Monday, January 23, 2017

Anxiety and Community In These Strange Days

Epoch (noun) 1. a particular period of time marked by distinctive features, events;
the beginning of a distinctive period in…history.
Here’s a fun little exercise in nostalgia. Try and recall the very first time you visited cyberspace. Got online and surfed the Internet. Sent or received a text message. Ordered from Amazon. Posted on Facebook. My discovery day happened in 1994, when I signed up for America Online. Sat before an over sized expensive desktop computer, plugged a phone line into the back of that electronic behemoth, and listened in rapturous hope to the chirps of a modem, as it connected me to life, in a revolutionary way.


At that very moment, we entered an experience of reality unlike any other, ever before, in human history. To be in a “place” that’s not really a place, in the traditional sense.  A place that’s not anywhere, some geographic point, but a place that is both everywhere and no where. A place to connect to other people yet also, to not be with them: face to face, physically. That’s the brave new world where most of us live these days, take for granted as the norm.

Life. On smartphones, laptops, smart TVs. On Facebook and Twitter, and email accounts.  On screens: portals through which we connect to life, not just some of the time but most of our waking hours.  As I noted in a recent post, the Nielsen Company, which tracks media consumption, reports the average American interacts with a screen 10 hours, 39 minutes per day. That’s more time than we work (6.9 hours daily), sleep (6.8 hours), eat (1 hour), and care for others (1.2 hours). 

That this revolution has happened in less than a generation means we are so far from understanding what it means for us, as a society, individuals, and a world. For comparison, think 1460, twenty years after the invention of the printing press. Before: books and the ideas therein was the realm of the elite. After: every literate person could read a book, think for themselves, with no gatekeeper like a priest or prince to monopolize knowledge. Kingdoms toppled, as folks revolted against old ways. Power shifted from thrones to the people. A small world of villages gave way to a bigger world of nations formed by populist political movements. An epoch began.

It was a chaotic, anxious time.  It is a chaotic, anxious time.

That’s how many of us are experiencing life in these early days of 2017.  With communal anxiety.  Fear.  Wondering and worrying, “What’s next?” as this new chapter in history, marked by life in cyberspace, emerges.  The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman may have summed it up best in a recent column, when he observed of our brave new world: “We’re all connected but no one’s in charge.” 

Strange days. 

We revel in the convenience and economy of being able to buy and procure practically any items or services online, from any where around the globe, instantaneously. We mourn as the shops on Main Street close, factories lay empty and idle, and the workers have no place to go. We have access to more information than any generation of human beings that ever lived. We’ve gone through a looking glass, to a time when “alternative facts” and fake news and boutique news consumption lets us see “the truth” as we alone choose.  We have thousands of friends in cyber space.  We have few friends in the neighborhood, little or no time for local communities like the church or synagogue or mosque. We love democracy unfettered, unleashed in cyberspace, and so we organize for change and direct action, the citizenry empowered.  We stay at home on the couch and fail to vote, cynically decrying the leaders we ourselves have given rise to.

The times they are a’changin. Fast.

So my spiritual advice is this: buckle up, because for the next few years and decades, it is going to be a very bumpy ride.  But as with any journey into the unknown, we are given by our Creator the chance to go on this trip, not solo, but together. Not just parked in front of a glowing screen, but instead, also, holding hands, as our parents told us to do, whenever we had to cross a busy and dangerous street, to get from one place to another.  Cyberspace's cyber-community and the epoch it ushers in: it will be only as good, as the human community it creates. Real community, with real people, caring for each other.  Living heart to heart, eye to eye, hand to hand and side by side. 

A new epoch unfolds.  I, for one, don’t want to go it alone.  Let’s always stay connected, no matter what the future might bring.


Monday, January 16, 2017

Job #1 Before and After The Inauguration: Courageous Idealism

Inaugurate (verb) 1. to make a formal beginning of; initiate; commence; begin.

How to begin a new job? 

We’ve all faced this question: first day in the office, first time as the boss, first moments as a leader in an organization or on a team.  How we start, how we begin, how we inaugurate: it matters. It sets the tone.  It indicates to those being led, what the future might bring, and reveals the character of a leader.

Some leaders start with a dramatic flourish to say, “I’m in charge now.” A friend of mine, lifelong military, witnessed such “flagpole” leaders. A new commanding officer would arrive on base and within a day or two, the flagpole was moved from its old spot to a new spot, to remind the troops that there was “a new sheriff in town”.  In my work I’ve received plenty of advice about starting a job. Change everything that you can as soon you can. Change nothing and instead listen to folks and lay the groundwork for change. 

How to begin a new job?

