Thursday, April 16, 2020

Make It Your Personal Destiny

Hannah Arendt 1933

Hannah Arendt, the philisopher who wrote The Origins of Totalitarianism, survived Nazism primarily because she fled to Czechoslovakia in 1933. She was a woman who knew how to read the handwriting on the wall.

After WWII, she "told a television interviewer... that everyone had known from the start how dangerous Nazi Germany was, but knowing it in theory was one thing, while acting on it and turning it into 'personal destiny' was another" (Bakewell 95).

Coronaviruses 004 lores

Today, most of us know that the coronavirus is dangerous, yet whenever I go into town, I see people not wearing masks. They haven't yet made protecting themselves and others part of their own "personal destiny."

Similarly, people living near coastlines are generally aware of sea level rise, yet many have chosen to stay in these areas, raising their houses a dozen feet without realizing that someday flooded streets and dysfunctional sewers may make their homes uninhabitable. Perhaps, like the citizens of Tokyo once did, they plan to use a boat to travel to work, school, and shopping. Or perhaps they believe that their local government's mitigation efforts will be enough. A strategic response to climate change is not yet part of their personal destinies either.

Five ivory dice

Research has shown us that humans are terrible at calculating long-term risks. We really, really want rewards now, even if we'd get better outcomes by being patient or denying ourselves in the short term. We overestimate immediate threats and underestimate less obvious dangers. We trust our anecdotal accounts and our friends' experiences over statistics.

The United States is at a crossroads. We can choose to rush into re-opening the economy without sufficient coronavirus testing for a short-term benefit of getting people back to work more quickly at the risk of long-term detriments:

  • new waves of the disease
  • widespread illness
  • prolonged recovery and post-infection quarantines that reduce productivity
  • high numbers of deaths
  • unpredictable, prolonged school and business closures when employees become infected
  • high cost of cleaning and disinfecting before re-opening every time someone gets sick

Likewise, we can continue to emit greenhouse gases, and gain the short-term benefits of continuing to live comfortably for a while as:

  • our cities flood
  • our homes become worthless
  • farm land turns to salt marsh
  • hurricanes and tornadoes destroy homes and lives
  • floods cause late planting and crop failure
  • fires ravage the hotter, drier regions of every continent

Or we can choose to plan for a future in which cities and farms continue to thrive, sustainable economies expand instead of contracting, and we do not die in great numbers from political upheaval, famine, or disease.

It's one thing to know what's dangerous. It's another to act before it's too late.

What's your personal destiny? What's the destiny of your nation?


Bakewell, Sarah. At the Existentialist Cafe. New York: Other Press, 2016.

Foy, George Michaelsen. "Humans Can't Plan Long-Term and Here's Why." Psychology Today. 25 June 2018. <>

King, Dr. Matthew Wilburn. "How Brain Biases Prevent Climate Action." BBC. <>

Sunday, March 29, 2020

One Bit at a Time: My Isolated Brain!

My volunteer potato plant
Yesterday I spent most of the day working in the yard.  I was actually planted something - a potato that came up volunteer in the compost. I had intended to plant a sweet potato from the grocery store, but when I started to screen the compost, I found this guy.  Sometime last year, I tossed an old potato into the bin and buried it.  Over the winter, that forgotten potato sprouted and struggled up through several inches of dirt to reach the light.  

In the midst of a global pandemic, it seems wrong to kill anything so determined to make a life for itself.  So I planted it instead.

It’s obvious, BTW, that we are going to run out of garden soil rather quickly.  No way is there enough compost to start a large garden.  But that is definitely not today’s issue.  My real problem is my distracted brain.

Every day,  I’m scatterbrained and emotional, and I struggle to complete any task.  Admittedly, there would be something truly wrong with me if I felt happy right now in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak.  The U.S. if facing a highly contagious pandemic with inadequate medical supplies, no known treatments, thousands of deaths and a global recession –  I’d be a monster if I were fine with all that.  Nevertheless I would like to be a little more fine than I currently am.

The primary way I’m functioning right now (when I'm not "misery scrolling" on Facebook or reading and re-reading the latest news) is by “bitting.”  A bit is the smallest unit of information processed by a computer, either a zero or a one.  Bits are usually grouped into larger units called bytes.  Bitting is taking things one very tiny piece at a time.

This is how it looks in my life:  People are dying, I’m terrified for everyone around me (including myself). What can I do?  Okay, there's a lot of laundry sitting around. Maybe I can match three pairs of socks.  Great, I did that.  Now I can fold two tee-shirts.  What’s the next little thing I can do? Eventually the stack of laundry disappears.

It would be way more efficient if I could manage larger data packets right now, but my mind is not in the kind of a place.  I’m happy just to be moving forward, a millimeter or two at a time.  And to be healthy, at a moment when so many are literally struggling for their lives.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Where do you go to find yourself?

How do you define your identity as a human being? Is it a matter of gender, or of being a certain age?  Having a particular profession? Are you defined by your actions and achievements?  Your family and friends?  Their expectations, or your own dreams?

At church Sunday, the topic was baptism, and the text was Matthew’s account of John baptizing Jesus. Reverend Renée said that Jesus didn’t need to be baptized, because He had a perfect relationship with the Father and He had no sin; therefore Jesus had no need for repentance.  However, by coming to the river with those who were looking for healing, renewal and grace, Jesus participated with them in their pain and their need, and in so doing, discovered who He was.  Reverend Renée hypothesized that without the baptism, there might have been no ministry, no atonement, and no resurrection.

I like her idea that “we discover who we are in community.”  That’s definitely true of creative people, which is why I need the Writers Coffeehouse, the Huachuca Arts Association open studio, the monthly open mic reading at Broxton’s and my critique groups.  I don’t just learn craft there; I also learn who I am.

But I don't want to be like Ernest Hemingway, with his self-destructive impulses and his inability to continue living when he could no longer write.  I cannot simply define myself as a writer, or an artist; I am more than what I do, or how well I do it.

Sunday, we came, one by one, but also as a congregation, to dip our fingers into a bowl of water and choose a glass pebble.  "Remember your baptism, Tina" Reverend Renée said, and I picked a smooth, blood-red piece of glass that was practically glowing in the sunlight.  

"Put this where you can see it," she told us all.  And I have, because I want to remember that I am part of something much larger than myself, and that we are all figuring things out together.  I am loved, and I do not have to walk alone.

Buy your own glass gems <>