This is Not the Worst Year Ever

Time magazine declared 2020 “the worst year ever.”  That’s obviously not true.  In the 1850’s, millions were held in slavery.  In the 1860’s, over 600,000 Americans died in the war that freed those slaves.  One hundred years ago, the Spanish flu killed 675,000 Americans, while women struggled to gain the right to vote.  Our current troubles are minor in comparison.   

Time magazine’s hyperbolic headline can be forgiven as a ploy to sell magazines.  But people succumb to hyperbole.  We tend to magnify present suffering.  And that can impede critical thinking.   

History is not one story, it is many.  When historians look back on 2020, they will see failure that caused unnecessary suffering.  But they will also witness ingenuity that mitigated harm.  We should learn from our successes—and from our failures. 

Some of what we suffered in 2020 was the result of human greed, ignorance, and pride.  The Covid-19 death toll was made worse by selfishness, ignorance, and lack of leadership.  The fires in California were the terrifying result of human-caused climate change.  The social divisions and racial tensions of 2020 are the result of systematic stupidity and political polarization. 

But human intelligence prevented things from being even worse.  Health care systems evolved.  A vaccine was developed.  There were government bailouts.  School teachers invented online learning.  Firefighters demonstrated heroism.  And Americans educated themselves about racism and the American Constitution. 

Life includes both tragedy and triumph.  We fail.  We suffer.  We learn.  And we grow.

Resilience is a process of growth and development.  Resilient people generally avoid absolutism and hyperbole, which cause despair.  Defeatism undermines the spirit of invention, discovery, and growth. 

Consider a recent essay by Chris Hedges on cultural despair.  Hedges warns that despair can fuel the wish for magical solutions that can turn into fascism.  I’m sympathetic to his critique.  But Hedges’ assessment is itself dispiriting.  Hedges gives voice to despair.  And this leads him to conclude that reform is impossible.  He concludes that we are faced with a choice between tyranny and revolution. 

Hedges’ dilemma is typical of despair.  We tend to dwell on the darkness without noticing the light.  But history is more complicated than a stark choice between tyranny and revolution.  And there is no such thing as “the worst year ever.” 

Evaluation is relative and evolving.  Some people fell in love in 2020.  Others died.  Some families had children.  Some experienced divorce.  Some people began new careers.  Others lost jobs.  Art was created and scientific discoveries were made.  But businesses failed and crimes were committee.  For some people, 2020 was a great year.  For others, it was miserable. 

And yes, there was Donald Trump.  But there were also movements of social protest.  The Constitution was tested.  But the system worked.  Polarization increased.  But decent people sought common ground.

We must resist oversimplifying when we judge.  These are not the best of times.  Nor are they the worst of times.

Some new age advocates of mindfulness celebrate “non-judgmental awareness.”  There is value in this.  But non-judgmental presence is only a tool and a mood.  We need to judge things.  Judging helps us learn, invent, and improve.  But we need to be judicious in judging—moderate and prudent. 

We can learn a lot from acceptance and gratitude.  The mind can be sharpened by quietness and presence.  Thinking and learning require judgment and discrimination.  If we practice pure acceptance, we will never learn anything. 

If we are overly judgmental and hyperbolic in our judgments, we will also fail to learn.  We have to see what works—and what doesn’t.  We must also remain open to the new and the different.  We must be creative and inventive in our response to the world.

To say that this was the worst year ever is a kind of cop out.  It is a shoulder shrug and a sigh.  Shrugs and sighs are OK—for a moment.  Then it’s time to roll up our sleeves and get back to work.  Instead of dwelling on what went wrong, let’s learn from our mistakes.  We can also learn from our successes.  And with some luck and a lot of labor, the next year may be better than the last.

Fire Wisdom

Smokey Sunset

The Sierra Nevada is blazing.  Smoke chokes our lungs here in the shadow of these burning mountains.  Yesterday we learned that a friend’s house burned down, another victim of the Creek Fire near Shaver Lake.

What wisdom can we learn from fire and smoke?  Fire is a terrifying force of nature.  It is also a metaphor. Pandemics burn.  Violence flares up in the streets.  Some warn that the bridges of democracy are being torched.  Each day brings a new conflagration. 

The ancients saw fire as a primal force.  Fire cults gave birth to religion. God appeared to Moses in a burning bush. Ancient worship included burnt offerings and smoking incense.

