Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A Call for Compassion

Our greatest threat is not the atomic bomb. Our greatest threat is the callousness to the suffering of man. – Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
We live in a dangerously polarized world, full of division and hatred, suffering and violence. Conflict rages in places as diverse and far off as Afghanistan and the Middle East, Chechnya and the Sudan. Although the chief causes of these conflicts are political and territorial, they are cloaked in religious terms. The world’s major religions – I speak here of the monotheistic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – have failed miserably at countervailing the forces of injustice. In many parts of the world, religious fundamentalists, including many self-proclaimed Christians in this country, have sowed the flames of prejudice and ignorance. Muslim extremists have used their faith to justify and commit atrocities that violate Islam’s most sacred values. The Arab-Israeli conflict has been allowed to fester for generations, turning a secular and political conflict into a “holy” war in which reasoned compromise and pragmatic solutions are victim to intransigence and intolerance.

Every day the news is filled with stories of tragedy and conflict; of school shootings, suicides, and murders; financial institutions in crisis; the growing and shameful gap between the richest and poorest among us. People have lost faith in the political process and have stopped talking and listening to each other. Many young people today are beset with feelings of alienation and helplessness, as the religious and secular institutions around them seem impotent, incapable of solving the world’s problems.

Even the quality of our political conversations has suffered. When I was in college and law school in the early 1980’s, I often argued with my Republican friends and other students about current events. We debated many of the same issues that today continue to divide liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans – the government’s proper role in alleviating poverty and putting people to work; the need for social welfare programs; the pros and cons of government regulation. But even in the most heartfelt and animated discussions, there existed mutual respect and goodwill between us. It was understood that, though we disagreed on the means, we sought common ends; it was an accepted truth that each of us desired a peaceful and prosperous world. We struggled in different ways with issues of fairness and equality, productivity and individual responsibility, but we understood that our arguments were made in good faith. Sadly, in today’s environment, such civil discourse seems less possible.

Something is missing in American political life today. It has been festering like a sore for the past two decades or so, when compromise became a dirty word and the conversation turned bitter and ugly. Political disagreements are no longer principled differences, but instead reflect one’s integrity and worth as a human being. The cultural divide also has carried over into mainstream religious institutions, in debates over gay ordination and marriage, and in disputes over religious orthodoxy and biblical inerrancy. Lost in the political and religious culture wars is the concept of compassion.

In some circles, to speak of compassion is suspect, an indication that one is soft. For persons of power and influence, presidents and senators, civic and business leaders, speaking of a compassionate society suggests weakness. For most of us, in our everyday lives, compassion takes a back seat to cold realism. We do what we must to get through each day, to satisfy the demands of our jobs and of life’s competitive pressures.

Albert Einstein foresaw that as our society grew more modern and technologically advanced, we would need the virtues of our traditions more, not less. He described such tradition-based figures as Moses, Jesus, Buddha, and Gandhi, as “geniuses in the art of living – more necessary to the dignity, security and joy of humanity than the discoverers of objective knowledge.” In an age of atomic warfare, Einstein knew that the future of humanity demanded compassionate applications to the world’s problems, whether scientific, medical, economic, or political.

In November 2010, Krista Tippett, the host of NPR’s Speaking of Faith (now called On Being), lectured on compassion at a TED conference, rightly noting that compassion is a word of great meaning, one possessed of transformative powers. If properly understood, compassion has the power to change us, individually and collectively. Compassion is not, as is sometimes believed, sympathy or pity for the less fortunate. Rather, compassion consists of genuine expressions of kindness; of empathy for the sorrows and joys of others; of forgiveness and reconciliation, generosity and hospitality. Compassion is not a feeling or an emotion, but is physically manifested, and must be cultivated and practiced in everyday life. Compassion is curiosity without assumptions, a willingness to see beauty in others, including the child with Down’s syndrome, the mentally disabled man in a wheelchair, the toll collector, the police officer, the soldier; all of the strangers in our midst.

Compassion brings us into the territory of mystery and allows us to see the face of God in each other, in the members of our families, our friends, our co-workers; in the homeless women begging for change by the subway grate, and the drug addict huddled beneath the bridge. Compassion is tenderness.

