Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Bubbles, Reason, and Fear

Like many Americans, I watched President Obama's farewell address on TV last night. And like many, I found it to be moving and inspirational at many points. People may disagree with his policies and his results - heck, I disagree with some of his policies and his results - but I hope that there is a broad agreement that he has, on balance, been good for the office of the Presidency.

I know this sounds naive in the face of the rampant and irrational partisanship of our age. So be it. Lots of people think Obama is the antiChrist - not much we can do there. I prefer to ignore them. They're likely not reading this anyway.

Among many excellent points made in the speech (you can read the entire prepared text here), two stood out to me: his argument about the need for reason and his concern about "bubbles", especially social media bubbles.

I have been thinking a lot about both of these of late. My own social media bubble has been overrun for the past month with anxiety and fear. And because the fears are of the future - of things that haven't yet happened, but are imagined as likely or going to happen - they run unchecked. No appeal to reason can assuage them. Many of my friends are terrified, depressed, or both.

Some are also distraught and angry, and are seeking to channel that anger into action towards what they regard as better outcomes. That is all to the good - President Obama's call for everyone to be involved, at all levels, was well and sincerely made, and we will all be better off if more folks get involved in arguing, organizing, and pushing for what they think is right.

It's the fear and depression that I find more concerning. The tendency, it seems, is to swell political issues and problems to the size of existential crises, so that they sweep away all other concerns, thoughts, and values. Our lives are so much more than national politics - indeed, on a day-to-day basis national politics play only a tiny part in our time and attention. But because of the bubble effect, our politics have come to take over our lives. I believe this is very unhealthy, and does us far more harm than good. I also believe we have a choice in the matter.

I could argue (and have) that what we are facing is not an existential crisis. An existential crisis, politically speaking, is Somalia or Libya - a complete breakdown in all governing structures and "government" by warlords. There is no road from where we are that leads there.

We're not even facing the "Dirty War" years of Argentina, when a totalitarian government seized power from an elected one and proceeded to torture and "disappear" people by the tens of thousands for the better part of a decade. We are light years away from that kind of political and cultural collapse.

This helps lend a little perspective. We are facing the next few years of politics that a majority of Americans, often for very good reason, won't like. Civil rights may get harder to defend, discrimination may rise, racism and hate may be more out in the open. The rich may well get richer at the expense of the rest of us (although, in all fairness, that's been happening for the last 8 years, and the 8 years before that...) The US government may screw up some international relationships, and as a result crises will have worse outcomes for US interests and we may lose power and influence around the world. Millions might lose health insurance. Lots of bad stuff may well (probably will) happen.

But here's the thing. When we spend our days and evenings reading post after post, op-ed after op-ed, mostly from politically biased and emotionally charged sources, that talk about how all of these bad things will happen, that all of this is just around the corner - it begins to take over our view of the world. If all you ever read is bad news - in this case, the anticipation of bad news - then everything starts to look bad. Just as with our bodies, "you are what you eat", our minds are the same. To borrow from Nietzsche, the longer we stare into the abyss, the more the abyss stares back into us.

Politics at the national level are important. But they are not everything. Most of what matters in our lives happens far away from Washington. The nature of our job, whether our boss is decent person or not, our relationship with our spouse, how our kids are doing in school, traffic on our local roads, the quality of life in our communities - these and hundreds of other things all go on being and changing regardless of who lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. What the federal government does can have an impact, usually at the margins, but lots of other things matter more. They're just not on CNN or our social media feeds.

"But what about...?" There are a thousand "but what abouts". Yes, there are serious things with serious consequences. Yes, global warming is real and having an incoming administration that doesn't seem to take it seriously is bad. I am not calling, in any way, shape, or form, for us to simply ignore all the bad stuff and pretend it isn't there. I stand with President Obama: we all have a duty to be involved in trying to make our nation and the world a better place, which means facing challenges squarely.

What I refuse to do is let the bad stuff own me. The world is more than the bad stuff. There is nobility, and grace, and kindness, and simple acts of goodness all around us, every day. For every racist fool whose video-recorded tirade goes viral on YouTube, there are a million decent people who held a door open for a harried mom, who helped a man in a wheelchair reach an item on the top shelf, who took the time to smile back at a child. For every five minutes we spend reading some toxic spew on the internet, there are hours we spend with our kids, our parents, our spouse, our friends, our dog.

Beyond this - which is hopefully accessible to anybody - I want to offer a perspective that likely only some of my readers will share. A part of my identity, as my friends know, is as a Christian. I was raised in the Episcopalian tradition, have spent time in wonderful Lutheran churches, and am currently active in an Episcopal congregation. My faith perspective is similar - though by no means identical - to those of many other Christians, both Protestant and Catholic.

When I look at this through the lens of my Christianity, I am immediately faced with a stark question: Do I take my faith seriously, or don't I? A core of Christian belief is that God created humanity and seeks relationship with the Created, and that the basis of that relationship is intended to be what we call Good: justice, peace, righteousness. We may argue around the margins about what exactly these mean, but the basic point is clear.

Christians also believe that God works - in ways that we often do not understand - in and through Creation to achieve that relationship. We believe that the fulcrum and culmination of that work was in a particular time and place and person, and that the death and resurrection of that person has (to borrow my rector's phrase) "already and not yet" restored Creation to what God wants it to be.

Christians believe, as MLK Jr. put it, that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice". That God is working his purpose out towards not just a more perfect Creation, but towards the perfect Creation. We believe that, though there will be "wars and rumors of wars", that in the end God's will shall prevail and all shall be well. And we profess that, despite all the troubles and travails of this world, "neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God".

I look at all of this - a fairly plan, ordinary, basic description of the Christian faith - and I am challenged: Do I believe these things or don't I? Because if I do, then all of the "existential crisis/end of the world as we know it" concern that flows through Facebook and Twitter and indeed much of our national conversation, doesn't look very scary. Yes, bad things are happening now. But I am confident about how the story ends. There's no suspense. I already know the outcome.

Many Christians know (but easily forget) that the most oft-repeated commandment in the Bible is this: "Be not afraid". If I'm not supposed to be afraid in the face of God, why on earth should I be afraid of Donald Trump? The whole thing becomes simply ridiculous.

I don't know that any of this will convince anybody, and I don't expect it to. I only know that my path and my responsibilities will be the same on January 21 as they are on January 19, as they were last year and the year before and the year before that. Love God and love my neighbor. Do what little I can, with what little I have, to make the world a better place. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. And leave the rest to God.

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