Monday, April 26, 2010

Natan Luehrmann-Cowen: Finding Meaning in the Face of Great Loss

And, when he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of Heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.
--William Shakespeare

He was a sweet, gentle soul, full of smiles and energy. For thirteen years, he lived, laughed, and loved. A brilliant young man possessed of enormous gifts, Natan Luehrmann-Cowen had a giant heart, a generous spirit, an imposing intellect, and a zest for life that exceeded most mortal souls. He lived life as if each day were his last. He loved his family; he loved his friends; he loved his Jewish faith; he loved living and dreamed undoubtedly of grand achievements and unlimited milestones. He was gifted in so many ways it is not possible to do him justice. Best of all, he was a mensch.

A bit reckless at times, Natan possessed a stubborn independence that recognized few limits. He believed he could do anything he set his mind to, from rock climbing to chemistry, from performing a piano recital to running a 5K race. He was a champion chess player and an academic standout (to us mere mortals, Natan was a near genius, scoring close to 700 on the math SAT’s in only the seventh grade). He was an enthusiastic member of his synagogue’s junior choir, a budding clarinetist and concert pianist, a competitive swimmer and the newest member of the middle school tennis team (though he did not find out that he had made the team on the day he died) and, as if that were not enough, he played baseball, soccer, and cross country. He did everything with gusto and zeal, his fervor and determination occasionally outmatching his athletic skills. For thirteen short years, Natan led by example, getting everything he could from life, a young man determined to find meaning and purpose, to have life catch up to him.

Although small in stature, Natan had an enormous presence, providing energy and light to any room he entered. Had he been given the chance, I am convinced he would have someday found a cure for cancer, or invented a new energy source, or written the definitive treatise on the laws of physics, or perhaps all of these things. He was a special young man, destined for greatness.

I do not know why bad things happen to good people, only that they do. Young men and women die in combat, fighting valiantly for their country in wars they do not fully understand or have any control over; young children die of cancer and leukemia and other illnesses that turn the world upside down, violating the natural order and causing chaos in the lives of their family and friends. Natural disasters inflict suffering and death on thousands of people every year. The world reminds us each day of life’s fragility, yet most of us ignore the signs and, when something tragic occurs, we are caught blindsided, our breath taken away by unexpected and unwelcome events.

I cannot offer any good reasons for why Natan is no longer with us, why God, or fate, or just pure bad luck decided to take him from us. It is easy to wonder, and impossible to answer, why God would allow someone as good and decent and with so much potential to benefit the world as Natan Luehrmann-Cowen to become the victim of a criminally reckless act. I cannot explain why the forces of nature would permit Natan, while skateboarding after school on a warm, sunny, early-Spring afternoon, to be struck by a truck operated by a 25 year-old heroin addict doing 63 miles per hour in a 25 m.p.h. zone. A police investigation found that the driver was under the influence of several illegal street narcotics at the time of the accident – blood tests proving he was seriously impaired – while an accident reconstruction found that the truck was traveling nearly 40 miles per hour above the speed limit on a quiet, side street in a normally safe, suburban neighborhood. The District Attorney has charged the driver with vehicular homicide and other crimes, but that is another matter, one for the courts and public scrutiny; it will not return Natan to us, nor console or comfort his loving family.

It is difficult not to ask why, not to be full of anger and bitterness that a bright and shining star of this world was taken from us. Where does one find comfort in the face of such tragedy? How does one continue to pray to a God that would allow such things to happen?

