Religion, Non-Religion, and the Pandemic

Fresno Bee, May 17, 2020

The divide between religious and non-religious people is highlighted by the pandemic. At a recent “Freedom Rally” in Fresno, a woman said she was not afraid of the virus. If she gets sick or infects someone else, she said, it is “all part of God’s plan.”

This represents a dispiriting theology. It is not God’s will that people die from this disease. Scientists know how to stop its spread. It makes no sense to ignore science and blame God.

The conflict between faith and science rages on. Some turn to prayer. May 14 was an international day of prayer, celebrated by Pope Francis and Muslim leaders. Two months ago, President Trump declared March 15 as a national day to “pray for God’s healing hand to be placed on the people of our Nation.” May 7 was another National Day of Prayer. At the May 7 event at the White House, no one wore a mask, including the choir.

In response to all of this praying, the Freedom From Religion Foundation declared May 7 as a National Day of Reason. They claim the National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional. They argue, “irrationality, magical thinking, and superstition have undermined the national effort to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Pandemics have often prompted religious turmoil. In ancient Athens, a terrible plague turned people away from religion. The historian Thucydides reported that at first the Athenians asked the gods for help. But when prayer had no effect, the people saw the futility of religion.

As the disease spread, general lawlessness broke out. People expected to die soon, so they focused on enjoying themselves in the present moment. They gave up on honor and were not worried about punishment for crime. Thucydides explained that there was no longer any fear of the gods or of the laws.

Something similar occurred during the Black Death. The Italian poet Boccaccio recounts that people made merry and drank themselves silly, since death appeared inevitable. People generally disregarded “the reverend authority of the laws, both human and divine.”

The good news is that our pandemic is less severe. The Athenian plague killed one-third of the population. The Black Death killed over half of Europe. Things are better today thanks to modern science. We know how to prevent and treat the bubonic plague. Scientists also know how to prevent COVID-19.

But will faith wane in this crisis as it did in Athens and Italy? When prayer proved ineffective, some people gave up on religion — but not all. Religion is resilient, as recent data show. The Pew Center reports that the COVID-crisis has strengthened the faith of people who were already religious.

But the pandemic has not driven the nonreligious back to religion. Indeed, a growing religious exodus is already well underway. A fourth of all Americans are not religious and a third of those under 40 are nonreligious.

Religion can’t compare to science when it comes to understanding disease. But a religious attitude may be useful for creating solidarity and compassion. History shows that in a pandemic people may selfishly focus on short-term pleasure. But the turn to selfish individualism undermines cooperation and helps the disease to spread.

If religion encourages people to cooperate, care for the suffering, and work to prevent disease, then science and religion can work together. A carefree attitude of partying like there is no tomorrow will undermine cooperation. But the same is true when religious people refuse to cooperate in the name of religious liberty.

In a free country, of course we have the right to pray or to party. But we should be smart about exercising our rights. We can party safely and with social distance. We can also pray, while loving our neighbors and wearing masks.

Thucydides once said that good sense is undermined by haste, passion, and a narrow mind. We do better when we broaden our perspective and think more carefully about science, history, and ethics. We also need a more sophisticated theology that does not blame God for human failure. We must think about the impact that our choices have on others. We should acknowledge that science actually works to save lives. And whether we pray or party, let’s do it wisely.

Are we really all in this together?

In this together

Fresno Bee, May 3, 2020

Hopeful signs have popped up saying things like, “we are all in this together, even though we are six feet apart.” That’s sweet. But is it true?

In many ways, we are not all in this together. Rich people ride out the COVID-19 storm in second homes and on private yachts. Affluent professionals work safely on speedy internet connections. But working-class folks, store clerks and bus drivers, must serve people who refuse to wear masks. Unemployment is growing while fat cats play the stock market.

The COVID-19 crisis has exposed preexisting divisions. Some believe doctors and scientists. Others do not. Some think this is a left-wing conspiracy. Others blame the president.

The crisis has disclosed disparities in health care, economics, education and outlook. Black Americans are more likely to die of the disease. Poor communities lack the infrastructure to support online learning. And some Americans, like those who are married to undocumented immigrants, will not receive federal stimulus checks.

