TIME foreign affairs

Malaysia Flight 17: The Unique Way the Dutch Mourn

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The convoy of hearses carrying coffins containing the remains of victims of the downed Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 arrives at the Korporaal van Oudheusden Kazerne in front a crowd of people lined up along the road, on July 23, 2014 in Hilversum, the Netherlands. VINCENT JANNINK—AFP/Getty Images

With their innate distrust of ideology, the Dutch are strikingly different from Americans in their gut reactions.

A cultural conundrum that I struggled to comprehend during my six years of living in Amsterdam concerned the Dutch attitude toward celebrities. They are passionate about their own celebrities – far more than about Hollywood stars, which is fair enough – but in the midst of intensely gossiping about a homegrown film or sports personality, they will suddenly turn blasé, as if the celeb were a mere family member who had started to become uppity.

The explanation is in the size of the nation. When you’ve got a total population of 16 million crammed into a country smaller than most individual U.S. states, everyone is within a couple of degrees of separation of everyone else. Wesley Sneijder, Robin van Persie, and the other stars of the country’s World Cup team are brought down to Earth by the fact that, chances are, you know them, or your uncle does.

That thought came to mind as I’ve watched somber memorials unfold like dreams in cities all over the country this week. Roughly two-thirds of the 298 people who died on Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 were Dutch. I asked several Dutch friends how they were doing. As I more or less expected, every one of them knew at least one person who was on the plane. One, who lives in The Hague, said her daughter was friends with a girl whose entire family was on the flight: they were going on vacation to Borneo. “They were in primary school together and took the same ballet lessons,” my friend said of her daughter and the girl who died. “When you think of their empty house, it is all very unreal.”

A few people want to lash out, saying the country should strike out against Russia. Someone posted the address of Vladimir Putin’s daughter, who lives in the Netherlands, on the Facebook page of the Netherlands-Russia Center. There are some vicious tweets.

But in the main the reaction to the sudden loss of a cross-section of Dutch society – the proportionate loss of life for a country the size of the United States would be about 6,000 people – has been muted. The government declared a national day of mourning, but events were already taking place everywhere, in a natural, non-official way. A mountain of flowers in front of a restaurant in Rotterdam. A pall of silence descending on the “Rose Kermis” gay festival in Tilburg. The deaths were evenly spread all over the country, and the memorials are localized.

The Dutch are strikingly different from Americans in their gut reactions to things. When hit with a national shock, Americans will almost instinctively reach for ideology or ideals. People saw 9/11 as an assault on “freedom.” The Dutch have an innate distrust of ideology. You could relate that to World War II and their experience under Nazism, but it goes much farther back. It has something to do with being a small country surrounded by larger countries that have had long histories of asserting themselves.

It also stems from the fact that Dutch society grew not out of war against a human foe but out of the struggle against nature. Living in low lands on a vast river delta, the Dutch came together to battle water. Building dams and dikes and canals was more practical than ideological. For better or worse, the Dutch are more comfortable with meetings and remembrances than with calls to arms.

Geography has defined destiny throughout Dutch history. The little country has reached outward, and prospered thanks to its ability to trade and engage with others; it also has proven a safe for refugees from less tolerant lands. Even before its 17th century golden age, Holland had become an intensely polyglot hub for goods and ideas, intricately connected with farflung places.

Flight 17 reflects and updates that history. Of course, by definition the plane was packed with travelers. But this tragedy gives an inadvertent indication of how racially mixed the country has become. Among the Dutch passengers listed on the flight manifest were a Vietnamese family who lived in Delft, the city of Vermeer; a Chinese couple from Rotterdam; a Dutch-Israeli student; a Dutch-Malaysian family; a Dutch-American; people born in Curacao and South Africa; and others with German, Indonesian and British backgrounds.

We hear about the growing multiethnicity of the country mostly through the screeching of right-wing fanatic Geert Wilders, member of parliament and leader of the Freedom Party, who riles up some elements of society by declaring that newcomers (read Muslims) are torpedoing Dutch traditions and turning the land of windmills into a giant mosque. The international media is a sucker for Wilders because he seems to give the lie to what the Dutch are most famous for (besides tulips and marijuana cafes): tolerance. The Dutch pioneered the concept in the 16th century, enshrining it in their de facto Constitution two centuries before “all men are created equal.” America’s history–especially New York’s–was deepling influenced by it, via the Dutch colony of New Netherland and its capital of New Amsterdam on Manhattan.

