Happy New Year!

New Year’s Eve hasn’t been the same since Dick Clark passed and his ball could no longer dropped to commemorate the New Year. What’s the point in even staying up if you can’t see Dick? Then there is the truth that as we age staying up until midnight becomes less a celebration than some kind of bizarre endurance test from which it takes two days to recover even if you don’t drink to excess. On top of all that, given that the year that just passed has been the most challenging of our collective lives, the party seems more like a celebration of a prison break than anything else – except that we haven’t really escaped the prison. We are in the tunnel we dug to escape through and though we haven’t quite gotten to freedom we can at least see a light at the end of the tunnel. All of that, taken together, doesn’t seem like much of a party.

I keep coming back to the concept of things we can and cannot control. The list of the former is always much shorter than the latter, much to our chagrin. Unless we are scientists working to develop vaccines, there really isn’t much we can do about the virus. Unless we are qualified to perform lobotomies we can’t do much about conspiracy theorists, virus deniers, or anti-maskers. We have to rely on natural selection to solve that problem. We can’t do much about the political divisiveness in our country, because politicians created that problem and politicians will have to solve it.

The things we can control include how much news we choose to consume. In a 24 hour news cycle, we tend to hear bad news over and over. We are hard wired toward bad new as a remnant of our survival instincts from thousands of years ago. Changing that wiring, if it is possible, takes a very long time. A better solution might be consuming the good to offset the bad. We can start a gratitude journal, take time to enjoy good music, reduce our screen time, and end each day with a list of three things we did well that day. We can practice deep listening, not only to other people but to nature and our own bodies. Helping someone else goes a long way toward improving how we feel about ourselves, so we might find a way to engage in helping. The best part of every one of these things is that they are free, but the return on investment is truly amazing! By shifting our focus, we might impact more than we imagined!

Entitled, Much?

I seem to keep coming across the byline of a woman who feels her generation didn’t get what it deserved from preceding generations. Although I won’t set fire to enough money or time to buy and read her book, I feel safe in assuming she feels she and her cohort got less than they deserved from their predecessors. That’s simply not possible, because none of us deserve anything from anybody.

This is another in a long line of entitlements that have proliferated in American life over the past few decades. Others include the idea that a first job after graduating from college “should” pay at least a certain amount, that adversity in any form is “unfair,” and that the world owes us something. These ideas might be reasonable if we could establish that any generation has received something for nothing. Has any generation that has gone off to war received something for nothing in that exchange? What of generations that have experienced economic recession or depression? Were the children forced to work in dangerous conditions during the Industrial Revolution better off than your generation? What of everyone who lived before the advent of Medicare and Medicaid, or general assistance and nutritional support? I suppose the development of penicillin and other antibiotics actually made life worse?

To be clear, each generation has its particular challenges and particular blessings. Those challenges are how human beings learn and grow. While it may seem to us that preceding generations had things easier than ours does, an objective examination and a broad view show that belief to be primarily the result of a self-pity that is most unattractive. We all stand on the shoulders of the generations that went before us. None of us deserves anything we don’t earn. If we receive something we didn’t earn, that’s grace – something we would all do well to remember on Thanksgiving Day, and throughout the year.

Facebook has a Problem

I don’t know if you are a Facebook person or not. I suppose you could say I used to be, and I still have a presence there mostly to promote my work, but the truth is I hate signing on to Facebook. Not only has it become extremely polarized, along with most of American culture, but Mark Zuckerberg seems to have no interest in attempting to remedy the problems that plague Facebook. From Russian and Chinese bots, to Internet trolls, to disreputable sources of disinformation, to faulty algorithms, to advertising overload, Facebook has become like that sleezy dive bar at the edge of town that you might stop at if you had no other reasonable choice but you sure wouldn’t use the restrooms. In short, Facebook is out of control and Zuckerberg seems to have no interest in reining it in.

Remember Tom from Myspace? He of the ubiquitous presence on one of the earliest social media sites? I sometimes wonder what has become of Tom from Myspace. I don’t believe I ever knew his last name, or if his name really was Tom. What I do know is that the people who ran Myspace profoundly misread the public and so their site faded into obscurity. Their site was the largest social media platform from 2005 until 2008, and although it’s still active I wonder how many people know that. They were eclipsed by Facebook, and perhaps the only serious challenger to the Facebook monopoly was Google+ but Google+ is no more.

