(These are Opinion-Editorial Articles written by David Carlson and published in the Daily Journal, the newspaper of record in Franklin, Indiana)
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.
• 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
• THE POWER OF HOPE
• The Repair Shop