The Stress Dream

I had a nightmare last night. Don’t worry, this ends well.

Work and my extracurricular activities have been picking up a lot lately, and I have begun to worry that I was going back to the hectic life that I was relieved to get a break from in this involuntary Long Sabbath. Then a water main broke in front of my house. It broke at a point before anyone’s home supply line on the county-owned part of the front yard, so the county promptly came and fixed it, but it flooded the street, my front yard, and my neighbor’s yard, crawlspace, and pool. It was quite unpleasant and stressful.

My brain processed the stress the way it usually does, with a stress dream. The dream I had was particularly realistic, in that I was strongly in touch with my feelings and senses and there were lots of unrelated flourishes. I could smell the breath of one person I was talking to. A friend was going through a rough time and began to cry, and I gave them a hug. But I had my own rough time to go through.

My typical stress dream is that I am back at Princeton, where I did my undergraduate education. It’s usually late in the semester, and I realize there’s one class I’ve just been blowing off. A feeling of terror builds in my solar plexus as I try to figure out how I’m not going to fail. The outcome beyond having to retake the class is never clear, but I’m always certain this means that something Very Bad is also going to happen.

So I had this dream again, with the attendant additional details. My professor who I had blown off was Mr. Lieu and was from China. He was teaching some complex math class which I saw in my mind as discrete math. He was difficult to understand in the way I found professors difficult to understand in my real-life freshman year. (My Dutch physics professor who I mistook for German, a language I actually spoke, was my real-life linguistic nemesis then because I hadn’t had any exposure to different accents.)

Mr. Lieu’s class was at 10:30 am, and I hadn’t been going, as I was dealing with the lives and loves of my friends from the dream, and also moving this guitar case-sized, shrink-wrapped container around my childhood home while my neighbor could be overheard tearfully talking about leaving her husband through the window. (It was a dream, after all.)

So the moment of realization hits, and I realize that I’ve been blowing off this class. But this time, rather than wringing my hands, I decide on a different plan. I go to the lecture hall where the exam is happening and climb down the steep stairs, maneuvering around some of the tiny fixed desks. As I approach, the professor is providing instruction in what sounds like Thai or Cambodian, a language he also apparently speaks, to a student who is asking a question. I ask for a word in private, and I can see mild exasperation in his eyes, but a willingness to talk.

We go behind a curtain, and I tell him that I wish to abjectly apologize for missing his class. I tell him it wasn’t because I didn’t think it was important or I was being lazy, but it was because I had a block and just became too afraid to go. He was surprised and his demeanor changed. He said, “I thought you were just sleeping.” I said, “no, I don’t have trouble making any of my other classes. I just have a block with this one.” He told me that I have to have an appreciation for art and beauty to be able to enjoy math, and then we made a plan for how to bring my love for my other subjects into his class when I took it again the following semester.

I awoke from a stress dream feeling relieved, which was a disorienting feeling. I got out of bed and looked out of the window. The yard was completely patched up and the water was flowing again. The yard will need some TLC in the section near the main, but the real-life nightmare was also over.

Grabbing a stress dream by the horns and going through felt like a message. We are in something that feels very much like a stress dream right now, and Very Bad always feels like it’s around the corner. But what I think my dream was telling me was that stress might rise, the Very Bad Thing might even happen, but it will be okay. Until we are called on to the next phase of this cosmic journey, the sun will rise. This thing keeps moving at 186,282 miles per second through time, regardless of what we do.

There are problems we have no control over, like the water main break, and there are problems we can control, like my slowly repacking schedule. For the former, we can find equanimity and acknowledge the difficulty without being consumed. For the latter, we can decide to accept our consequences from the mistakes we have made and move forward, or we can allow the current to carry us away and feel powerless in our own story.

Sweet dreams, y’all. But if they’re not, I hope they’re at least enlightening.

Two Views of a Secret

There are two ways to create a secret.

The first way is to take information that no one knows and share it with a limited number of people. Each person is responsible for not sharing the information.

The second way is to forget what was once widely known. If you choose this way to create a secret, it helps if you can accelerate the forgetting by creating an alternate narrative.

The first kind of secret is what we typically think of when we think of a conspiracy. Unsolved assassinations, plots to steal sensitive information, and the like fall into this category. The second kind we typically don’t think about at all. After all, we forgot.

