Grateful for Mistakes

“What seems to be a mistake in our lives may actually be a step forward that leads to the Great Way, though we had no way of recognizing that at the time” Stephen Mitchell

This is the most personal healing story I have ever told, and I’m still figuring out what it means. Maybe you can help me understand.

TMI Warning — because these events involve hospitalization and disability, I’ve had to include too much info about body functions and situations you might find unpleasant, and certainly won’t make you want to date me. (If you were thinking about that, you might want to skip those sections.) As often happens in stories, however, the bad stuff makes the positive conclusions more powerful. I’ll put a ᵗ ᵐ ᶦ signal when we’re coming to those parts.

So, you may know I’ve been living with multiple sclerosis (MS) for 40 years, and I’m pretty thoroughly disabled. For one thing, ᵗ ᵐ ᶦ my bladder function is completely shot and I rely on catheterizing myself four or five times a day to empty urine. This process is time-consuming, but not as bad as it sounds. I can live with the inconvenience, but two and a half years ago I started a long series of urinary tract infections (UTIs), a common complication of catheter use.

When you’re old, and your bladder is not working, UTIs feel very different than they do in a young healthy person. There’s not a lot of pain or having to pee all the time. Instead, I simply become very weak and start running an elevated temperature. These temps completely knock me out. I can’t sit up; I can’t handle a cell phone; I’m pretty much paralyzed.

This is dangerous, because the infection might move into my kidneys, from where it could go into the blood and be fatal, or at least require an ambulance ride to a long hospitalization. But at the beginning, the UTIs weren’t hard to treat. I would just get some antibiotic pills and be better in a day, and back to normal in two days. As usually happens with chronic infections though, the pills stopped working. The germs get used to them; you need stronger and stronger antibiotics.

Since I was averaging close to a UTI a month, I was rapidly running out of antibiotics to use. Twice, the temperatures came on me while I was out on my mobility scooter and I became too weak to sit up and needed ambulance rides to Kaiser Emergency Room. They would give me intravenous antibiotics, a liter of IV fluid, medicine to bring the temperature down, and I would go home with oral antibiotics, usually the more expensive, newer medicines to which the germs hadn’t yet developed resistance.

The frustrating thing was not being able to figure out where the infections were coming from. As a nurse, I know about antiseptic technique, and I was doing my best within my limitations. I would wash my hands in the sink, then transfer from my scooter to the toilet seat (out of reach of the sink,) wash hands again with rubbing alcohol, and make sure the catheter didn’t touch anything on the way in. I didn’t know what else I could do. I despaired of getting better.

Whether from the infections or the medications, I also felt weak all the time, long after a particular UTI resolved. Even on a healthy day, I was usually only up four hours at a time, in bed 12 hours or more. I never felt good. I started to think, ‘Life isn’t so great. I still like it, but it’s becoming too much trouble.’ Not that I was considering suicide, but I did feel life could stop any time, and it would be OK with me.

                                                        Carnaval SF — good things happen

Then last Memorial Day weekend, I got another UTI after a long, beautiful day at Carnaval SF. I was too weak to stand or transfer, having chills, so I asked my son Mathias to take me to ER. This is when things started to change.

It started as the typical ER experience, fluids, IV antibiotics, Tylenol, and I was feeling better. The doctors said I should stay overnight for safety, but they always say that, and I always say, “No, I’d rather be home.” This time, though, my wife Aisha said, “Maybe you should stay,” and I thought, ‘OK, I haven’t stayed in a hospital in 60 years, maybe it will be interesting. At least I can get another dose of IV medicine.” So I signed in.

Huge mistake. It became the most miserable night of my adult life. ᵗ ᵐ ᶦ For one thing, I had to pee all the time. They had put in an indwelling Foley catheter for urinary drainage, but it kept falling out. Foleys seem to have changed since I was a nurse, and for whatever reason, these would not stay in. I was wetting myself and in pain continuously.

If that wasn’t bad enough, ᵗ ᵐ ᶦ I also needed badly to move my bowels. When I asked them for a bedside commode, the nurses refused. They were very concerned about patient falls; there were “Call, Don’t Fall” signs on walls, and staff kept saying “Use the bedpan; it’s safer.” Problem was, I had never used a bedpan and I didn’t feel comfortable with it and couldn’t poop on it. Finally, I insisted on a commode, and they reluctantly got me one. All in all, they had to clean me up three times in one night.

“Torture” would be too strong a term for what I was going through, but “suffering’ would be a perfectly apt description. The worst thing was that, when I asked when my next antibiotic was due, I was told “4:00 tomorrow afternoon.” I was shocked. ‘You mean I’m here suffering like this, and I’m not even getting any medicine for another 16 hours? I could be home in my own bed! Why am I here?”

The rest of the night and next morning, I kept asking myself and the staff, ‘Why am I here?’ I was angry with the doctors for talking me into the hospital, angry with myself for going along with it, beating myself up, adding to my suffering. How could I have been so stupid? Why did I forget the principles I’ve worked, lived by and written about for decades, that hospitals are dangerous and self-care is best?

I knew asking ‘Why’ wasn’t helping me. Worrying about why when you can’t change a situation just makes it worse, as the Buddha taught 2,500 years ago. But I wasn’t feeling the Buddha at that point. I was miserable. “Why am I here” and “This is a terrible mistake” became my mantras.

In the morning, a physical therapist came to see me. One of the docs must have ordered it, though I don’t know why — my admission had nothing to do with what physical therapists do. The PT, a tall good-looking guy named Sean, gave me some tips on my exercise program, which were nice, but certainly not worth the hell I had been going through. Then he said, “maybe we should send a therapist out for a home visit.”

This suggestion changed my life. I actually hadn’t known PTs did home visits. I said OK, and a few hours later I got my second med dose and escaped hospital. The next day, a young PT named Erin called to set up a visit. She came the following day and started going through the apartment with me, asking “How do you this?” and “Show me how do you do that.” Everything from working at my desk to cooking to getting into and out of bed, Erin had ideas for doing it better. Then we came to the bathroom.

Erin watched as I transferred from my mobility scooter to the toilet seat. She asked, “Is this where you cath?” I said yes; it certainly seemed like a normal and convenient place to do it. She said, “That could be a problem. You wash your hands, but then you put them on the toilet seat to transfer, and then again if you need to adjust your position. You could be contaminating your hands, leading to infection.”

“And,” she said, “we have equipment for that.” Suddenly, I felt a thrill of hope. I had thought of the ᵗ ᵐ ᶦ toilet seat problem before, but had not pursued it because I saw no solution. But that same afternoon, Erin ordered me a commode chair with arm rests, so I never have to touch the seat. It’s a drag, because it means peeing in my bedroom, but it works.

In the eight months since that hospital admission, I have had only one mild UTI, instead of a severe one each month as I had been having. I have my energy back; I’m getting a lot more done. I’m starting a tutoring business. I can imagine continuing to live for a while.

All those hours in the hospital wondering why I was there, and I got no answer. Then, two days later, I found out why I had been there. Couldn’t this be true of other situations in our lives? We may think we’ve made terrible, inexcusable mistakes, but as the great translator of spiritual works Stephen Mitchell says, those mistakes could be vital steps on our path to wholeness.

