Nothing to Fear But…

I once heard a pastor say that you should never make an important decision if you’re hungry, tired, lonely, or scared. I’ve always found that statement to be simple yet profound. It’s also easy enough to view it through the lens of current events.

As human beings, regardless of where we live or what our circumstances, for the past two years, we’ve made almost every daily decision on the basis of fear. After all, a novel virus that is potentially lethal is a worse-case scenario…literally a silent killer. Seemingly overnight, our daily activities, our interactions, nearly everything that we took for granted had to be re-examined as potentially deadly activities. Worse, if they were not deadly for us, they could be deadly for those with whom we were in contact, even incidentally. The volume of what we didn’t know was profound.

There was little information, and fear thrives in a vacuum.

The issue with fear is that it’s contagious. It’s selfish. It overtakes any rational thought. There’s a reason why the first instruction in an emergency is to “remain calm.” When we’re calm, we can examine the situation that confronts us and think through the best course of action. We can make reasoned decisions. When fear is our motivation, we are always on the defensive, always reactionary, always choosing fight or flight. The end goal of every decision is to survive, at the expense of everything else.

As a human race, if the pandemic has taught us anything at all, it’s how well-equipped we are to consider only ourselves and to hate “the other.” People who are scared of dying want to force decisions onto others not because they care about their peers, but because they themselves are afraid to die. If the other makes different decisions, the narrative is twisted to say that it is they who are selfish. We may mask our motivations or do the mental gymnastics to convince ourselves otherwise, but ultimately, this is the case.

There are a lot of reasons for this, and a lot of blame to go around, from profit-seeking pharmaceuticals to news editors tweaking headlines for shock value. I would argue that social media is to blame for much of our current predicament, as well, because it forces us to exist inside of a hive mind in which no deviation from the majority perspective can be tolerated.

Add to this the fact that so many have watched people they care about die from this plague. So, on top of fear driving our decision-making, now there is grief. And rage.

Let me pause to say, I get it. I do. If I thought that death were the end, I would be terrified. Even knowing that it is not, the thought of leaving my children with no father keeps me awake at night. My point here is, though, that we cannot….for the sake of our societies, our very humanity, we cannot…base our decisions, our policies, our interactions, on fear.

We must have courage. True courage, which is not the absence of fear, but rather the fortitude to continue forward despite fear.

We must have love. Love that puts others before ourselves. Imagine how differently these last two years could have gone if our decisions had been made considering the good of our neighbors before ourselves…self-sacrificial decisions based on love of those around us.

At my most pessimistic, I’m not certain that this is even possible in our digital age. I think that social media and the information onslaught has robbed us of the ability to consider others before ourselves, to react to anything in a calm frame of mind, to view the nuances of any situation with which we are confronted.

Even if this is the case, we must…absolutely must…regain these abilities somehow. Because, if we don’t, it won’t be a virus that leads to our collective demise. We will see to that ourselves.

Just a Thought: Privacy as an Absolute

I want to just state something in which I firmly believe: Privacy is a human right.

That has implications in our digital age, and in times when fear has taken hold. So allow me to propose privacy as a priority, by which I simply mean this:

Privacy is an absolute.

Privacy wins over every other concern.

That means that privacy wins over security.

That means that privacy wins over public health.

That mean that privacy wins over everything.

If it does not, if we allow it to be sacrificed even a little for even what we might perceive as a noble cause, then it means nothing at all. It is gone.

And if it is gone, then we are no longer free. The nature of our humanity is fundamentally altered for the worse.

The choice to uphold privacy over other concerns will mean increased risk. It means that we will need to give up the illusion of safety as a state that we can reach.

Life involves risk. We need to learn to live with that.

So, This Was Christmas

This year’s Holiday season found us in a strange, in-between place. It’s a place in which we’re sort of getting back to normal, but not really, a place in which you can do all of the things that you used to do, you’re just not sure if you should do them. Add to that the fact that we just bought a house in October and are still doing some renovations, and our already tenuous grasp on Christmas tradition has proven to be sand slipping through our fingers.