What I do know is that when a space, whether virtual or physical, becomes Toxic people start looking for alternatives. Facebook used to be a place to connect with people, and although you would occasionally have an unpleasant encounter it was the exception rather than the rule. Now, as in so much of life, greed rules the day at Facebook and the results are clear for all to see. What Zuckerberg doesn’t seem to realize is that if people start leaving his platform his advertisers will follow them – but then it will be too late to save Facebook. Maybe that will be a blessing rather than a curse.

Truth, Justice, and the American Way

The old black and white Superman television program’s opening informed us that Superman stood for “Truth, Justice, and the American Way.” I’m not quite sure who is to blame, but Superman seems to have dropped the ball because now we have “Alternative Truths, Lack of Justice, and the Autocratic Corporate Way.”

The above photo is obviously of a different time. Superman could stand to put in a little time at the gym, and Jimmy Olson appears to be getting ready to cop a feel from Lois Lane. It’s a reminder that even the good old days were far from perfect, and getting lost in visions of a idyllic past are little more than indulging in self-deception and delusion. Still, there were some values back then that are worth reclaiming – and doing a better job of living them out while we are at it. Not the least of them is truth. In Superman’s world, people were embarrassed if they were caught in a lie. People still lied of course – it’s hard to overcome human nature – but it wasn’t seen as a virtue. Someone who was caught compulsively lying would have problems finding a job, whereas today they earn a promotion.

Integrity may be old fashioned, but that doesn’t make it wrong. It’s still a virtue. In fact, it has been so ignored by our culture that it has become counter-cultural to tell the truth. It’s ironic that the Republican Party in America, which used to hold itself up as the party of virtue and values, now has a President in the White House who wouldn’t know the truth if it dropped on his head like a ton of bricks. How to reclaim integrity and truth? We reclaim it by practicing it in a grassroots movement that starts with each one of us. What’s holding you back?

That’s What Friends Are For?

There seem to be some pretty distorted notions of what constitutes friendship floating around lately. It seems a lot of people have bought into the notion that a friend just approves of every decision you make, no matter the consequences that are clearly going to arise for you from that decision. If you walk out of the house with a big green booger hanging from your nose, your friend will remain silent because apparently that’s what friends do. Do you have half a roll of toilet paper caught in the back of your skirt dragging behind you like a tail? Don’t look to your friends for help. Are you involved in an argument and making a fool out of yourself? Apparently your friend’s job is to enable whatever foolish behavior you wish to display.

I was on Facebook the other day and ran across a discussion that hit on one of my pet peeves. The substance of it was that clergy shouldn’t criticize people, and if they claim to be a friend to all then they really can’t say anything about anything. The first premise is patently absurd and reflects such a profound ignorance about clergy and prophetic voice it would be laughable if it wasn’t so stupid. My concern in this piece is the latter, however, this notion that a friend tolerates whatever nonsense you wish to dish. By extension, it implies that a friend doesn’t have your back and won’t tell you if you have food stuck between your teeth on your way to that first date with your special someone. It says friends should lie to you.

I am not suggesting that we need to bludgeon each other with the truth, but a friendship based on lies is no friendship at all because trust cannot develop in a deceitful environment. If we are going to share our thoughts, feelings, and dreams with our friend, we need to trust they won’t take out a billboard ad tomorrow revealing what we discussed to everyone in the morning rush hour. Is the truth sometimes uncomfortable? Of course it is, but when difficult truth comes from a trusted friend whose motivation is loving it is easier to hear that truth. The benefits of friendship are innumerable, as is the damage that wolf in sheep’s clothing can do in the context of friendship. Let’s be clear about our expectations in all of our relationships. If others can’t meet those expectations, it may be time to cut them loose!

Facts is Facts

I saw an interview on one of the news channels of a corona virus denier. The man said that he didn’t really believe the virus was any worse than the flu. When the reporter countered with the fact that (at that time) there had been over one hundred fifty thousand deaths in The United States, the interviewee responded “I don’t agree with that number.” This one statement reflects the heart of the problem – facts are not opinions.

