How Many Balls…

…can we keep in the air at once? We are currently besieged with change on many different planes. On the one hand, we continue to battle a worldwide pandemic and everything that comes with it, including massive unemployment and economic shutdown. On another hand, we are in the midst of a long overdue assessment of our horrific legacy of racism and discrimination. We are also suffering through what may be at least a partial return to the Dark Ages in the form of the exultation of foolishness at the expense of rationality. Many people don’t seem to grasp the difference between opinion and fact, while others deride science in favor of superstition.

Meanwhile, those advocating for change are demanding that we all get involved in their cause the way they would have us get involved. Most all causes believe theirs is the only one that should receive our attention, an attitude that is bound to backfire. After all, if the only help you will accept from me is complete full time dedication, then the odds are you will get nothing. If you don’t understand that, please reread the first paragraph of this post. Many of us are experiencing our coping ability wearing thin. Having multiple causes vie for our attention, all of them asserting they are the only cause, isn’t helping – especially when many of us are struggling to put food on the table or secure the non-corona virus medical care we desperately need. What’s a poor boy or girl to do?

The first thing to do is recognize that we are all in charge of our own decisions. At times such as these there tends to be no shortage of people volunteering to be in charge of everyone else’s life. While we may or may not appreciate their service, we don’t have to partake of it. You are still the only person who gets to make decisions about how your time and energy are allocated. Don’t let anyone pressure you into surrendering your autonomy! When Sally from down the street starts paying your bills, you might give her some input. Until then, send her packing.

The second thing to do is to recognize our own need for nurturing and understanding. Take time to do the things you enjoy. Be aware that those things may look a bit different now than they did a year ago, but they can still happen. Your gym might be closed or you may not be comfortable going there, but the outdoors are still open for business. Get outside, get exercise, eat as healthily as you can, get sleep, and socialize – even if only virtually. Take regular breaks from screens and especially the news cycle. They will be there when you need them. Stimulate your mind with something healthy. Read a book, watch a documentary, sit in a park and observe nature. If you are tired, take a nap. Listen to your body.

Finally, insert a sacred pause before every substantial action or commitment. I used to be an Oblate of a monastery that had a policy of never responding to email communication the same day. We have all had the experience of hitting “send” and regretting it. They never did. Before agreeing to something, ponder it overnight. This also helps put requests in their proper perspective and thereby reduces stress. Everybody wants our answer now, but it is seldom needed now. A sacred pause helps us see the truth of that. Unless a request begins with words like “look out,” “duck!”, “fire!”, or “get out of the water!” the request can wait.

By taking some simple, concrete steps we will better be able to navigate these unknown waters in these confusing times. If we will trust ourselves and care for ourselves and each other, things will get easier. Don’t confuse how things used to be with the only way things can be. A new normal will emerge. Who knows, it could be much better than the old normal in ways we haven’t even begun to imagine!

Happy Interdependence Day

On this 4th of July we don’t need any more independence. Americans are obsessed with independence, to the point where it has become a hindrance. We have so perverted the idea of independence that it has come to mean that I can do whatever I want, no matter who it hurts, and everybody else has to deal with it. What we fail to see in all of that is the truth that we need each other. If we didn’t live in a society, we wouldn’t have jobs on Monday because our employers would have no customers. If we didn’t live in a society our trash would simply sit at the curb because we couldn’t come to an agreement with all the other “independent” jackasses to get it collected. The truth is that our “fierce independence” is quite selective and overblown.

Whether we like it or not, we live in a global era. That means we have a global economy. Our businesses have customers around the world, not only around the corner. We all depend on each other, and what we do impacts people way beyond our line of sight. When we act out in ways that hurt those people, we hurt our own best interests. If the corona virus has taught us anything, it should be the truth of interconnectedness. The choices I make and the actions I take during this pandemic may infect other people, who in turn may unwittingly infect others while they are still asymptomatic. Those people may further spread the virus before they become symptomatic. Since very few people are sociopaths who spread this virus intentionally, the process I just described is how we developed a worldwide pandemic – and still Americans want to talk about independence.

