Monday, March 25, 2019

Don't Worry. Be Reasonably Happy.

"Be happy while you are living, for you are a long time dead."    --Scottish proverb

Eighteenth out of 157 countries.  Really? Is that the best we can do America? Apparently, yes--at least this year, at least when it comes to happiness. 

Last week the United Nations released their annual "Worldwide Happiness Report", an annual survey of 157 nations. Folks are asked to rank their happiness on a scale of 1 to 10: the best life being a ten, the worst a zero. Upwards of 3,000 people participate from each nation and are also asked to rank their overall happiness with the basic parts of life all humans share: business and economics, citizen engagement, communications and technology, diversity, education and family life, emotional well-being, the environment, food and shelter, government and politics, law and order and safety, health, religion and ethics, transportation, and work.

Hand it to Finland and the Finns, our friends 4,000 miles across the Atlantic, who were number 1 again this year. Since the report was first issued in 2012, they've consistently been in the top rankings, along with their Scandinavian neighbors Denmark and Sweden as well as the Netherlands and Iceland. Those countries all share the distinction of being among the most generous communities when it comes to government promising to provide the basics in life: housing, food, education, child care, health care and employment. True, Scandinavians also pay the highest taxes in the world but apparently that trade off is acceptable for them not having to worry so much about the things so many of us as Americans certainly angst about.  Can I make enough money to support my family?  Rent or buy an affordable house or apartment? Will I have health insurance? Can I afford to send my child to college?  If I lose my job, how will I get by?

So one conclusion is clear: the higher the level of economic and life security for a person, the happier they will be, which is kind of a no-brainer if we think about it.  If you spend all your time scrambling for things like food and shelter or just scrape by each day, barely making ends meet, stress gets very high and then of course, unhappiness follows.

Not that more money alone can buy happiness.  A widely cited recent report in the journal Nature Human Behavior, based upon interviews with 1.7 million people in 164 countries, concluded that the happiness of people actually peaks and then levels out at about the $60,000 level, which leads to another conclusion. Happiness is also found in the intangibles of this life.  Like love and the depth and quality of our closest relationships. Having work that matters and gives us a purpose.  Feeling safe where we live.  Trusting the people whom we empower to govern us. Having a vision that life can and will get better. Claiming a faith in a power greater than ourselves and drawing comfort from that belief.

The thing I love most about the yearly happiness report is that it challenges us as individuals and communities to ask ourselves: are we happy and if so, why? And if not, why not?  As a person of faith these questions remind me of a wonderful phrase from a familiar prayer, one of the most recognized prayers in all the world, "The Serenity Prayer", written by Reinhold Niebuhr, as in "God grant me the serenity...."  The long version of this prayer, not often cited, prays for this one simple hope: "that I may be reasonably happy in this life." 

Imagine that--being reasonably happy and being happy with that. Not always trying to be amazingly happy, or blissfully happy, or home run happy.  How about "a single up the middle" happy? Or "it's a beautiful sunrise this morning" happy?  Or "my kid brought me a wonderful crayon drawing from school today" happy? Or "I made one other person feel loved" kind of happy? Or "I served another and made the world a better place" happy?

Yes, we do need money to be happy. Nothing wrong with admitting to that truth. Yes, we also need love and security and work and good health to be happy too. But what would it mean for us to also pray for "reasonable happiness"? To temper our sometimes overblown expectations about being happy and instead try and live a life of gratitude for all the God-given gifts of life, the small miracles of life. The grace-filled moments of life. The day to day ways our hearts are touched and our souls are filled as we make our way through each sacred 24 hours?

Might that make us happy too?

So here is a charge for each of us as we go out into our day and our lives. May we seek to be reasonably happy. Pray for it. Look for it. Live it. Then maybe next year we can move up from 18th place.


Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Hate Speech Online:Technology Is Not The Problem. We Are.

"There are no morals about technology..... Technology expands our ways of thinking about things...doing things. If we're bad people we use technology for bad purposes and if we're good people we use it for good purposes."   --Herbert A. Simon, American economist

It's hard to imagine there might be anything more shocking than the massacre last week at two mosques in New Zealand that took the lives of fifty innocent people, the youngest victim just four years old. All those faithful folks murdered in their houses of worship. The fact the attack was carried out by a self avowed white supremacist acting alone: it chills me. Makes me worry that it could happen anywhere, any place, anytime.

But what really shocked me even more so than the act itself, was how a small minority of folks on the internet responded to the attack, which the shooter live streamed on Facebook. With a tiny camera attached to his headgear, that person broadcast to much of the wired world, his evil actions. Second by second, minute by minute, in real time, for millions to view, if they so chose.

Chose to look. Decided to watch. Stared at their screens. Vicariously participated in a way.  But who would do such a thing? View and spread such vile and obscene imagery?

