#112: The Normality of Not Knowing

We are all seemingly stressed by a growing sense of uncertainty, it seems. When will the pandemic end? How will foreign policy shape up – will there be a new stable world order or utter chaos? What will climate change bring? Will we be able to keep our jobs? How can we navigate these increasingly troublesome times? Will we ever be able to retire? What kind of world are we leaving for our children and grandchildren? Everything around us seems to be changing. We are caught in quicksand, and the future is less and less certain. We don’t seem to know anymore how this will all turn out in the end.

These fears and concerns may well ring true for many if not most of us, but they certainly are not the worst fears you could have. As I am writing, I am well aware that the likelihood that you – dear reader – just as myself may not necessarily have to worry about our next meal, or about our housing situation. Otherwise, both of us would have better things to do than to spend time on an internet blog.

It seems, in fact, that such fears as voiced earlier are indeed a sign that we have been privileged enough to ask these questions, and also, that we may have the wrong idea about reality.

If we believe that we can know the future, we are deluding ourselves. Life cannot be planned. You may get your family started, have employment, plan for retirement and for how your kids may be able to live, but then life gets in the way. This has always been true. Nobody plans on losing their jobs or changing employment. Nobody plans to get sick or chronically ill. Nobody assumes their children would get in trouble. Nobody plans to die early. Nobody plans on their houses burning down, their countries being invaded, air plane toilets falling from the sky, etc. We may be able to make plans, but their coming to pass is never guaranteed.

The true illusion within the affluent and free world since probably  around the 1970 has been that we can take charge of our lives. It has always been an illusion. We cannot know the future, we can only try to navigate through time as best we can.

There is peace in that. Not fatalism, but peace. Surely, the world can be a scary place; certainly right now. But we cannot lose hope, and we cannot lose perspective. Plan for the future, but live in the moment. Appreciate what you have. It will be over too soon.

#111: Faith, the Pandemic, and the Drowning Man

There seems to be a narrative going around in some churches and religious communities that says, directly or indirectly, that we would not need to protect ourselves with masks and vaccines because God would save us. Any measure to protect yourself from the pandemic is thus construed as a sign of a lack of faith.

This is a rather peculiar distortion of religious belief. God does not instruct us to follow a belief in magic, but to utilize our talents given to us at birth, to develop them, and to make them work for us and others. Amongst our talents are our ability to conduct science and develop technologies for protecting us against all the dangers surrounding us. We should have faith, surely, but it must not be blind to our own capacities. If we are made in our creator’s image, then we are made in the expectation that we have the tools available to help ourselves in critical situations. What parent would raise a child that would not be able to eventually survive without constant parental supervision?

Furthermore, it is not for us to assume the nature of God, to make a mental image of God, to know God, and to presume to know how divine help may look like. To believe that we could know the unknowable is faith without humility; it is hubris, not faith.

Humility teaches us that we need to respect the world we live in, and to be aware of both its dangers and promises. Faith teaches us that we are born with the tools to overcome such challenges, and not that we should be waiting for some sort of comic-book-style intervention by a deus ex machina. We have the tools to fight the pandemic, and we should use them.

If that doesn’t sound convincing, how about the joke about the drowning man:

A fellow was stuck on his rooftop in a flood. He was praying to God for help.

Soon a man in a rowboat came by and the fellow shouted to the man on the roof, “Jump in, I can save you.”

The stranded fellow shouted back, “No, it’s OK, I’m praying to God and he is going to save me.”

So the rowboat went on.

Then a motorboat came by. “The fellow in the motorboat shouted, “Jump in, I can save you.”

To this the stranded man said, “No thanks, I’m praying to God and he is going to save me. I have faith.”

So the motorboat went on.

Then a helicopter came by and the pilot shouted down, “Grab this rope and I will lift you to safety.”

To this the stranded man again replied, “No thanks, I’m praying to God and he is going to save me. I have faith.”

So the helicopter reluctantly flew away.