One of the chief tests of our generation is whether we can build a global society that allows people of all religious and political persuasions to live together in peace and mutual respect. Where are the voices of compassion in the world today? The major faith traditions, which often are part of the problem, should be leading the way in helping to make a more just and compassionate world a reality. Historically and theologically, principles of compassion are embraced by all of the world’s religions. It is the essence of the Golden Rule, to do unto others as you would have others do unto you. Judaism teaches tikkun olam, to repair the world; Jesus teaches to love thy neighbor as thyself; and Mohammed instructs, “That which you want for yourself, seek for mankind.” And yet, too often the voices of religious extremists drown out the voices of compassion.

Whether in the public pronouncements of Christian and Islamic fundamentalists, the bishops of Rome, or the ultra-Orthodox Hasidim in the West Bank, lately one hears few appeals to compassion; instead, the focus tends to be on matters of sexual conduct or ancient doctrinal disputes, implying that a “correct” view of these issues are the true criterion of faith. “Man has often made a god out of dogma,” admonished Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “a graven image which he worshipped. . . He would rather believe in the dogma than in God . . . [and] be ready to take other people’s lives, if they refuse to share his tenets.”

It is difficult to think of a time when the compassionate voice of religion has been so needed. Krista Tippett has said that she once believed “that all of the important and interesting problems in the world were political, and all of the solutions, too. But I changed my mind.” She has since realized there “are places in human experience that politics cannot analyze or address, and they are among our raw, essential, heartbreaking, and life-giving realities.” The really important things in life, as in death, “how to love, how we can be of service to each other . . . are the kinds of questions religion arose to address.” Have our religious institutions lived up this challenge?

How do we restore compassion to the center of our civic and political life? How can we make it the essence of religion, morality, and civic virtue? Theologian and historian Karen Armstrong, author of The History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Ballentine Books, 1993), and perhaps the world’s foremost expert on the history and traditions of the Abrahamic faiths, helped formulate the Charter for Compassion, an important and potentially transformative document drafted in November 2009 by the leading voices of six faith traditions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism). The Charter, which affirms that compassion “lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions,” calls upon people of all faiths “to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate; to ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions and cultures; [and] to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings – even those regarded as enemies.”

Until we are able to see the humanity in each other, to set aside ego and transcend selfishness, to see the world through the eyes of the Other – the strangers among us, those with whom we disagree, our enemies and our friends; until we are able to feel empathy and seek genuine understanding, we are doomed to repeat the divisions and hatreds of the past. “There is no human being,” wrote Heschel, “who does not carry a treasure in his soul; a moment of insight, a memory of love, a dream of excellence, a call to worship.” True compassion breaks down the boundaries of politics, dogma, ideology, and religion. The practice of everyday compassion helps us recognize our interdependence and our shared humanity. “We can either emphasize those aspects of our traditions, religious or secular, that speak of hatred, exclusion, and suspicion,” says Karen Armstrong, “or work with those that stress the interdependence and equality of all human beings.” The choice belongs to each of us.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

A Matter of Perspective

When I was first married, my mother-in-law sat down at her kitchen table and told me about the day she went to confession and told the priest that she and her husband were using birth control. She had several young children, times were difficult – really, she could have produced a list of reasons longer than your arm.

“You’re no better than a whore on the street,” said the priest.

This was . . . a long time ago. It’s just an explanation of why the bishops are not the only Roman Catholics who are touchy about the issue of contraception. – Gail Collins, The New York Times (“Tales From the Kitchen Table”).
There is nothing like a culture war to get people’s juices flowing. Some of the rhetoric coming from the Republican presidential candidates this past week has been, to say the least, over the top. Newt Gingrich accused President Obama of waging a war on religion. Mitt Romney said the President was trying to “impose a secular vision on Americans who believe that they should not have their religious freedom taken away.” Rick Santorum, who is personally opposed to contraception, suggested that Obama was a step away from bringing the guillotine to America.

Relax guys. There is no war on religion. There will be no guillotines. There is no attack on the Catholic Church, or any church. President Obama is not anti-religion. As I have pointed out before on these pages (“The President on Prayer, Humility, and the Search for Wisdom” and “The Role of Faith in the Public Square”), Obama is a committed Christian who possesses a compassionate and refreshing Christian orientation that is far more Christian than anything I hear coming from the mouths of Gingrich and Santorum. Although the Republicans won’t pass up any chance to shout inflammatory rhetoric and accuse Obama of trampling on the rights of believing Christians, I am quite certain that Jesus of Nazareth would be far more comfortable with the President’s brand of religion than with the hypocritical Newt or repressive Rick.

