Sunday, January 7, 2018

The best of times?

It is easy to be a pessimist when we look at this country and the world as we begin a new year: fear of nuclear war, a decline in environmental safeguards, a president who's unstable, incompetent, and worse.

But, as Nicholas Kristof reminds us in today's NYTimes, the year that just ended may have been the best year in the history of humanity.  What??

He takes the big picture and, using the new book by Steven Pinker, cites facts, e.g., a smaller share of the world's people were hungry or illiterate than at any time before. A smaller proportion of children died than ever before.  There are more detailed facts about how the number of people living in extreme poverty goes down by 217,000 a day, according to an Oxford economist.

The point is that we need to take a step back from the madness in Washington and the daily news, which focuses on the world's problems, and examine how the quality of life, by and large, seems to be improving, irrespective of politics, nationalism, wars, and refugees in crisis.

So maybe the world is not going to hell after all in 2018--not a bad way to begin the year.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Peace on earth?

As I send Christmas greetings to friends and family, with the usual best wishes for a happy new year, I find this annual tradition an empty, almost pointless ritual. "Peace on earth, good will to men": really?

Anyone aware of what's going on in the world has to be dismayed. We live in a dark time.  The first year of Trumpism is leading to a second, with a tax cut, mainly for the rich, that will add $1 trillion to the U.S. deficit and fail to deal with pressing issues (infrastructure needs, health care, job creation). At the same time, every progressive action on social justice and the environment by the Obama administration is being undone or subverted.

The federal government, under-funded, is not really functioning and so goes the world, wondering how to handle the decline in American leadership.  The result of Trumpism in Europe is clear from the rise of nationalism and right-wing politicians and the immigrant crisis, which continues without enlightened moral leadership.

What do we have to look forward to? More instability, Islamic turmoil, economic uncertainty, sexual harassment scandals, and White House lies and corruption.

So I hope those who see my good wishes for peace in the new year know that it applies locally, to the individual and his or her family, since there is little peace to be found in the wider world.  We think of those people not in the news who are working to help the poor and make goodness happen. Or we turn inward, as we must, to our religious traditions and beliefs, to sustain us in this dark time.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

The dangers of social media

Every new technology brings, along with its benefits, side-effects, dangers, or problems, some often not immediately recognized.

In a recent piece in New York magazine, Andrew Sullivan singles out studies that show that eighth graders who use social media extensively can increase their risk of depression.   "Teens who spend three hours a day or more on electronic devices are 35 percent more likely to have a risk factor for suicide," he writes.

Smartphones in particular have increased isolation and anxiety in an entire generation while also impairing cognitive functioning.  The article doesn't mention the risk to ADHD youngsters, but I am told by an expert that over-reliance on such devices can be addictive.

A striking insight provided by Sullivan: even when people are avoiding the temptation to check their cell phones, the mere presence of these devices impacts their ability to listen and learn.

The problem of being distracted also concerns Richard Rohr, the Franciscan guru whose daily online meditations I read.  He is concerned about obstacles to being present to the moment and to others.  He says that every religion values the sanctity of the now since reality (God) is to be encountered only in the present.

Today, says Rohr, we have more obstacles to authentic presence than at any time in history.  We carry them in our pockets, "vibrating and notifying us about everything and nothing. . . .Most of our digital and personal conversation is about nothing.  Nothing that matters, nothing that lasts, nothing that's real."  It's possible to waste years in our lives doing such nothings.

I would conclude that we must, as with everything else we invent, use the new media in moderation.  Otherwise we risk missing out on what matters in our own lives.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Making Friends with Death

November in Florida is deceptive: trees show little or no color, and although some leaves fall, most trees (oaks) shed their dead leaves in January but the branches are quickly replenished with new buds, a sign that death and life are inseparable.

But wherever we are, November for many Christians is the month of All Souls, of remembering those who have died, especially in the past year. So my thoughts are reflective, but not morbid, as I try to sort out death as a rebirth.

Stars are constantly dying and being reborn, astronomers tell us, as are cells. In nature the cycle of life and death is played out on every level.  Plants and animals seem to accept this, along with the change of seasons.  As Shakespeare writes, "all that lives must die, passing through nature to eternity."  His character, Hamlet, has a hard time accepting this ultimate aspect of nature, as many of us do.