The president has encouraged protesters to “liberate” themselves from state governments. This week he asked why American taxpayers should bail out “poorly run states and cities, in all cases Democrat run and managed.”

The answer ought to be that we are all in this together. But this doesn’t ring true anymore.

Perhaps it is time for Red and Blue Americans to seek a divorce. Gov. Gavin Newsom recently said California is a kind of “nation state.” The folks calling for a “Cal-exit” have said that the COVID-19 crisis could help push California toward secession.

A new book by F.H. Buckley, called “American Secession,” argues that America may be too big for its own good. Buckley is a law school professor and Trump supporter. He says that smaller countries are happier and less corrupt. He suggests that now may be the time to downsize.

Of course, downsizing won’t stop the virus. A global pandemic requires a coordinated global response. The idea of “California alone” is as asinine as the idea of “America first.”

And if California succeeded in seceding, how would we prevent further downsizing? California is as divided as our nation. The citizens of Nancy Pelosi’s San Francisco might be glad to get rid of the denizens of Devin Nunes’ Central Valley – and vice versa.

The big question, of course, is what counts as the real California. And for that matter, who counts as a real American? Who gets to tell the others to take a hike? Who ought to be liberated from whom?

The Trumpists want to be free of the mainstream news media and others they see as enemies of the people. Those “enemies” dream of a world without Trump. Whose country is this anyway?

The fact that we need to ask this question shows that our Union is dying. Marriages, friendships and nations only exist so long as people believe in them. As with most of social life, our beliefs create reality. Trust is the basic glue of social relationships. Once “we, the people” stop believing in those relationships, they dissolve.

Abraham Lincoln said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Lincoln was right about the nature of the Union. It won’t last if we don’t believe in it.

Lincoln led a war to restore the Union. That’s not what we need. Nor do we need to hear anymore from incompetent, corrupt and divisive leaders. A Union, if we want it, is up to us. Community is a bottom-up affair. This is how friendships, marriages and businesses work. Even if the economy is officially re-opened, it won’t revive until people believe it is safe to leave home.

Market forces, culture, religion and science operate independently. No government official ordered Americans to hoard toilet paper. That happened by itself, through the choices of individuals. If we are going to find a way to rebuild our broken Union, that’s how it will have to happen, one roll at a time, in the minds and choices of individuals.

Which brings me back to those sweet signs that have appeared as spontaneous love-letters to the world. If we believe that we are all in this together, then we will be. But once we stop believing, we will stand alone, even though we are only six feet apart.

Is it ethical to laugh at a train wreck? What can ‘Tiger King’ teach us about the tiger within?

Fresno Bee, April 19, 2020

It seems wrong to take pleasure in other people’s suffering and degradation. But our culture encourages us to watch people do strange and shameful things. There is a continuum from porn to Tiger King.

Tiger King is a documentary about a dysfunctional subculture. It involves sex, drugs, suicide, murder, and exotic animals. At one point during the show a commentator says, “Even if it’s a train wreck, you can’t help but look.”

But shouldn’t we at least try not to stare? The Golden Rule applies in train wrecks. Gawk at others only to the extent that you would have them stare at you. In addition to turning the other cheek, we should also learn to avert our gaze.

Some viewers may tune into Tiger King for noble reasons. Perhaps they are concerned about animal welfare. Others may want to know what’s going on in the American heartland.

But most viewers are just looking for laughs. We watch this stuff with smug self-righteousness. “Hey, look at these idiots,” we say. “At least I’m not as dumb as them.” Or we experience the vindictive pleasure of thinking, “Those morons got what they deserved.”

But it is mean-spirited to think that stupid people somehow deserve their suffering. It is cruel to cheer on their pain. Sympathy is destroyed by smugness. Contempt undercuts compassion.

It is not exactly evil to watch this kind of stuff. Consenting adults can watch what they want, so long as they don’t deliberately harm others for their pleasure. To watch something is not to cause it to happen. The spectator is not responsible for what he observes.

But there is something degrading about a whole culture of “disaster voyeurism.” We watch “fail videos” on Youtube. We consume coverage of tornados and hurricanes. Reality shows and documentaries display a world full of weirdos. We linger on social media waiting for politicians and celebrities to say stupid stuff.