Soon the water rose above the rooftop and the man drowned. He went to Heaven. He finally got his chance to discuss this whole situation with God, at which point he exclaimed, “I had faith in you but you didn’t save me, you let me drown. I don’t understand why!”

To this God replied, “I sent you a rowboat and a motorboat and a helicopter, what more did you expect?”

#110: Poem: To Understand the World

TO UNDERSTAND THE WORLD

Corvallis, August 20th, 2021 – P#754

how it would be
if finally we
could claim to comprehend
whatever it is
that daily surrounds us?

are choosing we
to blissfully ignore
all that life has to offer

in joy and in pain,
in bliss and damnation,
in promise and anguish,
in safety and danger,
both heaven and hell?

in this all-twisted world
you cannot have one
without the other
for too long a time

the path of life
if long enough
will lead us through all
in spite of our bestest intentions

now, seeing all this,
do we then choose
that knowledge is better
than ignorance?

once knowledge we choose,
how much of a Faustian bargain
should willing we be to sometimes embrace?

or should we yield to ignorance,
or blissful non-awareness,
how much are we willing to lose as well?

and once we are done,
how much of all that understanding
will stay with us in what may still come?

just like moments in time,
we are fragments of life
thrown in the maelstrom of strangest existence
thinking we need to make sense of it all

to understand the world
may lead us to knowledge
to highest achievement
and yet
we are mortal

and that which is eternal,
may care it or not,
might care just enough
to take note
of all our attempts
erratic they may well be:

so that something survives
at least as a memory

for the idea
that all this could have been in vain
is certainly not an understanding
we ever will be
prepared to accept

and yet
to truly understand the world
may ask us to do so
nevertheless

philjohn.com/poems

#109: We Cannot Lose Hope

How easy would it be to despair now! The world seems in shambles, whatever we have gained seems lost, and the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban appears like a symbol for our times. Covid is resurgent, the world is burning, and what future will we ever be able to enjoy?

None, if we don’t believe in its possibility. We must be hopeful, and from hope will come action. If we want to survive and prosper as a planetary community, we can make it happen, but we need to defeat our despair first. It is possible, because it was possible in the past.

History – both natural and human – is full of the worst and most horrible tragedies imaginable. And yet, we are still here. Because of that, hope is the most logical position even now. Seriously.

#108: Carefulness Is Not Fear

Some of the criticism – if you can call it that – put forth by those believing that the Coronavirus pandemic would not be so dangerous, that you could certainly go without the vaccine, that you should stop wearing the mask, that you should stop avoiding unnecessary contact – is that those who do follow those scientifically advised procedures would just be “afraid.” “Don’t be afraid”- “Don’t promote fear” – “learn to live with the virus.”

I do want to live, but we can avoid living with a virus we could certainly seriously push back if everybody followed serious scientific advice. Certainly, we will eventually have to learn to “live with” the virus, but not before having done whatever we can to protect everyone.

Also, since when do we shun people who are afraid of something dangerous – and is such a line not preposterous coming from those claiming – against all serious evidence – that the vaccines would be dangerous, masks would be dangerous, and other nonsense?

I agree with people who respect the virus for what it is: a dangerous pathogen that is not done with us yet, and that should be given as little space to evolve into more dangerous variants, and we can use the tools at our disposal safely. This is not fear, it is carefulness. We care about a disease that even in its so-called mild or moderate form can lead to long-term effects that can be debilitating in both adults and some children. We care even about those who don’t realize they should protect themselves.

Sometimes, I hear people saying, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”, chuckling, implying that they should not be, and that such a demand would be ludicrous. They certainly don’t know their Bible. It is Cain, after having slain Abel, when asked by God where his brother would be, is responding as such, in a way implying that he – the murderer – would not be his brother’s keeper.

But we should be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. I must be expected to care about not getting sick myself, I can – and should – also be expected to care about others not getting sick, even if they are misguided in their conviction that sees measures fighting the pandemic as allegedly less dangerous than the pandemic themselves.

