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.

Gratitude, Gladness, and Thanksgiving

Fresno Bee, November 24, 2020

Gratitude lubricates social relations. To say thanks is to express gladness. But gratitude is also a spiritual capacity that lightens and energizes. Some call it the wine of the soul. When we drink it, we want to share it with others.

Social rituals revolve around thankfulness. We thank people throughout the day for small favors. We thank dinner guests for passing the salt. We thank the guy holding open the door. Entertainers thank the audience for their applause, which is how the audience says thanks. We even thank people we pay — the clerks, waiters, and bartenders.

Behind social grace lies a deeper spirit of gratitude. Gratitude is sincere and heartfelt gladness. It is humble, hopeful, and happy. The opposite of gratitude is greed and arrogance. Ungrateful people want the world to serve their selfishness. Whatever they get leaves them grumpy because they always want more.

Gratitude is content with whatever comes. The positivity of gratitude is psychologically beneficial. Gratitude helps us manage stress, discover patience, and see opportunity. There is a positive feedback loop that comes from acknowledging good things.

Gladness produces gratitude while gratitude gladdens. In a dark world, gratitude opens a glowing glade of gladness. Grateful spirits glow. They hold back the darkness by kindling energy and light.

Nietzsche once said that great art begins in the overflowing fullness of gratitude. Creative energy flows from gratitude. The eyes of gratitude are welcoming. The arms of the grateful are ready to build and embrace. The artists of gratitude affirm life and the universe itself.

Gratitude may be cultivated. One technique is to keep a gratitude journal or to otherwise count your blessings. Recalling the things that make you glad can help you overcome negativity. Gratitude grows when we recognize that life is a gift, an opportunity, and a precious good.

In religious traditions gratitude is ultimately directed toward God. When George Washington created Thanksgiving in 1789 he called upon Americans to offer thanks to “that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.” The American Thanksgiving feast is part of a long tradition of giving thanks to God.

But the attitude of gratitude can be experienced outside of any particular religious framework. We might call this existential gratitude. One can be thankful to be alive without thanking anyone in particular. Religious people may find this to be empty. But secular and non-religious people can benefit from existential gratitude.

Gratitude is linked to humility and wonder. Grateful people recognize that their gladness is not entirely their own doing. Fate, luck, and history determine our fortunes. Your existence is the product of a chance meeting of your parents. Your continued life depends upon an ecosystem, a social system, and a legal and political system that are beyond your control.

In religious terms, our existence is a miraculous gift from God. In nonreligious terms, our existence is something to wonder about — a unique opportunity to make meaning in a vast and empty universe.

But perhaps all of this only makes sense for people who are actually thriving. What about the sick, disabled, poor, grieving, and oppressed? Should they be grateful as well?

Well, there is hope that everyone can discover gratitude in the middle of suffering and loss. But frankly, it is rude to suggest that the downtrodden should be grateful for what they’ve got. Other people’s gratitude is none of our business.

But when we recognize that others may have less to be grateful about, we move beyond gratitude toward compassion. If gratitude helps us see that our own cup is full, compassion moves us to share what we have with those who are thirsty.

Gratitude without compassion is like breathing in without breathing out. Gladness reaches beyond itself. That is why we say thanks so often in our daily lives. Gratitude overflows in smiles and prayers, and in our ritual acts of thanksgiving.

Fortitude and Resilience in the Face of Tragedy

Right now fortitude is needed more than fantasy.
Admit fears, shed tears, get back to work

Fresno Bee, October 6, 2017

It feels like the world is falling apart. Hurricanes, earthquakes, and massacres clog the headlines.
Even El Capitan recently crumbled.

Of course, the rocks have always been falling. Each new hurricane and earthquake is a reminder of our fragile place on this spinning globe. Each new outburst of cruelty is a reminder of the human capacity for evil.

We cannot give up hope. But dark times need fortitude more than fantasy. Fortitude is grounded in a clear-eyed assessment of the world. This old-fashioned virtue has other names: grit, resilience, tenacity, and courage. Fortitude helps us face danger and endure stress. It gives us the energy and audacity to confront adversity.

Fortitude is solid and realistic, while hope is insubstantial and ethereal. The hopeful live in a world of “maybe.” Maybe after this hurricane season, we’ll take climate change seriously. Maybe after Vegas, we’ll take gun control seriously. Maybe next time, we’ll do things differently.

FORTITUDE IS GROUNDED IN A CLEAR-EYED ASSESSMENT OF THE WORLD.

It is possible that things will improve. But they won’t improve without hard work and common sense. Unrealistic hope is delusional. And hope without labor is merely hot air.

Reality is immune to our desires. Death and suffering are as pervasive as ignorance and selfishness. We need to accept the inevitable and focus on things that are actually in our control. We can regulate our efforts and subdue our fears. Beyond that lies fortune and fate.