Somehow lost in most of the discussions and finger pointing this past week are the facts. The HHS regulation at issue simply requires that preventive health care services, which must be covered by employer health insurance policies without co-pays under the Affordable Care Act, include contraception. It does not require anyone to use birth control. It specifically exempts churches and any religious employer that primarily hires and serves its own faithful. Although it applies to religiously affiliated hospitals and universities that serve the public and engage in interstate commerce, no Catholic hospital must itself provide contraception or family planning services to their employees or patients. They simply cannot opt out of insurance policies that cover the cost of birth control to their employees, but must in fact offer the minimum level of insurance coverage for preventive health services as do all other employers under the Affordable Care Act.

Much overlooked is the fact that Catholic hospitals have complied with similar rules concerning contraception coverage already in place in 28 states. It has been the law in New York state for the past ten years. Fordham University, a Jesuit college in the Bronx, has a health plan for its employees and students that cover contraception, though it does not distribute birth control at its student health center. Manhattan College, founded in 1853 by the De LaSalle Christian brothers, a Catholic religious order, carries an insurance policy that covers birth control prescriptions. Many other Catholic health care systems and universities provide similar coverage to their employees. Somehow, none of these state requirements have inflicted the slightest blow to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.

As Linda Greenhouse of The New York Times noted, the 629-hospital Catholic health care system, which employs 765,000 people, constitutes 14 percent of the entire U.S. health care industry and serves one out of every six patients. Of the top ten revenue producing hospitals in the United States in 2010, four were Catholic. Catholic Health Initiatives, for example, in Denver, Colorado, operates 78 hospitals in 20 states and has revenues of $8.2 billion a year. Catholic Healthcare West in San Francisco is the fifth largest hospital system in the United States, with over $11 billion in assets. Ascension Hospital in St. Louis, Missouri, runs 67 acute health care centers in 20 states and the District of Columbia. As Greenhouse writes, “These institutions, as well as Catholic universities – not seminaries, but colleges and universities whose doors are open to all – are full participants in the public square, receiving a steady stream of federal dollars. They assert – indeed, have earned – the right to the same benefits that flow to their secular peers. What they now claim is a right to special treatment” as a result of religious doctrine.

These hospitals and schools hire hundreds of thousands of Catholic and non-Catholic employees alike – nurses, doctors, teachers, administrators, secretaries, and janitors – all of whom are entitled under the Affordable Care Act to preventive health services, including contraception, without having to pay costly co-pays. So, what is all the fuss about? Is it a violation of religious freedom to require Catholic hospitals and universities to provide their employees with insurance policies that cover contraception?

Under the Constitution, the Catholic Church has the absolute right to preach that birth control is immoral. While I believe the Catholic Church’s position on contraception is archaic, inhumane, and has contributed historically to human suffering and poverty, particularly in poorer countries where the doctrine is more likely to be followed, I respect the right of the Church to preach its version of the Truth. But when an institution engages in commercial and secular activities, its mere affiliation with the Catholic church, or any other religious group, does not give it the right to exemptions from laws and regulations that apply to everyone else. Nor does a religious affiliation entitle a hospital or university from depriving its employees of their rights under the law as citizens.

A religious body that does not like a public policy that affects its members is free to advocate and work to change such policies. But it cannot claim a special exemption from the law. In the case of Catholics and contraception, how principled is the opposition? I cannot help but think a large part of what is going on is political spin and a loss of perspective. Yes, the Catholic Church officially teaches that contraception is a sin, but 98% of American Catholics have at one time or another violated that teaching. So, is it really a matter of conscience? Would these same voices support the right of a school run by Christian Scientists to deprive its teachers and janitors of a health care plan because they do not believe in medications, surgery, or medical intervention, and instead believe only in prayer as a way to heal? If a church is opposed to blood transfusions, are they entitled to remove this procedure from its university health plans for the employees who clean the labs and mow the campus lawn? If we were talking about a sincere religious prescription against antibiotics instead of contraception, would the same people arguing over the Affordable Care Act be coming to the defense of these religious institutions? I think not.