The reason why much of the history of this country is so implausible is because we mistake the second kind of secret for the first. We hear about mass roundup and abuse of Native children through the Indian School movement, or federal, state, and local authorities coordinating on efforts to economically disenfranchise black people, or even the true scope of the horrors permitted during slavery, and dismiss it. Too many people would have to be in on it. We process that kind of evil individually and conclude: “not possible.”

However, even a cursory review of primary sources exposes the truth. The first kind of secret is in the context of policy or governance is countercultural. It’s something that people would be offended to know about and that you’d get in trouble if found out. The second kind, however, is built on the fact that the ideas we say we find abhorrent today were not controversial in the time they were created.

Research reveals that your average citizen of the time was not offended by the idea of taking a Native child from his family, putting him in a boarding school, and treating him harshly until he learned to be “civilized”. They might have been offended by learning about the sexual abuse or the degree of physical abuse he suffered, but that part of the secret was the first kind, as it always has been. It only required a perpetrator, a victim, and an uncaring administration looking the other way.

Lynchings in the South were not abhorrent to the average white citizen. How could they be when half the county showed up? I think they may have been viewed as unfortunate, the way many view the death penalty today, but not offensive to the conscience. If the lynched had complied with the law, they thought. If they had not touched or eyeballed that girl. Even if it was by accident, they needed to know their place. These thoughts were not secret to the people of the time. They were public and freely shared at town halls or at barbecues.

America isn’t unique or exceptional in its structural injustices compared to other empires in history. However, it is exceptional in its ability to engage in denial. As we have moved into the current age, we have papered over this history with a complex web of re-imaginings, partial truths, and blatant lies about who we have been. When we make Native people mythical figures like elves in Tolkienesque fantasies, we can conveniently make them vanish from “human lands” the way the fey did in the stories from across the sea. When we use the blood of Rev. Dr. King as a propitiating sacrifice for the sins of the nation against black people, we can declare ourselves sin-free and clean, and not look at how the structures we set up continue to grind up black bodies and spirits. When we let the Lost Cause mythology from the defeated South dominate our understanding of what and why the Civil War was, it is not a far leap to having white people who were organized by wealthy backers and who truck with Confederate apologists and neo-Nazis be portrayed as freedom fighters like Rosa Parks instead of as the literal and ideological children and grandchildren of the people who fought against her.

The solution to understanding a secret, and understanding whether you should believe what you hear when you are told one, is this. If you are being told a secret of the first kind, how many people have to be in on it for it to be true? If thousands of people have to keep a tight-lipped secret, while acting against their expected interests, it’s unlikely that that’s a real secret. For the second kind, we can look at the primary and secondary sources from the era. Who would those people have been? What would they honestly have thought? And what sadness or shame do they or their descendants get to hide from if they tell a story that completely contradicts the data?

To understand the breadth and depth of a historical secret, don’t ask your favorite conservative or liberal pundits what the story is. Instead, read the sources and voices of the time and listen to what they would tell you themselves. 

The Game – A Reflection on Voting

If you are still sore from the Bernie loss, come back to this one in a few days, maybe. I’m not trying to salt the wound. This will also not be explicitly an advocacy of Biden.

Politics is a complicated game. It has multiple, simultaneous rounds across multiple fields, and the plays in one field affect other future rounds in other fields. Today’s city councilor is tomorrow’s Congresswoman. Today’s school board member is tomorrow’s state rep.

The rules of the particular form of the game in our nation also dictate different voting patterns than we’d like to believe are possible. Our limited civics education says to vote for whomever we like, whenever, even if we write them in. And we legally and morally can do just that. However, The Game, when applied to a general election of party candidates, shows that we are limited to what’s on offer from the survivor of each party’s winnowing process.

When I look at the 2020 round of the Presidential Field of The Game, there are now two choices, Biden and Trump. I could vote for others, but given that actual presidential candidates could not muster enough voters to turn the tide, I see no reason why I should assume my arbitrary alternative vote will affect anything.

This leaves me with two candidates in a zero-sum game. Most would argue I have 3 choices: Biden, Trump, or None Of The Above. For the reasons I described, NOTA can’t win on a national scale. And whoever gets more votes wins. This means that not voting for Biden is effectively the same as voting for Trump. It also means the converse: not voting for Trump is the same as voting for Biden.

It is important to note that this is not a moral argument. It could be two of the most enlightened, pleasant, and benevolent people on Earth running, and the same would be true. A vote withheld from one helps the other cross 50%. If we were playing a different game, like ranked choice voting, we could do some different strategies. But this game requires a vote, and choosing not to vote is still a vote for one choice or the other.

