Until We Can Deal With Death: We’ll never deal with COVID-19

              Photo by Mufid Majnun on Unsplash mufid.web.id

My friend Gladys takes care of her 94-year old mother Sylvia, who has Alzheimer’s. Gladys tries to keep mother up with the world and so was telling her about COVID-19. Sylvia said, “I want that.” Thinking she had misunderstood, Gladys replied, “Oh, no, Ma, it’s a terrible disease that kills old people.” And Sylvia said, “Take me to where they have it.”

Sylvia’s request may sound demented or depressed to you, but it would have seemed normal in previous generations. Back then, pneumonia was called “the old person’s friend.” Before antibiotics and medical supports for breathing, like oxygen and respirators, pneumonia in old people had a death rate of 30–40% or more. When you couldn’t do things, when you were in constant pain, struggling to get through your days, largely isolated from younger people living their lives, pneumonia was your ticket out.

Now, though, the vast majority of people recover from pneumonia, if they have access to medical care and a place to live. Their loved ones don’t have to say goodbye to them, and people often live into their 90s and beyond. Some are happier about this than others.

I was born after the discovery of antibiotics, so I missed the time when pneumonia was usually fatal, but I’m old enough (just turned 70) to remember when death was a normal thing. People were scared of death, of course, but not terrified like they are now, because it was familiar. People weren’t sent away to die in hospitals like cats taken to the vet to be euthanized. They died at home, usually with their family around them, so children grew up knowing that death is real but not horrible.

Now, death is far less real for most of us. Where youth, growth, aging, sickness, and death had been the natural course of life (if you lasted long enough), death is now considered an avoidable and tragic evil.

As a hospital nurse for 25 years, I saw a fair amount of death, and not much of it was good. People died surrounded by strangers, their bodies hooked to invasive tubes and treatments. We medicated them for pain, but we could do nothing to help them make their transition into death. They died alone, unless a nurse or housekeeper had time to hold their hands while they took their last breath.

Yet, many families wanted their deathly-ill relatives to receive all the invasive treatments they could afford. If their doctor tried to get a “Do not resuscitate” (DNR) order, or take them off a mechanical ventilator, families often refused. They wanted “everything” done to keep their loved ones barely alive.

When a society denies death

In recent decades, death denial has expanded: we have started to deny aging, too. Because some people can afford to hire caregivers or put their elders in nursing homes, they can move both death and aging out of sight. The shadow side of life falls deeper into the shadows, to the point where society can pretend it doesn’t exist. And then death becomes a terror, the ultimate evil that must be prevented or denied at all costs.

Now, this denial of death and the corresponding terror has spread to every corner of our society. It is shaping our responses to COVID-19 in destructive ways.

In many countries and many American states, a rise in infection rates or in deaths triggers a shutdown of business, education, in-person medical care, social, cultural and religious life. As a result, millions become unemployed, isolated, and impoverished. Of course, rates of infection drop when most people stay home. Then when government tries to reopen things, the numbers go back up, and they close down again. This has happened in my home town of San Francisco three or four times already.

The futility and collateral damage of these policies are obvious and predictable. They aren’t stopping the pandemic; they’re dragging it out, because viruses don’t go away when people hide from them. In the meantime, lives are being lost to isolation, stress, and other effects of the shutdowns. According to diabetes foot expert Jon Bloom MD, the rate of diabetic leg amputations has soared during COVID, because people are afraid to go in for preventative care. Drug overdose deaths are way up.

I do not know why authorities keep ordering these self-defeating policies, but I’m pretty sure people only accept them because they are so afraid of death. Governments know that fearful people will go along with anything, including wars. So, they go to great lengths to tell us we could die if we don’t follow their prescriptions.

If society cannot tolerate the idea of death, then we will never get out of this pandemic. We will keep opening up and shutting down while people get poorer and hungrier. We will wait for deliverance from an effective vaccine that may never come. According to University of Colorado Health, “No vaccine for any corona virus disease has been approved for use with people.” Like many other companies, they are testing one for COVID-19, and making hopeful claims for it, but they have no idea how effective it will be.

What should we do instead?

Full disclosure: I just turned 70 years old and have lived with a disabling illness for over 30 years. I’m one of the vulnerable ones that the lockdowns are supposed to protect. As of November 12, 2020, of the approximately 223,000 “COVID-involved” deaths (about 1 in 1500 people) in the USA, 79% of those who have died were age 65 or older, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

I do not want to be “protected;” I want to live. I refuse to spend my remaining time locked in an apartment, even one with Zoom calls. I insist on living as best I can, and I certainly oppose other people’s lives being stopped to ‘protect’ me.

I’m not saying we should ignore COVID-19. An approach that accepts death would allow for a balanced, sustainable public health response. Everyone could be strongly encouraged to wash hands and faces, to stay home when sick, to wear masks in crowded situations. But they shouldn’t need to stay home when healthy; their workplaces should be open. Cultural events and religious services should resume, though perhaps with some restrictions, as they have in Sweden.

  An event that maybe should be restricted Image: Frank Alarcon on Unsplash dc360.church

 We will do more science to refine our prevention and treatment measures. But the practice of closing down millions of lives to prevent a few, or a few hundred deaths would have to stop.

Unfortunately, that policy would mean accepting that there will still be COVID cases and some deaths, and acceptance of death is no longer thinkable for most people. Just for writing things like this, my progressive public health friends call me a neoliberal who doesn’t care about human life, an ageist who wants to throw old people away. On social media, I read comments that compare riding a bus with driving drunk, or eating at a restaurant with playing Russian roulette. And these writers believe they are ‘following the science.’ They aren’t — they’re believing who they want to believe, panicking in fear of death.

Accept death or deny life

In his book, Staring at the Sun:, Overcoming the Terror of Death, psychiatrist Irvin Yalom MD wrote, “The more un-lived your life, the greater your death anxiety. The more you fail to experience your life fully, the more you will fear death.” Our fear makes us extremely vulnerable to manipulation by promoters of technological promises and pseudo-science.

I believe we will cope with pandemics and other threats if we focus on living and making life better for current and future generations and less on preventing death at all costs. Despite all our medical technology, we can’t live forever and, past a certain level of disability, discomfort and decrepitude, most people don’t want to. We might be scared of death, but that is not the same as loving life.

We need a balance between risk reduction and life maximization. Rather than stopping life to prevent death, it will be much better to enjoy and make the most of the life we have. Yalom’s book gives good ideas on how to get there.

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The Boxes We Live In

Limit and Divide Us

Have you wondered why different people: white and Black, liberal and conservative, American Christians and Middle Eastern Muslims, see the world so differently? It’s because we’re not seeing the same world at all. Each of us sees reality through a series of boxes, made of stories we inherited from our ancestors, have learned since birth, and have had reinforced every day by society and the media.

