Patient Advice for Living in Limbo

Fresno Bee, October 18, 2020

We are living in limbo. The pandemic rages on. The election hangs before us like a double-edged sword. We don’t know when or how this will end. We hold our breath, while COVID-19 haunts our dreams.

Election years typically end in limbo, with lame ducks and lost causes. This year, we have the added anxiety of a president claiming the election is rigged, while calling for his opponents to be jailed. The nation is worried about election unrest and violence.

Life in limbo is characterized by worry, impatience, dread, and despair. Picture the anxiety of waiting for the results of a cancer test. The answer comes as a relief, even if it is bad news. It is better to know than to wait.

Limbo is a haunted hovering. Time spent in limbo is nonlinear. Limbo is a gateway. But once we cross the threshold we get lost. The passage is obscured by spectral worries that cloud clear thought.

We get stuck in limbo, mulling things over. We brood and ruminate, fret and stew. But we make no progress. T.S. Eliot described this in Prufrock as a world of yellow fog and ether in which every moment contains a hundred indecisions, visions, and revisions. Such dithering frays the nerves and weakens the will.

The experience of limbo is not unique to the present moment. There is a general human tendency to waver and worry, defer and deflect. This is related to the difficulty we have in making commitments and saying good-bye.

Some people never really say “yes” or “no.” They duck the question and beat around the bush. But a firm “no” is a blessing in comparison to a vague deflection. A “yes” opens the door. A “no” closes one. But a “maybe” leaves us in limbo with the door ajar.

And when the party’s over, we stand in the doorway, making small talk in the dark. Perhaps we fear the solitude of the night. Phillip Marlowe said that “to say goodbye is to die a little.” A long goodbye is another kind of limbo.

The antidote is obvious. Breathe deeply and exorcise the ghosts. Take a stand. Close the door. Either turn back or go out and get moving. Remaining at the threshold won’t help you decide. Sure it’s wise to think things over. But deliberation is not avoidance. “Measure twice, cut once,” the saying goes. But after you’ve measured it’s time to cut. And once you begin, cut swiftly and true.

To procrastinate is to live on borrowed time. Eventually the bill comes due. A person can only wait so long. And then you are dead.

Virtue and happiness require action. Patience is crucial. Genuine patience is active and expectant, full of attention. Patience is not passivity, which deadens the mind. Patience is sustained energy directed toward the future.

The Roman poet Horace said that patience helps us endure what cannot be changed. Horace is also famous for saying “Seize the day” and “Dare to be wise.” He said a person who passively waits for wisdom is like an idiot standing beside a river, waiting for the water to stop before daring to cross. Life is short, Horace said, and we can’t trust tomorrow. So plunge on in.

To live is to get your feet wet. Sometimes the river knocks you off your feet. But it is better to swim than to wait. Those who dip their toes never leave the shore.

This may sound like a call for blind action — but it’s not. One of the dangers of limbo is that it can give way to the panicked urge to run and rage. As the tension builds, there is a risk of explosion. But blind action makes a splash without making a difference.

We need to be calm and patient. Worry changes nothing. Fight the urge to panic. This limbo won’t last forever. At some point the ether will wear off and the yellow fog will lift.

Patience is realistic and engaged. Rather than battling ghosts, roll up your sleeves. Rather than pausing at the doorway, get moving. Stay focused on kindness and courage. Stop holding your breath and saying maybe. There is work to be done.

Virtues and Vices of Online Learning

The idea of “reopening schools” is hopelessly politicized.  School are “open,” even though teaching and learning have moved online.  Unfortunately, school “reopening” is a political football.  There is a legitimate debate about school safety and the well-being of children, staff, and teachers.  But the political environment does not foster careful thinking about teaching and learning.

It is obvious that learning can happen online.  Americans learn online every day.  Youtube videos teach us how to do home improvements or how to play guitar.  Useful apps teach foreign languages.  Business training involves videos and interactive websites.

Some people don’t like this.  Some are nostalgic for the routine of sitting together in classrooms, hanging out and chatting in the halls.  Of course, not everyone is nostalgic for this.  Face-to-face schooling also includes loneliness, bullying, and stress.

