Separated by Ideology

Earlier this week, I went for a run with a dear friend of more than 30 years. It was special. He’s a better runner than me by magnitudes, but he slowed down to my hobbling pace for a nice 6 mile run in a beautiful state park as we discussed life After COVID-19 (AC). We’re both introverts, so we mused that life AC hasn’t changed too terribly much for either of us personally. We had a thoughtful discussion about our direct experiences thus far. He is a paramedic, so to say that he’s on the front line of this thing is an understatement. I work in corporate America with access to some very good economic reporting, so I was able to bring that perspective. It wasn’t long into our run before our attention turned to some of the conspiracy theories about the virus.

“They’re saying that this thing was developed in a Chinese lab and was released just in time for the US election.” “I also heard Bill Gates had the patent on the vaccine.” “Oh, and let’s make sure we talk about the chemical trails, the 5G Network, and how wearing a mask is a form of government control.” We chuckled them off. Not because we have direct knowledge that they are false or that it wouldn’t be more dramatic to believe that there is something bigger going on. Rather, our experiences and our education have taught us to see the world through Occam’s Razor. Boiled down into my own terms, Occam’s Razor is the axiom that in the absence of direct knowledge, the least complicated explanation is generally the best. Applying Occam’s Razor means that this COVID-19 is a natural occurring phenomenon and our best way to deal with it is to follow expert advice on social distancing and wearing masks until we can sort out a vaccine. I know… Boring. The best things in life usually are.

Unfortunately, I haven’t experienced the same thoughtful dialogue or boring conclusion from other loved ones. I see old friends or family sharing conspiracy videos and taking a very real stance on calling COVID-19 a hoax designed to further enrich the ultra-wealthy or influence the US election. Wearing a mask has become a question of personal freedom. Protest signs reading, “My body, my choice. End the lock-down now” pock mark the lawns of US state capitals. This thing seems to have tipped into a special kind of lunacy where people are risking their own lives or the lives of their loved ones to prove a political point. But why?

Looking Back at Historical Health Calamities

For clues, I looked back at the bubonic plague. The plague killed roughly one third of medieval Europe’s population. Until it was well understood that it was being spread by fleas from rats to humans, the plague was a similar invisible enemy. Thanks to reasonably good record-keeping from the era, we know that society reacted in all sorts of kooky ways. The following excerpt offers up just a few of the popular preventive measures for the plague.

Fires were a popular method of warding off miasmas [corrupted airs believed to cause the plague]. They were burned at street corners; even the pope sat between two large fires. People were urged to burn aromatic woods, but other scents would do as well, including rosemary, amber, musk and fragrant flowers. When they walked, people took their scents with them, carrying packets of herbs. Some plague-proofed their homes by putting glazes over the southern windows to block the polluted southern wind. People were advised not to eat meat or figs and to avoid activities that would open the pores to a miasma, including bathing, exercising and physical intimacy. Stranger recommendations circulated as well, including not sleeping during the daytime and avoiding sad thoughts about death and disease.

excerpt from How The Black Death Worked by Molly Edmonds

OK, you might be thinking. Avoiding eating figs or not taking a bath are very personal decisions. They’re not conspiratorial – unless maybe you’re a medieval fig farmer or a soap manufacturer. Rest assured dear reader, that medieval Europe was not safe from conspiracy theories either.

In the 14th century, when the plague ravaged Europe, nobody knew how the illness had originated. Soon after, unfounded rumors surfaced that Jews caused the outbreak by poisoning wells in a bid to control the world. Jewish people were accused of being behind the plague — and were subjected to deadly pogroms and forcefully displaced. 

excerpt from Coronavirus and the plague: The disease of viral conspiracy theories by Christopher Nehring

The same is true for the more recent Spanish Flu, which Nehring writes was believed to be developed by Germans as a weapon after WWI.

Introspection

I find it both fascinating and frustrating that our human response to calamity is – for some – to assume others have set it in motion. When we should be pulling together to solve a common problem, some portion of us dream up dark schemes assigned to others and posit them as truths, which catch on and cost even more lives. What drives this abhorrent behavior? Perhaps an inward view will offer more clues.

I recall back to my younger days when I was more willing and even eager to buy into conspiracies. The difference between the younger me and the current model is a question of power. 20 years ago, I worked in small factories for a low salary and I had no say in how my company, my neighborhood, my favorite sports teams – anything – ran. I also had a lot more time to sit and stew about not having any power. On the lower rungs of the societal pecking order, it was tempting to think that the cards were stacked against me. Or even better, there are puppet masters pillaging the world for their personal gain and keeping it all to themselves. Now I had, if not an individual person, a group of people that I could direct my dissatisfaction for my lowly station. The man was holding me down.

