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.

Luther’s Reformation: Conscience, Truth, and Modernity

A thriving democracy stems from understanding the power of protest

Fresno Bee, October 20, 2017

These are contentious times. We argue about athletes and flags, racism and sexism. We dispute climate change, economic policy, sex and gender, reproductive rights, and immigration. And of course we disagree about religion.

This is what it is like to live in a thriving secular democracy. The modern world is founded upon the value of individual conscience. We are encouraged to question religious and political authority. We understand the power of protest.

One important milestone in the evolution of the modern spirit occurred 500 years ago, on October 31, 1517. That is when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg Church. This legendary act is the symbolic beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

FOLLOWING LUTHER, WE MODERNS TEND TO BELIEVE THAT TRUTH AND CONSCIENCE ARE MORE IMPORTANT THAN ALLEGIANCE TO INSTITUTIONAL AUTHORITY.

Luther’s protest was based on his Christian faith. But he also asserted a fundamental claim about truth and individual conscience. In the prologue to his Theses, Luther declared his love of truth. He published his Theses in an effort to bring truth to light.

Following Luther, we moderns tend to believe that truth and conscience are more important than allegiance to institutional authority. We believe that protests and questions can help to reform corrupt structures of power.

Truth has often been manipulated by the powerful. Today dishonest leaders deal in fake news, while feathering their own nests. In Luther’s day, crooked clerics enriched themselves by peddling indulgences—a scam through which rich people bought their way out of purgatory.

The antidote for corruption is honesty and decency. Luther suggested that without a commitment to truth and morality, authorities and institutions leave themselves open to ridicule, slander and doubt.

It is obvious that leadership requires respect for the truth and a commitment to virtue. But we also need bold protestors who have the audacity to speak truth to power. We need intrepid gadflies like Socrates and Luther who sting the powerful with probing questions.

When Luther testified at the Imperial Diet of Worms, in 1521, he asked for an open and honest debate about his interpretation of Christianity. If he was wrong, he asked to be shown his error. He declared, “I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.” His speech concluded with the legendary words, “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise.”

Luther’s request for reasonable dialogue and his declaration of conscience are central features of modernity. We believe that progress is made when free persons debate the truth. But corrupt authorities are not interested in dialogue. They value conformity. And they occasionally resort to violence to enforce orthodoxy.

MODERN FREEDOM IS A REMARKABLE AND RARE ACHIEVEMENT OF THE HUMAN SPIRIT.

To say “here I stand” is to affirm that individuals can discover wisdom without institutional intermediaries. This invites attacks from those who prefer us to sit down and shut up. But progress occurs when we refuse to be silent and stand up for truth.

I’ve been talking about Luther with a group of scholars and clergy who will participate in a discussion of the legacy of the Reformation. One of my collaborators on this project is the Rev. David Norris, a Catholic priest who works at the Saint Paul Catholic Newman Center.

Father Norris sees similarities between Luther’s time and our own. He says, “Calls for reform soon became disrespectful argumentation, power plays and name calling, mutual condemnations and politicization of issues.” In Luther’s time as in our own, he explains, there is “an unfortunate disregard of factual information, as well as a decline in civil discourse.”

Despite these similarities, I think that things are better today. Our secular system respects freedom of conscience. We have established a wall of separation between church and state. And instead of repressing dissenters, we admire those who have the courage to say, “here I stand.”

The modern secular world developed out of long centuries of violence and intolerance. Heretics were burned. Wars were fought. Genocide was invented along with totalitarianism.

Modern freedom is a remarkable and rare achievement of the human spirit. Political and religious authorities continue to want conformity and obedience. But modern democratic people continue to question authority.

Truth is a fragile flower. But it is persistent and perennial. And it flourishes when bold individuals speak their minds and take a stand.

http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article180023061.html

For the Love of Teaching

Teachers truly love a very tough profession

Fresno Bee, August 20, 2016

 

34344c9935257c1be6c213aa5443ea6fTeachers love to teach. Ideas thrill us. We share the excitement of our students’ achievements. We enjoy helping people master skills and understand concepts. And we believe that our efforts give birth to a better world.

Like any worthwhile activity, teaching is stressful and difficult. It is intimidating to face a college lecture hall full of hundreds of students. It is tough to keep high school kids engaged. It isn’t easy to nurture elementary school kids every day of the week.

There is high turnover among beginning teachers. In Los Angeles, according to a recent report, 40 to 50 percent of K-12 teachers leave the classroom within five years. Teacher shortages are a problem in Fresno and across the country. The long-term solution is for society to value teachers. Teachers should also spread the good news of the joy of teaching.

Not everyone is cut out to be a teacher. Teaching is a craft that is learned through sweat and tears. When I taught high school, I was overwhelmed with insecurity. My first years in the college classroom were filled with anxiety and doubt. More than 20 years later, I still fret and worry.

Teachers need compassion, organizational skills and intense focus. Teaching depends upon mastery of the subject matter, quick wit and the ability to improvise. It also requires an ethical commitment to the well-being of those we teach.