I was particularly detached this year, which is something that I lament. Karen handled all of the gift choices except for my helping the girls pick gifts for her, and my own gifting was…lackluster. Which is fine, because I feel like I didn’t receive that one cool gift, either…well, maybe one…so it evens out. After all, we reasoned, we did just buy a house.

I remember going home for Christmas one year in grad school. I arrived on Christmas Eve. The lights and decorations were, as always, impressive, bordering on overwhelming, as is my mother’s reputation for Holiday decor. Instead of that Christmas Eve mystery, however, Dad had already gone to bed…his health was beginning it’s downward trend even then…and Mom was doing dishes. The invasion of the normalcy was almost violent, so different from the magic of my childhood.

This was Christmas?

Karen and I stayed up late on Christmas Eve this year, baking and cleaning. There was, once again, no travel on our schedule, which was at once as relaxing as it was depressing. I made sure, keeping with the history of that surprise that greeted me one Christmas morning, that “Father Christmas” had eaten one of the cookies that the girls had left for him, conspicuous crumbs and a half-empty glass of milk staged for effect.

We were rewarded all too early on Christmas morning to the sounds of our excited 5-year-old charging down the hall and exclaiming, “Santa was here!” I managed to stall long enough to get a cup of coffee, and the shredding of wrapping paper commenced.

And, then, by 10:00, it was over, and I thought, this was Christmas?

I think forward to all of the Christmas mornings that the girls will have in this house, and I took some photos of the disarray that followed gift-opening, because I want to remember. None of my adult Christmases have been what my childhood Christmases were…and none of them will be. I don’t want us to focus on the materialism of the event in any case, but how easily our reading of the Christmas story by light of the final Advent candle on Christmas Eve is eclipsed by the excitement of the following morning.

It’s nothing like the past, but I hope that, in intentionally remembering, some of the magic might return, for the girls at least, if not for me. I want them to experience all of those amazing memories with which I was blessed in my own childhood, to look back when they are my age and remember a handful of Christmas mornings so vividly that it feels like they’re there again. I have no idea what will make that connection for them, so I’m just trying.

Hopefully something sticks. And they will remember.

After all, this was Christmas.

The Theology of The Great Pumpkin

While slowly but steadily unpacking our new house, we began making plans for a family Halloween party. If you’ve read my brain dump here for very long, you’ll know that I’ve never been a fan of Halloween, at least not since coming to faith almost two decades ago. While I love an excuse to get into a fun costume, Karen and I generally avoided it early in our marriage, typically just going out for dinner during the trick-or-treat window. When we had kids, though, it’s difficult to tell them that they can’t participate in this event. And, one of the selling points of the new house as they were struggling with anxiety about leaving the old neighborhood was that we would be moved in just in time to go trick-or-treating in the new neighborhood.

This year was also, for a variety of reasons, my first time ever carving pumpkins. I’m proud to say that I did a fairly decent job, but…you be the judge.

A photo of my jack-o-lanterns on my doorstep

A couple of years ago, we purchased It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown in the days leading up to this holiday-that-isn’t-really-a-holiday. The kids have grown quite attached to it, and, I must admit, I’ve started to look forward to viewing it each year, as well. This year, though, because the kids are of an age where everything must be watched multiple times, and thus I heard a perpetual loop of the subject matter for three days, I began to notice the theology of the Great Pumpkin.

You have to feel badly for Linus in this story. He’s the lone believer in the Great Pumpkin, an odd distortion of Santa Clause, and he’s mocked mercilessly for it. Perhaps because of the striking and inescapable fact that the Great Pumpkin as a concept if such a cheap facsimile of “the real event” that is still two months away, his friends think that he has lost his mind, or at least has beliefs that are subject to, as Charlie Brown states, “denominational differences.” All except for Sally, whom he convinces to keep his vigil with him. 

