#49: Nature Demands Humility

It’s as if nature has decided to teach humanity a lesson. Coronavirus and Climate Change are real dangers, but maybe too abstract to most.

There is nothing like the power of wildfires to teach us little arrogant apes who’s boss. As wildfires all across the Western United States are leading to mass evacuations, red and orange skies, and air too toxic to breathe with or without a mask (at least now we have them in supply!), humanity seems much smaller in reality than in our fantasy.

We should learn from that. Nature always wins. Be prepared. Be kind. And respect that which you cannot control.

#48: Moderation is Strength; Radicality is Weakness

This is not a time of extremes. This is not a time of extreme crisis. The world is not ending. We are not at the end of goodness. We are not at the end of democracy. We are not living in the most racist / sexist / ageist / classist / divisive / time ever.

How do I know? A solid knowledge of history is immensely helpful to put things into perspective. Does that mean there are no more challenges left? Of course not. But we need to approach these challenges in a way that is focused on solutions. We need to keep people in dialog, make change that is actually sustainably, and keep building coalitions.

If you seek change, you need to change hearts and minds, otherwise, you will only create resentment, and the change you seek will be undone easily. You do not build a house that is supposed to last for decades without a foundation, and you do not make political change without laying a solid, patient groundwork.

Patience is hard, especially if lives are at stake. Moderation is hard if there is a sense of urgency. I understand this completely. But unless the solution you seek can be allowed to wither away again, moderation is the key to success. Had Gandhi followed a different path than the one laid out by Thoreau in his “Resistance to Civil Government”, there would not have been Indian independence. Spartacus held the moral high ground till he allowed his followers to exert revenge on the Roman civilian population. Both Martin Luther King jr,. and Malcolm X expressed their righteous anger at racism, but both advocated for peaceful solutions eventually. Peace works violence (including verbal violence, and violence against objects and people) fails. The bomb may have ended the war, but the UN sustained the peace. There are plenty of other examples.

Moderation is true strength. Holding back anger, frustration, desperation and impatience is difficult, but it will pay off eventually. Giving in to these impulses looks superficially strong, but will discredit itself.

#45: Benefit of the Doubt

It is probably human nature to be tribalistic, to be focused on supporting “your” side or team. This can sometimes limit our ability to cooperate with the “other” side. It also creates a false dichotomy, in which we can think only about two sides to any issue, even though there may be more.

One way to overcome this dangerous divide is to remind ourselves that even if we disagree with someone else, we should give them the benefit of the doubt. Division works by painting an extreme difference, between only two choices, one absolutely correct and the other absolutely wrong; and additionally, painting those believing in the first choice as good, and the other as bad or even evil.

Trying to understand someone we do not agree with does not need to endanger our moral compass. It may question our own facts and assumptions – but that is a necessary process. The believe in an either-or, in the dichotomy of good versus evil is in itself the very problem plaguing our society. People are not all good. People are not all bad.

We need to fight against actions that create avoidable suffering, but we need to give people the benefit of the doubt even in those cases where we think that they may be causing harm. People’s motivations can be complex. They may actually mean to do the right thing, even if it ends up being the wrong thing. The saying that “the path to hell is paved with good intention” is quite applicable here: in too many cases, people may feel locked into a path that they may feel they have to take, even if it is wrong, even if they know it is wrong. Moral dilemmas are nothing new in human history, and all our literature and culture is full of such stories. Oedipus does everything to avoid killing his father, and yet ends up doing so. Utopian communities have always aimed at building a better world, and always ended up building hell on Earth. People know they need to communicate with each other to fight climate change, but they also need to use the very technology that is contributing to the destruction of our habitat.

If we give people the benefit of the doubt, if we truly listen to the other side, we display strength, not weakness. It is true strength to veer out of your bubble, to try to learn and understand what is alien to us; it is also true strength to change one’s mind if something convinces you that you have been wrong in the past. The longer we live, the more we will find where we have been wrong in the past. This happens all the time, and as much as we – hopefully – give ourselves room for growth, we should give it to others. Not without reason is judgement reserved to the Eternal in all religions.