It is your decision whether you think that a Biden regime would engage in exactly the same behaviors as a Trump regime. That’s not an argument I’m interested in having today. It’s your decision whether you think a Democratic Congress would have better luck passing their policies with a Democratic President, and your decision whether that’s something you want to happen.

You may want to burn it all down, and that is a choice you can make, too. You can sweep the pieces off of the board and if you’re strong enough and convince enough people, declare a new game with new rules. You can focus on different fields of play where you have more influence, like local races, and create laboratories for your beliefs in your city, county, or state. But what you cannot do is change the game by sitting on the sidelines because you don’t like either candidate for one round on one field of play.

So, keep fighting for your values, whether they are represented on that one field of play or not. Get local candidates that reflect your desires elected, or be one. Join local parties and change them. The Game is far from over. Play to win.

The Long Sabbath

Everyone is dealing with the science-fiction novel we’ve found ourselves in the middle of in their own way. Introverts are snuggling in with a secret smile, while extraverts literally and figuratively climb the walls. People of all social inclinations with anxiety are struggling. We’re all trying to figure out how much food to buy, how seriously to take the precautions.

Time to Reflect

While, like many of you, I am fearful of what may be coming, and I certainly do not want anyone to suffer or die, I find myself experiencing a kind of gratitude about this moment. At last, I can stop pretending that these other things matter more than being at home with my family. I can spend a little more time thinking about and caring for people I love, and doing things I enjoy. I’m grateful that our society that never stops is being forced to take a sabbath and stop to breathe.

Paul of Tarsus, who wrote much of the New Testament, liked to refer to himself as “chief among sinners” when explaining what people should do. I love that phrase because it reminds me to not be high and mighty when making recommendations. So please understand I’m chief among sinners when I tell you to unplug from social media some. I had to stop yesterday and just listen to white noise for an hour because I got my social media flywheel spinning.

Anxiety doesn’t just manifest as direct fear of bad things and that feeling in your stomach. It can also manifest as obsessive news checking, or”patrolling” back and forth among sites to find out what’s happening and how people are doing. That’s how mine shows in times like these. So unplug, and take some time doing something else, anything else. Play a game, go outside (at a safe distance from your neighbors), cook a meal that you wouldn’t typically take the time to prepare.

I encourage you to use some of this quiet time to reconnect with your spiritual practices. When the world around us is quiet, we’re faced with ourselves. Frankly, that’s why most of us keep ourselves so busy — so we don’t have to face ourselves and our pain. Our busy world being slowed to a halt is the emotional equivalent of being placed in a sensory deprivation tank. The difference is that instead of hallucinations, we’re instead faced with the emotions and fears we’ve been suppressing to maintain our function in this obsessively productive society.

I am a Christian and find the notion of being able to lay my weaknesses and fears out before God to take and replace with God’s strength and power comforting, but other people may experience that differently. Whatever you do, take some time each day to connect with your spiritual source, meditate, and calm your soul.

Time To Give

Even as I write about my gratitude, I recognize what a privileged position I sit in to even think about a month or more off in that way. I worry for my friends who are in the service industry or who work in other fields that will be hammered by this quarantine. I encourage us to check in on those folks and consider redirecting our donations to large organizations to local groups that care for people in precarious jobs like The Giving Kitchen or your local equivalent. Buy gift certificates for local restaurants that you can use when this is over.

If you know people directly, you can give directly as you feel led and as you feel comfortable. Not loan, give. And wherever you give, do it locally. If we all focus on our community rather than on the loudest or most well-marketed groups out there, we can ensure that everyone is covered.

A Human-Centered Society

The phrase that has been on my mind a lot lately is “human-centered“. We have constructed a profit and productivity-centered society, instead of a human-centered society. When computers increased our productivity, we decided to produce a lot more instead of pay that dividend to people in terms of a shorter work-week or better pay. The 40-hour workweek itself is a construct, granted one that saved us from a worse scenario, but it is not based in any psychology or science that I am aware of. There are no rules that require humans to be busy on tasks that don’t directly keep them alive and are not spiritually or mentally fulfilling for 40 hours a week.

We’re learning a lot of things about our society that we thought were true simply are not. Slate published an article talking about this issue a directly and coarsely, but their points are completely on. If we are suspending student loan interest for a crisis, why have it at all if student loans are an investment in our people? If wildly profitable businesses find it in their hearts to offer paid leave all of a sudden, or jails choose not to hold low-risk offenders, or we stop shutting off water, why can’t we just have that as part of a society? These are the questions people well on the left of our political spectrum have been asking all along.