Try at least a million and a half Facebook users. That's the number of folks who as the attack unfolded and immediately afterwards, tried to upload the video onto the wider internet and share it with the rest of the world. Within minutes of the attack's conclusion you could find raw footage on YouTube and Instagram and Snapchat, social media platforms that make such sharing as easy as a few clicks of a mouse.

Who has the heart or the soul to do such a thing?  To spread such hate, disrespect and rejection of basic moral and human decency? The shooting is unfathomable but so too, for me as a human being and child of God, is the fact that it became fodder, even "entertainment" for a small group of people lurking in the hidden shadows of our cyber world--it sickens me. It makes me despair to think there are folks who actually watched the video, who still search the internet for a glimpse.

And so the angry calls by citizens and politicians for tech giants like Google and Facebook to suppress such online hate rise up. We demand they clean up the internet. Police it so that such abhorrent material--and other shocking online images and words--be completely erased. 

Several years ago, Daniel Quinn, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, was kidnapped by ISIS and in 2014 he was executed on camera. I remember thinking then I would never, ever watch such a video. But an internet search even now still turns up hundreds of similar videos. 

The truth is that no matter how hard tech companies try, they will never, ever be able to suppress completely such awful and subhuman images.  They will never be able to censor all the online hate speech in bulletin boards and on Twitter feeds.  Never be fully successful in ridding our cyber world of the more ugly and more sinful reflections of human behavior. Even in places like China and Iran, nations that work in partnership with high tech to limit access to the internet, stuff still gets through.

The hard reality of the technology laden world we live within now is that the problem is not technology alone.  The problem is also human beings. Us. Technology is finally just a tool, an amoral container within which all the very best and the very worst of humanity is on display for all the world to see, us to see, when we decide to look. Or to look away.  Our cyber world is a reflection of humanity, the heights of goodness to which we can aspire and the depths of depravity to which we might stoop. Everything in between too. Cat videos and car crashes. Instant amazing news and fake news. PhD level information and pornography. Live streamed violence and live streamed family reunions.

The genie is out of the bottle. No going back.  

What we can control (or at least try our best to control) is how we live in this wild wired world. We do have the ultimate power to self edit and self censor. To put down our phones. To close up our computers. To be vigilant about where we travel and what we see and read (and what our kids experience) out there on the internet. We can choose not to participate in Twitter hate wars or to follow anonymous hateful trolls or to visit the seedier corners of cyberspace. But still, God help us all.

For when it comes to our brave new world and the question of whether or not to watch? 

That is up to us.         



Monday, March 11, 2019

Beware the Scourge of SOCIALISM In America! Really?!

"Americans shirk the word 'socialism', but what else can one call it?" --H.G. Wells

I talked to my Mom about her doctor's appointment and was so relieved she did not have to pay for that medical care. I took a 763 mile road trip to Columbus, Ohio on Interstate 90, a beautiful stretch of road. Thank goodness I did not have to take a slow local route for my journey. My friend serves in the Coast Guard. I am in awe of his service and commitment to guarding America's borders. I'm a proud graduate of the University of Massachusetts. The reduced costs of state funded schools got me to college. I live in a town that has the top rated public schools in the state. Anyone who moves here can attend for free. I sometimes visit a local county run prison and help lead a gathering on substance abuse and recovery. I pray these men might one day be free and clean and sober. I love and support all of these government programs.

Does that make me a socialist?

Is a socialist one who believes that certain functions are best overseen and run by the government?  Functions that benefit the many, that if the government did not undertake these, no one would. Collecting taxes from the citizenry to fund communal services.  Health care for everyone over the age of 65 and for the poor. Food subsidies for folks who need help to feed themselves or their families. Prisons that house criminals and at their best seek to rehabilitate a person. Public schools that try to guarantee equal access to a good education for all. The military, the biggest part of our federal budget by far, called to defend our nation and fight to keep us and others free. I passionately believe in all of these things as a person of faith and as an American.

Does that make me a socialist?

I ask this because a new election cycle is beginning and yes, I'm just as depressed about that as you are. Candidates fall all over themselves to promise everything and anything. Medicare for all! Break up Facebook and Google! On the other side incumbents use red herrings like the threat of SOCIALISM, to rile up their base and scare the hell out of the rest of the country. This pseudo debate about SOCIALISM is cranking up to eleven in the media. It just may be the central point of contention as 2020 looms.

What's not said is that SOCIALISM, at least in a hybrid form, is already how we do some things in the United States. But nuance is never rewarded in politics. Instead hyperbolic claims like the false enemy or false savior called SOCIALISM is how we do elections. And yes, I promise I will eventually stop writing SOCIALISM in all caps.   

