When Doing Something is Just Making Noise

Photo of The Scream, by Edvard Munch. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

There’s a lot of noise in the world. Could we agree on that for a moment? Yes? Good.

I don’t just mean whitenoise, either…the useless, background throbbing that becomes simultaneously non-sensical and remarkably intrusive into our subconscious. Aside from the occasional podcast, I’ve never been overly given to that. I wasn’t the one who would have the television on in my dorm room while I was doing homework. It just didn’t take.

I don’t just mean whitenoise, I mean an overwhelming onslaught of real things that simultaneously demand our attention while leaving us powerless to do anything about them, at least anything substantive. So far, the start to our new decade has been full of these sorts of events. A pandemic, blood in the streets, political farce, the growing uselessness of social media. And, partially because we care about these things (because they impact us even if they’re not knocking on our door directly), and partially because so many people have been shut inside for so long and are going crazy with the need to have something to do…we jump onto a cause. We want to do something, not just let it go by. Haven’t we all been told at some point, after all, to be part of the solution and not the problem?

The issue with this is that, more often than not, these issues are of such a huge, national or global scale, that we really can’t do anything about them. We can’t do anything that would really make a difference, in any case, no matter what the pundits would have you to believe. This isn’t like the family problem that just caused chaos in your living room. There’s generally something that you can do to impact that directly and positively. These are things that have spun up outside of our control. They were never in our control. They exceed our control by definition.

Sometimes, we’re told there are things that we can do to “do our part.” These things range from the practical to the completely useless, from washing your hands to yelling about something on Twitter to draw awareness. Sometimes those things are valid, and more often they are completely devoid of effectiveness. Still, though, we have to do something, right?

This is when the mob mentality begins, and most of our society, having never been educated in the ability to think critically, runs like lemmings off of the cliff in a desire to exert some control, to right a wrong, to correct the evil, whether that evil is perceived or actual. And, generally, that’s when well-intentioned gestures that are in actuality quite futile begin to happen. We’ve see a lot of these lately. Removals or the vandalizing of statues, changing flags, changing logos, fleeing one social media platform for another in order to further exist in a silo. None of these actions do anything to actually contribute to a solution to the very real problems to which they are reactions. Often, in particularly insidious examples, these are the moves of marketing departments wanting to draw customers by appearing to take a stand when their company, like most, actually couldn’t care less.

The vast majority of the tweet storms, riots, monument removals, and social media shifts do absolutely nothing constructive. They are sound and fury, signifying nothing.

And that’s not even me being cynical. When I’m feeling particularly cynical, in fact, I don’t attribute these gestures to groupthink and desperation borne of feelings of powerlessness. I attribute them instead to the fact that we do these lesser things because the work of making actual change…of loving our neighbor as ourselves, of listening to and respecting opposing points of view, of considering all life as beautiful, and recognizing that we have more in common than we do different…that this work is just too hard, or something in which we actually have no interest.

That worries me the most, because that is a disease from which a society cannot recover.

Image of “The Scream” by Edvard Munch, 1893, taken from Wikimedia Commons. This image is in the public domain.

Finding the Positive

Slowly…ever so slowly…life is beginning to stir in northern New England. Almost as though we skipped spring and decided to wake from sleep directly into summer, we are beginning to re-discover old freedoms that feel new again. Workarounds and substitutions for real life have become so commonplace that I had forgotten what real experiences are like, although I’ve craved them. I met my friend for our weekly coffee in person last week for the first time since February. The last time that we saw each other face-to-face, there was snow outside the coffee shop window. That’s disconcerting, to say the least.

Other freedoms are still delayed, some more frustrating than others…Karen and I long to worship with a faith community again, not just the distanced images on a screen. Working out at the gym appears to be some weeks away, as well, something which I find contributing of my weakened state when I’m confronted with an uncharacteristically hot day in May, a day that feels more like July, which immediately curtails any sort of morning run.

Since the end of March, though, I’ve substituted my usual workout days with either a run or a brisk walk. When we were traveling in March, just before the world broke, I got into the habit of taking a walk with my coffee in the morning to get some air before I started my work day. That practice morphed into not just my usual workout days, but most weekdays. I think that I’m in better shape now than before the pandemic, and have even gotten to know some others in the neighborhood as we’ve passed on the street.