The late-night comedians serve up a daily dose of mockery. We shrug and laugh and sip our wine. Rarely do we mourn or grieve, or take action.

Philosophers use a German word to describe this, “Schadenfreude.” This means to take pleasure in someone else’s suffering. Schadenfreude is woven into the human psyche. It helps us feel better about ourselves to see other people fail. If you can’t beat ‘em, mock ‘em.

Sarcasm and mockery have ancient roots. Ancient Greek dramas ridiculed the stupid and the powerful. Shakespeare has the gods say, “what fools these mortals be.”

Mocking laughter is also a sign of freedom and enlightenment. Authoritarian societies ban poetry, art, and criticism. And really stupid people usually don’t get the joke. They are immune to irony. Some fools think we are laughing with them, when we are really laughing at them.

There is wisdom in laughter. Pompous idiots deserve to be lampooned, especially those in power. And in bad times, sometimes the only thing left to do is laugh.

But ridicule corrupts the soul when it becomes habitual and one-sided. It becomes dangerous when it kills compassion. Racism, sexism, and fascism are often fueled by cruel jokes and heartless mockery.

When we mock “them,” we hold ourselves apart. The risk of Schadenfreude is that in making fun of other people’s misfortunes, we become callous and indifferent to their suffering.

Compassion grows when we understand that stupidity and misfortune afflict everyone. We all stumble and fall, and do stupid things. We should laugh at the absurdity of the human condition. But we must put our own failures on the table and learn to laugh at ourselves.

Mean-spirited laughter says, “Thank God I’m not as stupid as those fools.” But sympathetic laughter says, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

Each of us is as foolish as the other. There is a Tiger King within each of us. But rather than feeding our narcissism and cruelty, we should tame it. Rather than hoping for the idiots to fail, we should want them to become enlightened.

Each person’s enlightenment is their own business. That’s why it is wise to look the other way and leave people alone. It is wiser still to look within and learn to laugh at the fool you know best.

Virtue and Moral Leadership in Interesting Times

Fresno Bee, April 5, 2020

An old curse says, “May you live in interesting times.” These are those times. Let’s hope we develop the wisdom to survive the curse of chaos.

This curse is subtle and understated. It has been attributed to an anonymous Chinese sage. But it likely came from Britain, the land of understatement and the stiff upper lip. Picture Monty Python’s Black Knight, with his arm cut off, saying, “Tis but a scratch, a mere flesh wound.”

The White House warned this past week that between 100,000 and 240,000 Americans will die. Without social distancing and other measures, there could be between 1.5 million and 2.2 million deaths.

Those who think we can simply get back to normal are not paying attention. California school kids will not be able to return to their campuses this school year. Rep. Devin Nunes said the decision to “cancel” school is “overkill.” But closing schools seems a reasonable way to prevent a million deaths.

At any rate, school is not canceled. It is moving online. So these will certainly be interesting times for teachers, parents and students. Let’s help them rise to the occasion. Instead of denial and unrealistic calls for a quick return to normal, kids need computers. Educators need training. And parents need a new model for helping their kids succeed.

Above all, we all need imagination, dedication and courage. Interesting times help us discover what we are made of. We don’t know where our strength lies until it is challenged. Leadership does not emerge until it is tested.

We need our leaders to unify behind a straightforward call for the better angels of our nature. The rhetoric of the American tradition can help. Thomas Paine said, “these are the times that try men’s souls.”

Paine wrote those words in December 1776, as Washington’s army was facing a difficult winter. Paine said that the time of summer soldiers and sunshine patriots was over. He wrote, “Let it be told to the future world, that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet and to repulse it.”

We need statesmen to issue a similar call for hope and virtue today. This springtime may be among the worst in American history. More Americans will die from this disease than died during the Vietnam and Korean wars. The economy has tanked. None of us have ever experienced anything this “interesting” before. We need inspiration.

We also need something to do. Most of us have nothing to do besides grouse and complain. We sit on the sidelines, while the nurses and doctors risk their own health to save the afflicted. Let’s cheer them on and give them the supplies they need. But let’s stop the partisan bickering.

Our passivity creates a paradox. For most of us, the best thing we can do to make the world a better place is simply stay home. This is among the most difficult aspects of our predicament. Virtue seems to require bold action. But in this case, it calls for inaction.