Wilders knows that the media always glom onto a counter-narrative, and he has used that fact repeatedly to his own advantage and to the detriment of his country’s image abroad. But one truth revealed by this tragedy is that the country is quietly becoming a melting pot, a place intricately connected to other parts of the world. The Dutch people who died on MH17 mirror their own rapidly evolving society, and remind the rest of us that our futures don’t lie in tribalism, but in expanding our connections.

Russell Shorto is the author of Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City. This piece originally appeared at Zocalo Public Square.

TIME

Pittsburgh, You’re Too Nice to Be Unhappy

Pittsburgh at night
Tom Olson—Getty Images

A new study says the Rust Belt city is the second least happy metropolis in the United States. Quit whining, yinz. Pittsburgh's got too much going for it to be depressed

C’mon Pittsburgh, what’s your problem? Seriously.

It wasn’t all that surprising that some piece of convoluted research by the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research concluded that New York City is the nation’s unhappiest city. Of course it is. Being domiciled here is designed to make you unhappy. Even furious. You take your life in your hands crossing the street because angry cab drivers are pissed off that you are using their roadway. And you return the favor as you slowly walk in front of them, glaring. Yesterday, my subway was halted by an announcement that someone needed medical attention. Passengers were annoyed that someone had the temerity to pass out on their train. There are eight million of us crammed into buses, trains and apartments. We pay $15 for a sandwich and have to argue for an extra pickle. It’s one seething metropolis, all right. We love it that way.

But the NBER is telling me Pittsburgh is the runner up in unhappy. You gotta be kidding me. Pittsburgh doesn’t know from unhappy. I’ve lived there. These are not people who behave as though they are miserable. Pittsburghers are so darn nice you could scream. You want to make a left turn against traffic? Go ahead, don’t even bother to stop because the driver opposite will be waving you across. Why? Because Pittsburghers aren’t in a mad rush to get somewhere. They don’t have to fight for anything. You want to go to a baseball game or a symphony? No problem, there are always tickets, and parking isn’t a hassle. Want to leave town? Easy. Pittsburgh has an airport that’s actually pleasant, if underused, while New York has three area airports that aren’t good enough to qualify as UN refugee camps.

You want to be unhappy, Pittsburgh, don’t let me hear about quality of living. Or the cost. Compared with New York, living costs are a bargain. You don’t have to inhabit $5,000 a month shoeboxes. There are plenty of green spaces and parks in which to frolic and you can buy a knockwurst and cheese sandwich at Primanti Bros. for $6.39. That’s about the price of a Hershey bar in midtown Manhattan.

This is not the criteria for unhappy. Sure, Pittsburgh has taken its share of hard knocks. The steel industry imploded in the 1980s, and half the population had to abandon the place. The city was broke. But since then other industries, including special metals, have restored some of its manufacturing base while high-tech firms and the medical industry have added to the economic base. Pittsburgh’s unemployment rate was 4.7% in May, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. What do you have to complain about? In New York City, the unemployment rate was 6.7%, unless you are in acting, where it’s 97%.

So listen up, Pittsburgh. I know you’ve got a chip on your shoulder. You always want to be No. 1 one in something. Yeah, Cleveland got the Republican convention and LeBron, but you look down on Cleveland anyway. They’re Midwesterners, aren’t they, and you think of yourselves as part of the East. But don’t even think about taking over our spot as the nation’s leading whiners. You’re too nice. Your city is too livable. Find something else to be unhappy about, and we’ll tawk.

TIME Parenting

I Left My Kids With a Babysitter to Go to a Job Interview—And Came Home to Find Them Hungry, Naked, and Locked Up

Shadow of child sitting in swing
Getty Images

Unlike the mother who left her daughter in a park, my childcare was legal. But all too often there's no way to win as a low-income mom.

