(These are Opinion-Editorial Articles written by David Carlson and published in the Daily Journal, the newspaper of record in Franklin, Indiana)
Learning From the Life of U.S. Congressman John Lewis
August 7th, 2020
Picture yourself in an argument, but instead of acting out of your angry self, you act out of your better, loving self. Who taught you how to do that?
Each of us is a combination of virtues and bad habits, all of which we learned from someone else.
I've been reminded of this over the past weeks when Congressman John Lewis' life has been so deservedly celebrated. John Lewis was an extraordinary person who lived an extraordinary life of service to humanity and to his country. It is rare when members of both political parties call anyone "The Conscience of the Congress" as they did in speeches after John Lewis' death. In John Lewis, an uncommon human being, a moral giant, has passed our way.
John Lewis was also one who humbly acknowledged those who shaped him, starting with his sharecropping parents in Alabama. Over the past weeks as I have listened to excerpts of John Lewis' speeches, however, I heard the unmistakable echo of his greatest teacher, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
When John Lewis told his fellow Americans not to stand by but "do something about it" whenever they witnessed an injustice, he was expressing not only his own creed, but Martin Luther King's as well. And when John Lewis said that hate cannot defeat hate, only love can, that too could have been said by Dr. King.
By our actions, good or bad, we reveal what we have been taught. By our actions, we also teach others, especially the young who are looking for an example. That is a tremendous responsibility, but the good news is that we are always free to choose which teachers we will pattern our lives after and what example we will leave.
John Lewis continues to teach us in these challenging months, if we will listen. It isn't my place to offer advice to those who are protesting in the streets, especially those who have experienced racial injustice firsthand. But I would ask those protesting to let John Lewis, who nearly lost his life in a protest at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965, guide them. Ask what John Lewis would do, and do that.
Yes, John Lewis would speak forcefully now as he did at the March on Washington in 1963 about the urgency of the present moment. This is not a time for gradualism, for going slow in confronting systemic racism. Protesting in an American right, and confronting the sin of racism is long, long overdue. And I have no doubt that John Lewis was encouraged that many Caucasian, Latino, and Asian Americans have joined in these protests.
Yet, if we let John Lewis be our teacher, we cannot forget this key lesson-his lesson and
Dr. King's-that hatred destroys rather than creates. I believe John Lewis would agree with this recent caution from an NAACP leader, who lamented that those joining the protests with hate in their hearts and a desire to strike back violently for violence's sake are only hurting the cause.
As we move forward as a nation through these challenging times, let's not forget these words of John Lewis: "I believe in non-violence as a way of life, as a way of living."
John Lewis, may you rest in peace, but may your life continue to teach us.
A MOVIE FOR PAINFUL TIMES
July 27th, 2020
With summer in full swing, we should get ready for the approach of some of the most painful months in American history.
One layer of pain is our nation's mismanaging the coronavirus, a failure with catastrophic results that is likely to linger well into the new year.
A second layer of pain is the ongoing quest for social justice and racial equality. Americans continue to take to the streets in protest, but unlike protests in the Civil Rights era, when federal troops were sent in to protect the protesters, federal troops this time have been sent in to confront them. These scenes will also likely remain in the headlines for months to come.
The third layer of pain will be the buildup to the election, as TV ads will increasingly assault us with accusations that portray the candidates as criminals, addle-brained, in the pocket of foreign governments, tyrannical, abusers of women, and more.
Except in wartime, I can't recall a time in American history where watching the daily news will cut deeper and deeper into our souls. But the purpose of this op-ed is not to remind us of these layers of pain but to recommend a film that offers some healing salve.
I have to thank my filmmaker son for recommending Driveways, a film available online that earned the nearly impossible score of 100% on the reviewing site, Rotten Tomatoes. My son promised his mom and me that once we started watching, we'd watch the film to the end. He was right.
So as not to give anything away, I will settle for describing the film's setup, a bit about the actors, and my wife's and my reactions to the film. The film could have been set anywhere in the U.S., the Driveways in the title being the space between the house of a recently-deceased hoarder from Vietnam and the next-door house of an aging Korean War veteran. That image might bring back memories of Grand Torino, but Driveways quickly heads off in a different direction.
We never meet the deceased Vietnamese woman. Instead, the film opens with the arrival of the woman's younger sister and nephew, who have come to clean out the house and sell it. I was not familiar with Hong Chau, who played the sister and mother, Lucas Jaye, who played her 10-year-old son, or Andrew Ahn, the writer and director. I was familiar with the brilliant Brian Dennehy, who, in one of his last roles, played Del, the Korean War veteran.
This is a film in which silences often speak louder and more profoundly than the dialogue. The faces of the three main actors are especially expressive as the three respond subtly to one another's small gestures.
"Small gestures." Yes, Driveways is definitely a film about that, but its genius lies in exploring the feelings and decisions made behind those gestures. If some films leave my wife and me feeling we need to take showers to wash off the grittiness, Driveways left us feeling we'd been washed clean. I know my wife and I also felt Driveways challenged us to be more aware of the power of small gestures, received and given, to heal the soul.
So, in the upcoming painful months when we need food for the soul, try Driveways for the main course, and, as I shared in an earlier op-ed, watch The Repair Shop for dessert. Bon Appetit!
Art and the Pandemic
July 22nd, 2020
There will come a day when vaccines and treatments will be available and we will wave goodbye to the coronavirus. That will be a day to celebrate, but that doesn't mean that these months of isolation, fear, and contagion won't have produced some significant and positive outcomes.
Certainly, the scientific community will once again prove the truth of the adage "Necessity is the mother of invention." Not only is our understanding of viruses expanding immensely, but so is our understanding of effective national health care-testing, treatment, and hospitalization.
Education is also innovating in the pandemic. Yes, some states are mandating that schools reopen as in the past, but it will only take a small outbreak of the virus-students or teachers-to empty every classroom in that school system.