The Truth is Usually Quite Boring

As I have gotten older, become better educated and furthered my career, I’ve begun to get access to power. Not real power like the 1% or the 0.1%, but some marginal levels of financial stability and the ability to have some influence in my various organizations. I’m learning the downright boring machinations of how the organizations work. I see clearly that I was never being held down. What was holding me down was my own ideology borne out of my dissatisfaction with the current state of my life. I wanted more. More stuff, more money, more importance, more say in how things went. In short, I wanted more power. Because I didn’t perceive that I had enough power, I looked for dramatic and sinister stories about the world around me to keep pushing the dopamine button. The man was holding me down. He was. His name was Troy.

Perhaps it isn’t fair of me to project my youthful feelings of powerlessness onto others. Perhaps they have firsthand knowledge that brings real credibility to these alternative positions. But generally speaking, the conspiratorial arguments fall apart quickly. When asked for more proof than some slick social media video or report from a alternative news source, there isn’t anything other than a fervent willingness to believe in the malicious motivations of others.

What to Do About Those We Love

Now that I have written this post, I find hope in navigating this tricky space. I was once a brooding soul weary of the man holding me down. Now that I’ve come through that portion of my life, I hold on to hope that my loved ones will too. If I’m honest, I have not reacted well. I’ve become frustrated and harbored sharp-witted thoughts in response to the conspiracy purveyors in my circle of loved ones. But sarcasm and sharp wit aren’t the answer. It only leads to entrenchment because there’s always a counter-argument. I think the best thing to do is focus on safety. As long as a loved one is taking care of themselves, let them believe and post and share what they want. Perhaps it will run its course. On the other hand if our loved ones are not being safe, we must speak up. We must encourage them to follow clearly documented health guidelines. Then we will have done what we can.

Wishing you well in these challenging times.

– Troy

August seems like a great time to detox!

Hello! Blogging world.  It’s Troy’s wife, Melanie.  He’s mentioned me in a few blogs and I’ve always PLANNED to join in the fun, but alas never took the time to write down my thoughts.  So here goes, my first blog… please be gentle 🙂

Troy and I just took one of our amazing trips.  This time with the 2 younger boys for their vacation before they go back to school.  Jackson has been playing baseball all summer making it difficult to go on a vacation.  This year, I thought we could just keep it simple and go to Louisville, KY, about 4 hours from our home.  I hope to make time to write a review of Louisville, but this blog is about getting back to a normal / sustainable routine.  When Troy and I travel, we enjoy a little bit extra most places.  We eat desert, have the coffee, try the new item on the menu and all that fun stuff.  We buy the kids ice cream and let them eat fast food more than usual.  And usually, I come home with the attitude that I need to get my life and decision under control.  While it’s fun to relax and enjoy, those unhealthy decisions wake me up in the middle of the night, make me cranky, and sluggish all around.  We try to keep active by hiking, climbing, and running, but I can’t keep up with the extreme schedule in either direction.

Also, I’ve been listening to Cait Flanders book a “A Year of Less” which is my second time listening.  She makes great points and the book reviews what we all know which is if you want to lose weight, eat less, if you want to save money, spend less, and so on.  Cait explains how she personally tackles spending less for a whole year.  She holds herself accountable by writing a blog and sharing with the world her successes and her opportunities to improve.  Ugh, and man do I HATE holding myself accountable publicly or honestly even formally.  I won’t even write it in a journal so there’s always a way to wiggle out of a goal.  With that being said, I reach my goals usually.  Over the past 9 months, I’ve lost 30 pounds.  I’ve started running consistently again planning for a 1/2 marathon in November.  I’ve started consistently climbing (something that was never a goal, but satisfies weight training).  i reach goals for the most part, but I don’t make big vision boards and document the progress.  I guess until now.

I have 10 more pounds I want to lose.  I want to do that while training for a 1/2 marathon and not being so reliant on Optifast to get there.  I want to move into the phase of eating that is my new normal and that I can control myself.  I would also like to reduce my spending.  I previously listened to Cait’s book and really curbed my spending on clothing and small, impulse buys, but when I lost weight, I opened my budget to replace my closet and well, that needs to get back under control.  I haven’t re-filled my closet completely, but I wanted to keep it minimal and it’s kinda not.

So, starting today, I am coming up with my rules of engagement for the rest of 2019 for spending.  I am also coming up with my healthy plan for the month of August to be renewed in September.  I have some travel happening in September that will take some special consideration.