                                                      Lost Lake, found after a wrong turn

How often do your missteps turn into good things? Mine sometimes do. Like, you take the wrong bus and run into an old friend or a future business contact. Take a wrong road and come across a beautiful or interesting sight that makes your day. Lose something, and the person who finds and returns it becomes a friend. Screw up at work you hate, get fired, and find a much better position in life. Agree to an unnecessary hospital admission, and find Erin.

Now, I’m thinking back over other times and decisions in my life I perceive as mistakes, to see the gifts and growth they may have brought, as well as ways to do better next time. I’m trying new things. I encourage you to join me.

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”Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.” –

About four years ago in San Francisco, we had a series of amazingly beautiful sunsets, possibly because of a wildfire 100 miles away.  Deep purples and golds, with sheets of red and fluffy white clouds, they were artworks no human artist could have matched, if only because of their immense scale. They made all the other sunsets I have seen pale into niceness. One evening, while sitting in my wheelchair on a street corner, enthralled by this sky scene, I noticed that nobody else was paying attention. They were hurrying by; some looking at devices, some just walking fast, missing this absolutely free gorgeous show.  It was puzzling.

Finally, I stopped a guy walking by and, pointing to the sunset, said “Look!” He did stop, perhaps because of the novelty of being stopped, and looked at the sky for about 15 seconds, said, “Yeah, that’s nice. Thanks” and kept going. I stopped a couple of other people, and the first man’s 15-second gaze held up as the longest of any of them. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, they weren’t beholding anything. So for them, the beauty didn’t exist.

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is a deeper saying than it appears.  Dictionaries of idioms say it means that perceptions of beauty vary from person to person.  The saying is usually accompanied by a shrug, similar to “There’s no accounting for taste.”  But there’s another way to look at it.  Without our beholding it, beauty may not exist at all.

Remember the most beautiful full moonrise you have ever seen.  Now imagine that same moonrise, but with nobody to see it.  No humans, no animals to observe the brilliant ball rising from the depths of space.  Maybe the planet is uninhabited; maybe everybody’s busy watching their screens, but nobody beholds. Would it still be beautiful? Wouldn’t it just be one rock circling around another rock? Beholding is a crucial contribution to the creation of beauty.

The same is true of nonvisual beauty. Is music beautiful if no one hears it? Not necessarily human hearers – animals love music, too – but what good is unheard music? Or writing – a question with which I’m quite familiar – what good is writing if nobody reads it?  The writing process might be healing for the author, but what happens to the beauty in it? Wouldn’t it just be ink squiggles on a page?

I’m pushing two ideas here: the first is Behold! Notice the beauty in the world; let it enrich you. That way, you may pass the beauty on to others by your presence or your actions, or by recommending a work to someone else.

The second is for creators: Find your audience. You can’t please everyone, so make your work count for those who can appreciate it. It doesn’t have to be a huge audience, but someone! Finding your audience is part of creating. It’s not the fun part, but it is rewarding for the artist, because we can see the beauty coming back to us in the audience’s reaction.

And notice the importance of you and of us, the beholders of the world. Without our beholding, there literally would be no beauty, so let’s pay attention!


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Can Class Solidarity Beat Racial Division?

Fred Hampton (1948–1969)

What could make an activist so dangerous that the FBI would need to assassinate him in his sleep at the age of 21? That’s what happened to Fred Hampton of the Chicago Black Panther Party in 1969. What could make a singer such a threat that the US government would deny him the right to travel or perform? That’s what they did to the singer/scholar/athlete/actor Paul Robeson.

Paul Robeson

What made these men so dangerous? They were able to unite people of different races and ethnicities on the basis of class, the unity our rulers fear more than anything else. When 0.1% of the people control everything, while maybe 20% prosper, and the rest struggle to survive, the rulers’ power absolutely depends on keeping people divided. They’re happy with racial conflict; they know they can win that by turning people against each other, but in a class war they would be overwhelmed. So, they work full time on both the Left and Right to keep the subject focused on race.

Hampton and Robeson powerfully challenged that narrative, and people listened. Hampton said in 1968, “The Panthers’ struggle is primarily about class. We’re not going to fight racism with racism. We fight racism with solidarity. We don’t fight capitalism with Black capitalism; we fight capitalism with socialism.”

As a leader of an armed revolutionary group, Hampton got the attention of young people in Black, Latino, Native, and White communities. He pulled together (at the age of 19!) the Rainbow Coalition of Revolutionary Solidarity, uniting the Panthers with the Puerto Rican Young Lords and the Appalachian Young Patriots organizations. They worked to end gang violence, which they believed the city government promoted to gain support for law enforcement.

Similarly, Robeson uplifted the cause of workers in England, Ireland, Africa, and the US. On more than one occasion, he won White worker support for Black workers’ fights against racism. He once wrote, “my people are not the only ones oppressed…Whether people weave, build, pick cotton, or dig in the mine, they understand each other in the common language of work, suffering and protest…The problem of the Negro people is generally a problem of working people.” People listened to his powerful presence and his truthful ideas. That is why he had to be suppressed.

Is anybody talking like Robeson and Hampton now? In a world where corporate media makes politics all about race, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, and age, can working class solidarity overcome these divisions and win? Some, including Bernie Sanders’ supporters, think it can. In an article December 10 in the New York Times, Professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, author of From #Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation, details the broad and deep support Senator Sanders has from Black, Latino, and White workers. “He has tapped into the anger,” she writes, “and bitterness coursing through the lives of regular people who have found it increasingly impossible to make ends meet in this grossly unequal society. Without cynicism or the typical racist explanations that blame African-Americans and Latino immigrants for their own financial hardship, Mr. Sanders blames capitalism.”

Maybe comparing this old white guy with Hampton or Robeson is too much. Obviously, Sanders hasn’t shown the physical courage or had the core personal experience of oppression that those heroic Black leaders had. He is not a revolutionary; he is a reformer who relies on electoral politics. But where he does resemble Robeson and Hampton is his ability to unite the multiracial working class. According to Taylor, “the Sanders campaign has transformed into a tribune of the oppressed and marginalized, a powerful platform to amplify the experiences of this multiracial contingent.”

Here’s a fact that we should not ignore. Sanders is the top recipient for donations by teachers, farmers, servers, social workers, retail workers, construction workers, truckers, nurses and drivers. His donors’ most common employers are Starbucks, Amazon and Walmart. Think about that. This is the base for working-class power; it also overlaps Trump’s base.

No wonder the rulers are scared and using all their identity tricks to discredit Sanders. They say his campaign is too White, too male, too Anglo, while the data shows he has the strongest support among Latinos and younger African Americans of any candidate. Talented young people of color are running his campaign. Women of color are his most prominent representatives.

He also has strong rank-and-file military support. According to historian and long-serving US veteran Stan Goff, “A recent study by Foreign Policy-dot-com showed that Senator Bernie Sanders is far and away the most frequent recipient of individual contributions from active duty military members…. Rich people don’t enlist. Working class people do. Someone who wants to leave the military right now has to factor in the free medical care for the service member and family which will be lost upon separation. Medicare For All has traction there. A federal jobs program has traction.”

