Who Do We Choose To Be, Part 3: Restoring Sanity

It is a bizarre world now, and it seems to get more insane, polarized, aggressive and anxiety-provoking every day. Nova Scotians are burning indigenous fisheries, the Government of Alberta is attacking health care structures amid a pandemic, and the US election is a dumpster fire that may end in a non-peaceful transition of power. Wheatley’s book predates these particular incidents, but all of them fit her premise that we are in the midst of a culture of collapse – that our era of greed and dominance needs to transition to something more loving and humane. 

I’d like to believe there is more hope than she brings to the table. As a Buddhist, Wheatley interprets the world cyclically and naturally sees our civilization as the end of a cultural cycle. Thus there is nothing individual human agents can do to hold back the tide of insanity at national or global scales – it is what it is. As a Christian, I would disagree on some of these points and argue that this is a time for prayer, fasting and repentance – and that there is ample evidence in history that societal change is possible without war, famine, plague and death. National leaders can arise who inspire humility, service and calm over greed, individualism and violence. But where are they!? Our world is warming, and the ocean is acidifying, poverty and human sufferings are increasing. Our systems are not working, and things are getting worse as we seek distractions instead of solutions. Instead of coming together, we are turning upon one another. 

“As things deteriorate, relationships disintegrate into distrust, self-protection, and opposition. Internal conflicts increase and no one even notices threats to the whole as they fight for their tiny piece of the pie. Leaders use fear to control and manipulate people and everyone moves into self-protection. Distractions, entertainments, and entitlements become primary instruments of allaying people’s fears and controlling them.” (54) 

What I like most about Wheatley’s book is not her prognosis of collapse but her prescription for renewal. Recognizing the emergent nature of reality, she offers strategies for leaders of households and organizations such as businesses, congregations or even small universities to bring sanity during the contextual chaos. This begins with a leader stepping back and looking for trends in how organizational culture is changing. She offers five snapshots in this regard: 

Quality of Relationships: If you were to create a trend line from a few years ago to now and a few years ahead, how are people relating to each other? Has trust increased or declined? Are people more self-protective or less so? Are they more willing to be there for one another, to go the extra mile, or not? What’s your evidence for any of your conclusions?  

Fear versus love: If these are two ends of the spectrum of human emotions, which I believe they are, consider where you see examples of each. Also look for tendencies: which reaction, fear or love, is more likely in specific situations or with specific issues? Are either of these emotions coming to dominate as time goes on? In your leadership, what role does fear play? Are you more fearful? Are you using fear to motivate people? 

Quality of thinking: When a crisis happens, how do you respond? Are your values used to resolve the crisis? Do you consider the future? Is long-term thinking still happening (in conversations, decision-making, planning)? Has it made an impact? If so, is this visible to people? How difficult is it to find time to think, both for yourself and others? 

Willingness to contribute: What invitations to contribute have you extended and why? How have people responded? Ongoing, what are your expectations for people willing to step forward? Are those higher or lower than a few years ago? 

The role of money: How big an influence, as a percentage of other criteria, do financial issues have on decisions? Has money become a motivator for you? For staff? Has selfishness replaced service? How do you know?  

Wheatley suggests responding to an organizational culture focused on fear and the bottom line of money by revitalizing corporate identity around what it means to be human. Sane leadership is “the unshakable faith in people’s capacity to be generous, creative and kind… It is the deep knowing that even in the most dire circumstances, more becomes possible as people engage together with compassion and discernment, self-determining their best way forward.” (32) Leaders need to resist reactivity, self-protection, and denial and instead use their power and influence “to create islands of sanity that evoke and rely on our best human qualities to create, produce, and persevere.” (11) She borrows from Grace Lee Boggs to describe how in islands of sanity, we must rely on human human beings, linked our species’ technical name: homo sapiens sapiens. (166) Top-down god-playing leaders who have narcissistically ascended above other human human beings will not create islands of sanity. 

To be sane in today’s world, Wheatley suggests new skills. She advocates mindfulness as a mechanism to deal with the difficult emotional and personal triggers that emerge every day (264). Mindfulness practices will enable a leader to create space to find responses that generate possibilities rather than aggression and to develop a stable mind. “The intent of any mindfulness practice is to know yourself, not to become peaceful. Knowing how your own mind works makes it possible to stay present and engaged in hypercharged situations without losing your cool… There is no other way to prepare oneself for the difficulties, tragedies, and insanity that will continue to escalate. We can’t change this world, but we can change ourselves so that we can be of service to the world.”  