Better fitness is perhaps the most unexpected positive effect of a stay-at-home order, but by far not the only one. Even though I only commute three days weekly on average, I’m saving between six and eight hours every week with Boston traffic out of the equation. That’s time that I’ve been able to spend spontaneously chasing my kids around our yard, or having leisurely conversations with Karen of the sort that we used to have in grad school. I’m catching up on a lot of reading. I’m even pausing to think and enjoy some quiet every now again. As we bleed into summer, our daughters have made friends with a neighbor…”best friends,” as they refer to themselves, which makes me recall my best friend in childhood, and how that friendship and those summer day experiences were so formative for me. I smile when I see my kiddos growing up into some of the same experiences.

I eagerly anticipate our release from suspended animation over the coming weeks, and have jumped at the chance to go out for coffee, and to make my weekly comic book run. This time in, though, as emotionally trying as it has been for all of us, has lent itself to some positive things if we look for them.

I have a hard time looking, but when I do, the good isn’t difficult to see.

Why We Need to Resume Life

A photo of empty tables and chairs in a restaurant setting. Used under Creative Commons.

I find it funny when I think about coming back from a relaxing holiday vacation. Funny in a not-so-funny way. I had such fantastic plans for 2020. Then, my first day back into the new year, I discovered that the company for which I work was acquired. I’m still trying to navigate the results of that. Then we discovered the downfall of only owning one vehicle when that vehicle was involved in an accident and had a transmission failure, back to back. I spent a good deal of the end of January and early February dealing with the logistics of that while still dealing with the fallout from the acquisition. Things were beginning to settle, though, as we left on a trip to assist my parents during a scheduled surgery. And then, just as I was looking forward to returning to our normal life in mid-March….well, you know the rest. One little virus, and the world broke.

2020, momentous as it begins a new decade, has stopped being the sort of year in which you achieve anything, and is becoming the sort of year that you just survive.

Now, as life begins to slowly re-open, I’m looking forward to returning to some sense of normal, even while forgetting that I’ve lived this fully remote life before. I’m seeing all sorts of positive things come from the extra time that I now have in my week with no commute, while still groaning about my first world problems…delayed haircuts, complications in getting coffee. There’s a cognitive dissonance here, but it arises from a restlessness, and a sadness as I watch others’ lives and livelihoods implode around me.

I suppose that this post might break with my rule against writing about politics, but, hey…extraordinary times, and all that. The propaganda machine is in high gear. I’m absolutely exhausted from constantly hearing some variation on the theme of “stay home, stay safe.” I’m particularly frustrated with how this is equated with “staying inside,” allowing popular opinion and convenient science to outweigh common sense in favor of corporate-driven interests. Despite the fact that fresh air and sunlight have been proven by, you guessed it, science, to combat illnesses such as this pandemic, such things are pushed aside with claims of lack of data. After all, pharmaceuticals can’t make money from fresh air and sunshine. It’s interesting how objective science, normally deified, becomes disposable when you don’t agree with its conclusions.

For the record, just in case you hadn’t guessed, I think Sweden has it right.

My issue is this at its simplest: we’re not safe. We can’t be safe. There is simply no such state, nor has there ever been. Grasping for this is nothing more than selfishness…”everyone do this extreme thing so that I won’t have a bad outcome.” At the end of the day, all of our steps to mitigate this pandemic are security theatre, just like airports after the attacks of 9/11. The nonsense at airports, though, has stayed with us, has been woven into our culture as the subject of jokes and as a general expectation. And that’s what scares me about this, because we can’t live six feet apart forever. As a people, we will die. We will go insane.

We already are.

The predictions and half-baked data modeling only serve to solidify this expectation. The emotional and psychological damage that we’re doing to each other is already incalculable. Humans die without contact, without touch.

So, when I see photos of people crowding into parks in beautiful weather, I don’t gasp and have the rage response that the rest of Twitter does. I see hope. Hope that we are willing to just push through this, hope that many see that life is going to go on, regardless, and that it’s better to be with each other as it does. I don’t want to waste week after week – time that we will never get back – cowering at home in fear, clinging to such an illusory concept as safety. A life arrested isn’t life. Its existence, at best, and at worst a prolonged death, a slow burn. It’s a death of the spirit, and that stands to be the larger casualty of this pandemic.