So, class struggle and race struggle are not mutually incompatible. But, what about the White conservatives who go ga-ga for President Trump? The ones who are armed and angry at American decline and their newfound poverty and blame immigrants for it? There is evidence that, for some of those people, even those long infected with racism, class issues can change their mind. A well-publicized example was the true story of C.P. Ellis, poor son of a North Carolina millworker who became Exalted Cyclops of the Durham, NC Ku Klux Klan. He said the Klan gave meaning to his life and that of hundreds of other impoverished White men. But, as detailed in the book and movie The Best of Enemies, over the course of two weeks’ forced interaction with Black activists who recognized the class-based sufferings they shared, Ellis came to realize who his real friends were. He tore up his KKK card and much of his old life to do what was best for his people, becoming a union organizer, uniting with his class brothers and sisters.

Ann Atwater and C.P. Ellis

Was C.P. Ellis a special case? He certainly wasn’t typical. Although he reached out to his Klan buddies, none of them joined him in his changed attitude. Perhaps he only learned because of the courageous outreach of Black activist Ann Atwater, who wouldn’t give up on him. According to Osha Gray Davidson, who wrote The Best of Enemies, 100 years of racist propaganda had most poor Whites convinced that their problems came from “Negroes, Jews, and Communists.” Only a few, like Ellis, could step back and see how they were being used against their own interests by wealthy White racists, The same dynamic still works, as shown by Trump’s popularity among White people. How many white supporters will join their class and give up Trump for Sanders? Based on polls, it seems quite a few are ready to make that switch.

Not an election, a movement

If this was just about an election, Sanders’ popularity and the surge of class consciousness wouldn’t mean much. American elections are heavily fixed by voter suppression and voting machine manipulation. After decades of excluding African-American, Latino, and youth voters by dropping them from voter rolls and closing their polling stations, the rulers have moved into excluding White working class voters with programs like Cross Check, which deletes voters who have the same name as other voters, even in other states, and through mailout programs that require voters to confirm they have the same address they last voted from, or be purged. Naturally, poorer people are more likely to have moved, and why should moving disqualify one from voting?

Up against this vote suppression, and the immensely hackable electronic voting machines owned and operated by right-wing corporations, and the media boycott of all Bernie news that isn’t critical of him, Sanders may not have much chance of actually winning. But Bernie himself says his campaign is less about winning an election than building a multi-racial working-class movement. People will need to be in the streets, running for local offices, possibly striking their jobs (which Sanders supports,) or picking up guns (which he wouldn’t.) Even so, the billionaires have shown no intention to listen, but if the people are joined by the military rank-and-file, maybe the rulers would have to at least make some concessions.

Social democratic reforms like health care and housing for everyone are obviously not fantasies; most of the rich countries of the world (and many of the not-so-rich) have them to some degree. We could, too, but as Senator Sanders says, “We have to get beyond the alleged conflict between fighting racial injustice versus fighting economic injustice. We must deal with both. We need to end institutional racism, end poverty, end militarism, and create a government that works for all of us.” Paul Robeson and Fred Hampton might agree. We don’t have their voices anymore, so we will have to speak for them

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When Mental Illness is Environmental

Everyone knows about environmental illnesses, caused by pollution or unhealthy working conditions. But mental health problems can be environmental too, unavoidable reactions to difficult life situations. Changing the environment can change a person’s thoughts and emotions, as it has for my friend Jessie.

crazy-making place to live

I’ve known Jessie since her 30s, when we played in a band together, and she’s always struggled keeping things together.  A small African-American single mother, with her hair in a short natural, she has moved in and out of a long series of part-time jobs. She mostly supported herself doing hairstyling, supplemented with food stamps. She shared a two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment with five other people.

I would not have called Jessie mentally ill, but she was usually anxious and depressed, and sometimes seemed confused. Her problems could have been called psychological, and they could have been and sometimes were medicalized with antidepressants. She was hospitalized at least once.

Lately, we’ve only been seeing each other once a year, and maybe talking on the phone twice a year. I called her last week just to check in and was impressed with how good she sounded, much happier and more confident than I remembered her being. I asked what had changed.  Was she on some new medication? Had she found some helpful therapy?

“I moved,” she replied. “I’m in Alameda now. Instead of living in an unheated walk-in closet with a bunch of sketchy people, I have my own apartment at a rate I can afford. Subsidized senior housing. You can’t believe what a difference that makes!” She talked about going out in her neighborhood, the places to eat and shop. I asked about visiting her and she told me what buses to take.

It wasn’t easy for Jessie to make this move.  She applied for a series of senior housing buildings in Oakland over the years to no avail. “You have to win a lottery even to get on a waiting list,” she said, “which could be ten years long.” She said her breakthrough moment was gaining the courage to look beyond Oakland, her lifelong home.  This flexibility opened up new possibilities, and she got on a waitlist for Alameda that turned out only a two-year wait.

“It’s so nice here,” she told me. “I’ve made friends; they tell me about activities in the neighborhood. There are two community gardens, and I help friends with their plots.  This Spring maybe I’ll get my own.” Her daughter is now on her own and supporting herself as a musician, a career path of which Jessie approves. Life is good.

A garden like Jessie’s

Looking back, no health intervention helped Jessie much: not therapy, not medication, not hospitalization. What she needed was a decent place to live.  How often does that happen with individuals or with whole communities, pathologized for behaviors that are perfectly normal responses to unhealthy conditions of life?

People, especially young people are often jailed or drugged for things that they wouldn’t do in healthier circumstances. If kids are doing badly in school or getting into trouble, either they will be blamed or their parents will, when actually, they’re figuratively ‘living in an unheated walk-in closet with a bunch of sketchy people’ like Jessie was. Even if their environments are physically OK, they may be long on drama and danger, short on love and structure. There may be constant anxiety over money and sadness of not being able to afford things.

Environmental stressors can mentally damage whole communities. Bad conditions don’t excuse bad things people do, but acknowledging those environmental causes might lead to finding better solutions. The same is true for individuals, and not just low-income people. In my own life, in all our lives, some self-compassion might come from realizing how our behaviors and emotions are shaped by our environment and our past environments.  Sometimes, as with a smoker getting rid of all their ashtrays to help them quit, changing our environment is the best way to change ourselves.


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A Lesson from Roses

Last month, I wanted to visit my old friend Shirley, who lives in Laguna Honda Hospital in SF. We used to co-lead a multiple sclerosis support group, until she became too disabled to live on her own.

I don’t see Shirley very often, but Nov 10 was her birthday, the day after mine, and I usually go celebrate with her. That morning, I had a date with my friend Kim to go to Golden Gate Park, and as we were splitting up, Kim asked if I had brought a card or a gift for Shirley. I hadn’t, but thought I should. I felt guilty about not giving Shirley anything, but I was in a hurry; it was getting late. Kim had to drag me to a nearby Rexall store to buy a card.

As I was paying for the card, Kim noticed some flowers wrapped in newspaper sitting on a table or windowsill near the front of the store. She asked the store clerk/manager ‘Whose flowers are those?’ He looked over and said, “Oh, I know who left them. He won’t be back.” And Kim said, “Can we have them?”

You know that expression, ‘My jaw dropped’? This was the first time I remember my jaw actually dropping open in surprise; I was so astonished. I mean, I would never have considered asking to be given twelve gorgeous roses that I hadn’t paid for. It would never have occurred to me. But the store guy said, “Sure, take ‘em.”

Outside the store, Kim gave me a hug and the flowers. I felt amazed and delighted. A few minutes before, I had been going to see my friend emptyhanded, and now I had a card and a gorgeous bouquet to share, and it was free! I took the roses to Laguna Honda where I gave half of them to the nurses, who gave me a water pitcher in which to put the other six. A nurse took time from her work to cut the stems so they would fit.

