point I realized that we had been in the car together for nearly an hour and had hardly spoken because I was too busy thinking about when we could get together again.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who gets caught frequently with their mind somewhere else, often in some imaginary version of the future. It’s pretty easy to argue why we shouldn’t spend too much time in the past: we can’t do anything about it. But we can do something about the future, so what’s the harm in spending too much time there?

You’ve probably heard the saying, “The past is history, tomorrow’s a mystery.” Well, a couple of years ago, I did a little bit of studying to figure out why it is that tomorrow is a mystery.

Imagine for a moment a glass of water. Now imagine that I drop a single drop of food coloring (of your favorite color, of course) into the glass. Can you see how the color starts in a tiny, confined space, and slowly spreads out until it fills the glass?

Now here’s a question: can you imagine trying to predict exactly in which directions the color would spread and when? You’ve got about as much chance as a fish does of climbing a tree. But that’s exactly what we do when we try to plan our futures!

The second law of thermodynamics (no, I’m not a scientist, so pardon my lay explanation, but this is really cool) states that time is the measurement of the increase of entropy in a given system. In other words, the passage of time is literally just the increase of chaos. So in that glass of water, every second increases the possible movement of each of those particles of color. And in our lives, every minute—or hour, or day, or year—we think into the future introduces more variables that make our imagined version of the future less and less likely.

So what does this mean? YOLO? The heck with planning and long-term decisions? Umm…no. We still make choices based on tomorrow, because when that “today” comes, we want to be grateful for the choices we made in this “today.” And sometimes tomorrow’s reward requires the sacrifice of today’s pleasure. But it does mean that we shouldn’t procrastinate happiness.

We already knew that, but in case you needed a reminder, now you have scientific proof.

11050166_10205483821315546_7057953497932704267_n.jpg

It’s Okay to Agree to…Agree

My husband and I were able to take a few days last week to travel to San Diego to celebrate our first anniversary. We bought tickets to Belmont Park, an amusement park by the beach. On our way into the park, we were stopped by a young man working for Save the Children.  He did his job well, we had a nice conversation, and we agreed to sign up to donate (and then realized we were just a few months shy of the 25 year age requirement…but hey, now it’s on our radar!).

That same day I saw a link from Save the Children on my social media feed, in addition to a few others of my favorite charities, such as the AMAR Foundation, O.U.R. (Operation Underground Railroad), and LDS Charities. Something in particular stuck out to me about these interruptions in my news feed.

I follow these organizations, and so I see their content on social media, but this time I was compelled to wonder why I enjoyed seeing them so much, why they felt like such a breath of fresh air. So I paid a little more attention to everything around them, and I realized something: I enjoyed the fact that they weren’t political.

Okay, so that’s not totally true. In a strictly etymological sense, just about everything important in the public sphere is political. These organizations deal with people, community and global problems, policy and government, and money just as much as anything else does. The difference is that they center on issues just about everyone agrees on. Everyone agrees that children should have access to food, water, medical care, and education. Everyone agrees that human trafficking is despicable and tragic and must be stopped. Everyone agrees that it’s a shame that people are displaced from their homes and (regardless of views on war and immigration) refugees around the world are in need of help and support.

When you think about it, we agree on a lot. And we agree on a lot of very important things. So I wonder why we spend so much time talking about things we don’t agree on, often just for the sake of the disagreement. Don’t get me wrong, it’s important to disagree, and it’s important to talk about the things we disagree on. We’re arguing about what LGBT rights are and how those rights should be protected; we’re arguing about issues facing women and how to address them in public policy and culture; we’re arguing about climate change and to what extent government should impose regulations for the environment; we’re arguing about a lot of things. And we should be, because that’s part of the privilege of being in a governmental system where we have a voice and a vote.

But why is it that controversy goes viral, and things we all agree on don’t? Shouldn’t the things we all agree on and the things we all care about be the things we share and publicize the most? The potential benefits I see two-fold:

  1. If we focused more on what we agree on, we’d be a lot less miserable. We’d have better friendships and family relationships; we’d feel less inclined to judge and be defensive in all of our interactions; we’d be more encouraged by the goodness in humanity.
  2. Even more importantly, we’d actually get a few things done. 

star bellied sneetches

Arguing about what we disagree on is an important step toward change, but it only becomes change once we can get (at least most of us) to agree on something. Yet we seem to enjoy the argument so much that we don’t want to move on to the action stage of the equation. LGBT issues, women’s issues, and climate change issues (as just a few examples), are important, but why do I see sooo many more conversations about those things than about trafficking, or abuse, or poverty? Do we realize that if we all agree on those issues, we have immense manpower and resources to solve problems? Do we realize how much we can do just by agreeing?