Though it is easy to blame God for such tragedy, in the end it serves no purpose and gets us off track. We often attribute to God the ability to intercede and protect us from harm, as if the orderliness of the universe cannot let bad things occur. But sometimes tragedy strikes the innocent for no good reason; sometimes a conglomeration of forces mold together in a string of unlucky circumstances, and there is no point in looking for a reason. The world is full of random suffering, occasionally caused by nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In When Bad Things Happen to Good People (Avon Books, 1981), Rabbi Harold S. Kushner, whose own faith was tested when his young son died prematurely of an illness, has written that suffering is sometimes caused by the workings of natural law, by forces and circumstances blind to good and evil and involving no moral judgment. Kushner suggests, correctly I believe, that God does not intervene to save good people from earthquakes, disease, or misfortune, nor does God intercede to punish the wicked. "Laws of nature do not make exceptions for nice people. A bullet has no conscience; neither does a malignant tumor or an automobile gone out of control. That is why good people get sick and get hurt as much as anyone.” God does not interrupt the world’s activities to “protect the righteous from harm” and, while God does not cause tragedy, neither does God prevent tragedy.

Why then, do we resort to prayer in the face of tragedy? How then, do we continue to believe in a God whose ability to protect us from harm or to correct injustice is so limited? There may be no true answers to such questions, but Rabbi Kushner provides two reasons that I believe are worth consideration: First, the prayers of others can make us aware that we are not facing our problems alone. Second, God can give us the strength of character that we need to handle our misfortunes, if we are willing to accept it. “People who pray for miracles usually don't get miracles. . . . But people who pray for courage, for strength to bear the unbearable, for the grace to remember what they have left instead of what they have lost, very often find their prayers answered." God neither sends us the problem, nor can he fix it, but “[h]e gives us the strength to cope with the problem."

Natan’s funeral service was held at Congregation Beth Or, a place where Natan left a huge footprint and touched the lives of so many. In leading the service, Rabbi Gregory Marx made plain that he could offer no words of comfort, that Natan’s death violated the natural order of things; children should bury their parents, not the other way around. Natan’s fate is a cruel example only of the chaos of this world, proof that there is no order to the universe, not when such pain and suffering can be allowed to occur. But perhaps, as Rabbi Kushner has written, pain “is the price we pay for being alive.”
When we understand that, our question will change from, 'why do we have to be in pain?' to 'what do we do with our pain so that it becomes meaningful and is not just pointless empty suffering? How can we turn all the painful experiences of our lives into birth pangs or into growing pains?' We may not ever understand why we suffer or be able to control the forces that cause our suffering, but we can have a lot to say about what the suffering does to us, and what sort of people we become because of it. Pain makes some people bitter and envious. It makes others sensitive and compassionate. It is the result, not the cause, of pain that makes some experiences of pain meaningful and others empty and destructive.
In the end, "All we can do is try to rise beyond the question 'why did it happen?' and begin to ask the question 'what do I do now that it has happened?'"

That Natan is no longer with us is a reality we all must learn to accept; for Natan’s wonderful parents, Ben and Mia, and Natan’s older brother, Aron, perhaps only God, with the support of friends and family, can provide them the strength to endure and carry on over time. For the rest of us, those touched by Natan’s greatness and zest for life, it is the necessity of moving ahead, to transgress the pain, knowing that what happened cannot be reversed but can only be prevented from happening to another child. Perhaps our aspirations must encompass the goal of helping the Luehrmann-Cowen family maintain their sense of purpose, compassion, and taste for life, so that Natan’s wonderful memory, his love and generosity, will endure and live on forever.

So, in the words of Rabbi Kushner, “Is there an answer to the question of why bad things happen to good people?”

That depends on what we mean by 'answer'. If we mean 'Is there an explanation which will make sense of it all?' . . . then there probably is no satisfying answer. We can offer learned explanations, but in the end, when we have covered all the squares on the game board and are feeling very proud of our cleverness, the pain and the anguish and the sense of unfairness will still be there. But the word 'answer' can also mean 'response' as well as 'explanation,' and in that sense, there may well be a satisfying answer to the tragedies in our lives. . . . [T]o forgive the world for not being perfect, to forgive God for not making a better world, to reach out to the people around us, and to go on living despite it all.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Dreams of a Nuclear Free World

Every man, woman, and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or by madness. The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us.
--President John F. Kennedy, September 25, 1961

Growing up in the 1960’s, the threat of nuclear annihilation was ever present, an essential ingredient of the Cold War. The Soviet Union and the United States pointed thousands of nuclear warheads at each other, the possibility of unimaginable destruction the push of a button away, the lives of hundreds of millions of human beings hanging in the balance. Although the two countries maintained a cold peace through a policy of mutually assured destruction, we flirted with catastrophe for decades, escaping the worst only because our civilian leaders thankfully refused on several occasions – the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Korean War, even Vietnam – to acquiesce reflexively to the recommendations of certain overzealous Generals.