Martin Woortman instagram.com/martfoto1

If we stay inside our boxes, we suffer in two ways. We can’t see the world as it really is, so we keep being hurt by it, and we miss its beauty. Second, everyone else in other boxes seems wrong and dangerous. This separation makes us easy to manipulate and is the source of much of our social conflict. If we understand the nature of the boxes we live in, we can better connect with others and experience the wonders of life.

Born in a box

Even before we’re born, we start to learn what the world is like. In his book, My Grandmother’s Hands, trauma therapist Resmaa Menakem, MSW, writes that children of traumatized parents are born already fearful of a scary world: vigilant against danger, unable to relax. They will teach their fear to their children. Whole communities can be traumatized by violence or dislocation, and most of them will see the world through that box of fear for generations to come.

Families and cultures vary in other ways, too. I was raised to think education was the most important thing in life; some of my working-class neighbors thought hard work was #1. As an adult, I’ve met others, often with less money, who focus on social connection as the way to survive. As a white-appearing child, I was taught to go to the police if I was lost or needed help. For good reason, some Black children learn the opposite.

These approaches represent different ways of trying to be safe in the world. All of them are based on some experiences a family or community has had. The original situations may or may not still exist, but the responses remain.

People from different boxes usually have no idea how the world looks to other people. White people who have never known many Black folks may not believe systemic racism exists. After all, they’ve never felt it. Rich people may not know any working people, and so usually have no idea what it’s like to lack money for food or to worry about paying rent. They can easily exclude such realities from their consciousness.

Thinking inside the box

Thoughts and behaviors that seem bizarre or evil to some make perfect sense to others inside their narrative boxes.  I have long been baffled by this question: how could oil company executives suppress the science, some of it developed by their own researchers, that showed their products were heating the planet, with probable deadly effects? I knew corporations commonly value profits over lives, but in the case of oil companies, their products are killing their own children.  How corrupt do you have to be to doom your own family?

Now, after reading and talking about it with some executive types, I begin to understand. You don’t have to be corrupt at all.  You just have to keep thinking inside the boxes you  were raised in, the ones society built around you and those you made for yourself.

The oil execs live in a capitalist box, in which progress is always good and accumulation of wealth defines success. Nested inside that box is a  corporate box, in which their company, despite being a legal fiction, is a valuable thing which must be defended. Oil companies power people’s lives, after all, enabling us to get around in comfort. Inside the corporate box is a career box, in which money and prestige prove that the execs are good people.

Living in those boxes, the thought that burning oil is a bad thing is literally unthinkable. Those thoughts are easily kept at bay with simple disbelief (‘How could humans change the climate of this huge planet?’) with alternative belief systems (‘God is in control.  He wants humans to prosper and wouldn’t let us kill ourselves.’) or alternative science (‘It’s not really that bad. The warming we see is just a natural cycle.’)

When society financially rewards you for what you do in your box, it’s harder to see outside it, especially when your friends, associates and family are in the box with you, and might get very angry if you try to climb out.

Part of the air we breathe

We all live in nested boxes, of which we’re usually unaware. We’re raised from birth to think our country is best. Our nationalities and our families’ political belief systems are the right ones. We’re taught those things in school, in church, at home, in the media. Religion (an important part of our worldview) is inherited. According to University of Southern California sociologist Vern Bengston, 50-90% of children keep the faith of their parents for life.

Seeing the world as we’ve learned it, we interpret our experiences to fit in with our beliefs. Soon, we don’t know our boxes are limiting our view; they’re like water to a fish, just the way things are, not open to question. We customize our boxes by adding on beliefs, which start as thoughts that fit what we already know.

Author Michelle May M.D. wrote on Huffpost, “Your thoughts lead to actions, which lead to results that confirm your initial thoughts. They become beliefs. Beliefs then become automatic thoughts that drive your behaviors. In other words, habits.” Once thoughts become habits, they become parts of our worldview, and opposing thoughts can’t get in.

In case we do start to question our beliefs, corporate media managers  surround us with narrative walls to make sure we don’t see too far. These walls of story function like distorting windows. Through them, we can’t see the world as it is, only as the image-makers show it to us, usually as a scary place of scarcity and danger.

How we see the world – Image: Kaleb Nimz brewedtogether.com

Thinking outside our boxes is rare, as you can verify in five minutes on social media. Conservatives and liberals live in the same world, but see it through very different boxes.  Republicans call progressives Libtards, and Democrats call conservatives Fascists. Our oligarchs thoughtfully provide each group with its own media outlets and information sources in both broadcast and social media form. As Andrew Marantz writes in his book Antisocial, algorithms and advertising work to put each of us in the boxes that are most comfortable for us, sometimes called ‘filter bubbles’ or ‘echo chambers.’ We wind up talking only with people who share our views.

My take on all this: the oligarchs know that people living in different boxes won’t unite against them.  And the people creating those boxes live in boxes of their own, from which the things they do seem right, even socially necessary. But living in a box affects us beyond the political implications.

Personal boxes

In our personal lives, the most important boxes are the ones controlling who we think we are and what we should do. Some of these have been constructed over thousands of years. Society starts enclosing us at birth with walls such as gender roles: the different ways girls and boys should act and the way they should be treated. We learn very young what kind of person we should be when we grow up and what we should value in life.  Our childhood and adult peers have their own boxes and try to mold our boxes to resemble theirs.

Nested inside those social boxes are more personal boxes that limit who we can be. The walls here are more like mirrors than windows. Am I a good person? Am I worthy of love? Do I need to be rich or poor, educated or religious, thin or fat, or what DO I need to do to feel good about myself?

Because the world seems dangerous, we sometimes create our own boxes to keep us safe. Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis, called these made-up boxes “neuroses.” If I think of myself as weak or incompetent, I won’t try things that are difficult or speak up for myself to others. That box protects me from risk but sadly limits what I can do and experience.

Can we get out of our boxes?

Buddhists say that seeing reality is a lifelong practice, kind of like what their monks do in their cells, but in the middle of fast-changing world with a hundred threats and a million spectacles to distract us. I personally don’t expect to get out of all my boxes any time soon.

What we can do is become aware of our own boxes and those of others. We can recognize that people with different beliefs have different histories and different sources of information, and so live in different boxes. They’re not stupid or evil. When we have unwanted thoughts or take automatic actions we can’t explain, we can realize that once-necessary but now outdated beliefs may be driving our behavior. We’re not weak or lacking in will power. We can do better.  Here are some resources that might be useful.