Spending through 12/31/19:

  1. Can buy house hold items that need replaced or are non-existent now
  2. Can buy items to finish decorating the boys rooms
  3. At the beginning of each month, thoughtfully determine the 3 wardrobe items that make the most sense – get rid of what they replace if they replace items
  4. Determine a plan for Christmas
  5. Can buy items for the boys that they need, such as sports gear

Current items I want to buy:

  • Black blazer for work – thinking I will wait for a labor day sale at WHBM
  • Climbing shorts – because the ones I have are too big and I climb ~ 3 times a week
  • Running shorts – because I have 2 pairs now and would like a 3rd for a whole weeks worth of running shorts with pockets
  • A traditional jean skirt – because I think it’s cute

This list can be updated, because I’m sure I did not think about everything…. Also, I want to review my spending history to make sure my gut feeling is right that I’m spending most of my money on clothing.

Weight management for the month of August:
Goal weight = 140, current weight 155 (Louisville weekend was super fun, and wow! I just published my freaking weight, uh, that hurts 😉

  1. Drink alcohol only once a week (usually, Monday night climb and wine)
  2. Go to Conci regularly to check in and progress off the Optifast diet
  3. Plan a meal strategy at the beginning of every week – this week I will be finishing the Fresh ’n Lean meals for lunch and salads for dinner
  4. Track calories using My Fitness Pal
  5. Weigh myself daily
  6. Continue with the Garmin running plan, climbing for fun, and add to the fitness routine Ab workouts

I will check back in next week for an update on my progress.

Why Not Inner Peace Solely Through Christianity?

Over the past year or so, I have somewhat frequently touched on my mindfulness practice and how I have essentially grown into a Zen Buddhist. In my post, From Middle America to Zen Buddhism, I talked about the seeds that were sown throughout my early life and how my mid-life challenges sealed the deal. But one aspect I haven’t covered is, why not seek inner peace through Christianity? After all, it is the faith of my family and my childhood. So first, let’s get this out of the way. Zen Buddhism is not my religion. Zen can be – and is often the case in Asia – practiced while holding true to another, or multiple other faiths. Among many things in Zen Buddhism, the “and” instead of the “or” appeals to me. But not so fast, let’s break it down.

Focus on the mind

Probably the biggest thing that pulled me into Zen is the focus on the mind. While Zen – which is a subset of Buddhism – offers plenty of instruction on behaviors, it is well more focused on taming the wild mind than Christianity. Christianity offers the hope of redemption in the afterlife for believing and following in Christ in this life. Those are admirable goals. However, in my search for inner peace, I was looking for ways to sort out the messiness of my mind in my life right now. The Bible offers learning through parable and the story of Jesus. Zen offers learning and guidance through the direct experience of right now.

A lot of Westerners think that Zen is all about getting blissed out in a hippie dippie fashion. Not at all true. In fact, Zen practitioners rarely talk about enlightenment. It also isn’t about going all Type B personality with a “whatever” attitude to accept things with resignation. Again, not true. Rather, the idea – in my novice words – is to stop putting ourselves through the weekly, daily, hourly, and even minute-by-minute torment that our minds are seemingly naturally wired to do. I’ll imply this a lot throughout this post, but I can easily see Zen philosophy and Christian faith working in concert in my inner life.

Writings that don’t take themselves too seriously

The next thing that I appreciate about Zen is that practitioners aren’t expected to believe every single word as the absolute no-questions-asked truth with a capital T. I have a cousin who is a Southern Baptist preacher. I love him dearly, and as we grow older in life, we plan to spend more time together. This winter, he asked me to read a book by Tim Keller called Making Sense of God. The book got bogged down into the historicity of the Bible, among other things. This approach does not appeal to me. I think there are just things we humans can’t know for certain, and that some things should be taken on faith without too much wrangling or backing into facts and figures. It feels cheap to me when I hear these kinds of arguments.

In Zen, practitioners have a concept called “fingers pointing at the moon.” In this case, the moon represents the Truth, which in my novice words, is kind of the individual goal in Zen. The fingers represent the writings and other messages from practitioners. Zen recognizes that some writing is parable, some is fable, some is historical, and some is a mix of all. But the idea is that there is something for everyone. If parable gets you closer to your own Truth, great. If picking apart historical facts and figures are your gig – that’s cool too. Use it all to find what works for you. This aspect of Zen actually helps warm my heart to the Bible when I hear people tell me that Creationism is an indisputable fact and Noah had dinosaurs on the Ark. I respect your right to believe that, but I reserve the right to doubt it.

Compatible behaviors

Finally, what I really love about Zen is that the expectations are compatible with world religions. So practicing Zen – which in my humble opinion is pretty much ancient psychology – can be held in the same head and heart as a devout Christian. This was perhaps the bridging notion for me to delve further into Zen from the secular and generalized “mindfulness” practice. Zen is a peaceful, sensible, and effective practice that doesn’t try to extinguish other Truths.

If you’re interested in learning more about Zen Buddhism, here are some really great resources: