We Are What We Believe We Are

As an economist, I have always been puzzled by the basic assumption that we are all pursuing our own self-interest.  And fascinated by studies that suggest that the study of economics makes people more self-interested and less altruistic. I also questioned the dominant assumption of economists since the mid-20th century that the human mind is just a giant cost-benefit calculating machine. So I was relieved to reconnect with a long tradition in economics that challenged that pair of assumptions about humans. 

One part of that challenge questioned the capability of the human mind as an efficient calculating machine.  We would make better (if still self-interested) decisions if we fed all the data into a computer along with our preferences.  A lot of behavioral economics has been devoted to examining that assumption, questioning our ability to choose wisely or well from either an altruistic or self-interested perspective.  Having too many choices confuses us. We are influenced by the context in which the choice is made and are very bad at estimating probability, which plays an important role in making good choices. (For example, we insure too much against low dollar risks and not enough against infrequent but very expensive losses.)

Far harder to dislodge is the first assumption, self-interest.  Always competition, never co-operation. Every generation a Me generation. From Greek cynicism and Christianity’s doctrine of original sin, we are encouraged by our culture to believe the worst about human nature.  That view is reinforced by the news, by economists, and by political leaders who are, as it is fashionable to say, on the spectrum.  Not the autism spectrum, the self-interested spectrum. After all, many people run for office because they want power and control, so why are we surprised when they abuse it? 

But there are also people running for office because they find it a venue in which to work to make the world a better place, just like nurses and firefighters and teachers and other helping professions. They seek power both for their own satisfaction and to do good in the world. Yes, we are all a mix of self-interest and altruism, but if we are told that greed is good, self-interest is normal, and other people and institutions can’t be trusted, we begin to internalize that view of ourselves and others.  It leads to defeatism and hopelessness and a lot of sales of insurance policies to protect ourselves against a hostile world.

But is it, in fact, actually true? Dutch author Rutgers Bregman in his new book Humankind has single -handedly enabled me to affirm my alternative view of the world, which believes that most of us lie on the hopeful, trusting, at least somewhat altruistic range of the spectrum of human personality. That we are a mixture of original sin and original blessing, and it is up to our families, or institutions and our culture to focus our attention on the glass half-full, the original blessing part.  I know my hopeful view is shared by my family and close friends, in part because my husband and I  conveyed that understanding to our family and chose our friends because they shared that world view.  It calls us to rejoice in the success of others, come to their aid in times of crisis, to share their sorrows and try to create more peace, joy, hope, love, and generosity in the world.

Saint Paul, with whom I have some issues, got it right when he said, Faith, hope, love, these three abide, but the greatest of these is love. I would add a fourth, grace (or gratitude) as the four essential attitudes (or virtues) that are the foundation for a positive view of human nature.  Faith, or trust—in ourselves, in the sacred, in humanity, in the reality of goodness.  Hope, or as theologian Joanna Macy would qualify it, active hope-belief that the world can become a better place if we do our part.  Love, the mother of kindness, compassion, justice that make life worth living. Grace or gratitude, the belief that everything we have –our health, our loved ones, our food, nature, our skills, our opportunities, even our challenges—are free gifts that we can use to live wisely and well for ourselves and others. 

So, reading this book, I resolved to mostly turn off the news, which focuses on the negative in the world and in humanity.  Maybe PBS News Hour is enough. I resolved to assume the best intentions in others and to affirm my own best intentions.  I think it will contribute to my inner peace. And as Lao-Tse reminds us, if there is to be peace in the world, there must first be peace in the heart, then in the home, among neighbors in the cities, among the nations. 

Let it begin with me. And you.

And read the book, it’s really good.

Pagan Fusion


We all know that many of our holiday customs have pagan origins.  Easter eggs and rabbits and lilies, trick or treat at Halloween, yule logs and Christmas trees.  But I think that the pagan influence is deeper and wider.  What are the top four holidays in this country? Christmas, Easter, 4th of July, and either Halloween or Thanksgiving (which is too close to Christmas).  Each one of them arguably is a blend of the eight holidays on the wheel of the year, blending traditions from the two closest pagan holidays.  Four sky holidays—the solstices and equinoxes)–share the wheel with the earth-based cross-quarter holidays of Imbolc, Beltane, Lammas, and Samhain, which (respectively) celebrate the signs of earth’s renewal, fertility, first harvest, and descent into winter..

Starting the year at Christmas in the deep winter only a  few  days after the solstice, we bring nature indoors.  Winter solstice was celebrated at midnight, a custom that survives in midnight mass.  The greenery comes indoors and we light candles to entice the returning sun.  Some of the winter holiday blend spills over to trying to hasten the signs of spring (easy when you live in the South as I do). The fit of spring cleaning takes place at that time as it did in the ancient time of Imbolc.  At Imbolc the holiday greens were discarded and the house prepared for spring.  So if you are late in taking down your decorations, just blame it on the pagans.

The next pair is the spring equinox and Beltane, with Easter conveniently falling in between.  The spring equinox is celebrated at sunrise—sunrise Easter service, anyone? It’s also a fertility festival as the earth renew itself along with Jesus’s resurrection. Fertility symbols—rabbits, eggs—migrated from Norse paganism to attach themselves to Easter. The fertility part spills past the X-rated celebration of Beltane (May 1st) to add the more sedate and sentimental Mothers’ Day to the mix.

The shift of the two summer holidays attached itself,  not to a Christian festival but to a national holiday in the United States, Independence Day.  Summer solstice was celebrated with bonfires at noon.  We have the 4th of July picnic at noon, celebrating the harvest foods of corn and watermelon that connect us to the Lammas first harvest on August 1st, although the fireworks replacing the bonfire have to wait till after dark to be fully appreciated. The solstice, around the 21st or 22nd of June, often coincides with Fathers’ Day.  In the Celtic tradition, earth is female, sun is male, so it is appropriate to celebrate fathers at the summer solstice as the sun is at the height of his powers, shedding warmth and light on all below.

The autumnal equinox is the most neglected of the four sky holidays, but it does mark the turn toward winter, which becomes more pronounced at Samhain or Halloween.  Samhain marked the return of the flocks from the fields, some to be wintered and others to be slaughtered.  Only the turkey—one pardoned, others roasted– reminds us of that aspect of wintering, along with the final harvest that also migrates to thanksgiving.  The autumn equinox was celebrated at dusk, which is the time to go trick or treating, or if you wait till much later, to eat the leftovers from the Thanksgiving feast.  The baptizing of Halloween into all saints and all souls days is a reminder of the darkness and ending of the cycle of the year before we begin again. In fact, both the Jews and the Celts celebrated the new year at this time of year.  Just as the Jewish sabbath began at sundown, going into and emerging from the darkness into the light, so it was with the seasons for both Jews and Celts.

The blending of holidays does not diminish either their Christian significance or their pagan significance. Rahter, the holiday cycle is a multi-dimensional celebration of human history,  faith, and tradition alongside a connection to the earth and the heavens and the turning of the seasons.  It’s not a binary choice.  We can do both without dishonoring either, because both traditions enrich the textures of our individual and common lives.


The Core Virtues

Why are there so many lists of virtues? And why are so diverse in nature?  Some of them are feelings, attitudes, or states of mind.  Others are words and deeds, action virtues. What if there were core virtues that were values, attitudes, states of mind, a personal cosmology that governs how we encounter our inner selves and our outward experiences? From these core virtues would then flow all the virtuous actions, including words, as well as refusals to act.  Virtues like courage, compassion, and generosity would be the outward displays of the core attitudes and feelings that govern our thinking, believing, and experiencing.

I suggest that Saint Paul almost had it right in the three Christian virtues, all of which are at the core of who we are as people, attached to the soul.  Those three are love, hope, and faith (as trust).  I would add a fourth, which is grace or  gratitude (or a close kin, reverence). Having these four habits of the heart, as Bellah mght say, will be manifested in a corresponding cluster of virtues.

Paul also called to our attention the fruits of the spirit in Galatians 22–love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The first three are the inner rewards, but the others are behavioral virtues.  He contrasts them with what he calls the works of the flesh, a long list–fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.  A rather odd list, but certainly a forerunner of the seven deadly sins, especially in the emphasis on bodily sins.

Love to Paul meant agape love, brotherly or sisterly caring and concern for others.  Jesus admonished his followers to love their neighbors as ourselves, to feel for them the same intensity of concern that we give to our own person. The love or loving kindness core virtue is manifested in such behavioral virtues as respect, kindness, patience, compassion, tolerance or acceptance,  fairness or justice. The absence of that core virtue results in anger, envy, lust, and pride, all of which are expressions of a drive for power and/or control over others.

The virtue of hope does not mean optimism, which does not result in actions but just leads us to wait for good outcomes.  Rather, it is what Joanna Macy calls active hope—seeing the possible future and working  to bring it about. Hope is manifested in commitment, responsibility, courage, and that odd little virtuous behavior that was a favorite of Aristotle, prudence. Hope leads us to dream dreams and see visions. Patience is also a manifestation of hope. Hope is realistic, as opposed to either pessimism or optimism. It  evokes the virtue of moderation, the fulcrum of the golden mean that upholds the virtues  with the virtue’s opposite on one end and its extreme on the other. The absence of hope leads to the sins or vices of fear, despair, and sloth. The Latin word for hope is spes (as a noun) or sperare (verb). To give up hope is to fall prey to despair—literally, anti-hope.

The third Christian virtue, faith, is often translated as belief, but belief is not always a virtue, depending on what you believe (or believe in, or believe about).  An alternate translation of this word (credo in Latin) is trust, which means believing in the goodness of others and of institutions—not naïve credulity, but an attitude grounded in original blessing rather than original sin. A “trust but verify” or “Trust Allah, but tie up your camel” kind of faith, a responsible trust that is similar to the idea of active hope. From this trust come many of the same virtuous behaviors that flow from love and hope.  Trust means honoring the divine light in others with respect and acceptance, courage in the face of uncertainty,  and taking responsibility because you trust others to do likewise. A lack of faith or trust, like a lack of love, leads us to self-protecting behaviors at the expense of others—again to the seven deadly sins that express a desire for power and control because we are unwilling or unable to depend on others to meet our needs.

To these three I suggest that we add a fourth, gratitude, which is the subject of an entire book by theologian Galen Guingerich.  But I believe this fourth core virtue needs to be renamed for its root word, grace, to keep it simple in companionship with faith, hope and love. The Latin word is gratia, as in Ave Maria, gratia plenis—Hail Mary, full of grace. If you are of a more Protestant turn of mind, the same word appears in that most famous of all Protestant hymns, Amazing grace. To possess grace means to have an appreciation that we did not earn what we have, whether it is our possessions, our status, our gifts and talents, or the gifts of nature. Grace, or gratitude, is manifested in generosity, compassion, justice or fairness, responsibility, simplicity, kindness, reverence, respect.  The absence of this virtue is to be ungrateful, or even worse, disgraceful, which is expressed all seven of the classic deadly sins–pride, envy, greed, sloth, anger, lust, and gluttony.

Living and working for, in, and with communities requires all four of these virtues and their resulting behavioral virtues in order to create a living space in which people, animals and earth can flourish and nurture one another.

The moral of this philosophical/theological rant?  Cultivate the core virtues of love, hope, trust, and grace, and the others will follow.

Collaborating with My Hair


I have been working on my relationship with my hair over the past few years, and I think we may finally have come to some agreement about important issues. Length. Part. Frequency of shampooing.  Curl deciding to be under or over.

