Tag Archives: social change
Pandemic Chronicles #10: Taking stock of our lives
Is the coronavirus pandemic prompting you to take stock of your life? Are you spending some of the compelled time at home examining your past, present, and future? If so, you’re in good company. Put simply, facing one’s mortality and living under lockdown conditions has a way of encouraging big picture thinking.
In a recent piece for the Boston Globe (link here), journalist Beth Teitell examines this phenomenon:
If an entire region can have an existential crisis, we’re having one.
With COVID-19 cases mounting and the fear of death hovering, therapist Sam Nabil captured the question lurking barely beneath the surface:
“If I die now, have I lived the life I wanted to?”
For many, the answer is no. Spouses are being left, retirements pushed up, friends dropped. People are moving to rural spots and strengthening their faith, and those fortunate enough to have a choice are saying “no” to commuting.
At the core, so many of the individuals interviewed in Teitell’s piece refer to reassessing their values and priorities. It’s deep stuff, leading to decisions about how we want to live, what we want to do, and what people we want to hold close.
Perhaps this reassessment will not only lead us to better our own lives, but also individually and collectively move us toward creating a better society. Exploring this possibility for the New Yorker, author Lawrence Wright interviewed Gianna Pomata, a retired professor at the Johns Hopkins University’s Institute of the History of Medicine, about how the pandemic may shape our futures (link here). Dr. Pomata is an authority on, among other things, the history of the Black Plague of the Middle Ages.
Now living in Italy, one of the original hot zones for COVID-19 outbreaks, Pomata shared her historical perspective with Wright:
When we first talked, on Skype, she immediately compared covid-19 to the bubonic plague that struck Europe in the fourteenth century—“not in the number of dead but in terms of shaking up the way people think.” She went on, “The Black Death really marks the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of something else.” That something else was the Renaissance.
…“What happens after the Black Death, it’s like a wind—fresh air coming in, the fresh air of common sense.”
Although Pomata expressed shock over the resistance of so many Americans to follow basic public health precautions such as wearing masks, she sees the potential for a similar revitalizing response on a global level once we get through this pandemic:
“What I expect now is something as dramatic is going to happen, not so much in medicine but in economy and culture. Because of danger, there’s this wonderful human response, which is to think in a new way.”
So, I’m going to put on my law professor’s hat and say that the jury’s still out for me on whether our post-pandemic world will be a more enlightened one. After all, here in the U.S., we are witnesses to some of the most appalling ignorance and selfishness when it comes to undertaking preventive public health measures, and we have an alarming absence of competent leadership at the head of state.
Nevertheless, if humanity can come out of the utter carnage of the Black Plague to create the Renaissance, then we have the capacity to emerge from this pandemic with a vision for a much better world as well. That’s all the more reason to wear those masks, wash our hands, and stay socially distanced.
Not-so-random acts of kindness for the non-saintly among us
Last November, I was crossing the street near Boston’s Faneuil Hall when I saw a man huddled in a blanket, shuffling past me in the opposite direction. I caught a glimpse of his eyes for only a second, but I could see a lot of sadness in them. When I got to the other side, I turned around and watched him make his way to a public bench, where he sat and seemed to just stare down.
I decided to go back across the street, and then I walked over to the man. I pulled some money from my wallet and offered it to him, saying that it looked like he could use something to eat. He appeared to be in very bad health, but when he saw that I was giving him twenty dollars and we began talking, his face lit up. He was very grateful for the money, and I believe he was appreciative that someone took a few minutes to converse with him.
What some might call a random act of kindness actually wasn’t all that random. Last fall I completed a non-credit, online adult education course, “The Science of Happiness,” led by psychology professors associated with UC-Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. It was a substantial course on emerging scientific discoveries about what makes people happy, with weekly readings, video lectures, and quizzes, as well as mid-term and final exams. Among our optional assignments was to engage in random acts of kindness, drawing on psychological literature indicating that giving promotes happiness in both the giver and the receiver.
Indeed, a little voice from that course was speaking to me when I walked up to that man and gave him money, and I found myself feeling very emotional afterward. Since then, I’ve repeated this act maybe a half dozen times, approaching people who appear to be very down on their luck, saying hello and giving them a twenty dollar bill. Over the weekend it was a man sitting on a subway bench with all of his worldly belongings stuffed into a grocery cart. Earlier this month it was a woman digging through a trash receptacle in search of food, a few feet away from where I was enjoying my lunch.
A couple of times the recipients didn’t say much to me, but on other occasions they expressed surprise and deep gratitude. One man even hugged me. When you see someone’s facial expression go from weariness and despair to a big smile in a matter of seconds, then you know you’ve made someone’s day a little better.
I have hesitated to put this in a blog post because I don’t wish to portray myself as being someone I’m not. I walk by most people I see panhandling on the street, and I’ve never volunteered at a homeless shelter. And let’s be honest: Twenty bucks isn’t exactly a huge sacrifice for a single guy earning a professional salary. But I thought I’d offer this story as just one example of how the non-saintly among us can make a modest difference in the world. No, it’s not “social change” in the grander way that I’d like to see, but if enough of us engage in these acts, then maybe the good stuff starts to add up to something substantial.