Healing hidden trauma — Resmaa Menakem MSW LICSW My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Mending of Our Bodies and Hearts Central Recovery Press 2017

Having useful political conversations — The Aspen Institute Better Arguments Project  “It’s Important to Speak to People You Don’t Agree With.” https://www.aspeninstitute.org/blog-posts/its-important-to-speak-to-people-you-dont-agree-with/

There are so many articles on changing harmful beliefs about ourselves (not so much about political beliefs.) Here is a good one – https://www.lifehack.org/858652/limiting-beliefs

A subreddit for actual discussions without attacks or name-calling is Change My View https://www.reddit.com/r/changemyview/

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Thanks for reading! I’ll be writing more about this soon. Follow me on medium.com/@davidsperorn, on Twitter, on Facebook or my blog The Inn by the Healing Path. Hire me for freelancing, editing, or tutoring on Linked In

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Listen To The Donkey

It could save your life

         Image: Iva Rajovic instagram.com/eklektikum

Do you ever feel like some unseen force is blocking you? Self-help books, therapists or coaches might help you find a different way forward, but wait! Maybe the world wants you to do something else. That happened to the prophet Balaam in the Bible, and we can still learn from his 3000-year old story.

Like all Bible stories, Balaam’s is best read as poetry, not as literal truth. You don’t have to believe in God to learn from it. Like other spiritual wisdom — Muslim teachers say each verse in the Koran has seven different meanings — Balaam has layers of meaning that will speak to us at different stages of our lives. This story will look at two of those meanings.

First, the story

As told in the Book of Numbers, the Israelites were swarming out of the desert toward the Land of Canaan, conquering the little kingdoms of Midian in their path. The local leaders were terrified of them, and one, Balak the king of Moab, decided to stop their advance by force.

Balak knew he needed help, so he called on the prophet Balaam to come and rouse the people of Moab to fight, and to curse the Israelites. He offered Balaam a ton of money and honors. After first refusing, Balaam got on his ass and rode off toward Moab.

They were making good time, until the ass turned off the road and wandered into a nearby field. Balaam didn’t know that God, taking Israel’s side as usual, had sent a death angel to block the prophet’s path. Balaam couldn’t see the angel standing up ahead with its sword drawn, ready to kill him, but his ass could.

Not seeing the donkey’s motive, Balaam got angry, beat her with a stick and drove her back into the road.

This happened a second time. Finally, in a very narrow place with no way to turn off the road, the ass “fell down under Balaam: and Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he smote the ass with a staff” (Number 22:27.) Then she started talking to him.

“What have I done unto thee” she asked, “that thou hast smitten me these three times?”

And Balaam said unto the ass, “Because thou hast mocked me: I wish there were a sword in mine hand, so I could kill thee.”

“And the ass said unto Balaam, ‘Am not I thine ass, upon which thou hast ridden ever since I was thine unto this day? Did I ever disobey you before?” (Numbers 22:28–30.)

Balaam admitted that she had never done anything like this before. Maybe, then, he should have wondered why she was behaving differently now, but he wanted to get to Moab and wouldn’t tolerate anyone getting in his way, least of all an animal. How human! How male!

Then, the book says, “God opened Balaam’s eyes so he could see the angel standing in front of him. The angel of the Lord said unto him, “Behold, I went out to withstand thee, because thy way is perverse before me. And the ass saw me, and turned from me these three times. Unless she had turned from me, surely by now I had slain thee, and saved her alive.”

The world talks to us

The world, or God if you prefer, sends us important messages all the time. We have to decide whether to listen and what they mean. Then we can do something about them.

Sometimes people or events just happen to interfere with our plans for no apparent reason. Other times, blessings come from nowhere and encourage us in some direction. We should look into those events to see if we can understand a message there.

          image: positivepsychologyprogram.com

Often, the messages come from our bodies. According to Martin Rossman MD, co-founder of the Academy for Guided Imagery, our bodies can’t speak to us in words, so they communicate through symptoms and dreams. If we ignore the symptoms or try to suppress them, we may miss a chance to avert a catastrophe. Interactive Guided Imagery is a way of letting your body or your symptoms speak in words.

People often can’t see how things in life, like a person, a drug, a food, or a job, are bad for us. We just know we’re tired in the morning or having pain somewhere in our bodies. Those feelings are God/the world speaking to us. If we keep pushing, like Balaam tried to do, we won’t like the results.

Men often treat their bodies like Balaam treated his ass. They may have a very narrow concept of their sexuality, limited to getting hard and penetrating things. If their aging bodies no longer want to do that, they might seek assistance from medicines. Or they may withdraw from sex completely rather than try new activities that might be more pleasurable than what they had before.

Sometimes, the blocks seem psychological. I used to be a serious competitive chess player. I reached the rank of national master in the United States, but I wanted more. Chess took up huge amounts of my time and energy: practicing, studying, competing. It interfered with my relationships and other activities, but it was also fun. I was addicted.

A frustrating thing kept happening to me on the chessboard, though. I would laboriously build up a great position against another strong player, then suddenly, with victory in my grasp, make some senseless blunder and throw the game away. I would be left angry and frustrated with myself. What was going on?

        Image: Juno Jo https://www.instagram.com/JunoJo

Now I know these lapses were my body/mind trying to protect me, either from the consequences of success or from wasting my life pushing plastic pieces around a board.

Thirty years later, and after some good therapy, I think both were involved. With ongoing inner work, I’m more comfortable winning now, but I’m also very glad I didn’t pursue dreams of becoming a Grandmaster. The idea of a life spent poring over chess games doesn’t appeal to me nearly as much as the life I have had., either from the consequences of success or from wasting my life pushing plastic p

But I didn’t think any of that at the time. The blunders just came, like some outside force was doing it to me for no reason. I hated them and stressed out over them. I didn’t see that, like Balaam’s ass, they were trying to tell me something important.

How animals talk

Balaam wouldn’t listen to his donkey, who was trying to save him. In real life, animals can’t talk, and it’s hard for them to get our attention. They may try to let us know by their behavior. If a pet seems to dislike a new boyfriend, maybe he’s not the man you want.

Wild animals have behaviors too. If coyotes are coming to your neighborhood and eating pets, they are probably being driven out of their natural homes. Maybe we should help them protect their traditional spaces.

More often, wild animals just die. That’s all they can do to alert us to the angel of death we’re calling into being as we destroy their homes in search of wealth and growth. Are most of us even aware of the sharp declines in bird and bug populations over the last 50 years? Or do we ignore the quieting of bird songs and the absence of dead bugs on our windshields?

Learning to listen to the world

In Balaam’s story, God gave an animal the ability to speak, then opened Balaam’s eyes so he could see the angel of death. That doesn’t happen anymore. In modern life, though, we can open our eyes in other ways. We might learn to evaluate our path through therapy, or through a practice of meditation, prayer, or guided imagery. We might be on a good path but doing it wrong, or we might be better off changing direction, perhaps going back the way we came.