I thought I wanted long hair so I could put it up when I exercise or work in the yard and have it long and glamorous for other occasions.  But I forgot that my hair, like me, was getting older, and it didn’t want the same things it wanted in my younger days.  It is thinner and dryer, as hair tends to be when we get older. So the hair protested. It lay too flat on top of my head until I surrendered to a side part rather than a center part. I tried to torture it with a curling iron to curl under, but by midday it would be a flip again.  I wanted it to lie still, and it wanted to wisp and frizzle, especially during and after physical activity and also on humid southern days, which we have a lot of in South Carolina. I wanted to pull it back in a barrette or a pony tail holder or a headband, and it refused to stay put.

I’d like to say my hair and I have a truce rather than a surrender.  After two years of growing it out under the supervision of my hairdresser, I gave up the idea of being able to put my hair back or up. I had it cut to just below the ears.  I wash it every other day rather than every three days.  I use the curling iron sparingly, the mousse and hair spray liberally.

My attempt to impose my will on my hair was a useful life lesson in collaboration.  I do a lot of collaborating in writing and in various leadership roles. Sometimes I work with people who are content to let me make decisions, other times with those who want to be totally in charge.  Then there are those gems who understand collaboration and are willing to engage in the give and take and compromise that leads to a win-win outcome where everybody gets something, gives something up, and is satisfied with the outcome. I love those people. I gravitate to them, which isn’t exactly fair to those who aren’t constituted the same way. And I try to practice and model that kind of healthy collaboration, sometimes successfully, other times not.  Like my hair, I am a work in progress.

And that is the life lesson I learned from my hair.




Economy is Not Community

In the debate over reopening—how soon, how fast—the question is posed as a choice between the economy and public health.  Both are certainly important, but there is a third missing element.  We are more than bodies to be kept healthy and workers/consumers to keep the wheels of commerce going.  We are also persons in community, engaging the mind and spirit with other humans.  Fortunately for some of us, we have had the gift of technology to keep in touch, but it didn’t include everyone, and it was in imperfect substitute for real human contact.  We need to acknowledge the desire to attend live worship services, the concern among students of all ages that online learning is at best an imperfect substitute for live real time classrooms and labs, the missed scout troops and  team sports and outings to movie theaters and ball games and restaurants, the absence of a real live presidential election campaign, virtual conventions and festivals, and the inability to have neighborhood and extended family gatherings and vacations at the beach in the summer.

Yes, the workplace often is a community, but we all belong to multiple and overlapping communities.  Schools and colleges, churches, youth activities, bridge clubs, extended family, volunteer organizations—these are our communities. So are our cities and towns, who provide a lot of these opportunities to gather and are struggling with demands for first responder services and declining revenue from sales taxes and tourism.  These kinds of direct face-to-face contact with no computer screen intervening fill an important human need for community.  We are asked to wear masks and wash our hands frequently not just to protect ourselves but to protect the larger community, but in order to persuade people to do those things, they need to feel like a part of the community. If we don’t get to experience other people directly, our sense of being in community and being responsible to and for the well- being of that community. Health and economic activity are only two components of that well being.

Maybe with months of electronic church services, on-line classes,  on-line shopping, Zoom meetings for work and social interaction, and virtual experiences of entertainment, we won’t want to return to those communities when the pandemic ends.  Or the communities will no longer exist. We are already seeing malls and retailers closing, smaller colleges wondering if they will survive a prolonged reliance on distance learning, children and youth getting used to being loners instead of part of a class, team, or other group.  Even travel, where we broaden our horizons with new experiences of people and places, is experiencing a dramatic decline in a large part of the industry including air travel, cruises, hotel stays, and other kinds of business travel and tourism, an economic challenge with a strong social dimension.  If we don’t find a way to resume in-person experiences of people and places, communities and community institutions, these programs, services and communities can wither and die, and revival will be hard.