If we, especially as Americans and other very privileged citizens of the world, put our time and energy into issues that we already agree on, how much could we accomplish? I’d even venture to say that the issues we disagree on would work themselves out more completely—because we’d be united, we’d be looking outside of ourselves, and, having established common ground, we’d be more willing to understand one another and work together.

I recognize that I’m just as much a part of the problem as anyone. I don’t have ready solutions and I’m not doing enough. But I strongly believe that if we focused more of our conversations on issues we agree on, we’d spend more time finding solutions and less time finding more problems.

It’s okay to agree to (respectfully) disagree. But there’s also a lot of value in just agreeing.

What if we started just by trying to give controversy and unity equal time? Here’s a challenge: the next time you share a post or a comment that you know will be controversial or contribute to an argument (and by all means, do participate in that conversation), find something to share that will bring unity. Something that you know will only find agreement. Something positive, or something that everyone wants to change for the better. Something that compels people not to argue, but to act.

Agree to agree. And enjoy it.

Women, Fairness, and Abortion: What Choice Do We Really Have to Make?

I’ve always been proud to be a girl. You could say I’ve been a feminist, even before the fairly recent resurgence of the term—I believed that a girl could do just about anything a boy could do (and thensome), and assumed it was common knowledge. Anyone who thought differently, in my mind, was just stupid. In fact, when it came to figuring out what I wanted to do when I grew up, my biggest struggle was that I felt like I could do anything and be good at it. Because I could.

It’s not that I didn’t realize the world was unjust, and that women often get the brunt of it. Experiences with assault and abuse (physical, sexual, and emotional), manipulation, discrimination and abandonment of women by men were very, very close to home, and so were the consequences, including poverty and mental and emotional health issues that led to generational cycles of abuse and neglect. In other words, I knew that life wasn’t fair, and that the things that made it unfair were not pronouns and wage gaps, but bad people and bad choices. I learned that the way to deal with that reality is to be a good person, make good choices, and choose good people in your life. And I learned, from strong women around me (especially my mother), that I could handle anything life threw my way and I could solve problems and I could make a difference. Because I can.

I remember the first time I had a real fallout with the word “feminism.” It was in a high school English class. We read “The Awakening.” The book is powerful, giving insight into the struggle of a woman living in an oppressing society and feeling stuck. I read, sympathized with her, and felt grateful for things like my calculus class, my track team, my career prospects, my social independence, and all of the opportunities I never would have had without pioneer women (and men!) who opened the world to my half of the population.

The book ends when the protagonist, suffocating in a life she isn’t really living, swims out on a beach and drowns herself. I thought it was a tragic story, first of all for her, but secondly for her children, who never get attention from either of their parents for the entire book and who are now left not only without a mother, but with the emotional scarring that will come with knowing they weren’t wanted.

In class, however, I was surprised to find that as we dissected this main character, we attributed every element of her final suicide to the situation created by someone else. Because she couldn’t change her situation, she had no choice. I was a little baffled. Of course she had a choice. She chose to kill herself. The consequences of that choice were real, and would be imposed on others who didn’t have a choice.

This isn’t a condemnatory comment on suicide; remember that the first tragedy was that the main character was so miserable she felt she had no other choice. That’s a situation most of us will never understand and cannot judge. But what do we do when we find someone who is in that situation, who feels so trapped that they think the only option is to end it all? We don’t encourage it, do we? “You’re right, you might as well do it. It’s not your fault life is so hard; you have no choice but to end it.” Of course not! We love them, we offer them all the help we can, and we do everything in our power to convince that person that they do have other options.

Ironically, I think my deathgrip on choice has disqualified me from being a “feminist” in the current major sociopolitical trend. I believe a woman always has a choice. She doesn’t always get to choose what happens to her, but she always gets to choose what she’ll do. No one can take that power away from her. So, when I hear of women who find themselves pregnant and who aren’t ready—too young, too poor, or not ready to handle parenthood, and feeling trapped—I want to love her, to offer all the help I can, and to convince her that she still has options.