On a beautiful summer’s day last week, a mother was arrested for letting her daughter play at the park, rather than taking her to McDonald’s.

Debra Harrell’s 9-year-old daughter was tired of waiting around the fast-food restaurant in North Augusta, South Carolina, where her mother worked. The laptop Harrell had purchased to keep her daughter occupied during her shifts had recently been stolen from their home. When Harrell’s daughter asked to be dropped off at a well-populated park instead, Harrell agreed, giving her daughter a cell phone for emergencies. This worked fine for two days, but on the third, a woman asked the girl where her mother was. When the answer was “at work,” the woman called the police. Harrell was jailed and her daughter was put in the custody of the Department of Social Services.

Many people were outraged that a mother would allow her child to go unsupervised for so many hours. The authorities deemed it worthy of an “unlawful conduct towards a child” charge. Obviously, this wasn’t an ideal childcare situation, but Harrell made an educated risk assessment based on the information and resources—not many—at hand. The fact of the matter is that child abductions in a public place by a stranger are incredibly rare. Most of the kidnappings in North Carolina, dating back to the 1980s, have been by a friend or family member, according to the North Carolina Department of Public Safety. Nationally, 76% of abductions are friend or family related.

People forget, but finding safe, trustworthy, affordable childcare is a luxury many don’t have. Even doing things the “right way” can go terribly awry.

In 2010, my family moved from Connecticut to Florida for my husband’s new job. After he had been unemployed for almost two years, living 18 hours away from our friends, family and support system seemed a small price to pay for full-time work, especially since we had two new children to support.

About three months into our stay, I secured a job interview for a television station in Jacksonville, about two hours from where we lived. While our family of four was finally making $55,000 a year, we had lost all our savings in the economic crash and had accrued some debt. Our credit rating was smashed, and we were hemorrhaging funds into a house back in Connecticut that was worth $100,000 less than what we’d paid for it, on top of paying our new rent. We were no longer on public assistance, but the outflow of money was far greater than the inflow. In fact, during our first months in Florida, we were worse off financially than we had been when I had been working (and making far less) in Connecticut. Accepting the job interview seemed like the only option.

Our regular babysitter, a college student who had trained with me and had stayed with my two young daughters alone a few times, couldn’t make it, but suggested a friend of hers who had met my kids briefly. She seemed good with them based on the few minutes of interaction I’d seen. With only one day’s notice and no family or friends nearby, as is the case with so many people facing poverty, I decided to take a chance on her.

Wrong choice.

I’ll never know what really happened that day because the girls were not quite 2 years old and not vocal yet. But when I returned home nearly eight hours later, the door to their room was shut. Their little fingers were sticking out beneath it, as if reaching for something. I opened it, and found my babies in an exhausted sleep on the floor of their bedroom, naked and diaperless. They hadn’t eaten all day. The sitter said they had refused any food and had cried the whole time I was gone. She locked them in their room because she didn’t know what else to do and couldn’t stand the sound of their crying. They had undressed themselves in despair. She had not once called to tell me about this, and when I phoned her to check in, she had said everything was fine.

While in my case “legitimate” childcare in the eyes of the state turned out to be more harmful to my children’s well being than Harrell’s free-range “choice,” the truth of the matter is that childcare is a struggle for anyone with limited means and options. Coming from a huge family in New England, I had never faced that reality before. There had always been some relative available to help. The crash had changed all that, and it opened my eyes to the reality many mothers face, where trying to carve a better life for their family (or even just putting food on the table) leaves them with little choice or time to find adequate, safe care for their children.

After the incident, I cried for a week straight. My kids, now nearly 6, have never again had a sitter who hasn’t trialed with me for a full week. I also turned down the job, and haven’t been away from my children for eight hours at a time again.

That’s because I decided to be a stay-at-home mom. This wasn’t a choice made out of excess or even desire. It was the most financially stable decision we could make at the time. I had been offered a job as a news anchor at the local station when we first arrived. The pay? $9 an hour (the salary for the job in Jacksonville wasn’t much better). I couldn’t believe it. I also couldn’t afford childcare for one baby off that salary, never mind two. I saved thousands of dollars a year by not working.