The Catholic Church does a lot of great work in this country, and throughout the world, in providing social services, health care, and aid to the poor, all consistent with its view of the Gospels, to care for all of God’s children. I disagree with the Catholic Church’s rigid position on abortion, but I have always respected its pro-life consistency in opposing abortion and capital punishment alike and advocating economic justice for children and the poor; they don’t abandon the children after they are born, but advocate for governmental aid for poor children, and work to assist poor families through the many good works of Catholic Charities and other church-based organizations. Complying with the Affordable Care Act and the HHS regulation, which as modified by the President later this week is endorsed by the Catholic Health Association and Catholic Charities, violates no one’s religious freedom.

Irrespective of the religious freedom issue, underlying much of the opposition from the right is a deep-seated hostility to the concept of birth control as preventive health care, as well as a belief that the government simply has no business in ensuring that American citizens have a right to basic health care services. Is contraception a legitimate health care issue? What business does the government have in making contraception affordable and accessible?

There are many compelling reasons why contraceptive services are properly included under the definition of preventive care, and it is, frankly, a shame and a disgrace that the Catholic Church, the Republican presidential candidates, and many Evangelical Christians who, while not agreeing with the Catholic Church on birth control, nevertheless see an opportunity to accuse Obama of being anti-religion, fail to acknowledge the positive impact contraception has had on the health of women. It is a matter supported by countless studies and painstaking research. For example, according to a January 2011 report submitted by the Guttmacher Institute to the Institute of Medicine, the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences, contraception is a crucial component of preventive health services for women, helping to avoid unintended pregnancies, reduce abortions, improve birth spacing, and increase the overall health of women and children. A national study in 2006, for example, found that nine million clients receiving publicly funded contraceptive services resulted in 1.94 million fewer unintended pregnancies and 810,000 fewer abortions. A 2007 study in California showed that publicly funded family planning services resulted in 287,000 fewer unintended pregnancies, including 79,000 to teenagers, and 118,200 fewer abortions.

The positive health benefits of contraceptive services extend well beyond merely preventing unintended pregnancies. Short birth intervals between pregnancies, which occur when contraception is not easily accessible or affordable, often lead to lower birth weights, preterm births, and small size for gestational age. Women who become pregnant without planning are less likely to recognize a pregnancy within the first six weeks or so, resulting in fewer prenatal care visits to doctors and more damaging behavior (alcohol and tobacco consumption, poor nutrition) during the early stages of pregnancy. Oral contraceptives have been shown to help women reduce the risk of developing endometrial and ovarian cancer and to provide short-term protection against colorectal cancer. Condom use among males prevents sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, and may also reduce the risk of cervical cancer for women.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the development of and improved access to contraception are among the 10 great public health achievements of the 20th century, along with the development of smallpox and polio vaccines and public health campaigns to reduce tobacco use. Access to contraception has “contributed to the better health of infants, children, and women, and have improved the social and economic role of women.” Indeed, the use and coverage of contraceptive services as part of preventive health care services has been recommended by the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine.

Then why the need to provide contraception coverage free of costly co-pays? Because the costs associated with contraceptive use, while minimal for more affluent members of society, can be considerable for those of lesser means. Average costs for contraception, particularly women using the pill, and other devices, can exceed $100 a month. A 2010 study found that the out-of-pocket expenditures for a full year’s worth of birth control pills amounted to 29% of the average woman’s annual out-of-pocket expenditures for all health services.

Moreover, when it comes to reducing the overall costs to society of health care expenditures, contraceptive services are extremely cost effective. According to the Guttmacher Institute, every dollar invested by the government for contraception saves $3.74 in Medicaid expenditures for pregnancy-related care related to births from unintended pregnancies. This is a huge savings. In 2008 alone, the services provided at publicly funded family planning clinics saved over $5 billion in health care expenditures. Savings to health insurance companies and employer provided health insurance plans are equally dramatic.

None of this, of course, matters to those on the right who oppose the President on every action he takes, every policy he pronounces. When they see an opportunity to claim that “Obama is out to get your momma,” then by God, they are going to play that card. After the outcry from the Roman Catholic bishops and others, including Democratic allies in the Catholic community, the President revised the rule on birth control coverage so that religiously-affiliated hospitals and universities could shift the cost of contraception coverage to their insurance companies. Some on the left have criticized the President for caving to tyrannical bishops and right-wing zealots; many on the right are just as unhappy with the compromise as with the original regulation. So be it. Unlike his political opponents, Obama has proven once again that he is serious about governing, not political pandering; that he is willing to accommodate the concerns expressed by Catholic institutions while assuring universal access to contraceptive services.

