Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Have We No Sense of Decency?

The United States is schizophrenic. Okay, maybe it just has what used to be called a split personality. In recent years this condition has been reduced to the words Red and Blue. Since I identify as Blue, anything I say about the Red side is suspect. Probably, however, since most of my friends and relatives are Blue, I am just preaching to the choir. 

On one side we have those who want low taxes for all including the super rich, less government regulation, strong borders and limited immigration, free and unlimited access to guns, lower spending on all social programs: health care, education, transportation, scientific research, and greater spending on the military along with a generally more robust interventionist foreign policy.

On the other side, the opposite.

On both sides we have a culture of fear and distrust of government, except when the government is in the control of their side, and even then, there is a growing percentage who distrust government regardless of which side has control. Many Americans identify with groups whose goal seems to be to destroy or dismantle most of the functions of government such as the Tea Party, Patriot Movement, and Libertarians. I couldn’t find evidence of an organized leftist group that wants to destroy the government, but those on the Red side see programs such as the Affordable Care Act and efforts at Immigration Reform and gun control as the destruction of the “American Way of Life.” 

Increasingly, therefore, there is a feeling that the other side is “Anti-American” or at least acting in ways that are counter to established American values.

And that’s how I’ve felt since the anti-Syrian, anti Immigrant response to the Paris attacks from Red state governors and congressmen. 

I am ashamed of the news coming out of the United States regarding these issues. It boggles my mind that over half the states’ governors have requested that Syrian refugees be kept out of their states. It drives me crazy to hear supposedly serious candidates for president proclaim that no amount of vetting could be adequate to verify that a Syrian refugee is not coming here to cause us harm. 

There oughta’ be a law (I’m not serious) against that kind of fear mongering. I wonder when the harassment and discrimination, possibly worse, of Syrians and other immigrants or even long time citizens who may look less than white or vaguely Arab will begin.

I shouldn’t be surprised after the fear and panic some of these same so-called leaders encouraged in the face of the outbreak of Ebola in Africa. Remember the hysterical declarations and efforts to keep people from any of the affected countries from coming here? Where are the outbreaks they predicted?

The fact is that anyone can become radicalized and become a terrorist in this age of social media and slick recruiting videos. Putting refugees of war in camps and refusing to integrate them into any kind of society or allow them any opportunity to have a decent life is a recipe for creating terrorists. 

To paraphrase Jack Welch to Anti-Communist crusader Senator Joe McCarthy when he was using a Senate investigative committee to accuse them, costing many their jobs and reputations, “Have you, at long last, sir, no sense of decency?” Have we, as Americans, no sense of decency? Are we so afraid that our only response to tragedy is an impulse to send troops, to send bombers, to seal our borders? 

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

How to Enjoy a "Simply Happy" Life

How many of us asked what’s most important in life would say happiness? Most of my life I have. But of course I’m a member of the notorious, self-centered baby boomer generation born and raised in a middle class home by two college educated parents in the suburban sprawl of a small town between Philly and NY. I was raised to believe I could choose my own path. My teenage angst and anger at a country engaged in the insanity of the Vietnam War and which unfairly discriminated against African Americans was assuaged by a counter-culture which allowed me to express my anger and rejection of the “straight” world by growing my hair long and substitute the relaxing and often hilariously happy highs I got by smoking pot and the crazily mind altering excitement of psychedelics. 

Before I was twenty, having turned on and tuned in, I dropped out. Anger and political frustration as I had watched my heroes (JFK, MLK, RFK, Malcolm X) get murdered and the lying Nixon take over the Presidency led me to participate in massive marches against the war in D.C. in 1969. I believed in peace, but seeing the soldiers lined up shoulder to shoulder around the Justice Department and  tanks in the garage entrance backing them up, breathing the pepper gas and tear gas that we were barraged with, I came to an ultimate realization that they had all the weapons, all the power, and it was suicide to fight. Truly, I was ignorant of political process and also ignorant of what it really meant to make change through nonviolence. I thought the 60’s had proven nonviolence doesn’t work. Unwilling to die in Vietnam and unwilling to die fighting or going to jail to end the war here, I headed for the woods to live the life of a hippie homesteader—what we now call “off the grid.”

Call it growing up, but over the next several years the pursuit of happiness was pushed aside in favor of learning how to survive….not hunting and fishing and farming, but learning how to live on less, build a serviceable shelter, fix my own car, grow some vegetables, take advantage of free stuff this prosperous country offers, and find odd jobs to bring in enough money to “get by.” The birth of a child brought me the rest of the way back on my journey from homeless wandering to rural poverty as I sought full time employment and worked for a logger for a couple years before finding a job in a runaway shelter and going to college in the evenings, eventually becoming a teacher. 

My happiness was secondary to responsible parenthood until the marriage I was in left me so unhappy that I divorced when my daughter was fifteen, leaving her with her mother. This was the most unhappy time of my life and I sought the help of a wise therapist who helped me resolve some of the barriers to happiness within myself through a process called “inner child work.”

Now remarried and retired, I have time to pursue happiness full time. And I have done so by pursuing my interests and taking care of my health. I play music regularly at home and in public in a variety of settings, a lifelong avocation that I couldn’t make work as a career. I ride my bike or go to the gym almost every day and do some Yoga. I cook meals regularly and struggle to keep my weight down. I read a lot of news and a few books, and I occasionally write essays I fire off to the newspaper about issues that bother me. I give volunteer time to environmental groups and to organize contra dances sponsored by my local folk music organization, FOOTMAD. I read, watch Netflix, and listen to the radio, especially NPR and NPR podcasts.

Which brings me to the reason I started writing this morning. Yesterday, listening to the NPR program, TED Radio Hour as a podcast while riding my bike on a gorgeous Indian Summer day, I listened to an episode called Simply Happy (you can stream or download the whole hour or any of the shorter segments here ). TED is a worldwide series of short lectures on topics related to Technology, Entertainment, Design by some of the smartest, most successful people in the world. The NPR program aggregates a few “TED Talks” by theme, uses excerpts from the lectures and interviews with the speaker to weave together a fascinating and educational hour of radio programming each week. 

This particular show featured a scientist who had researched what makes people happy, someone who created a happiness app, authors, and a monk. It was full of wonderful “a-ha” moments for me. Takeaways:
  • Stuff, wealth, etc. won’t make you happy 
  • Adversity such as illness, misfortune, etc., does not keep people from being happy after an average of a few months of adjustment 
  • Slowing down and paying attention to what you’re doing can increase happiness, or at least letting your mind wander tends to add to unhappiness; 
  • Happiness does not cause you to be grateful, gratefulness causes you to be happy.

That last was imparted by a Benedictine monk by the name of David Steindl-Rast, who has a PhD in psychology and studied Zen Bhuddism and probably every other religion and spiritual practice. Thinking back over my life, I realize that I lacked gratefulness for much of it, which means I was not as happy as I could have been. I’m grateful I ran across this, and intend to look for more of his advice on the key to happiness. I also intend to think more and more often about what I have to be grateful for (though I don’t intend to write it on FB everyday as I’ve seen some others do, which I find…annoying). In the meantime, as the great philosopher Bobby McFerrin sang, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”