#44: There is Too Much “Now” Today

We live in a society governed by the demands of today, of the now, of the immediate. This is, of course, not a new observation. For decades now, cultural theorists have described the decline of traditional values, of belonging, and an increasing frustration with the speed of technological and societal change. But it appears that these lessons have not only not been learned, but that we seem to have leaned in to this atmosphere of constant change and embraced it whole-heartedly.

Accepting reality is healthy, of course. We need to be mentally prepared for a life of constantly changing parameters, and ignoring such changes is not helpful. But that does not mean that we should simply give in without a fight, and lose our minds in the process.

One of the primary problems of today seems to be the loss of history. There is not just a decline in knowledge about history (which is bad enough) but even more so a decline in the awareness of history. We live in the ever-present “now”, in the ever-changing “now”, which has decreed that history would be useless, because the present would be so much different and no lessons – allegedly – could possibly be learned from it. At the same time, we are told that we are moving towards a better future, but that future will also just be an ever-expanding “now”, just a “now” that has forgotten and invalidated the past “now” because it will equally not care about history.

Even worse, it seems, is the more recent development that even the belief in a better future seems to be declining. Sure, social problems are being addressed, and so-called progressive movements claim to bring about change for the better in this regard; but is that really progressivism? Fighting social ills does not need a claimed future orientation, it needs just as much historical awareness, as much as knowledge about the suffering in the now. Progressivism used to be so much more – a future with a vision for human development, togetherness, space, technology, science etc. But that is too often disregarded as dreaming that distracts from the now. But we must be building our future in the now. We must plan big again to eradicate disease, slavery, extreme poverty, dictatorships, ameliorate climate change, save our environment, go to the Moon, to Mars, and beyond, right now.

Without such big goals, we cannot proceed in the now. We need to dream big. But we cannot do that without an awareness of history, of the historical moment we are in, of the challenges to humanity in the past. We need history to tell us about mistakes we may be making right now, and to also let us know when we are making progress.

If we cannot put our current situation in a historical context, we will always despair, and whatever ails us personally and societally right now will only seem so much more unsolvable. Without being aware of the demons of the past, we may not recognize them when they are return. Without serious historical grounding, we will not be able to distinguish between the very many problems we are facing. We seem to be living in a time of both complete moral relativism, and an inability to recognize nuance. We either see no problem, or every problem we see gets elevated to the most absurd degree.

The “now” removes the humility we need that can only come from historical grounding. Historical awareness lets us know where we (as people) are doing better or worse than in the past; it also tells us to be careful assuming we have all the answers – for we don’t, as the future will tell us soon enough.

#41: Corona Funk

Bigfoot Sighting near Lyons, Oregon

I’m not necessarily a believer in sharing emotions. I consider it emotional blackmail, overwhelming others with my own private feelings, not allowing others a space for critique (for how do you critique someone’s emotions? It would be rude), and also, it really is nobody’s business how I feel. Emotions can be turned into art, that’s what poetry, photography, music, etc. are for.

But I do have to admit, this s-u-c-k-s on some levels. Believe me, I am perfectly happy at home. Love it. I’ve been lucky enough to have been able to make a nice home. Some aren’t, and that sucks even more, I understand, I know people whose situation is not ideal at all. Nevertheless, I love being home, but as a choice, not something forced upon me.

The virus situation is real, it is like a bungee ride, you think it’s over, and once you think that, it’s back. If that sounds ridiculous, it may be because I’ve never enjoyed a bungee jump, but also, because it sadly is true. This virus is a tricky one, fools you into being harmless, and then it can gut entire families and communities. Everyone’s trying to either adapt, prepare, or deny, rebel, resist, but whatever venue we choose to air our emotions, I think we all – all human beings, and maybe even some cats, on this entire planet, we all are raging into the night, some more inside than outside, but the rage is there.

We are used to being in control of things. Some more than others, of course, but still – we have gotten used to being able, in principle, to control nature, to a fault. Now we have to give in. It’s embarrassing, infuriating, debilitating, humbling, depressing. Wait for climate change to get worse, and practice your feelings already. You can also hope against hope, which is fine as well.