But I was lucky. I had that option. I have a husband who is employed full time—though we weren’t always so fortunate. Single mothers like Harrell have no money coming in if they don’t work. When they have no friends or family, and can’t afford a sitter, they have to get creative. If they don’t find fulltime work, some people will judge them, call them lazy, and assume they’re looking for handouts. If they work minimum wage jobs to make ends meet, they’re without health insurance or childcare benefits, and they can’t afford childcare off their meager salaries. And if they then can’t find childcare that fits the subjective level of appropriate supervision, the state takes the children away. At 9 years old, Harrell’s daughter was old enough to go to a park filled with other children and dozens of adults for the day. And a mother sending her there clearly felt she had no other option.

What this family needed was help, not punishment. While Harrell has since been released and reunited with her daughter, the Department of Social services is still obligated to investigate the case. McDonald’s has also terminated Harrell, according to her lawyer, leaving her without an income.

When these incidents arise, we need to stand up for the families, the individuals. We need to educate them about the programs there to assist them in times of need because those programs are not well advertised and the application process is murky and time-consuming. Harrell would have most definitely been eligible for childcare assistance. The guidelines vary by state, but in North Carolina, a parent must work or attend school 30 hours a week, and make less than 75% of the state’s median income, which in this case would have been $2,850 a month for a family of two.

Debra Harrell is trying to get out of the hole so many people rant about others lounging in. So why aren’t we letting her dig?

Darlena Cunha is a mother of twins and a freelance writer for The Washington Post, Gainesville Sun and Gainesville and Ocala magazines. You can reach her @parentwin on Twitter.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: July 23

1. The border isn’t the problem: A detailed, map-powered breakdown of the real story behind this immigration crisis.

By Zack Stanton in the Wilson Quarterly

2. With campaign finance rules in chaos, major corporations are setting a new standard with voluntary disclosures of political donations.

By Bruce F. Freed and Karl J. Sandstrom in U.S. News and World Report

3. It’s not about political correctness. Racist sports team names harm Native American youth.

By Erik Stegman and Victoria Phillips at the Center for American Progress

4. A simple move – replacing individual state bar exams with the Uniform Bar Exam – can bring much-needed reform to the legal profession.

By Baron YoungSmith in Slate

5. Computer modeling and big data are new weapons against disease-carrying insects.

By John Upton in Pacific Standard

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Opinion

Have the Feds Made School Food Worse with Government-Approved Junk?

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Getty Images

"Healthy" snacks in schools are seriously lacking in nutrition

Last week I attended the School Nutrition Association’s annual meeting in Boston, a gathering of the nation’s school food service workers. While most of the controversy lately has focused on the federally-required improvements to nutrition standards for school lunches, getting lost in the shuffle are new standards coming online this fall for school snacks and beverages.

These foods are known collectively as “competitive foods” because they compete with the school meal program; think kids eating their lunches out of vending machines. With schools desperate for extra cash, the likes of Coca-Cola and Frito-Lay take full advantage by hawking their unhealthy products to schoolchildren.

This problem caused Congress and the White House to include in its 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act requirements that U.S. Department of Agriculture set nutrition guidelines for foods sold outside the school meal program. (Thanks to a lawsuit filed by the soda lobby some thirty years ago, a court found that USDA had no authority over soda and junk food, and it’s taken this long to correct that decision.)

To help guide USDA, the Institute of Medicine made science-based recommendations to the agency for the best nutritional approach. But as often happens in Washington, what starts out as a public health policy comes out the other end as industry-friendly, watered down rules.

Instead of insisting that schools do right by kids – and the taxpayer-funded school meal program – by removing vending machines altogether, the feds just required a few tweaks to the ingredients. Big Food put its sophisticated R&D departments to work and out came “USDA-compliant” junk food. Several vendors proudly told me that their “healthier” products weren’t even available in stores, as if this were a good thing.

But is it really better now that “reduced fat” Cheetos have replaced regular in schools? Can parents rest easier knowing their kids are buying “whole grain” Pop-Tarts still containing 15 grams of sugar? Can USDA really claim that the “low sugar” line of Gatorade products (called G2) is significantly superior nutritionally, given that they contain artificial sweeteners and dyes?