We all know the end. Linus is left disappointed, earning Sally’s ire and his friends’ mockery, all while being horrified that he will be passed by because he used the word “if.” After all, the Great Pumpkin only rewards the utmost sincerity, and there can be no room for even the slightest slip of the tongue if one’s faith is to be rewarded. I feel sorry for Linus. As he looks toward an obvious imitation of the truest event of Christmas, he finds that the pressure is on him. It’s not about what the mythical figure that he looks to does, it’s all about what he is doing, and he will inevitably fall short. There’s always theology at work in the classic Peanuts specials, playfully packaged for us to digest, and this particular special shows us the fallibility of a theology of works. Linus’ ultimate faith experience is about his own efforts. He isn’t looking outside of himself.

The end of this pseudo-holiday special is touching…as we see the clock at 4a.m., Lucy goes outside to find Linus shivering in the pumpkin patch. She has mercy on her brother, and leads him into the warmth of his room where he falls sound asleep. Linus has been devout, but believes himself lost because of the smallest error. We have to believe that his sleep is fitful. I have to wonder, here, if Lucy is demonstrating a deeper faith than her brother, as she shows mercy on someone with whom she had the most intense of debates just hours earlier. She loves her brother, that is evident, and that goes deeper than any “denominational differences.”

There’s much that we could learn from this Charlie Brown special. I think that Lucy’s actions in the final scene are something that would be of a most urgent importance for us to grasp today.

Image attribution: PumpkinWayne under Creative Commons.

What Is Safe?

When our oldest daughter was only a couple of years old, I started a routine of taking her out for “cookies and milk” on weekends. It was intended to carve out special time for her when she had my undivided attention. I was working a lot more then…I do my best to work less these days…but for some reason, we lost the routine. Partly because we discovered that everyone in our family has some variety of a food allergy that makes true “cookies and milk” almost impossible unless it’s made from scratch at home, and partly because, as she got older, life changed a bit. I always said that it might hold as a tradition, or it might not, but the important thing was that we held onto having dedicated daddy-daughter time.

This weekend, I was driving home from that outing. We had spent some time at one of our favorite haunts…a local Barnes & Noble…in which she described all of her favorite characters from a book series she is reading. On the drive home, the driver of a vehicle in the opposite lane appeared to become distracted for a split second. The vehicle began to swerve into our lane. The driver realized instantly and course-corrected…the incident wasn’t even enough to be truly concerning. Even so, I found myself thinking that, although I wasn’t driving fast, had the driver not corrected, there would have been little chance that I could have done anything to prevent a disastrous result.

That’s not just a New England traffic story. There have been countless moments like that in my life, just driving on a daily commute, in which another second could have made the difference in a terrible way. I’m thankful for each one turning out as it did. Like most of the world, I really don’t drive that much these days, but the fact is that, every time I do, risk…sometimes serious risk…is inherent.

Driving…or riding the train, or flying…is a potentially horrible outcome presented to us each time we do it. We’re encapsulating ourselves in a steel vehicle hurtling down a road or a track or through the sky at amazing speeds, and ultimately hoping it turns out for the best. And, to be honest, if you do it enough, eventually it won’t turn out for the best. Most of us have had the accidents to prove that fact.

My point in this is that there are traffic laws and vehicle manufacturing regulations out there designed to keep us “safe,” but we aren’t. We can’t be. And sure, those laws and regulations do good things, and prevent a certain number of tragedies, but they don’t make us safe. We choose to not be safe as soon as we get into the car. It’s a risk we’re willing to take.

The rhetoric of the pandemic has been “stay safe.” We want to know if an event is “safe.” What’s being done to keep us “safe?” I’m going to be honest, I want to scream every time I hear the word safe, because we’re reaching for an impossible state. And while I suppose there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be safer…I’m always reminding our kids of wear their helmets when riding bikes…I think that it’s important for us to recognize that we can’t be truly safe, ever. And giving up our freedoms and allowing blatantly dictatorial actions to happen in the name of keeping us safe never leads to good results.

I’m not a reckless person. I drive so slowly since we had children that it really bothers Karen at times…a drastic change from my single days when I used to just expect speeding tickets. I take reasonable precautions. I think that it’s important, though, to stop whenever we’re about to give up something in the name of safety, and realize that we can’t ever have the ultimate result of that transaction. Safety is simply a state that doesn’t exist.

And constantly striving for it will do more harm than good.