At the peak of the Cold War, we relied on the leaders of both sides to understand the “balance of terror” – the knowledge that a nuclear exchange would destroy all of us. Even our principal adversary Nikita Khrushchev warned that, should nuclear war occur, the survivors would envy the dead. This perverse rationality acted as a strong restraint against war. Judged by most measures of human morality, the arms race was tragic and ethically bankrupt. But as long as the weapons remained in the hands of America and Russia, it was believed that sanity would prevail. Quietly under the surface was the fear that other nations, and worse, those applying a less thoughtful risk management calculus, would seek to join the ranks of the nuclear powers.

In To Seek a Newer World (Doubleday & Company, 1967), Robert Kennedy argued that halting the spread of nuclear weapons “must be a central priority of American policy, deserving and demanding the greatest additional effort.” Kennedy, possessed with the knowledge that for 13 days in October 1962 the world stood on the brink of a nuclear holocaust, recognized that if nuclear weapons became generally available, “each crisis of the moment might well become the last crisis for all mankind.” He questioned whether “our politics can grow up to our technology” for he knew that it is “far more difficult and expensive to construct an adequate system of control and custody than to develop the weapons themselves.” Moreover, even with controls, human errors are inevitable. “In a world of nuclear weapons, one [mistake] could be fatal.”

Kennedy further recognized that nuclear weapons could not solve the problem of national security or act as a substitute for sound policy. The struggle of other nations for prestige and independence, power and recognition, has served as a powerful motivation for them to develop and possess armaments of death and destruction. As I write, Russia and the United States together possess more than 23,000 nuclear missiles (including reserves), and hundreds more are in the hands of Britain, France, Israel, Pakistan, India, and China, with North Korea now also believed to have nuclear capabilities. That volatile nations in unstable regions, and non-state terrorists out to harm America and its allies, seek to develop and possess nuclear weapons is a risk the global community cannot abide. Unlike the Cold War policy of deterrence, however, the threats associated with nuclear proliferation are undeterred by massive firepower.

Robert Kennedy’s vision of a world disarmed of nuclear weapons was for him a moral imperative. In the years following the Cuban Missile Crisis, he asked rhetorically, “What, if any, circumstance or justification gives . . . any government the moral right to bring its people and possibly all people under the shadow of nuclear destruction?”

Kennedy's concern and vision is one now embraced by some of this nation’s wise and elder statesmen, including former high-ranking cold warriors George Schultz, Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, and William Perry. These men believe that a world without nukes is, in the long term, both achievable and essential. As reflected in a 2007 Wall Street Journal editorial (“A World Free of Nuclear Weapons”), they contend that, with the rising threat of nuclear terrorism, the world urgently must reduce the number of nuclear weapons to zero. These former hard liners are no longer worried about a cold war nuclear missile exchange, but they do worry about jihadists seizing fissile material from an unstable Pakistan, or a possible Middle East nuclear race involving such countries as Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. They also worry about human errors and mistakes by the traditional nuclear powers. As former Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sam Nunn, recently told the Christian Science Monitor, the United States and Russia remain on a five-minute “quick launch” timetable, a policy “bordering on insanity.” And as more countries turn to nuclear power to solve their energy needs, there will be an exponential increase in the reprocessing of plutonium and uranium, the essential ingredients of a nuclear bomb.

