Never Forget

(Quarantine Essay #22) — by Ric Hudgens

Every day for the past month, something has stunned me. I’ve been unable to respond. I’m astonished by the news stories I’m hearing. I see and hear horrifying things.

The world has never been an entirely pleasant place. Horrifying things happen all the time. But now perhaps I’ve slowed down enough to feel and see the full weight of them.

I’m not surprised by the inequalities revealed in this crisis. They have been there for anyone to see who wanted to look. The callous disregard for human life by those who claim to be “pro-life” doesn’t surprise me. Their understanding of “life” has always been very narrow, partisan, and racist.

I am angry with the greed, dishonesty, and cruelty of the few who either cannot or will not use their power to serve the many. I grieve for those who are dying alone, those who mourn alone, and those who do not care.

But I am stunned by the weakness of systems we have long depended upon to govern and care for us. I’ve suspected the fragility of our way of life, but I would never have guessed it was so dysfunctional. Though never fooled into believing America was the greatest nation in the world, I’ve been stunned to see how demented we are.

“To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never to forget.”

Arundhati Roy wrote this over twenty years ago. It speaks to the layered nature of our lives, the “joy and woe are woven fine” that William Blake spoke of two hundred years before her. We have been living thin lives in a thick world. The crisis is forcing us to go deeper.

It is an apocalyptic time. We often associate apocalypse with doom. But the derivation of the word comes from the ancient Greek. It refers to a revealing or uncovering of things that were hidden. We are living through a time of illumination; light is shining upon much that until now avoided recognition.

The fact that I am stunned about many things makes me feel I’ve been more naive and unsuspecting than I believed myself to be. I’ve heard it said that maturity is a process of disillusionment. If that is true, we can hope for a dramatic increase in maturity among all of us.

Perhaps the rapid spread of the virus, its pervasiveness, and deadliness surprise me. But the impact it has had upon us stuns me. In a few short weeks, we have done what nothing till now has ever persuaded us to do. We have stopped the world.

We are letting the earth “rest” as the old Hebrew sabbath laws recommended. When humans withdraw, the earth refreshes itself. Do we need further proof of our impact on the health of this planet? Air and water begin to clear. Animals, birds, and fish flourish. The earth seemingly grows healthier.

But we must deprive ourselves for this to happen. We must step back, stand down, and stay in place. We relinquish under threat what we would not do voluntarily, and a great balancing begins.

Restraint is hard for us. The very word communicates the strain it places on our economies, our governments, our relationships. Some are using this time to take advantage of others. The rich seek riches while the poor get poorer as it has ever been. We are carrying unequal burdens. Many raise their voices out of their silent desperation.

Psychologists speak of our “distress tolerance,” our ability to cope with distress. This phrase has given me new insight into those ancient sabbath practices I mentioned earlier. There is an excellent reason to recommend periodic withdrawals, even from a secular perspective. Whether or not one day in seven is the correct proportion is a distinct question. But the assertion that our planet needs humans to take regular, perhaps even prolonged periods of ceasing from all of our activities, gains credibility during this time. Regularly distressing ourselves in this way would increase our tolerance.

We need sabbath or something like a sabbath. There is not much of a global impact from individual sabbath practices (except individually). A sabbath by some, while many continue, won’t change much. But we are demonstrating that a societal sabbath, even a global sabbath, has an immediate and sudden impact upon the health of the earth. Sabbath periods (defined sacredly or secularly) become periods of refreshment.

Will we revert to our manic, extractive ways when this crisis is over? We are not equipped financially and governmentally to continue this for much longer. We could be. We can hope and pray that when the virus subsides, our mitigation efforts succeed, or a vaccine arrives, we can return to a new normal in our life together.

We are seeing that we could respond on a global scale to the major crisis of our time (i.e., the health of the planet) if we all felt the urgency and panic of our situation.

We can conceive of human lives lived in rhythm with our planet’s needs, to plan for periodic withdrawals of all fossil-fuel-based transportation, to redirect our finances to make this possible. We are proving it.

But to keep from reverting to our previous addictions and “affluenza,” we will need to remember what we are learning. We live in an apocalyptic time in which much that was hidden is now being revealed. We might emerge from this crisis with a stronger relationship with one another and to this our precious earth. We could begin a new normal that is new.

But we must “watch.” We “must never look away. And never, never forget.”

