The Trifecta

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Who knew that 2020 would bring us a trifecta of Covid-19, civil unrest, and an election year? Sadly our national response to all of it has turned into a three ring circus. It surely would have been nice to watch our governmental representatives forego their usual baiting and backbiting in favor of just doing the right thing to keep things calm and focused on getting our people and our systems well.

Of course it appears that such cooperative thinking is a thing of the past, something relegated to the World War II era when Franklin Roosevelt was president and George H.W. Bush’s Republican father worked with FDR. Or maybe we saw something similar after hurricane Katrina when George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton traveled together across the country raising funds to help rebuild New Orleans. Anyway we’ve been left to our own resources and luckily there are still heroes quietly working to set things right. It seems that emergencies almost always show us both our dark and bright sides and the good will always rise to the occasion.

At the dawn of 2020 I had to change my medical insurance because my former carrier had dropped the doctors that I see. I had done a great deal of research before choosing the medical team that keeps me as healthy as a seventy one year old might be so I was surprised that my insurance company thought that my loyalty would be directed toward them. I feel the same way about politicians, well meaning friends, personalities and random medical folks who attempt to dissuade me from following the advice of my carefully chosen physicians. I really have no interest in hearing from any of these sources because I know for a fact that my doctors do a great deal of research in addition to treating me and their other patients. If there is some wonderful cure or preventive measure out there I believe that they will find it and alert me to it just as they often do with other aspects of my health. So in the meantime, I plan to stick with the advice that they provide me which so far has been to wear a mask, keep a distance from other people, avoid crowds, stay at home when there is an outbreak in my area, follow proper hygiene procedures, continue to exercise, eat healthy meals, and take my medications.

If by some chance I actually contract Covid-19 I will contact my primary care physician and take his advice on what to do next. So I really wish that those who think they are being helpful with their suggestions would understand that I do not take medical advice from lay people. I stick with the professionals many of whom are in my family circle and among my friends. Since they are highly respected and credentialed doctors and physician’s assistants I count their information as being far more valid and useful than those whose expertise is questionable at best.

When it comes to the our present state of civil unrest it appears that we have mostly chosen sides and instead of making attempts to actually consider alternative ideas we are so tightly wound to our own thinking that we have lost any ability to bring the stand off to a mutually beneficial end. We have become like the differing religious sects in the Middle East who refuse to find ways of coming together. Hopefully we do not resort to all out war like they have.

I have decided that the only way to safely voice my own concerns will be in the sanctity of the voting booth. I do not need to explain my choices nor does anyone else and I will not be gathering my information on the issues and candidates from memes or questionable videos. I do a great deal of research before I make my decisions and I have never been bound to any one party, idea or candidate. In fact I abhor the lemming like behavior that I witness all too of late. I tend to believe that every single candidate has both good and bad ideas and so I weigh the facts and decide from there. I am wary of soundbites and instead look for overall abilities and behaviors. In the past I have voted all over the political map and generally felt quite satisfied with my choices even when my favorites were defeated. I like to go to sleep each night believing that I have done enough homework to make wise choices.

Since so much of the disastrous situation in which we find ourselves embroiled is only being stoked by the very people who are supposed to be our leaders it would be nice if we would all come together on our own to quash the hoax theories and the concerted attempts to drive us apart. We should not be challenging one another to love this country in exactly the same ways or leave. Not even our Founding Fathers thought it was a good idea to be tied to identical philosophies. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson argued about what was best for the nation until the day on which they both died. Some thought that Alexander Hamilton’s nationalization of banking would lead to the demise of the fledgling country. In the end it was the saving grace. In truth no single one of these men had everything right nor were they perfect so why should we suddenly believe that we have unflawed individuals in our midst today who must be followed at all cost or we will all be doomed? It is a dangerous game to blindly follow anyone. We have to be willing to be honest when assessing the character of our leaders. When they are wrong we have to be willing to say so, otherwise we give them permission to be authoritarian. 

I suspect the the rest of this year of 2020 will be as rocky as it has been all along. I fear that our trifecta of problems will only be exacerbated in the coming months as the political campaigns heat up even more. As the saying goes we need to buckle up because it’s going to be a bumpy ride. God help us!