The continued existence of thousands of nuclear weapons is the most dangerous legacy of the Cold War. As Robert Kennedy foresaw 43 years ago, to control the spread of nuclear weapons, we must recognize “the need to lessen our own reliance on nuclear weapons, and to halt the growth of the overwhelming nuclear capabilities” of the United States and Russia. We cannot expect existing nuclear states to disarm, nor can we expect others desirous of nuclear weapons to forego their development, if we are unwilling to reduce substantially our own destructive forces. “[I]t is the prestige associated with nuclear giantism, humbling and infuriating smaller nations, that leads them to think that only a nuclear power is heard in the councils of mankind.”

Equally important is the need to lock down known fissile material and its attendant technology, to prevent even a small amount of plutonium from falling into the wrong hands. The ambitions of North Korea, Iran, and other volatile nation states, and the stated desires of Al-Qaeda and terrorist groups to possess and use the ultimate weapon of mass destruction, makes evident both the difficulty and urgency of this issue. To that end, we must strengthen the framework of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which sets international standards to prevent new states from developing or possessing nuclear weapons; and we should ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which bans all nuclear explosions on Earth whether for military or experimental purposes.

A modest effort in the right direction occurred on April 8, 2010, when President Obama and Russian President Dimitry Medvedev entered into the most substantial nuclear arms pact in a generation. The new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) will shrink the limit of nuclear warheads to 1,550 per country over seven years and presents a fresh opening in relations with our former Cold War antagonist. Although the nuclear arsenals of both countries still allows for mutual destruction several times over, the arms reductions nevertheless signal that the United States and Russia -- which between them possess 90 percent of the world's nuclear weapons -- are serious about disarmament and the further spread of nuclear weapons. The treaty is the culmination of a movement started in the mid-1980’s by then President Ronald Reagan, who like Presidents Kennedy and Obama, have called for a world free of nuclear weapons.

There are, of course, skeptics who argue that the goal of a nuclear-free world is both impossible and dangerous, that total disarmament would lead only to rogue states and terrorists in possession of nuclear arms, with law abiding nations held hostage. This is not a frivolous concern. No one, however, is advocating unilateral disarmament. The United States cannot dismantle all its nuclear weapons without absolute, verifiable assurance that no one else possesses them. Whether this is feasible in my lifetime is doubtful, but as former Secretary of State Schultz has said, “If a few leaders of nuclear-armed states stepped forward with conviction . . . to seek the prohibition of nuclear weapons, many obstacles that seem immovable today might become movable.” The fact is that the global community has previously banned certain weapons deemed immoral and unfit even for warfare (e.g., 1972 Biological Weapons Convention; 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention). That certain rogue states and terrorists may attempt to circumvent international conventions does not mean we should secretly possess such weapons, but instead we should work with law-abiding nations to ensure that no one obtains the ingredients or capacity to develop and manufacture these weapons.

If we fail to pursue a solution to the nuclear issue, we do so at our children’s peril. As Robert Kennedy wrote in To Seek a Newer World:

[T]hose who disparage the threat of nuclear weapons ignore all evidence of the darker side of man, and of the history of the West. . . . Twice within the memory of living men, the nations of Europe, the most advanced and cultured societies of the world, have torn themselves and each other apart for causes so slight, in relation to the cost of struggle, that it is impossible to regard them as other than excuses for the expression of some darker impulse. . . . The camps and the ovens, the murders and mutual inhumanities of the Eastern front, the unrestricted bombing of cities (with deliberate concentration on areas of workers’ housing), the first use of atomic bombs – truly this was war virtually without rules or limits.
That the so-called civilized nations of the West, in the middle of the 20th century, were capable of the most cruel and inhuman atrocities imaginable does not bode well for the 21st century, when jihadists and non-democratic forces seek the weapons to destroy us all. As President Obama warned last week during the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, the dangers associated with nuclear terrorism present “one of the greatest threats to global security [and] to our own collective security.” Only a concerted effort by the global community can reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism, for “the problems of the 21st century cannot be solved by any one nation acting in isolation – they must be solved by all of us coming together.” On this we should all agree, for the challenge of nuclear security is neither Democrat nor Republican, neither liberal nor conservative; it is a matter of inescapable morality, of planetary survival and the future of humankind.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Opening Day and Superstitions of the Faithful

The snow has melted and the warmth of the sun, the smell of barbecue, and the blooming flowers of spring have replaced winter’s harsh edges. Historically, the winds of March and the cold, wet rains of April delay the advent of spring’s gentle touches, but that matters for little now because, come the first week of April, baseball is for real. The rookies who gave their all in Spring Training have been sent packing to farm teams in small town America, places like Asheville, Bowie, and Reading, their dreams deferred until rosters expand in September or, through the happenstance of luck and fate, a big leaguer is cursed with injuries or a prolonged slump.