The world’s traditions have often warned against passivity. They say that idle hands are the devil’s playthings. Laziness and sloth are vices. And virtue evokes images of a life of brave effort. Today, inaction is a virtue and activity is a vice.

Can we develop a kind of virtuous passivity? We might cure partisan rancor if we would learn the virtues of silence and patient hope. This is a difficult lesson for Americans. But it is deep in the heart of the world’s wisdom traditions.

During these interesting times let’s rediscover the virtues of quiet and simplicity. This is an opportunity to cultivate calmness and explore solitude. Let’s look within instead of judging others. And let’s encourage our leaders to do the same.

Note to readers: A California law that went into effect Jan. 1 limits freelancers like myself to 35 articles per year. I will be going to a less regular cycle, writing for The Bee only every other week. I will post more regularly on my blog (www.andrewfiala.com). You can also follow me on Twitter (@PhilosophyFiala).

Imagining a better economy after the Covid crisis

Imagine kinder future

Fresno Bee, March 27, 2020

The president wants to resurrect the economy by Easter. The scientists say it is too soon to get back to normal. But is getting back to normal really the solution?

Easter is a celebration of transformation. Maybe we should imagine a transformed economy on the other side of the corona crisis. We could even imagine the kind of economy that Jesus would hope for: an economy that prioritizes caring for the poor, the sick and the downtrodden.

The government is going to give direct handouts to people and extend unemployment benefits. Now is a good time to consider the idea of universal basic income. The stock market collapse is killing people’s retirement savings. Now is a good time to imagine how we might ensure a decent retirement for everyone. The pandemic also gives us a reason to consider disparities in public health and access to health care. And social distancing is an opportunity to rethink making a living and living well.

Henry David Thoreau said that there was more to life than making a living. He asked us to imagine “how to make getting a living not merely honest and honorable, but altogether inviting and glorious.” It may be too much to ask for an economy that is honest, honorable, and glorious. But we could benefit from a less materialistic approach to life.

The frantic pace of consumer society helped propel the pandemic. In a simpler time, people lived in small towns and villages, more in tune with nature, more connected to friends and family. A more localized economic model might impede future pandemics.

But reverting to pre-industrial life is not a viable solution. Instead of going back, let’s imagine how we might leap forward. A new vision of human life is made possible by the infrastructure that is helping us through this crisis.

People have rapidly shifted to working remotely. A generation ago, this would not have been possible. Universities have quickly gone online. Students have vacated dorms and professors teach from home. People don’t waste time commuting. Pollution is down as a result. Perhaps we have stumbled upon a new paradigm in business and education.

We are adapting in other ways. This week a couple in Green Bay, Wisconsin got married. Because of social distancing they had to invite their friends to participate via Facebook Live. That’s a cool idea, facilitated by technology. We are rapidly evolving how we work, play, learn, and love.

Or consider shopping and entertainment. The home delivery economy is thriving. There is a surge in grocery deliveries and restaurant carry-out. Movie theaters are closed. But we’ve got big TV’s and streaming content. Perhaps we’ll exit this crisis with new habits of consumption and amusement.

We may also reconsider the extent to which shopping and entertainment drive our economy and daily lives. This viral sabbatical provides an opportunity to spend more time with family, to re-learn the art of conversation, and to rediscover simpler pastimes, such as reading and playing cards. In my neighborhood, more people are taking walks with their families. It would be great if some of these new habits hung around.

But long walks and card games are not the only solution. The younger generation already spends a lot of time online chatting and gaming. Old folks have been forced to join in. Vulnerable and isolated oldsters need to turn to technology to keep in touch with friends and family. Social distancing will drive us further toward electronic social networking.

These are interesting times. Crises create opportunities for innovation. We need a vision of a post-corona economy that is not simply a return to normal. A new normal can build upon what we’ve discovered under quarantine about making a living and living well. Let’s imagine a new economy that conserves earth resources, avoids future pandemics, and enhances spiritual and mental health.

It may seem too soon to talk about life after corona. The scientists tell us it is too soon to reopen the economy. But now is the time to imagine a post-corona future that is kinder, gentler, and more supportive of the weak, the sick, and the vulnerable. Let’s not resurrect bad habits. Instead, let’s seek transformation and renewal.