Truth Is Beautiful

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I want to be left alone. I want to fix things that are broken. I want to just be happy. I want to express my anger about the state of the world. I want to turn away from conflict. I want to have the courage to stand firmly with my principles. I want to get along with everyone. I want to speak out when I see injustice. I am caught in a conundrum, a moment in time when I might cling to wishful thinking or face the realities that I witness happening around me. It would be so much easier to turn off the news, ignore my Facebook and Twitter accounts and just live peacefully in my home blissfully unaware of any difficulties stalking humanity. Unfortunately my curiosity would no doubt get the best of me if I were to make such a choice and ultimately I would be compelled to seek information and truth. My delightful ignorance would be interrupted and once again I would begin thinking about the actual complexities of life.

I’ve been watching the bots and the trolls at work on social media and on YouTube and Internet sites that purport to speak the unvarnished truth. They rile us up with doctored images and false stories. I often wonder from what hole in the ground they operate. They take many forms and present themselves with many names and faces and then spread their poisonous ideas like a virus. I wonder if they are laughing at us as we accept their premises. Do they take delight in watching us turn on one another as we share and discuss their often outrageous posts?

Much of our thinking these days is being directed by anonymous souls who live in faraway places. They purposely want to pull us apart and sadly they are quite good at what they do. It does not help at all that even some of our leaders are as addicted to their devious propaganda as we are. Instead of seeking accurate sources of information we too often find it easier to just cling to a single phrase to sum up the knotty realities that daunt us. We prefer quick fixes and quick answers and then divide ourselves into warring camps when there is a strong probability that there is a much better middle ground. We do not have to settle for “either/or” anymore than I must choose to be either uninformed and content or knowledgable and dissatisfied with the status quo.

We rarely have honest discussions anymore. Each side is busily planning a response to conflicting points of view rather than carefully listening to the other side. It is as though we are engaged in a national debate competition designed to find winners and losers rather than to determine ways to find answers. We see ourselves as opponents rather than understanding that we are all engaged in an attempt to make the world a better place. One side is demanding change and the other is worried that change will cause loss of some kind. One side is revealing uncomfortable truths about history and the other is concerned that talking about such things is hateful.

By now my readers know that my mother suffered from mental illness as did her mother. It was a carefully guarded secret in the family with much denial defining the reaction to what had taken place. Since I was the person first charged with getting help for my mom I had to face truths that were painful. For more than a decade I hid my mother’s situation from the outside, pretending that all was well. Whenever my mother needed care I called in sick to my jobs and told my bosses that I had a very bad bug. Nobody beyond my closest family members and confidants had any idea of my mother’s chronic cycle of bipolar disorder. We tiptoed around the truth of the situation.

It was not until I finally hit a concrete wall that I blurted out my story to a random coworker and finally received the understanding that I needed. I no longer had to hide my secret in the shadows and with my openness came valuable information and comfort. While some people looked askance at my new found honesty most began recounting their own experiences with mental illness. I soon learned that I was not alone and I began to develop a network of individuals who supported me in the care of my mother. I doubt that I would have been capable of dealing with her sometimes frightening behavior for decades had I kept the situation under wraps. My openness and the willingness of others to hear me even when it felt uncomfortable gave me the strength to care for my mother for over forty years.

Sadly there were still those who squirmed when hearing about my mother’s situation. They chose to ignore her symptoms and to engage in a game of pretense. They even believed that I was in some ways dishonest and hateful for talking of my mom’s illness. They could not understand what they saw as my betrayal. They preferred to act as though the great big elephant in the room was only my imagination.

In many ways this is what I see happening today. There are many who are unwilling to discuss and tackle harsh realities and others who would rather cling to a rosy picture even if that image is not true. They worry incessantly about changes that will require sacrifices and do not want to hear of skeletons in the closet of history. They simply want to be left alone, be happy, turn away from conflict, just get along in a superficial manner.

Sadly we would all love a utopian way of existence but since Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden we humans have had to endure more difficulties and unhappiness. Nonetheless whenever we pause long enough to actually work together everyone improves just a bit more. Even baby steps can make a difference. Perhaps the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement are the concrete walls that have hit us all in the collective face. They are urging us to begin the process of hearing what we need to hear and not just what we want to hear. Even seemingly ugly truths can become beautiful when we use them to make the changes we have needed all along. Truth is beautiful.

Don’t Cancel An Open Mind

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It used to be that replying to a query was a fairly straightforward process. If someone asked how one would treat a cold the answer would simply be a matter of describing the usual procedures for dealing with a scratchy throat and a runny nose. The questioner would take note, thank the respondent and either use the provided information for future reference or not. In our current times reacting to an inquiry about even a seemingly  benign topic can often become a war of words, a heated debate. Somehow every utterance has the potential of becoming an argument.