Nevertheless, educating the next generation is essential. While the pandemic won't end learning, it will bring about major changes in how we deliver that education. We should expect more online academies, virtual classrooms that will offer learning modules that are more interactive-and more addictive-than anything seen by students and teachers in the past.
Another outcome of the pandemic might surprise us, and that is the amount of art that will appear once the pandemic is over. Why? Because artists respond to times of crisis and stress by being creative, by bringing something new into the world.
I have no doubt that there are poets, writers, sculptors, painters, composers, potters, screenwriters, inventors, gardeners, and chefs who are using these unusual months to practice and hone their gifts. For artists, these months are not "lost time" or even "downtime," but rather "precious-time," time to create.
This means that when we arrive at "p.c.," post-coronavirus, we are likely to find beauty in unexpected forms awaiting us.
This might seem like an overly-optimistic prediction, a pipedream even, but history suggests otherwise. The Black Plague ravaged 14th century Europe at a level to make our pandemic seem like a picnic in comparison. Yet, what followed soon afterwards? The Renaissance, the greatest explosion of creativity-paintings, sculpture, poetry, music, literature, and architecture-in European history.
The correlation of plague and creativity is an issue worth pondering. No doubt one reason for this correlation is that pandemics offer stark reminders of our mortality. Life becomes more precious when daily existence can't be taken for granted. Crises provoke a question in all of us-"What should I be doing with my time, with my life?"
The answer that artists give to this question offers wisdom that extends far beyond the artistic community. Many of us live with an inner voice that tells us we're not creative, that we should never think of ourselves as artists. Now is a time to ignore that voice because it is wrong.
Each of us is made in the image of the Creator, and that means every one of us can do something to bring beauty into this world. No, we're not talking about masterpieces. Think of the drawing a toddler proudly gives to a parent or grandparent. Every creative effort adds enjoyment not just to our own lives, but to the lives of others.
After the pandemic is over, a harvest of poems, stories, paintings, songs, architectural designs, recipes, and inventions will appear. Will one of those fragments of beauty have your name on it?
Wisdom in a Pandemic
July 13th, 2020
What separates a wise person from someone who is intelligent, smart, or clever? One difference is that the insights of a wise person continue to prove helpful over the decades and even centuries.
Until scientists find an effective vaccine for the coronavirus, the best medicine any society has is its cherished wisdom. In a sense, this pandemic is testing every society, exposing the decisions that society is making to be based either on wisdom or on false hopes and denial.
As many places in our society seem to be failing the test presented by the pandemic, I've returned more and more to the wisdom of two elders from the early to mid-twentieth century.
Sometime in the fifties or early sixties of the twentieth century, the monk Thomas Merton made an acute observation about American culture. From his unusual vantage point in a Trappist monastery in Kentucky, Merton observed that most Americans define happiness as having a good job and having a good time.
If that was somewhat accurate in the fifties and sixties, it seems even more accurate to describe the past six months in our country. When the world sees photos of Americans celebrating shoulder to shoulder on beaches, in theme parks, at political rallies and bars, the rest of the world sees a society that thinks, "By God, no matter what anyone says, I'm going to have a good time."
Merton's observation seems all too true and timely when we compare the U.S. response to the coronavirus with that of Europe. Our constitutionally-enshrined "pursuit of happiness" has become "the pursuit of my happiness, my right to pleasure," rather than "the pursuit of the community's happiness and health." No wonder the pandemic in the U.S. is reaching the point of being out of control. It's not the pandemic that's out of control, but us.
The other elder who speaks volumes to this time of pandemic is the early twentieth-century poet T.S. Eliot. At the conclusion of his most famous poem The Wasteland, Eliot compares society members to someone in a sailboat. Through this image, Eliot asks what is the shore, the goal, that this person is trying to reach.
For the sailboat to reach the goal, the far shore, the last thing the person in the boat wants to do is lie back and relax, letting the sail and rudder be at the mercy of the wind. That boat is doomed; it will never find land but rather end up on the rocks. The only way the person in the boat will reach the distant shore is to be in control of the boat.
In a sense Merton and Eliot are articulating the same truth. "Freedom" is abused when it is defined as doing what I want, when I want, how I want, and with whom I want. To be truly free, a person, as well as a society, must accept that there is no true freedom without control of self-without "self-control."
Here's the thing about wisdom. We can either learn her lessons now or later, but eventually we will have to bow to it if we wish to survive.
Dr. Fauci's Worried Face
July 2nd, 2020
When historians look back on the first six months of 2020, what will they say about American society? I choose the word "society" instead of "country," because a country doesn't make decisions-people do.
I believe historians of the early twenty-first century will laud our society for finally owning up to what has been called America's original sin-racism. We are finally confronting a shameful past that for too long has continued to infect us. To dig down to the mucky bottom of racism will take decades, not months or years, but the days are over when someone can blithely say that racism is a thing of the past or proclaim with a straight face that members of white supremacist groups are "good people." Thank God, those ships have sailed.
Historians, however, will be far less gracious when they evaluate our society's response to the coronavirus. Instead of this pandemic becoming another experience like WWII where Americans came together in a common cause, the ugly political division in our country has infected the infection. The divide in our society has amped up the disease to a point where, to quote Dr. Fauci, the situation might be out of control.
The graphs are not difficult to read. Societies that were united in their response to the pandemic weathered the first spike and now see the virus losing its grip. For societies like the US and Brazil, where the pandemic began as a health issue but quickly morphed into a political one, the lines on the graphs are all pointing in the opposite direction. We aren't the most populous society in the world, but we will have the most cases and the most deaths. We're number one; we're number one!
If you don't believe that the situation is dire, try to buy a ticket to visit France, Spain, Italy or other countries in the EU. Canadians can visit Paris and Rome; we Americans can't. We are not wanted. And don't bother to try to visit Canada. They don't want us either.