Shirley loved the roses; she lit up seeing them, understandably, since there’s not a lot of beauty in a hospital room. Looking at those dark red flowers on her side table gave me a feeling of joy. And it was all so undeserved!

I thought about this experience for weeks. It still makes me cry to remember it. Why was I astonished that someone asked for something she wanted, and wanted for me, actually? It took me days to realize the depth of the scarcity beliefs and Puritan ethics I have absorbed and lived all my life. I have believed, without knowing it, that people should only have what they work for or what they can buy.

What a strange way to look at the world! Do we only get what we work for? Really, isn’t the world always giving us stuff? I mean, the Sun never stops giving. Neither does Earth stop producing life that becomes food to keep us alive. All of this is gift, so where does this sad work ethic come from? It’s a human thing to keep the economy growing; it’s certainly not from God.

How would life be different if we looked first at the gifts? Just today, I took out a book from the library and, because of rain, put it under my overcoat to keep it dry on the way home. When I got up to the apartment, the book was gone! I didn’t know where it had slipped out. I was freaked; I needed to read that book for an essay I’m writing, and I hated the thought of a library book being destroyed in the rain.

I went back out to retrace my steps and find it, hopefully before it got soaked. When I got to the lobby, my neighbor Sue, who is also in a wheelchair, handed me the book. “I was a half block behind you and saw you drop it,” she said. People keep doing things like that, and I guess I do things for others, and maybe that is how the world works.

Work is still important. I guess. But maybe it depends what you mean by work, and it depends what we mean by “enough” or by “blessed.” For me, the important thing right now is to be more aware of the gifts in life. I’m sure those roses aren’t the last flowers the world will provide. Sometimes, though, I may have to ask for them.

Postscript a week later – The world keeps rubbing my face in the need to accept what is given and ask for what I want.  A few days ago, I had to be in two places at once – taking an exam and delivering money to a friend in need. I decided I would zoom through the test, then leave class early and hope to be on time.  On the way to class, I ran into the professor and told him I would have to leave after the exam.  He said, “Go ahead and leave now. You can take the test later.”

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The Joy Within

I went to a restorative yoga class last Wednesday in a beautiful studio on the 3rd floor of the City College wellness center. Because of my disabilities, I could do very few of the moves, stretches, or positions, so I mostly focused on the breathing pattern, which the teacher called 3-part breathing (or dirga pranayama).  I didn’t push it; I would move an arm or turn my torso as I could, and when she gave a move I couldn’t do, I just went back to breathing.


As I paid attention to my breathing and the sensations in my body, I started to relax. I stopped judging myself or the teacher or the class. I’ve been doing breathing meditations for years, but never for a two-hour session like this. About half way through, waves of happiness started moving through me. My muscles relaxed; my face lit up in a huge smile. How beautiful everything was!  If I started thinking, the waves would recede, but they kept coming back, each one stronger that the one before. ‘Joy’ or ‘bliss’ would not be too strong to describe the feeling.

After the class ended, my usual day took over, but the happiness didn’t leave. I could see other people’s happiness and appreciate the beauty of objects. Everything from roadside trees to the bus that took me home, to the checkout guy at Trader Joe’s delighted me. I was having close-to-God thoughts, like about all the effort and creativity, the labor, the financial resources, materials and time that have gone into creating and maintaining things like the MUNI bus system – nearly infinite when you think about them. I felt gratitude and amazement that such things exist and that I can use them. The feeling gradually subsided but was still there until bedtime that night.

I knew that people, especially religious people have experiences like this fairly often. It sounds much like what I’ve heard that Pentecostals or yogis or Indigenous sweat lodge participants or deep meditators sometimes feel. Spiritual teachers of all faiths tell us to look within rather than to the outside world for help. Now I have experienced what we’re looking for, and I think it has changed my life. Having felt the deep reservoir of joy within, I know in my body that there is more to life than the day-to-day struggles and minutia.

I believe that each of us has this stream of joy within us. It’s a collective stream, a universal stream. It may be bricked in and covered over with layers of grief, pain, fear, or anger.  It may be curtained off by thoughts, entertainment, things we want to do or have to do, or hidden by the endless assortment of multi-colored distraction capitalist society produces. Still, it’s always there and can’t be destroyed, because it comes from the life force itself.

Maybe the bliss I felt was a one-time thing, a gift from God that will never return. Just typing that thought makes me sad, but I don’t believe it. Haven’t spiritual teachers and whole religions taught people to meditate, to live plainly, or sometimes to dance ecstatically, go into trance states, or take religious drugs, to be aware of the larger, joyful reality? Maybe that’s why people like the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu smile so much.




If it is true that spirituality brings happiness, we would expect spiritual people to be happier, and they are. Studies show that monks and nun, for example, tend to be happier and longer-lived than the rest of us.

Buddhist friends have since advised me not to chase joy, any more than to chase love or wealth. Pursuing joy is a form of attachment that will tie down the pursuer. Happiness is just an experience, they say. Just let it come and go as all experiences do. Still, why live in ways that actively block joy, if I don’t need to? Surely, days of joy must be a good sign; they make me nicer to be around.

I probably need to spend far less time reading e-mail. My personal inbox is an endless flow of need, grief, pain and anger.  People asking for help; people trying to change terrible situations, save animals, support activists and causes. Write letters; sign petitions; donate money. All valuable; all true, all worthy, but collectively overwhelming. Social media is the same way, only with pictures and inane comments added.

Of course, the Internet has fun and interesting stuff too, but isn’t that equally distracting? I’m studying Hinduism now, and the Web feels like a giant 4-dimensional celebratioin of samsara, the world of illusion, the world of distracted pain in which we spend our entire lives, life after life. Living in samsara, I wind up going through my days in a, ‘What should I worry about next?’ mode.

So, the physical world sounds more conducive to joy than the virtual world, even if the VR is more fun. I’m pretty sure it was no accident that waves of happiness came to me in a yoga class.  Focusing on the body instead of on thoughts, however distressing, pleasant, or interesting they might be, helped unlock the vault of joy.  It also seems probable that sitting in a beautiful, airy studio on a sunny day with a bunch of nice people, having slept well and had a good breakfast, is more conducive to joy than being hungry and cold, sleeping on cardboard sheets in an alley.

yoga in London

Would it be best to block out the world of pain, or escape from it in a monastery or a drugged stupor? I don’t like that kind of path; it feels selfish and unenlightened, and it wouldn’t work anyway. The suffering is always there; I’m not able or willing to ignore it. I feel a need to help others when possible.

I really don’t have to figure this out for myself, do I? Thousands of spiritual teachers, starting before the Buddha and still teaching today, advise us on how to live better, more productive, happier lives. Countless books have been written, sermons given, articles posted on web sites and blogs, religious ceremonies performed, songs sung, movies made.  The information is easy to find.

Suffering is always with us – that’s the Buddha’s First Noble Truth, isn’t it? – but the stream of joy is always there, too. It’s within me, and I’m absolutely certain that it is within all of us. (Of course, being “absolutely certain” doesn’t prove an idea is true, but this is my story and I’m sticking to it.) Being alive is inherently joyful; it’s the ways we live that can make us miserable.