So I invite you to reflect on the communities to which you belong and how some of them might be able to occasionally assemble in person, with masks and social distancing, in small numbers. Add your voice to the reopening debate. Reopen with lots of masks, hand washing, and deep cleaning. The pandemic has already killed more than 90,000 Americans. Let’s ensure that it does not kill some of our cherished social institutions from NASCAR to college to community worship as well.


Five Pieces a Day


I owe a debt to two of my teachers about how to get myself to do things I don’t find very appealing.  My mother was a compulsive ironer. It wasn’t that she liked ironing, she just had it in her head that everything needed ironing, even my brother’s boxer shorts.  So she set a goal of ironing five pieces every day.  It was apparently enough to stay abreast of the ironing basket.

My friend Fran, with whom I taught a course and wrote a book  about decluttering, had a similar way of overcoming resistance.  She recommended that we set the timer for 15 minutes and do whatever we can in that time, whether it is cleaning our kitchen drawers or bringing order to the garage.  If you don’t finish the task, you can either continue or not when the timer dings. Even if your choice is “not,” the next iteration of the task will be less daunting tomorrow.

Learning from these two teachers,  I have been mulching my flower beds with weeding, newspaper, and putting down mulch as a natural weed control strategy.  My simple rule is not five pieces, not 15 minutes but one bag of mulch a day.  I weed a good stretch, lay down four layers of newspapers, open a bag of mulch, and spread it over the newspapers. My ability to estimate the amount of newspaper I can cover with one bag has improved as I work my way around my flower beds, and the task is now at the point where I can envision the end.

Before applying this good principle to the yard, I had long used it to manage my work on writing and other tasks that stretched over long periods of time.  Five hundred words a day on the sermon, blog, or chapter. File papers or clean out one paper file and eliminate 100 emails and 10 documents form my computer.  It’s a very simple strategy, but it reduces a daunting task to manageable daily goals.

I also have used this approach to develop exercise habits.  I like segments, so I commit to three 20-minute daily exercise routines, usually one on the exercycle, one for Jazzercise, and one dog walk, although it may vary.  And all before about 2 pm, because my urge to exercise declines after that time. It has worked so well that I resent days that don’t lend themselves to my full exercise routine.  The defined commitment of time or task is a great way to develop good habits and feel good about having done what you have committed to do. I manage my day as best I can to get my three segments in.  The dog is particularly unforgiving if her turn is neglected.

So, where are the backlogs in your life? Cleaning the pantry and bookshelves? Decluttering? Yard work? Writing? Balancing the checkbook?  Take the daunting overall goal, especially when the task will continue to pile up—ironing, weeding, deleting emails, cleaning files—and make a limited commitment to address it on a recurring basis, daily or weekly, for a finite time or a finite amount of task completed.

Give it a try!  You have nothing to lose but frustration, guilt,  and chaos.


Life Lessons from the Pandemic


What have I, we, some of us learned from the last three months that will change the way we live and interact when  we return to “normal?”

  1. We have a responsibility for self-care both to ourselves and to everyone else.
  2. Preventing deaths from a pandemic is not costless, not just in economic terms but in the quality of life for survivors.
  3. There are multiple ways of staying connected, but technology is a mixed blessing, excluding some, empowering others but providing less than real human contact for others.
  4. It is clear that working at home will evolve from a trend to a new norm in many occupations. But it too has a shadow side, isolation for some, distractions and disruptions for others.
  5. We need to be better prepared for future pandemics, because an overcrowded globe has greater opportunities for transmission (animal to human, human to human).
  6. Science is not fact. Science is theories supported by statistical evidence that the theory is probably true. The circumstances of human life and of the planet is the context in which scientific evidence is heard and weighed against other considerations, values and priorities that are economic, social, political, spiritual, and psychological in nature.
  7. Life has been disrupted for our children and young adults in ways they will carry with them into their future.
  8. Online learning is not the wave of the future, but rather a tool that complements rather than supplanting in-person and hands on-learning. The acquisition of knowledge and understanding is contextual and interpersonal.  Ever try learning how to ride a bicycle  by watching a YouTube video?
  9. We put too much faith in science as a savior and not enough in the potential positive change from altering human behavior, whether by personal practice and example or by regulation and education. No one can do it alone. We have to change the culture to be willing to acknowledge that we are less autonomous and more interdependent.
  10. Government is neither Santa Claus nor oppressive dictator but rather a tool for living together in a community of mutuality and shared responsibilitiy. Next time you talk to a candidate for public office, ask him/her how they feel about that understanding of government.
  11. Be safe. Be well. Be careful. Be kind.


