Blinding Obsession — The Rise of the Covid Karen

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I’ll admit, it went through me when I heard that my brother had the clear symptoms of a Covid-19 infection. Sure, it was far enough along that the deadliness of the disease wasn’t so statistically foreboding anymore. But emotionally there was a certain significance that was given to this and a bit of dread as well. What if this loss of taste developed into serious respiratory issues? My brother or one of his family members, who had been at home with him during the shutdown, could die.

My brother is fine. He was never formally diagnosed with the virus, they would not test him given that his symptoms were not life-threatening or severe and he could ride it out at home. The probabilities were always in his favor as a relatively young person in good health. However, my own anxieties, despite my own understanding that the risk of him dying was not that much greater than it ever was for him or other members of my family, were something of interest to the more rational half of my consciousness. Why would I worry at all when the threat really wasn’t that great?

It is one of those quirks of human psychology, I suppose, that we can go from not knowing a person at all to being totally obsessed, wondering how we ever live our life without, “text me when you are home safe,” with them. Likewise, when something ‘novel’ comes into our lives, be it a new video game or an unknown virus, we can’t get our mind off of it. We are fascinated with this unknown commodity, whether we want to protect it (as in a new love interest) or protect ourselves from it, our thoughts will go there over and over again. It can be consuming, it can be blinding as well.

Fear of Covid-19 has much to do with availability heuristic or the tendency people have to judge the likelihood of an event based on how readily they can recall said event. This is what makes anecdotes so powerful. Some stories of young, otherwise healthy, people getting a disease and dying will feature far more prominently in our minds than the dozens lost in car accidents. I have a good friend who had a friend my age die and knows of another. The media has fed into this bias by highlighting the suffering of some. It feels likely enough and yet here’s the reality of the situation:

“To put things in perspective, the virus is now known to have an infection fatality rate for most people under 65 that is no more dangerous than driving 13 to 101 miles per day. Even by conservative estimates, the odds of COVID-19 death are roughly in line with existing baseline odds of dying in any given year.”

How Fear, Groupthink Drove Unnecessary Global Lockdowns

That is not to minimalize the threat. I know a couple of cases of people who have become seriously ill due to Covid-19 and, yes, many people have died who would’ve otherwise lived. The virus can be quite contagious in certain conditions, it can send a relatively young person to the hospital, I believe that many more will fall ill and some of them will die.

But, the thing is, our outsized focus on this virus is to minimize the many other risks equal or greater in consequence brought on by our response. It is deeply troubling to me that so many people seem so completely unable to comprehend the strong possibility that, with our saving people from the specter of Covid-19 and obsession on one risk out of many, we are ultimately killing more people by suicides, drug overdoses, neglected cancer screenings (along with other medical procedures being postponed) and starvation.

Why is it selfish for a young economically vulnerable person to work, to put food on their tables, and not selfish for you to order them home in a vain attempt to save grandma?

Furthermore, going back to my momentary fear of losing my brother, there was always a far greater risk to my brother’s life from him driving to come visit than from the infection. Why don’t I call him every fifteen minutes to make sure he’s wearing his seat belt? If physical safety was the only concern, then what would posses me to encourage him to take up flying years ago or to join him in the cockpit years later? It makes no logical sense for me to have a terrible fear of a virus that kills a small percentage of the infected while accepting or even encouraging more dangerous activities.

Rise of the Covid Crazed Karens

Many imagine a zombie apocalypse: The living dead, creatures of human flesh and yet no longer human anymore. Well, we are living in such times. The zombies are here and they are here to rob you of life with their devouring fears. And, unlike the fantasy horror movies, these are zombies that you aren’t allowed to shoot. But beware, if you decide not to comply with their screeching demands and choose to live as a free person, they may make real on their threat to shoot you.

Think I’m exaggerating?

Think again.