Ric Hudgens
April 18, 2020

#QuarantineEssay #22


(Quarantine Essay #19)

I taught my last face-to-face class on Friday the 13th. March 13. The students said that we might not meet in that classroom again, and they were right. Every Friday, we meet online, revealing our humble abodes to one another in remote Zooms. Graduation ceremonies have been canceled, and we’re all disappointed to end a promising semester early.

Frankly, I would rather be me than them. My students seem unmoored, adrift. Sails deprived of wind propelled only by their momentum.

“Becalmed” is the word sailors use. But it is the wind that is calm, not the sailors.

I was realizing in conversation this morning that in many ways sheltering in place plays to my strengths. Uninterrupted solitude with time to read and write. A dependable daily routine and rhythm. Getting to bed at the same time every night. As difficult as this is, I have a hardy tolerance for it. My solitude skills are in shape. At least for now. It’s only been a month.

But there is nothing “becalmed” about it. Loneliness sometimes seems soporific. But social isolation is hyper-attentive: concentration difficult, attention scattered, focused energy challenging to maintain.

Health experts predict that a long period of social isolation will increase the prevalence of mental illness. Isolation like this can contribute to a variety of mental disorders, including anxiety and depression, or a more substantial consumption of drugs and alcohol. As Dr. Maggie McQueen said on the PBS Newshour several weeks ago, “We are waiting for the P in PTSD.”

In a recent article in The New Yorker, historian Jill Lepore writes on “The History of Loneliness” (March 30, 2020):

“Before modern times, very few human beings lived alone. Slowly, beginning not much more than a century ago, that changed. In the United States, more than one in four people now lives alone; in some parts of the country, especially big cities, that percentage is much higher. You can live alone without being lonely, and you can be lonely without living alone, but the two are closely tied together, which makes lockdowns, sheltering in place, that much harder to bear. Loneliness, it seems unnecessary to say, is terrible for your health.”

Loneliness, Lepore argues, was already a disaster for our mental health, and enforced social isolation is only compounding our difficulties.

Fifty years ago the percentage of single-person households began to increase dramatically. More divorces (my situation), a falling birth-rate, and longer lifespans all contributed to this. Our technology has aided this trend with radios, televisions, telephones, computers, empowering our ability to self-isolate. In addition, the breakdown in social cohesion and the impermanence of neighborhoods allows a type of seclusion that would have seemed eccentric to a previous generation.

Dr. Renato Alarcon writes in Psychiatric Times:

“It is clear that COVID-19 has seriously challenged not only every line of protection and management installed by governments and public health authorities around the globe, but also—and fundamentally—the human, clinical, and practical resources of mental health service agencies.” (“Mental Health in a Pandemic State: the route from Social Isolation to Loneliness”, March 25, 2020).

The pandemic shakes our hospitals, our economies, our governments, our bodies, our psyches.

In a lively essay in Vox, Sigal Samuel offers a reflection on “How to Be Alone” (April 11, 2020). Samuel underlines that trying to escape an uncomfortable emotion often only intensifies it. So how can we lean into our enforced solitude? How might we become at home with our loneliness?

Lots of people have experience with solitude: prisoners, hermits, monks, artists, philosophers. What might such people have to teach us? Samuel offers rather trite and straightforward advice to accept and confront your reality, establish a routine, try to find a sense of purpose.

Isolation has both rewards and risks. “The poison is in the dose,” said Paracelsus back in the 16th century. Anything can be deadly if it isn’t moderated.

The potential rewards of isolation lie in reconnecting with nature, a deeper self-reflection, or exposing our delusions. But the risks are many.

Solitude can be dangerous for people. If you are unprepared it can be especially scary. “Whatever one brings into solitude grows in it,” said Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, “even the inner beast.” Thus, “solitude is ill-advised,” concluded the philosopher.

And Blaise Pascal (d. 1662) famously said “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Written perhaps, quietly, in a room alone.

But we had no choice. We were all forced into this solitude. Sheltered in place if voluntary (like myself), but confined if involuntary.

Psychologists recommend increased exposure over time so that our brains can adapt to the distress we feel in isolation. Periodic panic attacks are frequent right now, partly because we have had to make this shift so suddenly, without time to adjust.

Samuel recommends a tool from Australia’s Centre for Clinical Interventions that assists in developing our “distress tolerance.” It’s a relatively detailed and substantive approach rooted in cognitive-behavioral therapy and mindfulness techniques that might not be to everyone’s taste. But then again their way of doing it might be better than your way of not doing it.