Many women get pregnant because of a reckless decision, and are just as responsible as the men who got them pregnant, yet they face the heavier consequence. Many women are taken advantage of by men and are less responsible, sometimes not at all responsible, for the consequences that come. Like I said earlier, there are some bad people out there and there are some people who just make bad choices, and because of it life isn’t fair. It isn’t fair that men don’t  biologically have to be responsible for their actions (or the actions of others) like women do. And I believe wholeheartedly in doing what we can to counter that biological inequality with social justice.

What I don’t see as an option, however, is passing off the unfairness of life to someone else. Party A should take more responsibility, but they leave it to Party B. Not fair. Party B doesn’t want the responsibility either, so they give it to Party C, who had less to do with the original problem than Party A or B. Have you ever been the Party C in this situation? Even less fair. That’s often how we get cycles of abuse and bullying, and sometimes it’s the reason the people closest to us get our worst behavior. Two wrongs have never made a right, especially when the second wrong happens to someone who didn’t commit the first one.

That’s why, as someone who considers herself a feminist and who refuses to give up the idea of fairness no matter how unfair the world will always be, I do not consider abortion a women’s rights issue. I do not consider it an issue of choice any more than I consider suicide a choice—one that I pity rather than condemn, but nonetheless an escape in the face of feeling trapped when, in reality, there are always other options. If abortion were just another form of birth control, that would be one thing. I’d say that anyone who stood in the way beyond sharing beliefs and opinions was infringing on a woman’s right to her own body. And I’ve never found it acceptable for someone to infringe on someone’s right to their own body.

But a baby’s body isn’t his/her mother’s body. Everyone agrees that we can’t kill babies or children, or anyone for that matter, for our own convenience or even well-being. As much as we try to make this issue a social or political one by lumping it in with women’s issues, LGBTQ issues, healthcare and welfare, and other sociopolitical causes, I think we know that the issue of abortion’s morality and/or legality can only be a question if we settle the question underlying it: is a fetus a human?

Scientists say it isn’t. Oh, but other scientists say it is. It’s dependent on its mother’s body, yes, but it also has its own genetic sequence, and its own blood type, and a brain, and sense perception, and all the physical parts of a separate human body. And it has potential. (I’ve never known a tumor or a parasite to grow up into a human being.) We’ve had such a  hard time pinpointing the moment that a fetus becomes a human, and our definition keeps changing. We have to ask ourselves, really ask ourselves, not in heated political arenas but introspectively and seriously, when we try to define a human, are our attempts genuine, or are we looking for a convenient answer? We’ve found convenient definitions and rankings of human beings before; try slavery and social Darwinism, both of which drastically improved lives—well, some lives. We’ve learned. We’ve learned to really ask the question.

What if we are never able to adequately answer the question? Can we be comfortable killing this maybe-human and ignoring the question? Even knowing that it might be a human, and will be a human, and feels what we do to it, just because it is silent and we can’t ask it? Aren’t we trying to stop silencing victims? And could our attitude toward unborn babies possibly affect our attitudes toward other “inconvenient” individuals? The elderly? The mentally or physically disabled?

I think this needs to stop being a political issue, because it will never be treated fairly as a political issue. Liberals will see it as a feminist issue, and conservatives will oversimplify it and won’t acknowledge the complexity and (sometimes un-chosen) pain and fear felt by an unprepared mother about stigma, birth, parenthood, or adoption. We have work to do:

  • We need to remove the stigmas associated with pregnancies whose conceptions we weren’t there for and therefore have no business making assumptions about.
  • We need to strengthen families and communities to be able to help each other when unexpected pregnancies happen.
  • We need to improve sex education, teaching
    • what is and isn’t acceptable, to target sexual assault
    • self-discipline, and
    • the positive and negative physical and emotional consequences of sex.
  • We need to work on quality, accessible healthcare, including birth control and prenatal care.
  • We need to work on our adoption processes and foster care systems.
  • We need to be more free with our money to make these things happen.

But until we’ve answered that fundamental question, we can’t consider abortion acceptable. Because we, women and men, do have a choice. And even if life isn’t fair, we can be. We can.

11223809_10207130702526547_4179870142095450334_o

Live Life With Regrets

Dumb question: Have you ever made a mistake?