If the barriers are external, we might see the world more clearly if we get involved in a movement for change, because when we try to change the world, we can see how it reacts. That is why it’s so important, and rare, for people not to attach to their programs and preconceived ideas. We might have to change them.

Can we remain aware of what is happening and how people are responding, or will we, individually and collectively put our head down and keep beating our ass forward? We might get much better results when we learn to listen.

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The Human Costs of the Shutdown

Image for post

Image Dragos Gontariu www.instagram.com/dragosgontariu/

The lockdown that we have done in the world towards the COVID-19 pandemic is the worst assault on the working class in half a century.” Martin Kulldorff PhD

Since March, we have seen the COVID-19 shutdowns cutting back people’s lives, sinking folks into poverty and desperation. Whether or not these steps are necessary, here are some groups being ground down by these supposed public health measures.

Children

With schools in San Francisco going virtual, we’ve been helping neighbor children with distance learning. (See Zoom School is Like Regular School, Only Worse.) We have observed children cut off from playmates, crying, depressed. We see how their learning and social interaction suffer.

These children had been eating school lunches and, in some cases, breakfasts. That’s gone now; we’re feeding two of them, but what about the others? Some parents have been forced to stay home to care for children who would have been in school. Other parents’ service jobs have disappeared. Either way, people are losing income they need for food and rent.

Playgrounds are still closed where we live, so kids are getting stir-crazy and out of shape. We take them out for walks and bike rides when we can, but they miss those playgrounds for both the exercise and the social interaction.

Old people

Because of age and multiple sclerosis (MS), I now have friends in assisted living residences. I cannot visit my ex-girlfriend Josie; she’s in the old people’s protection program. Nobody can come in the facility, and she can’t leave. Immediate family can arrange a visit in the parking lot. For me, they offered a “window visit.”

A window visit means we would sit on opposite sides of a wall and talk with each other on our cell phones. I have visited people like this, but they were in prison. I’m not traveling an hour for that; it would be worse than not seeing her at all.

Josie says social life within the facility has also shut down. People used to eat in a communal dining room and sometimes had entertainment during dinner. They watched TV together. Now, everybody stays in their room. She’s lonely, but she’s not the only one.

My former MS support group co-leader Shirley now lives in a nursing home. It’s always been boring, but she did have weekly art classes and a twice-monthly poetry group. The residents actually create some nice stuff; Shirley has been exhibited at City Hall.

Now those programs have been stopped. The home is protecting residents from each other and from the staff, but they have made their lives smaller and meaner.

Some of these results are tragic — my neighbor Dolores was 100 years old when her son Robert decided he could no longer handle her care. She had fallen several times and had needed the fire department to get her back up.

Robert found her a really nice assisted living across the Bay. Dolores didn’t want to move from her home of 45 years, but she had no choice, and it seemed to meet her needs. A week later, though, the mayor declared that all senior facilities be locked down. Dolores could have no visitors, except window visits with her son, which were pretty useless because she was too deaf to talk on the phone.

The trauma of separation demented Dolores. She couldn’t understand why she could no longer see her family and friends. She died a few months later, still asking staff why she was there.

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Homelessness, the new normal

Families without income

For those who have forgotten, the USA is not a socialist country, and we’re proud of it. When other countries such as China and New Zealand closed their economies, they guaranteed that people would have food to eat, they would not be evicted, and their jobs would return. In those places, shutdown lasted a month or two, and people are recovering.

The USA hasn’t supported people in that way. They couldn’t, with our leaders’ commitment to neoliberal austerity and people’s focus on individual self-reliance and freedom. More people are becoming homeless, a problem that barely exists in much poorer countries like Iran and Palestine, according to residents of those countries I have talked to.

Housing advocates predict a coming “tsunami of evictions” in the wake of people losing their jobs. Eviction is not a small thing. Homelessness has major impact on physical and psychological health, including early death.

Businesses

We’ve seen longstanding businesses fold, while online stores like Amazon and big chains like Target make billions of dollars. People who have devoted their lives to building up a business have lost the thing that centered their lives and kept them going. Customers are limited to online shopping or Walmart/Costco/Target chains.

Cultural workers

I have some artist friends, people who used to perform in coffee houses, sing in churches, entertain at senior centers, act in shows. Now they’ve lost that work, and who knows when it will come back. Athletes can’t play their sports, and fans have no concerts or games to go to. Do we think culture so unimportant?

Effects on health and safety

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Food bank. Image: Joel Muniz instagram.com/infraredla

Everyone can see the mile-long lines at food banks. New food distribution sites keep opening up in San Francisco, and I hope elsewhere. I hope people keep volunteering at them and donating to them, but they still represent a great increase in poverty.

All of this is impacting health. Some of those who do have food tell us they are getting fat from being stuck inside with nothing to do but eat and watch bad news.

People are becoming more isolated. Religious meetings and political meetings have moved to Zoom, as have many colleges. We’re not just in home detention, we’re in solitary confinement. Aisha says she can see alarming health deterioration in the friends with whom she used to exercise, who are now staying home “to be safe.”

We are not safe, and all the masks and handwashing in the world won’t make us safe. People are getting desperate, and some turn to crime and drugs. We have noticed an increase in property crime and violent crime in our usually safe lower-middle class neighborhood. Is all this really helping people be healthy?

Fear factor

We don’t watch TV at home, but on a visit to our neighbor Linda’s apartment, Aisha saw something scary. Across the bottom of a cable news show, they were running a continuous crawl of numbers, like the stock price tickers you sometimes see on business news. Only, these numbers were reports of COVID cases and deaths, by states, cities, countries. They went on and on.

What possible news value could those numbers have? They’re not even entertaining. The only conceivable purpose is to scare people, and it seems to be working. Linda says she doesn’t want schools to reopen, because she’s afraid of catching COVID from a child.

Fear seems to be the point of the whole shutdown. The pandemic response is the mass production of poverty, a class war in disguise. Not only are workers losing livelihoods and the middle class losing their businesses, but whole countries are being sunk into endless debt, and we’re all too afraid to fight back.

As economies shrink, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has been giving struggling countries bailout loans. But according to Oxfam International, “76 of 91 IMF loans extended during the Covid-19 pandemic have suggested or demanded spending cuts that would worsen poverty and inequality. The result could be deep cuts to public healthcare and pensions; wage freezes and cuts for workers such as doctors and teachers; and reduced unemployment benefits like sick pay.”

So, for American old people, young people, service workers, cultural workers, and for poor countries, the shutdowns have been a disaster. Maybe not so much in countries like Korea that have less individualistic, better organized societies. I hope maybe COVID can be a stimulus to make the US a more co-operative country.