Schools are not simply places for learning.  Public schooling is an essential part of the economy and the social safety net.  Schools allow parents to get to work.  They provide breakfast and lunch for poor children.  They are places of refuge for kids who need social and emotional support.  They are also connected to the rituals and routines of American life: football games and marching bands, holiday concerts, and so on.

But the traditional classroom is not essential for learning.  Learning is an individual activity which requires effort, concentration, discipline, and motivation.  John Dewey explained, “learning means something which the individual does when he studies.  It is an active, personally conducted affair.”  Social supports help.  But the learner must do the learning, alone with a book, a piece of music, or a math problem.

A recent article interviewed college students who complained about online learning.  One student said she lacked motivation.  Another said, “I just feel like I’m turning in work and not really learning anything.” 

Those same problems occur in the face-to-face environment.  Teachers have long complained about unmotivated students who go through the motions and don’t learn.  The issue of motivation and engagement is not an online problem.

The bigger problem is that schooling is viewed as a necessary evil and not as something valuable in itself.  Whether online or in person, if you don’t view value what you are learning, you will be unmotivated and disengaged. 

Working adults encounter the same problem when completing mandatory training courses.  Whether online or face-to-face, if you don’t want to be there, it is hard to learn.  On the other hand, if you are curious and interested, you will learn whether online or in person. 

For curious learners, online learning can be very effective.  One advantage of asynchronous courses is that you can rewind or fast-forward videos according to your own needs and interests.  This is much better than suffering through a boring lecture in a crowded classroom. 

Or consider the difference between in-person discussions and written discussion forums.  In-person discussions typically group students in a circle to encourage oral communication.  Skills of speaking and listening can be developed in this environment.  But often the circle is dominated by a few loud talkers, while other students sit passively. 

Online forums that encourage written communication are more inclusive of the quiet and reflective student.  The level of discourse in written discussion forums is typically much higher than in in-person discussion.  When students write online posts, they have more time to reflect. 

By now, our technologies are flexible. Oral discussion can occur online through programs like Zoom.  Written communication can be practiced in the classroom.  Both skills are important.  Each can be learned in either environment. 

At the end of the day, neither modality is inherently better or worse.  It all depends on the way the teacher structures the activity and on the motivation and curiosity of the student. 

Teachers and students still have a lot to learn about online education. As with most things, there are pros and cons, virtues and vices.

But online learning is not going away. And if we work at it (if we try to learn to do it better…) we will get better at it.  We won’t learn to improve if we keep complaining and waxing nostalgic for the old routine.  Nor does it help to let politics get in the way of thinking carefully about what it means to teach and to learn.

Don’t be a Donald!

Fresno Bee, October 4, 20202

The president is obnoxious. And our democracy is in disarray. The debate this week demonstrated that Trump is a boor. But this is not news. For nearly five years, I have been writing about Trump’s incivility.

So what have we learned during these years? Well, I hope that by observing Trump we learn how not to behave. The president’s behavior can be used to teach lessons in critical thinking and character. I imagine posters that say, “Don’t be a Donald!”

This is a time-honored method of moral instruction. Cato, a Roman soldier and senator, said, “wise men profit more from fools than fools from wise men.” Moral development is stimulated by scrutinizing bad behavior.

The lessons are simple. Don’t badger other people. Keep your mouth shut and allow others to speak. Ad hominem arguments are empty and irrelevant. Blustery bullying is mean. Lies, deflections, and hyperbole indicate a mind without clarity or depth.

These are ancient lessons. The Bible warns against false and foolish speech. It praises wisdom and righteous words, as well as kindness, patience, and golden silence. It is better, we learn, to remain quiet than to blow like the wind. The Bible points out the moral failure of selfish and incompetent leaders.

The ancient Greeks offered similar lessons. The Greek tragedies are object lessons in failures of character. The Greeks teach us to avoid hasty and loud speech, to cherish wisdom, and to persuade rather than overpower. They teach us not to mock another’s misfortune, to be merciful in our strength, and to seek tranquility through self-mastery and introspection. One of the seven sages of ancient Greece, Chilon, put it simply, “Let not your tongue outrun your thought. Control anger. Let no one see you in a hurry. Obey the laws. Be restful.”

These lessons are taught by observing bad rulers. Ahab and Oedipus were corrupt kings. They ignored moral restraint. Moral education uses ancient tragedy to teach us how not to behave.