I’m still waiting for someone to invent a “delete” button for personal choices. Or at least a “do-over” button.

I think about my mistakes a lot. Some of them have been one-time occurrences: giving in to some temptation or other, saying something stupid that I didn’t really mean (or maybe I did mean, but I shouldn’t have), chickening out of something I should have done. I’ve found myself thinking about that mistake for days, weeks, months, and even years. I replay the scene over and over and over again, with all the endings it should have had. What’s actually happening is that I’m trying, vainly, to mentally “delete” it. It’s a painful, crippling, and downright exhausting process.

Some mistakes have been more complicated: misaligned priorities, selfish attitudes, hypocritical mindsets. Those kinds of mistakes are the worst, because they aren’t about what I did, but about who I was (and sometimes, still am). The imaginary “delete” button doesn’t even work for them, because I’d have to delete entire segments of my life, and I don’t really want to do that. So for these mistakes, instead of “deleting,” I apply the equally crippling and exhausting, though not quite as painful, process of mental “editing.”

I have some help in these processes. My inner Perfectionist is usually in charge of “deleting,” and my helper in “editing” is someone I call the Justifier. She just tries to convince me that my mistakes weren’t really mistakes, or that I couldn’t reasonably have done things any better, or that those faulty attitudes were really just personality traits that made me me. She does this by exaggerating the faults of others, blaming people and circumstances, and telling me all the great things about myself that have absolutely nothing to do with the mistake in question.

The Perfectionist and the Justifier are constantly fighting, but neither are ever right. They just fight because that’s what they do. The Perfectionist is bent on making me feel like a failure for not being perfect, and the Justifier is bent on making me think I’m already perfect. The only reason I keep them around is because they shield me from this awful thing called Regret.

I was sitting in church one day as a missionary in Preston, England. I was thinking about how fast my mission had gone, and how I wished I had known and done more. If I could go back and do it all over, I thought, I’d do it so much better. Then a Romanian sister spoke from the pulpit. She’d had the exact same feelings about a mission she had served several years earlier. She must have been acquainted with the Perfectionist and the Justifier, too. But she’d gotten rid of them. How?

She said that she finally realized, “If I could look back and say that I wouldn’t have done anything differently, I would be failing. That would mean I hadn’t learned anything! How depressing!”

This was a great “duh” moment for me. It made sense: no journey or finish line is impressive that didn’t start somewhere, and I’d rather be moving forward than backward. Regret isn’t my enemy; the presence of Regret simply means I’m better now than I was before. Which means I’m actually winning at this whole “life” thing. Sweet!

482510_434631443279232_94942532_n

I  can evict the Perfectionist and evict the Justifier. I’m probably not going to go looking for Regret or ask her to move in with me, but when she stops by we can have lunch and a nice chat. She’s good for me. Way better than keeping around those other roommates, anyway. They’re pesky, and they still drop by pretty often, but I’m working on standing my ground.

So if you’re struggling with Regret, remember that it only means you’re improving. Why is it so hard then? Well, to start, see if there’s a Perfectionist or a Justifier hanging around.

Unalienable

On Friday, (yes, Holocaust Remembrance Day, and yes, a week after coming into office), President Donald Trump issued an executive order to reform immigration policies. This included, among many other things:

  • stopping immigrants from 7 countries from entering the U.S. for 90 days, and those of refugee status for 120 days
  • a provision for banning Syrian refugees indefinitely
  • reducing the number of refugees the United States will accept this year from the pledged 110,000 to 50,000
  • a statement (not part of the order itself, but made at its signing) that the United States will give preference to immigrants and refugees who are Christians over those who are Muslim

There are other implications of the order, but these are some of the highlights. Currently, there are several federal courts that are pushing back against parts of the order, especially in regard to U.S. residents with green cards who have been travelling and are suddenly being detained at airports, as well as refugees who have already been through a thorough vetting process and who are also being detained.

These courts, because their job is to defend the Constitution of the United States, are looking to prove that parts of this executive order are unconstitutional. I believe that in regards to green card holding residents, they will be able to do so pretty easily. (I think the fact that they have to is evidence that, while timely action can be a virtue, there is a reason that major actions usually take more time and more people. This one was obviously not thought out or implemented very well.)