The science-based techniques they recommend are not distinctively different from what experts in solitude have recommended throughout history. Accept and stay with the emotion you’re feeling. Stop what you’re doing. Watch what’s happening. Observe how it changes or “moves”. Then turn your attention back to the present, to the task at hand with perhaps a breath exercise or some bodily movement (I would recommend the work of Peter Levine’s Somatic Experiencing for insight into this.)

The continuity between experience-based and science-based learning increases the validity of the findings. We can become accustomed to our lengthened periods of solitude or loneliness. Prolonged isolation may not be good for our physical or mental health. But we can learn to increase the “distress tolerance” we may feel.

Samuel, therefore, argues that solitude is a skill we can develop. Although few of us will want to prolong this painful experience beyond what we are advised, we can learn to cope with it. And we better. Learning to be at home with our loneliness is our curriculum for this time.

Ric Hudgens
April 13, 2020

#QuarantineEssay #19

Thoughts on Easter Sunday, 2020

Everything is different now, will everything be different in 5 weeks, 5 months, 5 years . . . ?

This Easter has more in common with the first Easter than any Easter in the past 75 years — globalization has receded; localization is ascending; health care is inadequate; air pollution is mainly from spring pollen; fossil fuels do not dominate our lives; ethnic, racial, income disparities are revealed; security is focused on supply chains and essential services rather than nuclear weapons and overseas military posts.

In 5 weeks, some leaders hope to open the economy back to 3% unemployment and record highs on the stock markets. Others say, go slow, increase virus testing and contact tracing, build up strategic stock piles, no more hand shaking, decrease business air travel, maximize work from home and online meetings, expand health care to underserved peoples, expand sick leave policies, consider rationing scarce consumer goods, consider price fixing for essential medical supplies . . . .

In 5 months, we’ll be into September, and school may have resumed for kids, who, we think, are less at risk for serious health outcomes from COVID-19. Will there be an uptick in cases with their parents and grandparents? Will checks to all citizens from the government be a normal monthly thing? Will government performance, in general, be appreciated, resented, or mocked? Will the presidential election campaigns look too close to call, or will one candidate or the other appear to be dominating?

In 5 years, will America First, Brazil First, Europe First — be normalized public opinion, or will a new internationalism and interdependence be the key words of political leaders in the U.S. and most nations and regions? Will other pandemics and climate disasters re-orient the U.S. and the world economies? Will COVID-19 be looked back on as our Chernobyl, our Fukushima? Will the insurance industry and actuaries be satisfied they have a good grasp of risk assessments going forward? Will the Green New Deal look more realistic and achievable? What about racism and gun rights — will these issues become more divisive or fade into the background?


(Quarantine Essay #18)

I needed to write today. It’s one way I’m coping with this confinement. And my mental health is essential to me. Especially now. “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs,” Kipling wrote. So I’m trying to keep my head.

We all have our ways of pushing through this time. Our mental health is public health. Apart from the virus shaking the structures of our world, disabling the lives we were living, we are all experiencing the psychological aspects of this confinement. It’s a unique experience in our life.

On April 2, the New York Times columnist David Brooks asked his readers to write to him about their own psychological experience. The questions he asked them were:

“Is the combination of isolation and existential stress making you feel more depressed and anxious? Or is the family togetherness and the pause from normal life giving you a greater sense of belonging and equilibrium? How would you describe your psychological state? What are you doing to cope? If you’re a mental health worker, what are you seeing out there?”

He wasn’t sure what to expect. In his April 9 column, Brooks reported that over 5000 of his readers had responded. That’s an impressive result.

I concede that his readers are a select group of citizens: highly educated, probably affluent, mostly white, NYTimes readers, and in particular a reader of his conservative commentary. Honestly, I don’t read Brooks often and wouldn’t have noticed this article if someone hadn’t sent it to me. I’m glad I did.

Brooks reprinted comments from three major segments of society: college students, senior citizens, and people with already existing mental health issues (self-defined).

The comments from students were about being “gripped by a deep depression.” There were feelings of hopelessness about the future”. “This pandemic has robbed me of my sense of control” is a common theme among all groups. “I am angry at a force I cannot see.”