Your not-so-random acts of kindness need not be the same as mine. But I can pretty much guarantee that whatever you decide to do, both you and the recipient(s) will feel better because of it.
Go here if you’d like to learn more about the free “Science of Happiness” course.
This piece is cross-posted on my professional blog, Minding the Workplace.
Another quick trip to Manhattan
I’ve been back in New York City this week to participate in a terrific conference, the annual workshop of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network, sponsored and hosted by Teachers College of Columbia University. Among other things, I gave a talk on the quest to advance and nurture dignity at work. I’ll be posting more about that on my professional blog, Minding the Workplace.
During these all-too-brief trips to the city, I try to revisit favorite old haunts from my 12 years there. One of my stops was the famous Strand bookstore. Since my very first visit to New York in the summer of 1982, I’ve been there hundreds of times!
When I lived in New York, one of my favorite ways to spend a free afternoon or evening was to go pick up a few discounted treasures at the Strand and then enjoy a hearty meal at the Cozy Soup ‘n’ Burger on Broadway & Astor Place. One of my law school pals (hey Joel!) introduced me to the Cozy some 30 years ago, and I’ve been making pilgrimages there since then. My usual order is a turkey burger (no fries) and a cup of their signature split pea soup. If it’s dinnertime, I also may splurge on an order of rice pudding.
Wednesday’s dinner was at La Palapa, a real deal Mexican restaurant on St. Mark’s Place in the East Village. My cousin Judy, a superb restauranteur, is a manager. Fortunately I can champion the food because it’s sooo good, not just because I have a dear family member who works there! Dining with cousins Al, Aaron, and one of their friends, I had this incredible, fall-off-the-bone pork shank dish with rice and plantains.
Cousin Judy and I also went to see a Broadway show, a top-notch performance of “On The Town,” the fresh, funny, and sharp revival of a 1944 musical about three U.S. Navy sailors enjoying a 24-hour leave in New York City.
This visit also overlapped with serious real-life events in New York. On Wednesday, a Staten Island grand jury opted not to indict a white police officer, Daniel Pantaleo, who had placed an unarmed and secured African American man, Eric Garner, in a fatal chokehold. Especially because the July incident was captured on videotape, the decision has sparked major protests in the city (and elsewhere). Here was the scene Wednesday night in Union Square at 14th Street in Manhattan.
What now, not what if
Currently stored on my DVR are a PBS program and a National Geographic docudrama about President Kennedy, both produced to coincide with the 50th anniversary of his assassination. Although I’m a devotee of history, I have a feeling that I won’t be watching them.
I was way too young to understand the tragedy of the assassination when it occurred. Today, however, I regard those events with a deep sense of loss and a light snuffed out. Kennedy’s three years in office were marked by large successes and failures, but he appeared to be hitting his stride by the time he met his demise in Dallas. The “what ifs” are both tantalizing and sad to contemplate. It is oh-so-tempting to imagine what might have been had he lived.
Nevertheless, watching television programs devoted to Kennedy and his death seems like wallowing in a past that cannot be changed. That lesson was reinforced to me in Stephen King’s 2011 time travel epic, 11/22/63, which takes us back to the years leading up to the assassination of President Kennedy. The main protagonist — a modern-day school teacher — learns that when we go back in time, our attempts to change the past may have unintended consequences.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be drawing such fundamental lessons from a bestselling novel, but I’ll take the chance. Even hardcore nostalgia addicts like me must recognize that what’s done is done. And to a generation raised with options, the what-ifs — the speculations over the roads not traveled — can consume us if we let them.
Rather, what counts is how we live today, including the measures we undertake to better our lives and those of others. This point applies in the realms of public affairs, our personal lives, everything. We take the world as it is and do our best to move forward. It’s the best choice we have.
This article is cross-posted with my professional blog, Minding the Workplace.
The stories of our lives
For me, the best part of embracing (or at least not resisting!) middle age is the feeling that I’ve finally sorted out my core priorities and values. I’m not suggesting that change is undesirable or impossible at this stage. Rather, I believe that real, positive change is best built on a grounded base of earlier experiences and lessons we’ve learned from them.
On that note, a short passage from Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation (2004), a collection of writings by the late Joseph Campbell, is instructive. Campbell wrote:
In a wonderful essay called “On an Apparent Intention in the Fate of the Individual,” [philosopher Arthur] Schopenhauer points out that, once you have reached an advanced age, as I have, as you look back over your life, it can seem to have had a plot, as though composed by a novelist. Events that seemed entirely accidental or incidental turn out to have been central in the composition.
I don’t know if I’m fully at that point yet, but I do understand the passage in ways I would not have a decade ago.
In this context, it’s helpful to think about the stories of our lives. In The Seven Basic Plots: Why we tell stories (2004), Christopher Booker posits that seven basic plot lines continually recur in literature and drama:
- “Overcoming the Monster”
- “Rags to Riches”
- “The Quest”
- “Voyage and Return”
Let’s apply these seven types to our own story arcs, and attempt to change the narratives if they aren’t going our way. Only one of the seven — tragedy — is negative on its face. And with the exception of comedy, the rest encompass seizing opportunities, meeting challenges, overcoming obstacles, and recovering from setbacks.