Healthy Body, Healthy Wallet


There is an old saying in Latin, Mens sana in corpore sano—a healthy mind in a healthy body. Some contemporary comedians have adapted that saying to “healthy mind, healthy body, take your pick! “ If we substitute succulus (purse or wallet) for mens, then it appears that in the current pandemic Americans are being asked to choose between corpore sano and succulus sano, a healthy body or a healthy wallet (or economy).  But the choice is not at all that simple.  Like body and mind, body and economic health do not have to be either/or. They can and should be both/and.  In fact, perhaps this pandemic is an opportunity to reflect on how we can make the economy and public health and well-being into partners, not antagonists.

In the short run, the answer is fourfold–testing, patience, caution, and focused support for those who are struggling financially.  Testing is coming, hopefully to be followed by a vaccine. Patience and caution are what brought China, Singapore, and other places through the end of the tunnel and into the light.  Patience and caution are not popular attitudes in our culture of instant gratification and short time horizons, but they are both qualities we need to cultivate, respect and encourage if we are to survive as a nation and even as a species. In Aristotle’s scheme of the four cardinal virtues, prudence (a blend of patience and caution) and temperance shared the honors with the more “manly” virtues of courage and justice. So, as the first George Bush might say, prudence is where we need to be. In other words, in a culture where we all want the freedom and irresponsibility of adolescents, it is a good time to evoke our inner adult and to model adult behavior for the next generation.

Turning to the wallet part,reopening the economy has been posed as a question of personal freedom.  But our personal freedom has always been constrained when our exercise of that freedom would pose risks of great harm to others.  Freedom, like any other assumed right, cannot stand alone without responsibility.  If we use our freedom irresponsibly, there are consequences to ourselves and others. Masks, social distancing, better personal hygiene—all responsible forms of patience and caution–should not be so much to ask.  As well as patience with a gradual process of widening our opportunities for personal contact and letting people return to work.  I know it’s easy for me to call for patience when I am not unemployed and relatively healthy.  But the consequences of too much haste in throwing off the constraints could be deadly–for you, for others, and for the economy, leaving us with neither healthy bodies nor healthy wallets.

It’s fine to respond to the request for patience, self-isolation, hand sanitation, masks, social distancing to protect ourselves and others.  But what can we DO? Because to our credit as well as discredit,we are a nation of doers rather than “be-ers.” Give us action! How can we help? Here are some simple suggestions.  These are not for those without income, or those without enough income to get by, or those who are sick with the corona virus. If you are one of those, you don’t need to add guilt to your problems. No, I am talking to you wannabe Superhero action figures who want to feel you are doing something.