Compassion, Simplicity, and Patience during Quarantine

Tao Simplicity Compassion Patience

Fresno Bee, March 20, 2020

In times of crisis it is natural to reassess and reprioritize. Once the initial panic subsides, let’s use our time sheltering in place as an opportunity to seek wisdom.

First and foremost, let’s learn compassion. The sick and suffering need our support, as do the isolated and afraid. This is always true. While COVID-19 clogs the headlines, cancer and other diseases have not gone away. Loneliness, depression, and other maladies may be exacerbated by C-19 restrictions. Compassion brings us together in our distress. It takes us beyond narrow self-interest. It helps us grow as we give it away.

Let’s also learn simplicity. We must find joy in living a bit closer to the ground. This is an involuntary sabbath, a sabbatical from consumer culture. A sabbatical is a time of renewal and regeneration. Let’s use this is an opportunity to learn to live a life that is simple, plain and true. Life is good, even without the chaos of consumer society.

Finally, we must learn patience. We are all anxious to get back to our lives. But anxiety undermines well-being. Let’s urge on the scientists and doctors. But a vaccine will take some time. We have to wait for the disease to run its course. While we wait, let’s cultivate the virtue of patience. We’ve lived for too long in a world of instant downloads and fast food. Patience is the ability to defer gratification and endure hardship. This is a life skill. It is closely connected to courage, perseverance, and even to love.

Compassion, simplicity, and patience were celebrated as the “three treasures” of Taoism. This ancient Chinese philosophy is useful in times of crisis. The wisdom of Taoism teaches us to be yielding, flexible, and resilient. One translation of the three jewels calls them mercy, moderation, and humility. Another translation speaks of love, unpretentiousness, and modesty.

Whatever we call them, these three virtues are essential in a time of crisis. And even in ordinary times, it is wise to be merciful, mellow, and moderate.

Without compassion, we end up isolated and alone. In a crisis, there is a tendency to think that it is “every man for himself.” But this only makes things worse by increasing loneliness, conflict, and fear. Compassion is the root of human connection. Others need our support just as we need theirs. We are all in this together.

If we do not value simplicity, we will bristle at the restrictions imposed upon us in this crisis. Anger and resentment are not helpful. Even in times of crisis, plain and primary goods can be found. Without simplicity, we fail to find contentment in what we have. Right now we can enjoy humor and friendship, natural beauty and art, music and knowledge.

Finally, patience allows us to endure hardship without losing hope. Without patience, we act rashly and without foresight. In a crisis, quick decisions are important. But quick action must not lose sight of the long run. Panicked reactions make things worse. Fortitude, persistence, and hope makes things better.

These three treasures are always valuable. But they are easily forgotten in the frantic pace of what we call ordinary life. Our culture encourages individualism at the expense of solidarity. It glorifies consumption and wealth. It teaches us to be intolerant and unkind.

Let’s learn from the present crisis to live better when things get back to normal. Or better yet, let’s imagine a new normal. For a while now, it has seemed that our way of life has been unbalanced. For too long, we have lived at a furious pace. The planet is groaning under the weight of human consumption. Our social lives have become fragmented. Our political life is polarized. The truth has been lost under blizzards of bull. Our physical and mental health suffers from a life out of balance.

This mandatory pause in ordinary life—our viral sabbatical—is an opportunity to re-balance things and build better habits. Let’s learn to enjoy simple goods and reduce over-consumption. Let’s work to develop patience and forbearance. Let’s learn to care better for the sick and the suffering. And let’s view this crisis as an opportunity to unearth the treasures of wisdom.

Critical Thinking in Time of Crisis

Fresno Bee, March 15, 2020

Coronavirus uncertainty leaves us wondering what we should believe and who we should trust. This is made more difficult by partisan division and a general distrust of authority. Many authorities think that this illness is serious. Some countries have implemented drastic measures. Businesses and campuses are preparing contingency plans. Events have been canceled.

But the president suggests that this is fake news. On Monday, he tweeted, “The Fake News Media and their partner, the Democrat Party, is doing everything within its semi-considerable power to inflame the CoronaVirus situation, far beyond what the facts would warrant.”