The Return

When this ends, and God willing, it will end in the next few weeks, there will be a return to social, busy life. When the businesses and government entities that so benevolently enacted human-centered policies try to roll them back, let’s stay their hand. Let’s ask, “If you survived this, let’s stop and do the math. Could you survive such policies permanently?”

Why shouldn’t most people who can do so work remote, reducing traffic and stress and increasing productivity per unit of time worked?

Why can’t we have a society with guaranteed paid leave?

Why should people spend protracted amounts of time in jail for non-violent, low-risk offenses?

What are the services do we see as necessary to public health that we don’t provide until there’s a global emergency?

Should we keep providing those so that we can mitigate another emergency?

When we return, let’s not plug back into the proverbial Matrix. Let’s demand a human-centered approach to every aspect of our society. Let’s build a society where cold, metallic towers of money aren’t the only place we can find joy, where hoarding resources isn’t necessary because we are whole inside and don’t need to fill a hole with things.

It sounds idealistic and ridiculous to many. But isn’t the idea that the entire industrial complex would pull together to enact human-centered policies in less than a week to prevent a pandemic from killing us all ridiculous? Isn’t it ridiculous that for all our wealth and productivity, we are so vulnerable in the first place because we haven’t thought about the human cost of what we’ve built?

Stay smart, stay safe, and may God bless and keep you and those you love through this season.



The War on Greetings – A Holiday Reflection

This year, I am angrier than usual about the weaponization of “Merry Christmas”. It seems so selfish and insular, not to mention completely outside the spirit, to either spit “Merry Christmas” from the mouth like acid or to say it with a wink and a secret gesture, as if you’re a persecuted minority rather than a former hegemonic force that has curled inward on itself.

For those in both camps, I know it is hard to imagine any status other than domination or persecution. But the spirit of Jesus’s teaching was to bring a new order, not shaped or threatened by the realpolitik of the age, but powered entirely by love. Interfaith relationship shouldn’t be hard for Christians. The call to keep telling the story is not a call to subjugate others at the foot of the cross, but a call to invite, welcome, and receive any who would come of their own accord, complete with all cultural folkways and ways of being that do not directly contradict. Moreover, the call, even above the sharing of the story, is to love our neighbor, without restriction or limits.

The Christmas we celebrate is syncretic, with trees from Celtic and Northern European traditions, gift exchange from the Romans and older traditions, feasting from time immemorial. The date itself aligns with the Winter Solstice, not actual records of Jesus’s birthday. (Everyone knows Jesus was a Leo.) We shouldn’t put on too many airs about our Christian purity and piety in our celebration of the season as we do.

If you know your neighbor is Christian, sure, say Merry Christmas, just don’t get all Cyclops in Watchmen about it. If not, just say Happy Holidays. Or say both. If someone says Happy Hanukkah to me, I am pleased to receive a kind word, not trying to figure out what that means for Jewish-Christian relations.

If you want to honor that baby born to a marginalized family at the edge of a powerful kingdom, love your neighbor well by meeting them where they are.

Merry Christmas, and Happy Holidays.

A Meditation on Loving Oneself, in Practice

(inspired by reflection on a post I made to FB a year ago)

I had an obvious revelation yesterday, but I saw it in a new way. I’m on Day 4 of a personal yoga practice, just 15 minutes in the morning. I have to do something like this daily because I have a lot of low back pain and stiffness due to tight hip flexors. I’m still in pain (it’s only Day 4) but the pain gets a little bit less each day, and I can bend a little bit more each day. I’m a notorious starter, so only time will tell whether my intentions hold over the long haul. But I’m diligently trying to learn how to be a person that maintains small, critical practices like these as I age and the body forgets how to forgive negligence.

So back to that revelation, yes. It was this:
Our society is not constructed to allow us to care for ourselves.

Duh, right? But I’m in a good, flexible job that makes reasonable demands of me. I live comfortably in my home, and I have time to see friends and family. And I still feel like I’m on a treadmill, as if the slightest misstep will cause me to tumble. I still feel like I have to run at full speed, all the time, toward “productivity”.

But that’s not real. That’s years of programming. That’s years of having value assigned to what I do, but none assigned to who I am. So I’m working on an ongoing effort to take the time I need, every day, to care for myself.