The Greek sage Heraclitus gave voice to a fire philosophy.  He said the cosmos is an “ever-living fire.”  Everything changes.  The eternal fire burns all things.  This fiery wisdom reveals the cold, dark truth of mortality. 

The Greek word for fire (πῦρ or pyr) is the root of our word “pyre.”  The funeral pyre purges and purifies, returning ashes to ashes.  Fire transforms mortal flesh into smoke and wind.

Fire destroys. But it also gives birth. Fire is essential to the forest’s life.  It clears the undergrowth and fertilizes the soil.  The seeds of the mighty sequoia only germinate after a fire.  The bark of the sequoia bears the marks of prehistoric flames.

Climate change accelerates this cycle.  The ponderosa pines have been destroyed by the tiny bark beetle.  Drought and death have reduced these forests to kindling.  The hot winds of a feverish climate fan the flames.

Wind is another metaphor and element. Wind is breath. But wind is duplicitous. It can blow flames out or encourage their growth. The same is true of breath. Breath is life and laughter. But breath gives voice to angry words and hateful curses.

Wisdom teaches us to control the breath and to inhale clear air from above the fuming haze. Watching your breath teaches patience and tenacity. Someday the winds will change.

Someday these ashes will give birth to new growth. Fire wisdom takes the long view.  The life cycle of a sequoia is measured in centuries.  Forests span millennia. 

The big picture offers some consolation.  But what about today?  Wisdom teaches us to tend the fires that nourish us.  Fire can be a friend.  As darkness falls and the cold settles in, a campfire reassures. The hearth provides a place to gather and dwell.  There is comfort in keeping the home fires burning. 

But an errant spark can burn down the house. Fire is dangerous when it blazes out of control.  That is why we protect our fires from the wind. Fire explodes when the wind blows uncontrolled.  This is also a metaphor.

The Buddha said everything is burning.  The senses are on fire, he said, as is the mind.  Suffering arises when the flames of the spirit are fanned by ragged hyperventilating and breathless passion.  Negative emotions burn the soul and fuel terrible explosions.

Anger and resentment grow along with violence and fear.  These flames are scorching our social world today. We need to moderate our breathing and keep the sparks of hate away from the powder kegs.

These Sierra fires are flashing a warning.  We have grown too fast.  We live too furiously.  We burn too brightly.  Our breathing is shallow and feverish. Life is out of balance.  The world is on fire. 

The solution is containment and prevention.  A forest fire cannot be quenched.  It can only be contained.  The same is true of pandemics and of violence.  Control the burn.  Keep kindling and flame safely apart. Breathe from the belly.

This is a simple lesson taught by ancient sages.  Control the negative emotions that incinerate the spirit.  Watch your breath. Conserve your fuel.  And tend your hearth.

We should also discover the cooling balm of compassion.  This fiery world contains too much mourning.  Let’s comfort the grieving. And hold fast to patient hope.  The winds will shift. The rains will come.  The smoke will clear.  And someday these ashes will give birth. 

Malevolent Hope and The Desire To Burn Things Down

Fresno Bee, September 6, 2020

This is a season of malevolent hope. Hope is usually positive. So this may seem strange. But the desire to see enemies suffer is common, as is the urge to burn things down in pursuit of power.

We see malevolent hope when Republicans imagine benefiting from civil unrest. Kellyanne Conway said last week that “chaos and anarchy” are good for Trump’s re-election.

Another example showed up this week when the president told his supporters to vote twice to test the electoral system. If the system is broken, Trump gets extra votes. But if chaos ensues, after Trump voters are charged with the crime of voting twice, this reinforces Trump’s claims about a broken system.

Democrats may have their own form of malevolent hope, perhaps secretly hoping that a vaccine does not appear until after the election. Republicans are already accusing Democrats of wanting to block the vaccine. Conservative columnist Betsy McCaughey claims that the Democrats “wish failure” on every COVID-19 breakthrough.

It is obviously wrong to wish for the worst as a bridge to the better. It’s cruel to desire more disease. It’s evil to cultivate chaos. It’s perverse to encourage criminality and felonious voting.

But malevolent hope is as common as greed and envy. When a relationship sours, you hope your former lover suffers. When a rival is winning, you wish he would fail.

Good people realize this is wrong. Such thoughts ought to be repressed. Wicked wishes can give birth to evil deeds.

Politics often slips down this devilish slope. Terrorists actively seek to make things worse. They attack in order to provoke a backlash. Once the backlash occurs, they say, “see, I told you—those guys are oppressive.” A different example comes from Germany in the 1930s. The Reichstag was burned. The Nazis blamed the Communists and soon seized power.