For fans spiritually and existentially attached to their teams, the ones who invest emotion and passion and irrational exuberance, this is when the games count, when every pitch, every at bat is recorded in the box scores, the standings a daily reflection of a team’s worth. On Opening Day, every team is a contender, each tied for first place, when all possess hopes and dreams of October success. Even fans of the lowly Washington Nationals – well, at least the young, innocent ones, those for whom the drumbeat of defeat has not beaten down the soul – believe they have a chance on Opening Day. If our players remain healthy, if Jones can make a comeback, if our defense holds up and the bullpen doesn’t let us down, if . . . .

On Opening Day, last year’s disappointments and life’s discouragements are temporarily washed away, the fresh scent of optimism a direct corollary to the sun’s reflection on the outfield grass. For Roger Angell, it is when the season becomes the “real thing”, when “the sudden new standings and fresh stats, the return of line scores and box scores and speculation and involvement” can make us well again. As explained in Game Time (Harcourt Books, 2003), a collection of Angell's baseball essays from The New Yorker:

Seen from the veranda of Opening Day, the sunlit new season appears to stretch away almost endlessly into summer. The winners of each first game may entertain hopes, however manic, of a wholly unexpected pennant, while the losers remind themselves that there remain one hundred sixty-one games in which to do better.
Opening Day is when baseball superstitions reassert themselves, when seemingly rational people displace logic and adopt a respectful adherence to the Gods of Baseball. Of course, one must tread lightly on this topic, for the baseball gods are sensitive, fickle souls. As any baseball player can attest, you must not disrupt or upset the angels and demons of the national pastime. There are certain rules for which nearly all players abide: do not step on the foul line; do not talk to a pitcher in the midst of a no-hitter; and do not mess with a winning streak. Skeptical ballplayers ignore superstitions at their peril. Mel Stottlemyre, pitching coach and former ace of the New York Yankees, once thought that the foul line myth was a silly belief, that stepping on the foul line would have no effect on his performance. He once tested this proposition against the Twins, cavalierly stepping on the foul line on his way to the mound to start the game. “The first batter I faced was Ted Uhlaender,” Stottlemyre recalled to the Baseball Almanac, “and he hit a line drive off my left shin. It went for a hit. Carew, Oliva, and Killebrew followed with extra-base hits. The fifth man hit a single and scored and I was charged with five runs. I haven’t stepped on a foul line since.”

The baseball gods have been known to curse entire teams, refusing championships for decades, even centuries, the curse removed only upon adequate displays of remorse, misery, and despair. Perhaps the most famous curse to afflict an entire team is the one that no longer applies – The Curse of the Bambino – inflicted on the Boston Red Sox following the 1919 season when the team’s owner sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees for $125,000. For 84 long years, Red Sox fans suffered in pitiful agony, occasionally flirting with victory only to have their aging first baseman watch a groundball go through his legs, or a Game 7 end in painful defeat. The Curse of the Bambino ended in 2004 at the dawn of a new century, when the Gods of Baseball had a change of heart, satisfied that sufficient despair had transpired over the banks of the Charles River.

The Cubs have not made it to a World Series since 1945, the year Billy Sianis, owner of a Chicago tavern, was ejected from Wrigley Field during a World Series game. Sianis had brought his pet goat to the game (he had bought a ticket for his goat, which displayed a sign that said, “We Got Detroit’s Goat”), but by the seventh inning, the stench became intolerable and stadium security removed Sianis and the goat from the park. Outraged over the treatment afforded him and the goat, Sianis placed a curse upon the Cubs, declaring that they would never again play in another World Series game at Wrigley Field. 65 years later, the Curse of the Billy Goat remains intact as the Cubs have yet to return to the World Series.