You can’t disagree with a fact, at least not if you are a rational human being. Perhaps more accurately, you can’t disagree with a fact without dire consequences. If you disagree with the fact of gravity, it will not end well for you. When presented with a fact, our job isn’t to agree or disagree, but to respond. We need to ask ourselves how we are called to respond in light of the fact. Pretending the fact doesn’t exist will only lead to foolish choices. Sadly, at this point in time we see many people making just such foolish choices and paying the price for them. Still the fact deniers continue. Maybe that’s the appeal of denying facts. Maybe you feel quite wise and powerful until you don’t, but then you’re dead so you avoid responsibility for your foolishness. That’s a steep price to pay for a few seconds of delusional certainty.

I believe that part of the reason we see so many people eager to exchange opinion for fact is that we have, as a culture, bought into the idea that we have to be perfect. That idea is fiction, nothing more. We learn from making mistakes, and nobody comes into this world immune from mistakes. Mistakes are how we learn, and to avoid them is to ensure than we learn nothing. It is uncomfortable to fail, sometimes profoundly so, but I have never had a failure that wasn’t a learning experience. Pretending that we have never failed reveals more about us that any success ever could.

Conspiracies and Monsters Under the Bed

When I was a child my brother had a toy robot that would walk a few steps, its chest would fly open, laser machine guns would pop out, and lights would start flashing as it fired at you. After about five seconds the doors would close and the cycle would begin again. It was actually a pretty neat toy, especially for the early 1970s. At night I would have nightmares that Barnabas Collins from Dark Shadows lived in our basement and would send that robot toy up the steps. When it fired at me I couldn’t move, and it would walk up to me, lift up its robot arms and grab my calves, inflicting excruciating pain. For those too young to remember, Barnabas Collins was a vampire on a daytime soap opera called Dark Shadows. I’m not aware of any Barnabas Collins conspiracy theories, but if Dark Shadows was on television today I am quite sure more than a few lunatics would think he was real and determined to influence the next presidential election through voter fraud.

Jonathan Frid as Barnabas Collins

As a younger child I believed there were monsters under the bed. My paternal grandmother always used to tell me “don’t let the bedbugs bite,” and since I had no idea what a bedbug was I was pretty sure they emerged from under the bed looking more or less like a lobster. The belief that monsters live under the bed is normal and age appropriate for healthy children, but if a person reached thirty years old and still was afraid to look under the bed that would indicate some serious issues that would require professional help. Imagination is wonderful as long as it is voluntary. If we find ourselves sliding into imagination and fantasy in an involuntary way it can become not very wonderful at all. In fact, it is one of the hallmarks of a delusional state and quite possibly serious mental illness. Imagination can be a very effective way to hide from reality, but that escape comes at a cost. When we find ourselves slipping into delusion involuntarily, we may be in deep trouble.

Over the last few decades, unscrupulous people in the media have sought to take advantage of those inclined to dwell in fantasy, whether voluntarily or not. Most of them have been discredited, but that doesn’t damage their credibility among their followers. To the paranoid, the fact that one of their icons has been discredited actually adds to their credibility. While these people believe their spokespeople are the victims, the real victims are their patsies and those who have been impacted by true tragedy and so are targeted by the Alex Joneses of the world. While to you and me these hucksters and their message are obviously false, to someone who yearns to feel wise and accepted or for whom the world as it is structured isn’t working out for them, the most outrageous nonsense seems an opportunity for them to finally know more than everyone around them. These people need the monsters under their beds to be real. While we might be tempted to reason with them, it won’t work – it will only reinforce their paranoid delusions.

I mention all this because we have a President who preys on these people as well. He is already attempting to lay doubt about the integrity of the upcoming election, despite the fact that the evidence is clear that his election was in part the result of interference from Russia. Of course, the people to whom he appeals will believe him, and won’t change their mind about him (or Sandy Hook) because he makes them feel wise and insightful. Our job isn’t to change people’s minds. That can’t be done because most people’s minds are shut. Our job is to vote anyone who would take advantage of others the way this President seeks to do out of office and to do our best to ensure people like him never find their way to public office again – no matter their party affiliation. That task is so crucial that the future of our republic depends on it.

A Post-Truth World?

Seriously? What would make us think such a thing was even possible? Who would choose a name like that, a name that implies that truth no longer exists? Of course it means that in our world today many people believe that opinion matters more than truth. I reject that notion! I reject the idea that truth can ever not matter, or matter less than opinion. What we have is narcissism run amok, including in the office of the President. What we have is propaganda passing as news, bald faced lies being presented as alternative facts, and attempts to confuse and distort in an attempt to do whatever we want to do without being held responsible for it.

