Coping with Non-stop Catastrophe

I can’t help feeling a bizarre sense of surreality as I enjoy a lovely, peaceful, golden September afternoon here in New England while at the same time being deeply plunged into virtual reality, watching the slow but inexorable progress of Hurricane Irma across the Caribbean and up the Florida peninsula.

It’s like living life in a constant state of split-screen.

On the left, there’s my ordinary life, which (thankfully) is at the moment moving forward without much drama.

On the right, there are the dark clouds, howling winds and rising seas of the storms—literal and metaphorical—that are sweeping over other parts of the USA and the world.

The hurricane is an apt weather-metaphor for the tumultuous weeks since the American solar eclipse on August 21. We’ve had more intense news packed into these few weeks than seems possible.

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How are we to maintain our balance, focus and peace of mind when we’re being whipsawed from a Nazi/KKK riot in Charlottesville to an insane dictator in North Korea playing with nuclear missiles to an epic flood in Texas to the racist anti-immigrant president pardoning a known criminal (Sheriff Arpaio) and preparing to deport nearly a million hard-working Dreamers to record-breaking wildfires on the West Coast to the biggest, meanest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic to a once-in-a-century earthquake in Mexico…and it just goes on and on and on.

Compared with figuring out how to survive a hurricane, or how to clean up a city devastated by one, my split-screen dilemma is trivial. But it is a strange polarity that I must navigate every day: staying aware of all the dire circumstances people are living through, while not getting so caught up in that virtual reality—other people’s lives—that I neglect my own, or become immobilized by anxiety and depression.

41DVsVYbnRL._SX347_BO1,204,203,200_I wonder if this will be a new diagnosis for the psychiatrists to label and record in their DSM? They could call it virtual reality anxiety syndrome, with complications of depression and insomnia.

Part of the anxiety comes from the awareness that it’s only a matter of time before the camera comes swinging around to me and my part of the world. Right now all is peaceful…but the big one will be heading my way soon too, whether it’s an unprecedented snowstorm or a New York City bombing or car attack or water poisoned by chemicals or a crazy man going amuck with a semi-automatic rifle. All of this has happened already, and will continue to happen…there is no escaping the rapid and deadly beat of life in the 21st century.

So the question becomes how to live with this knowledge while remaining open, empathetic, curious, upbeat—how to live each day as a marvelous gift to be unpacked with delight, while sending love and concern to the other half of the screen—the people who have the misfortune to be dealing with the storm systems now.

How do we keep enjoying life without being overcome with guilt, sorrow and rage at the way others are, at the same exact minute, being forced to suffer?

I am doing the best I can. How about you? I’d be very grateful for any suggestions you may have about how to manage “virtual reality anxiety syndrome” better.

And now, back to you, Irma.

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Look for unexpected beauty this Solstice Season

This Winter Solstice seems particularly dark to many of us, especially in the northern climes. There is a danger now that as we dwell on the sadness, outrage and fear that bombards us every day through our media, we end up adding detail and strength to what we least want.

This Solstice, join me in aligning the personal, political and planetary as we appreciate the beauty and warmth of our friends, family and Mother Earth. As we welcome and create love and light in our lives and the lives of those around us, including in the non-human realms, we will create the future we yearn for, one precious moment at a time.

Beaming love, courage and light to you all—TWOFOLD!!!

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Solstice suns, Stockbridge MA, December 20, 2016. Photo by J. Browdy

Another Day, Another Mass Killing: Confronting the Causes of Young Men’s Rage

As we wake up to yet another spasm of hideous violence in the world—this time more than 75 innocent Bastille Day revelers mowed down by a truck driven at high speed along a packed sidewalk—I can feel myself reeling off into that terrified little-girl mindset, a cellular memory of always being afraid in crowds, always being afraid of violence lurking around the corner, always seeking the safety of my own little room, my own little bed, hiding under the covers.