Moderate fatalism is not a recipe for despair. Despair dwells in the negative and broods over misery. The risk of hope is that it gives way to despair when the hoped-for dream does not arrive.

The truth is that things are mixed. The earth is not static. Evil people exist. But so too do heroes, mothers and martyrs. Right now someone is dying; but someone else is being born. Someone is lonely; but someone else is falling in love. This vast world contains a multitude.

Reality includes hurricanes and earthquakes. It also includes tranquility, beauty and joy. We ought not let outrage and anxiety destroy our enjoyment of life’s bounty.

Our spirits will break if we try to take in all of the suffering of the world. This does not mean that we can ignore other people’s pain. But it does mean that compassion is a finite good. Help the victims if you can. But understand that grief and sorrow are local affairs.

Recent tragedies seem overwhelming. But there is always bad news somewhere. The media magnifies calamity. Catastrophes attract our attention.

It is wise to control your consumption of news. If the news is bothering you, turn it off. If you want good news and inspiration, look for it. Common decency is the unexceptional background condition of normal life. Talk to a neighbor. Or call an old friend. Most people are doing OK most of the time.

The ancient Greeks taught that evil can be endured and that good is easily obtained. They advocated moderation and courage. The Christians added faith, hope and love. It is sometimes useful to “let go and let God.” But grit and determination remain important. Fortitude was celebrated by Aquinas and others in the Christian tradition.

IT IS WISE TO CONTROL YOUR CONSUMPTION OF NEWS. IF THE NEWS IS BOTHERING YOU, TURN IT OFF.

Fortitude requires vigilance and prudence. It is prudent to prepare for disaster. But vigilance is not fear. Courage depends upon a sense of proportion that prevents panic. With preparation, some ills can be avoided. And many evils can be endured with patient resolve.

A sense of proportion puts anxiety in its place. The world continues to hum along after each quake, storm, and massacre. This bigger picture provides a source of hope. It is true that this too shall pass.

The big picture also makes us humble and forgiving. El Capitan crumbles on occasion. So too does the strongest man. We are all vulnerable. Our common fragility is the source of solidarity.

Share your strength when you can. But be modest about compassion. No one is strong enough to shoulder all of the suffering of the world.

In the end it is our resilience that is the source of progress. It is what we do after a disaster that actualizes hope. Comfort the afflicted. Lick your wounds. Admit your fears. Wipe away your tears. And then get back to work.

Justice, Compassion, and the Dreamers

DACA controversy reveals conflict between blind justice and broad compassion

Fresno Bee, September 8, 2017

The reconsideration of DACA presents an example of the conflict between justice and compassion. It also shows us the conflict between a narrow conception of our obligations and a broader point of view.

Justice requires impartial application of rules. The goddess of justice is blind. She administers law without considering the identity of those who receive her decisions. Justice is a goddess of the public sphere. She demands that we extend moral concern universally, fairly, and without exception.

Compassion operates differently. The goddess of compassion opens her eyes and her arms. She attends to people’s concrete situations, making exceptions for the disabled, the displaced and the disadvantaged. The motherly goddess of home and hospitality focuses on individual identity and relations of care.

Compassion and justice disagree whenever there is a conflict between mercy and rule-following. Justice requires equal treatment and unbiased judgment. Compassion makes exceptions for special needs and mitigating circumstances.

The DACA debate asks whether we should extend compassion to the children of immigrants who did not knowingly violate the law when their parents brought them here. Justice may ignore this fact and simply apply a rule that says if you are not here legally, you must leave. Compassion begs us to consider that these young people have no other home to return to and bear no responsibility for their predicament.

President Trump’s statement about DACA uses moral language. But he prioritizes compassion for Americans, saying, “We must also have heart and compassion for unemployed, struggling, and forgotten Americans.” He admits there is something unfair about punishing children for the actions of their parents. But he said that fairness for American citizens was his first priority. He explained, “Before we ask what is fair to illegal immigrants, we must also ask what is fair to American families, students, taxpayers and job seekers.”

Trumpian morality applies compassion and justice in a limited nationalistic way. This fits with the president’s America first agenda.

Moralists have often criticized this kind of nationalism. The goddesses of justice and compassion are not national deities. Morality universalizes.

Justice and compassion extend across borders. The goddess of justice is blind even to national identity claims. And the “mother of exiles” – as the Statue of Liberty has been called – opens her arms to the world’s homeless and huddled masses, yearning to breathe free.

ANY RESOLUTION WILL REQUIRE US TO THINK CAREFULLY ABOUT THE NATURE OF LAW AND MORALITY.
IT WILL ALSO REQUIRE US TO REFLECT ON WHAT IT MEANS TO BE AN AMERICAN.