But how do we know what the facts warrant? This question holds for a variety of issues: from climate change and the stock market to the threat of terrorism and dietary guidelines. Beyond these contemporary questions, there are deep questions about history, religion and the meaning of life. Did Jesus really walk on water? Did Shakespeare himself really write all of those plays and poems? Is there a soul that survives death?

In many cases, we lack direct access to the facts. Miracles happen far away and long ago. Historical facts rest on fragile threads of evidence. And death remains an undiscovered country from which no traveler returns.

Layers of secrecy and confidentiality in government and business make it difficult for ordinary people to judge. Even when we have evidence, we lack the expertise to evaluate it. The facts about climate change and the coronavirus have been published by scientists. But you need substantial training to understand these facts and assess the risks.

Given this problem, it is often wise to say “I don’t know.” Philosophers have routinely called for intellectual humility. Socrates famously said that the only thing he was certain of was that he lacked certainty.

But intellectual humility doesn’t help in an emergency. Acknowledging your lack of certainty doesn’t help you decide whether to avoid crowds, cancel a trip or stockpile toilet paper.

Intellectual humility should not be a recipe for inaction. Nor is it the same as lazy indifference. To say you don’t know is not the same as saying you don’t care. Nor does it mean that you should give up on the quest for certainty.

Prudence tells us to work diligently to get the facts and learn how to interpret them. One obvious method involves checking multiple reliable sources. But, of course, we disagree about what counts as a reliable source, which is the present predicament.

The president tells us not to trust the news media. But is the president trustworthy? The Washington Post reports that President Trump has made over 16,000 false or misleading statements since taking office. Trump calls that fake news. The polarization of information makes critical thinking more difficult.

This is not a new problem. There never was a time when people agreed about the facts or about who counts as an expert. The apostles believed Jesus was a resurrected messiah. Others thought this was fake news. And the Bible’s doubting Thomas demanded direct evidence.

In addition to gathering evidence and gaining expertise, we need to think about the burden of proof. The more the risk, the more the need for proof. If there is a risk of a deadly disease, you ought to take precautions, especially if those precautions are minimally invasive. If more hand washing prevents a pandemic, then let’s all wash our hands. But when it comes to cancellations and quarantines, the risk assessment becomes complicated. At some point, a leap of faith is required.

This is difficult and frustrating. But life is a series of decisions made without certainty. And at least we are free to make these decisions for ourselves. It’s a sign of our freedom that even the authorities disagree with each other. In ancient Athens, they killed people like Socrates who questioned authority.

Today, there are no undisputed authorities, in politics, religion, love, or life. There is no secret revelation that will cure a doubting Thomas. And there is no magic safety net to save us from bad decisions. We are on our own. It’s up to us to develop the knowledge to solve our problems — and the wisdom to think critically about what we believe and who we trust.

Don’t Panic

Fresno Bee, March 8, 2020

A virus spreads. The stock market tumbles. Store shelves clear. People are freaking out. The best advice for times like this is: don’t panic.

Panic undermines clear thinking and makes things worse. Luckily, the cure is well known. Get the facts. Seek a broader perspective. Focus on what is under your own control. Develop habits of calmness and self-control. And acknowledge that sickness and death are part of life.

The word “panic” comes from the name of the Greek god Pan, a feral god who haunted the wild places. Pan was the god of the nightmare and the uncanny. Pan would terrify and possess people, causing panic.

One solution is to stop believing in such superstitions. The wilderness is not haunted. Gods cannot possess us. Nor is the coronavirus sign of the Apocalypse, as some preachers have suggested. And while some Christians called for a global day of prayer to stop the coronavirus, what we really need is a vaccine, better hygiene, and a robust system of public health.

The ancient philosopher, Epicurus, offered a simple cure for panic. He told us not to worry about the gods. They are busy keeping the universe in motion. They have no interest in harming us.

But if we are going to pray, we might pray for wisdom and tranquility. This is what Socrates would have prayed for. In fact, at one point Socrates offered a prayer to Pan himself. He asked the god for integrity of soul. As Socrates put it, “grant me a beautiful soul in which the inner and outer self are united as one.”