If this is a post truth world, then I think those who assert that notion must be willing to put the law of gravity to the test. When I was a teenager, every now and then someone would drop acid and decide they could fly. Some of them climbed up onto the roof of their parents’ home and “flew” off. The results were predictable and swift. The next week the family would have a ramp built to the front door so that when young Orville Wright was discharged from the hospital his wheel chair could get into the house. Believing you can fly doesn’t make it so, R. Kelly.

Have you noticed how often millennials begin a sentence with “I feel…” and then go on with content we would have introduced with “I think,” “I know,” or “I believe”? Linguistically, for them, feeling is fact. Except feeling isn’t fact, it is feeling and can be influenced by any number of dubious factors. In fact, feeling doesn’t require fact at all, it’s completely subjective. After the big football game, the fans of the winning team feel happy. The fans of the losing team feel sad. Those who are fans of neither most likely don’t feel much about it at all. The fact is that one team beat another. There are not three underlying facts.

The notion of a post truth world cannot be allowed to continue unchallenged. We must have the courage, when we encounter someone who believes their opinion is equivalent to or more important that verified fact, to challenge that idea for the nonsense it is. We might assure our feeling friends that their feelings are valid and we would be happy to discuss them – while reminding them that they are not, in fact, facts. There is much reeducation to be done, and we need to start right away. We don’t want to build any more ramps.

Do Values Still Exist?

Remember values? They were those old fashioned things that gave us a somewhat consistent outline of what we would and wouldn’t do. Most people would say, for example, that killing other human beings is wrong. Other values included the idea that it was a good thing to be honest, to avoid cheating, to act with integrity, to be a reliable friend and a good parent. Most people would agree that stealing is a bad thing and that fairness is good. Sleeping with someone else’s spouse was frowned upon, even if it was a value to which we didn’t universally adhere. A man’s word was his bond, and a oral agreement was binding.

Back in the days when we had values, conservatives generally held forth against what they called relativism or situational ethics. Something that was wrong was always wrong, no matter the circumstances. Of course, that proves a rather immature ethical stance that doesn’t hold up, but they tried. You may hold that it’s wrong to go into another person’s home unless invited, but going into a burning house to save someone doesn’t require an invitation. Today those same conservatives seem to have no problem with deceit and outright lying. All you have to do is listen to a politician to know that neither conservatives nor liberals have any problem with selling the Brooklyn Bridge over and over again. What would be the consequence of acting that way in our own workplace? I suppose that depends on where you work and who your customers are.

One thing is certain. A society without values cannot survive long because a lack of values erodes trust. If we cannot trust one another we will not long be able to live in proximity to one another. In America, our society is polarized as never before, and some would counsel learning to get along no matter the cost. I disagree. It simply isn’t possible to get along with valueless, deceitful fools. What we need to do is rise above this nonsense and vote. Those of us with integrity need to reassert our influence in society and speak truth to power and deceit, reemphasizing the value of character. Nothing less will do.

Who’s the Snowflake Now?

bomb shelterBack in the good old days when I was a child, back yard fallout shelters for the soon to be arriving nuclear winter were all the rage. Those in the know and with the means had them installed and stocked them with canned goods in a kind of pre-survivalist form of denial. Everything you needed to survive, the theory went, could be stocked in your underground hideaway. The fact that it would take hundreds to thousands of years for your neighborhood to be habitable above ground apparently wasn’t of concern. You would be just fine underground, killing your neighbors who tried to access your shelter before you could seal the door. There were countless movies made during this time that played out these scenarios ad nauseum. Funny, though, I don’t remember any fallout shelters including a toilet.

This all sounds great, right? Except that if Covid-19 has taught us anything, it’s that the snowflakeskind of person who would have a backyard bomb shelter would never make it. It was the conservatives who were hawks when it came to war that wanted the shelters, and it’s the conservatives today who are crying about their rights being restricted after weeks (not decades) of staying at home in a decidedly half-ass sort of way. It’s the conservatives who don’t want to wear a mask to protect others and feel the need to strut around with their long guns at their side, something most definitely ill advised in the middle of a nuclear winter. It’s the conservatives who dismiss science in favor of their own opinion and feel the need to reopen the economy at the cost of thousands of lives. Clearly, they would feel the need to reopen the door of their fallout shelter against scientific advice as well. After all, they know their rights.

Nature really does abhor a vacuum, even if it is between the ears of a snowflake.