Reflections on Life, Leadership, Mindfulness, Change, and other Important Stuff

Month: March, 2020

What now? A Way Forward in an Time of Crisis

If you haven’t thought about that, when we’ve been forced to push a planetary pause button, perhaps it’s time to reflect upon how reliant upon one another we are.

Our western notion of rugged individualism, much of which has merit, must now, more than ever, be tempered by the the common wisdom of such diverse teachers as Marcus Aurelius, Thich Naht Hanh, Jesus, Gandhi and others.

Aurelius wrote, “what is not good for the swarm is not good for the bee.” In the New Testament, Jesus is quoted “In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” Gandhi said, “It is unwise to be too sure of one’s own wisdom. It is healthy to be reminded that the strongest might weaken and the wisest might err.” I could continue but I will not belabor the point.

Clearly, our beliefs, both spiritual and political, the source of all our words and conduct, are the harbors into which we flee during the tempest. But in retreating to our own safe places no longer can we afford to turn deaf ears of bitterness and disrespect toward those who do not scribe to our opinions. For in this time of crisis, there is a danger lurking: the intractable belief that our tribe alone holds a monopoly on all that is right, good, and true.

While we, as an electorate, bemoan the conduct of our elected officials in Washington, we must remember we are the ones who elected them. As the great prophet-philosopher Pogo said, “we have met the enemy and he is us,” so to speak. Whatever our particular spiritual traditions, during worship we divide ourselves into competing spiritual camps.

Our social media feeds are largely filled with posts and photos from those who believe and live as we do, rather than a more diverse community. While bringing us closer to our friends in many ways, this also insulates us from those with different beliefs, experiences, and material belongings. In so doing, at best, we mindlessly inhabit bubbles of reaffirmation. At worst, we spew bile at one another over our political and religious differences.

At home or driving in our cars, we indulge our outrage by living in the echo chambers of our own brand of “the news.” We shake our heads judging people we do not know, questioning their motives, and calling them names we would not permit our children to use. We can no longer afford such self-indulgence.

 So what now?

As Thomas Friedman acknowledged, “the world is flat.” Now, because of a microscopic virus we have the chance to realize this world is forever connected through our interdependent economies. We occupy a tiny, resilient, yet fragile planet. And we must somehow, to borrow a phrase from Ben Franklin, learn that “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”

Rather than indulge ourselves in the fantasy that we might somehow be able to “win” the cultural, spiritual, and philosophical wars we wage, perhaps we could adopt a different posture.

What if our dialogues began with “help me understand,” “tell me more,” or “I don’t know?” How quickly might the world change? It is possible to remain true to our convictions and still acknowledge the pragmatic value finding some shared middle-ground—just as it is possible for me silly at times as well as it is to be thoughtful. It is possible to protect our nation, educate our children, provide for a safety net those in need, and provide for public health. Yet we must not bankrupt our country in the process. We need not divide ourselves into ourselves into the virtuous “us” and and evil “them.”

To be sure, there are bad ideas in the world, just as there are bad people. And as Edmund Burke wrote, “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.” Thus, we must find a way to allow liberty and responsibility to thrive in our nation, even as we provide for those who reside in poverty and crime-ridden communities whose misfortune is little more than the bad luck of birth.

Conversely, we who have been fortunate enough to be born or found our way into the middle and upper class, or even into great wealth, must acknowledge there is no such thing as a self-made man or woman.

Even those who rise from the deepest disadvantages of birth have learned from their teachers, driven on streets paved by others, or been fed by the efforts of those when they could do nothing for themselves. They, too, just as all of us must, realize we eat food grown, packaged, shipped and prepared by others. As has been said, we all walk in the shade of trees planted by others.

We must recognize there will be those who, as merchants of fear, clinging to their tribal mythology, who will attempt to capitalize on this pandemic. Religious zealots may claim their gods are angry and this modern day plague has been visited upon us in their wrath. Politicians will, in the efforts to gain or keep hold of their offices, suggest they alone can lead us from the precipice of disaster. Extremists will lay blame at the feet of those of different colors, faiths, genders, and sexual identities. We must not fall prey to such absurdity.

It is not lost on me that what I have proposed here is simply one more opinion amongst a cacophony of fools. There will be those who might read this tome and suggest I am part of the problem—that I am not liberal enough, conservative enough, that I am not amongst the faithful, that I am somehow unrighteous. Let them so think. They may well be correct. I cannot know if I am right, for, as has been said, opinions are like assholes…everyone has one. On this they would be correct. And in so doing, I think, they make the make my argument for me.

So, tell me more. Help me understand.

An Open Letter to the President, Speaker, and Majority Leader

Dear Mr. President, Speaker Pelosi, and Majority Leader McConnell:

I am not normally given to use social media as a means to espouse my concerns for either political policy, nor political conduct. Yet this is an extraordinary time and I can no longer remain silent.

Not since the Great Depression have Americans needed statesmen and women to lead us. Yet name calling and fixing blame seems to be the predominant theme of your conduct, when you should be fixing problems.