Seniors mentioned the “wrenching loneliness” and their separation from siblings, grandchildren, friends. Several mentioned crying alone. One wrote that she will “cry a lot, which is my new norm.” Another wrote, “I cannot get through the day without tears.” “All the things I love to do, I’m now afraid to do,” wrote another.

People with existing mental health issues, esp. anxiety disorders, are having an especially difficult time. A reader writes of being “hogtied to your unhappiness,”; a “pervasive, ever-shifting, hard-to-define anxiety.”

Brooks observes much heroism in this vulnerability and notes a pulsing spiritual growth through so many letters. He encourages “aggressive friendship” and reaching out to those who are lonely or troubled. He offers the hope that we will see deeper into ourselves,  learning what our “pain is teaching”, and “become wiser and softer as a result.”

Some will write dissertations about this time, and these expressions of our mental health will, of course, be a resource. Increasing the sample size and diversifying it will be essential. For example, domestic abuse is growing around the world. The situations among those unemployed, uninsured, homeless, incarcerated, undocumented will all have to be heard from and considered. No one brief survey at this early stage can comprehend the difficulties of this time.

The experiences Brooks doesn’t record here from people who don’t read the New York Times will be full of anger, fear, and immense helplessness.

We can hope for a substantial enlivening of communal feelings, practices of care, empathy, and support. There is some evidence that below the sightline, much is happening to hold things together.

Feelings of being out of control are not entirely imaginary. We are out of control of substantial portions of our lives, and a considerable challenge for everyone is coming to terms with that loss. Most of the feelings noted in these articles are legitimate responses to the situation. They are not neurotic. We are alone, uncertain of our futures, sad, and out of control. 

“What do you do with the mad that you feel?” Mr. Rogers used to ask, or what do we do with our loneliness, sadness, isolation, despair, anger? These are not “problems” that can be solved. There is not a twelve-step program, three-step remedy, or a daily axiom that will resolve them. They are a pervasive atmosphere that no face mask (or soul mask) can prevent. They are as contagious as the virus itself.

The question in such situations is often, “well, what are you going to do about it?” That is a valuable question in its place. Some problems require action.  If there is a thin line between the intensity of what we are feeling and some extreme response (self-harm, violence toward another, suicide, etc.), there is a need for immediate action. But if it is a thick line, and if we are merely frustrated to feel these feelings, that is something different.

In the initial days of “sheltering in place,” we were fooled into thinking there might be some advantages to this. If we weren’t on the frontlines, we were slowing our lives down, making space for some neglected projects, catching up with family, experimenting with new rhythms. But after three weeks and staring down the calendar at several more, we are beginning to feel the suffocating pressure.

This is hard. It’s probably going to get harder. Our dismal feelings are an appropriate response to the situation. It would be neurotic to feel right about this.

I’ve always been a believer in what I call reality-based emotions. I used to tell my children it’s alright to feel sad in sad situations. Painful things hurt. Staying connected and sensitive to our reality is crucial. 

“Life is hard” was the bracing first line of Scott Peck’s 1978 best-seller The Road Less Traveled and Beyond. I recalled this book when I spent several weeks in the hospital last year. I didn’t want to be there, but it was the place I needed to be. I kept singing to myself (in my head not with my voice!), “You can do hard things,” the lovely song by Carrie Newcomer.

Life is hard. We don’t want to be here. We need to be here for the sake of public health. It’s alright to be uncomfortable, sad, frustrated, even depressed. Keep in touch with both the reality of the situation and the reality of your emotions. There are hard emotions connected with this time. Brooks hopes that we might learn “what our pain is teaching.” I agree there is wisdom in this. But pain is still painful.

What we do with kitchen scraps is make compost. Compost becomes fertile ground for new things to grow. But compost also stinks, rots, and decomposes before it becomes useful for anything. All of us are living on the compost pile right now. It’s hard, but we can’t move on just yet.

— Ric Hudgens

April 11, 2020

#QuarantineEssay #18

Lent 2020 — Day 40

from Lonnie Buerge, April 5, 2020

I’m not a theologian or historian, not even very astute to the meaning behind most behavior but I have become intrigued by the people around the scene and am just thinking about it. If this is blasphemy then so be it, if it is not factual, then i hope it at least has some truth in it. In the end, it’s just words put into shape:

Judas, Judas I understand you the
best of all the disciples for you wanted
what so many others yearned for,
you sought a connection to the savior
a relationship that could not be broken
but it was not going to happen,
the Man you followed was
going to move forward, become
the sacrifice, he would leave you
at the mercy of the others,
unprotected, unsure
of any future and no place to put
your love for your leader
so you sold your access,
your connection to your friend
not so much to betray him
although you did that, too
but to keep from being the loser,
you taking the reins and loosing
the one that you loved before
you would be the one left alone,
but, of course, you felt the pang
of remorse, the sorrow for needing
your friend so much that you would
betray him and so you tried to roll
back the scene, rewind the damage
but the religious would have
nothing of your remorse,
nothing of your sorrow,
rejected your regret
laughed at your need.