We need to wake up. We need to stop championing independence on the one hand and on the other engage in spittle-filled screaming episodes trying to impose our distorted view of reality on other people. As a nation we need to make healthier choices, and we cannot allow people who cannot or will not see the wisdom of those choices to hold us back. In any relationship, as one partner becomes more healthy the other partner or partners are called by the healthy example to do the same. No explicit persuasion is necessary. It’s time for us to grow up as a nation.

Nothing is Ruined or Lost

I have been seeing articles lately, mostly aimed at millennials, declaring that this summer or this year is lost. I confess that I am mystified by this feeling, though I am not unfamiliar with it. In fact, I hear similar things from my thirty something daughter all the time. The summer is lost because the pools may not open, festivals are cancelled, concerts aren’t happening, and all manner of interruptions are taking place in an effort to mitigate the impact of the corona virus. In places where those precautions aren’t being taken the number of cases are rapidly rising, just as the experts predicted they would – imagine that!

We tend to confuse what is typical or what is normal with what is mandatory. Just because things most often play out in a certain way doesn’t mean that is the only way our lives can unfold. Most of us have likely seen a DVD of a popular movie that included alternate endings. Suppose that a movie was released to theaters with different endings that were randomly chosen. Would that mean that people who saw the second ending didn’t see that movie and had wasted their time and money going to the theater? Would it mean they had never seen the movie?

Life unfolds in ways that are often unpredictable. That’s what keeps it interesting. I once watched a movie with a friend who had seen that movie six times. For some reason they thought I would enjoy it if they continually told me what would happen next. They were like a talking, popcorn munching spoiler. I finally had to tell them to shut up or turn the movie off because knowing what would happen next took all the fun out of the movie! Life is the same way. Knowing what’s coming next may keep us safe from unpleasant surprises, but it keeps us safe from the pleasant ones, too!

Whatever happens this summer, trust that life will unfold just the way it is supposed to unfold, even if that is very different from previous years. Decide to enjoy the unusual rather than bemoan missing your thirty-fourth Phish concert. Think of the rest of this year as an adventure, because that is what it is. Celebrate the break from routine and look for the new and the positive. I promise you that what you look for is what you get. That means you ultimately decide whether this year is wasted or lost – and you are the only one you can blame for the outcome!

How Things Work

At one point in my life, I was very concerned with how things work. I very much wanted explanations for things both knowable and unknowable. I didn’t so much care about why they worked, that was a question that I found much less interesting and at times frankly irritating. Why something works doesn’t really tell us much about how to fix it should it break. How it works is what we need. I suppose I developed that interest in my twenties when I was a field service engineer in the medical field.

windbagWhen I moved on to working in healthcare the question was still how. How was this person’s body or mind supposed to function was the knowledge that would help us to alleviate discomfort. Why it worked that way was in large part irrelevant, a great question for philosophers (perhaps) but an exercise in missing the point to those who wanted to alleviate suffering. Moving to religion and spirituality, my focus was the same. How does the universe work? Why it works as it does was something I found to be above my pay grade.

Now, as I approach sixty, my priorities have shifted. I find most people who like to carry on about how things work – even people I generally like – to be little more than giant wind bags. That’s especially true in spirituality, where the biggest mistake we can make is assuming that we know how things work. What hubris! Just shut up already! What I see now is that neither the how nor the why are all that important. What is important is that things work. Beyond that, I believe we are here to experience them rather than solve them as if they were a problem. Life isn’t a problem! It certainly contains problems, but life is an experience. What’s more, we can’t solve life by explaining it away! The time we spend off in our heads trying to rationalize everything is time we miss out on living. Don’t let fear win the day, and don’t die without having lived!

Sticky, Messy Emotions

I used to joke that my family’s northern European heritage meant that we greeted each other with a crisp salute at family gatherings. If we got really carried away, we would click our heels as we saluted, just as was depicted in those World War II movies about the German army. If only things had been that benign.

germanwwiisaluteMy parents were both profoundly mentally ill and addicted. The truth is that they couldn’t tolerate emotional content that wasn’t rage. Even then, my mother’s rage was the one that had free reign while my father cowered in the corner like the spineless wonder he was. The children weren’t allowed to have feelings. Physical illness was fine, but emotionally “fine” was the only acceptable answer. Of course, if anyone had taken the time to look they would have seen that we were far from time. In the days before air conditioning (yes kids, the olden days of lore), anyone with ears could have heard the problem on a nightly basis. I realize I am not alone in this.