This is not fear, it is care. With a hint of frustration, which I am certainly aware of. Maybe we can all be frustrated together, albeit about different things…

#107: How (Not) to Be Unhappy

There are many ways to be unhappy. For more, I recommend you read Paul Watzlawick’s excellent book The Situation Is Hopeless But Not Serious (The Pursuit of Unhappiness), still relevant after all these years. For example:

A man wants to hang a painting. He has the nail, but not the hammer. Therefore it occurs to him to go over to the neighbor and ask him to lend him his hammer.
But at this point, doubt sets in. What if he doesn’t want to lend me the hammer? Yesterday he barely spoke to me. Maybe he was in a hurry. Or, perhaps, he holds something against me. But why? I didn’t do anything to him.
If he would ask me to lend him something, I would, at once. How can he refuse to lend me his hammer? People like him make other people’s life miserable. Worst, he thinks that i need him because he has a hammer. This has got to stop!
And suddenly the guy runs to the neighbor’s door, rings, and before letting him say anything, he screams: “You can keep your hammer, you bastard!”

(Watzlawick, Paul. The Situation is Hopeless, But Not Serious: (the Pursuit of Unhappiness). United States, Norton, 1993. page 39)

That’s it! That’s what we do! Ain’t it grand? No, seriously. Sometimes, we can’t seem to help ourselves seeing the worst in people and in situations. It is certainly easier, and sometimes, it is mandated.

But there is a difference between unhappiness on the one side, and on the other, carefulness, mindfulness, realism, or fear. These are not all the same things. If I know a certain danger exists, denying that danger would not be making me happy, on the contrary. If I realize the seriousness of a situation, I am preparing myself to react appropriately, and thus minimize unhappiness. If I am mindful of my own or other people’s limitations, I am setting up realistic expectations rather than expecting an unfulfillable fairy-tale. If I am careful, I care about making the right decision.

Unhappiness and happiness may probably be described as outcomes of false expectations and of a flawed attitude towards life. If you expect everything to fail, that may be realistic sometimes, but you lose hope. If you expect everything to work out, you may be eternally hopeful, but such a pollyannish attitude sets you up for failure more easily than you would have hoped.

As we are living in a time where challenges about – a still persisting global pandemic, the crises following the necessary strategies for pandemic abatement, as well as climate change and extreme weather events, refugee crises, political crises, terrorism, domestic troubles, economic crises, maybe even an asteroid with higher likelihood of hitting our planet than we might be comfortable with; all of these certainly can very well contribute to a sense of doom. How, in all honesty, could we possibly be happy in all this?

If we focus on all of these, on the abundance of dangers and threats, we are pursuing unhappiness. Looking at history can be healing. Despite everything, our problems are manageable. Pandemic? Get vaccinated, wear the mask, distance, be hygienic, etc. Climate change? More difficult, but we can all do our part to protect nature, pollute less, consume differently, and be open to technological solutions old and new. Politics? Get involved. Asteroid? Sorry, can’t help you there.

Some problems can be fixed, others can’t be, but we can never stop searching for solutions. That may not make us happy, but at least, we can avoid being unhappy. Because this is important also: There are never just two options. Between unhappiness and happiness, there is the possibility of a neutral stance of acceptance of things as they are, and trying to make the best of it. You may not be happy, but you can choose not to be very unhappy at least.

#106: How to Be Happy

One of the oldest problems of humanity seems to be centered around the question of how to be happy.

This is certainly understandable: So many things stand in our way, so many challenges await us in life, so many things are not as they should be. Wherever we look, there is misery, tragedy, injustice, illness, death, pain, suffering, etc.

We are born in pain, build a life, succeed more or less with what we are trying to do in life, cannot possibly achieve everything, have to make compromises, nothing is working out as planned, and even if it does for a brief moment, we are growing older, losing friends and family, facing a future of death and diminishing faculties, till we ourselves are dead. Whatever awaits us beyond death hinges on faith, which in most cases is wishful thinking. We cannot know what follows death, and for all we know, it will follow similar trajectories of life but be happier – or be so different from what we have known that we cannot even comprehend it. Most likely though, life itself is special, and especially depressing.