Dr. Jennifer Rager-Kay, a gun control activist and school board member, not too far down the road from me. Decided that it was completely okay and rational to threaten to kill people for refusing to wear masks around her or her family. Dr Rager-Kay (aka “Karen”) was in such a lathered up panic about a virus that has a very low probability of death that she was actually willing to murder. Makes one think of the expression, “Physician, heal thyself.” This woman is obviously smart enough to make it through medical school, but seems woefully lacking in rationality and ability to keep things in perspective.

Now, in defense of Karens everywhere, most are content to only steal away your life by imposing their “new normal” and won’t actually shoot you.

However, they all have a sort of nurture gone bad, the assessment of their own importance that is shared by hall monitors everywhere. Possessed by their lack of contol or relative insignificance an a complex and unpredictable world, they wield their petty authority over their neighbors given to them by state snitch lines, wag their sanctimonious fingers at anyone who doesn’t meet their own standard, and are completely willing to imprison you for your own good. They stopped thinking months ago when their minds were reprogrammed, infected by fearful anecdotes, their cognitive function addled by scary projections, never considering new evidence, and they are now mindless zombies stuck on repeat, “Covid bad, must stop Covid!”

Of course, Covid Crazed Karens are not only women nor only the meddlesome troublemakers of memes, there are many man and people in positions of real political power who are willing to kill you for your own good and seem even to have some sort of sadistic satisfaction watching people squirm under their smoothering care. If only you would start thinking their way, sacrifice your all for their misguided public safety crusade, then everything would be just fine. You see, they think like a psychopath, that your suffering is only a result of your defiance against their wise council, that it would not be tyranny if you would simply submit to their lawless edicts.

You must be broken, like Winston in Orwell’s 1984, who after torture finally becomes a zombie to the cult of the totalitarian state:

“Years it had taken him to learn what kind of smile was hidden beneath the dark moustache. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.”

George Orwell, 1984

We may not have Big Brother. But we do have Karen watching and her fear-driven lust for control over you won’t be satiated once Covid-19 has passed. No, you are already being conditioned, you will accept her “new normal” or you will die. And, if you don’t die from the virus be sure she will punish you severely for her being wrong. A Karen is never wrong, being wrong does not compute with her one track mind, and she will kill you, if need be, to prove the point. The zombie apocalypse is upon us and these privileged elites are out for the blood of you ignorant and unwashed common folk.

But Covid Karen is not the only threat, Denial Deranged Darnell, well he’ll tell you masks don’t work because he once had a fart that stained his underwear and, with pride, he will tell you how he survived his entire life never once wearing a seat belt, that he actually drives better drunk, and you can’t tell him ’nuffin! Watch out for him as well, he may not have the power of government on his side, but he has already killed a security guard in Detroit and wounded a Waffle House cook in Aurora, Colorado, for the “disrespect” of mask policies. He thinks carrying a firearm to a protest makes him tough. No wonder so many Karens think the masses need to be controlled!

The Dangerous Lie of Shut Down or Die

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False dichotomies pop up everywhere in the political discourse. You are either pro-life or you are a raging homicidal baby-killing feminist monster and, alternatively, you are either pro-choice or you are “at war with women” and would turn the world into “The Handmaid’s Tale” if ever given the chance. Of course, both sides of that dichotomy are grossly misrepresenting those on the other side. Some of the most vocal proponents of pro-life that I know are of the female gender, would rather not have their lives ruled by men or be treated like baby-making slaves. Likewise, many on the pro-choice side are intelligent and compassionate people who follow a different dogma as far as what does or does not constitute a separate human life.

Where you stand on the recent Covid-19 forced closures probably has much more to do with your politics than it does with your personal level of scientific sophistication. Sure, there are many, blinded by their own confirmation bias, who see everything they believe as being scientifically based and rational, but that is to be in denial of the role that their own emotions play in their judgment. The decision to shut down the economy due to the virus had has much to do with fear as fact. How do I know? Well, there weren’t a whole lot of reliable facts to go on when the decisions were being made. We had models, yes, but models are only as reliable as the data entered and the accuracy of the assumptions that they contain. Their predictions are not facts. What likely had a big influence is the scary stories coming from Italy and the lack of good information from China.