Does government always get it right? No. Like any institution, government wastes money and burdens some with bureaucracy and onerous regulation. Government is made up of fallible human beings, after all, like you and me.

But neither does the private sector always get it right. Drug companies can gouge sick people with outrageous charges for medicines and treatments. Think Mylan, a company that raised the cost of an EpiPen from $50 to $600 and then made a billion dollars. Certain companies don't offer decent health care insurance to employees thus forcing the government to pick up that cost. Think Wal-Mart. Banks have acted recklessly, played fast and loose with depositor's money and put the whole economy at risk.  Think 2008. The private realm is made up fallible human beings, after all, like you and me.          

Here's my witness. I want and need my government to do some things, no question. I want Uncle Sam and Beacon Hill to continue to try and provide health care for as many people as possible. To provide a social safety net for the poorest and the sickest and the oldest of Americans. To build roads and bridges and infrastructure that are safe and efficient. To teach children and youth and young adults for free, to ensure all have a chance at the American dream through the gift of public schools.

I believe in this as an American and as a person of faith. Does that make me a "socialist"?
Well then, I suppose, if we collect Social Security or use Medicare and or go to public schools or drive the Mass Pike or serve in the armed forces, we all get to wear that label.

SOCIALISM! Couldn't help myself.


Wednesday, March 6, 2019

One Year After Parkland: And Youth Shall Show Us the Way of Peace and Justice

“The secret message communicated to most young that they are not needed, that the society will run itself quite nicely until they — at some distant point in the future — will take over the reigns. [But] society is not running itself nicely…the rest of us need all the energy, brains, imagination and talent that young people can bring to bear down on our difficulties."   --Alvin Toffler, American writer and futurist

One year ago this week, our country was reeling from the latest school shooting, a literal Valentine's Day massacre at the Marjorie Stoneman High School in Parkland, Florida. The toll: seventeen students and staff members dead. Seventeen injured. Communities traumatized. Families broken and mourning. Parents around the nation once again wondering about the fate of their children as they send them off to class. 


But then something different happened in the days post Parkland. Unlike after other mass shootings that most often inspired and still inspire lots of vapid "thoughts and prayers" offered by shallow politicians and spineless legislators in the grip of the National Rifle Association, this time the youth, the teens most deeply hurt by this disaster: they decided to act. To get angry. To do something. To do anything. To work to pass laws that would push back against the "normalcy" of kids getting killed for the simple reason that they went to school one day.

Young people from Parkland spoke up and spoke out. Made the rounds on the TV news shows. Called out the hypocrisy of "adults" who claimed to have the best interests of young people in mind but who refused and still refuse to do anything that might disturb the gun lobby that owns Washington, D.C., lock, stock and barrel, from the Oval Office on down.  The Parkland youth organized huge national protests that spawned thousands of local protests and walkout at high schools around the nation.

And guess what? The youth won. Not completely. There is still much to be done to curb gun violence in the United States, but this time young people showed us the way.  

According to a February 13th United Press International story, "The movement after Parkland inspired 27 state legislatures to pass 67 gun-control laws, the most in a single year since the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting in 2012."  Then just last week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a universal comprehensive background check bill, closing a huge loophole in federal law.  While no one law can ensure that folks who should not have guns will not get guns, HR8 makes important progress. 

Yes, the U.S. Senate probably won't even take the bill up for a vote and yes, the White House has already come out strongly against the bill, but its passage is the most significant new gun control legislation in more than a generation. And youth led us. Not high paid lobbyists. Not feckless representatives. Not sound bite media folks.  Not the so-called adults in the room. It was young people.

These days, really all days, adults like to paint a cliché image of youth.  You know, as oh so self involved. In love with their phones and social media and unplugged from current events. Or if youth are politically active, they are much too naive to actually understand how the "real" world works. Condescending elders pat young people on the head and thank them for their ideas and then those same seniors go back to the dangerous and necrotic world of the status quo.  Of politics being about more self preservation and re-election and not so much about courage or protecting the innocent or actually making a difference for the common good.

I've been blessed to be a pastor and teacher to youth for more than thirty years, spent thousands of hours at Sunday night church youth groups and summer church camps and teaching young people in religious education. I would not trade those experiences and community for anything.  Because it has pushed me to open my ears and my heart and my mind, to really listen to and respect the ideals of youth. It makes me recall when as a youth, I was on fire for change. I dreamed of making this world a better place. I refused to accept things as they were just because someone with gray hair told me so.


So one year later: thank you to the young people who showed and show us the way.  Who won't give up.  Who have the energy of being young and filled with hope.  As the preacher Tony Campolo once said, "We are as old as our cynicism and we are as young as our dreams."

Dream on, youth. Dream on.