Leaders also need to develop participative process skills, especially listening, conflict resolution and problem-solving (198). The mark of a sane leader is collaboration, not decisiveness. Meaningful work involves a life of service, and thus servanthood should be the mark of a leader. “In this time of rising insanity and brutality, work that engages our better human qualities is a gift we can offer to others. This is why we create islands of sanity, so that more of us can experience the gift of doing meaningful work on behalf of others. How wonderful to have the chance to engage together in doing good work, no matter what is going on around us. We are richly blessed.” (270) This highly relational approach gets back to the root of what it means to be a human being. Life is about connectedness and relationships. “In a world preoccupied with meaningless tasks, people are ever more eager to engage in work that offers a chance to contribute, to remember how good it is to be a thinking, contributing colleague. These days, having one good conversation can reintroduce us to what it feels like to be in a satisfying human relationship. The same is true when we have the opportunity to think together and come up with a solution to a troubling situation. The human qualities that have become distant memories, or never known at all, come flooding in when we work together for a common purpose. Meaningful work reawakens us to what it feels like to be human human beings.” (267) 

For a long time, I thought I might be able to change the world. In middle age, I’m much less optimistic that my fantasies of ending poverty, alleviating the mental health crisis among young adults, or solving climate change will come to fruition through my influence. I resonate with Wheatley’s wrestling about what it means to make a difference in the world today. “If it’s not creating change at the large scale, if it’s not striving to reintroduce sane decision making into large systems, if it doesn’t stop the disintegration, then what does it mean to make a difference?… I have sat with this question for years, and I haven’t found an answer that stops the niggling voice of ‘yes, but surely you can think of something with more impact…’ The simple answer is found in all philosophies and spiritual traditions: Focus on serving others. Serve the individual; serve small groups; serve an entire community or organization. No matter what is going on around us, we can attend to the people in front of us, to the issues confronting us and there, we can offer what we can. We can offer insight and compassion. We can be present. We can stay and not flee. We can be examples of the best human qualities. This is a life well-lived, even if we didn’t save the world.” (269) 

Ultimately, Wheatley asks who we choose to be as a leader in this time (249). In her wrestling with this question, she has concluded that this means becoming a warrior of the human spirit. She links this to the Tibetan Shambala Warriors who would arm themselves only with compassion and insight. “A Warrior for the Human Spirit is a decent human being who aspires to be of service in an indecent, inhumane time… Warriors remember what it means to behave decently, ethically. We remember the capacities that every human being possesses. We affirm and work with these forgotten qualities through our presence and our wise actions. And in all we do, we consciously try to refrain from adding to the confusion, aggression and fear overwhelming most people.” (255) 

She finds Warriors of the human spirit in her study of the history of collapsing civilizations, quoting historian Sir John Glubb: “While despair might permeate the greater part of the nation, others achieved a new realization of the fact that only readiness for self-sacrifice could enable a community to survive. Some of the greatest saints in history lived in times of national decadence, raising the banner of duty and service against the flood of depravity and despair.” (252) 

Finally, Wheatley concludes with the most meaningful passage for my own wrestling with where I might go to serve in these troubling times. I’m already there, and likely you are as well: “Wherever you’re working is where you take your stand. You don’t have to go looking for new places, other issues, compelling causes. If you’re in a school, a financial firm, the UN, a refugee camp, a small nonprofit, a church, a hospital – wherever you are, stay there and notice the abundance of warrior opportunities. It may well be they you are already operating in this way – speaking up against unjust actions, influencing policies to address root causes, reminding decision makers what statistics mean in terms of human costs, going to bat for a colleague who’s been wrongfully harmed by administrative action, calling attention to new populations that need services, bearing witness to those whose suffering cannot be solved, comforting a sorrowful person or child… What’s common in all these actions is that human beings are at the center. By our actions, we call attention to people and their suffering. And we act where we can to support and console those near us.” (263) 

Part 1

Part 2

Reasons to Stay Alive

Pandemic Book Recommendation #17: Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig

Depression and anxiety are not new. Two months ago, we were in the midst of a mental health crisis among youth and young adults. The onset of a pandemic, social distancing measures, and an economic downturn is likely to increase this trend. Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive was handed to me a few years ago by a student who struggled daily with suicidal ideation. Haig’s words were personal, relatable and life-giving to this person, who wanted me to have the book so I could share it with others. I’m glad I had it on my shelf because it genuinely has been a helpful resource for others – and at times for me.