While many, if not most, Americans are complying with the recommendations enacted by their state governments and CDC guidelines, you seem far too willing to act like children fighting over toys in a proverbial sandbox. In this time you could be working together to heal the wounds of partisanship. You could be balancing the risks to our economy and public health more openly and be a reassuring comfort to the people who elected you. Yet you persist in your unwillingness to lead with an appreciation for the fact we are a diverse nation, offering respect and appreciation for those differences that should manifest themselves in bipartisanship against a common enemy: the coronavirus. Representational Democracy cannot always be about maximizing your political wins. You can hold to your principles, yet recognize governing requires more than perpetual campaigning and posturing. I fear that you fiddle, so to speak, as Nero did whilst Rome burned.

I implore you, and my fellow citizens, to stop demonizing one another. Be willing to say, “I don’t know.” Be willing to listen to one another. Be willing to listen to the scientists who understand things that you are ill-equipped to for. Stop your glib and petty conduct. Many people are falling ill and other’s are being financially devastated while you bicker.

In recent times, we’ve been witness to you, Mr. President, willing to conduct yourself in ways no decent parent would allow their child to behave. Speaker Pelosi, you have not been without your shortcomings here either. Nor have you Majority Leader McConnell. And each of you, while playing to your own constituencies, have failed to act as the statesman and women we need. While such conduct may indeed get you re-elected, history will not regard you kindly, I think, if you do not change your attitudes and tactics.

Now is your moment. Seize it, lest, as you collect your checks or live on the wealth you have already accumulated, the fabric of our society is shredded.

The American people deserve better.

With respect,

James I. Owens, Jr.

The People You Meet: Curbside Saint and Social Distancing

Sipping his coffee, the disheveled man sat on the curbing reading a ragged newspaper somewhere on that Sunday morning.  As I loped toward the coffee shop, he looked up and greeted me.

“Good morning,” he said.  “I hope you have a good day.”

I had been on the road for a bit and my two cups of coffee and my caffeine beleaguered bladder was admonishing me for not stopping sooner.  Things were getting urgent.

“Thank you.  And the same to you,” I replied.

As I angled the Tahoe into the narrow parking place, I had seen him sitting there, seemingly oblivious to the cares of the world.  He wore a red, white, and blue cap emblazed with the letters, U.S.A.  He might have been 45 or 60.  It’s hard to tell with homeless people who’s lives have been spent facing cold nights on the street and hot days in the summer sun.

John, or so I will call him for I don’t know his name, needed a shave and a bath.  And he could have used some clean clothes.  But as I walked past him, I knew I wouldn’t be able to return to my car without some more conversation.  How many people, I wondered, had walked past him that morning, failing to look into his clear blue eyes?  How many people had hoped noticed him without really seeing him?

The bathroom in the coffee shop had a long line of people who appeared as anxious for relief as as I was, so I pivoted and set my sights on the convenience store a few steps away from the coffee shop.  John’s back was to me so he didn’t see me emerge.  My desperation growing, I quickened my pace.  For a moment, I contemplated darting into the pine trees just behind the coffee shop.  I begged the universe for an unlocked door on the unisex bathroom I would find inside.

Years ago, I don’t know where or when, I heard someone say if you pop into a place solely for the use of their public bathroom, you should buy a pack of gum, soft drink, or something else out of consideration for using their bathroom. I’ve always thought that was a good idea, so I roamed the aisles contemplating varieties of beef jerky, lightly salted almonds, and ice cream bars.  I settled on a couple of nut bars with dark chocolate and a few nut butted-filled energy bars.  And, as if to scoff at the long drive into the desert ahead of me, I bought a large cup of black coffee.

John was still sitting on the curb as I walked out of the store.

“How about something sweet to go with that coffee?” I asked, offering him the two nut bars.

“Thanks,” he said with rapidly fading smile.  “Oh. Can’t.  Got no teeth.  Can’t eat the nuts.”

I offered him the energy bars asking if he could handle that.  He took them eagerly, smiling again through a toothless grin.

“Pastor says things are getting hard on people.  I feel bad for all those people losing their jobs.”  Apparently, John knew more about the condition of the world than I’d expected.

We chatted for a few minutes about how the virus was affecting people in California and the rest of the nation.  John told me he went to the Episcopal church and he reassured me that things were going to be alright.  And he expressed how concerned he was for “old folks” who shouldn’t go to the store.  We carried on for what might have been three minutes as people walked past, likely grateful, they hadn’t been forestalled by this curbside saint.

“Well, now I do have to get on the road,” I said.

“Yes, sir.  Now you have a good day.  And thank you.”

Climbing back into the Tahoe, I wasn’t sure if John was thanking me for the energy bars or the fact I’d stopped and chatted with him—the fact that someone had seen him.  I pulled out of the parking lot wondering how many people had passed by him that day and averted their gaze.  John, I thought, had likely known more of social distancing in his life than most of us.

Lest you be tempted to think more of me than you ought simply because I chatted with John and gave him a bit to eat, don’t.  Over the years I’ve passed by far too many men and women just like John.  Sometimes it was because I was impatient, in a hurry to something important.  Sometimes it was because I feared an awkward encounter.  Whatever the reasons, they were inadequate.

If you suspect I’m virtue signaling, that wouldn’t be true either.  This is more of a reminder to myself that, especially in this time, I could be John.  I’m reminding myself that it’s easy to overestimate my own sense of compassion, to congratulate myself for only giving money to homeless causes or for other things that matter to me, when I can give of myself not just my money.  And, I’m reminding myself that I make assumptions about people because of their appearance sometimes.

John may have already forgotten me by now.  But I haven’t forgotten him.  I hope you won’t either.