The Changing Understanding of Covid-19

I had been in favor of the shutdowns, initially, to give time to make a more accurate assessment of the actual threat and also to give time for our medical professionals to gear up amidst global shortages of personal protective equipment. Sure, many Americans are of the pigheaded mentality that they will drive eighty miles per hour into a blinding fog bank and then have massive pileups as a testament to their inability to slow down for anything. But it is only prudent to enter into a potentially deadly new situation, with many unknowns, with an abundance of caution. The arrival of Covid-19 onto the world scene was such a circumstance. The idea of social distancing to “flatten the curve” made sense at the time.

However, as a couple of weeks morphed into a month or more and the language of state politicians mysteriously shifted from slowing the spread (as we were told was the reason for the shutdowns) to trying to stop it entirely, while at the same time the there was growing evidence that the virus was not as deadly as first thought, was likely here earlier than had been previously known and may have actually reached the peak (unflattened before the shutdown measures had been implemented) in some places, I kept waiting for decision-makers to shift their policies according to the actual evidence. But they did not. Frozen by fear or too stubborn to revisit their previous decisions (or maybe even wanting to punish those opposed to their lockdowns and show who is boss, who knows?) there was no change. They were determined to plow ahead with their prior decision based on bad data, economic consequences be damned, so wear your masks, go to Walmart like good little citizens and shut up.

We all have an idealogical team we are pulling for, whether we realize it or not, and it can cloud our perspective of an issue. Sure, you might believe that your ignorance of virology is “common sense” (which, unfortunately, is probably common and yet good sense is not always common) and refuse to take reasonable precautions. Or you might think your own opinion (and that of the experts whom you agree with) is some kind of “scientific consensus” and an irrefutable fact. But the reality is that you might just be too arrogant (in your little knowledge or, rather, knowing just enough to be dangerous) to understand that there could be perspectives greater than your own. The frustrating part for me was always being caught between the false choices put out by those on either side of the political debate. Those calling the virus a hoax, dismissing the effectiveness of masks, and being generally ignorant only armed those pushing for control with a false moral imperative to double-down on their shutdown or die mantra.

Covid-19, while certainly deadly for many and even if those terrifying early estimates of a 2-4% death rate had held true, is nowhere near the Spanish flu. The real number, given growing evidence gathered by antibodies testing and from various ships where everyone was tested, shows a true death rate closer to 0.5% which isn’t too different from the seasonal flu over the course of an average year. Yes, it did certainly stretch our medical resources thin, and likely would’ve with or without the shutdowns, yet there is little evidence to show that our economic self-sabotage actually saved lives. No, if anything, we may have simply destroyed opportunity for those most vulnerable here and around the world for no real gain. It is quite possible, even probable, that more will die as a result of the forced shutdowns than were saved. In the end, the decision to shut down the economy was never a question of shut down or die. For many, it may very well be shut down and die.

False dichotomies are dangerous. They are lies. This polarization of our many choices can come with tragic results.

Economic Shutdowns Also Kill People

In my many discussions about Covid-19 I’ve run into many reoccurring and economically illiterate sentiments, like this one: “I’m sorry but I can’t believe I’m reading this. No compassion for human life and suffering?” That in response to a well-written article weighing the benefits against the costs of the economic shutdown. Apparently, in this person’s emotion soaked and one-dimensional brain, the only way you can show compassion for human life and suffering is to keep people caged in their homes and unable to feed themselves?

As a starting point, there was never a scenario where there could be zero deaths from Covid-19. That ship had sailed long ago, in China, when the authorities there continued to let people from the epicenter travel around the world (although not domestically) and sailed when many Western leaders were more concerned with things like “xenophobia” than the virus. Maybe had Europe joined the Trump administration in banning travel from the source of the outbreak there may have been a chance of containing it. But it was already too late by the time concern about the virus and death tolls had finally exceeded worries about political correctness and virtue signaling about race. Places like New York City and Los Angeles were going to see tens of thousands dead regardless of what was done at that juncture.