One of the women in a study I linked above wrote of her excitement at becoming a nun at age 22, “Now I look forward with eager joy to a life of union with Love Divine.” I believe “Love Divine” is a perfectly good term for the joy within us. It is there; we just have to peel away the barriers in which we and society have wrapped it.


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5 Times U Don’t Have to Help

Like most self-help articles, this one is mainly directed at the author. I like feeling good about myself, and I like it when other people like me and treat me well.  That’s all pretty normal, but not always helpful. If I or you do nice things for people out of fear that we will be neglected or rejected, or if we judge our own actions against what an idealized good person would do, we will make our lives more stressful than they need to be.

Equally important, we may interfere with other people’s growth and life path by trying to make things too easy for them. We might help them cope or help them succeed, but at the same time deprive them of important learning experiences. Not that helping is wrong, but I want to do it more consciously.

The need to be good or at least to be liked, which often takes the form of compulsive helping, is called “people-pleasing,” and it’s considered an anxiety reaction. Psychotherapist Amy Morin says people-pleasing usually derives from low self-concept or having a traumatic childhood. It can harm you by sucking up energy and time you need for yourself, and can annoy others if we flake out on things you said yes to but were too overcommitted to deliver. There are worse character faults — it’s better to please people than to injure them – but it doesn’t do nearly as much good as we think.

I am learning that many times people would be better off if I didn’t try to please them.  I’m sharing five of these behaviors, because I do them and you might do them too.  Not saying to never please people or help them – that would be awful – but think about it and pick your spots.

  1. Just because someone doesn’t know something that we know, it doesn’t mean we have to tell them. They may not want to or need to know. They may not believe you or understand you, because you’re not the right person to tell them. And let’s face it, you could be wrong.More critically, you may be blocking them from a much richer and deeper experience of finding out for themselves. It’s like psychotherapy; the therapist usually knows what’s wrong after one session, sometimes after 10 minutes. But it does no good to tell the client what is happening; they won’t be able to take in what they are told. The skill of therapy is taking clients on a journey where they figure it out for themselves.  Then they’ll be able to act on the knowledge.
  1. Just because someone is bored, It doesn’t mean we have to entertain them. We may be interfering with their learning to entertain themselves, which we won’t always be there to do.
  2. When someone is sad, we don’t have to cheer them up. Grieving or feeling frustrated might be what they need to do to learn what they need to learn. Even depression can be a healing journey sometimes. It won’t last forever.

People-pleasing can easily become enabling.   If a drinker feels guilty because he went on a binge and missed his wife’s birthday, telling him to go easy on himself may not be what he needs to hear.  Making someone feel better is not the same as making them better or making their situation better. I often make this mistake; I’m good at cheering folks up, but am I doing it for their benefit or to make myself more comfortable?

  1. Especially with children, making them happy really should come second to helping them grow. Not even the Dalai Lama can be happy all the time, and kids need to learn how to self-soothe. We can give them hints e.g. “here’s your teddy bear;” “tell your brother how you feel,” but their mood is not our responsibility.   Inability to self-manage mood is a major disability for kids; which is why people-pleasers make lousy parents
  2. Just because you’re in someone’s way, physically or metaphorically, that doesn’t mean you have to move. You might have more need to be there than they do.  It’s usually easy to step aside, and why wouldn’t you, but sometimes you need to take up space, and they can work around you. Would a tree move in your situation?

You don’t have to help people all the time. When the world brings us a chance to help, we should do it with enthusiasm and gratitude.  Other times, take care of yourself.  You don’t have to solve every problem or even make it better.

If you’ve read this far and got the idea that pleasing people is bad and helping people is wrong, I have failed. Both helping and pleasing people usually do more good than harm. I try not to miss opportunities to thank or compliment people, when I can do it honestly. Sometimes people truly need help and will not be able to grow or move at all without it. But that’s not everyone; it’s not all the time. My core idea is that hard feelings and problems are parts of life. People don’t need to be protected from them; they just need people with whom to face them.

It’s taken a lifetime for me to learn that we don’t need everyone to like us all the time. Whatever we do, some will like us and some will block us. We can be good people even if some don’t see us that way.


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Society Has an Immune Disease That’s Killing Us

Millions of people suffer from allergic diseases such as asthma and hay fever, or from autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes, or rheumatoid arthritis. Allergies and autoimmune diseases both come from overactive immune systems’ reacting to harmless substances in the environment or to our own body cells. These diseases can cripple and kill individuals, but our society also suffers from a systemic immune condition. Like someone with an overactive political immune system, America’s extreme overemphasis on safety and protection damages our social fabric and kills people.

To explain, immune diseases often result from our bodies’ not having enough real threats to work on. Our society treats bacteria and viruses as enemies. Anything we can do to kill germs or keep them away from us is supposed to be good for our health. We’re in a war against Nature; we need to suppress it or avoid it with antiseptics, antibiotics, intense house cleaning, hand sanitizers or whatever other weapons science can develop and capitalists can market. We have created artificial low-germ environments that our immune systems have not evolved to handle, and they go haywire.

This is called the Hygiene Hypothesis, and there is a lot of evidence for it. Older siblings have more allergies than younger ones, because the young ones are exposed to their elders’ germs. People who live on farms, around animals, dirt, and plants have less autoimmune disease than those who live in cities. Wealthier people, who often live in cleaner environments, have more autoimmune disease than poorer folks. According to Harvard researcher WA Walker, ‘babies born by cesarean section [So not exposed to germs in the birth canal] have a higher incidence of allergy and type 1 diabetes. Infants given repeated antibiotic regimens during the first year of life are more likely to have asthma as adolescents.’

These outcomes are unfortunate for people like me who live with disabling immune diseases, but how do they apply to society? As with a diseased immune system, our society shows an obsessive focus on protection and safety, along with a deficiency of nurturing and healing, which are also part of a healthy immune system’s job. The systems designed to keep us safe, like police, military, and intelligence agencies, have gone rogue and cause far more harm than they prevent. Our answer to social problems is always to control people, lock them up, not heal them or integrate their perspectives. Meanwhile, our physical and social infrastructure, our caring for each other, grow weaker and millions of people fall into the system’s cracks.

Yin, yang, immunity, and society

Are immune diseases a metaphor for our social problems, or are they the same disease at different levels? According to the book Treating Autoimmune Disease with Chinese Medicine, by Wanzhou Hou MD et al, autoimmune disease is caused by a deficiency of yin energy, one of the two great forces that make up the world. Yin is associated with cool, damp, intuitive, dark, restful, passive, nurturing, gentle, female characteristics. The energy of protection and control is called yang energy. Yang is associated with maleness, hardness, heat, brightness, logic, activity, and dominance. We need both yin and yang in our lives and societies, but when we have too much of one, we’re out of balance and will get sick. Right now, much of the world is run by people with an excess of yang and no visible signs of yin energy at all.

We are starving for lack of yin, the caring, generative energy. On the physical level, resources for preservation and repair of water, transportation, and electrical systems keep shrinking. Bridges collapse; drinking water becomes toxic. On the human level, millions of people now sleep in the streets, while housing is held vacant by speculators. Efforts to feed and comfort homeless people and others in need are increasingly inadequate and in many cases illegal.

How excessively yang are we? The US Federal government has 16 separate “intelligence” agencies monitoring us, to ‘keep us safe.’ According to the Census of Law Enforcement Officers, 70 different Federal agencies have armed officers working for them, a total of about 120,000 full-time armed agents. The National Security Agency (NSA) gathers most online communications and phone conversations Americans make, for our own good, of course.