The baseball gods exert their influence in Japan as well. For the past 25 years, the Hanshin Tigers of the Japanese Baseball League have endured the Curse of Colonel Sanders. In 1985, the Tigers won their first championship in 68 years and, in celebration, fans resembling Tigers stars began jumping into the polluted Dotonbori River in Osaka. Unfortunately, no one among the inebriated fans resembled the Tigers’ American star, Randy Bass, so in a creative attempt at improvisation, resourceful fans went to a nearby Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet and forcibly removed a statue of Colonel Sanders, tossing it into the river. Since that fateful day, the Tigers have plummeted back to mediocrity. Legend has it that the team will not win another championship until someone finds the Colonel. Although city officials have attempted to recover the statue from the river’s depths, it has been for naught. The Colonel remains at the bottom of the Dotonbori, and the Tigers remain in the cellar.

It is well known that players are always on the lookout for anything that might provide Divine assistance. Minnie Minoso of the Chicago White Sox once showered in his uniform after going hitless in a game, believing he needed to wash away the evil spirits. The next night, Minoso got three hits and, following the game, eight of his teammates jumped in the shower fully clothed.

When Frank Viola pitched for the Minnesota Twins in 1984, he noticed during one home game that a fan held up a large banner that said, Frankie Sweet Music Viola. Whenever the banner appeared, Viola seemed to pitch well. In fact, neither he nor the Twins lost that year when the banner was displayed; Viola went 15-0 in games that the banner appeared, and his four no decisions all resulted in Twins victories. According to an account in Sports Illustrated, when Viola met the fan, Mark Dornfield, they talked for two hours. When the Twins made it to the World Series, Viola learned that Dornfield was without a ticket. At the last minute, Viola’s wife, Kathy, called Dornfield and gave him tickets to the first and seventh games. With the banner proudly displayed, Viola won both games and the Twins won the World Series.

I would like to tell you that all of this is silly, that it is simply the irrational imaginings of men who play a boys' game. I know from experience, however, that this is not so, that you really must respect the Gods of Baseball. If your team wins whenever you wear that unwashed, grimy, spaghetti stained tee shirt, then wash it at your peril. On the Cardinals’ opener on Monday, I tried to anticipate the needs of the Gods that I imagined would be in charge that day. I put on my bright red Cardinals polo shirt commemorating the World Series Championship of 2006, classy but low-key, so as not to offend. I brought out my favorite Cardinals hat – the one with the sweat stains that has brought good luck on past occasions – and placed it strategically on the couch; wearing it, I thought, might be deemed arrogant and cocky, a surefire means to agitate the higher powers.

My strategy initially paid off; the Gods were in a generous mood, allowing a Pujols homer in the first and a Rasmus dinger in the fourth. But later that inning, with the Cardinals up 3-0, things started to falter. Carpenter conceded two home runs to the Reds in the bottom of the fourth, narrowing the lead to 3-2. As anxiety quickly set in, I knew that an adjustment was needed. So, I put on my hat, believing that perhaps my display of team loyalty was overly modest, as today – Opening Day – the Gods of Baseball expected more. Was it the displaced hat that disrupted the spirits, or something else? Then I recalled that, in the middle of the fourth inning, I had turned off my ceiling fan to accommodate a slight chill. Was it just a coincidence that the Reds soon thereafter hit two home runs? I think not. After the fan powered back on, the sweat stained hat positioned atop my head, the Cardinals went on to score eight more runs, including a grand slam by Molina and a second Pujols home run. Colby Rasmus in centerfield robbed Scott Rolen of a home run with a fantastic jumping catch over the outfield wall, and the game’s balance comfortably drifted back in my favor. The world was set right again, the Gods of Baseball temporarily satisfied. At least until next game.