Matt Haig is an English novelist and journalist – author of many popular works, including The Humans, The Last Family in England, The Possession of Mr. Cave, The Radleys, and many others. Reasons to Stay Alive is Haig’s telling of his journey through darkness and ultimate triumph over a depression that nearly took his life. It is the story of how he learned to live again, told through a series of short thoughts and reflections.

His reason for writing the book speaks for itself: “Ever since I realized that depression lied about the future, I have wanted to write a book about my experience, to tackle depression and anxiety head-on. So this book seeks to do two things. To lessen that stigma, and – the possibly more quixotic ambition – to try and actually convince people that the bottom of the valley never provides the clearest view. I wrote this because the oldest cliches remain the truest. Time heals. The tunnel does have light at the end of it, even if we aren’t able to see it. And there’s a two-for-one offer on clouds and silver linings. Words, just sometimes, can set you free.”

He has a chapter for men called, “Boys Don’t Cry,” in which he explores why more men die by suicide than women. Haig shares, “You are no less or more of a man or a woman or a human for having depression than you would be for having cancer or cardiovascular disease or a car accident… It is not you. It is simply something that happens to you. And something that can often be eased by talking. Words. Comfort. Support.”

Parts of the book are raw, and as someone who has only journeyed to the outer reaches of depression, I would think this would not be a book I would want to pick up in my darkest moments. But for many, including the student who gave it to me, those are the very times to read it. Haig has been to those darkest of dark places, and he lived to tell about it. He hopes we will continue the journey with him, and thus he provides compelling, poetic, and hopeful reasons to stay alive.

“I am you and you are me.
We are alone, but not alone.
We are trapped by time, but also infinite.
Made of flesh, but also stars.”

He borrows from his novel, The Humans, to make a point that minds move: “Your mind is a galaxy. More dark than light. But the light makes it worthwhile. Which is to say, don’t kill yourself. Even when the darkness is total. Always know that life is not still. Time is space. You are moving through that galaxy. Wait for the stars.”

There are many things in his book we need to hear and receive during this time of global crisis. “Nothing lasts forever. The pain won’t last. The pain tells you it will last. Pain lies. Ignore it. Pain is a debt paid off with time.”

At the end of the book, he includes sections providing steps and resources for getting help. In case you are reading this at a dark time and the book is not at hand, here are a few of them:

Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention

Centre for Suicide Prevention

eMentalHealth.ca

Kids Help Phone

Teen Mental Health

The Lifeline Mobile App

The bright morning star and the fruit tree: metaphors for hope in these troubled times

Pandemic Book Recommendation #9, Part 3: Hope

Part 2: Ideology

Part 1 Idolatry

Every day during this pandemic, I find it more difficult to see hope, especially when it comes to COVID-19’s spread across America. My oldest daughter is in Phoenix, and my family, including my parents, are spread across West Virginia and Kentucky. The slow daily crawl watching the case numbers climb is like a dawdling spiritual poison from a drug that takes weeks to finish its work.  Nonetheless, hope is always available if we are willing to seek it out. I’m trying. Bob Gouzwaard, Mark Vander Vennen and David Van Heemst remind us that hope is real because, “at its core, it is not a human creation. It attaches itself directly to the faith that God is deeply engaged in all of human history.” (172)

The conclusion of their book contains themes and metaphors of hope that apply to the tragic realities of pandemic. Some of their tropes are extraordinary and have consumed a few classes worth of past discussions in my courses. There is no space here for unpacking the circle and the cross (175), the periscope (181), the minesweeper (184), or the rope-ladder (187). Here I will only stick to two that seem most pertinent.

The Morning Star

There are beautiful signs of hope in the form of front-line health care workers sacrificing their own lives and safety to serve others – but even these stories exist in the context of tragedy. My Facebook feed is awash in the language of fear, blame and shock. When will this end? Where is God?