We have become a warfare state and a police state. The police kill over 1200 Americans every year. Millions are imprisoned to “protect society,” an incarceration rate seen nowhere else in the world, which devastates the communities who suffer it. A less yang-dominated society would keep most of those people free with supervision and support. The military maintains nearly 800 bases in other countries, trying to control the world, sapping resources and making enemies everywhere. (In comparison, the rest of the world’s countries combined have a total of fewer than 50 bases in each other’s territory.)

Society needs to get its yin back. Rather than seeking world dominance, a goal the US power establishment openly seeks, we need to get along with other countries. Instead of flooding our cities with police, we could fix infrastructure, nurture each other, build connection between groups instead of hostility. Only a severely yin deficient, safety-obsessed society would build more prisons while water systems are contaminated and bridges fall apart.

What Would Lao-Tzu Do?

The concept of Yin/Yang grew out of Taoism, the Chinese philosophy that prioritizes balance as the first key to good health and ordered societies. Founder Lao-Tzu and followers highlighted the importance of yin energy and female values, in contrast to the dominant patriarchal philosophies of the time such as Confucianism, or to the ones we live with now.

Taoist practitioner Elizabeth Reininger wrote, “The Dao De Jing — the primary scripture of Taoism — promotes the cultivation of qualities which modern society generally assign to women.” But “there is equality between the masculine and the feminine. They are understood to be two sides of the same coin: one could not exist without the other.” It’s not about gender or feminism, but about balance. Could balancing yin and yang help heal our society?

On her web site, Chinese medicine practitioner Rose Caiola writes, “Stalking, abuse, rape, unequal treatment, paternalism of all kinds, imperialism, and colonialism are expressions of excessive yang energy used against a group that is seen as weaker….Yin is the perfect counterbalance to yang energy. Cool and deep, like a river of calm, yin thwarts the tendency of yang to keep going until only cinders are left.”

At the individual level, acupuncturists spend a lot of time building yin energy. Courtney Hill LAc advises practices like sleeping more, keeping warm, not working too much, limiting screen and cell phone time, hydrating, eating more fats like avocados and nuts. Go slow, spend time in Nature, and do other things you can see on her site Window of Heaven Acupuncture.

But how does that work on a social level? Eating more nuts probably won’t bring our society into balance. So, what would?

Well, female is yin, so having more women in positions of power should help. But most female leaders we’ve had recently haven’t improved things much, have they? In fact, American officials like Victoria Nuland, Hillary Clinton, Condoleeza Rice and Samantha Power have promoted wars as enthusiastically and catastrophically as any man. It seems plugging a few women into a massively yang, patriarchal power structure is more likely to change the women than to change the structure.

But imagine if all positions of leadership were held by women. Systems and structures and the entire economy would have to change radically, wouldn’t they? The way things are now wouldn’t even make sense. This doesn’t seem possible, however, and we have little evidence it would do much good if it happened, though a few leaders like New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Adern and US representative Tulsi Gabbard seem to be going that hopeful direction.

                                      Jacinda Adern after mosque shooting in NZ

Other than men handing social control over to women, are there other ways a society can become more yin? Chinese medicine teaches that if we don’t, the world will restore our yinyang balance for us, and it won’t be pretty. They say that at their extremes, yin and yang turn onto their opposites. In a human body, a person who gets too cold and too weak (yin), may get an infection, develop a fever and become very hot (yang.) A person who is always angry, with high blood pressure (yang) may suffer a heart attack or stroke and become pale, weak, and passive.

In recent history, some very yang societies have gone bust (yin) and after a long recovery period, become much healthier. Think Nazi Germany, which tried to conquer the world, was destroyed, and is now one of the most successful societies on Earth. The same collapse and transformation will inevitably happen to the United States, though it may take the whole world down with it.

It may be possible for a society to back away from extreme yang without collapsing, but we’d have to really want to. We’d have to elect a lot of women, and we’d have to embrace yin in everything we do, striving to bring ourselves into balance. Let’s try.

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Can We Live Without Hope?

If you’re just now getting desperate about climate catastrophe, endless wars, and the cruelty of the society in which we live, welcome to the club. If you haven’t had such thoughts, you might want to stop reading now, lest you be triggered. But if you sometimes go to despair, where any news medium can take you, this essay might help you cope.

“Desperate” comes from the Latin word for “without hope.”   It’s a bad feeling, but you might be surprised to learn there are ways you can live well without hope.  Your life can still manifest beauty, love, happiness, and even humor. You can still do a lot of good.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m not homeless or a refugee. I have friends and family, food, and a warm place to sleep, far from the war zone. So, I can’t speak for everyone; being cold and hungry, traumatized and fearful, could make hope more important. But from what I see and where I sit, despair may be better than false hope.

Despair is not Depression

I’ve lived with a chronic disabling illness (multiple sclerosis) for 40 years. Even before that, I had been aware of the terrible oppression a few people visit on so many others, their immense power and their absolute resistance to change. I’ve known about impending man-made ecological collapse for almost as long.  For years, people would tell me I was depressed, and I would say, “I’m not depressed. I’m in despair. There’s a difference.”

It kept coming up, so I researched it, and they really are different. Like despair, depression makes you sad and fearful, but depression also causes symptoms such as loss of pleasure in things you used to like, loss of interest in the world, disturbed sleep or eating patterns, feelings of worthlessness or uselessness. I didn’t have those.

I did have Despair. I saw no reason to think things would get better, and plenty of science telling us they will get worse. I’ve been living with that version of reality for over 15 years. Occasionally, I do sink into depression, and I can feel the difference right away.  Depression is far more disabling and painful; you just want to lie there and have the world go away.

I’m writing this analysis now because despair is catching on. After the storms, fires, and wars of 2017-18, the ongoing climate chaos, the hundreds of millions of refugees, where is hope? And if we don’t have hope, what are we to do? How do we help each other to cope, motivate ourselves to fight, or increase the chances that life will survive on Earth? How do we keep going and not sink into disabling depression?

Perhaps we can learn how. We are not the first generation to encounter despair.  Watch the James Baldwin movie I Am Not Your Negro, and you will see a man in deep despair over the fate of his people and of their oppressors. Throughout, he medicates his pain with cigarettes and alcohol. Yet he is not depressed. He keeps fighting, writing, and speaking out for justice.  He travels, creates books and movies, has meaningful relationships.

                                                                James Baldwin

The AIDS epidemic of the 80s felt like the end of the world for the gay community in San Francisco. Deborah Gavrin Frangquist remembers: “Just catching a bus in the Castro was an immersion in not just misery but horror. Skeletal men, some with visible lesions, hobbled along leaning on canes. There were so many funerals, so many sick friends to visit. People you hadn’t seen in a couple of months turned out to be dying. It was dizzying, and it felt impossible to catch your balance…. I remember thinking, “Will we ever laugh again? How would we keep going?”

Yet they did keep going. Frangquist reports, “Slowly people figured out what we could do. Ruth Brinker started making food for a handful of sick neighbors; her efforts grew into Project Open Hand, which now feeds thousands of people every day.” Artists created, doctors and nurses reorganized AIDS care; activists fought for more research, which led to better treatments.

The people of the Castro were doing what was necessary in the time and place they were in. They didn’t spend a lot of time hoping. Experiences like theirs may help us handle today’s global disasters.