As I warned in my comments to USDA last year, too narrow a focus on nutrition indicators such as whole grain and levels of sugar and fat would not address the bigger problem with competitive foods: branding. Corporations hawking junk foods and beverages in schools have no problem tweaking a few ingredients as long as they remain in front of the eyeballs of impressionable youngsters. Schools are not only big business, they are essential to ensure brand loyalty for life.

While real food such as fresh produce, along with truly healthy snacks such as dried apples, were also on display in the expo hall, several vendors I spoke to complained about the challenge of being able to compete with the likes of Kellogg’s and PepsiCo on price, given the economies of scale.

Now with the federal government seal of approval on dressed up junk foods, what messages are we sending to children in their place of learning? That Cheetos and Pop-Tarts are great snacks as long as they contain a sprinkling of “whole grains”? That blue-colored Gatorade is an acceptable beverage as long as it contains fake sugars? Some have defended these changes as incremental. OK, but given how hard it was to get the current rules passed (not to mention the ongoing fight over school meals), it’s likely to be a very long time before we see real improvements.

Meanwhile, school kids are now being exposed to deceptive marketing messages on health-washed junk foods, brought to them by mega-corporations who aim to get them hooked on a lifetime of bad eating habits, all courtesy of the federal government.

Michele Simon is a public health lawyer and president of Eat Drink Politics, a corporate watchdog consulting firm.

TIME psychology

What Can You Learn From the Toughest Leadership Job on Earth?

ANTARCTICA-BRAZIL-NAVY
Brazilian navy captain Sergio Lucas (R) looks on aboard the Brazilian Navy's Oceanographic Ship Ary Rongel as it goes through the Beagle Channel on its way to Antarctica on March 2, 2014. VANDERLEI ALMEIDA—AFP/Getty Images

Imagine you’re heading up a team stationed in Antarctica. And your relationship with some of the crew members goes sour.

There’s nobody else to enforce your authority. In fact, there’s no one for hundreds — if not thousands — of miles.

And you can’t fire anyone. Everyone has a critical role. How do you even punish them?

How can you take things away in a situation where everyone only has the minimum amenities to begin with?

And there’s no one to get much advice or counsel from.

Do you take a stereotypical military perspective and crack the whip? Apply the pirate model and have someone walk the plank?

Research has been done on the subject — and the tough guy stuff wasn’t effective.

What worked? Being democratic and listening. In the harshest conditions you need the softest touch.

Via Bold Endeavors: Lessons from Polar and Space Exploration:

During the early 1960s, the Navy Medical Neuropsychiatric Research Unit (now the Naval Health Research Center) conducted a series of studies concerning leadership at small Antarctic stations. In that research program, Nelson (1962) found that esteemed leaders tended to possess a relatively democratic leadership orientation and a leadership style characterized by greater participation in activities than traditional for a military organization. Further, the esteemed leaders developed individual relationships with each of their crew members and reportedly sought the opinions of individual crew members about issues directly concerning them.

Now even the extraordinary leaders didn’t just play mom toward the team.

Good leaders were still aggressive, industrious and emotionally disciplined — but they were focused on group harmony.

Via Bold Endeavors: Lessons from Polar and Space Exploration:

Popular leaders tended to be more self-confident and alert, but they differed most from unpopular leaders by exhibiting greater emotional control and adaptability and maintaining harmony within the group. The latter trait again emphasizes the motivational component of effective leadership; that is, the esteemed leader takes the time to speak personally with crew members and do whatever is necessary to preserve group solidarity. Many ineffectual leaders probably know that they should make these efforts, but they refrain because of insufficient motivation.

Crew members didn’t expect a leader to be a superman who had all the answers — in fact, that was a bad sign.

When there was a technical problem they wanted the expert in that area to make the decision.

They wanted policy decisions to be made by the leader — but only after input from the group.

And the only time they really wanted a take-charge, decisive dictator was in times of crisis.