But I am well into midlife now, and I can’t hide under the covers anymore. I have to accept adult responsibility for the violent world we live in. If young men are angry enough to risk their own lives to kill gay Latinos in a nightclub—to kill Parisian youth at a rock concert—to kill police officers—to kill young men of color—to kill, kill, kill—what does that say about the society they grew up in? Whether they grew up in Tunisia or Florida, they are part of the same global society that I live in too, and the anger that leads to the killing is real and must be addressed. Adding more anti-terrorist squads, sending out more drones—these are tactics aimed at the symptoms, but do nothing for the causes of the violence.

Virtually nothing is ever said about causes of these young men’s anger and fear and how/why it prompts them to actions of violent hatred. And yes, I am putting racist police who kill innocent people in the same boat as the racist terrorists. Difference of ideology, difference of scale, but same result: innocent people dying.

I’m also being deliberate here in my use of pronouns. Every single mass shooting in the U.S. has been perpetrated by young men, and I have yet to hear of a woman cop being charged with an unjust killing, although there have been some young women coerced into becoming suicide bombers in other places in the world. For the most part the terrorists have other uses for the women—as sex slaves. The question that seems primary to me is a simple one: what is causing so many young men to become so violent?

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I believe that every baby comes into this world with the capacity to become a loving human being. We may have different propensities to kindness or cruelty, but these can be worked on in the nurturing process. Bloodthirstiness and criminal violence is not genetically programmed, at least not yet. But it seems to be overtaking more and more of our young men, worldwide. What’s up with that? Where is it coming from?

Social indoctrination. Boys are being trained to love violence and to see themselves in the role of the aggressor. This is happening everywhere a boy has access to a violent video game, and with guidance from adults in places like radical Islamic madrassahs and radical gun-rights enclaves in the US. It’s happening all over the Internet, wherever violent fanatics hang their hats. The result: a steady beat of mass killings by fanatical young men with guns, acting out of a perceived sense of righteousness.

Ready availability of weapons. Ours is a world awash with weapons. The countries that manufacture the weapons decry the violence at the same time as they gloat over the profits of selling the arms—to their own people and abroad. The violence won’t stop until we deal with this contradiction and restrict weapons to the hands of trained peacekeepers, turning the giant factories to manufacturing implements of peace instead of weapons of war.

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Poor education and lack of opportunities for young men. Young men need challenge. They need opportunities to shine and excel and receive the admiration of their peers. These days too many young men must make do with vicarious pleasures: rooting for sports teams, playing video games. In the end they have to pull away from the screen and confront the fact that their lives are going nowhere. They don’t have the education or skills to get satisfying work. They’d rather be unemployed than work in demeaning jobs. They take out their frustrations on their girlfriends or on each other…and end up in prison, or dead. A few break that general mold and go out in flames, taking a handful of innocent bystanders with them.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

There is so much good work to be done in the world. We need to improve education, offering retraining to young men who need it, and develop a new international public works program like Roosevelt’s post-Depression Civilian Conservation Corps, which put thousands of young men to productive, society-building work. It doesn’t have to be just manual labor, although the strong backs and firm muscles of young men would be welcome on myriads of civilian projects. We also need young men to write and sing and dance and entertain. We need young men to develop better video games that are about the human power to create, rather than our compulsion to destroy. We need loving young men to guide our boys.

Nothing I’m saying here is new, or rocket science. I’m just so frustrated at our current way of responding to violence with fear, dread and retaliation, instead of with resolve to get to the bottom of what is causing young men to act out in this deadly way, over and over and over. I’m frustrated with the political deadlocks in the U.S. that make it easier for a young man to buy an assault weapon than to get a driver’s license. I’m frustrated with the kneejerk responses to terrorism that blame entire communities for the rage of a few individuals.

As Martin Luther King Jr. said so many times, in so many ways: Violence will not be stopped by more violence. It can only be stopped by loving attention to the sources of the rage.

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Loving people, we can’t hide under the covers. We have to connect and communicate with each other across all the artificial barriers that divide us, and resolve to do everything we can to confront the problems we face as local communities and on a global level. This just can’t go on.