This is one way to see things. All of it is true. Is it helpful? Yes! Accept the negative for what it is: the reality of living in an imperfect world. Our task is to make meaning in meaninglessness, make sense in senselessness, to be happy even if we could not possibly be happy.

Happiness is not a goal you can reach once everything is working out as intended. It is the attitude you bring to an unpredictable world, and to the people around you. It is the light you nurture inside, the feeling you need to maintain to accept life for what it is, and to make it bearable.

Happiness is the realization that in spite of everything, this is how it is, and you can either be miserable or happy. In the face of extreme adversity, humans have made a great invention: Gallows Humor. Discover the absurdity in life, the impossibility to have it all, and the realization that in the larger scheme of things, we matter far less than we like to think, and our little lives are significant only to us and the people around us in our time and space.

There is levity in this, and mental space to see our life as a gift – as a window on a specific point in time and space. The mark we leave may be big or small, but at least we are given the chance to make it, to live it, to see what it’s all about. The very insignificance of everything highlights, ironically, the significance for us to ourselves.

Happiness, then, is a combination of acceptance, humility, absurdist amusement, and the celebration of the little things in life that do bring us pleasure, and of the people we meet on our voyage.

How can we be happy? By deciding to simply be happy, come what may. Que será, será.

#105: We May Think We’re Done with the Virus, but the Virus is not Done with Us

It is seductive to think that we can go back to normal anytime soon.

At least within the so-called “Western” World, we have safe and functioning vaccines, masks, abilities to work remotely for many of us, and to distance physically. There should be no debate as to how to proceed, and yet, it is not so.

We knew early on that this would get worse. Sure, some – not all – pathogens seem to get weaker with time, but that is not true for all, and such a description is already overly simplified. Pathogens do not think, they do not decide to survive. They procreate, and wherever we provide them with a fertile ground, they will do so. Given enough selection pressure, those pathogens that can procreate without destroying us will survive only because we let them. Right now, we are giving them ample room to circulate, so no, we will see variants arise that will be progressively more aggressive – because we allow them to do that.

We are all tired. We are all sick of this, even if we haven’t gotten physically sick from it. But we all want this to end.

It’s not up to magical thinking to make it so. Vaccinate, wear masks, distance, isolate – globally. Sorry, no better news here. If this does not end soon, it’s due to those who choose to be careless – and to not care for others. Some people cannot follow this prescription, and those who can need to make sure that they are protected as well. Is that so difficult?

#104: Psychological Long Covid

As far as I know, I have not been infected with the novel Coronavirus. I have been sheltering in place as much as possible, have been distancing myself physically, maintaining a sanitizing regime, wearing masks, getting doubly vaccinated, maintaining safety precautions even now, listening to the advice and latest scientific debate and not just to some statements by politically mandated officials. The virus is real, so are its variants, and vaccines help but are not perfect. It is not over.

Even as I have not been infected – and I would be very surprised if I have given my precautions – I somehow feel as if I had something like “long Covid.” In my case, it cannot probably be medical, it is probably psychological. Lack of inspiration, motivation, difficult sleep, nightmares, and an overall sense of dread have made this a difficult time.

But this is not about me; I don’t like to draw attention to personal matters typically. I’m not trying to whine or complain, but to maybe validate your feelings in case you are experiencing something similar. I am noticing this in others, whether it is necessarily verbalized.

Additionally, I have witnessed friends of mine who have moved into political radicalization, virus relativization or denial, anti-vaccine and conspiracy theories, and an overall anti-democratic, anti-scientific extremist spectrum with affinities to right-wing extremist positions. This is especially troubling, but again, not limited to myself.

This crisis is affecting us on a multitude of levels, and we need to give us all some leeway, some grace, some sense of understanding that this is affecting us psychologically and socially much more than we would care to admit.

These are not easy times, let’s just admit it and be gracious to each other.