It was once a source of pride to know that people around the world knew what was going on in our country. Put another way, the US was often in the news no matter where a person lived in the world.
The US is still in the news, but now as an example of how not to act as a society. On their news broadcasts every day, people elsewhere in the world can see something that simply doesn't make sense-Americans standing shoulder to shoulder in waterparks, on beaches, or at political rallies while nearby hospitals are running out of ICU beds.
In those same broadcasts, peoples of the world can only shake their heads when they hear that some American college students are hosting parties with a unique contest, the winner being the first partier to contract Covid 19.
People of the world know that Dr. Fauci's warnings can't be ignored, but that makes it all the more difficult for them to understand how our big theme parks are reopening in Florida-yes, the state that is being overrun by the virus.
Six months. Half a year. Not a long time, but long enough for the US to become the lepers of the world. I suppose there is good news for those who are tired of seeing Dr. Fauci's worried face. Recently, he told us that the window of opportunity is rapidly closing. Once that window is closed, we won't be able to hear him. Party on!
When the Lake Rolls Over
June 2nd, 2020
When the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Rayshard Brooks brought people around the world into the streets, I recalled something my father-in-law and favorite fishing buddy shared with me years ago.
He asked if I knew that lakes "turned over." When I admitted that I didn't, he described the summer conditions of a lake when the warm water is at the surface and the cold water lies deeper. As autumn advances and temperatures drop, the water at the surface slowly cools until it is cooler than the water lying deeper. That is when the deeper and now warmer water "turns over." What was at the bottom is now at the top, and what was at the top is now at the bottom.
A final comment my father-in-law made was that this turning of the lake is disorienting for the fish. In this Black Lives Matter moment, our nation and world are experiencing such a "turning over." Even as the surface water in a lake slowly cools until one day the lake turns over, so it is not just the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Rayshard Brooks that have brought on this global awareness and rejection of systemic racism. No, the waters down under have been stirring since 1619, when the first slave was brought to the colonies.
Over the past four hundred and one years, our country has seen heroes and martyrs, a civil war, movements and legislation bubble up from below the surface, but racism has shown a capacity to survive and adapt. Segregation, Jim Crow laws, the suppression of Black votes, unequal housing opportunities, and mass incarceration of Black males-all that happened after Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation and much continues to exist long after the Voting Rights Act.
In a real sense, the "lake" representing American society has managed to avoid rolling over. But in the last decade, the bubbles of frustration and heat below the surface have risen at a rate that can't be ignored. From Ferguson (Michael Brown) to Baltimore (Freddie Gray) to Texas (Sandra Bland) to Florida (Trayvon Martin) to New York City (Eric Garner) and, in the last weeks, to Minneapolis, Louisville, and Atlanta, the protests have been growing along with the recognition that something is seriously broken in our country.
Some who enjoy life at the surface are quick to note that past protests, given time, tend to fizzle out. Yet, there are some moments in history that are tipping points, and many Americans, Black, Brown, and White believe we are in the midst of one such moment.
It's fairly clear from past op eds that songwriters for me often function as modern-day prophets. So while I could end with these lyrics by Bob Dylan-"Your old road is rapidly agin'. Get out of the new one if you can't lend a hand"-I am drawn even more to this prayerful lament from Nina Simone: "I wish I knew how it would feel to be free."
June 18th, 2020
A year ago, I attended a three-day workshop on racism that changed my life. I thought I understood the systemic racism in this country, but through the workshop, I realized I didn't understand half of the problem.
In the closing moments of the last session, the facilitator said something that surprised me. Directing her comments to the white participants in the workshop, she said, "Do not leave these three days with a plan or program to help the African-American community. Your responsibility is different. Your task is to take what you've learned and concentrate on one thing: see our society and its problems differently."
That comment has come back to mind almost daily since the George Floyd story erupted. My immediate reaction was to do something or plan some program. I wanted to add my voice to the protests.
It is essential for white Americans to join their voices with people of color to say "enough is enough." But there is an even more important role white Americans can play, and that is to listen to what people of color have to tell us and teach us.
For survival, people of color have to listen carefully to what white Americans say. How carefully do white Americans, how carefully do I, listen to our African-American sisters and brothers? What might we learn if we closed our mouths and opened our ears?
With this question in mind, I emailed three African-American friends to say that I had no words to share, but I did have ears to hear. I asked the three, who happen to be members of the clergy, to share their thoughts at this critical time in our nation's history.
The following is a sample of what I heard. One: ". . . the last words of George Floyd, he was calling out for his Momma. A forty-six year old man calling out for his Momma. A mother who'd been dead for three years."
Two: "I just left a ministry ZOOM meeting and someone brought up as a matter for prayer 'This looting and rioting has to stop.' I heard a bunch of 'amens.' I then said the following: 'I'd like to take an unscientific survey. How many of us on this ZOOM call have had the police pull a gun on us?' After seconds of silence, I slowly raised my hand. I then shared with them my experience last year of being pulled over by the Indiana State Police for no reason other than I 'looked like a drug runner.'"
Three: "[White Americans must] speak up against injustices that are happening in our society. [They must] be willing to have the uncomfortable conversation with family, friends, colleagues, etc. . . . We as African Americans don't have the luxury of being comfortable."
Four: "When a grown man cries and moans for his Momma to the point of urinating on himself, he is -at that moment of anguish - desperately reaching out for that which his original essence inherently knows is his rights; namely, "that all men are created equal and endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights...life, liberty and the right to breath".
Five and perhaps most poignant: "I'm tired."
In the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes, the author wrote that there is a time for everything, including "a time to speak" and "a time to keep silent." For some at this moment, it is a time to speak, to describe the pain of inequality and oppression. But those who have a right to speak need others to be silent and listen with open ears and hearts.
As Jesus said, "Those who have ears to hear, let them hear."