That’s the question facing our President-elect, who this week arrives “on base” to begin his new job for the next four years. The political and social atmosphere within which he takes office is in the toughest of shape: more divided, angrier, and so red hot in the fiery caldron of partisanship.  On Friday he’ll take the oath before hundreds and thousands of his raucous, adoring fans. On Saturday he’ll look out a White House window and see in the distance a crowd of hundreds of thousands of his raucous, abhorring opponents.

How to begin his new job?

Here’s some of my hopes and prayers for January 20th…that we as citizens will be called to be our best, and not our worst. Please appeal to the better nature of our humanity, our angels, and not our more mean spirited impulses. At this profound pivot point in the story of our nation, ask us as citizens to give and not just get; to sacrifice and not just seek self interest. Make us the kind of country other lands might wish to become as well.  As citizens inspire us to build up and not merely tear down.

He’s got a job to do and I will absolutely pray for him.  But as citizens, we have a new job to do as well, from January 20th onwards.

How to begin our new job?

With idealism: that's what I'm praying and hoping for. To have the courage and commitment to still believe in the promise of democracy.  To roll up our sleeves and organize and do the job of citizen, no matter where we find ourselves on the political spectrum.  To think nationally and globally and act locally: in towns and cities, neighborhoods and states, houses of worship and workplaces. To listen, really listen, to those whom we are tempted to dismiss as the opposition. To protest when we must, but then to put down the signs and do the work of community building: compromise, negotiation, and coming together to create and renew our shared home.

Some, perhaps most folks, will see such civic ideals as too unrealistic, especially in 2017, as we live into a political reality unlike any before. To have any idealism about the United States or the state of this world may seem naive at best, Pollyannaish at worst. Add to this the tone of current social discourse--snarky, accusative, divisive, and ugly, exponentially magnified by the craziness of our social media—and it is very tough to be idealistic.    

But as a person of faith, a human being and a citizen I am still idealistic. I still trust in the basic goodness and best intentions of my fellow Americans.  This idealism is the lifeblood of free and hopeful people.  This idealism rejects apathy which says, “I do not care.”  This idealism defeats cynicism, a spiritual cancer for any group of people. This idealism is the only way to live, at least for this citizen.

We’ve all got a job to do come January 20th, from the Oval Office to Main Street.  How will we begin?  Let’s start with idealism.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Addicted to the News: One Junkie's Lament

Overdose (noun) 1. too great a dose; a lethal or toxic amount (as of a drug)  
--Merriam-Webster Dictionary

What’s the news?

What’s happening in the world today?  What happened yesterday?  Who lived and who died? Who won and who lost? Where did all hell break loose? What’s the latest tweet from our Tweeter in Chief?  What celebrity act of outrageousness did we miss when we were sleeping last night?

Tell me. TELL ME! What’s the news?

And so we walk outside to get the newspaper which lies at the end of the driveway.  We open a laptop, click on a favorite news site, scan the headlines. We hit the button on the radio: “It’s 7:01 and the news is next.”  We grab our smart phone off the counter and tap the news icon. We push the remote button and watch CNN or MSNBC or Fox. 

What’s the news?

For many of us, that’s how our day begins, continues, and ends. With the news as a constant companion. As a hardcore news junkie these rituals are gospel truth for me, ever since I got hooked on the news as a newspaper boy in middle school. I’d arise before sun up, deliver the paper to fifty customers, then come home and read that broadsheet cover to cover.  Hard news, sports, the funnies, local happenings: I could not get enough.  Still cannot get enough. I subscribe to three newspapers and four magazines, online, in print; play NPR in the car constantly; pull up the news on my phone multiple times a day. 

To consume the news…so we can stay informed. Be better citizens.  Be aware of the world we inhabit.  Satiate our curiosity.  Be entertained, enlightened, and educated.  But here’s a breaking story, for me, and maybe for you too.  I’m exhausted by the news as of late, especially after such a news saturated, news dominated year, leading up to the election, and since then too. 

It’s staggering to consider just how news addicted so many of us are in the world now.  With a 24/7 news cycle, news creation never stops. News is always there for the consuming and we’re overdosing. According to the Nielsen Company, Americans now spend 10 hours, 39 minutes a day consuming media on their devices and a big chunk of that is spent on the news.  We just can’t seem to stop this addiction. 

And like overstuffed overeaters, after we binge on the news, we often feel depressed.  Disheartened.  Dispirited about the media presented state of our world. Powerless to do anything, especially about all the bad, scary news which inevitably dominates reporting. Journalists scare and provoke us for a reason: it sells more papers and garners more views.  How quaint to remember that our parents and grandparents read just one daily newspaper, and then perhaps watched thirty minutes of news at day’s end. That was it. 