It is not surprising that American religious leaders responded with dismay to Trump’s announcement. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops condemned Trump’s decision. The bishops wrote, “Today’s actions represent a heartbreaking moment in our history that shows the absence of mercy and good will, and a short-sighted vision for the future.”

Mercy and good will are the heart of the ethics of compassion. The bishops extend this globally, applying the commandment to love one’s neighbor in a universal direction.

Trump and his supporters reject this view of morality. They also discount the religious critique of this policy. Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, said that limiting immigration was a matter of “national sovereignty.” He also said that the Catholic church has “an economic interest in unlimited immigration,” suggesting that the church wants immigrants to fill pews and coffers.

The president and his supporters have also claimed that Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program was unconstitutional. They want Congress to take action. But hundreds of law professors, governors, and other legal and political leaders have argued that DACA is constitutional.

The constitutional question is related to the moral question. Does our legal system require strict impartiality and blind justice or does it permit discretion and compassion? Is the Constitution a system that puts America first and focuses only on questions of national sovereignty? Or are there values in our constitutional system that point in a more cosmopolitan direction?

These are not easy questions to answer. We disagree about religion, morality, and the Constitution itself. These conflicts run so deep that they may never be resolved.

But any resolution will require us to think carefully about the nature of law and morality. It will also require us to reflect on what it means to be an American.

http://www.fresnobee.com/article172036532.html

Let’s stop the violence

No more urgent task than to create a world where children don’t get murdered

Fresno Bee, June 3, 2017

The river of tears keeps flowing. Children are killed by bombs in Baghdad, Kabul and Manchester. In Portland, Oregon, three Good Samaritans are knifed while protecting teenage girls from racist harassment. In Fresno, a teenager who worked to end violence in her neighborhood is killed in a gang-related shooting.

We search for causes and cures for cruelty. Some blame weapons. Friday was National Gun Violence Awareness Day. Protesters wore orange to bring attention to gun violence, which kills 90 Americans every day.

A Breitbart columnist, AWR Hawkins, has criticized the campaign. He points out only a third of those 90 daily deaths are homicides. The rest are suicides or accidents.

That’s a difference without significance for grieving families. Our tears fall for all of the dead. Suicide is as troubling as murder.

A different approach might look to neuroscience. Mental illness can contribute to violence.But let’s be careful. People who commit violent crimes are often mentally ill. But most mentally ill people are not violent.

A similar story holds with regard to alcohol, which is a major contributor to violence. Many violent people are drunk. But most drunks are not violent. Moral character is what matters. A good person who is drunk is not suddenly going to become violent. And an evil person is a menace, whether stoned or sober.

Some blame religion or politics. But terrorists and mass murderers have been politically, religiously and racially diverse. They say that “guns don’t kill people, people do.” It is also true that ideologies don’t kill people, evil people do. The danger lies in the cruel indifference of people who wield ideas and weapons in immoral ways.

Masculinity is another significant factor. Mother Jones has a database of mass shootings in the U.S. Its latest entry is for a racially charged murder that killed three white men in downtown Fresno on April 18, 2017.

In 83 of the 86 cases in this database, the attacker was a man. But again, let’s be careful in drawing conclusions. While nearly every terrorist and mass murderer is a man, not every man is a terrorist. Men of good character simply don’t commit mass murder.

It is clear that violence involves multiple causes. Violence occurs when unstable or drunken men with easy access to weapons get fixated on bad ideas.

There are no simple solutions here. Just think how much society would have to be modified in order to change the causal factors contributing to violence. We might begin by providing better mental health care, alternatives to gangs, and drug and alcohol counseling. One simple proposal is to raise the price of booze. Apparently this has worked to reduce violence in the United Kingdom.

In a society that values liberty, we are not going ban weapons and alcohol – or cruel religions and racist ideologies. The risk of violence may be the price of liberty. But that should not leave us indifferent to atrocity. Liberty must be linked to education, morality and responsibility.

Free people need compassion and self-control. A society of free persons depends upon a serious commitment to universal moral education. We create a peaceful world by teaching children to be loving, courageous, and just.

Among the more poignant stories emerging from the recent carnage is a letter written by the mother of Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, a 23-year-old who was killed trying to protect those teenage girls from a racist assailant in Portland. Taliesin’s mother wrote, that her son’s selfless act “changed the world, when in the face of hate he did not hesitate to act with love.” She raised her son well, it seems.

Slow progress will be made by strong mothers who raise courageous sons like Taliesin. Let’s not forget that there are many brave and loving people among the decent majority of peace-loving people. Fresno’s Kayla Foster was another example. She worked to end violence before she was gunned down.

Let’s celebrate the good, while we lament the evil. We need a systematic and multifaceted effort to reduce violence. We should avoid simplistic answers and politicized debate. And once we stop mourning, let’s get to work. There is no more urgent task than creating a world in which our children are no longer murdered.

http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article154033489.html