MISSING THAT FAVORITE RESTAURANT
June 18th, 2020
There are some eating establishments in central Indiana that are beloved for more than the food. As you read those words, perhaps a restaurant or two comes to mind, restaurants that deserve the musical refrain "where everybody knows your name."
That is what many of us are missing during the pandemic, the experience of dining in places that seem to be extensions of home and family. And when economists speculate that many small businesses won't recover, we say, "Please, not my favorite place."
For over 115 years, Shapiro's Deli on the near south-side of Indianapolis has been a favorite eating establishment for many. The food is legendary, as is the greeting "What will you have, hon?" from those serving behind the counter.
On Wednesdays or Thursdays for the past twenty years, Shapiro's has become well known for another reason. The deli has, in fact, become known world-wide, for on a Wednesday or Thursday, a group of men and women from diverse religious backgrounds gather in friendship. The majority of those who attend are Muslims and Christians, but people of other faiths have joined the group over the years.
The "Shapiro Gang" is legendary wherever interfaith dialogue is occurring in the world. When popes have invited Muslims to the Vatican for interfaith meetings, they have often called upon members of Indianapolis's "Shapiro gang."
Most patrons who walk by the table where the Shapiro gang is seated don't know of the group's legendary status. There are no set topics for discussion; there is no leader, no public display of piety. The group sits in the main room, not hidden in the back. What is experienced at the table is quite simple though extraordinary-love for one another and mutual encouragement for each of us to do the will of God on a daily basis.
A senior member of the group tells the story of a man who passed their table one lunch hour and recognized one of them. "What's this all about?" he asked. When members of the group shared that they were a gathering of men and women from different religions who get together once a week, the man pulled up a chair and said "Let's get it on." When members asked him what he meant, he replied that he assumed the group was engaged in a debate. He seemed to be disappointed when he learned that the goal of the group was friendship, not argument.
The last Thursday before the pandemic shut businesses down, I was present at Shapiro's for another notable encounter. We were doing what we do every week, talking about whatever was on our minds, when a stranger stopped and interrupted our conversation. The words tumbled out of his mouth. "You being here gives me hope," he said. He might have been referring to the interracial nature of the group, but we explained that we're also a group of men and women from different faith traditions. "Incredible, just incredible," he said, repeating again that our group offered him hope in what he described as "the mess we're in."
The man was clearly overcome, at times making me wonder if he was on the verge of tears. As the man turned to leave, one of the members invited him to join us next Thursday for lunch. Because of the pandemic, there was no next week.
After a month of not meeting because of Covid-19, the Shapiro gang has begun meeting weekly, but online. The day I wrote this op ed, we had just met. It was wonderful to see each other, to once again be together as Muslims and Christians. At the close of our online meeting, the founding member of the group said, "I hope Shapiro's is doing okay. We need to get back there."
I imagine that thousands of restaurant owners have been praying that their businesses will survive. I wonder how many owners know that there are patrons who are praying for them and their businesses. For a favorite restaurant is more than a place where the food is excellent. A favorite restaurant can become a place where a bit of the world's brokenness is being healed.
Hiccup or Birth Pangs?
June 9th, 2020
We were a divided nation before the pandemic, and any hope that the coronavirus would break down divisions and promote a united response to the crisis quickly evaporated. From the very beginning, we have been divided on how seriously to treat the pandemic.
That division led to another debate on how we should respond-should we shelter in our homes, or could we gather socially? Should we wear masks or not? Should we open businesses, beaches, and schools while the confirmed cases and deaths are still rising or should we hold off on that? Should we support the WHO or withhold support? Should our country follow the guidance of scientists, or should we let people decide how much to risk? When we finally have a vaccine, should inoculation be required, or should we let people opt out?
No matter what side of the argument you are on, we can all agree that these divisions are having a profound effect on how many businesses will fail, how many people will contract the virus, and how many people will die.
There is another division that isn't getting as much attention, but will likely gain more in the future. One side of this disagreement views the coronavirus as a "hiccup." To view the coronavirus as a hiccup is to believe that this crisis will have no real lasting effect on our country and the world. Words and phrases favored by those who view the pandemic as a hiccup are "recovery," "reopen," and "back to normal."
The hiccup point of view has followers across the political spectrum. The society and world that will exist on the other side of the pandemic is imagined to be the same society and world that we had before. For those who adopt this perspective, the history books of the future will need only a few words to cover the coronavirus. The virus will be viewed as a spike event that came, was here, and was defeated, leaving intact what came before. The mantra for these folks is "business will be as usual."
The other side of this disagreement views the coronavirus not as a hiccup but as "birth pangs." To view the coronavirus as birth pangs is to believe that something new for our society and the world is being born out of this time of challenge. Past patterns, past values, and past attitudes will be replaced by new patterns, new values, and new attitudes.
An example currently cited for the birth pangs mentality is the issue of wages. In light of what we are living through, should health care workers and teachers be paid a pittance in comparison with professional athletes, Division One college coaches, and corporation CEOs? Throughout the pandemic, we have been able to live without professional and college sports, but our survival has depended on health care workers even as our children's future lives have depended on the adaptability of teachers.
Of course, to believe the society and world will change dramatically in the future doesn't guarantee that the future will be better. What is born out of this crisis will depend on what nations and cultures decide to change based on the lessons the coronavirus is bringing us. The mantra for these folks is "get ready for a new normal."
My own observation is that countries are already taking different sides in this debate. In listening to world leaders, I've noticed that some are already communicating to their citizens that the economy, education, health care, and spending will be vastly different in their nations' futures. Other world leaders are conveying the opposite message-that the world we knew before the coronavirus will return-and will return soon.
In terms of saying which viewpoint is correct, it is tempting to say "only time will tell." I would argue that the future isn't up to fate, but rather the future will grow out of what we decide now.