Via Bold Endeavors: Lessons from Polar and Space Exploration:

In general, Nelson found that a specific leader’s status and esteem in a small Antarctic group were determined by the manner in which three types of decisions were made. First, crew members expected technical or task specific decisions to be based on consultations with the appropriate specialists and individuals involved. Second, crew members expected decisions about general or routine station policy matters that would affect all personnel, such as scheduling of housekeeping and recreational activities, to be made by the leader following consultation with the entire group. Third, crew members expected leaders to make decisions regarding emergency matters as quickly and autocratically as necessary under the circumstances.

So in the toughest place in the world, tough leadership didn’t work. It was those who listened and collaborated who thrived.

 

So What?

You don’t lead a group in the Antarctic, you say? I think we all do now.

The autocratic, military style doesn’t work in the modern office either.

What’s most people’s biggest problem in the workplace? Hands down — their boss.

Via Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths And Total Nonsense: Profiting From Evidence-Based Management

Researchers have been studying organizational climate for more than 50 years and routinely find “that 60% to 75% of the employees in any organization — no matter when or where the survey was completed and no matter what occupational group was involved — report that the worst or most stressful aspect of their job is their immediate supervisor.”

And bad employee-boss relationships have negative effects on the whole company.

People who hate their boss take more sick days, do less work and are more likely to quit.

Via Nice Companies Finish First: Why Cutthroat Management Is Over–and Collaboration Is In:

There’s a growing body of research indicating that bad bosses hamper productivity, which results in smaller profits and lost business. University of Florida researchers found that people who work for abusive bosses are more likely to arrive late, do less work, and take more sick days even though they may be physically fine… this kind of employee-manager abusive relationship resulted in a workforce that “experienced more exhaustion, job tension, nervousness, depressed mood and mistrust.” These workers were also less likely to take on additional tasks, such as working longer or on weekends, and were generally less satisfied with their jobs. Also,employees were more likely to leave if they were involved in an abusive relationship than if they were dissatisfied with their pay — proving the old maxim that people quit bosses, not companies.

Even extraordinary leaders must learn the best ways to fight their number one enemy: hubris.

The military style dictator attitude won’t fly anymore. In fact, that style probably never even worked that well in the military.

Research shows the best Navy leaders have been supportive, not harsh.

Via The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work:

This isn’t only true in corporate settings. In environments thought to be even more stoic than corporate America—like the military—leaders who openly express their positivity get the most out of their teams. In the U.S. Navy, researchers found, annual prizes for efficiency and preparedness are far more frequently awarded to squadrons whose commanding officers are openly encouraging. On the other hand, the squadrons receiving the lowest marks in performance are generally led by commanders with a negative, controlling, and aloof demeanor. Even in an environment where one would think the harsh “military taskmaster” style of leadership would be most effective, positivity wins out.

So even the toughest guys know that being tough isn’t always what gets results.

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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

TIME 30 Days of Ramadan

Ramadan, Day 26: The Simple Lifestyle

Internal happiness cannot be bought--it must be sought.

The holy month of Ramadan is a time of deep reflection for Muslims worldwide. Over the 30 days of Ramadan, Imam Sohaib Sultan of Princeton University will offer contemplative pieces on contemporary issues drawing from the wisdoms of the Qur’an – the sacred scripture that Muslims revere as the words of God and God’s final revelation to humanity. The Qur’an is at the heart of Muslim faith, ethics, and civilization. These short pieces are meant to inspire thought and conversation.

One of the spiritual and ethical challenges of living in the age of capitalism is avoiding a lifestyle of complete consumerism and materialism. We’re constantly stimulated and tempted with advertising that tells us we have to buy the next big thing if we want to be cool and relevant. Every new product is made to seem like it will change our lives forever and that we’ll simply be better off if we buy it.

If everyone were able to afford the latest and biggest product on the market that would be one thing, but on average U.S. households go into major credit card debt trying to keep up with the whole consumerist culture. The American economy is largely driven by our willingness to buy what we cannot afford by accruing loans.