The authors of Hope in Troubled Times remind us that “Christian hope is a hope of contrast: it revives in the middle of the night, just when darkness seems to overpower us.” (176) They use the Biblical image of the morning star, which appears at the bleakest hours of the night, as a demonstration of the defeat of darkness. When the star appears, the morning is behind it. In the last words Jesus spoke to his disciples, he proclaimed, “I am… the bright morning star.” (Rev. 22:16)

The book of Esther in the Bible does not contain a mention of God. Yet, Esther’s name means “morning star.” She lived when the elimination of Israel appeared as fate. God seemed absent – but was there all along. “Miracles did not save Israel, at least not miracles as we understand them. But as a God who works hiddenly, God linked his saving acts to the act of Esther, who in obedience put her own life in jeopardy… When Esther is seen in the darkness of exile, that is the sign of daybreak. Where God in his hiddenness can be delineated, there is sign that the defeat of the night has come.” (177) Our front line health care workers are the Esthers of our day – the bright morning stars revealing the light that, though dim now, is soon to awaken the morning.

The Fruit Tree

I have suggested through the lens of this book that we are living in an age in which progress and material prosperity is the reigning ideology, perhaps to the point where economic growth has become an idol. This tragic pandemic can act as a catalyst for us to search our hearts about how we want to live in the coming post-COVID-19 world. The authors provide the fruit tree as a helpful metaphor in this regard.

“No fruit tree is inclined to grow infinitely in height. If it did so, it would have to jettison all of its inefficient cells. It would have to put greater pressure on the soil and forgo the production of fruit entirely. Instead, at a certain point a fruit tree exercises built-in wisdom to redirect its growth energies away from expansion in height and toward the production of fruit. It reaches a saturation point and recognizes it as such. This allows the tree to create room to build up reserves and then to redirect its growth energies toward the production of fruit.” (191)

Like fruit trees, our economies – at the scales of the household and the nation – were not intended to grow infinitely forever. Like trees, we arrive at saturation points in which we have a choice to re-orient our energies toward the production of fruit rather than infinite growth. The authors suggest we “take one decisive, perhaps painful, but also realistic step back from the economic goal that hypnotizes us.” On the other side of this pandemic, we can choose to develop a pre-care economy as opposed to a post-care economy. This would place care needs first rather than last on a list of priorities. We could turn away from simplistic material expansion and toward sustainable economies that build community, meet the needs of the poor, and invest in the preservation of culture and the environment. Perhaps one of our problems is that “we have failed to imagine that the world can operate in any other way.” (192)

Hope in Troubled Times, Part 2: Ideology

My son Brendan and I are reading the book Collapse together while we are social distancing. (Look for a recommendation on this one down the road). His favourite chapter thus far has been about Easter Island, where the population used all the resources at their disposal in a tribal race to honour their ancestors through what Brendan calls Yum-Yum heads. Author Jared Diamond queries what the person who cut down the last tree might have been thinking. Likely they were so entrenched in the ideology of the time they were not cognizant of the consequences: starvation and the loss of 90% of the population. 

This post is part two in a longer than usual recommendation for the book Hope In Troubled Times by Bob Gouzwaard, Mark Vander Vennen and David Van Heemst. Yesterday I addressed idolatry through the lens of the book and recent opinions that the US should jump-start the economy by Easter. Today I’m looking at how this may reveal one of the dominant ideologies of our day.

In the volume, ideology is defined as “the entire set of conceptions and beliefs subscribed to by a specific group of people.” (32) It can also mean “a deliberate political attempt to systematically regulate or manipulate people’s currently held ideas in order to achieve certain societal ends.” (33) Ideology has three primary components:

  1. Absolutized political or societal end goals.
  2. A redefinition of currently held values, norms and ideas to such an extent that they legitimize in advance the practical pursuit of the predetermined end.
  3. Establishing a standard by which to select the means or instruments necessary for effectively achieving the all-important goal. (33)

The core idea is that within an ideology, the end goal becomes paramount, and anything getting in the way of that goal is ascribed as evil. The authors use the French Revolution, Nazism, and Communism as examples, demonstrating how each was crafted toward a non-negotiable end and had specific people or ideas that were considered evil. In Nazism, for example, the Jews were declared to be evil itself because they opposed the overarching end. (34)  The authors go into considerable detail on the phases of ideological development: conception, actualization, (re)construction, domination, terror, dissolution. (52-55) There is more on ideology than I’m going to describe here, which is why this is a book recommendation. Check it out!

