How do You Recognize a Person?

There are two days from this past fall semester that I’ll remember for the rest of my life. One is when I performed for the President. Singing for the President of the United States, in person, was truly surreal. That experience, however, has been well documented all over social media; I see no need to add another recounting.

The other day, however, is one that wasn’t splattered across Facebook like a new chocolate cake recipe. That other day was Wednesday, September 23 – specifically, Yom Kippur. On the surface, it wasn’t an unusual Yom Kippur, especially by college standards. I skipped all of my classes, went to the bare minimum amount of services, and managed to fast for the whole day. More importantly, I invited two close friends over to hang out and generally pass the time until the fast ended later that evening. After some talking and a board game, one of the two went off to take a nap. The conversation I had with the other over the next hour is still one of my favorite that I have ever had. I wish I could remember the whole thing and play it back at will. In terms of thinking about who I want to be and fixing past mistakes, that conversation did more for me than any summation of Yom Kippur services.

I do remember one key question that she asked, and that one question is why I’ll never forget that day. We were on the topic of being Jewish at Cornell, as students who had to skip class to attend services and the like. She asked, “Are you a Jewish American, or an American Jew?” It isn’t a completely mind-shattering question to ask, but nonetheless was one that I had never actually sat down and thought about. I thought for a while, and eventually answered, “I am an american, jewish human.”

Over this past summer, I lived in San Jose with a group of seven other software engineering interns, plus few more who hung out with us as the situation allowed. Midway through the summer, one of the Google interns suggested that I read a popular Harry Potter fan-fiction Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. To say that I highly recommend it is a massive understatement. It might be my favorite “book” (using the term loosely here) of all time. I’m reading through it again right now and loving every single word.

In brief, HPMOR (for short) starts with a very simple premise – Petunia Evans, sister of Lily Evans who would go on to be Lily Potter, dumps Vernon Dursley in college. Instead, she ends up marrying Oxford professor Michal Verres. Instead of being raised in a stifling home with horrid stepparents and a truly abhorrent stepbrother, Harry is adopted as a single child into a nurturing and very academic household. This one alteration to the basic premise of the entire series changes just about everything in a rapidly expanding ripple effect, from who is friends with whom, and even to house placement. I can’t say more without spoilers, but suffice to say that if you read the first ten chapters or so and aren’t hooked, your sense of curiosity needs a checkup.

What I can say is that one of the main themes throughout the book is the battle between good and evil, right and wrong. Specifically, in the aftermath of you-know-who’s rampage, the entire wizarding world has been left divided. Politically, militarily, even across house lines, the entire rhetoric revolves around concepts of “us” and “them”. Only Harry, coming from a heavily-educated muggle background, seems to think any differently. One passage in particular really stands out to me, in which Harry describes his outlook on the ultimate definition of goodness:

“…when we go out into the stars, we might find other people there. And if so, they certainly won’t look like we do. There might be things out there that are grown from crystal, or big pulsating blobs… or they might be made of magic, now that I think about it. So with all that strangeness, how do you recognize a person? Not by the shape, not by how many arms or legs it has. Not by the sort of substance it’s made out of, whether that’s flesh or crystal or stuff I can’t imagine. You would have to recognize them as people from their minds. And even their minds wouldn’t work just like ours do. But anything that lives and thinks and knows itself and doesn’t want to die, […] it’s sad if that person has to die, because it doesn’t want to. Compared to what might be out there, every human being who ever lived, we’re all like brothers and sisters, you could hardly even tell us apart. The ones out there who met us, they wouldn’t see British or French, they wouldn’t be able to tell the difference, they’d just see a human being. Humans who can love, and hate, and laugh, and cry; and to them, the ones out there, that would make us all as alike as peas in the same pod. They would be different, though. Really different. But that wouldn’t stop us, and it wouldn’t stop them, if we both wanted to be friends together. […] Because if we can get along with crystal things someday, how silly would it be not to get along with Muggleborns, who are shaped like us, and think like us, as alike to us as peas in a pod? The crystal things wouldn’t even be able to tell the difference. […] Every life is precious, everything that thinks and knows itself and doesn’t want to die. […] even though it’s too late for them now, it was sad when they died. But there are other lives that are still alive to be fought for. Your life, and my life, and Hermione Granger’s life, all the lives of Earth, and all the lives beyond, to be defended and protected, EXPECTO PATRONUM!

I agree a lot with Harry throughout HPMOR, but on this passage in particular we are completely in sync. When I look at another person, I don’t think about their skin color, or their gender, or their age. I wonder about their mind – who they are, in the true sense. I am not an American before all else. I am not a Jew before all else. I am a Human first and foremost, and even that definition will change in the case that we discover intelligent life elsewhere.

I truly believe that having this outlook makes you a better person. Even if you are still your nationality, or your religion, race or gender first, appreciate your common bond with every human you come across. Whenever you pick up a book, we built the written language that covers its manufactured pages from scratch. When you open a bottle of wine, we spent literal millennia perfecting the craft of processing fruit just so to form the infinitely complex liquid. If you ever need true inspiration, all you have to do is look towards the bright orb in the night sky. WE. GOT. THERE. I don’t mean America got to the moon. Or that capitalism got to the moon. I mean that humans, who once huddled in their huts and caves and grunted as they gripped rudimentary tools, got to the moon.
We includes me. It includes you too. So long as you are a member of the human race (which I believe included everyone able to read this), you share in that accomplishment. Think what we could accomplish if we truly worked together.

This topic seems particularly pertinent, as one particular american politician is running a hate-basted us-versus-them campaign. It saddens me that people are so convinced that the way to raise oneself up is by clawing others down.
It might mean that I’ll end up being taken advantage of throughout my life, but I will never let go my belief that people are truly good, when given the chance to be. When the human race reaches and inevitably surpasses its next big boundary, I want to be right there. Moreover, I want you to be there too. It wouldn’t mean anything otherwise.