If we’re not going to do that, we should embrace the laissez-faire approach, encourage sensible precautions, but not keep pretending our halfway shutdown is doing any good. We should definitely start by giving everyone a substantial basic income (UBI) every month and eviction/foreclosure protection. That will at least keep people housed and fed.

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Talking Down to People Won’t Convince Them

How elitism cripples the Left

                           Elites in London Image: Ed Jackson georgiainfo.galileo.usg.edu

Insulting and shaming

How the Left became elite

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How the Left used to be (Image: peoplesworld.org)

More concerned with racism than health

The Right is not better, just different

 

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9 Good Questions About UBI – And one great answer

image: Diem25.org

Universal Basic Income (UBI) sounds a great idea in a time of mass unemployment. Though it will not come close to solving our economic, social, and environmental problems, it is a start. It might be a necessary stopgap to keep people and economy alive while we make deeper changes toward a better world.

There is still a lot of confusion about how UBI would work. Here are some valid questions about UBI, with some possible answers (and one great one) from experts like Andrew Yang and the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN):

1. Is UBI an addition to food-stamps, social security, Medicare, and welfare programs, or a replacement for them? 

According to 2020 Presidential candidate Yang, social security and social security disability (SSDI) would be in addition to UBI. Medicare wouldn’t change.

Other means-tested welfare programs like SSI, which goes to disabled poor people who haven’t worked much, and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP) could go either way. Some on the Right want to use UBI to replace existing welfare programs, which would mean a huge cut in income for many poor people.  Most advocates see it as an additional layer to strengthen the economy and reduce poverty. Cutting welfare would defeat the purpose. A lot will depend on how hard people fight to protect the neediest among us.

2. Will UBI change the power relationships in society?

This is a critical question. UBI is basically a way of saving capitalism from itself, as the New Deal did in the Great Depression. UBI puts a “floor under capitalism” as Yang puts it. It will support a basic level of demand to keep the economy from collapsing. It will not change the power dynamics that create mass poverty and environmental destruction in the first place.

UBI is a market approach; it allows people to decide what to do with their own money. This has advantages: people can start businesses, create, try new things. But social relationships will not change. There is another approach for that, a federal jobs guarantee (FJG). See Question 7.

3. Would the amount of UBI be fixed or adjustable? Who would administer it? 

According to the BIEN site basicincome.org, the payments would be regular and a stable amount. I think of it as social security for all — it would probably be best run by the social security administration, not controlled by whatever party happens to be in power. Changes in the payment amount would have to be agreed by elected officials, as happens now with Social Security.

4. Will immigrants, documented and undocumented get UBI?

 Unquestionably, UBI would attract immigrants, unless it were implemented in other countries as well, which it ideally will be. Under Yang’s plan, only citizens would receive UBI payments. Others say legal immigrants should receive UBI, perhaps after a waiting period.

5. Will amounts vary depending on different locales’ cost of living?

 Probably not. Under Yang’s plan, “Every eligible UBI recipient, regardless of location, would receive $1,000 a month. Varying the dollar amount by location would add expensive layers of bureaucracy. Plus, UBI would actually help many more Americans live where they want to. UBI would lead to a revitalization of many communities as people take advantage of lower costs of living in certain areas instead of piling into expensive metro areas.”

UBI working groups

6. What’s the evidence that UBI works?

 Studies from all over the world have shown that even small basic income stipends lead to better health, mental health, reduced crime, more jobs, and new businesses. The BIEN site posts hundreds of studies and papers from around the world and within the USA. I saw studies on their site from Kenya, Finland, Scotland, Germany, Canada, China, Taiwan, and others.

7. Wouldn’t free money corrupt people, lead to more laziness and drug use? 

Those moralistic objections have been repeatedly disproved by studies. Unhealthy behaviors are actually reduced when people have more money. Think about it: when life seems too hard or too hopeless, aren’t you tempted to use drugs that make you feel better? Or if you’re broke, tempted go out and steal what you need? Having more money can improve social behavior, especially when it comes reliably every month.

8. How will we pay for it?

 Andrew Yang wants to fund UBI through a value added tax (VAT) on every phase of a product’s production. Paying for UBI in this way would prevent money from losing its value, because no additional money would be added to the system to pay for UBI. It would just be redistributed. VAT itself would cause some prices to rise, but not too much because of competition among producers.

Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) says we don’t need to pay for UBI through taxes. We just create the money and give it out. As long as total money in circulation matches up with goods and services to be bought, there won’t be price inflation. But this article from Canada explains why MMT economists mostly don’t support UBI; they prefer more government intervention in the economy, like through a jobs program. (BTW, Read That Article. It explains everything.)-

9. Is UBI better than a jobs program? 

As Senator Bernie Sanders says, people want to work, and much work needs to be done. UBI doesn’t teach anyone job skills or life skills, or connect them with other people, like a jobs program might. It won’t get important environmental and social needs met. “The only advantage to UBI over a federal jobs guarantee (FJG),” wrote Medium reader Charlie Silva, “is simplicity.”

Mr. Silva may be right, but simplicity is a big deal. People are desperate now. We’re in the beginning of the greatest Depression ever, and an effective jobs program will take years to roll out. Why is this either/or? Why not start UBI now, and phase in a jobs program as it’s developed?

Where UBI supports capitalism and strengthens markets, an FJG is more socialist, because governments would decide what jobs would be available. Both are good. We’ve seen the power of capitalism to create enormous wealth, and we’ve also seen too much of the environmental harm and social suffering that unlimited capitalist growth can bring.

We need UBI and an FJG. We need a mixed economy and a mixed social order. Start with UBI now; work toward an FJG.

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Zoom School Is Like Regular School – Only Worse

Because of the COVID-19 shutdown in San Francisco, I’m learning to be a school parent again, and I hate it. A neighbor family in our building has four children distance learning, too many for their apartment, so two of them are taking classes in our apartment.

Not our Jasmine

One, Jasmine, is in kindergarten, and I sit with her during Zoom sessions and help her use the other platforms. Jasmine is a high-energy kid, smart and strong, but with some learning glitches. Here is what I have learned:

The first thing kids have to learn in school is to sit still

Keep watching the teacher, even when you already know the material, aren’t interested, or are bored. School prepares children for work life by teaching them to tolerate boredom.

Although the children are encouraged at times to draw pictures, nearly all the content is letters and numbers. I know kids need to learn to read, but some younger ones like Jasmine aren’t ready. She wants to understand the meaning of words but finds letters irrelevant. Because she’s an artist, she goes along and tries to make her letter “b”s as perfect as possible, but resists doing line after line of them like the teacher wants.