Of interest today is one of the four ideologies that Goudzwaard et al. argue exist in our current era: “The pursuit of more material wealth or prosperity and the opportunity for continued material progress.” (38) To be fair, the authors are not entirely convinced material progress and prosperity are full-fledged ideologies in the same sense as Communism or Nazism. They call for caution. Nonetheless, they cite some interesting trends that point to the existence of an ideology, beginning with socioeconomic paradoxes that border on absurdities.

  1. The poverty paradox: “Despite an unprecedented expansion of wealth, recent years have witnessed unpredicted increases in situations of deepening poverty.” This is the case not only in developing nations but in the world’s richest countries. “If material prosperity expands in a country, then why has poverty not been alleviated in tandem with that expansion?” (87)
  2. The care paradox: “Opportunities for extending care are steadily eroding in increasingly wealthy societies.” We are seeing the realities of this right now in the pandemic. Countries like the US should be the most financially prepared for such a disaster. Clearly, this is not the case. (87)
  3. The time paradox: Prosperity should bring more free time for leisure and the enjoyment of wealth. However, at least before social distancing measures, our pace has accelerated, and the effects of stress and burnout are evident.
  4. The environment paradox: “The application of improved technologies, more economic resources, and a series of international agreements has not been able to turn the tide of environmental destruction.” (88)

The authors root these paradoxes within the tensions between dynamism and production – “the tension between what can progress and what can scarcely progress.” (90) Poverty results because many in society cannot keep up with the pace of change due to structural, educational, or economic factors. Care as an economic activity cannot keep up because the costs and prices of service increase proportionately faster than productive sectors. Society tends to view anything economically stationary as regressive. This means the only real response available to the care sector in this paradigm is to find ways to increase efficiencies, which means less staff and equipment (as continuously seen in the news this very day). Things are worse for the time paradox and environment paradox as these are impediments to increased productivity. These paradoxes cannot be solved by more money, technology or science precisely because they flow out of “the excess of the forces of unlimited development.” (91)

The ideological conclusion: “The spreading scourge of paradoxes in our society is a sign or signal that our society does not allow the negative and even risky consequences of paradoxes to overrule the belief that, above all, else, the current dynamism must be sustained and expanded.” (91) More succinctly, we live within an ideology of endless progress. The means of this progress are the economy, technology and science. The idea that we must keep progressing has become an absolute end that seems irrefutable to many. Progressives arguing for the preservation of the environment or social justice become evil opponents in this ideology. It is not surprising that we are willing to sacrifice 1 to 3% of the population in America if those individuals, who are not economically productive, put the ultimate end of the ideology at risk. The economy simply must grow, and we must become more prosperous. There is no alternative.

Tomorrow I’ll look at how the realization of and repentance from this ideology can lead to hope in these troubled times.

Pandemic Book Recommendation #9: Hope in Troubled Times, Part 1: Idolatry

I started this blog as an attempt to stay mentally healthy and positive during a time of social distancing. Many others have used social media as a platform for humour in this time of trial, and I’ve enjoyed seeing and relating to the many Facebook memes involving homeschooling, cats and social distancing. It worked for a few days. But two days ago I “popped” watching events unfolding in my home country. The context involved the government abandoning the advice of health experts and reopening the US economy to jump-start economic growth.

In the late evening of March 23, I posted the following on Facebook, “What we saw today in President Trump’s speech reveals the true god America worships. What do you say about a society that is willing to offer human sacrifices to appease the invisible hand of the market so we can all go back to consumption at the malls and prosperity in the stock market? Sacrifice the creation to this god – of course! Sacrifice the poor – no problem! Now we also appear to be willing to sacrifice our parents and grandparents. When will we confess and repent?”