The world of communication has become a battlefield with rhetorical gladiators duking it out with no intention of considering another person’s point of view. It is a debate contest in which winners are declared and losers humiliated. Socratic discussions and critical thinking often lose to bombast and clever phrases. It makes all the world a show in which utterances deemed to be remarkable often signify nothing. The speakers and writers are not listening to one another but rather waiting impatiently to utter their repartee. Any hope of civil discourse is lost in an endless chattering that ultimately concludes with all of us being losers. Sadly such contests sometimes even destroy relationships.

It seems as though our society has become so politically charged that few topics are safe. The battles for ascendancy in conversations do not allow for depth of understanding. They become duels as deadly as the one that took Alexander Hamilton’s life and left Aaron Burr a man reviled for all of history. There are really no winners in such undertakings and yet there is a contagion of bad mannered response that is fueled by social media and thirty second sound bites. It is as though we have become incapable of paying attention long enough to get to the heart of one another’s beliefs. Instead when we hear someone thinking differently from ourselves we become agitated and begin the process of thinking of ways to quickly change that person’s mind, sometimes by sarcastically insulting them. We kill the messenger of ideas that do not fall in line with our own rather than quietly probing more deeply into reasoning.

I tend to continually set myself up with my honesty. I am intrigued by our differences and I have never believed that I have all the answers. I am often misunderstood by my willingness to adjust my viewpoints after researching ideas that confound me. I suppose that I was influenced by long discussions of profound import that took place between my father and my grandfather. They would sit for hours batting around information and thoughts like sport. Each would listen intently with great pauses between responses as though carefully considering what they had learned from each other. I used to so enjoy being the fly on the wall, the person in the room where their respectful conversations unfolded. From them I learned how to find solutions for the most difficult problems through a deep and remarkable process of back and forth, give and take.

I recently fell for a lethal form of clickbait on Facebook. The advertisement asked a very simple question seemingly wanting little more than a quick response. It wanted to know whom I thought would be a good running mate for Joe Biden. I simply typed a name and posted my answer thinking that no additional words were needed. I saw it as a survey rather than a debate. Hundreds of replies later I had been accused of stupidity, being high, being a hater of America, being uneducated, being naive, being the real problem in our country, being irresponsible and other pejoratives that I would not dignify by repeating them.

It both amused and infuriated me that people would be so insulting and sometimes even cruel to a person whom they had never met. I wondered at the unfounded conclusions regarding my character drawn from my mere utterance of a single name, nothing more. I chose not to respond as perfect strangers tore me apart as though I was a gladiator thrown into a lion’s den with no armor or weapons. I was no more than a nameless, faceless pawn used in a deadly game designed to entertain the masses. It was at this moment that I finally understood the horror of what has become of our society and how we have so badly distorted the ideals of religion and democracy.

We have become victims of the anarchy of words, quick and bruising phrases rather than profound ideas. The masters of snark have invaded the world of discourse. Debates have become vehicles of insult rather than purveyors of information. Psychological anarchy wins over polite thoughtfulness. The soundbite is the coin of the realm and the idea of allowing differing opinions in the same space has become passee. The champions of such stylistics rid themselves of people and even products that do not walk in lockstep with them, narrowing their worldview to the point of danger. There is no one to warn them of mistakes or faulty thinking because they only hear the sounds of their own voices and those in whatever group they have chosen to follow. The world becomes a game of choosing sides with no place to go for those of us who prefer to consider that it is destructive to become tribal rather than diverse.

Our cancel culture is as infectious and deadly as Covid-19. When we no longer allow conflicting possibilities our society and our souls begin to slowly die. We become deaf and blind to anything other than our way and in the process lose the magnificence of variety. We close ourselves into darkness and run away from truth. We begin to believe that we are so perfect that we do not need the counter balance of pros and cons.

Our landscape has been severely changed by those who say nothing but only tell us what they think we wish to hear. Beware of people who are unwilling to admit mistakes because as humans it is inevitable that they will not always get everything right. Beware of people who continually blame and insult others because they actually have nothing constructive to say. Beware of people who rely on pithy phrases and photos to prove their intellectual prowess because they have no depth of understanding. Beware of people who are self righteous because they are afraid of differences. Beware of people who will not pause long enough to listen to and respect all of the points of view because they will demand that everyone else go their way or hit the highway. Beware of people who think that bullying others into submission is a sign of strength because they are actually quite weak. Beware of falling into the trap of continually walking in lockstep with a single idea because it may lead you into a trap.