The Undeniable Benefits of Hope

Research seems to confirm that hope is good for you.  In his book Making Hope Happen,” Dr. Shane Lopez, PhD, wrote “The scientific study of hope shows that how we think about the future is a key determinant of success in school, work, and life. Other conditions being equal, hope leads to a 12 percent gain in academic performance, a 14 percent bump in workplace outcomes, and a 10 percent happiness boost for hopeful people.”

Those 10- 14% benefits don’t sound like much, but medical doctor Jerome Groopman says research shows physiological benefits as well: “Hope can block pain by releasing the brain’s endorphins and enkephalins,” he says. “Hope can also have important effects on fundamental physiological processes like respiration, circulation and motor function.”

Radical historian Howard Zinn thought hop e was crucial for activists. “Remember that human history is a history not only of cruelty,” he wrote, “but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we remember those times and places where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act.”

Among history’s big believers in hope, novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky said, “To live without hope is to cease to live.”  Religious leader Martin Luther wrote “Everything that is done in this world is done by hope.”

The Surprising Benefits of Despair

So really, what could be wrong with an attitude that helps people keep going, feel better and perform better? Well, some people I admire believe that in times like these, hope is not good at all.

Before I get to them, I have to note that, as one who meditates, it seems that hope has the downside of pushing our thoughts into the future. Shane Lopez saw that as totally positive and encouraged what he called “Nexting” as a daily practice. What plans can I make and how will I carry them out?  He thought planning for the future was the best way to improve your present.  To me, it sounds like a good way to miss the present entirely. When you’re focused on hope for the future, what happens to Now?

While Lopez believed hope enables us to act, environmental activist Derrick Jensen, author of Endgame, thinks hope interferes with the kinds of action we need. He cites the Buddhist saying that hope and fear chase each other’s tails. If you have hope, you have fear; because you have something to lose.

While hope can motivate us; hopelessness can free us, Jensen says. Desperate people are the ones who block tanks on the street, lay their bodies on the gears of destruction to make them stop.  If we are doomed, why not speak out? Why not fight back? What can they do to you that matters in a dissolving world? What use of your life could possibly be more important than fighting to protect the future and everything you love?

But living without hope is hard. The skill, the spiritual challenge of these desperate times involves learning to live now, live well, fight back, and find ways to make life better in whatever small ways we can. Here are some spiritual, psychological and practical ways that might help.

Spiritual Approaches to Despair

Most religions and belief systems seek to allay despair. By taking us outside the surface appearance of things, spirituality can give us needed strength and perspective.

  • The Japanese practice called Wabi-sabi recognizes the impermanence and imperfection of all things. When we realize that everything we love, including ourselves, will someday disappear, we appreciate and love them more. Our days become richer, however many of them there are.
  • Taoism tells us that we know little about the present and nothing about the future. In spite of the scientific predictions of disaster, maybe the worst won’t come. Maybe there will be currently unimaginable breakthroughs or a series of miracles, or something.

And how do we know that death, even extinction if it comes, will be a bad thing? Chuang-Tzu wrote that we fear death, but perhaps it’s a positive transformation, as people who have had near death experiences report. We don’t know.

And when this world ends, there will be another somewhere, sometime, according to Hinduism and all the writers of science fiction. Science itself tell us that the world has ended before. About 2 billion years ago, a new kind of bacteria started producing a poison gas called oxygen that killed off nearly every living thing on Earth, including themselves.  But new species developed that could breathe oxygen and created nearly all the life forms we have on Earth today. Something else may replace us on Earth, or elsewhere, maybe something better.

  • Like wabi-sabi, Buddhism teaches that everything changes. So, rather than fearing change, live in now. This is the place where despair can lead you to joy. If we can stop thinking about the future and the past, focus on the world around and within us, we might notice how beautiful life can be.
  • Christianity and Islam believe in a heavenly afterlife, a better world beyond our daily existence, an eternal one without suffering and loss. Soren Kierkegaard, the philosopher of despair, believed that separation from the eternal (which he called God) is the cause of despair, and coming to God is the only way to truly cure it. Other ways only allow you to tolerate it. He said we must recognize our true nature, that we are all God or part of God. This is probably the core truth that all religions share, however they phrase it. Spending more time in the presence of that truth, through prayer, meditation, religious practice or drugs may enlarge our picture beyond despair. Kierkegaard called this “being comforted by the Eternal.” I’ve heard some Christians call it preparing for the next world.

    Chief Wilma Mankiller

  • Spiritual practices are at the center of many oppressed people’s lives, including those threatened with extinction. The late Cherokee chief Wilma Mankiller wrote, “[Indigenous women] deal with a set of severe social and economic problems in their communities, but they hold the people (including the animals and plants) close to their hearts, working, praying, and drawing on their spiritual beliefs for sustenance.”

Spiritual communities can include ecstatic dance and music that bring people out of daily miseries and anxieties. Think of Pentecostal churches, Native American powwows, Sufi whirling dance, or nonreligious ecstatic activities like Krump dancing.  Spiritual communities give their participants strength.  They provide social and practical support and often include caring for needy people and participation in causes as well as formal religious practice. You might want to join one.

Whirling Sufis

How We Think Makes a Difference

As Howard Zinn pointed out, what we think, believe, and focus on determines how we experience life and how well we can respond to its challenges. Physical reality frames our lives, but our thoughts influence how the picture inside is painted.

  • Practicing gratitude for what you’ve had and have and for the beauty of the world can help us appreciate Now. These need not be big things. Psychologist Duane Bidwell asked children with kidney disease what they were thankful for. “More often than not,” he wrote, “they told us about ordinary moments with family and friends — saying grace around the dinner table, times when they were aware of the abundance they had in their lives, even though … they build their lives around dialysis and medication.”
  • Remember you can feel many things at once. Derrick Jensen wrote, “I am full of rage, sorrow, joy, love, hate, despair, happiness, and a thousand other feelings. We are really fucked. Life is still really good.” Having so much to grieve doesn’t mean we can never be happy. In fact, we should make time for it in our lives.
  • Denial is a gift we were given to help us function with intolerable fear and loss. If you can’t do anything to change a situation, denying it might be the best way to cope. Of course, if you can and should change it, like with an addiction to alcohol or war, denial can be a disaster.

In our current situation, some denial may be necessary.  About four years ago, I made a conscious decision to believe some climate-change-minimizing web sites that sounded pretty good.  I felt much more relaxed and positive about life for eight months, until I had to admit these web sites were drastically wrong. But I don’t deny or begrudge anyone the right to denial, unless they are actively making things worse.

  • Change your focus. I have the bad habit of spending too much time with suffering and apocalypse. After all, it’s easy to do; just a step away in American cities or a click away on the Internet. And we should do what we can to relieve suffering. But if I’m not doing something about it, I should focus on better things.

Our endangered world is still a beautiful place. People are still beautiful beings. In fact, in many ways for many people, life has never been more wonderful. With the help of technology, people are doing amazing things, creating and relating in new ways.  Movies, books, media from all over the world are instantly available. Cultures are developing and interconnecting through travel and the Internet. Knowledge and wisdom are spreading. People are having fun.


We can choose to focus on the beauty as well as the ugliness, on the happiness as well as the grief. Anne Frank, who certainly had a right to despair if anyone ever did, said, “I don’t think of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains.”