A beautiful soul is stable and secure. It is at one with itself. It dwells in the company of truth. It is moderate and self-possessed. And it is resistant to panic.

The philosopher Seneca said the best way to prevent panic is to understand it. You need to understand that when “the habit of blind panic” takes over, the mind runs away with itself.

When we are not prepared for fear and hardship, panic strikes. Seneca explains, “the unprepared are panic-stricken even at the most trifling things.” And when uncontrollable and “witless” panic arrives, things get worse. Seneca’s solution is to adopt a larger point of view that puts life, death, and panic itself in proper perspective.

It is uncertainty that keeps us on edge. The fear that occurs out in the wilderness is like the fear of the dark. We’re not sure what’s lurking out there. That’s why knowledge helps. There is nothing in the dark that is not also there in the light.

It also helps to understand that fear is natural and has a purpose. There is a tightness in the belly and shallow breathing. We scan the environment looking for threats. This is the flight or fight instinct ready to go. If a threat emerges, the body is ready to react.

But this can get out of control, especially when everyone else is on edge. Panic is contagious. We sense the anxiety of our neighbor. If even a minor spark lights the fuse of anxiety, the herd erupts into a frenzied stampede.

This is why solitude is helpful. Peace of mind is easier to find if you keep your distance from the crowd. One easy way to prevent panic is to turn off your television and stay off social media.

But for some people, solitude causes panic. There is the fear of missing out and the depressing dread of loneliness. True solitude is not lonely. It is peaceful and centered, a way of finding yourself at home in the world.

Finally, the philosophers teach that we must understand that death, loss, and injury are common. Tornadoes, earthquakes, and deadly diseases have always existed. They always will. Something will eventually kill each of us. No one gets out of this life alive.

When we come to terms with our own mortality, panic gives way to acceptance. To live well is not to fearfully cling to life. This moment will not last long. So why waste it on worry? Life is not measured in length but in depth. The shallow panting of panic prevents us from breathing deeply and living well.

Leap Year: Make Meaning Out of Time

Fresno Bee, March 1, 2020

Leap year reminds us of the importance of science and math. It is also an opportunity to ponder the meaning of time.

Our calendars don’t line up with the way the solar system works. We divide the year into 365 days. But our journey around the sun takes approximately 365.25 days.

So we add a day every four years. And since the discrepancy is not precise, we make further adjustments. 2000 was a leap year. But 2100, if we live that long, will not be.

Time measurement was originally a political and religious prerogative. The calendar reflects ancient religious ideas. The days of the week are named after pagan gods. Sunday belongs to the Sun. Saturday is for Saturn. Wednesday is Wotan’s day. Thursday is Thor’s day.

Political meaning is also woven in. July is named for Julius Caesar. August is named for Augustus. The holiday calendar is both religious and political. It includes President’s Day as well as Easter. These are days for civic duty and worship.

But religious and political authority give way to science when it comes to leap year. We trust that the astronomers did the math right. Maybe we should trust science on other issues—such as climate change and public health.

But science can only observe and calculate the passage of time. It cannot determine its meaning. What is the point, after all, of measuring time?

We measure to make meaning. Quantity matters. We ask how much, how many, and how long? The sciences are useful here. Economics quantifies time and money. Medical science advises about how much to eat and how long to exercise.

But science cannot answer the questions of why and what for. These are questions of quality. The doctors can help us live longer. But what is the point of a long life? The economists can help us make money. But what should we buy?

Eventually, the question of quality overshadows the question of quantity. We know that our days are numbered. But what shall we do with those days to make them worth living?

Science cannot say. To find an answer we turn to politics and religion, as well as poetry and philosophy. The question of quality takes us far beyond science.

Perhaps we should fill our time with love and beauty. Some argue that love transcends time. Shakespeare said that love is “not time’s fool.” It remains like a fixed star across the tempest of time.

Shakespeare saw time as a “bloody tyrant.” “Time’s pencil” scribbles on our faces. “Devouring time” makes war on beauty. Summer fades, roses die, and youth succumbs to “swift-footed time.”

For Shakespeare, love and art provide a glimpse of immortality, lifting us out of the flow of time. Art preserves youthful beauty in the eternal present, forever young and glowing. What should we do with our time? Shakespeare suggests we make love and make art.