Lent 2020 — Day 39


(Quarantine Essay #17)

There was the question as to whether she said such a thing. Dorothy Day denied it. The saying, often quoted, never appeared in her writings. Dorothy even disliked it. It might be Dorothy’s most famous quote, yet according to Brian Terrell, “she probably never said it.” (“Dorothy Day’s ‘filthy, rotten system’ probably wasn’t hers at all,” National Catholic Reporter, April 16, 2012).

“Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system.”

The statement might still be true even if it wasn’t original with her. Our problems result not only from the system but from our acceptance of it. There is an oppressive system behind all this filth and rot. But our consent has something to do with it remaining there.

April 8, 2020.

Bernie Sanders withdraws from the Democratic Presidential primary.

“’Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,’ Auden might have said. What remains is a national election amid a pandemic. Biden vs. Trump. Like trying to break a pinata with a pool noodle.“ . . . [Y}ou will (not) get what you want, in politics or in life,” writes NYTimes columnist Elizabeth Bruenig, “Mr. Sanders did not win, after all. But he never lied, and he never pretended to like what is so clearly detestable or attempted to persuade any one of us that we ought to like it either. He was right to the end, and he refused to reconcile himself to the forces that eventually overtook him. It is hard to see him go. But there is at least some dignity in it.”

“Bernie Sanders was Right,” NYTimes, April 8, 2020

)And it is still a filthy, rotten system.

Labor organizer Jane McAlevey predicted in 2016 that Trump would win, based upon her immersion among union workers. She wrote last month:

“With no special affection for either of the older white men this contest has come down to—I’d like the chance to vote for a younger, unionized, working-class woman of color, to be clear—I also know that it’s imperative we understand why Joe Biden is a repeat of Hillary Clinton and thus will likely lose in November . . . Only one candidate can peel the needed votes from Trump and generate the high level of enthusiasm needed in November: Bernie Sanders.”

“Bernie Sander: Now More Than Ever,” The Nation, March 11, 2020

The wild card now is the pandemic. Throw out all previous polls and whatever history might have to say in this unprecedented crisis. Does Trump’s incumbency secure him votes? Does the tanking of the economy sink him? Does America vote out a “wartime President”; even though the war-like pandemic crisis has increased exponentially because of his incompetence?

What if COVID recurs next fall, and again we are all spending several weeks sheltering in place? Will the election happen according to the calendar, or will it become a mail-in election, or will it be postponed, or can Trump, the Congress, and the Supreme Court cancel it altogether? (Probably not, writes Ian Milhiser, “Can Trump cancel the November election? No”, Vox, April 7, 2020).

So this is a day for disappointment and refocus. I’ve been reading Astra Taylor’s Democracy May Not Exist, But We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone (Metropolitan Books, 2019).

“The American system was never designed to be democratic to begin with . . . The inequalities that plague us today are not an aberration nor the result of whichever party happens to be in power, but a plausible result of the political system’s very design.”

It is an 18th-century design, unwieldy, bursting-at-the-seams; a negotiated space in which we compete for our share of justice, equity, and opportunity. “It is my view that even without capitalist exploitation, democracy would remain messy and conflicted,” Taylor wrote.

It’s never been messier or more conflicted—a filthy, rotten system.

Jane McAlevey says, “The mistake is that how you win an election and how you win change are fundamentally different.”

To me, this is the clue to my disappointment and my hope. We (those who supported Sanders) lost an election. But that’s not the same as losing the change. The presidential candidacy of Sanders won the ideological battle with the Democratic Party. Things that were too radical in 2016 are now mainstream. The center has shifted (a little). There is momentum on the American left as never before.