From Orlando to Dallas and beyond: dreaming of a homeland to be proud of

The weather here in Nova Scotia has been stormy, but that’s nothing compared with the storms sweeping across my homeland, the USA. I write the word “homeland” with an inner cringe…can I really call this violent place home? Home is supposed to be a place of refuge; a sanctuary. I feel that about my island home here in Canada, but when I contemplate going back across the border, I can’t avoid an instinctive sense of fear and foreboding.

According to the astrologers, Mars is in Scorpio now—pretty potent times, when the god of war meets the sign known for intensity around death and sexuality. That might have “explained” the tragedy in Orlando. But the steady beat of innocent Black folks being gunned down by law enforcement officers for misdemeanors—or no crime at all—cannot be explained by anything except a racist society full of trigger-happy cops.

And this latest episode in Dallas defies any explanation. I am not satisfied with the official story, that a single sniper was able to kill five cops and injure several more people before being cornered in a parking garage. I have not seen any convincing evidence proving that the young man they killed in the garage with a “robot bomb” was in fact the sniper they were looking for. Eventually I assume they will show the forensic evidence linking the bullets found in the bodies to Micah Johnson’s gun, but even that kind of evidence could be trumped up.

I fear that this young veteran, handily dead, could be taking the fall for a sinister conspiracy aimed at further destabilizing the country and giving the police permission to “get tougher.” Which seems to mean, use more of their military surplus equipment against their own homeland citizens.

I read an article by an ex-cop who said 15% of cops are good people who would never commit a racist act; 15% are racists just waiting for an opportunity to strike; and 70% are just ordinary folks, susceptible to the prevailing culture in their community and police force.

Those percentages are probably about right when applied to the U.S. population at large, too. Clearly what needs to be worked on is the prevailing culture—the structural racism, the structural elitism, the deck stacked against the poor, no matter the color of their skin, and the way it’s becoming almost impossible to climb out of poverty if you’ve been born into it.

This bigger picture is what can be so hard to get from the media, which converts everything into sound-bites, “status updates,” or even, lord help us, tweets. Everything moves so fast, we are kept busy just trying to stay abreast of what’s going on, with little time or energy for contemplation.

Meanwhile, out there beyond the personal and political, the planet herself is getting ever more out of balance. The floods, the wildfires, the toxic algae blooms, fungi killing off amphibians and bats, the sudden death of entire populations of birds, reindeer and seals…it’s all part of the bigger picture of a planet gone deeply awry.

The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that the violence and political mayhem we are seeing in the world is connected to the inner turmoil in human beings. We are the consciousness of the planet. We alone among all species are able to understand history and predict the future. We know the consequences of our actions and we live and die according to moral codes.

All of us who are sick at heart in these days of horrendous violence at home must understand that what we are seeing in the U.S. is just a pale echo of the massive violence Americans have inflicted on people in other countries (from Vietnam to Iraq, from El Salvador to Afghanistan and on and on), as well as—on an even bigger scale—on other living beings on the planet, from iconic creatures like elephants and lions on down to coral, fish and butterflies, not to mention all the beautiful members of the plant kingdom.

Since we have allowed the arming of our civilian population with military-style weapons, our country is turning into the same kind of war zone  experienced by people in other countries, and animals everywhere.

And more of us are becoming infected with that conflictive kind of consciousness, dominated by fear and its twin, aggression. The inner landscape mirrors the outer landscape, with devastating consequences for those caught in the crossfire.

Neither fear nor aggression will get us where we need to go, as individuals, as a society, or on the global scale. Nor does moral exhortation seem to have much effect. The only real solution has to be the deep, structural one: redirecting our resources away from weapons and war, towards education, well-being and an economy that gives every human being the opportunity to live a peaceful, satisfying life.

You may say this is utopian. “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.” There are many economists who understand that we have a choice whether or not to base our global livelihoods on the death-and-aggression-focused military-industrial complex, or on “right livelihood,” the kind of activities and industries that make people happy, well and fulfilled, and at the same time protect and care for our planet and the myriad other creatures who live here too.

