#55: It’s The Uncertainty That Makes Us Worry

Endless nightmares. An obsessive news intake. Stocking up on masks, cleaning materials, emergency groceries, wipes, toilet paper, paper towels, whatnot. Do I have a mask? Have I forgotten it? Dreaming of forgetting a mask? Agitatedly yelling at the news?

These are not normal times. I personally grew up in East Germany; shortage of goods in “super”markets was normal, politicians all lied, freedom was a fiction. But East Germany is over. In the West, supermarkets are supposed to be fully stocked, politicians may be hyperbolic but their truth can be checked, and freedom is the goal of society.

No wonder we are feeling weird, especially in the West. Our social contract, especially our consumer-society contract, is in question. Will we see shortages? Will we see unrest? Will we have enough protection? Will we ever be back to normal?

Suggestion: Youtube has a selection of videos of cats purring. Or whatever gets you in the mood to relax.

There is every reason to feel weird nowadays. Accept it. We are all in it, to different degrees, but basically, we are. Let’s use this time to appreciate what still does give us stability. Hold on tight, but at a distance, and wear your mask.

This too shall pass.

#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.

#42: Be the World You Want It to Be

Unhappiness with the world is abounding right now. Reasons for unhappiness are never difficult to find, nothing is ever as it should be, and there are always things that need improvement, issues that need to be addressed, change to be made.

But most importantly, within yourself lies the power of the future. Not to just create it, but to be it. You seek justice, be just. You seek peace, be peaceful. You seek equity, be equitable. You seek truth, be truthful. You seek love, be loving. You seek understanding, be understanding.

It is easy. It is hard. But it works.

The other way works too. Be obstinate, and obstinacy is the result. Be without respect, and you shall not have any. Be violent, and you will live in a world of violence.

When Kant said, “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law”, he also described that if you model a certain behavior, it will be normalized.

You want a better world? I assume you do. Be it. Show it. Now. We cannot wait for heaven, we need to bring heaven to earth right now. Our lives are too short.

#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.

#26: Coronavirus is a Thief

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.

#15: Happiness

I have struggled all my life with some form of sense of mortality and the definite sense of an ending. That is, I guess, due to a Catholic upbringing, in which the theme of death is permeating everything, albeit counterpointed with resurrection. I have not always been able to reap the benefit of an unwavering faith that G-d will take care of me just as I wish; because I do not want to presume to know what G-d might want, or to even dare ask G-d to intercede on my behalf. (I use the Jewish spelling of G-d to indicate that we cannot know what “God” actually is).

Life thus consists in hope, but not certainty, that things may well turn out well, but also in the awareness of the struggle that things do not just magically fall into place.

There is also the medieval “Wheel of Fortune” idea, so popularized by the Carmina Burana, which tells the tale that our lives will be favored by the fates some days, and other days not, and that high and low, rich and poor, will suffer from Fortune’s wheel. Breaking the wheel – the utopian notion that was Daenerys’ hope in Game of Thrones – is impossible:

However, hope may lie in realizing and feasting on the punctuated moments of happiness. Akhnaten did have a good little run, as depicted in Philip Glass’ Opera. At the height of his power, he invents monotheism (pace Freud, S. (1939). Moses and Monotheism: Three Essays), and enjoys his triumphant moments as the founder of a revised Egyptian religion, whose traces will probably survive as one of its followers, Moses, carries it with him when fleeing oppression in Egypt.

Yet joy does not last, and as Akhnaten’s realm falls, his happiness comes to an end. But it was real – in the years that he indeed was the new founder of his religion:

Just because the past is difficult, the future unseen, and the present stuck in the uncomfortable middle, this should not prevent us from enjoying the happiness we can make in the meantime. It is hard, excruciatingly hard, but possible, every day, to carve out a moment of transcendence, of divinity, of spirituality, of utter joy, of ecstasy, and of shameless undiluted humanity. Whatever darkness may have befallen you today, cast it out for a few moments, and remember, this is your life, and you control your reaction to it, so that, in the end, with hope, you can have peace.

I guess this was a very strangely Catholic post. Oh well. It’s Easter, why not have some hope!