Needless to say, this post started a bit of a discussion – and not much of it was touchy-feely or positive. The statement encapsulates a breadth of literature that is worth considering in these difficult days of pandemic. So, I’m going to step away from the positive self-help books for a few days and try to be a bit more prophetic in this blog. No matter your religious persuasion (or the lack thereof), consider looking at the monumental decisions being made in the United States through the lens of idolatry.

In 2007 Bob Gouzwaard, Mark Vander Vennen and David Van Heemst wrote Hope for Troubled Times: A New Vision for Confronting Global Crises. The volume is as important today as it was a decade ago when I started using it in some of my courses. I’m not going to provide a full review of it here, but rather use the book as a lens to consider how our current reliance on progress and economic growth could be an idol, in the fashion of the gods our ancestors would have crafted from wood or stone. I’ll make subsequent posts linking this idolatry to ideology, and then discuss hope for moving forward.

To start, the authors do assert that nothing is inherently evil about the economy, money or the market (170). Nonetheless, like wood or clay, these things can be formed into an apparatus to be worshiped. They describe three steps through which idol worship unfolds. First, people objectify the god using material available in order to bring the god closer. The image acts as an access point or gateway to the divine. Then people venerate the idol by bringing it sacrifices. Finally, people gradually become “reshaped and transformed into the likeness of their gods” (40).

Idols have mouths, but cannot speak,
Eyes, but they cannot see;
They have ears, but cannot hear,
Noses, but they cannot smell;
They have hands, but cannot feel,
Feet, but they cannot walk;
Nor can they utter a sound with their throats.
Those who make them will be like them,
And so will all who put their trust in them. (Ps. 115:5-8)

The authors assert that fear is what drives the final step. The image of their god may remain opaque, but its representation becomes very real. “The power that people delegate to the idol is a power that both saves and destroys. As such, it instills deeper and deeper anxiety. The slightest misstep can trigger the wrath of the idol, a wrath that may bring people to ruin. Serving idols therefore always brings with it a form of hypnosis, a hypnotic narrowing of consciousness. People’s perception of reality shrinks into a matter of merely finding the right type of interaction with the idol. But by then the god has, to some extent, assumed control: it now largely charts its own autonomous course. When that occurs, fear becomes the chief characteristic of life, and the sense of betrayal is pervasive.” (41)

Today it is quite common to hear the market described using terminology usually reserved for the religious realm. This involves not only the market’s saving power but also the sacrifices needed to maintain it.

– “We must follow the dictates of the market.”
– “Only economic growth can save us.”
– “All groups in society need to make sacrifices for a better future.” (97)

We are hearing this very language right now in the debate to jump-start the economy at the expense of the lives of front line health care workers and seniors. These sound profoundly religious, and this is not accidental. “It hints at decisions made about ultimate meaning, done either openly or unconsciously, without which people do not see life as feasible. Imitation saviors still move among us, and we see them as entitled to demand sacrifices.” (98)

Goudzwaard et al. make a strong argument that in the west, we are now trapped inside the cocoon of a perspective that will only consider solutions in line with the way we define progress (25). We have become consumed and obsessed with reaching our goals regardless of the cost. They argue that this is idolatrous in the sense that we exalt our goals of endless progress and material prosperity as the very powers that will deliver us to this end. In this manner, we have become dependent on our creations. But at a cost!

“The gods never leave their makers alone. As soon as people put themselves in a position of dependence on their gods, invariably the moment comes when those things or forces gain the upper hand, when they begin to mold the lives and thoughts of their adherents. Humanly made things or forces begin to control their makers even to the point where they become powers of domination. Against them the human will weakens or even vanishes, while the initial goals tend to become bleak, obscured, or forgotten, building in the moment when the gods’ betrayal becomes transparent. But by then it could be too late.” (27)

These times call for serious introspection and reflection. The economy is a social construct. Have we crafted a god in the form of material prosperity? If so, are we truly willing to pay the price of tribute? Are we so obsessed with our individual net worth and our collective GDP that we are willing to make this level of sacrifice to jump-start the economy? The rest of the world is prioritizing the lives and wellbeing of citizens – the very things the market was originally intended to enhance. Will America offload its responsibilities to fellow citizens and allow a false god to dictate the horrible sacrifices required? If so, can we continue to claim that America is a Christian nation?

Coming Up:
Part 2: Ideology
Part 3: Hope in Troubled Times