Elizabeth Breunig writes:

“There is so little freedom in the world. Even here, now, in our celebrated liberal democracy, social mobility is incredibly limited compared with that in countries of comparable development, and there appears to be very little we can do about it. One freedom that cannot be taken from you is your freedom not to like the status quo — your freedom to be angry, disaffected, unimpressed, your refusal to be cajoled, soothed or consoled with small tokens of influence devoid of real power. Mr. Sanders, ill-tempered and impatient with pleasantries, embodied that freedom, and he offered it to you.”

We must continue to be about winning change. I’m sorely disappointed today, but all that happened was the loss of a primary. It is neither the end nor the beginning, but the messy middle. This November we face a bleak decision between Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dummer. But in either scenario, we must struggle for justice, equity, and opportunity.

It’s a filthy, rotten system. I will not accept it.

Ric Hudgens, April 8, 2020

#QuarantineEssay #16


Lent 2020 — Day 38


(Quarantine Essay #16)

There is a difference between an epidemic and a pandemic, but it is a matter of scale. An epi-demic (over or upon the people) affects many while a pan-demic (all-the people) affects all.

Pandemic is also related to panic, which is related to the Greek god Pan of whom it was said could frighten a multitude with loud shrieks. The story was told that when the ancient Greek gods were battling a horde of giants, Pan’s shout was so overwhelming that it won the victory through the fear it caused in their opponents.

Observing a panic historically and experiencing a panic are, of course, two different things. Panic can be a curious, even fascinating social phenomenon when viewed from a distance. Panic is related to anxiety, and we were already a society exploding with anxiety disorders. They are the most common mental health concern in the United States. Over 40 million adults in the U.S. have an anxiety disorder, including 7% of children between the ages 3 and 17.

But during this pandemic, panic and anxiety begin to affect us all. The other day I found myself browsing online for the cost of industrial toilet paper until my sensible daughter laughed at me. “Lots of people in the world live without toilet paper!” Of course, we do. I was beginning to panic. Fear was making me irrational. It was like a wave sweeping over an unsuspecting beachcomber. Yesterday, there was a block-long line at our local Trader Joe’s. There were people masked and spaced six feet apart. But Evanston is not a food desert. There are within walking distance multiple locations to purchase food and toiletries. We are not yet at the place where such anxiety is justified. It is irrational. It is panic.

3.1 million children die of malnutrition every single year. Some people in our community might be concerned about that. No one is panicking. Perhaps we need more panic.

But although a pandemic affects everyone, it does not affect everyone equally.

Heartbreaking statistics were released yesterday about the racial inequalities evident in this crisis. African American communities are being devastated by this pandemic.

“In fact, as the virus smashes into black communities, it is actually one epidemic jumping on top of several other epidemics. The sad fact is too many African Americans are not healthy or adequately insured on a good day. In polite company, we speak delicately about ‘disproportionate health outcomes.’ But this antiseptic term does not capture the truth. Black people are sicker than white people across the board,” writes Van Jones (“Black American must wake up to this viral threat,” April 6, 2020).

Until yesterday, the media was oblivious to the shocking racial disparities in the numbers of coronavirus cases and deaths. Here in Chicago, 72% of those dying from COVID-19 are African-American.

“Those numbers take your breath away, they really do,” said Lori Lightfoot, the mayor of Chicago, who announced the city’s figures on Monday. “This is a call-to-action moment for all of us.”

Reactions like panic and rage are not necessarily productive. They can distract, weaken, or immobilize our abilities to respond. But in proportion, perhaps some panic and rage are needed for us to do something. Panic can create urgency. Rage can produce energy. Both can move a community from stasis to activity.

Mourning and grief are also necessities. They must be appropriate to the moment and proportional to the loss. But sometimes the moment calls for something outrageous.

In the book Remnants: A Memoir of Spirit, Activism, and Mothering (Duke Univ Press, 2015) Rosemarie Harding recalled a story from the 1960s:

“Bob Moses tells a story of a woman he knew in the Movement. Somebody in Mississippi had been through so much pain, so much loss, she just fell to her knees in despair, one day. She fell on the floor of her kitchen, cradling bad news or pushing away a fresh memory, and from nowhere anybody could see, a sound rose up. It was within her someplace between her waist and her lungs, a vast place more guttural than the throat, a sacred place. And it was a deep haunting sound. Not shrill. But it rose and was full. The tone rose up out of this woman’s body on the floor, on her knees, and when she was done, everything was alright. She was alright. She had made a road.”

Such a wail, such a grief cry, is reminiscent of the shrieks of the god Pan. In this case, it subdued the psychic enemies. It made a road.