Many if not most of us who were raised in last half of the twentieth century were raised by people who just couldn’t keep up with the rapid changes in the world that they and their parents inhabited. The short version is they saw and felt things for which they weren’t prepared, and so they repressed these things. What had worked on the farm didn’t work in the industrial age, but they didn’t have another answer. Some intrepid social pioneers found ways to grow into and through the process, but for most drinking their problems away was easier. That strategy was most definitely not easier for the children.

Into adulthood we sprinted, disengaged from our feelings on a more or less permanent basis. As helenkellercatwe learned in Urban Cowboy, we were looking for love in all the wrong places – mostly because we had no idea what the right places looked like. Even if we had found the right place, we wouldn’t have known how to act once we arrived. We said, “I love you,” but what we meant was “rescue me from this hell devoid of feeling.” In effect, we were asking Helen Keller for driving lessons and wondering why we kept crashing. Sociologists tried to understand the divorce rate, but they too had received driving lessons from Helen Keller. Everything from promiscuity to women’s liberation was blamed, but the truth proved elusive. Perhaps it was too obvious to be seen.

People who can’t feel cannot love, and people who try to love without feeling have a series of short, unfulfilling relationships. Those who get married are soon divorced. Those who try to learn to feel find it to be a messy, long term, difficult business that has great rewards that require comfort with delayed gratification to achieve. Like the gardener who pulls carrots from the ground every day to see if they have grown yet, most can’t stay the course without help. The good news is that help is available. Don’t be ashamed to access it.

 

Becoming Well Informed

Irony of ironies, now that I have more time for social media, I find that I struggle to tolerate it. With people having more time to post, and posting a lot about the current pandemic, their ignorance is coming to the fore. I find this to be especially true about geekmillennials, and it has nothing to do with their intelligence. Whether they are smart as a whip or dumb as a box of rocks, it seems they have little idea of how to think critically. Added to their tendency to isolate from the news cycle, what we are left with is a recipe for disaster.

At least in part, it’s not their fault. Our educational system has become obsessed with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). The reason is that corporations say they need more people in these fields, and I believe them. However, in true American fashion, we have exercised little moderation in this effort and so tended to cut what we in the old days would have called a solid liberal arts foundation from our education. This is true not only at the university level, but also in primary and secondary education. We teach to the test, restrict our curricula to so-called common core materials, and teach to the test. To be quite clear, this is the fault not of teachers but of school boards and administrators across the country. What we are left with is technological social misfits who lack common sense.

One result of this is that news is boring, somehow less than important, as so we pay little attention to it. When we do pay attention to it, we don’t go in depth because we don’t find it very important, and so we are easy prey for the misleading headline. When our friends say something it carries as much weight as the New York Times. We “hear” things and pass them along as fact, revealing our ignorance with startling starkness. We don’t stop to think about the impact of passing along what we have “heard” or questionable memes on our friends, as I witnessed on one person’s Facebook page when he passed along a conspiracy meme that was critical of healthcare workers in the corona virus struggle, suggesting they never get sick and so it’s not real. Of course neither assertion is true. He handsome-man-reading-newspaper-street_23-2147694649never considered that one of his friends is a Registered Nurse on the front lines of the battle.

The biggest problem in all of this may well be that it cannot be corrected overnight. You can’t just pick up tomorrow’s paper and become well informed. It takes time, and it takes practice. It starts with learning the difference between credible sources and propaganda mills. It continues with implementing a healthy skepticism to everything you hear or read, taking care to look at the source from which it came. This is important because if you aren’t well informed you can’t be a responsible citizen. You simply cannot go to the polls and cast a vote in your own self-interest if you lack the ability to discern which candidate represents that self-interest. This doesn’t take hours each day. Ten minutes a day reading news from a solid source, or listening to it, is a good start. It takes work, and you have to commit to it, but if you care anything about your life and the lives of the next generation, it isn’t optional. In fact, I can guarantee you will feel better about yourself.