Children’s comfort doesn’t matter

Jasmine’s 11-year old sister Shauna sleeps poorly and is tired in her morning classes. A couple times she has tried to lie down with her computer during class. The teacher saw her, called her disrespectful, and told her to sit up or leave. Of course, her behavior would be too disruptive in a classroom, but at home, why not?

Distance learning sucks

For most kids, online learning is way worse than in-person. Jasmine loves other children and used to be excited to go to preschool to play with them. Without social contact to engage students like her, it’s up to the teacher to keep 23 children entertained and engaged, and it’s too much. Most kids and parents seem frustrated and bored, and teacher looks exhausted and stressed.

I’ve talked with a few other teachers at middle school level, and they are all struggling with learning and different ways of teaching. Older teachers can barely use them at all; younger ones do better, but they all hate it. Seeing students only on a screen, it becomes much harder for a teacher to identify when a child is floundering and to give them 1:1 attention when needed.

The tech industry and its political representatives such as Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York have been , but it doesn’t work very well. All the education in virtual classrooms is top-down; the students have little opportunity to learn from each other. Shauna’s sixth-grade classes include breakout sessions where students can talk, but mostly they just listen. They don’t see each other between classes.

For parents, grandparents and surrogates like me, virtual classes are time-consuming and tiring. We have to try to keep kids focused, when most of us would be working, keeping house, learning, or doing for ourselves. I realize older students might not need as much supervision, but many families can’t afford to give hours of school-time attention to little kids. School has been day care for them and socialization (and sometimes meals) for their children.

Update — this is worse than I thought

Today, Monday, was the worst yet. When Shauna came over, she was crying, because she desperately didn’t want to come. She’s exhausted by 7 hours of class online each day. She managed to break her computer by dropping it, which really says to me, ‘I don’t want to be here.’ Where she was a straight A student before shutdown, she’s failing half her classes now. She struggles with the technology and with organizing her work.

I remember when I got a bachelor’s degree at age 48 from State University of New York online. I noticed that nobody under the age of 40 finished the program. Younger students had too much else to do or weren’t organized enough. So, the idea that children could manage virtual learning seems ridiculous. After four weeks, my wife and I believe that most younger students would need 1:1 all-day help from an adult to succeed.

I also think closing schools isn’t mostly about public health. Very few kids get COVID-19, and of those who do, very few need hospitalization. This feels like part of a longstanding agenda to cripple public education, a long-term goal of the right wing and tech sectors. This shutdown is like a war on kids (and through them, on parents.)

Kids need to move

Kids are physical and need to move. Most schools, real or virtual, do not include nearly enough movement. I have read that schools that ed hours have lower suspension rates, better academic performance, and less problem with fights.

Jasmine’s kindergarten includes five minutes of dance each hour, and we let Shauna and Jasmine jump on a trampoline between classes, which seems to help. Sometimes my wife shuts down the computer and takes Jasmine on a long walk or bike ride.

We need social contact

Virtual school has also revealed how important social contact is in learning and development, and probably in the rest of life. Kids live in a physical reality, of which other people are the primary part. Our tech overlords’ dream of a virtual world does not fit their needs.

I recognize that some children are bullied at school and actually prefer learning by themselves from home. Perhaps virtual school might be an option for those children, but in my opinion, not for most.

Likewise, outside of school, the maximum separation of people from each other during Corona shutdown does not fit who we are. It doesn’t serve anyone’s health or quality of life. People can zone out in front of screens to get through a day, but for happiness and growth, we need social connection.

My takeaways so far, and it’s only been a few weeks, are these: the school shutdown needs to stop ASAP; it’s hurting a whole generation. And schools need to become less rigid, places where children can learn the wonder of the world, move around, connect with each other, not just memorize things and tolerate boredom.

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The Blessings of Capitalism — and How they’re killing us

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Last week, I went to Costco, the warehouse retail store. I wasn’t there to buy anything, just filling a prescription. While waiting, I went up and down the aisles, lined with 20-foot high floor-to-ceiling shelving, filled with food, clothing, electronics, personal care, and hundreds of other products.

I was awed by the wealth on display. Shoppers could choose from exotic packaged foods in huge bags (seaweed tempura snacks! Frozen shrimp skewers!), huge bottles of delicious sounding condiments (eight kinds of relish!), 10-pound racks of meat, organic fruits and vegetables, baked goods, clothing from functional to fashionable, computers, camping equipment, four kinds of charcoal, vitamins, chocolates, and a thousand other enticing items.

The shoppers did not appear wealthy. They were ordinary people, buying high-quality stuff that royal families of the past could never have bought, because they didn’t exist. And this was just one store. As of October 2019, there were 782 Costco stores worldwide, 537 of them in the USA, along with thousands of Walmarts, Targets, and other mega-retailers. Where, I wondered, has all this wealth come from?

We could name many sources, but the best answer is: capitalism produced this wealth. Capitalism is much more than the economic system analyzed by Karl Marx in the 19th Century, meaning private ownership of the means of production. It’s a philosophy, a way of life, of looking at the world and ordering societies around private property, competitive markets, and money.

No other way of life ever devised by humans has created so much wealth. Harnessing the problem-solving power of science and technology, liberating the creative energies of entrepreneurs and inventors, scouring the natural world to extract ‘resources,’ driving the labor of working people, capitalism creates a new and richer world every year. In 2020, we have far more people, living longer lives, with more stuff and more entertainment than anyone could have imagined on planet Earth.

How does capitalism create all this wealth? Mainly by turning money into a God-like force that drives human activity. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF,) capitalism comes in many forms, but all of them mold society to center human interaction on core principles including: accumulation of wealth, private property, competition, constant progress, and reliance on markets to make economic decisions. Based on what we can see at Costco, it works, but the natural world, which has no money, is left out of that evaluation.

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                                               (Image/Counter-currents.com)

Capitalism’s core principles are not universal or scientific. They are cultural and philosophical. Max Weber wrote 115 years ago, in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, that the belief system of European Protestantism became the core beliefs of modern Western capitalist cultures. People are sinful. Work is good. More is better. Wealth is a sign of God’s favor.

It’s not conservative, it’s not liberal; it’s a religion. A Costco store is a capitalist temple. The shelves are altars; the checkout lines are our communion. It’s not exactly that money has replaced God. The religion of wealth fits right into modern faith, as we can see in the popularity of the Prosperity Gospel, one of the largest evangelical Christian movements. Secular or religious, everyone can worship at Costco.

Religion or death cult

But, there’s a slight downside to this religion. Unrestrained capitalism kills everything. Not by its occasional breakdowns into war and depressions, but through its daily successes. When acquiring wealth becomes the greatest good, the profit motive drives decision-making. Other values are ignored and often subverted if they interfere with accumulation of wealth.