Jungian psychotherapist James Hollis calls these emotions “dismal” (Swamplands of the Soul: New Life in Dismal Places, 1996), and I am not arguing that they are virtuous. But often they are necessary.

The old Joe Hill slogan was, “Don’t mourn. Organize!” and that is the generative outcome of this turmoil. Organize. By organizing, I mean moving beyond voting, volunteering, or even “activism.” Attending a march may be something, but it is not organizing. And organizing is what we need. (I’ll write more on this, but I want to make a referral to a recent podcast with Labor organizer Jane McAlvey, “A Master Class in Organizing,” The Ezra Klein Show, March 15, 2020)

Not everyone is learning of our social inequalities for the first time. Many were long ago past the panic, rage, and mourning. Many were already engaged in doing something more than just wide-eyed anger, shock, or weeping. There are people already laying the foundations required to organize and mobilize in and after this crisis. There will be a next one. Look those people. Find them. Join them.

Now is a time for dismal emotions: for panic, rage, and grief. But eventually, we must organize. We must turn our panic to attention, our rage to energy, our grief to solidarity.

Sometimes this is the only way to make a road. And we need a road if we’re ever going to get out of here.

Ric Hudgens, 4-7-2020

#QuarantineEssay #16

Lent 2020 — Day 37

The Value of Mentors

Letter to a young friend —

I hope this email encourages you to pursue whatever opportunities come your way, and to even seek out new ones that are hidden. Weighing one against another is challenging, but we’ve been hearing a lot about triage with COVID-19. It’s a good model, I think, when rationing your energy and activism. (If you read all the way to the bottom of this email, I will give you some more context.)

I think an email I sent on Sunday after our adult SS class on the Holocaust might be a pro pos here (I’ve highlighted the main sentence):


I hope we can get to E______________’s question about “lessons learned” from this historical survey and look to our current times and especially, to the future.

One observation the strikes me is the diversity of opinions and reactions among our forebearers. To the extent they were unified in reacting to or conforming with their cultures, we are very similar. No examples were given that portrayed efforts to become part of leadership and shape events. This is where I see our congregation may have a “duty of care,” to encourage our younger members (under 50?) to prepare themselves for leadership in our democracy. There may be an (Dr.) Anthony Fauci among us. Or an (Gov.) Andrew Cuomo. Or a (Gov.) Gretchen Whitmer. Or a (Mayor) Quinton Lucas. Or a (Gov.) Laura Kelly.

I am thinking of K______________ and J______________ and K______________ and D______________ and T______________, and J______________, A______________, C______________ — who have I left out? R______________! S______________! It’s tempting to just include our whole directory!

We heard how pacifism was largely abandoned by Mennonites who stayed in Europe after the 1870’s. That was a big lesson learned, and not in a good way. Now, in the USA, in our times, shouldn’t we abandon the tradition of non-participation in government and elective politics? Should this not be our challenge?

If the Green New Deal is our best chance for the future of civilization, don’t we owe it to our grandchildren and their grandchildren to fully participate in leading the way?

Next steps? A Rainbow PAC? A Rainbow on-line school for Applied Community Building?

So, if you would like to know more about K or H or E or A— I think you already know L, R and R — I would very much like to introduce you to one or all of them. I could give you a short bio on any of them to help you decide. This is something no one ever did for me, at your age, and I’m operating on the hypothesis that this is why I burned out too young, and why some other people — K, H, E, A, L, R and R — did not, that they each had bona fide mentors at critical times in their young adulthoods.

Lent 2020 — Day 36

The Speech a Great President Would Give Now

If we’re ever going to have great presidents again, we need to hold a space in our imaginations that a great president could occupy.

Ever since Donald Trump made his famous descent down the escalator to announce his candidacy (and assert that Mexicans crossing the border are rapists), we’ve been lowering our standards to his level. Once in a great while he does something so outrageous that his opponents try (and usually fail) to draw a line in the sand. But for the most part we’ve just accepted that he will do the kinds of things he does: ignore obvious facts, insult large swathes of people who have done nothing to deserve it, funnel public money into his own businesses, deny that he said what he said, respond to his critics with schoolyard taunts, and so on. We’ve come to expect him to politicize everything, admit no mistakes, fire anyone who reveals inconvenient truths, and confront everyone who comes into his presence with the choice to flatter him or face his wrath.