Countries that view the pandemic as a hiccup will put their energy and resources into restarting the engines that ran their systems before the pandemic. In contrast, countries that view the pandemic as birth pangs will put their energy and resources into designing new engines to run new systems.
The debate is over "same old world" vs. "brave new world." Which side are you on?
George Floyd and the Liberal Arts
June 9th, 2020
One of the major joys of my life has been to teach, not just at the college level, but also within a liberal arts institution such as Franklin College. This joy has come with a challenge-how to explain what we mean by the "liberal arts."
No, the purpose of liberal arts is not to produce politically liberal students. The purpose of a liberal arts education, one that goes back to medieval times, is to "liberate" a person from being enslaved by ignorance.
Those are noble words, but what does it mean to be "liberated from ignorance?" The answer to that is threefold and each aspect of the answer offers an insight into the death of George Floyd and its aftermath.
First of all, to be liberated from ignorance is to be freed from facing a challenge with only one tool in the toolbox, one pill in the medicine cabinet. A liberal arts graduate can analyze problems from multiple perspectives-the historical, psychological, economic, and sociological backgrounds, as well as a scientific, mathematical, religious, philosophical, and artistic perspectives.
Put another way, a liberal arts graduate will understand that the death of George Floyd is not a simple problem with just one possible response-be that confronting protesters with tear gas, setting curfews, or arresting and sentencing one police officer.
Secondly, to be liberated from ignorance is to be freed from the dangerous temptation of prejudice. By definition, prejudice is "pre-judging" a person or situation, and pre-judging means to think about that person or situation in the wrong order.
As thinking beings, we are allowed and expected to make judgments, but judging and evaluating must come after understanding that situation or person. For example, after 9/11, many people had a fear, and more than a few people had a hatred, of Muslims. This was despite the fact that those fearful people couldn't pass a basic quiz on the beliefs and practices of Islam. In other words, it became easy to equate Muslims with terrorists without knowing what Islam stands for as a religion of peace.
Closer to home, pre-judging black males as prone to crime or pre-judging police officers as bullies with a badge won't help us learn the lessons of George Floyd's death.
Thirdly, to be liberated from ignorance is to be freed from a knee-jerk fear of the "Other." The question posed to Jesus, "but who is my neighbor whom I am to love?" is still one of the most important questions each of us must answer. By defining "neighbor" as the person who is like me religiously, racially, or politically, we have at the same moment created the "Other," the person who shares none of my traits and who can become a person to fear or even hate.
It is a fact that we are different politically, racially, and religiously. The questions we must answer are "Should we view our differences as a problem or a gift?" and "Do these legitimate differences make our lives more difficult or more enriched?"
No one can deny that there is a widening gulf between the African-American community and the American police-judicial system. Each side looks across a chasm and sees the "Other." But bridges can be built. Michael Tubbs, the mayor of Stockton, California, is one such bridge-builder. Under his administration, deadly shootings have decreased by forty percent. What is his secret? He has given the police a simple but challenging guideline-love the black males you encounter.
There is nothing that demands that America must remain this broken. God's words to Moses are as pertinent today as they were in ancient times. "I put before you today a choice: life or death. Choose life."
Time and the Pandemic
May 20th, 2020
Are these weeks dragging by? Do you sometimes ask yourself what day it is? If so, then the pandemic offers the perfect time to think about . . . time.
For all of us around the world who are affected by the coronavirus, these days and weeks are probably the strangest time we've ever experienced. Yet we are not the first to wonder why time seems so peculiar-in some circumstances moving at a snail's pace, but in other circumstances seeming to fly by.
The ancient Greeks had a philosophical interest in many of the big issues of life, among them fate, free will, peace, war, truth, and the nature of reality. When they turned to ponder "time," they realized the topic was too complicated to be covered by just one term.
One word the Greeks used for time was "chronos." Take a few seconds to look at a clock, whether that be a wristwatch or cell phone, and you will see what the ancient Greeks (who had neither wristwatches nor cell phones) observed. Chronos-time is time measured in seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, and so on. Chronos-time is predictable and regular.
An unwanted five-minute exchange with a telemarketer can feel ten times longer than a short phone call from a close friend, but actually the five minutes of each experience lasts the same amount of seconds-three hundred seconds to be exact.
But the ancient Greeks would say at this point, "Ah-ha. Now you see the problem. Time might move at a standard pace by the clock or sun overhead, but in our hearts and minds, time slows down or speeds up." That feeling led the Greeks to create a second word for time--kairos. Kairos-time is time that feels different because it is filled with something that delights us-meaning.
Kairos-time is time at its best. If you've ever gone whitewater rafting or skydived for the first time, you undoubtedly experienced kairos-time. You might have been scared, exhilarated, or both, but the one thing you weren't was bored.
We endure chronos-time, but if we have too much of it, life feels flat. This is when the yawns begin. In contrast, kairos-time isn't something we endure; we relish it. Kairos-time gives us energy, so we feel more alive.
What does all this have to do with this pandemic? In this time of staying in, are we condemned to living in chronos-time? Or do we have some choice in the matter? Can we experience kairos-time even now?
I was reminded of this recently when a dear friend who has struggled with several bouts of sickness shared how much, while sheltering in, she is enjoying the birds and other signs of nature this spring. Others have told me that the pandemic has brought other surprises--unhurried meals with family members, the joy of writing a letter to a friend in longhand, and lying in bed at night with a favorite book, the alarm clock turned off.
As human beings, we can't live in kairos-time every minute. That would be truly overwhelming. But during this pandemic, we don't have to surrender to boredom and frustration.
While it might not seem so now, the pandemic offers daily opportunities to ask ourselves an important question-what gives meaning to my life? Perhaps there's a cause you've felt called to join but until now lacked the time. Maybe there's an art project you've always wanted to begin or a friend from the past whom you've wanted to write or call. Or, consider that book that's been patiently waiting for you to pick up and read.