But let’s just admit it, we probably are all in a Corona Funk. It’s ok. This is not normal. Let’s focus on survival, and let’s do what we can to help this be over soon. For crying out loud…

#38: Radical Empathy

If there is one thing that I have seen missing more and more in the world it is the willingness to take into account the feelings, thoughts, and perspectives of another living being. Too much of what is going on around us seems more and more built on the rejection of the perspectives of others.

Maybe technology is to blame. Maybe it is modernity in general. Maybe it is the lack of education in philosophy, theology, history, other cultures, anything that would communicate that your way of thinking and feeling is not the only way of thinking and feeling in the world; and even if you might think someone else is deeply wrong, you need to check that impulse and accept the – very uncomfortable – notion that to expect others to agree with you is rather self-centered.

We can only truly engage with others once we accept, even embrace, their otherness. We are all different. We are also all the same in many ways, but we are mostly the same in not being the same. How I see the world is surely not how you see it, and that is sometimes sad, sometimes disturbing, but it is also fantastic. How boring, how one-sided a world we would live in if everyone thought and felt like us.

This understanding, and this embrace of the other, this connection, this empathy, all this is helpful in guiding our own path through a world that is not centered around us. But it is also teaching us another thing that is in short supply nowadays: Humility. Recognize your limitations, and accept that you are not alone in the world. What sounds banal can apparently be difficult. How does what I do affect others? How can I learn from those I completely disagree with? How can I see myself, as an individual, as a part of a community of individuals? How is that enriching us all, but also myself?

This empathy needs to be radical; it is a form of love, of unlimited love. We indeed should work at being radical in our empathy, radical in our compassion, radical in our love – because we can only be accepted ourselves by the world if we accept it, and everyone that lives in it, in return. Otherwise, we will just be in a bubble, a cage of our own choosing; unable to truly be in the world, we would be building a prison for ourselves, seeing disconnection where there needs to be connection, seeing hopelessness instead of hope, seeing difference instead of commonality.

This may be a bit preachy, but so be it.

#37: Coronavirus, the Amfortas Wound?

In Wagner’s Parsifal, king Amfortas, who guards the grail, has a wound that does not heal. It has been inflicted by the (evil) sorcerer Klingsor who has used the king’s own spear against him. The grail may help, but there are difficulties.

Is this maybe a good metaphor for the Coronavirus? The virus has appeared first in China, which is something that can happen in any country, but then the Communist government denied, falsified and manipulated information (Klingsor, check) – which is something that should not happen (Again, my critique here aims at the government, not the people).

Then, of course, almost every single country (with the exception of maybe Taiwan, but in all cases, time will tell) found ingenious ways to handle the outbreak in ways it should not have. The wound, though initially inflicted from outside, had now an own component, we have afflicted ourselves by lacking preparation, equipment, procedures, imperfect implementation of protective measures, and finally, lack of discipline, and of course, plain old stupidity and hubris (which all humans can do very well, no matter where they are from).

Now, that we are timidly trying to return back to some sort of life, the virus seems to be an expert at exploiting the slightest weakness we will show in opening back up. Each opening seems to provoke a rise in cases, and even hospitalizations, then we’ll have to lock up again, to open again, etc.

Is this our future till the vaccine? Is this an Amfortas wound that will not heal till the holy grail, the vaccine, will succeed? I hope not, because Parsifal – pace Wagner – is thinly veiled Christian eschatological allegory, but it is thus about hope and faith, not science. We cannot will the vaccine into being. We need to protect ourselves and each other. We will need to somehow start living with this nightmare.

But maybe hope is not a bad strategy: without hope that the wound will eventually heal, we would not get the energy to get over it. Thus let us hope, and try, just try, to focus on the better angels of our nature. We are all, the entire planet, in this together.

#27: What is Peace?

Peace is not just the absence of war, it is not just the absence of violence, it is not just the absence of strife, it is not passivity.