Interestingly, some of America’s founding fathers and the Prophet Muhammad seemed to be on the same page in their strong warnings against taking on unnecessary debt. For example, Benjamin Franklin famously said, “The second vice is lying, the first is running in debt.” Similarly, the Prophet warned, “When a man gets into debt, he speaks and tells lies, and he makes a promise and breaks it.” In one of the famous prayers of the Prophet he would ask God for protection against debt and against facing the tyranny of other men in the same breath. Along the same concern, Andrew Jackson warned, “When you get in debt you become a slave.” The Qur’an too cautions against taking on usurious loans, in particular, with the longest passage in the scripture dedicated to its prohibition (2:282).

Making decisions on what to buy and how much to buy is not an easy. The key, as with many things, is moderation. The Qur’an describes the righteous servants of God as “those who are neither wasteful nor miserly when they spend, but keep to a just balance” (25:67). The Qur’an condemns those who over indulge in worldliness and, yet, says that monasticism is not something God prescribes (57:27). The problem, though, is that too often the “balance” tilts more toward materialism than simplicity. And, therefore, one of the spiritual and ethical responsibilities of our time is to rediscover an appreciation for living the simple life.

One of the uniting characteristics of spiritual teachers across faith traditions has been their adherence to and preaching of the simple lifestyle. It is no coincidence. To live a simple life is to live a free life. And, to live a free life is to live a life that is more concerned about the spiritual than the material. As the Qur’an puts it, “Wealth and children are the attractions of this worldly life, but lasting good works have a better reward with your Lord and give better grounds for hope” (18:46).

In the Islamic spiritual tradition, the sages teach that what breaks our addiction to materialism is a healthy dose of remembering death. This is not meant to be a morbid contemplation, but more so a reality check on how short the life of this world is and how it pales in comparison to the everlasting life that the soul journeys on after death. Therefore, working day and night to accumulate all these goods only to enjoy just for a little while if at all makes little sense. Joy and satisfaction, instead, come from an internal happiness that no amount of materialism can satisfy. And, this internal happiness cannot be bought, it must be sought.

All of Islam’s five pillars of practice direct believers toward considering a simple life. The testimony of faith that there is no god but God is a denial of the world as a god. The five daily prayers are meant to take a time out from worldliness. Almsgiving is a practice in freely giving from your possessions and in learning the art of non-attachment. Fasting is all about self-discipline and freedom from the material. And, pilgrimage is an act of, literally, stripping oneself of worldliness and embracing the life of simplicity.

In these last remaining days of Ramadan, let us reconsider how we earn and spend our wealth and how much we invest in the material as opposed to the spiritual. The key is, indeed and truly, finding the right balance.

TIME foreign affairs

Putin’s Power: Why Russians Adore Their Bare-Chested Reagan

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin Alexey Druzhinin—AFP/Getty Images

The history of strongmen leaders helps fuel a passion for capitalism—even if there's a cost

There he is, the President of Russia, riding bare-back and bare-chested astride a galloping steed; spending $50 billion on a resort town most Russians will never see; seizing Crimea, instigating unrest in Ukraine; maybe even making himself indirectly responsible for the murder of nearly 300 innocents aboard a downed passenger plane: Vladimir Putin, shaking his fist in the face of a West that often seems unable to do more than avert its eyes.

When we in The West do look, it can seem perplexing: How can Russians buy into such blatant bravado? How can a country that is (at least nominally) democratic support such near-authoritarian power? And why does Putin remain so popular?

“Why,” Russians might ask us in return, “do you support a system of government that is so weak?” In 2010, traveling through Russia to research a novel, I was asked this a lot. I’d press people on the way Putin had cowed political opposition, castrated the parliament, brought the media mostly under his control. Usually, they’d shrug. Then they’d tell me, “At least he does stuff, makes stuff happen. Unlike in America. Where your government can’t get even the smallest things done.” Yes, Putin goes big, they’d say—maybe even sometimes goes wrong—but we in America can’t manage to go anywhere at all. Heck, we can barely manage to fund our own government, let alone set aside our squabbling long enough for anyone to actually lead.