There is no war on religion. The First Amendment remains an enduring and essential element of our constitutional democracy. The Catholic Church can continue to preach against contraception and its hospitals and universities will not be forced to provide contraception services. But the people who work for those institutions, and all other Americans, are entitled to an essential component of health care reform that is good for women’s health, reduces unintended pregnancies and abortions, and enhances the lives and health of millions of Americans. The only remaining question for conservatives is to what are you really opposed? Any principled “religious freedom” argument is gone. So, is it contraception you oppose? Affordable contraception? Access to affordable contraception? Expanded access to preventive health care services for all Americans? The rights of women? Or are you just cynically and politically motivated to oppose the President’s every move? What kind of religion is that?

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Why Poetry Matters

The world is too much with us: late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.

--William Wordsworth (“The World Is Too Much With Us”)

I have never been good at small talk. I sometimes experience physical pain at cocktail parties and so-called “networking” events, as I try to feign interest in what some self-important person has to say about yawn-inducing stuff that is destined not to matter or be remembered. I tend to talk very little at these events and try to leave early. When I am lucky, I find a kindred spirit, someone who shares my disdain for triviality, who believes that life is too short to ignore that which makes life worth living; someone who shares my passion for the world of ideas and would rather discuss religion and philosophy, history and politics, or something really important, like baseball. It is a rare moment, it seems, when serious conversations occur, when we genuinely reflect with each other on ideas and notions that touch the human spirit, or endeavor to address the world’s problems. “Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.” This inspirational statement, urged by the character of John Keating in Dead Poets Society, is why I write these essays. I do not always have the answers and sometimes have the wrong ones, but at least I ask the questions. It is my attempt, however feeble, to develop deeper insight into the diversity of life.

I do not suggest that we must always be serious. God only knows that we need a little more light-hearted humor in this world. Laughter, especially the gut-wrenching, roll-over-and-fall-down variety, is an essential human emotion that makes us feel alive. Sometimes we need a little more Rodney Dangerfield and a little less quantum physics. (Rodney Dangerfield grabs his necktie and jerks his head, his eyeballs popping out of his face. I don’t get no respect, no respect at all. The other day I went to see my psychiatrist and he told me I was crazy. I said, "I want a second opinion." He said, “You’re ugly, too!”). But, as Yogi Berra once said, “The future ain’t what it used to be. . . . It ain’t the heat, it’s the humility. . . . Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

Let’s face it, being human is a difficult and complex endeavor. We do what we must to earn a living, take care of our families, and meet our financial obligations. But we often forget or ignore the things that should demand more of our time and attention. When we engage with the beauty of our surroundings, explore the miracles of science and nature, and open our minds to great works of art, we more meaningfully connect with our humanity. It is why I so like baseball which, for me, like good drama and great literature, captures the emotions and passions of my youth.

It is easy to ignore the majesty of the world around us, to become caught up in our day-to-day struggle to master an ever more competitive world, the demands of work and the pressures of life. The world has a way of beating us down that, over time, causes us to appreciate less the intricacies of life and the wonders of nature; the red-wing blackbirds nesting in the oak tree bordering the fence in my backyard, or the playfulness of the squirrels climbing and jumping from tree-to-tree in search of food. It is not our ability to sell a new product or land a new contract that makes our lives meaningful. Instead, science and theology, poetry and the study of history, art and music, genuine human interaction, these are the ways we share in the great human quest for truth and understanding.

“Life is never made unbearable by circumstances,” Viktor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, “but only by lack of meaning and purpose.” Physicist and astronomer Adam Frank, who writes for National Public Radio’s Cosmos and Culture, asks, “When that eventual moment comes and we prepare to slough off this mortal coil, will we be able to look at our years on the planet and feel that we created real meaning for ourselves and those around us?” Frank suggests that being aware of the wonders of the universe, to the mysteries of science and the beauty of the natural world, are what help us to feel alive:

[T]he process of trying to honestly enter into a dialogue with the world establishes a context for my own life that sometimes allows me to rise above the petty day-to-day squabbles of broken washing machines and general knuckle-headedness. By entering into that dialogue with great effort and earnestness, the world ceases to be something merely “at hand,” something merely there for distraction or entertainment.