  1. So your trip was cancelled and you got a refund, you got a check from the government you didn’t really need, or you are retired like me, and at least so far, our pension checks and Social Security just kept coming.  Don’t just save it for a rainy day. This IS the rainy day. Hire someone out of work to help take care of your yard, pressure wash your driveway.  Give money and food to food banks.  Contribute to the United Way or other sources of local aid. Out of gratitude for health,  a job you can get paid for to work at home, and/or a dependable source of income, spread some of that surplus to those who need your help right now.
  2. Support your community. Get takeout from local restaurants. Buy gifts cards to give them cash flow.  Give more to your church to make up for those who can’t pay their pledges. Buy from local farmers. Or give it to the local United Way, or an international relief organization.  Check out Global Giving on line.
  3. Pitch in! There are lots of volunteer needs in the community that don’t require a high level of personal contact.  If you sew, make masks. I just heard that pantihose (we dont wear them any more,do we?) make a great liner for a mask, hard to penetrate even with  teeny-tiny a corona virus. If you cook, bring someone a home-cooked meal. No, you can’t visit people in nursing homes, but you can send a card or maybe make a phone call.  You can run errands for those whose health is too fragile to risk a trip to the grocery store.  You can supervise the neighbor’s kids for some outdoor time to let him or her get caught up on working at home.
  4. Write. Email. Facetime. Stay in touch. We are used to triple communication—hear, see, touch.  Touch is off the table right now, but seeing and heaingr is better than just hearing. Seeing a face is better than reading an email or letter. I have been to late afternoon wine and conversation on Zoom. Not to mention board meetings, committee meetings, and church services. I have even been to a Zoom birthday party for two of my sons-in-law who share a birthday.
  5. Get outdoors. The virus doesn’t live there.  Time in nature can heal all kinds of ailments. Walk in the woods, walk in the park if it’s open, get takeout from a restaurant and find a park bench and someone sitting a social distance away on another bench for a new kind of “doing lunch.”
  6. Be kind to yourself. Binge watch a Netflix series.  Read those books you have always meant to read. (I’m in the second volume of Tolkien’s Hobbit Series.) Take an on-line adult education class. I teach them, but I take them, too—right now I am getting ready to teach a class on the 100th Anniversary of Women’s Suffrage, and taking a class in Google Docs. Make yourself an interesting meal with a new recipe. Plant flowers. Or plant trees whose fruits will be there for generations after you.
  7. Be aware of how your life is changing, and what won’t happen after it’s all over. I know I will fly less and drive less, partly because I don’t need to go-go-go so much, and partly because of the impact I have seen on the environment of less fly and drive time. I have spent more time gardening and started a compost pile. I’ve discovered I like exercising online better than at the gym, because I can choose the time.
  8. Start a journal. A year from now, you will want to remember what it was like.  You should be journalling anyway. As Socrates said, “the unexamined life is not worth  living.”

So, back to the wallet. The short run economic solution, a hastily designed and poorly managed economic response by the federal government, has thrown money at programs that often fail to target the truly needy while often being captured by the truly greedy.  It reminds me of the quote from mid-20th century preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick, who described preaching as similar to “dropping eye medicine from an eye dropper into the crowd below, hoping it will hit someone in the eye who needs it.” In the meantime, the already swollen federal deficit, fed by a greed-driven tax cut, is reaching unimaginable proportions that will have consequences for generations to come. As more of federal revenue is diverted to paying interest on a huge national debt, there will be challenges to funding our fundamental needs—not a wall with Mexico or more military hardware but health care, Social Security, education, infrastructure, environmental protection.  These are the government responsibilities that will be on the chopping block as we pay for the consequences of a hasty and poorly considered response. Not to mention not prudent.

For more thoughts on the long run…well, watch for the next blog. Speaking of long run, this has run on long enough.





Zoom In, Zoom Out

The pandemic is testing the impact of communications technology on American society.  On the one hand, those of us with ready access to and familiarity with social media, teleconferencing, Google Hangouts, Zoom and other means of communications have found it to offer human contact in a safe and clearly socially distancing form.  On the other hand, there are those who either lack access or just can’t get the hang of it. The old, the rural, the poor.  Many of the children set adrift from school miss the direct interpersonal contact and the way of learning that works for them.  The sunny side of technology is that it allows some of us to remain in touch, with virtual everything—classes, meetings, social gatherings, even church services. The shadow side is the left behinds.

I grew up in a left behind environment. My parents split when I was a toddler. No Dad and no child support meant not having what others had. I could live without dancing lessons and music lessons and travel. The two most important missing enrichments, other than an actual present father, were a car and, in the 1950s, a television. All my friends’ families had both. On the way to school they would talk about what they saw on TV and the places their family had been. I was a teenager before our family caught up.  I am now at the other end of the age spectrum, and while I am reasonably comfortable with at least some forms of social media and communications technology, many of my fellow senior citizens are not. Many of the upcoming generations don’t have the access that helps them feel like part of a common culture. Social distancing has widened the technology divide.