When the shutdowns began, in earnest, the virus was already deeply entrenched. The first verified case in France, for example, has been recently discovered to have been back in December already and much earlier than initially thought. It had likely spreading while some politicians here were still encouraging people to crowd the streets of Chinatown and was definitely being passed around while Italian leaders were telling people to hug Chinese people (from Wuhan, no less) in a misguided effort to prove they weren’t racist. The die had been cast and we were in for a wild ride.

But what we did have a choice over is how we responded to the threat. Certainly, the virus had not reached us all, and we could not know (without significant testing) if the peak of infections was a couple of weeks out or still months ahead. If the virus had reached relatively few of us and the death rates were already skyrocketing then the most desperate measures were completely justified even if it cost some lives. On the other hand, if the virus had already been in circulation for months and the hospitals weren’t already jampacked, there was very little to be gained and plenty to be lost from sweeping anti-economic measures. Those with strong social networks and a fat wallet, like the Hollywood celebrities urging us plebes to stay at home while they sip martinis in their hot tub, might not get it, but there are serious consequences to economic shutdowns even if you do not personally experience them.

For those who still think that there’s no harm done by shutting down (simply because they are amongst the privileged less affected and able to put food on their own tables), keep reading.

This idea that the economy is about Wall Street and stock portfolios is complete and utter nonsense. The concern many have about the shutdown has nothing to do with the fiction you hold of Scrooge McDuck swimming in his vault full of gold coins and perpetually worried about losing his wealth. Not at all. First, no billionaire (other than the Hollywood fantasy villain version) actually has moldy money, billionaires are billionaires because they make good investments and their investments are often in life-sustaining industries, like healthcare. Second, most of the economy is Y-O-U. The economy is, simply put, our transactions together, the labor we use to produce things of value to trade with others for our wants and basic necessities.

That out of the way…

Domestic Abuse, Drug Overdoses, and Suicide Rates

Shutdowns have consequences and the consequences are often much more devastating for those most vulnerable. I think often of my waitress and waiter friends, people in the restaurant industry, who have suddenly without warning had their entire income stream dry up by the executive fiat of someone who gets their paycheck via the state treasury or through an accumulation of assets. Sure, Trump and Congress have taken action to offset some of these losses by direct payments, unemployment compensation has been extended to many who might not otherwise qualify and yet that will do nothing for those permanently unemployed.

For many in the world, in the same way that Covid-19 is deadly to those with comorbidities, an economic shutdown is (or will be) that proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Sure, you can say that the guy devastated by the bills piling up and his bank account drying up, his business being shuttered, should see the bigger perspective. But that is no different from saying that we should not care about Covid-19 deaths because those most impacted were dying anyway and that their comorbidities actually killed them. The fact that not everyone is as financially healthy as you are or as emotionally able to weather the storm caused by the shutdown doesn’t undo the damage done to those who are more vulnerable.

The socio-economic cost of the shutdowns should be factored into the decision as much as the potential gain. Sure, there is a possibility (although it is not proven) that the shutdowns may spare a few that would otherwise have perished from the virus and accompanying complications. But there is definitely an uptick in things such as domestic violence and child abuse that comes with forcing weak and emotionally vulnerable people to stay confined together, away from their sources of stress relief and friends, for months. Believe it or not, not everyone shares your advantages in mental health, not everyone can keep doing their work via Zoom, we aren’t equal in this together as some will proclaim, some are isolated alone, and with only their suicidal ideations to keep them company for the duration.

And, for those of you looking down your noses in condemnation of the shutdown protestors at state capitals, thinking that your own rationality and compassion is what is guiding you, think again. True compassion would have some sympathy for those who are suffering from the economic consequences of the hasty and arbitrarily enforced shutdowns. Unlike you, they might not be able to afford to shelter in place for months at a time. The truth might be that you, in your fearful overreaction to Covid-19, simply do not care enough about their livelihoods being ripped out from under them and are too ignorant of the economic consequences, the increase in domestic abuse, drug overdoses, and suicides that accompany economically dire circumstances.