In the 2014 book, “The News: A Users Manual”, French essayist Alain de Botton makes a radical claim: modern news consumption has become our new “god”, claiming wider allegiance and worship than traditional forms of faith. “Societies become modern…when news replaces religion as our central source of guidance and our touchstone of authority…. [News] demands that we approach [it like]…we…once [approached] faiths…to receive revelations, learn who is good and bad, fathom suffering and understand the unfolding logic of existence.”

I’d like to go to church more, I’d like to pray more, I’d like to connect more deeply to a power greater than myself, know wonder and mystery and meaning but…I can’t.  I’ve got to keep up with the news.  Botton’s vision is sobering. Journalists as our new priesthood.  Naughty celebrities and tweeting politicians as our new saints and icons.  Our devices as sacred portals through which we seek ultimate understanding.

But there is some good news, a secret cure to our news addiction that the media doesn’t want us to remember. Just as easily as we turn on the news, we can turn it off too. Turn off the ringing news notification on the phone.  Turn off TV news which drones on in the background all day. Leave unopened, for just a few minutes more in the morning, the laptop. Silence the radio, or better yet, listen to some music.  Walk past the newspaper on the front porch and take a long walk. 

I’m not suggesting we eschew news consumption completely.  We need the news in these perilous, uncertain times, to arm ourselves for the work of good citizenship. But perhaps we can be wiser, more discerning, and more disciplined in how we consume the news. 

The news never stops. The news will consume us, if we are not very careful.  Consumer? Consumed?  I wonder how that story will turn out.




Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The Meaning of Life? Meaning...and the Occasional Grill Cheese Sandwich.

“I asked for wonders instead of happiness, Lord, and you gave them to me.”
--Abraham Joshua Heschel

I wished for the gift of happiness this past holiday season but instead, life gave me a much better gift: meaning.

Note: I am still absolutely happy about the panini maker my niece Emily gave me. It was exactly what I asked for and what I wanted. This January I’ll no doubt be happy for warm grilled cheese sandwiches on chilly nights. But it’s the meaning behind that gift I most cherish, what it represents and embodies for me. That I’ve been blessed to watch her grow up into an amazing young woman over so many Christmas mornings spent with family. That I am tied to her and she to me: by blood, by memory, by love. Year by year, decade after decade.  Wasn’t she just the toddler whom I was reading a new book to, and now she is off to graduate school?

Meaning: to be oriented to something bigger in this life than self alone. Happiness: to seek to feel good. What gift do we most desire, wish for?

That’s a question many of us face in the New Year.  How can we just be happier? What can we do, or not do, or change, for a happy 2017? Switch careers and get that new job.  Lose weight and feel better about our appearance.  Save more cash and then we’ll be happy.  Make more money, attain a magic income level and happiness will kick in. We humans put a lot of spiritual and emotional energy into happiness, which makes sense, because happiness is the most important goal of life and is always just around the next corner. Right?

At least that’s what I’ve been told; what I’ve been sold on too.

Search on Amazon for a happiness self help book and we’ve got 96,821 results to choose from.  “Find your bliss” a guru proclaims.  If it feels good, do it.  If a substance can make you feel happier, even temporarily, smoke it or drink it or pop it.  We want our kids to be happy above all else, correct?  “Happy, Happy, HAPPY!” one mega hit song blissfully proclaims. What the cure for the blues? Shopping of course, happiness found in a thing! Even our Declaration of Independence enshrines the pursuit of happiness as a citizen’s birthright and duty.

But might there be more to life, in life, than a quickly opened gift on Christmas morning?  Less frenzied chasing after happiness.  More intentional work to find true meaning.

To be a part of something bigger than ourselves, like a family that is both beautiful and broken and asks for hard work and commitment over the long haul. A faith that calls us to serve and sacrifice for others in the world, and not merely work for personal salvation alone. A job that’s difficult many days, but one which pushes us to deepen our skills and talents.  Or life as a citizen that inspires us to embrace our mutual responsibilities more and our individual rights less. 

Meaning? Happiness?

I’m not promoting a life of anti-happiness, some dour Puritan existence, all toil, no fun.  But here’s a lesson I’ve learned in my one life: while a singular pursuit of happiness rarely brings meaning, the pursuit of meaning almost always gifts us with happiness, and even better, a deep satisfaction and contentment that can last a lifetime, even beyond one lifetime. 

I just can’t imagine showing up at the pearly gates after my death, and having Saint Peter ask me, “So John: were you happy?”  No: instead I think, I hope, that I’ll instead be asked, “Did you live a life of meaning and purpose? Did you use the one life you were given for something greater than momentary happiness?”

To seek happiness. To seek meaning.  In the year to come, may we choose wisely. May we choose well.