Coronavirus and Corona Beer

…are not the same thing. In fact, they are not linked in any way other than sharing a name. You do not get coronavirus from drinking corona beer. Depending on which coronavirussurvey you believe, between sixteen and thirty-eight percent of Americans believe there is a connection. Claims that Corona stock has fallen are not true, and Corona claims sales are not down, but give it time. Splitting the difference between surveys, we can surmise that one quarter of Americans are profoundly stupid. There is no gentle way to say it. They should, even as adults, be riding the shorty bus to work and wearing hockey helmets for their own protection. That is astounding.

Then again, intelligence – like every naturally occurring phenomena – is distributed IQcurveacross a bell curve. If you are familiar with bell curves, that means you know that half of Americans are of below average intelligence. One of the implications of that is that half of the voting populace are of below average intelligence. That goes a long way to explaining much of our problem. Odds are, those same people heading home after voting will not be stopping for a Corona beer. It seems to me that is something the good people at Corona should be jumping on in their next advertising campaign. “Corona: not for idiots!” You can just send me a check for the idea, Corona.

Places That Frighten Us

When I was a freshman in college I worked at Marshall Field’s here in Milwaukee. It was a department store chain based in Chicago. I heard stories from my managers about the SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESmain store in Chicago on State Street. The store had a basement, a floor that in many old school department stores held what today we would call clearance or overstock items. There were bargains to be had in the basement floor of every major department store – so much so that many department stores would open separate buildings that they called their basement store. I still remember visiting Filene’s basement store in Boston when I lived there.

Anyway, the main store of Marshall Field’s in Chicago also had sub-basements. These levels weren’t open to the general public. They housed the kind of massive shipping, receiving, and stockrooms that the old eight to twelve story department stores required.

mandelldept
The Subbasement of Mandel Bros. Dept. Store

From what the managers at my store told me, the further you descended the sub-basement levels, the stranger things got. Maybe the stories were retail versions of ghost stories, but I suspect not. Just as there are people who feel more than comfortable in subterranean environment there are people who feel called to work at night while the rest of us sleep. Just as likely is that some of these people choose to work at night because they would rather not interact with us.

Bumps_in_the_nightWhatever our reasons for moving into the night or underground might be, we all would benefit from understanding the primal fear that exists for some of us in those places. It would help us to understand the irrational aspects of our fear that likely are rooted in early human history when going out into the dark exposed caveman to some serious predators. I believe that all of our seemly irrational fears are linked to the desire for self preservation. If we find ourselves feeling uncomfortable but can’t identify the reason, our answer might be hiding in the dark reaches of humanity’s past. Shining a light on those connections may move us past them!

A Small Life

I had a conversation with someone the other day about the fact that they got a snowplow to come plow the driveway after about an inch and a half of light, fluffy snow had fallen, prodigy-snowplow-videoShe said, “we’re lazy, so we had a friend come and plow the driveway.” I responded that I didn’t think that was lazy, and if I found myself in the same position and had the opportunity for someone to plow the driveway I would do the same thing. We might say that such a choice is but a judicious conservation of energy. A few days later it snowed again, this time a bit heavier, and a different plow appeared to banish the snow from the premises. Good for them!

Then still a few days later it snowed again, this time a wet, heavy snow. Nothing was done except a path to the garage. It wouldn’t matter, except the property is a multiple family dwelling. The driveway remained untouched, the front walk a tortfeasor’s wet dream. No plow would arrive this time. Predictably, the driveway partly melted and then froze again, a combination skating rink and lunar landscape of ice. The same people had delivered to them before all of this started three large bags of salt to treat the ice with, but it remained in its bags. This is laziness. If it was a laziness that impacted only them, nobody would care. There is a larger point at work here.

When we commit to do something and honor that commitment, we grow. In a similar small likefashion, when we commit to do something and fail to honor that commitment, we diminish ourselves. There is a segment of the population that seems to believe doing the least you can to get by is somehow an honorable thing, a demonstration of cunning, but our souls know better. Inside of us, every time we skirt our responsibilities, we are diminished and our life becomes smaller. This shrinking can be overcome, but not easily. In our more reflective moments, usually a bit later in life, we will likely come to realize that we could have been better, our lives could have been richer, but we chose to circumvent those opportunities. Life is about engaging opportunity, not running away from it. Many people don’t realize that truth, and that is the true tragedy.