Instead, it’s fully alive and present. The ever-opening sky, the wheeling stars and even the nightly stream of crows I watch heading to their evening roosts all become poignant mysteries that speak of greater powers than I will ever fully understand.
Like many professional people of my generation, my work and career are important to me. It is, after all, how I spend the majority of my waking hours. But as the years progress, I am less tolerant of competitive, ambitious, get-out-of-my-way people, interested only in self-aggrandizement, the size of their bonus, and landing the next big contract. I have observed clients, former classmates and colleagues work 70 to 80 hours a week for companies and firms that produce nothing of value. Sales targets, quotas, revenue origination, become the measured worth of the individual. The world of ideas, of passion and poetry, is something for which many have little time or interest.

“Being human is never easy,” writes Umair Haque, a refreshingly innovative thinker who authors a blog for the Harvard Business Review. “Perhaps as an unintended consequence of our relentless quest for more, bigger, faster, cheaper, now, we’ve comfortably acceded to something akin to a minor-league contempt for the richness and grandeur of life unquenchably meaningfully well lived.” Technological advancements have made the U.S. workforce 25 times more productive than it was 100 years ago. And yet, more and more jobs are moved offshore as companies hoard record profits; in the process, we seem to have produced a shortage of, in Haque’s words, “living, breathing, well-rounded humans; with a moral compass, an ethical core, a cosmopolitan sensibility, and a long view born of historicism. What we’ve got plenty of are wannabe-bankers whose idea of a good life goes about as far as grabbing for the nearest, biggest bonus – what we’ve got less of are well-rounded people with the courage, wisdom, and capacities to nurture and sustain a society, polity, and economy that blossom.” We need more people who can master the art of “nuance, subtlety, humility, and grace.”

Perhaps we need more poetry and less measuring sticks, more reflection and less cold, calculating reaction. Our politics have become mean-spirited, lie-induced, nightly responses to an increasing alienation infecting the populace. Our businesses and corporations have become impersonal, button-pushing, computer voice-overs that sacrifice human beings to save three cents on the dollar or to earn an extra 0.5% return on investment. Poetry, like literature, art, and music, provides “a language adequate to our experience,” explains poet and writer Jay Parini, author of Why Poetry Matters (Yale University Press, 2009). “It teaches us how to live our lives, how to locate and describe the inner life. . . . enhances our sense of the spiritual world by attaching us closely—almost physically—to the material world. . . . [and] refreshes our lives by refreshing our sense of language, making reality visible in unique ways.” Without poetry, Langston Hughes may never have written, “My soul has grown deep like the rivers.”

Poetry helps us to clarify and make sense of things, to see things in a more perfect light. Hopkins described poetry as “common language heightened,” for it refines the language of ordinary life. To ignore the power of poetry is to be indifferent to all of the things that make life worthwhile. “Poetry is finer and more philosophical than history,” said Aristotle, “for poetry expresses the universal, and history only the particular.”

I realize that poetry doesn’t matter to most people. Admittedly, I am neither a poet nor a student of poetry. But I understand its importance, even if I don’t practice its art. Perhaps if we paid closer attention to the poets, we would have less tolerance for war, torture, and human depravity. “To have good sense,” wrote Horace, “is the first principle of writing well.” When I see my youngest daughter write poetry as a means of making sense of a chaotic world, and of expressing herself in ways and on topics she otherwise refrains from discussing, I see firsthand its power to transform. Poets, like writers of great literature and composers of powerful and emotionally compelling music, give us context, language and meaning. Poetry has the power to open minds and alter lives. In a world without poetry, we would cease to be fully conscious of the possibilities that life affords.

Ultimately, poetry, like science, theology, art, and philosophy, is a quest for understanding, a striving for excellence. By reaching for a higher plane and challenging our assumptions, we remain attentive and awake to the everyday miracle of our existence. “Let us remember,” said Christian Wiman of Poetry magazine, “that in the end we go to poetry for one reason, so that we might more fully inhabit our lives and the world in which we live them, and that if we more fully inhabit these things, we might be less apt to destroy both.”