As Richard Rohr says, "Nature fights for life but does not resist dying. Only one species resists this natural process: humans."  Why is this?

The most obvious response is that animals don't know they will die; they live in the constant present, neither looking back nor thinking ahead.  They cannot imagine losing what we have: an ego--and a store of memories and experiences that will vanish when we leave this earth.

Death for us remains a mystery: we wonder what exactly happens and how and when it will occur. No matter how many deaths I witness vicariously in books and movies, no matter how many people I know pass away, my own extinction seems as unique as my self and is the ultimate source of fear in my life. I don't know what kernel of myself will live on--some essence of me will live on, I know--but the true self or soul or whatever we call our spiritual center is a mystery.

I want to believe, with the theologian John S. Dunne, that some super-consciousness will remain as I enter the long sleep; but I can only hope that this might be so. I must face the unknown, ending "the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to" (Hamlet again) for an eternal something in which, I trust, my identity will survive, even without my body.

How to know all this intellectually and be okay with it emotionally is a great challenge.  Every day we hear of death and easily assume it is happening to others; we forget that death is all around us, not merely waiting at the end of the road, but as a presence within us, an inherent part of life; it coexists in the nature we share with the universe, as we see in the trees of autumn, dying now to be reborn again.

Somehow I have to come to accept all this and be comfortable with it. I have to make death a friend and not my ultimate enemy.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Fake news and false "facts"

I recently received an email, forwarded by a neighbor, about Japan. The opening statements seemed to be true, but as the list of "interesting facts," as they were called, went on, I saw some surprising statements about Islam in Japan--things like Japan does not give permanent residency to Muslims, the Koran cannot be imported, etc.

Suspicious, I checked at once via Google and found two fact-based websites that were responding to the viral falsehoods about Japan and Islam being spread on the Internet and swallowed by those who like conspiracy theories, false news, and anything that suggests that immigration by anyone with an Arabic or Muslim background should be stopped here in the U.S., as (supposedly) in Japan. 

It turns out that the Greater Japan Islamic League was founded in 1930; today there are about 100,000 Muslims in that country who attend about 30-40 mosques, where one assumes the Koran is used. The University of Tokyo has a Department of Islamic Studies; experts there have denied the list of "facts" in the viral email.

So the email's "interesting facts" were not factual but propaganda of the worst kind since they deceive and distort truth with a malicious intent.  Without truth and trust, how can a society function?  This is the dilemma we face in the age of Trump, where fake news and lies proliferate.

I was glad to see in yesterday's New York Times an article about schools in Italy taking the lead in teaching children to recognize fake news.  The leader of this movement, Laura Boldrini, is quoted: "Fake news drips drops of poison into our daily web diet and we end up infected without even realizing it."  She wants kids in schools to be able to defend themselves from lies.

Bravo for Italy!  Even Pope Francis is dedicating World Communications Day to fake news.  Italy is not alone is try to grapple with the lies that sow confusion in the public sphere and undermine the credibility of powerful institutions, such as the US Government.

The battle against digital deceit has to begin by reminding everyone not to share unverified news; to ask for sources and evidence for statements that seem to be more opinion than fact; and to remember that the internet and social networks can be easily manipulated.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Guns in America: Is there hope?

In the wake of the horrific shooting recently in Las Vegas, in which a lone gunman was able to bring more than 20 weapons into his hotel room, the media have been full of desperate pleas to curb gun violence since those in Washington do nothing but lament.

America seems to be alone in the world in its gun culture; even Australia, which also has a frontier history of independent citizens, was able in time to pass laws that allowed the government to buy automatic and semi-automatic weapons and destroy them, followed by strict gun control laws. The result? a sharp drop in gun-related deaths. Obviously.

Why is America different?  Is our culture not amenable to change?  Is the NRA gun lobby so powerful that strong that lawmakers are afraid to make the changes that common sense demands?  Many experts say that the problem is not the Second Amendment ("the right to bear arms") but the gun lobby.  Yet consider how this country moved from a society in which smoking was widespread in the workplace and elsewhere to the present: in a matter of a few decades, smokers are now in the minority, shunned for polluting the atmosphere.  Somehow, the powerful tobacco lobby was forced by the courts to concede concessions to issues of health.