But there is another side to the story. Even though the corrupt kings of the ancient world eventually fell, they still enjoyed the privilege of power. Here is a problem for parents and teachers today. The Trump method rejects restraint. But so far, this bad behavior has worked. If you act like Trump, you could become a billionaire and win the presidency.

Imagine if this lesson took root. Would teachers, coaches, and parents be interrupted and belittled by Trumpian children? Would a petulant child respond to a teacher’s admonishments by saying, “I’m just doing a Donald.” It’s possible to imagine bracelets and T-shirts emblazoned with “What Would Trump Do?” In a WWTD world, the bully rules the playground.

These comments about character and style have nothing to do with policy. Some people support Trump because he appoints conservative judges or because he cuts taxes. Reasonable people can disagree about policy. But the triumph of the Trumpian character is a menace to morality.

The ancient Greeks understood that obnoxious boors win elections by inflaming the passions of the people. That’s why Plato thought that democracy was a terrible idea. In the United States we think differently. Our democracy emerged out of the Enlightenment. The American experiment was a product of “the age of reason,” when public debate was supposed to be based on rational arguments and guided by norms of civility.

Safeguards are built into the system to limit the power of demagogues. The system of checks and balances does not, by the way, require debates, rallies, or tweeting. Maybe it’s time to return to a leaner version of democracy — one which does not give a platform to rude and obnoxious behavior.

One way to teach our children not to be like Trump is to stop watching him. This is generally good advice for dealing with rude and obnoxious colleagues and relatives. Leave the room and shut the door. Unfortunately, this isn’t so easy when the boor is the president.

So until Trump is finally shown the door, let’s use his bad behavior to teach our children how not to behave. Let’s teach them that rudeness is wrong. And even though Trump is currently king, it is wise to say, “Don’t be a Donald.”

Secular or Sacred? A Pandemic Conflict

The pandemic has brought the conflict between the sacred and the secular to the surface. 

The Archbishop of San Francisco, Salvatore Cordileone, led a recent protest against Covid-19 restrictions.  He claimed that restrictions on worship violate the First Amendment right to free exercise of religion.  He said, “when government asserts authority over the church’s very right to worship, it crosses a line. Our fundamental rights do not come from the state… they come from God.”  He also suggested that “secular elites” lack compassion for religious people and do not understand the pain caused by restricting worship.

The Archbishop did not deny the need for reasonable restrictions on religious liberty.  The problem is that we disagree about what is reasonable.  In fact, we always have. 

150 years ago the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Mormon polygamy (Reynolds v. U.S.), arguing that the state can restrict religious liberty.  The Court said that religious belief is not “superior to the law of the land” and that religious liberty does not “permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.”

The worry is that religious liberty can open the door to a kind of anarchy, as each sect claims an exception to the law.  The Mormon polygamists of the 19th Century did not think that polygamy meant anarchy.  Nor is the Archbishop prescribing general lawlessness in the face of the pandemic.  But it is difficult to figure out where to draw the line in disputes between the secular and the sacred. 

Furthermore, the Archbishop suggests that some values transcend the law of the land.  He says that our rights come from God—not from the state.  This may mean that we have a right (or even an obligation) to violate the law of the land in the name of a higher law. This is what happens in cases of civil disobedience and conscientious refusal. 

Public health and the common good would seem to call for restrictions on worship. But do religious people have a right to refuse?

A significant problem is that terms such as “public health” and “the common good” are subject to interpretation.  A religious person may think that spiritual well-being is part of public health.  And some religious communities think that communal worship is essential for the common good.

The Archbishop suggests that secular people often don’t understand the powerful role that ritual and communal worship play in the lives of religious folk.  There is some truth to this.  The idea of the sacred opens a realm of transcendent value, which has no parallel in non-religious life. 

The secular world is “disenchanted,” as Max Weber put it a hundred years ago.  Philosopher Charles Taylor said something similar: “The modern identity and outlook flattens the world, leaves no place for the spiritual, the higher, for mystery.”  Speaking as secular person, I think they are right.  The sacred, the transcendent, and the holy are indeed flattened in the secular world.