It is certainly no more dangerous to do a couple of laps around a state capital, than it is to go to Home Depot, Walmart, or the grocery store. I suspect the real issue some have has to do with political affiliations. It is a moral superiority contest between them and those who decided that the risk of government overreach and economic ruin is greater than the virus. Some would rather live in denial of the serious economic consequences they’ve imposed on others, ignore the evidence of the suffering caused by their selfish demands for safety at all costs (to their neighbors), and maintain their dangerous tunnel vision?

Of course, who knows, in the current political climate, maybe some would rather the protestors killed themselves than peacefully vent their pent up frustrations?

But this is far bigger than domestic politics…

Economic Downturns, Food Shortages, and Starvation

The most troubling and continuing consequences of the imposed shutdowns is the impact it is having on the agricultural industry and food supply chain. It was very early on when the stories started to cross my newsfeed about small farmers, in the Philippines, being forced to dump their produce. If one understood the labor that it took (most Americans can’t even imagine), that these farmers would give up their meager profits, it is hard to understand. But that is what happens when the market is closed down, there is no refrigerated warehouse to store their vegetables until things reopen again. And, sure, some of it is distributed to their neighbors, and yet the real demand comes from the cities. So the cities are cut off from their suppliers and the poor farmers from their buyers and only source of income.

Vegetables dumped in Benguet

I’ve realized recently that many people can’t understand logistics even at the most basic level and see the actions of agricultural producers here as being greedy or suspicious. When I mentioned how producers were culling herds due to processing plants being closed over Covid-19 concerns and the possibility of people starving, I had a guy respond with the following, “If we don’t want people to starve let’s start by distributing this food that is being wantonly destroyed by the factory farms.” His ‘solution’ may seem reasonable at first glance. I mean, why not? But then you have to considfer that these big producers would not just throw away their profits. They aren’t that stupid. And if they can’t process this protein then you can be 100% sure that government or anyone else is going to replace their production capacity. They are the specialists.

Sure, like in rural parts of the Philippines, the neighbors to these massive barns will get all the pork or poultry they will ever need. However, that’s nibbling around the edges of the problem. The real reason we have these “factory farms” is not to supply Union County and the surrounding communities. No, not at all! The real market for this meat is the big cities. So, while it is great that some rural neighbors get to fill their freezers at a below-market price, that is going to do very little for the needs of those downstream and cut off from their food source. A couple of “community gardens” in Brooklyn can’t offset the literal tons of beef, pork, and vegetables that are imported into that city every day. Don’t get me wrong, I love a ‘feel good’ story as much as the next guy, but this isn’t an issue that will be solved by a couple of generous farmers.

The abrupt shutdowns and closures are causing incredible bottlenecks that cannot be easily resolved overnight. Closing down schools and restaurants, for example, meant that all of the food in that pipeline, packaged for that kind of usage, was now jammed up. There are some grocery stores now selling meats that were originally intended for restaurants. But the retooling cannot happen like the flip of a switch. That is why some dairy processors, what specialized in supplying schools, had to dump their milk at the same time grocery shelves had run dry of the staple. That is why potatoes are piled up to rot in Idaho. When networks within the supply chain break down, when the market is majorly disrupted without warning, there are shortages in some places and over-supplies in other places.

Those big animal operations need to keep moving things along, the whole process can’t be held up for long before there are major problems, finished pigs need to be moved along or there is no room for the feeder pigs to go. Sure, they can change the feed to try to keep the finished pigs at a particular weight for a period of time. But eventually, something as to give. That is why there are piles of dead pigs a hundred feet long, going to waste, and soon enough the shelves will run empty as well. It will seem strange. Many won’t understand how it is possible, but it is happening and it is happening like a slow-motion train wreck.

That all said, I’m not afraid for myself or most Americans. We might miss out on a steak or pork chop. We will likely pay a little more for our food in the coming months. However, my real concern is for those in the many places around the world where people work hand to mouth. The rickshaw driver in Mumbai can’t afford to pay more for his family’s food and especially not after being locked in his own house for months. The person in a Manila slum, already living on “pagpag” (a Taglog term meaning “garbage chicken” or literally food pulled from the trash) will not do well when others are fighting over the disappearing scraps as food becomes scarce. Many in the world live on a very small ration, meat is a luxury to them, and now have been deprived of their income in a desperate fight against a virus that may not even be stopped by their sacrifice.