At times I’ve been as guilty of this normalization as anyone. Given a choice between letting a lie or injustice go unremarked, and distracting my readers from what I saw as more important issues, I’ve often just shrugged off norm-violations that would have been major scandals in any previous American administration.

Still, every now and then I think it’s worthwhile to ask ourselves: “What would a real leader do in this situation?” Not because I imagine Trump will listen to our answer, slap his forehead, and say, “That’s a good idea!”, but just to maintain our own sense of what is good and right. If we’re ever going to have great presidents again, we need to hold a space in our imaginations that a great president could occupy.

So I have written a speech for a great president to deliver in the midst of the current crisis. There’s no reason Trump couldn’t deliver it, and I hope he does. For obvious reasons, he won’t. I accept that, but I’m still going to put the vision out there.

My fellow Americans:

Every president faces crises and makes decisions that could either save or cost lives. I have already faced my share: military conflicts in various parts of the world; hurricanes in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, as well as floods and tornadoes and the full run of other natural disasters. An economic crisis may not take as many lives as war or disease, but it can ruin lives, as people lose their jobs and homes and dreams for the future.

The current crisis, the one brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, is on a scale most presidents never need to confront. Thousands of Americans are dead, and some estimate that the eventual toll could be in the hundreds of thousands, or even millions. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are already sick. Tens of thousands of businesses hang in the balance, and millions of Americans have lost their jobs. Tens of millions are sheltering in their homes.

This is not only the greatest crisis of the four-year term I was elected to in 2016, but most likely it will overshadow the crises of the next four years as well. So whether I serve four years or eight, I believe I have already met the defining challenge of my presidency, the one for which history will judge me.

Public-health experts I trust tell me that we will go through the peak of this crisis in the next month or two. No one can guarantee what will happen after that, but I think it is safe to say that the most important chapters in the story of this pandemic will be written between now and the inauguration in 2021.

It is desperately important that we get this right. The decisions that are made between now and November or January — here in the White House, in Congress, throughout government at every level, and in homes all over this country — could save or cost the lives of countless human beings, and save or cost the livelihoods of countless more. When the stakes are this high, we can’t let politics interfere with doing the right thing.

And yet, how can it not, as we move towards the 2020 election? Already, both my supporters and my critics interpret everything I do in the light of that election. I deserve credit for this, blame for that — no I don’t, yes I do — it goes on and on. But none of those arguments save anyone. They just make it harder for America to move forward in unity.

When this is all over, there will be plenty of time to distribute credit and blame. There are undoubtedly many lessons to learn — both good and bad — from what we have done so far. But trying to do that analysis in the middle of the crisis, and absorbing that discussion into what was already a poisonous partisan environment before Covid-19 emerged, does not serve this country. Partisanship can only decrease the likelihood that we will judge correctly, or learn the lessons that might save us from the next plague.

Right now, there are many things I wish I could do for this country, but they are beyond my powers. I can’t banish the disease by executive order. I can’t decree a vaccine or effective treatment into existence here and now. I can’t speed time up so that we jump past the peak of the crisis and skip all the suffering Americans will have to endure in the coming weeks and months.

But there is one thing I can do: To a large extent, I can take partisan politics out of this struggle, and I’m going to do that right now with this announcement: I will not be a candidate for re-election in November, nor will I endorse any candidate in that election. Instead, I will lead the battle against this disease until my term ends in January.

The election will still happen, and I’m sure the candidates who vie to replace me will debate their views and their plans with all the vigor we expect from a presidential campaign. But I will take no part in it. If any members of my administration want to participate in that election, God bless them, but I will ask them to step away from whatever active roles they might be playing in managing our country’s response to the virus.

I cannot insist that others follow my example. But I can ask political leaders at all levels do what they can to take partisan politics out of this effort. Most of us tell ourselves that we entered politics to do something important. Let me suggest that nothing you might do in future years from future offices will be quite so important as what you do these next few months. Lives and livelihoods are at stake.

Going forward, there are many choices to make, and I expect to hear much argument about what should happen next. A healthy democracy always has room for disagreement. But let those discussions center on the health and well-being of our citizens, not on the November elections, and especially not on me. My political future is already set: I will finish my term and then return to the private sector to await history’s judgement on my actions. I pray history will be able to say that I rallied a unified nation to take decisive and successful action.

God bless you all, and God bless the United States of America.

~~ Doug Muder, 2020 April 6