Malevolent hope often includes a story about a savior. The jilted lover imagines himself swooping in and consoling his miserable former love. Political partisans believe that when things get bad enough, their candidate will save the day.

This narrative also appears in apocalyptical faith. Plagues, pestilence, and war are signs of the end times. Does this mean that the faithful should hope for these horrors? That question is a recipe for theological heartburn.

Malevolent hope is connected to gloating. To gloat is to take joy in your enemy’s misfortune. Ancient warrior cultures encouraged gloating. It’s not enough to kill your enemy. The warrior also disfigures his enemy’s corpse and dances on his grave.

Some ancient sources condemn this. The Bible’s book of Proverbs warns against envy, pride, and gloating. One verse says “don’t gloat when your enemy falls and don’t rejoice when he stumbles.” Jesus went even further. He told us to love our enemies.

That may be too much to ask. A basic concern for the common good would suffice. To hope that things get worse actively encourages pain and misery. We should want our rivals to succeed in business, politics, and even in love because we want happiness to spread.

To the jilted lover we say that if you really loved her, you should hope she finds joy in her new relationship. And patriots should want peace, justice, and prosperity regardless of who is in the White House.

But we are jealous and greedy. And we tend to fight evil with evil, violence with violence. Malevolent hope grows out of selfish pride and a zero-sum view of the world.

This is corrupt and self-defeating. It is simply wrong to wish harm upon others. Peace and prosperity require cooperation, solidarity, and concern for the common good.

It is difficult to remember this lesson of common decency in a world that has grown ugly and angry. But common sense tells us that if we hope things will get worse, they probably will. It is easy for things to fall apart. Holding them together is difficult. Creating something better is harder still.

For things to improve, we need positive hope. Benevolent hope affirms human creativity. It keeps open the possibility of enemies becoming friends. This is the kind of hope that grows from love and wants joy to spread. It is a hope that builds instead of burns.

Progress is possible and hope sheds light

Fresno Bee, July 19, 2020

This may seem an odd time to accentuate the positive. The nation is struggling with a pandemic, protests against racism, political dysfunction, and economic woes. Things could get worse. But when things look dark, it is important to take stock of progress that has occurred.

Science, economics, and the law have created improvements. There are many reasons to believe that things are better today — not perfect, but better.

Our lives are easier today thanks to technologies such as the internal combustion engine, refrigeration, telecommunication, personal computers, and the internet. There are downsides. Fossil fuel use causes climate change. And the Internet is awash in porn and fake news. But life is easier, healthier, and smarter thanks to applied science.

The coronavirus is scary. But experts are learning how to prevent and treat this disease. We’ve already eliminated smallpox, polio, cholera, and other devastating diseases. Many countries have made progress controlling COVID-19. The U.S. needs to get things under control. But medical science is better now than it was 100 years ago when the Spanish flu killed millions.

Protests against police brutality and racism indicate there is more work to be done. Terrorism and mass shootings cause anxiety. The U.S. exceeds other countries in gun violence. The U.S. imprisons more people than other countries. But crime is down from a high point in the 1990s and Americans are safer today than we were just a few decades ago.

The pandemic has exposed a digital divide in virtual learning. But a hundred years ago, girls and nonwhite people were woefully undereducated. Today we understand the ethical demand to provide quality education for all children. We teach science, math, and history to more kids in more sophisticated ways than in the one-room schoolhouses of yesteryear.

Wage gaps and wealth gaps remain. Rich people live longer and have more political power. But progress has been made for racial minorities, disabled people, homosexuals, women, and religious minorities since the 1950s when the Supreme Court abolished the farce of “separate but equal.” Things are not perfect. But discrimination is illegal and voting rights have been secured for members of previously excluded groups.

Threats to the American constitutional system exist, along with corruption in the halls of power. The free press has been attacked. Unjustified force has been employed against peaceful protesters. But the five freedoms of the First Amendment remain as beacons. The courts continue to defend our rights. And there is more vigorous political debate today than in previous decades.

Much of this debate overlooks the good news. The loudest voices on both sides of the political spectrum dwell on a sense of crisis. The conservative motto “Make America great again” begins with the premise that things have gotten worse. In response, progressives focus on remaining racism, sexism, and homophobia as well as Trumpian malfunction.

I’m not saying things are perfect today. There is substantial room for improvement. But hope for improvement depends upon the sense that progress has been made and can be made.