Along with the philosophical Greeks, we might also remember a bit of wisdom from the ancient Romans. "Carpe diem" doesn't mean "endure the day" but rather "seize the day."
Let's seize today.
THE BLESSEDNESS OF THE PORCH
May 11th, 2020
My wife offered an important correction to something commonly said during the pandemic. She pointed out that what is called for is not "social distancing," but "physical distancing."
As so often happens, the change of just one word can offer a new perspective on what we are experiencing. In so many ways-through emails, phone calls, handwritten letters, and video conferencing-the pandemic has increased the connections we are making with one another.
I was reminded of this last week, when my wife and I sat on the steps of our front porch and had three friends stop in the street to chat. In terms of physical distancing, we were more than fifteen feet apart, and the conversations were mainly about everyday issues, but the time felt both wonderful and a bit out of time.
I say "out of time" because chatting with friends and neighbors from the front porch is something that I associate with my youth back in the 1950s. Porch-sitting on a warm evening and chatting to those who walked by were common until they suddenly became uncommon in the sixties.
A wise man whom I met at a party over twenty years ago explained what had brought about this abrupt change to American society. No, it wasn't a rise in crime and it wasn't the social and political divisions that resulted from the Vietnam War that spelled the end of porch socializing.
The loss of porch interaction, the wise man explained, came about when two innovations appeared. The first was air conditioning, which meant that the temperature inside our houses was something we could, for the first time, control. No longer would the heat of the summer, heat that had built up during the day in our homes, force us out to our porches in the evening for some relief. With air conditioning, it was possible to be cooler inside on warm evenings than outside.
The second innovation was television. Instead of conversations with neighbors and friends from our porches on those warm evenings, we were now inside, our eyes glued to our black-and-white sets. Instead of wondering who might pass by our houses, we wondered what we'd be missing if we didn't follow the dictates of the announcer when he commanded us to "stayed tuned."
As the wise man from the party twenty years ago pointed out, both air-conditioning and television lured us inside, away from the porch and away from our friends and neighbors. Not knowing our neighbors was something almost impossible before the sixties, but more than possible once we came home from work and school to sit in an air-conditioned room and watch "The Ed Sullivan Hour" or "Gunsmoke."
We now have air-conditioning and more options on our TVs and devices than we can manage, but what these innovations have brought us-the ability to stay inside-has, in this pandemic, lost much of its appeal. If on warm nights in the fifties, we were outside on our porches but longing to be inside, now, during this pandemic, we are inside longing to be outside. The pandemic has literally turned our everyday social world upside down.
When a vaccine for the coronavirus is found and our physical distancing is over, much of the present "upside-down" nature of our lives will end. We will rightly celebrate on that day.
When that day comes, however, one of the intriguing questions to ponder will be "what habits formed during the pandemic will we choose to retain?" I would like to think that the porch won't return to what it has been-a place to wipe our feet before we come inside-but remain that blessed place where we ask about each other's day and wish each other well.
Enjoy the Treat of a Book During this Pandemic
April 23rd, 2020
Perhaps you have made the same discovery I have during this time of sheltering in place. There are old friends in our homes that have been waiting silently and patiently for some attention. The old friends I'm referring to are the books on our shelves.
Over the past few decades, especially after the explosion of online entertainment options, authors and publishers have been fighting for survival. More and more people are staring at computer screens instead of opening books. Even libraries, those temples of books, have found in recent decades that much of their business involves checking out DVDs.
Certainly, cable stations and especially movie channels are popular during this pandemic, but many people are realizing, or realizing once again, that reading a book has pleasures found nowhere else.
Movies have their place, but there is one thing movies can't do well-they can't engage our imaginations to the degree that reading can. Take, for example, the Hound of the Baskervilles, the Sherlock Holmes novella written by Arthur Conon Doyle. What feeling do the moors in the story give us? What does the hound in the story sound like, especially as it bays at night or when it attacks and mauls someone foolish enough to be out on the moors at night?
If we watch the movie version of Hound of the Baskervilles, these questions are answered for us by the camera. We see what the director wants us to see. The director's imagination determines what is on the screen. All we have to do is take it in.
But if we read the Sherlock Holmes story, the sights and sounds have to be supplied by us, by our imaginations. What does a moor feel like on a foggy night? The reader decides. How frightening is the hound? As frightening as we can imagine. What does 221 B Baker Street, London, the abode of Holmes and his friend Watson, smell and sound like, as Holmes smokes his pipe of Turkish tobacco and plays his violin? You decide.
In this pandemic, it is natural for us to want to be outside, to experience a change in the scenery, to meet old and new friends, to leave the confines of our homes. We look out our windows and say to ourselves, "life is out there, waiting for me."
The truth may be otherwise. Through books, not only can we travel anywhere in the world but also can meet the most fascinating people, some from other centuries, cultures, or even galaxies. Some of the people we meet and places we go in books will change our lives forever.
In the future, someone might ask us, "Did you go anywhere during the pandemic back in 2020?" The saddest answer we could give is this: "I didn't go anywhere. I was stuck inside."
Wouldn't a better answer be "Where did I go? I went somewhere different every day, and let me tell you about the amazing people I met through books."
Here is the takeaway: What brain science tells us is that more of our gray matter is firing when we are reading than when we are watching.
Give your brain a treat today during the pandemic. Open a book.
The Gift Of A Single Banana
April 21st, 2020
As is true of many people our age, my wife and I are ordering groceries online and having them delivered to our porch. Almost all the aspects of this experience are new and demand an adjustment of expectations.
I miss driving to the grocery store, parking, and steering a cart through the aisles, all of them filled to capacity. I miss finding exactly what is on my list and being surprised by items not on my list. I miss passing in the aisles a neighbor or colleague from my teaching days. I miss chatting with check-out personnel about a wide assortment of topics, none of them as serious as this pandemic.