However, I am doubting that they will be able to find anything in the Constitution to combat the actions to keep out refugees. Why would they? The Constitution was created to dictate how the United States government treats United States citizens. Under the Constitution, the government’s primary responsibility is to protect American citizens, regardless of anything else. In addition, it covers some of the basic rights of immigrants, travelers, and others who find themselves in America. There simply are no rights guaranteed for refugees or people in other countries who want to be here.

So that’s it. America has no responsibility for people outside its borders.

Except…it does. The Constitution is not America’s only defining document. Well before the Constitution came the Declaration of Independence. The declaration doesn’t have much hold on what the government does. But if we claim to be Americans who uphold the principles upon which this country was created, it has a lot of hold on us.

The Declaration states that we believe “all men [mankind, of course]” are “created equal” and are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” including “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

I’ve studied Latin for about 7 years now. In most circles, it’s not a terribly helpful area of knowledge, but once in a while it does lend some insight. Unalienable is important word. It comes from alienus, which is an adjective used to describe the strange and foreign. In other words, if certain rights are unalienable, they are so intrinsic that they can’t be made foreign.

Do we actually believe that? It’s beautiful rhetoric, sure, but do we actually believe each person is completely equal in their inherent worth? Or does that present too many moral questions we don’t want to face? I mean, it does bring up the question of whether we have a “Creator.” It makes us wonder who qualifies as “created” and endowed with the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – like unborn babies. But those are discussions for another day. Today I’m thinking about what that means for those who are alieni.

The writers of the Declaration were writing for a country of immigrants. Many of them were refugees, fleeing poverty and religious persecution. Why would they have been persecuted because of their religion? Well, because it conflicted with state religion and therefore made believers dangerous. How can we trust that someone who places higher faith in God than in man, and believes in Him differently than we do, will obey our laws and be loyal to our country?

In fact, many of the first settlers came to the United States and set up theocracies (think Puritan witch hunts). That’s a little scary, huh? The Mormons tried to do the same thing, and they were persecuted from Missouri to Illinois to Utah – which wasn’t even an American state. So we’ve struggled with this question for awhile. We’ve even had periods of our own religious terrorism – the KKK was alive and well in the South not too long ago. (My mother can tell you some stories.) Yet we’ve always managed to work through it and figure ourselves out eventually.

Why have we managed to work through it? Is it because we’re a fearless, perfectly tolerant, amazingly cooperative people? Honestly, no. It’s because we’ve had to acknowledge that once we doubt the rights of others, we’ll find them slippery in our own hands.

If we place preference on one religion over another when it comes to life-changing decisions, and if we make it okay to label a religion as dangerous and un-American, we’ll soon find we’ve paved the way for our own religion to be seen that way. We can’t ask to preserve religious freedom if we don’t mean for everybody.

I’m a Christian. I’m even a Southerner, and my family has deep Southern Baptist and Pentecostal roots. I’m not a member of the KKK. Duh. I also went to high school with about 4,000 other teenagers, and none of them turned out to be high school shooters. Go figure. Yet it does happen. There have been more deaths in America from white supremacists and from messed-up (American) kids who find solidarity in groups like ISIS or who come up with their own vendetta than from any foreign terrorists.

I’m not saying terrorism doesn’t exist. I’m saying it exists on a far wider scale than we think it does. If we think we can keep out Syrian refugees and protect ourselves from terrorism, we’re kidding ourselves.

Again, the government doesn’t have responsibility for refugees. It has responsibility for us. But if it turns away refugees because we are scared, we are in trouble. My life is not worth any more than a Syrian refugee’s. If a few Americans like me have to add an extra sliver of risk to their lives to the huge risks they already take every day (I mean, I get on the road in Utah in the winter; that’s saying something) in order to save 60,000 refugees from suffering on a level most of us can’t even fathom, it’s worth it. If I lose my life, or I lose someone I love, it’s a tragedy. There’s no taking that away. But it would have been a tragedy 60,000 times over if I had let those refugees lose their lives or, probably just as bad, lived lives with no liberty or opportunity to pursue happiness.

If we think that a refugee doesn’t have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, we’ve lost our own claim to it. If we have the ability to offer those rights in our country when they are denied in other countries, we have the responsibility to do it. The government isn’t responsible, but I am. And so are you. Because we’re Americans.

We gave ourselves that responsibility in 1776 when we used the word unalienable.

hith-declaration-independence-istock_000000586071large-e