It is easy to lose sight of this. The news focuses on crime, disease, and corruption. Movies feature murder, malice, and mayhem. We like stories about bad guys and action heroes. A story about decent people who love their families and go to work every day would be boring.

Good news is also a political dud. Political energy grows from the sense of crisis that rallies the base. Change-makers are elected to shake things up. A campaign focused on moderate and incremental improvement would be uninspiring.

Incremental change is tedious. It takes persistent effort. The good it produces is slow in arriving and unexciting once it gets here. But lasting improvement occurs through painstaking effort.

In a crisis, despair can set in quickly. When things appear to be falling apart, it is easy to throw in the towel. That’s why it is important to recall the progress we have made. When we understand that smart, creative effort improves the world, it is easier to roll up our sleeves and get to work.

The world will never be perfect. But it won’t get better unless we believe that through our efforts it can be improved.

The Pandemic Dilemma

Pandemic Dilemma

We are witnessing a “pandemic dilemma” similar to the classic “prisoner’s dilemma.”  A growing number of people want to be “liberated” from stay-at-home orders, including apparently, President Trump.  The desire to end coronavirus restrictions is reasonable.  People need to get back to work and get on with their lives. 

But if we end stay-at-home restrictions too soon, the pandemic will continue and we’ll need more restrictions.  Cooperation is necessary, along with a long-term perspective.  Selfish action in the short term will prevent us from getting what we desire in the long run. 

The Problem of an Early Win

Pandemic restrictions have apparently worked.  The curve is “flattening.”   Although the number of deaths is appalling, this has fallen short of the most-dire predictions.  That’s good news.  But the effectiveness of stay-at-home orders makes it seem that they are not necessary.

It is tempting to declare a win too early.  The permanent solution involves vaccines and effective treatments.  The stay-at-home strategy only slows the spread of the disease.  If everyone stays home, the threat decreases.  It will then seem that there is no need to stay home.  But to re-open things too soon will increase the pandemic risk.  That would make it necessary to extend stay-at-home orders. 

Short-term thinking will lead to long-term problems.    

Cheating can be Contagious

As the threat dissipates, there will be more cheaters and resisters.  The irony of this is that cheating and resisting may prolong the pandemic. 

The longer this goes on, the more likely a further negative spiral.  As patience wears thin more people will be tempted to cheat and protest.  But a resurgent pandemic would lead to an extended need to stay at home.

 As frustration increases, cooperation decreases.  If you are staying at home, you will view defectors with resentment—but also maybe a bit of envy.  Resentment causes distrust and polarization.  The resisters view those staying at home as mindless sheep.  The stay-at-homers view the resisters as ignorant fools.  Cooperation becomes difficult. 

The Problem of Polarization

Polarization in the United States was already a problem.  This crisis has amplified it.  Some trust science.  Others do not.  Some think the president’s incompetence has made the crisis worse.  Others think that this is a “deep state” campaign to bring Trump down.

Our divisions will likely intensify as the economic and political consequences of the pandemic unfolds.  When distrusts grow, there is a tendency to focus on short-term self-interest, while blaming others.  This makes cooperative action more unlikely, which causes a further negative cycle.   

Hopelessness exacerbates distrust and makes it difficult to focus on long-term cooperation.  These negative feedback loops make long-term success seem farther away.  At some point, people begin to shrug and say “what the hell, might as well join the cheaters.”  When the Titanic is sinking and there is no hope for rescue, you might as well enjoy the ride (a point I’ve made in more detail elsewhere). 

If that happens, we really are sunk.

The Solution

Philosophers have long pondered the problem of cooperation.  One source is Hegel.  I won’t bore you with the details.  But in Hegel’s “master-slave dialectic,” when rival parties struggle for recognition, they end up failing to get what they want. 

The solution is a more robust sense of community.  This is similar to the solution of the classic prisoner’s dilemma, where two people struggle to choose wisely when they lack information and trust.  The solution is solidarity and trust, along with a shared source of information. 

Hope is also essential.  We need a reason to hope that things will improve when we work together.  The good news is that there is a reason for hope: cooperative action has slowed the pandemic.

Community, truth, and hope are cherished goods of human life.  Without them, we are thrown back into a chaotic world, where narrowly focused self-interest prevents us from cooperating and actually getting what we want.  Philosophers have made it clear what the solution is.  But building community is up to us. We, the people, must choose to cooperate, seek truth, and find reasons to hope that in the long run solidarity pays off.