I started with foot lotion. Every day, I would take 15-30 seconds and apply a foot-specific lotion after my shower. On days that were stressful, I would have thoughts like, “You don’t have time to do this. You’ve got to get to work!”

Isn’t that ridiculous? I don’t have 30 seconds to put on foot lotion? But that exposed the lie in a way that a grander gesture could not. What kind of conscious and unconscious training led me to a place where I felt that it was so important for me to get to work that only the most basic grooming and care was warranted?

So now, at 44, pain is having its say, pain that has been caused by years of neglect or cutting corners in care. Pain says, “that’s enough. No further.” Pain slows us down until we do what’s right, or until we stop. I’m not, of course, speaking about people born with chronic pain issues, or who acquire them unavoidably along the course of their lives due to heredity or injury. I’m speaking of those of us who have good health that we neglect. For us, the neglectors, pain will keep having its say until we stop, listen, and heed.

So today, when I get up, I do two sun salutations, facing out the window of an empty bedroom in my house. I bend forward and stop where it begins to hurt, even if I don’t look anything like the model. Today, I can lift out of a forward bend to a standing position without bracing against my thighs, which I couldn’t do on Day 1. And then, when I’m done, I shower, and I put on foot lotion.

How are you loving yourselves today?

The Human Division and the American Conservative Lens

I’m reading John Scalzi’s The Human Division, the 5th book in his fun modern space opera Old Man’s War series. I enjoy it because it’s thrilling and sweeping like old sci-fi, but racism and sexism are marginalized instead of normalized like in the old 50s and 60s series I cut my teeth on.

In one part, a character (call him A because I hate spoilers of any kind) who is the scion of a powerful and rich family on a planet returns home. His driver (call him B) is a close friend; a member of a family that serves his. The driver relates how A’s rich dad always talks about working hard for what you get, but has given him a sinecure job that allows him the time and resources to focus on his career as a poet. “Your dad has been generous in that way of his. . . Always thumping on about people having to make their own way in the world and the value of an honest day’s labor. He’d rather die than fund a grant. But he gives me a ridiculously easy job and pays me well enough that I can work on my words.”

B goes on to tell how he won a poetry award and A’s dad was so proud that he displays B’s award in his office. He also shares how B’s sister scrubbed toilets in the house for a year but then used the generous compensation to fund graduate studies. A’s dad even went to the doctoral ceremony and also keeps a picture in his office.

I stopped reading right where I was and immediately thought, “this is what American Republicans and conservatives think of themselves.” I immediately recalled a customer I had, a quite wealthy man who reliably voted conservative, who paid for his housekeeper’s health care when she had a serious condition arise and did not have health insurance to cover it. That was truly kind and generous. But why do we live in a society where largesse is the only option that results in a good outcome?

American conservatives think of themselves as A’s dad: standing firmly for values of hard work and self-making, but quietly and generously helping those in need close to them. Generosity of spirit to our neighbor is welcomed, but it must always be coupled with the difficult question, “Who is my neighbor?” What happens to those not close enough to a person of means to obtain patronage? And how many people of means are actually consistently generous?

When we talk about benefit programs that are tax-funded, whether they are food, housing, health, or care for those who cannot work due to age or disability, we are asking this question: To what extent should generous rich people and organizations meet the people’s needs versus the society meeting the people’s needs?

I think the conservative value of local control does matter and is good to ensure local needs are met properly. We don’t need to give everybody umbrellas if they live in a town in the desert. However, care has to be taken to ensure that local bias does not enter into who is cared for. We saw local control used as a weapon of injustice during the Civil Rights Movement, and so a healthy skepticism is warranted.

Rich people are just people, no better, no worse than others. However, their money gives them an ability to impact society in a broader way than the average person. Like anyone, they will help people they are close to, and be less likely to help people they are not close to. Even in charitable giving, they (and we) give to causes they care about, not necessarily where there is the greatest local need. Churches have a better track record of helping local areas, but if everyone with the ability to do so in a community is not contributing to a church, it’s unfair to expect them to bear the burden of the whole community.

Taxes aren’t a panacea; anything run by people involves planning, oversight, and stewardship. However, getting more people to contribute less, and making sure help is not conditional on proximity, relationship, organizational membership, or creed allows us to build a more just society. It would be wonderful if the generosity of churches and the rich eliminated social programs and could be consistently counted on to do so. But we don’t live in that world.

Scalzi’s book is cleverly titled and is about many kinds of human division. To address this one, we will have to stop expecting a feudal framework and an individual moral code to meet modern needs in full.