Great teachers facilitate a metamorphosis of the mind. Jeremiah Conway, a philosophy professor in Maine, describes this as a kind of magic. In a book entitled “The Alchemy of Teaching,” he explains, “Teaching is fundamentally about human transformation.” He concludes, “Participating in such transformation is one of the great delights and responsibilities of teaching.”

Parents certainly don’t want just anyone molding our children’s minds. We want ethically grounded teachers who love our children and understand their fragility. We want teachers who take their responsibilities seriously.

TEACHING IS A NOBLE AND NECESSARY PROFESSION.

Transformative teaching is not mere instruction. Its goal is not obedient compliance or mechanical repetition. Rather, transformative teaching aims to conjure something new into existence – knowledge, virtue and love of learning.

The model for transformative teaching is Socrates. Socrates described himself as a midwife who facilitated a magical birthing process. When teaching works, young people grow into full-fledged human beings.

Low wages, heavy workloads and external pressures can kill the joy of teaching. Institutional constraints can reduce teaching to mere instruction. The move to computerized instruction presumes that computer programs can do much of the work.

Some skills can be taught by mechanized instruction. But personal transformation and moral growth are properly facilitated by human interaction. We learn art from inspired artists. We learn the scientific method from devoted scientists. We learn good sportsmanship from decent coaches. We learn to love history by listening to passionate historians. And we learn how to be human from mentors who represent the best of humanity.

In order to recruit the next generation of teachers, society needs to celebrate the smart, devoted, and moral human beings who fill our classrooms. Teachers are among the most important workers in our nation. They transmit the knowledge, skills, and values of our civilization. Teaching is a noble and necessary profession.

We also need to explain the joy of teaching. Successful teachers find meaning and delight in teaching. Teachers often feel called to teach. But inspiration is momentary. Teachers are lifelong learners who work to hone their craft. That effort is sustained by a sense of responsibility toward students and the community.

Teachers are often quiet about their love of teaching. Perhaps we are reluctant to admit that we’ve found meaningful work in a world of drudgery. We are not comfortable these days talking about work as a calling or vocation. But where your talent and joy provide a service to the world, that’s where you are summoned.

Not everyone has the talent or demeanor to be a teacher. Some give up or burn out. But most teachers love to teach.

Each new school year begins as a great romance. We get butterflies. We obsess about lesson plans. We dream of books, experiments and ideas to be shared. We happily greet our students, humbled by our responsibility. And we hope that through our efforts a better future will be born.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article96554047.html#storylink=cpy

 

Political Life vs. Living Well

Take a break from bitter politics – go fishing

Fresno Bee, July 29, 2016

After two weeks of political conventions we need a break from hype, hyperbole and hyperventilation. We need to go fishing. Catch our breath. And clear our heads.

Here’s some of what we witnessed in the past two weeks.

At the Republican convention, delegates chanted “lock her up,” when Hillary Clinton was mentioned. One Donald Trump supporter, Al Baldasaro, called for Clinton to be shot for treason.

Trump’s convention speech prompted pundits to call him a fascist and a dictator. If the rhetoric is true, this leaves us with a choice between a Caesar and a criminal.

On the one hand, we have a billionaire who takes pride in firing people claiming that he understands the plight of the middle class. On the other hand, we have the wealthy wife of a former president claiming the same thing.

WHEN ASKED TO TAKE A JOB WITH THE EMPEROR, THE ANCIENT CHINESE SAGE CHUANG-TZU SAID NO. POLITICAL LIFE ENDS IN UNHAPPINESS AND DEATH.
HE SAID HE WOULD RATHER GO FISHING.

Bernie Sanders concluded his campaign claiming that Clinton would “end the movement toward oligarchy.” Sanders’ supporters walked out. An apparent anti-Sanders conspiracy in Democratic headquarters confirmed the suspicions of those who think the system is corrupt. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the head of the Democratic National Committee, resigned as a result of the damaging email dump.

Democratic Party operatives, including President Barack Obama, suggested that Russia was behind the email leak. They insinuated that Trump is too cozy with Russia, since he benefited from the leak.

Trump responded by calling on Russia to find the missing emails from Clinton’s private server. The Clinton campaign replied by saying, “This has to be the first time that a major presidential candidate has actively encouraged a foreign power to conduct espionage against his political opponent.”

Each side has basically accused the other of treason, duplicity, stupidity and criminality.

Can it get any worse?

This is all disheartening. But it is not surprising. Politics has always been a repugnant business.

Within the lifetimes of our two candidates we have witnessed anti-communist witch-hunts, political assassinations, Watergate, the Iran-Contra scandal, Clintonian philandering and lying, Bushian incompetence and a host of other crimes and misdemeanors.

image1History discloses a political world that stinks to high heaven. That’s why the world’s religious and philosophical traditions have often taught us to avoid it.

Socrates thought politics damaged the soul. Jesus advised his followers to render unto Caesar only what belongs to Caesar. He suggested that his kingdom was not of this world. Both Socrates and Jesus were killed by political authorities.