A different suggestion is found in Plato and in Aristotle. They say that wisdom lifts us beyond the ravages of time. When we contemplate truth, we touch the eternal. What should we do with our time, according to the philosophers? They suggest we pursue wisdom.

Other poets and philosophers tell us that since our days are numbered, we should seize the day. Thoreau said that killing time does injury to eternity. We should make no compromise with time but live fully in each precious moment. To be here, now, immersed in nature’s wonder is another way to savor our constantly dwindling supply of days.

We seem to have wandered far from leap year. But we have actually circled back. When we discover that the calendar is a man-made, a kind of liberation dawns. If the year can be made to leap, then so can we.

Leap year reminds us that time is something we measure for our own purposes. Science shows that the sun and the seasons are fixed by natural laws. But the poets and philosophers teach that time is ours to enjoy. It is not merely a tyrant, as Shakespeare warned. It is also a gift that affords us the opportunity to make love, to make art, and to make meaning.

Trump and the Social Construction of Crime

Ripping Trump's Speech

Fresno Bee, February 23, 2020

Crime is a social construction. While this point has often been made by left-wing scholars, President Donald Trump has brought this idea to life.

The president has accused the criminal justice system of bias. He suggests that prosecutors and judges are engaged in a process that is arbitrary and subjective. The president denounces legal inquiries as witch hunts and hoaxes.

He also calls things he does not like criminal. When Nancy Pelosi ripped up his State of the Union speech, the president said that that was “actually very illegal.” It wasn’t. He routinely suggests that some people should be in jail, chanting “lock her up.”

At the same time, he lets others out. The president called the prosecution of his friend Roger Stone “ridiculous.” He has pardoned white collar criminals, tax evaders and supporters such as sheriff Joe Arpario. Last year, he pardoned a Navy Seal for war crimes.

But before Trump, the social construction of crime had already become obvious. Marijuana and homosexuality were decriminalized. Sentencing reform changed punishments. The death penalty fell out of favor (although Trump wants to bring it back). And sanctuary cities have refused to cooperate with federal immigration authorities.

Some claim a higher power defines crime and punishment. But there has always been a disconnect between moral law and criminal law. And those supposedly transcendent sources of moral law have been reinterpreted.

Jesus was among the re-interpreters. He refused to stone the woman taken in adultery. He offered a radical revision of the old “eye for an eye” punishment scheme, advocating that we turn the other cheek instead.

Not only do the punishments change; what counts as a crime also changes. For a very long time it was not a crime for a husband to rape his wife. It was not until the 1970s that marital rape was considered a crime. Nor was it a crime for a slave owner to rape a slave.

Speaking of slavery, the Bible permits it, as did the U.S. In the American slave system, it was legal to kill your slave. The colony of Virginia passed a law in 1705 acquitting slave owners who kill their slaves, “as if such incident had never happened.” If the law permits rape, slavery and murder, that makes you wonder about the moral basis of the law.

Now, we might protest, those were the bad old days. Our laws are better today. But are they? And how would we know?

Crime and punishment are malleable. They depend upon historical context, geography and jurisdiction. In some countries, blasphemy is illegal, along with homosexuality and abortion. At one point these things were also illegal in the United States. But some Americans argue that abortion is murder. They want to re-criminalize it.

Crime and punishment are defined by the law. But the laws are made by human beings. Over time, the laws change. We hire human beings to enforce these changing laws. Even within the criminal justice system there is room for discretion. And in the case of pardons, the executive power can overrule the justice system.

This may cause us to throw up our hands in confusion and despair. But it can also be empowering. The system of crime and punishment is entirely up to us. Society defines what counts as a crime. Society also determines how crime will be discovered, prosecuted, and punished. We, the people, have the power to determine all of this.

This means that we can get creative, if we want to. Some activists have called for prison abolition. Others are advocating for restorative justice and other alternatives to incarceration. What about using brain science and creative chemistry to deal with deviance?

It’s difficult to imagine what the future might look like. But the history of crime gives us a clue. We can predict that the future will be different. And the president’s attacks on the whole system of crime and punishment makes one wonder whether it’s time to put everything on the table and think it all through again. If crime is a social construction, then it is up to us to figure out how we want to define it and how we want to punish it.