Making the Right Trade-offs…

There is no question about the seriousness of Covid-19. I have a close friend in NYC who lost two friends. They were both my age and died in their own homes. It is not a virus that should be laughed off or treated as no big deal. Tens of thousands have died and tens of thousands more will likely die and in a relatively short period of time. Sure, many of these people may have had comorbidities and yet they would very likely have been with us for many more years had they not had their encounter with this deadly virus.

It is possible that some could be saved from Covid-19 through the shutdowns. There is no solid evidence that this is the case. Nevertheless it is possible. That said, it is also possible that our efforts only prolonged or even worsen the pandemic by preventing “herd immunity” from ever happening, which means we could suffer more deaths from Covid-19 and also the experience the hardships of the economic shutdown.

Whatever the case, the “shut down or die” mythology needs to be confronted. Those looking for a perfect solution here are living in fantasy land. The hope that a vaccine will be developed quickly and then become widely available is (sorry, anti-vaxxer conspiracy theorists) basically a Hollywood fiction. We still don’t have a vaccine for SARS or MERS and may never have a vaccine for Covid-19. So, this idea that we can just hunker down and wait this out is not realistic. Sure, I would be glad to be proven wrong, it is possible, but there are also huge trade-offs to our waiting that need to be discussed.

Speaking of trade-offs: According to ASIRT, 1.35 million people die in car accidents every year (over 38,000 in the US) and an additional 20-50 million are injured (4.4 million US), some with permanent disabilities as a result. This, unlike Covid-19, is a ‘pandemic’ that disproportionally impacts the young and with no pre-existing health conditions. We could, quite easily, in the name of safety, ban all automobiles and save far more lives in a couple of years than the shutdowns ever would. Of course, we would never do that, we have valued the freedom of movement and economic advantages over the risk of serious injury or death. I suppose people feel more in control behind the wheel, but if we were really in control of the outcome of our trip then nobody would leave home knowing that they would get into a fatal car crash, would they?

Based on what we now know about the virus and death rates we should not have shut down the to the extent that we did. We may have saved a little on the front end, compared to Sweden who remained open, and yet will very likely end up in the same place as far as Covid-19 and far worse off in terms of the economic consequences. My fear is that many more will perish as a result of the shutdowns than from the virus. Millions of the world’s young and most vulnerable are suffering right now, as I write this, and could die of starvation. A good analysis must weigh all factors. We cannot be zoned in so much on one problem and only one solution that we cannot see any others. The virus from China is bad, but the panicky response of governments around the world may have made it many times worse.

My Final Position On Covid-19

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I’ve never been one to get caught up in the latest hysteria.  I tend to be a skeptic of everyone from fundamentalist doomsayers to their secular climate catastrophe counterparts. 

There are many things are not worth getting worked up about, things that I can’t really change myself or prevent, and it takes discernment to know what we should or should not be concerned about. 
The media tends to turn everything into a crisis.  Sensational headlines invite clicks and clicks produce ad revenue.  So, yes, minor problems or statistically unlikely scenarios do too often get blown out of proportion.  Politicians, for their part, love to capitalize on anxieties and fears of the public as a means to gain power for themselves. 

These false prophets of the corporate media and political establishment do a terrible disservice to the public, they are like the boy who cried wolf and eventually paid the price for his deception.

The cynical exploitation of the public by those who should be making them aware and leading out against real threats eventually leads to distrust of authority and an apathetic response.  Many take to heart the adage, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me,” and use it as a reason to reject all warnings from all established sources or at least those that do not comport with their own political alignment.  Unfortunately, an overreaction against all authority can also leave the ‘sheep’ vulnerable when the real ‘wolf’ finally does arrive.