There is much to argue about here in terms of ethics, theology, and the meaning of life.  But let’s leave these existential arguments aside and return to the problem of the pandemic.  The present situation is this.  Some religious people live in a world of mystery and enchantment that requires communal celebration of shared rituals.  These communal practices appear to violate the public health rules created by a secular political system, which views the world as disenchanted and flat. 

This conflict becomes more complicated when the source of political and legal authority is called into question.  Are the laws a human creation, the result of a social contract?  Or are these laws reflective of something deeper, more mysterious and sacred? 

The present crisis prompts these deep questions.  To answer them we need the help of political philosophers and theologians.  But there will be no unanimous consensus about how to answer these questions. 

This gives us clue to finding common ground.  The fact that we disagree shows us the need for liberty.  The Courts are going to have to draw lines. These judgments will not be satisfactory to everyone.  But let’s agree, at least, that we should be free to ask these questions and to disagree about the source of the law and the meaning of life.

Curing Viciousness by Climbing the Moral Ladder

Fresno Bee, September 20, 2020

At a recent rally in Reno, President Trump said, “Now I can be really vicious.” “I don’t have to be nice anymore.” Trump said, “the Republican party doesn’t play it rough and tough.” “We play it so nice,” he said. “In the end it’s not right.”

Trump’s viciousness can be seen in the way the president applauded the killing of Michael Reinoehl by U.S. Marshals. Reinoehl was suspected of killing a right-wing protester in Portland, Ore. After the marshals killed him, the president said, “that’s the way it has to be. There has to be retribution.” Of course, in the U.S., police are not justified in delivering retribution.

We are on a slippery slope lubricated by viciousness. To avoid that slope we need to hold fast to what I call the moral ladder. The rungs of the ladder tell us to be nice and kind, to seek justice, to limit power, and to develop mercy.

Morality begins with niceness. Parents tell kids, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” We quote Aesop’s fables and teach children that “Kindness is never wasted.” These nuggets of proverbial wisdom create a foundation for morality.

Niceness is about manners. Manners provide a psychological and social root for moral development. In learning to be nice, children develop decorum and self-control. Niceness can be superficial and deceptive. A con-man can be nice while he picks your pocket. But that behavior is an exception. Niceness is the first rung on the moral ladder.

Kindness is also essential. Kindness is empathy and benevolence. Sometimes this can be phony or done for show. But genuine kindness opens the heart. It is the source of charity and compassion. The next rung on the moral ladder involves extending kindness to friends and even to strangers.

Beyond this, ethical maturity requires that we develop a sense of justice and responsibility. The Roman philosopher Cicero said that kindness is optional but justice is necessary. Kindness is a gift. If you withhold charity, no one would blame you or be angry. It is not nice to be unkind, but it is not evil.

Justice, on the other hand, is required. If you fail to be just, you are blameworthy. Failures of justice— from lying and promise-breaking to outright violations of human rights — create outrage and righteous indignation. Injustice is not simply unkind. It is evil. Justice is another step on the moral ladder.

Here is where retribution is found, offering payback that holds criminals responsible for their misdeeds. A traditional scheme requires eye for eye, life for life. But a complex system has developed in order to administer justice. Among the most important features of our system is the presumption of innocence.

Accused criminals in the United States have a right to defend themselves in a court of law. American police are not authorized to deliver retribution. The state’s power to punish is awesome. That’s why we limit it and make certain that those we punish are actually guilty. Recognition of the necessary limitation of the state’s power to punish takes us higher up the ladder. This is the vantage point of democratic political theory, which is committed to basic human rights and the rule of law.

It is possible to climb still higher. Many moral systems teach that forgiveness and mercy are higher than retribution. Mercy asks us to be kind, even to those who deserve punishment. The last rung on the ladder takes us beyond law toward something transcendent.

This moral ladder represents the basic common sense of our civilization. Common sense teaches that when viciousness is praised, virtue gets trampled. When niceness is kicked aside, kindness becomes impossible. When police take retribution into their own hands, democracy is in danger.

It’s time to get off of this slippery slope and climb back up the moral ladder. We do that by adhering to justice and the rule of law. We do that by teaching our children to be nice and kind, fair and forgiving. Our children are watching. They will eventually take control of this vicious country. If we teach them well, they may be kind enough to show a little mercy on us.