But I am also grateful for those who, in these odd weeks and maybe months, shop for us and deliver groceries to our homes. Like firefighters, EMTs, hospital staff, drug store personnel, garbage collectors, and postal workers, surrogate grocery shoppers are fighting on the frontlines of the coronavirus. I hope they are well protected and well compensated.
It took me a couple of days, however, to be grateful for what arrived in our last delivery. I requested bananas, and my wife requested lemons. What I requested was one bunch of bananas. What my wife requested was one bag of lemons. What we found when we inspected the bags was that we'd received one banana and one lemon.
Disappointed, I looked at the pitiful sight of one banana and thought, "what can I do with this?" For two days, I passed by the banana as it lay, lonely, in a bowl in the kitchen. I seemed paralyzed by two contrasting truths. One, if I didn't eat the banana soon, it would become overripe, and that isn't a taste I enjoy. But two, once I ate the banana, that would be it, the end of my enjoyment of eating bananas.
Finally, I picked up the banana and slowly peeled it. I don't know if I have ever studied a banana so thoroughly before. I wondered how far my one banana had traveled to arrive at my kitchen table. I took a knife and lovingly spread peanut butter on the banana. Looking at the whiteness of the banana now covered by the caramel-colored peanut butter, I took a small bite.
I paused. Something was happening in my mouth. The taste of the banana and the peanut butter exploded, and I thought of Plato's belief that for every thing existing in this world, there was a heavenly, perfect form of it. Had the grocery store somehow brought me not just a solitary banana, but the perfect, heavenly banana, the bananas of all bananas? Such are the strange thoughts of someone who taught in a philosophy and religion department for forty-one years.
The second bite did not disappoint, nor did the third, fourth, and fifth. To the last bit of it, the banana dominated my awareness. That was when I realized the banana tasted so amazing because it was the only one I received. Had I received a bunch of seven or eight bananas, not one of them would have tasted as delicious. They would have been normal bananas, regular bananas, run-of-the-mill bananas.
I want to publically thank whoever filled our grocery order for sending our way not one bunch of bananas, but just the one banana. I like to think that grocery store employee didn't misread our order, but thought, "I think the person I'm shopping for needs a lesson in how the extraordinary in life is hidden in the ordinary-if we just had eyes to see."
Wisdom in a Time of a Pandemic
April 13th, 2020
Wisdom is something few of us pondered just two months ago. We were looking forward to March Madness, getting ready to plant flowers in our gardens, and perhaps getting ready go away for Spring Vacation. We had a lot of fun things to think about, and wisdom might have seemed a pretty heavy concept, the kind of topic to kill a good party.
But that was two months ago, and how our lives have changed and are changing. It is likely that the human race has never experienced at the same time so much change in such a short period of time. There is no place in our entire world where we can go to get away from our fear and our grief. It seems crazy to admit it, but, at this moment, no one anywhere on our planet is having a terrific time.
Wisdom, the question of what makes for a good life, is now something we need to move from the category of "let's not worry about that now" to the category of "it's time to think about how best to live."
We are not bears who can hibernate through the winter of the coronavirus and wake up in a few months to life as normal. Life isn't something on the other side of the pandemic; life is what is happening right now.
The good news is that while the virus is new, the human quest for a meaningful life isn't. The religions and philosophies of the world are treasuries containing valuable lessons for tough times. Now is a perfect time to tap into these treasures.
In teaching religious studies for over forty years, I encountered students who'd ask if there is some common wisdom that all religions agree upon. My answer was twofold. First, I would emphasize that the differences between religions have to be respected. Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Sikhism, and Hinduism all offer different understandings of what is broken in us as humans and what will fix us.
Only after explaining these differences would I acknowledge that yes, there are ways of thinking, feeling, and acting, that all religions promote.
One of these ways is to live in a state of gratitude. Most of us learned about gratitude as toddlers when our parents taught us to say "thank you" when someone gave us a present or compliment. To live in a state of gratitude is to offer a silent or expressed "thank you" for all that we receive from life, from God. To live in gratitude is to wake up from taking life for granted.
If we let it, the coronavirus can strengthen our sense of gratitude. Those collecting the garbage are still doing so. Thank you. Truck drivers continue to bring supplies to stores. Thank you. Those who work in hospitals-the nurses, doctors, cleaners, and staff are reporting for duty. Thank you. Scientists and laboratory researchers are working around the clock to produce a vaccine or treatment. Thank you. Teachers are offering their classes online. Thank you. Grocery store workers are continuing to stock shelves and even deliver groceries. Thank you. The staff of this newspaper is continuing to interview, write, and publish to keep us informed. Thank you.
Gratitude, then, is a state of mind, and once we begin to practice gratitude, we find that we have so much to be grateful for. What I find fascinating is that it seems impossible to be anxious and grateful at the same time. Anxiety makes us fear what might happen; gratitude helps us acknowledge all that comes into our lives as a gift. Anxiety can paralyze the mind; gratitude opens the heart.
It is tempting to conclude, while we are sheltering in place, that our freedom has been taken away. The most important freedom we have as humans can never be taken away. That is the freedom to choose how we respond to what life gives us.
Let's choose gratitude.
THE POWER OF HOPE
April 1st, 2020
One of the constant refrains we are hearing during the coronavirus is "None of us have been through this before." This statement is both true and false. Yes, it is true that this particular virus is new, and it is also true that our country has not faced a pandemic in our lifetime.
It is not true, however, to say that human beings, some alive today, have not faced epidemics and this level of threat before. Many of our African brothers and sisters faced the Ebola epidemic over the past decade, and many others in Asia faced the SARS epidemic.
This particular crisis, however, has reminded me not only of these previous epidemics but of the work of the psychotherapist Victor Frankl (1905-1997). No, Frankl didn't live through an epidemic, but he did live through something far worse-the Nazi concentration camps.