If smokers claimed freedom of expression as their legal right, they were defeated by the fear of cancer. Yet the gun owners who claim that their freedom under the Constitution is at risk with more control of handguns fail to admit what really is at issue: fear.

The fear of losing one's land, independence and freedom to the federal government is a very powerful culture force inbred in millions of white, male Americans, especially in rural and Western states. This has been exacerbated by the changes in society brought by the civil rights, gay rights, women's rights, and other movements since the 1960s.

Men are usually reluctant to admit how deep-seated their fear of the loss of the "security" that guns provide them is, and this fear seems stronger than any rational argument about the second amendment and the senseless killings made possible by the sale of weapons.  Politicians lack the courage to stand up to this powerful force, embodied in the National Rifle Association, which supports the lucrative gun manufacturing business.

So I am not sanguine about changing cultural attitudes toward guns, although I would like to think that the anti-smoking campaign offers an analogous solution.  Fear in this case is deep-seated, and apparently, sadly, tragically, neither more massacres nor rational arguments for gun control will change the minds of gun supporters.  Ours remains a violent society.

I hope I am wrong. I hope and pray that a commission of our former Presidents Clinton, Obama, and Bush, along with influential people like Michael Bloomberg, might put together the money and muscle for a long campaign that would limit the sale of assault weapons.  But it will be a long campaign. And the political establishment would fight it bitterly, fearful of losing their power.

How does trust gain power over fear?

Friday, September 29, 2017

Loneliness in the Workplace

As one of the many minor victims of Hurricane Irma as she blew through Florida recently, depriving us of power for several days, I found myself relying on silence, relishing the absence of the media, but missing the Internet. Gradually, I became restless and anxious (When will this be over?). Perhaps the main feeling was one of isolation. No one could telephone us for more than a week.  I again realized how much we humans are social creatures who need communication.

So recently when Linkedin sent me a discussion of a topic raised by the Harvard Business Review about the serious problem of loneliness at work, I immediately identified. Even without the benefit of a power outage, I know that a writer, and anyone who spends much of the day looking at a computer screen, has a life of isolation.  Often solitude is essential for the creative spirit, for contemplation. So we need some solitude, some private time and space.

But being alone can also lead to the sad feelings of loneliness, of being dis-connected from others.  And many people I know either teach online or work online or, like the many employees I encounter in stores and restaurants, have no opportunity to have a real conversation.  I think of mail carriers, lawn cutters, and cleaners as well as the many widowed and elderly people who live alone, isolated from a community or family. Some say they barely speak ten words a day to another person.

The Linkedin discussion brought up some interesting reasons for our "epidemic," as the original HBR article called it.  Matthew Giarmo, a psychologist, writes that we value the number of connections we make with people on social media and elsewhere rather than the quality of these connections. They are often not real relationships.

In the workplace, he says, we are told that the less you speak, the less you risk "inappropriate self-disclosure" and "boundary issues" designed by the law to protect our privacy. In addition, the work itself is often scripted and designed by software and is more mechanized than it used to be. As a result, we are often disengaged from our work and our fellow workers. 

Another writer, an extrovert, tired of eating lunch alone, feels isolated because his job in IT involves forced relationships or the kind of artificial connections made by Facebook.  Another person writes that the demand for productivity and efficiency leaves little room for social interaction or thoughtful interchange with others. Corporate America fails to recognize that innovation is the result of the exchange of ideas, yet many companies have employees who feel unheard, lonely, and undervalued.

Add to this the fact that few people have more than one close confidante, one real friend who has the time to listen to them.  And the over-reliance on electronic devices, which, however useful, are no substitute for person-to-person exchanges.

No wonder we lavish money on pets: They seem to listen patiently and are not into productivity. No wonder we have problems with drugs and alcohol. No wonder relationships and marriages are often affected by the stress of employees, who may be productive but are unhappy and often unable, I suspect, to articulate why they are unhappy, the way those responding to this article have done.

I am glad that my first experience with Linkedin has been so revealing. I hope the online conversation leads to some solutions in the workplace.