Peace is the active practice of a state of mind that is at peace, that seeks peace, that acts in peace. That excludes violence both in action as in words. For that to happen, it needs peace at heart, it needs compassion, it needs humility, it needs grace.

Peace is not easy; it is the hardest thing to ever achieve and maintain. It requires strength, perseverance, and constancy. A peaceful person does not give in to negativity, does not yield to temptations of aggression, does not diminish others, even if they are wrong.

Peace can only be the goal if it is the path. That does not imply pacifism, but it means that even if you have to fight an enemy, you should do it with the goal of peace in mind. Any enemy of today will have to become a friend as soon as possible. We should never make reconciliation nor forgiveness impossible, but see them as the path out of the conflict. Every war is a war with ourselves, as we are all one. If we reject that unity, we have already lost; and once inner peace is lost, outer peace cannot be gained.

Gandhi knew that, King knew that, Thoreau knew that. Black Elk knew it, according to John Neihardt: “know the power that is peace”1.

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1 Black Elk, John G. Neihardt, Raymond J. DeMallie. Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux, the Premier Edition. SUNY Press, Oct 16, 2008. 27.

#26: Coronavirus is a Thief

The Coronavirus is a thief. It is stealing our time, our lives, our present, and attaching an unnerving question mark unto our future.

Wherever you stand on the question of lockdown or not, or on how to live with the virus, we all share the same predicament, even if to different degrees.

This is what stands behind the criticism of the lockdown as well: The fear that our life, even if we save it as bare life, will lack the meaning and the promise it had before the virus arrived. Whatever time we lost, at school, at work, with friends and relatives, cannot be recovered. If you missed falling in love because you did not get to meet that special someone, that will remain missed. Precious moments have already been lost, precious opportunities disappeared, many people’s lives’ work destroyed. Most crucially, thousands of lives have been lost, and are still being lost.

We have learned to hope that life is different now in modern, even post-modern times (whatever that means). We have adjusted, at least in the more affluent countries, to a safety and predictability of life that was – and in many cases still is – the domain only of the most privileged.

Now we are learning, or rather re-learning, the old truth: That the veneer of civilization is very thin. Nature is always stronger. Life (and death) are not abstractions, but concreteness. Loss is permanent, and everywhere.

We need to re-learn to process loss. We also need to rediscover what really provides meaning in life.

#20: Exiled

I grew up in former East Germany, lived through the 1989 Revolution, saw the fall of the wall, transitioned to life in West, or rather, United Germany, fell in love, moved to the US, enjoying a freedom I never thought I would ever be able to enjoy pre-1989.

My transatlantic life was based on the assumption that I would always be able to be present on both continents, keep doing work on both continents, travel, visit family and friends. This very liberating mobility was a dream come true.

Enter Coronavirus. We saw it coming in December, where it was some “mysterious” pneumonia in Wuhan, PRC. I still traveled over Christmas, back and forth. Then, in January, it became clear something serious was happening, and by February, international travel was becoming increasingly not kosher, and by early March, we entered a new reality.

This tiny virus has turned my transatlantic life into an unintended exile. How quickly, life can change, and distances that used to be traversable become impossible to overcome.

Life has gotten smaller, the world has become something much more abstract, less concrete, unreachable. I am sitting in my house, my home away from home, but my original home is out of reach.

I’m doing well otherwise, and I am well aware there are worst fates. But the feeling that you cannot just drive or walk or even fly to go over there is numbing.

Corona takes the crown for reducing this beautiful world to a cruel memory and abstraction. There are now advertisements on television saying that it is ok to be depressed. Really? Street signs, for when I do get out to just look around, from the care, tell me to go home. I understand that there is a new virus out there, that we understand too little, and that far too many people have died already, and more will be dying. We are afraid for a very good reason, and need to be cautious. Certainly.

I can do this. I grew up not being allowed to travel to the “West”, to other continents. This exile may well be temporary, but my time, and that of friends and family is not endless. This is a cruel virus. Make it stop. Certainly, I am not alone in this wish.

This sucks.