I’m not a political scientist; I couldn’t respond with more than a layman’s opinion. I’m not a scholar of Russian history; it’s not my place to proclaim intimate knowledge of a complex and multifaceted culture. And I’m not Russian; I’d never purport to speak for the people themselves. But I am a novelist. And, as a novelist, my job is to listen—to the voices of others, to the voice of a place—and then to attempt to understand, not just intellectually but emotionally. In other words, to empathize.

The Great Glass Sea, by Josh Weil Courtesy Grove/Atlantic

Everywhere in Russia that I traveled to research my new novel, The Great Glass Sea, I felt a yearning. Sometimes it took the shape of nostalgia: a man who’d made a fortune in the early ‘90s lit up talking about that wild time of unleashed, unfettered capitalism when millions could be made overnight; a school teacher spoke of the way, under communism, everyone knew their neighbors, shared what little they had—a birthday cake cut into dozens of tiny slices to serve the entire apartment block, an apartment block now filled with families too busy trying to make ends meet to even know each others’ names; I even spoke to young men who hungered for a return of the tsar. Sometimes the yearning was for a future for which they fiercely grasped: I saw a deep appreciation for the opportunities that the release from communism had afforded, the new paths capitalism had opened up.

But in all of it there was an undercurrent of aggrievement; a sense of having to restart after seven decades of the Soviet State, having to retrace steps back to the path the rest of the world had been on—and then struggle to catch up; a feeling that the chance for Russia to remake itself had been hampered by the hegemony of the West; a knowledge that the county was less than it could be, should be, that their individual lives were lessened too; or maybe just a knowledge—especially among the populace in poorer towns and villages outside of Moscow—that what wealth and success has come to the county has come only to a very few.

That’s a feeling a great number of Americans can relate to: not only the frustration with growing inequality, but the sense that our country is also somehow becoming smaller than it should be. Here, when our sense of self is threatened, we turn to historical mythology that buttresses our belief in who we are: The American Dream, our forefathers wrestling with what that would be, the presidents who, through our beloved democracy, shaped how we understand it now—FDR, JFK, Reagan. We look for the next in that mold.

But Russians don’t have that history. Theirs is one in which revolutionary uprisings led to instability before being channeled by a system of control; one in which democracy is associated with a time of devastating economic collapse. We all know the long history of Russian strongmen—from Ivan the Terrible to Joseph Stalin—but can you imagine having that history as our own, having those leaders to look back on? Can you imagine our own country collapsed, our own inequality increased, our own dreams squeezed? Maybe you can, all too well. Now imagine that we had a leader who not only gave us hope, promised us change, but delivered.

Josh Weil Jilan Carroll Glorfield

Josh Weil is the author of the novel The Great Glass Sea and the novella collection The New Valley, which was awarded the Sue Kaufman Prize from The American Academy of Arts and Letters. A Fulbright Fellow and Nation Book Award 5-under-35 honoree, he has written for The New York Times, Granta, and Esquire.

TIME LGBT

Panic! at the Disco Turns Westboro Protest into an HRC Fundraiser

Panic At The Disco Perform At O2 Academy In Glasgow
Brendon Urie of Panic! at the Disco performs on stage at O2 Academy on May 7, 2014 in Glasgow, United Kingdom. Ross Gilmore—Redferns/Getty Images

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This article originally appeared on Patheos

When the band Panic! At The Disco (below) — you might remember them from their 2006 hit song “I Write Sins Not Tragedies” — visited Kansas City, Missouri for a show on Sunday night, they had special guests waiting for them: Westboro Baptist Church members, complete with their “God Hates Fags” signs. (The band’s lead singer Brendon Urie said last year that he had experimented with homosexuality, though he’s married to a woman.)

The WBC even recorded a homophobic cover of the band’s hit song, called “You Love Sin What A Tragedy” in anticipation of the concert.

Rather than ignore them, the band responded in a wonderful way. They turned the protest into a mini-fundraiser for the Human Rights Campaign:

That’s how you make lemonade out of lemons.

WBC, always declaring victory regardless of the situation, said they would just protest 20 times for every dollar raised. So that’s 20,000 more protests than usual.

Good luck with that. I suspect it’ll be tough to pull off when so many people in the church are either dying or escaping…

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist’s Survival Guide.

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The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

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