Our stories also may include reaching out beyond our own lives and striving to better the world around us.
My friend Kayhan Irani, an award winning cultural activist based in New York (she’s way too young to be a Gen Joneser, but who’s counting!?), co-edited with Rickie Sollinger and Madeline Fox a volume of essays, Telling Stories to Change the World (2008). The book gathers narratives and reflections on social justice from around the world.
Whether it’s the immigrant experience in New York’s Hudson Valley, teaching about genocide in Darfur, women living in Muslim cultures, or a host of other settings, Telling Stories to Change the World draws us out of ourselves and, in the process, invites us to think about how we can make a difference in our own lives. Especially for those of us whose life experiences have been more conventional (in the American middle class sense of the term), this is a book of differences and possibilities.
When I started this blog a few weeks ago, I asked How will Generation Jones make its mark? During the years to come, I believe that part of that answer will include contributing toward positive change in our communities. We have a lot of good chapters left to write, I’d say.
How will Generation Jones make its mark?
If you’re a card-carrying U.S. member of Generation Jones, you no doubt recognize this screen shot from “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” depicting some of the inhabitants of the Island of Misfit Toys, hoping that Santa Claus will pick them up some Christmas Eve and deliver them to loving homes.
And that, for me, captures how I feel about our chronological place in time. I think of Gen Jones as a group whose formative period missed out on the heart of the Sixties and preceded much of the gee-whiz launch of the Digital Age.
Instead, the Seventies come to mind, and I don’t necessarily consider that a good thing: Big, gas guzzling cars; a struggling economy; lots of cheesy pop music, TV, and movies; some pretty scary fashions; high crime rates and crumbling cities; and the outing of political corruption at a national level. Despite my Cancerian devotion to nostalgia, that’s one decade I don’t get all warm and fuzzy about.
Finding our place now
But I’m over that — er, sort of.
More importantly, there’s a bigger question presenting itself, and that’s how we make our mark as a generation. I know I’m not alone in wrestling with these thoughts. The quest to find that narrative and purpose is said to be one of the defining characteristics of Gen Jones, as its Wikipedia entry suggests:
The name “Generation Jones” has several connotations, including a large anonymous generation, a “keeping up with the Joneses” competitiveness and the slang word “jones” or “jonesing”, meaning a yearning or craving. . . . It is said that Jonesers were given huge expectations as children in the 1960s, and then confronted with a different reality as they came of age in the 1970s and 1980s, leaving them with a certain unrequited, “jonesing” quality.
For now, it’s fair to say that the process of generational self-definition is a work-in-progress for Gen Jones.
Here’s one take on it…
Beth Wiggins, whose work brings together aging issues and community services, suggests that Gen Jones can make its unique contribution by how we handle our aging population. Here’s a piece of her article for MinnPost.com, “Time for the Jones Generation to Make Its Mark”:
We . . . have been given a name: Generation Jones. Born between the mid-1950s and the mid-1960s, you don’t hear much about the Jones cohort. Yet, we outnumber all other Boomers and Generation X. Jonathan Pontell, who coined “Generation Jones,” describes it as a large, anonymous generation with unfulfilled expectations. . . . But here we are at our midcentury mark, and we have an opportunity to step out and make a difference.
. . . And we must, whether motivated by pursuit of the greater good or pure self-interest. Generation Jones is the crest of the population age wave. We personify its biggest challenges and are especially vulnerable to the potential insecurities when the wave hits the shore. Health-care costs continue to escalate, and Medicare is in a precarious position. Professional care-giving work force shortages loom ahead. Dispersed families and the increasing prevalence of single-person households have implications for how informal care is provided in the future. How we approach aging matters.
A good conversation over a bite to eat
Just yesterday I enjoyed a quick meal with an old friend from high school who was in town on business. We hadn’t seen each other in decades, but Facebook put us back in touch. He’s got a ton of important work experience in both the private and public sectors, and he’s at a point in his life where he’s considering how to bring this accumulated wisdom to bear upon some of our larger challenges in creating a vibrant, socially responsible economy.
Our conversation covered a wide swath of what our generation has experienced over the past 30 years. For both of us, this includes witnessing the sharp decline of our hometown of Hammond, Indiana, once a thriving small industrial city in Northwest Indiana’s steel belt, now yet another Midwestern locale trying to hang on. We’ve seen good jobs at decent wages disappear, with massive shifts in wealth distribution to go along with it.
Will my friend be part of a creative solution? I’m betting that his myriad experiences, and what he’s learned from them, have led him to this point.
There’s no shortage of good works and noble deeds that need doing. That said, we’re in our 50s and late 40s. Realistically speaking, we have about a 20 year window to continue or begin creating the heart of our personal and collective legacies.
In other words, we can’t afford to feed a lot of angst about the world and our places in it. It’s game time, and we need to realize that.