Those ignored values include community, health, and beauty, and all who have no wealth: the air, the water, plants and animals, indigenous people, and workers. Every tree on the hill, every fish in the sea is expendable. Blogger Adam Idek Hastie wrote, “When you understand that under capitalism, a forest has no value until it’s cut down, you begin to see the root of our ecological crisis.”

The wealth on display at Costco was produced at great cost to Nature. Looking at the world’s depletion of water, extinction of species, rising temperatures, spreading deserts, we can see the costs not calculated in capitalism’s equations.

People ignore those costs, because believing that wealth is the greatest good is the mental box in which we all grow up. It’s the water we swim in, the air we breathe; few can break out of it. It’s a box that prevents even basic self-preservation for those who live in it.

In 1977, according to a report in Scientific American, Exxon corporation knew about the dangers of global warming, now usually called climate change. They actually did much of the research themselves. Exxon leaders chose not to prevent global warming but to hide it, so they could keep selling oil, a major cause of climate change.

Their disinformation campaign worked. To this day, even as the planet literally burns, millions of people think global warming is a hoax, thanks to the oil companies’ propaganda.

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                                          California on fire (Image/yahoo.news)

People frequently compare Big Oil’s coverup to the cigarette companies’ denying the cancer-causing dangers of tobacco smoke, which kills hundreds of thousands every year. But big tobacco’s victims are only its customers. One hates to see them go, but one can always get more. Big oil’s victims include their own children and grandchildren. It staggers me that people could value profit over their own family, but their behavior shows us the powerful hold the religion of capitalism has on our minds.

It’s not only oil companies; it’s the whole system. Mining companies routinely displace indigenous people, excavate and pollute land and water in search of profitable minerals. Rainforests are logged for expensive timber; they are converted into coconut plantations to produce palm oil, they are burned to make room for cattle ranching. The people and animals who live there die or move into urban slums. Some of those forest-killing companies’ products can be bought at Costco.

It’s not that oilmen, mining executives, and rainforest loggers are evil people. Well, maybe some are, but no more than the average successful person raised inside the capitalist box, where wealth is the ultimate good. They can’t think outside it. And if they can see a bigger picture, they quit and are replaced by others who can’t. That’s why it’s called a system.

Are capitalism’s values our values?

Capitalism claims accumulation of wealth, competition, and private ownership of property as core principles. What’s wrong with these values? Aren’t they natural human desires?

They must be natural, or there would be no capitalists, but they are not our only values or our best ones. Most people also value community, Nature, peace, and the future of their children. We care about others and don’t want mass homelessness, incarceration, and war. We don’t want to live on a desert planet.

So, we are torn. As consumers, we benefit materially from capital’s endless progress, with its new products, its convenience and lower prices. As workers, as human beings and living things, we suffer. We can see that unrestrained capitalism is deadly, but what about the wonderful benefits it provides? Can we get the blessings without the curse?

People are working on it. Books are being written. Indigenous people have been trying to teach industrial societies to consider the impact of all our actions on all of life.

To move away from rule by wealth would require profound change in the way we are governed and the ways we live. Several forms of democratic socialism might be improvements. Cooperatives like Mondragon in the Basque region continue to thrive without capitalism. Perhaps we can attain what James Hurd Nixon calls a True Market Economy, which values all people and Nature, not only material wealth.

At least, we can strive to embody such a path in our personal lives.

Two links to alternatives to capitalism:

The Mondragon Cooperative Movement in Spain. Though they have now incorporated for tax purposes, they still commit to workers, environment, social https://www.mondragon-corporation.com/en/about-us/

Forms of capitalism trying to be sustainable — https://www.planetaryphilosophy.com/philosophy/philosophy-of-capitalism/new-way-of-doing-business/


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Science Is A 4-Year Old Playing With The World

It needs adults to set limits.

Image courtesy: the conversation.com

John von Neumann (1903-1957) was one of history’s greatest mathematicians.  His equations helped create both computers and the atomic bomb. He is known as the prime developer of game theory, giving scientists new tools to model social, political, and economic decisions. He published over 150 papers in physics, math, and other areas.

Von Neumann also spent years working to get the USA to launch a ‘preventive war’ against the Soviet Union, to destroy it with nuclear bombs. Based on his study of games like Prisoners’ Dilemma, which models how non-cooperating people make choices, Von Neumann concluded that if two enemy countries both had nuclear weapons, self-interest would drive each of them to use those weapons first. He thought the only scientific, rational thing to do would be to take out the USSR before they had nukes of their own.

This is the kind of thing science comes up with if not restrained by non-scientific thinking or by faith.  Von Neumann described himself as “fiercely anti-Communist,” but didn’t seem to consider how that belief system might affect his thinking. He thought he was advising what was objectively best for the USA. But if nuclear winter theory – which didn’t exist at the time — is correct, the smoke, dust, and radioactivity set off by Von Neumann’s preventive war would have killed all large life-forms on Earth.

Fortunately, Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower refused to launch the preventive war. A few years later, both the US and USSR had developed ‘second strike capability,’ meaning that even if their enemy destroyed their country, they would still have enough remaining nuclear firepower to destroy the aggressor.  This is the strategy called “Mutually Assured Destruction,” and it has prevented all-out war between nuclear powers ever since. Politicians, and not particularly brilliant ones at that, had saved the world from science.

Science does worst when it does well

It’s hard to deny that science, technology, and capitalism have dramatically raised humans’ living standards. Human population has gone up from about 0.6 billion in the year 1600 (when science started) to over 7 billion today. People are living longer; they’re traveling, expressing themselves in amazingly creative ways.  Rulers still start wars and impoverish billions of people, but decade by decade, violent deaths decrease and the numbers not living in poverty increase.

But for the natural world, of which we are a part, the cost of those advances has been enormous, incalculable. Continents have burned; at least half of the Great Barrier Reef has died, according to Australian researchers. Numbers of birds, insects, and other wildlife are down by at least a third, and about 1000 species become extinct each year, according to Lifegate.com.  The world is getting hotter and hotter, and there is no known way out of that lethal temperature rise.

                               Air pollution EU’s #1 health hazard   Image:  dw.com

Capitalism’s need for growth and profit may be the force driving the world over a cliff, but science designed the train. As one of 10,000 examples, 19th Century British scientists discovered how to get gold from dirt by pouring poisonous cyanide solution over it. Using this ‘cyanide heap leaching’ method, mining corporations pile up mountains of dirt, derive a tiny amount of gold from it, and leave behind a poisoned landscape and polluted rivers. The people who live there suffer or move away, and the corporation pays a nice dividend to shareholders.

Absent the power of racial capitalism to run the world, this process would not be happening so widely. But it wouldn’t exist at all if chemists and geologists hadn’t invented it.