We have some dire situations right now that we must consider. We have a virus stalking us. We have minorities who are crying for our consideration. We have a criminal justice system in chaos. Our economy is teetering. Our educational system is under assault. Now is not the time for division. Now is the time to stop for a moment, take a deep breath, and open our minds.   

Searching For Truth

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In the long ago when my husband was in graduate school he was often invited to small gatherings at the homes of his professors. The evenings usually consisted of academic discussions of the past, the present and the future. There was always a great deal of emphasis on data, theories of social science and outcomes of common human behaviors. Such evenings were intellectually exhilarating. My part was almost always just to listen and learn after which my curiosity would lead me to do more reading on the various topics of discussion.

Of late I have been reminded of the excitement that comes from considering varying points of view to explain the workings of the world. In Zoom conferences with my nephews who live in Chicago and with my grandson and granddaughter who are still in the process of furthering their educations I have learned by listening and then continuing my research later. I have also delighted in garnering information from some of my former students who now hold posts as teachers, college professors, economists and the like. In the spirit of intellectual fairness they take great pains to investigate the credibility of claims before accepting them as gospel. They are wary of any kind of particulars that appear to have a taint of undocumented truth.

I am now an old dog who is still listening quietly and learning new tricks. Among them is the ever more pressing need to check sources before accepting their authenticity. Social media platforms and modern technology have created rumor mongering factories. Those feathers that Jesus talked about with the gossipy women are now flying at us at warp speed and once they are out there they are exceedingly difficult to remove. They are flying through the avenues of communication like a blizzard of fakery.

The pandemic, economic uncertainty, and the Black Lives Matter movement have all collided with an election year to make the prevalence of false information more and more common. A couple of quick examples illustrate the problem. One is a side by side photo of President Trump waving a Bible and Adolf Hitler doing a similar gesture with the holy book. The truth is that the Hitler photo was manipulated. It never happened and yet it has no doubt circulated around the world millions of times as valid proof of President Trump’s facist tendencies.

In the same vein there is an image of Nancy Pelosi tearing the Bible in half in protest of President Trump. It’s similarity to a real picture of her tearing up the president’s State of the Union address alerted me to do some homework where I found that the creation was a satirical effort by somehow wanting to inject some levity into the anxious political environment. The problem is that the people posting the photo were all proclaiming their disgust with Congresswoman Pelosi and anger at her audacity in destroying such a sacred volume. In other words they believed that she had actually ripped a Bible asunder.

I could go on and on and on. I have seen screeds about damage done by rioters in the present time which were accompanied by photo “evidence” from four years ago. One video I watched showed rioters tearing down the statue of a slave trader with the indication that it was happening in the United States when in fact it was in the United Kingdom. People were becoming enraged over incidents that had absolutely nothing to do with the BLM protests.

If there is “fake news” in the world it is mostly to be found on social media platforms and the sources of such misinformation are almost always disreputable. Sadly few people have the time or the inclination to check the veracity of everything they see before reacting to it. While it is rather easy to see the falsehood of some propaganda, other examples are quite cleverly produced to appear rational and valid. For that reason we all need to guarded in our acceptance of everything we encounter as truth.

I have generally found that if something appears to be hyperbolic or audacious it is quite likely to be either being absolutely false or at the very least an effort to propagandize the public. So too when statements or solutions are seemingly too simplistic they merit a closer examination. We hear about “defunding” police departments and immediately jump to conclusions about what that actually means regardless of which side of the BLM movement we lean toward. The reality is that defunding does not mean ridding ourselves of a police force but rather re-allocating some of the functions of those organizations to agencies that are more meaningful. For example, right now our police officers are answering calls regarding people with mental illnesses. Our jails are filled with the mentally ill. The defunding idea would appropriately outsource those duties to mental health professionals. Persons who are suffering from mental illnesses would free up jails and decrease time spent by police waiting in hospital emergency rooms with buses full of prisoners waiting to be evaluated.

