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Illustration by Simon Pemberton

500 Lifetimes [private]

On September 10, 2014, just a few hours before dawn in Bhutan’s Chumey Valley, a teenage boy and girl hanged themselves side by side from a tree in the sloping, silvery conifer forest behind their high school. They had been caught in a relationship, which is forbidden by school rules, and were likely to be suspended. Their shared noose was the boy’s kabney, the cream-colored scarf made of raw silk which is part of the traditional attire (along with the robe-like gho) required for Bhutanese males in formal settings. At the end of a work day, it is common to see men on the street folding their kabneys with dignity and tenderness.

A health worker on the police investigative team took a photo of the hanging bodies with his phone. He sent the image to friends via WeChat. Within minutes, the grisly picture went viral. “True love” was a common pronouncement on social media among young Bhutanese, who saw the deaths as the ultimate romantic sacrifice. Older Bhutanese considered it another sign of the idyllically isolated country’s tainted bargain with modern life. Most people, of any age, saw the deaths as karma.

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The University and the Pursuit of Happiness

October 12, 2015

Her skin was dryer than usual. Her eyes had deeper bags than a student in her twenties should have. Her hair was pulled back severely in a way that demanded the least possible care. And she was speaking at a rapid rate about how she needed to take eighteen credits—six courses—to fulfill her plan to complete a double major in chemistry and French. This was supposed to be an advising session to help a second-year student choose her major and courses for the next semester. Instead, it became something more urgent.

If Everything Is So Amazing, Why’s Nobody Happy?

October 5, 2015

When I talk to my students about living for compassion, they tend to be quite interested. But few of them have ever contemplated this sort of life before. Like the life of courage and the life of thought, the life of compassion seems to be receding in our culture. People don’t talk much about ideals any more. We don’t usually offer them as viable options to the young.