There’s also the personal dimension. Virtual presence is not the same as actual presence. Touch is  missing. Body languages is not as readily apparent, even on Zoom. On-line classes for K-12 are quite different from the interaction that takes place in the physical classroom.  Children have different learning styles and different degrees of parental support and supervision in the learning process, especially if parents are working from home. For college students, being present among peers is an important part of the transition to adulthood. For many occupations, conferences with their peers are an important way not just to stay abreast of new developments but also to network and socialize with their peers away from the workplace. That kind of experience is not replicated by teleconferencing.

This week I have a routine doctor’s appointment. It will take place on my iPhone with facetime, which is nice but definitely less personal.  I will get my Jazzercise online, and miss the presence of others in the room sharing the experience. I will watch a church service prepared on Zoom and broadcast on YouTube, but I would rather be saying the affirmation and singing the hymns amidst the familiar faces I know and love. I will get takeout from a restaurant once or twice to try to keep them in business, but it isn’t even close to eating with friends or family at a restaurant.  I will drink a glass of wine in the late afternoon with a group of friends, their faces all looking back on my Zoomcast. And I will long for the days of surprise visits, actual hugs, bringing cookies or a book to loan to a friend, and a sit -own restaurant meal.

So after pandemic, does normal mean same?  Probably not. The longer we have to practice social distancing ,the more different the world will be. One difference may be how much we shift from physical presence to virtual presence, and how many people are shut out from the contact they need in the process.

Be Kind to Prophets

A real prophet doesn’t just predict the future.  He or she predicts what will happen if we don’t come to our senses, repent of our sins, or practice social distancing.  Economists talk about self-fulfilling prophecies and self-negating prophecies.  For many of us, the most amusing self-fulfilling prophecy was by Johnny Carson many years ago on the Tonight Show when he predicted a toilet paper shortage.  People dashed out and stocked up, and his prophecy came true. Wall Street prophets exaggerate the swings in stock prices withtheir predictions, another common type of self-fulfilling prophecy.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, the most famous case of a self-negating prophecy was Jonah, who was sent to Ninevah to warn the people that if they did not mend their wicked ways, God would smite them.  Jonah didn’t want to go, but after seeing in the inside of a whale, he reluctantly delivered the message.  The people of Ninevah repented, and God spared them.  But Jonah took some heat from people who failed to pay attention to the if…then nature of his prophecy.  It is never easy to be that kind of prophet, whether you are predicting climate disaster, football championships, or medical nightmares.

The medical prophets predicted anywhere from 100,000 to over a million deaths in the United States form the corona virus.  Early indicators suggested they were right, because we were both unprepared and undisciplined. Warned in early January, we had some preparation time, much of which was wasted while we minimized the danger and failed to ramp up needed supplies.  But then a surprising thing happened.  Governors took on the leadership role, and their key response was creating and encouraging, sometimes mandating social distancing by shutting down schools, businesses and facilities, encouraging wearing masks and handwashing, and forbidding large gatherings.  While there were pockets of resistance, something like 90 percent of Americans were staying home and protecting themselves and others.  Overnight we were studying, working, exercising, attending worship and having gatherings of friends on the internet. The states and the people rose to the challenge.

Those were if…then forecasts.  If we didn’t ramp up our defenses, those scary big death forecasts might well have happened.  But we did act collectively, and it looks like the death rate is going to be much lower. So when this is all over and life returns to some kind of normal, please don’t shoot the messengers for what seemed like unduly alarming us.

Remember Jonah and Nineveh, and be thankful that we had enough good advice, good sense, and good state governments to keep the worst from happening.  And next time—because there will be a next time—we as a nation, not just a collection of states, need to be better prepared.