What makes Frankl so timely for our present coronavirus epidemic is what he discovered from his time in the camps about survival. From his experiences in the camps, Frankl knew that survival couldn't be guaranteed. At any moment, a guard could, without threat of reprisal, shoot camp inmates.
Yet, Frankl also observed that those who survived the camps weren't simply the lucky ones. Those who survived had a certain mindset, and that mindset led them to act in certain ways in the camps.
The key to survival that Frankl discovered was the ability to tap into a future hope and to draw strength from that hope.
We might think that everyone has hope for the future, but Frankl is referring to a specific hope. It wasn't enough for concentration camp inmates to have a general hope, such as "I hope to survive this terrible experience." What was essential for survival was to have a future hope such as "I must survive the camp because my younger sister cannot face life alone," or "I must survive so that I can write an account of my experiences. Humanity must never allow the Holocaust to happen again."
The specific hopes for the future were as diverse as were the inmates. One future hope is not better than another, as long as people feel that only they can fulfill their specific dreams. Those who survived the camps felt that life demanded that they survive, for only through them could their future hope come to pass.
After the war and as a therapist, Frankl encountered many clients who felt that their lives lacked meaning. Frankl realized that what these men and women lacked was a sense of purpose or destiny that only they could fulfill. They weren't sure what they were living for. While Frankl couldn't tell these men and women what their purpose was, he could help them uncover and name their unique purpose for themselves.
All of this makes Victor Frankl's best-selling book Man's Search for Meaning a vitally important book at this time. Yes, we are caught in a dangerous pandemic, but how we respond is up to us. What future good, not just for yourself but for the world, has your name on it? What is your purpose or destiny?
Frankl offers a final thought. The future is not just what will happen in the weeks and months ahead. The future can be a source of strength that we can access now, even while we are hunkered down in our houses. Very likely, there is something we can do, perhaps online, via email, or over the phone to begin to make that future a reality. The future begins now.
The writer of the book of Proverbs in the Bible knew this millennia ago: "Without a vision, the people perish." Frankl suggests that the converse is also true: "With a vision, we have a chance to flourish."
The Repair Shop
March 1st, 2020
One of the companies that is doing brisk business during the coronavirus epidemic is Netflix. Apparently, some people enjoy watching films about pandemics, as a number of those have popped up in the last weeks, but my wife and I are not interested. Real life is dramatic enough.
A program that has had a healing effect on our spirits is The Repair Shop. This series from Great Britain might be best described as an unusual reality show. No, there is no competition between contestants and, in fact, there is nothing spicy at all about The Repair Shop. In each program, individuals bring family heirlooms and treasures, always in terrible condition, to a rustic barn where repairers and restorers patiently work their magic.
The more my wife and I have watched The Repair Shop, the more we've felt its soothing effect. This has been especially true since the coronavirus hit our country and forced us to stay in. Every episode in season one, and now as we have begun season two, has calmed our spirits, and we've become curious about how the program consistently achieves this.
On one level, The Repair Shop is a program built around challenging problems to solve. Individuals bring in old clocks that don't work, paintings that have been abused, wind-up toys from the early 1900s, and dolls falling apart, and leave these items to be fixed and restored.
As the head of The Repair Shop expresses it, "we live in a throwaway culture," but precious heirlooms can't be replaced. When individuals leave their treasures with The Repair Shop, the repairers and restorers say they'll do their best.
The rest of each program allows us the viewers to look over the shoulder of the repairers as they take apart, sand down, repaint, and replace. The process can't be rushed, so if you are looking for a fast-paced action drama, The Repair Shop isn't the program for you.
The Repair Shop is the program for you if you understand that love is the most powerful force in the world, a force stronger than anything-destruction, decay, and even death. Love is what brings individuals into The Repair Shop with their boxes of broken and rusty bits.
The repairers always ask the donors of the heirlooms to relate why the item is of value to the family. The answer is never what we might find on another show, Antiques Road Show. Not once has the value of the item brought to The Repair Shop been expressed in terms of money.
Those who donate heirlooms share memories of the treasures, many of those memories going back generations. The stories shared are always stories soaked in love. The clock is from a grandfather who was the beloved head of a family. This violin in pieces is from a Jewish relative who played it while being incarcerated in Auschwitz. This wind-up car that no longer winds up was a gift from a favorite uncle who recently died.
The donors leave their heirlooms to the repairers, not seeing what we are allowed to see-the loving way the heirlooms are treated by the restorers and repairers. These men and woman are true artists, but more than that, they are surgeons. It is clear very quickly in the series that these artists know they aren't simply working with broken glass, metal, wood, porcelain, canvas, and fabric. They know that they are holding in their hands beloved and irreplaceable memories.
What the artists in The Repair Shop return to the donors at each program's end is far more than a resurrected clock, painting, doll, musical instrument, or toy. Through the restored items, these artists bring back a loving relative, a favorite Christmas from an elderly person's youth, the moment when something cherished was passed down. I'd recommend having tissues nearby for the moment when the donors of the items retrieve their heirlooms.
The Repair Shop is the most therapeutic program on TV during the coronavirus pandemic. After the crisis is over, think how much of life in our communities, our country, and our world will need repair and restoration.
The Repair Shop might be viewed as an escape during the coronavirus pandemic, but I think the program is more important than that. The Repair Shop offers the best model of how best we can recover. What is broken can be healed, what has seemingly been lost can be recovered if we remember that love is the strongest glue.
•Learning From the Life of U.S. Congressman John Lewis
•A MOVIE FOR PAINFUL TIMES
•Art in the Pandemic
•Wisdom in a Pandemic
•Dr. Fauci's Worried Face
•When the Lake Rolls Over
•MISSING THAT FAVORITE RESTAURANT
• Time and the Pandemic
• THE BLESSEDNESS OF THE PORCH
• Enjoy the Treat of a Book During this Pandemic
• The Gift Of A Single Banana
• Wisdom in a Time of a Pandemic