Just like the other casualties, though, we can minimize it, if we decide that we want to do so. But we have to do so by living. We can’t accept anything less.

Image attribution: Kevin Spencer under Creative Commons.

Waiting

My stainless steel coffee press, with reflections of my journal and Bible.

I’m slightly obsessive about my coffee.

Over the course of our marriage, Karen, along with a close friend, have inspired me to perfect the process. I’ve used various methods of making my morning jolt of caffeine (and occasional afternoon aftershocks), some used by preference, and others by necessity. Even though it’s far from the best-tasting coffee, there have been periods in my life in which I’ve had to regularly be up really early…for work, for rehearsals or performances, for travel. I used to keep a drip brew machine that was programmable during these times. I would grind the coffee the night before and set it up, and when I woke at 0’dark-thirty, the coffee would be waiting for me. I viewed this as survival, what had to be done to get through the day, and returned to my French press on the weekends, or as soon as I could.

For the past few years, since I’ve had the luxury of either working for myself or controlling my own hours, I’ve abandoned this. My morning coffee is now almost a ritual. I grind the beans, boil the water, let it steep for exactly four minutes, in one of a variety of presses that best suit the occasion. Even though I’m apparently quite amusing before my first cup, and even though I must force myself awake before our youngest daughter (a self-proclaimed “morning dove”) rises with the sun, it’s worth the sacrifice. I’ve found there is discipline in waiting for the coffee to be ready, a spiritual gain in not having the instant gratification of it waiting for me as soon as I’m downstairs.


April has stretched on in its usual, quirky New England way. Mornings are still just cold enough to not be comfortable, an annoying fact currently given that I have to go for a run outside when I would usually go to the gym, and, two days before writing this, we woke to snow, only to see 60 degrees and sunshine the following day. Still, the time passes, and I take comfort in that. I patiently await the change in seasons so that our deck furniture can return, and we can enjoy dinners outside. Again, the patience and waiting are good.

There’s nothing that I can do to rush this seasonal change. It will happen in its own time. I am confident…confident that my coffee will be ready when the timer beeps, and that the warmth will break through into our days, bringing vivid, Technicolored flowers in its wake.

“Weeping may last through the night, but joy comes with the morning.”

Psalm 30:5b, NLT

I long for life to return to some form of normalcy. Part of the problem, or at least my problem, with the current state of the world is that we had so little warning as to the massive upheaval that we’re experiencing. It is not, however, apocalyptic. As we are patient, so the seasons will change. The night is difficult, but there will be joy in the morning. Whatever positive may be found in our waiting…and, if you search, there is some…will be worthwhile when we hug our loved ones again, visit our favorite coffee shop, sit down with our friends in person. We don’t walk away from these sorts of events unchanged, any of us. There is, and there will be, grief as we emerge from the other side, that is certain. Our patience, though, as un-naturally as it comes for many, will prove worthwhile. I think that we will see more of the beauty of small things, appreciate time passing outside of our control, not complain about routines that we once hated but now long to return to after they were taken away so abruptly.

Our lives will be better if we let them. That is my prayer for us.

Stay healthy.

My daughters’ “fairy house” in our front garden, a sign that Spring is here.
Aside

Half Awake

I used to have these night terrors as a child, and even occasionally through college. I would be half awake, struggling to break fully free of sleep, but find myself paralyzed. I would push, and strain, and try to scream, afraid that if I stopped, I would fall backward into a state from which I would never come back. Eventually, I would wake up.

That’s what this current state of suspended animation feels like. I’m pushing, straining, trying to get to the end. Accepting parts of this would be easy…always being virtual, the end of busyness, staying “safe.” Just assimilate, stop fighting. But, while I’m discovering that placing such a high value on busyness was wrong…that I had become the person I had never wanted to be…so is giving into the throes of despair, a darkness from which one cannot awaken.

Eventually, we will wake up. We will. And there will be sunlight. There will be joy in the morning.