Making science work for all of us

When indigenous cultures ran the world, mining in general was extremely limited. Not because they scientifically calculated the environmental costs of mining, but because they worshipped the Earth and thought mining an assault on their Mother.  They thought the veins of metals that explorers sought to dig up were the literal veins of Earth, and without them, Nature was crippled and unable to provide as it had before.

But those beliefs weren’t scientific. They were pagan religion which capitalist believers in science thought meaningless.  And, though they were right about the effects of mining, the people who held those beliefs had no power against the capitalists’ guns.  So, the veins got dug out and the land poisoned. Now they’ve gone beyond the veins to mine the whole Earth.  Von Neumann would have been pleased.

My point isn’t to get rid of science or subordinate it to religion. But science is only beneficial when wise people look at the bigger picture beyond knowledge for its own sake, beyond profit or the solution to an immediate problem. The internal combustion engine, which powers most cars and buses, was a brilliant idea, but anyone could see it dirtied the air. So, wiser people might have asked, ‘What will 1,300,000,000 (the current number of cars driving in the world) of these things do to the plants, the animals, our health? Maybe we shouldn’t do this.’

But capitalism doesn’t ask those questions. Corporations see potential profits and they go for them, and anyone in the way is likely to be pushed out or destroyed. When the environmental bills come due, society and Nature, not the capitalists, have to pay them.

So, if scientists, capitalists, and corrupt politicians won’t ask of science, ‘Is this something we should be doing’, who will ask? We’ll need science to have a chance of surviving as a species on a living planet, but what kind of science?

We need people of wisdom to outrank the smart people. Scientists need adults in the room to set limits on their boundless desire for knowledge. We need philosophers and faith leaders, especially indigenous leaders, to make decisions about what to do with scientific advances, technological development and capitalist expansion.

At a time when indigenous people can’t even control what is done to their own land by capitalist science, it’s hard to imagine their having control over science and technology in general. But maybe other non-scientists such as religious leaders could join them. Maybe scientists themselves could come to endorse caution. That’s the kind of revolution we need if humanity and Earth are to survive. Science, yes, but in the service of wisdom.

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Jonah in the 21st Century

Shows us our possibilities today

Jonah in Nineveh

If the Book of Jonah were not over 2500 years old, I would think the author wrote it on an LSD trip. But despite its age, bizarre events and extreme brevity – only 1200 words – Jonah teaches lessons still relevant, maybe crucial today.

Religious teachers usually boil Jonah’s message down to, ‘Just do what God tells you,’ but, as with other Bible stories, you don’t have to believe in God to learn from this book. You can see the whole book as metaphor and still get the point.  Here are three other powerful themes in Jonah, chosen because they hit me personally in this crisis time. Maybe later I’ll write about the whale.

  1. Do what you are called to do, which may not be what you like to do. If you have a calling, a reason for being on Earth, a quest that your heart wants, don’t shy away. The world needs your gifts and your service; holding back isn’t helping anybody.

Jonah was at home in Israel, just chilling, when God told him, “Arise. Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim judgment upon it; for their wickedness has come before Me.” (Jonah 1:2)

But that was a huge ask. Nineveh (near what is now Baghdad) would have been a trip of over 500 miles, requiring a month’s journey, risking death by bandits the whole way. Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, was the biggest, most powerful city in the world at the time, an enemy of Israel, and Jonah didn’t even speak their language.

Quests are often intimidating; whether it’s starting a new career or stopping police violence, or most other things worth doing. They may be difficult; they may be uncomfortable or dangerous. They may require daunting amounts of work for long periods of time, with low probabilities of success.

Your calling may even appear impossible, but if you run away from it, it will torment you for life. In Jonah’s case, he ran the opposite direction and got on a boat headed to the farthest reaches of the world.  It didn’t help; God created a huge storm that threatened to sink the ship – another metaphor –so that the sailors had to throw Jonah overboard to save themselves. Refusing his calling almost cost him his life.

  1. Impossible things can happen – Jonah survived the sea thanks to a giant fish, and he learned his lesson. When God told him again to go to Nineveh, he went.

Now, preaching to the Ninevites was not likely to have much effect. Of the 16 prophets named in the Hebrew Bible, none of them succeeded in getting people to change their bad habits. That’s 0 out of 16, and Jonah had the added handicap of being a foreigner with language problems. What were the chances the 120,000 residents of the richest city in the world would listen to him?

Jonah kept it simple. His only words recorded in the book are: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4)

But to Jonah’s surprise, the Ninevites believed him. “They proclaimed a fast, and great and small alike put on sackcloth” (Jonah 3:5). Then a miracle happened. The king heard about Jonah and declared that all of Nineveh, even the animals, should fast and wear sackcloth and ashes, and cry out to God for mercy. The whole city repented, and God relented. Jonah succeeded where all the other Bible prophets failed.

Are we in Nineveh yet?

When we look at the enormous challenges involved in transforming our cruel, corrupt, environmentally-destructive modern societies into loving, sustainable ones, Nineveh’s transformation is a source of hope. As philosopher Charles Eisenstein, author of The Ascent of Humanity said in this TED talk, looked at objectively, it’s almost impossible to imagine society changing so dramatically. From a scientific point of view, it’s hard to see how we’ll be able to stop global warming.

There may be no way it could happen, but perhaps it will happen anyway. It happened in Nineveh. As jazz great Sun Ra said, “Everything possible has been tried and failed. Now it’s time to try the impossible.”

Sun Ra image sunra.com

  1. The Ninevites are just like you. The MAGA -hat wearers are just like me. When Jonah leaves Nineveh, its walls still standing, with its people reformed and alive, he is not happy with his amazing accomplishment. He’s angry that God didn’t follow through on his threat to destroy the city. God has to show him that the Ninevites are people, too.

Just as God forgave Jonah for his disobedience and sent the fish to rescue him, they – (I don’t know God’s preferred pronouns, so I’m going with they/them) — would forgive the Ninevites, and Jonah would have to accept it.

In his song The Ninevites songwriter Will Fudeman illustrates the problems with Jonah’s typically human desire to feel superior to the people he seeks to change. If we start out with the belief that we are better, smarter, or more enlightened than those with whom we disagree, we will not change anyone or come to peace with them.

If we do not realize that to change the world or change other people, we also have to change ourselves, we will not be effective. We might make things worse. By making people feel attacked or disrespected, we may drive them away from our perspective.

What does Jonah have to say in the 21st Century? How about this: take on the world’s need that calls you, no matter how hard it is. At least you’ll have an adventure. And who knows, seeming miracles do happen.  Maybe they will happen for us, if we learn to treat everyone as if they were people like us.

 

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