Take yourself out of the story. Your role in climate catastrophe, or in wars, racism or other destructive forces is infinitesimal. You didn’t cause them; it’s not your responsibility to fix them; nor is it within your capabilities. You can change your own behavior, maybe, but not everyone else’s. Would an octopus or a goat believe it could save the world? Neither can you or I. We should do what we can; then let it go. Remember you aren’t the only one suffering or despairing. This is the world’s story, not yours or mine.

Things to do

Take some action, even if it’s small: fight back, say something, protect something, help someone. If you take action about a situation, you will feel better, even though you know it’s not enough. I’ve been talking with lifelong activists in their 80s, who have seen much of what they fought for defeated, reversed, or destroyed, and none of them regret how they have spent their lives. Nor have they given up.

Jim McWilliams, who marched in the 1963 March on Washington and is still fighting today at age 85 told me his activism keeps him going. ‘It’s good for you, even when you don’t see a way you’re going to win.’

  • Get together and share with others. The grief, the fightback, and the celebration need to be shared. Make sure to share with the right people – some people are not ready for this yet – but many others are ready and don’t think they can talk about it. You might find that people want company and help in dealing with terrifying realities and futures.
  • Spend time with children; they’re always in now. Blogger Kim Nguyen wrote, “Children do not dwell on what global warming is bringing us. They live for today, and there is a lesson for us there.” I sometimes supervise kids at the playground, and they can be so joyful that it tends to rub off. Animals also enjoy life and can help us do the same.
  • Express emotions, including grief. Cry, laugh. If we don’t express our grief, it builds up when there is so much loss to mourn. But other feelings are important too.
    Finally, what is most important? What really matters? If you comfort one homeless person or keep one species of bacteria from going extinct, does that count? If our activism helps stop one village from being bombed for a couple of months, is that a hope realized? Are very temporary or partial gains worth fighting or hoping for? To come back to the beginning, if there is no hope for general salvation, does hoping for much smaller blessings motivate us to go on?  I’m afraid we all have to decide those answers for ourselves.

So, there are ways to cope with despair.  For me, the most important is love. Not necessarily for one person; you can love as many people and other creatures as exist, up to and including the whole world. Love can be done right up to the last moment, and maybe beyond the last moment.

That hope may sound sort of mystical, maybe naive, but love certainly can make our lives feel better now.   Love can include fighting back and helping others, too. Giving and receiving love is not enough, but combined with opening to spirituality, focusing on Now, and making time for happiness, it might make our remaining time the best it can be.



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Living in the Masters’ House

The queer Black feminist poet and thinker Audre Lorde famously said, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Thirty years after I first heard that, I can’t claim to understand it from my non-Black, non-Lesbian perspective, but I am starting to realize the importance of the question she raises.

We totally live in the masters’ — I moved the apostrophe because there are many masters — house, or more accurately, the house the masters have built for us. You look out the window, and you see exactly what the masters want you to see. A world of fear, full of terror, of scarcity and constant competition for necessities.

Audre Lorde

From the masters’ house, we see a world in which some people count and most don’t, and animals and plants never do. A world in which we are inadequate, and isolated, where we are constantly prodded to medicate our stress and suffering by consuming. We may medicate with an actual drug, or it might be material success, travel, food, cars, porn, or clothes, or whatever, but we are not to look at what’s causing the depression and anxiety.

You turn on the news or the Net, and you see war everywhere, environmental destruction and misery. We are ruled by corrupt leaders, hired by a class of obscenely wealthy, extremely powerful men whose identities we barely know.

You can escape by watching professional gladiators combat each other in sports arenas, or amateurs humiliate themselves on reality TV. You see or hear “news” that is actually a series of scripted stories, whose reality we may doubt, but which we have no way to investigate. That is the world we live in; that is the masters’ house, a nightmare that isn’t even our own.

Not where we want to live

The masters’ house lives inside of us, too. The isolation, the scarcity, the helplessness, the fear we feel are part of the masters’ house. The master is living in our minds and in our bodies and causing us to do all sorts of things that strengthen him, while harming ourselves, our loved ones and our world.

The master perhaps cannot help himself, because he is living in that same house, just on a different floor. We’re all in different rooms in the same house. Look: Giant gold mines operate in Peru. Thousands of indigenous people have had to flee their ancestral land, either at gun point or because the mines use up and pollute their water. They cling to life among the dispossessed in the cities. Maybe some have started to deal drugs or work as prostitutes.

This catastrophe didn’t just happen: various kinds of people did this to the natives. First, they had to find the gold. Geologists and engineers found it, because that is their job and they are isolated from the people being harmed. If they feel any guilt, they can buy stuff to feel better. That’s the house they live in.

Bankers had to finance the mines. They did this because making more money, in whatever way, is vital to their survival in their mental house. It couldn’t have been a belief that the world needed more gold. There’s plenty of gold.

Because the gold is not concentrated enough to dig out profitably, the mining companies scoop up tons of dirt in trucks and treat it with cyanide and other chemicals to leach out the gold. Someone had to figure out how to do that. Those someones felt disconnected from the Earth and people they were poisoning. They thought they didn’t live in that house, but they do, though the masters own it.

Ordinary workers operate those trucks and those leaching plants. They don’t want to, but in the masters’ house, they “need” the pay to survive. That’s how life in the masters’ house works.

Outside the Masters’ House

Can such a huge house, all around us and within us, be dismantled? What tools could possibly accomplish that, and where would we get them? If we somehow dismantled the house, where would we live?

When told that he couldn’t use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house, activist and professor Robert Jensen replied, “I’ll use whatever tools I want to use.” And Derrick Jensen (no relation,) wrote, “Whoever wrote that you couldn’t use those tools had obviously never dismantled a house, or built one.”

Some tools, though, clearly do belong to the master and cannot be used against his house. Elections come to mind here. Democracy may have been everyone’s tool at one point, but in the modern USA, elections are controlled by corporate media, corporate parties, lobbyists, unelected bureaucrats and spies. Lorde said of such tools, “They may allow us temporarily to beat the master at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”

Sometimes, though, it’s hard to tell to whom a tool belongs. Are guns the master’s tools? They seem to be, but at times in history the people have used them to dismantle their masters’ house.

Audre Lorde said that art and community were two vital tools women (her audience for this talk) could use. Truth-telling is another. Australian journalist Caitlin Johnstone says “The entire machine of oppression is held together by narrative. By made-up stories. By fairy tales for adults. Those who insist that there is no hope are living in [the masters’] fantasy world.” A truer narrative might cause it to fall.

When we stop believing the master’s lies, we can move out of his house and make a new one for ourselves. How can this be done when the masters’ lies are projected at us 24/7 in dozens of technologies and platforms, what CIA official Frank Wisner called his “Mighty Wurlitzer,” on which he could play any propaganda tune? No matter how creatively we project a more truthful reality, how can people see it, act on it, and not get shot for doing so? Or to win, even if we do get killed in the process?

If those tools have been found, I haven’t heard about them, though art and solidarity are certainly two of them. Audre Lorde said turning differences into strengths is crucial. She thought words could be powerful tools and encouraged women to use them, and to nurture each other.

Will these tools be enough? They haven’t been so far, but while developing more tools, at least we can teach ourselves to see the house for what it is, a gaudy prison, one based on illusion and fear more than on real walls. We can get out; we can bring it down. Keep speaking up.

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