#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.

#17: Coronavirus: This is the Apocalypse

Bear with me. The Greek word “apo-“ means “away from”, or “un”-, and “kaluptô” means to cover, hide, veil. “Apokalypsis” simply means Uncovering, Unveiling, bringing that which was once hidden into the light (alas the phrase in the Latin Requiem, “quidquid latet, apparebit”: whatever hidden, appear it will); to reveal something. Alas, the book of “Revelations” is about revealing something. “Apocalyptic” is something that reveals something, that may bring out a change, but that is not necessarily the end of the world, or something horrible; it’s just whatever may bring out the truth.

(Just imagine me, sitting through the countless times some horror show or movie saw some heroes facing the “Apocalypse”, which would be some weird end of the world scenario, while I was figuratively hitting my head thinking, “this is not what apocalypse means.”)

Anyhow.

No, as far as I can tell, CoViD19 is not bringing about the end of the world. It is bringing death and destruction, but it is revealing something else: We need to change the way we have been doing things. This is the apocalypse we have to understand. We are seeing that our trajectory is all wrong at the moment. Let’s make a list:

  • Global interconnectedness has always been the best route for pandemics to spread. We need to be smart about those connections. At least clean the planes, and filter pathogens out of the air. That should not be too much to ask.
  • If something bad happens, everyone needs to know, politics be damned. Whether this thing came out of a lab accident or a wet market in Wuhan, PRC, we all need to know immediately. Full transparency, full access, no shenanigans. Same with Chernobyl or any other mess back then, same with anything else in the future.
  • We cannot just make stuff in one place globally. This right now means China, but it would also be wrong if everything was made in the US or in Europe. A global system needs redundancies, backups, multiplications, simple as that. Any place on Earth could be hit by a catastrophe, and we should never have an over-reliance on one place only. This is stupidity of the highest order.
  • We need to think globally, whether we like it or not. Does not mean we cannot have or national or regional or individual identities, but we are living in close communion with the world already, and we need to take that into account, the good and the bad. Behave already.
  • The West cannot shy away from believing in individual rights, democracy, rule of law, equality, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, right to privacy, the inviolability of life, checks and balances, etc. Don’t let a legitimate crisis lead to an illegitimate destruction of rights fought for over centuries of human history across the globe. These are not just Western rights, they are human rights, and governance standards for good reasons. Dictatorships don’t work in the long run. The Roman Republic knew this: in a crisis, you can appoint a dictator till the end of the crisis, maximum for one year, then things go back to normal. Whether or not that worked in Rome, we can learn from this piece of wisdom.
  • We will have to do what we can to defeat a pandemic with science and discipline, and once that works, we cannot whine “it wasn’t so bad, look!” when the reason for our success were the measures taken.

You get the gist. This is what an apocalypse should be: a wake-up call to get us through the current mess, and prevent the next one which will – just as in any good science fiction or horror show – inevitably appear and be bigger and badder than the last one.

We’ve been warned. No excuses.

#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?

#7: We’re Headed in the Wrong Direction: Retirement Policy

I know things cost money. I am not a pie-in-the-sky socialist. I am very much aware that money has to be earned, economies need to grow, and benefits do not grow on trees. I grew up in East Germany under Socialism/Communism, and I do not want that back, under no circumstances.

There are some things though that are starting to worry me on a systems-wide level, and one of those issues is retirement.

It used to be that retirement meant that you would have money to spend. Maybe I remember wrongly, but I distinctly remember Western European and American senior citizens travelling around the world with apparently no care in the world, spending money on their kids and grandkids, building inheritances and nest eggs. Surely, this was a middle and upper class phenomenon, and poverty in old age has always been real in many cases. But it surely seems that whatever leisure and luxuries the past may have held, there will certainly be less of that in the future.

Already now, senior citizens frequently work in retail professions to make some extra money on the side, probably because their retirement benefits are not making ends meet. But this is just the beginning, and my Generation (Gen X) already seems to know that we’ll probably not have much to live for, and Generations Y (Millennials) to Z (does that mean the last?) probably don’t even want to know what will happen.

Again, I know that retirement and pension funds cost money, but this is cutting money at the wrong end.

In the “good old days”, old age meant “good luck” – if you were not incredibly rich or important, you would suffer. Older people doing well is an achievement of the late 19th and the 20th century.

Older people doing well means they can spend money on future generations, that they will spend money, period. Not investing in them is a deeply counter-productive thing to do, as it damages the entire fabric of inter-generational support. Typically, we hear the narrative that the working younger people support the older generations in retirement. Sure, tax-wise that seems not wrong. But the reverse is even more important: Inter-generational wealth and stability can only exist if parents and grandparents can actually support their offspring, and build wealth over time, and even babysit.

The trajectory we seem to be following throughout most if not all Western countries is pernicious and destructive, and needs to change. I certainly hope it does.

#1: Holidays

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How do we each year get caught up in a frenzy over holidays?

Whose holiday, what kind of holiday, how to fill the time, whether and what to give to whom – and in the end, all we want to do, is to rest – but then, it’s back to work.

The idea should be simple (I know, it never is, and the idea of simplicity is always kind of utopian): The time which is marked in the Gregorian calendar as the end of the year roughly coincides with the darkest days in the year. If you find a way to bring some light into the darkness, this makes these days palatable.

Also, if you are ending your calendar at that time, it makes sense to take a breath and get the sense of being able to start over in the new year, after contemplating on your successes and failures, and spending time with those you care about. You may even finish some work that needs finishing, but do it in the comfort of holiday cheer around you.

You need no religion for that. It doesn’t necessarily hurt either.

Actually, in times like these, the story of taking in a small family in need of a home, can be instructive in how we position ourselves collectively, as a species, towards questions of home.

There are refugees needing welcoming homes right now. Are we not supposed to take care of others? Sadly, not everyone values family – even though that should be the basic connection that should be taken for granted. You should be able to feel at home, at home. You should also be able to think beyond your immediate circle and see as fellow human beings those who need help. That does not need to mean you need to do big things. But you could at least endorse the principle of caring humanity, and call out those that don’t support that, as who they are.

Our planet, our very home, needs us to take more care of it. Are we not supposed to be stewards of the land, rather than rapacious exploiters? We need the earth to live, and we do need materials, and other lives to live on. I am not a vegetarian, and I am aware of that. But do we not need to make sure that what we leave behind can sustain not just the present but also future generations, even if they are not your own?

In the end, the holidays could indeed be about home.

Again, you need no religion for that. But maybe, looking at a nativity scene, and just seeing a family in need of a good home, surely doesn’t hurt.