The Epicurean philosophers of ancient Greece advised us to avoid politics entirely. True happiness, they argued, is found in good health and in the private company of good friends. Christians often retreated behind cloistered walls seeking peace and communion with God.

IF GOOD PEOPLE GO FISHING, FISHY PEOPLE WILL TAKE OVER AND DESTROY OUR FISHING HOLES.

A related idea comes from China. When asked to take a job with the emperor, the ancient Chinese sage Chuang-Tzu said no. Political life ends in unhappiness and death. He said he would rather go fishing.

How nice it would be simply to go fishing with the Taoist sages. But if good people go fishing, fishy people will take over and destroy our fishing holes.

We might like to be left alone. But injustice and stupidity have a nasty way of spreading. The philosopher’s garden, the monk’s monastery, and the Taoist’s mountain retreat are still connected to the political world. No one can withdraw completely.

Politics is a necessary evil. We avoid it at our peril.

The political world is a bit like our bodily functions. We must occasional get our hands dirty with this messy business. Justice requires us to wade into political swamps. But we should not be surprised by how bad the whole thing smells.

Nor should we view political life as an end in itself. There are higher and more lasting goods to be found elsewhere.

The challenge is to make the best of a putrid situation – to keep our heads clear despite the hot and fetid air.

Critical thinking skills help. Suspend judgment until you get all the facts. Control your emotions. Keep the larger sweep of history in mind. Remember that there are no utopias and no morally perfect politicians.

We also benefit from taking a break from breathing hot air. Go fishing. Recharge your critical batteries. Clear your head. This is going to be a nasty and noxious political season.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article92507247.html#storylink=cpy

Individual Conscience and the Common Good

When conscience and common good collide

Andrew Fiala, Fresno Bee, February 6, 2015

There is no easy way to reconcile individual conscience and the common good. The argument about the measles vaccine makes this clear. Some have refused vaccination, despite the dangers this creates for public health._55524133_friedrichwandererabovetheseaoffogoriginal

Similar disputes play themselves out in a variety of contexts: Ebola quarantines, eminent domain, and the like. During the past half-century, exceptions have been carved out for individual conscience with regard to military service and a variety of other issues. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court granted a corporation, Hobby Lobby, an exemption to federal insurance laws requiring contraception coverage, based upon a claim of conscience.

Society demands that individuals should serve the greater good and conform to the norms of social life. The risk of allowing conscientious refusal is significant, as we are seeing in the current measles outbreak. Those who are not vaccinated put themselves and others at risk.

But individuals (and apparently even corporations) can refuse to comply. The advocates of conscience might quote Shakespeare, “To thine own self be true.” Or they may assert with Emerson that nothing is sacred but the integrity of your own mind.

Human beings are fundamentally conflicted. We are social animals. But we are also individual persons. Each of us views our own life as special, unique and infinitely valuable. And yet, each of us is merely a replaceable member of the herd, subject to biological forces that flow through our bodies and affect the whole.

Human life is fractured by this irreconcilable rift. Life is lived in the first-person: you are the hero of your own drama. And yet from the outside, each of us is merely a bit player in a much larger story. You will be entirely forgotten in four or five generations. And yet, this life is the only one you’ve got.

Your own death is one of the most important events in your biography — the final, defining moment of your life. But from the perspective of the species, your measly life is inconsequential. Nature will digest your flesh. The planet will not notice your departure. But for you and your loved ones, your departure to the undiscovered country will be an infinite loss.

Our heroes have often been conscientious refusers: Socrates, Jesus, Martin Luther King. But refusal antagonizes the herd. It is not surprising that these heroes were killed. Occasionally the moment is ripe for a refuser to make a difference, especially when the herd is obviously wrong. But most of the time, the tidal movements of society and nature sweep individuals along, and away.

Some individualists claim that individuals should never submit to society’s demands. On the other hand, collectivists claim that social welfare always trumps the right of conscience. At one end is lonely egoism. At the other end is totalitarianism.

Neither solution is acceptable for those of us committed to a democratic social life. Individuals should not lose themselves completely in the herd. Nor should we live in defiance of society. To be human is to suffer in the middle. The tragedy of being human is that we are pulled in multiple directions by opposing forces and conflicting duties.

Religion appears to offer one sort of resolution. An omnipotent God can hold all of this together in his benevolent hands. God is big enough to love each of us infinitely, while also understanding the substance of the common good. But the mystery of divine omnipotence gives us little to go on. We live this side of paradise, without access to divine omniscience.

Does God want us to vaccinate our children, to provide contraception, or to serve in the military? Religious people disagree about the answer to those questions. Every act of conscience is a leap of faith.

Another solution appeals to science. Scientists understand how vaccinations help prevent epidemics. But science can’t tell us how to live in the first-person or how to balance our values, duties, and commitments. Individuals must still interpret the data and apply it to their own lives.

There is no way around this dilemma. Claims of individual conscience can cause outbreaks of measles. But each measly individual also has a claim on infinite value. And a democratic society of conscientious individuals is as dangerous as it is inspiring.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2015/02/06/4367159_fiala-on-ethics-when-conscience.html?rh=1#storylink=cpy