#12: We Are All Just Human Beings, and We Are All Predictably Stupid

We are all just human beings, and we are all predictably stupid. It is easy to judge strange behaviors in times of Coronavirus, but we should not be surprised. This is how human beings have always behaved in the face of an “invisible enemy,” as President Trump so descriptively calls it. We cannot see it. We don’t even know whether we have it. We don’t know whether we are in danger, because all we have is statistical knowledge, and symptoms of the disease show themselves very late, but you are infectious much earlier.

At which point should we realize that life, as it was, is over for the time being? And if it is not over for the time being, it could be over, over over, permanently over for far too many people to have this be a trivial matter.

People congregate even though they should not. People visit aging relatives in virus-infested areas even though they should not. Everything we should be doing goes against everything we have been doing, all our instincts are being violated, all our routines, our most human self denied. To be human is to be gregarious, tactile, close, and social – at least for most. But even the most antisocial would appreciate closeness with other antisocial people. Like likes like.

It is spring, and it is beautiful outside, and yet, we are supposed to distance ourselves. Shopping becomes an epic quest just as much as an ordeal. This sucks. It is not fun. Blessed those in large enough houses even with some greenspace living with people that they actually want to be with. That’s not a given. If you chose to be with the wrong partner, now you’ll know.

We could solve this probably easily. But we all need to be in it together. But we are stupid. Individually, we are stupid if we insist on carrying on as before, or if we were unprepared, or living with the wrong crowd. Systemically, we are stupid if we have not understood that people need to have a decent space to live and work, that you have to have protections, and that your economy needs certain buffers and protections to be able to survive a prolonged ordeal. We should also know how to make critical stuff at home, and that we need to stockpile stuff. Hospitals must never again be underfunded, doctors and staff never again underprepared and underprotected. This is bare life, at the barest.

In the future, we will all have learned from our mistakes, and none of this will ever happen. Entire articles and eventually books will be written about the transformative effect of Coronavirus, and how it changed the world forever, and how it brought home the message that we should take care of nature if we want it to take care of us.

Bullwinkle. We are too stupid to do this.

We will go back doing what we always have done. All those people that apparently had to be told to wash their hands will probably go back to not doing it, even though there are other nasties out there. We will again defund our healthcare system, and most of all, destroy our environment even more (especially those darn animals carrying all those viruses), and yearn for a robotic workforce that can never be sick. They will be necessary, because all this working from home may give some people the idea that we should just pay people for being themselves, and have those robots do all the work.

We will be just stupid enough to do this. Come on, man! Stupidity, after all, is our only true renewable resource. Look at the beaches, the parks, the private parties, some churches, even some countries, and you will see that we may be from the “homo” genus, but the “sapiens” in our name is dripping with irony, so much so that it is almost sarcasm. The “wise” human, sure, very funny.

Ain’t gallows humor grand?

#3: Don’t Know What to Say

I have absolutely no clue what I am supposed to say. Maybe I should not be saying anything. But I am thinking something. I am thinking and feeling a lot of things during the day. Thus there could be something to say. Could, should, supposed to. Expectations – they are the real problem.

I live alternately in Germany and in Oregon, United States. I should be free to say what I want. I should not fear repercussion. Critique, fine, and everyone’s a critic. That’s how you grow, or learn to live with something or ignore it. Whatever.

I do not have outrageous opinions. But I believe in the value to weigh and test different and sometimes even opposed opinions. I have convictions, well, maybe one. The dignity of life is inviolable. Stolen right out of the German version of its constitution. Deliberate, willful denigration of others, let alone physical harm to them, is anathema, not good, not something I intend to do. Live and let live. But also, be aware intolerance and bigotry arising. But always seek the truth, no matter how difficult. And always be aware that you will be making mistakes.

I guess I have said something after all.

#2: A Fresh Start

I’m trying something new again, again, again. The web site is a bit old (philjohn.com), and it had a diary section, but then technology changed, I got a blog, abandoned it, and now I am trying again.

This will be a place to share some observations and thoughts on politics, religion and culture, to test out some ideas, and to – in general – just get in the habit of writing again, as taught by Forrester:

I hope we’ll have some fun, some depth, but always a good and civil exchange here to mutually learn and better ourselves.

Yours,

Phil