While I was in the United Kingdom I learned that many of the duties of our American police officers are the domain of other groups in that country. They have meter maids for example to give parking tickets. By allocating funds and functions to more suitable agencies our police force can concentrate on the heavy duty crimes rather than the petty infractions. A man using a counterfeit twenty dollar bill should not have merited the attention of four police officers. If this incident had been investigated in more fitting ways we would not have been sitting where we now are.

Other concerns swirling around police departments include the increasing use of military style equipment by police as well as the quickness to resort to harsh techniques. Departments must consider their current tactics and begin a process of training all of their officers in de-escalation techniques. In cities where that is already standard practice there are fewer occurrences of misguided overuse of force. Finally police unions need to be willing to admit when their own have crossed the line of decency and admonish members who give policing efforts a bad name. They cannot automatically defend bad behavior and then expect to maintain the respect of the public. The Catholic Church is feeling from backlash for the many years that pedophile priests were protected. Police unions should take note of how such inaction destroys credibility. 

We all need to consider that the world is complex and neither our reactions nor our solutions from problems should be denied the time it takes to make reasoned decisions. Searching for the truth should be a common occupation for all of us. That means that first we have to listen and then we must take the time to ferret out the truth without blindly following anyone.

Gazing Into the Future

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I spent my last years working full time as Dean of Faculty in a KIPP charter high school. One of our mathematics teachers was an extraordinary educator who was originally from Nigeria. He once told us a story of his youth and how he wanted to become an engineer from a rather young age. His village provided him with enough education to be rather literate but not enough to gain admittance to a university. For that he needed an advanced course in Calculus but there was only one person that he knew about with the credentials to help him, and that person lived in the next village over from his.

My colleague was determined to earn a spot at the university and so he visited the teacher who held the knowledge that he needed and offered to help him with his farm in exchange for Calculus lessons. For a year the determined young man walked several miles after the regular school day to meet with his teacher. Ultimately my friend indeed earned a degree in engineering.

I was reminded of the many people across the globe who do not have instant access to education when I attended a little seminar at Rice University last year. The special guest was Salmon Khan, who is best known for Khan Academy an online educational platform.  Khan spoke of the power of the internet in bringing instructional opportunities to individuals who might otherwise not have them. He told stories of young women in Afghanistan who have used distance learning to earn college degrees in fields that might otherwise have been closed to them. Today’s world is filled with ever more opportunities for advancement because of individuals like Khan who offer lessons in multiple subjects.

We’ve seen the power of online education in recent days as millions of children have learned their lessons in the safety of their bedrooms. We know of workers who are continuing to do their jobs from their dining room tables. As doctors and nurses are on the frontline of the battle against Covid-19 telemedicine is being used more and more.

My husband was supposed to have a follow up visit with his cardiologist later this month. It will still happen but this time it will take place via computer. When possible this method is being used more and more often during the pandemic and I suspect that it will become a commonplace way of providing general medical care in the future. I can see how it will be an important way of bringing world class medical care to rural areas and parts of the world experiencing a shortage of qualified doctors.

Of course this brave new world of computerized education, work life and medicine will require internet infrastructure but already internet cafes are cropping up all over the world. These are places where anyone may come and pay a fee to use networks for all sorts of reasons. Some cities like Tulsa, Oklahoma are actually leading the movement toward creating centers for online access. I can envision countries creating such places for the population just as we once built the interstate highway system after World War II. What a boon it would be to anyone living in a remote area to have a way to learn or work or get medical care or just to become more a part of the global community!

I remember watching a program about Arthur C. Clarke many decades ago. He was a futurist in every sense of the word. He lived on a Pacific island but was very much connected to the world. Of course he was wealthy enough to have satellites and computer power in an era when few people had access to such things. Nonetheless he predicted that it would one day be possible for anyone to live virtually anywhere and still experience modern conveniences. The computer era is proving him right on so many levels.

I suspect that as we move out of pandemic mode we may want to continue with some of the practices that we have been using and expand on them. While the economy may be battered I predict that new opportunities will arise as clever young people learn from observing what was essential and how we solved various problems during our time of isolation. We are experiencing lessons in supply chains, risk management, education, public health, computer power. Our teachers will be the geniuses among us who paved the road to linking the far corners of the world through online communication. We may be on the verge of a great civilizational shift much like the Renaissance or the Industrial Revolution. In fact it may have already started.

Sometimes great good comes from tragedy. Let us hope that the lessons we learn will lead us to ever brighter days ahead and a willingness to try new ways of doing things. I suspect that the greatest minds among us are already making plans.