While honoring all those—and there are so many—who have fallen prey to our violent culture, we must keep in mind the bigger picture, and the magnitude of what is at stake. The violence perpetrated against Black people at home is the same violence being perpetrated against so many others, in all the places in the world where we sell and deploy our vaunted American military weapons and expertise.

Let’s dare to imagine a future in which Americans are famous and respected not for the size of our military budget, but for our leadership in stabilizing our planet and making it a safe, prosperous home for everyone. We can do it. And we must.

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Imagining Peace on Memorial Day 2015: Thinking Beyond Our Gated Communities

We American civilians live peacefully and comfortably in a gated community the size of our country, guarded by our military and law enforcement officials. But would we have to maintain this guarded posture, at huge taxpayer expense, if we did more to wage peace in the world, instead of waging war?

It’s been well-documented that it costs much less to educate a young person than to imprison him or her. And yet we still continue to pour resources into prisons, and starve our educational system.

Wars are fought for the rich and powerful, but those who die, whether as combatants or as bystanders, are usually drawn from the ranks of the poor. In war zones across the globe, we find young men (and sometimes women) drawn into combat because they lack educational and economic opportunities at home, and thus are easily lured into becoming pawns in the ideological war games of the elite. A recent Rand survey of enlisted U.S. Army personnel found that more than half joined the Army because there were no jobs to be found at home.

Summer Solstice 2014 Photo by Eric Hernandez

Summer Solstice 2014
Photo by Eric Hernandez

Imagine what would happen if instead of bringing guns and chemicals to poor regions around the world, we brought libraries and laptops and laboratories. Imagine what would happen if instead of throwing our young people into the maw of poverty and violence, we cultivated them lovingly and raised them to be productive contributors to their hometowns and homelands.

Imagine if this loving mindset could be extended not just to human beings but to every living being on our planet.

This Memorial Day, I am grieving not just for humans, but for all the birds, fish, mammals and plants that have been sacrificed to human aggression and greed.

The “collateral damage” of war is vast and too often unseen, at least by those of us fortunate enough to live far from the battlefields. Once in a while we catch a glimpse of what those on the frontlines are living through—for example, this week the beaches in one of the wealthiest enclaves on Earth, Santa Barbara, California, are being fouled by an oil pipe rupture. Maybe when the privileged denizens of Santa Barbara see wildlife washing up on shore in pitiful oily carcasses, they will begin to understand the havoc caused by our heedless American addiction to oil.

Photo c. Kenneth Song / The News-Press Mike Harris, of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, prepares to rescue a pelican covered in oil on the beach about a mile west of Refugio State Beach, Calif., Wednesday, May 20, 2015.

Photo c. Kenneth Song / The News-Press
Mike Harris, of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, prepares to rescue a pelican covered in oil on the beach about a mile west of Refugio State Beach, Calif., Wednesday, May 20, 2015.

The truth is that the rich and powerful get behind movements for change only when they are directly negatively affected.

Witness what happened back in the Vietnam era, when America began drafting the sons of the wealthy elites, and those boys started coming home in coffins or maimed for life. Suddenly there was an anti-war movement with real teeth, and that war was soon ended, along with the draft.

To end the fossil fuel era it is going to take a similar punch to the power centers of the fossil fuel industry, and the Oil Kings won’t give up without a fight.

What’s called for here is not a fist-fight, but a moral battle, an appeal to the powerful to do what’s right for all of us, before we all topple over the edge of environmental destruction.

This Memorial Day, I honor the fallen—soldiers and civilians, birds and trees, mammals and bees and butterflies—and call on the living to step up to the immense challenge of our time: taking a giant leap forward in human evolution, beyond tribalism, beyond shortsighted greed and aggression, towards the loving, compassionate and wise species we are meant to become.

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Elder tree. Photo by J. Browdy 2014

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