My own concern over Covid-19 did not originate with the recent media hype over the story and the foolish efforts to politicize it against the current administration.  My concern began weeks ago and originated from my own personal analysis of the characteristics of this particular virus and the extreme Chinese response in trying to contain it.  Those who continue to trivialize the threat do not understand it, they are only reacting like those townsfolk fooled one too many times, and need to take a step back, take off their jaded lenses for a moment and reexamine the evidence.

No, Covid-19 is not the same as SAR’s, Swine Flu…

There are many silly memes out there about all the public scares that we have survived.  And all that is true.  But, while it is important to see the current claims of the media in the context of their previous record, it is also important to remember that even a broken clock is right twice a day and therefore must be able to discern for ourselves.

When I first became aware of the new (or novel) “Coronavirus” outbreak in Wuhan back in January there were several things that initially jumped out to me then and continue to stand out.  Covid-19, as it has more recently been designated, is not nearly as deadly as Ebola or some other flu viruses, nevertheless the Chinese effort to contain it has been extreme.

Chinese authorities have taken unprecedented steps to try to stop the spread, going as far as to quarantine huge industrial centers of millions of people and building massive new hospitals.  Why?  Well, probably because they have a reason to be concerned.  A country does not deliberately cripple their own economy to the extent that the Chinese have done without there being a good reason to do so. 

One reason to be concerned is that the Chinese, not wanting to scare away foreign investment, also have plenty of reason to try to conceal or downplay the reality on the ground.  That is why they made efforts to silence those who brought broader attention to the situation by sharing what they saw on social media.  They accused an optometrist, Li Wenliang (who himself would later would become infected and die while in treatment) of “spreading rumors” for telling the truth, so can we trust that they are telling us the full extent of what is happening now?

Li Wenliang

What we do already know is that Covid-19 is not as deadly as Ebola and other viruses.  But, according to current estimates, it still kills an alarming number of those who become infected:

“On Tuesday, WHO said the global death rate for the novel coronavirus based on the latest figures is 3.4% — higher than earlier figures of about 2%. The World Health Organization’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said that the new coronavirus “is a unique virus with unique characteristics.””

However, it is not the death rate or that Covid-19 is extremely deadly that caught my attention. 

No, it was how transmissible and impossible to contain that it has proven to be.  In many cases, the most deadly viruses are less dangerous, on a world scale, because they kill their host quickly enough that it cannot spread far or they are not easily transmitted.  Covid-19, by contrast, does spread through the air, it has a long incubation period that makes it hard to detect those infected, it does kill a significant number of those infected, and has successfully spread around the globe in a matter of weeks.

But doesn’t the flu kill X amount of people per year?

One of the dumbest reoccurring comments I’ve encountered is of those who point to the higher death count of the flu as a reason not to be concerned about Covid-19.  Many have reasoned that since the flu has killed more people than Covid-19 this past year that therefore the flu is a bigger threat.  Of course, those making this claim have obviously not paid attention in probability and statistics or simply fail to grasp the difference between those killed previously and future death rates.

Sure the flu has absolutely killed more last year before Covid-19 arrived on the scene, but it only kills a fraction of a percent and nowhere near even the low estimates for Covid-19.  In other words, if Covid-19 were to continue to break containment, as it has consistently, and spreads around the world, it will likely kill millions of people worldwide.  In fact, if you multiply the current estimate of death rate out to the US population, that’s well over 11 million Americans, and that’s assuming everyone else who becomes seriously ill, needs to be intubated and weeks of ICU treatment or would probably die, is getting good medical care.

Responding to the news that a grizzly bear has escaped containment by pointing out that a mountain lion also killed last year only shows how little a person understands the situation.  Sure, the grizzly isn’t going to kill everyone in the neighborhood, but it is certainly a bigger threat than the mountain lion, it actually compounds the danger, it only adds another deadly creature when one was bad enough and certainly isn’t going to improve the experience for those living in the neighborhood of where it now roams free.  

Grizzly vs Cougar

At very best Covid-19 being on the loose only adds to the misery of flu season and, at worse, well…

Do I think it is the end of the world?

My cousin Mel suggested that there are two ditches that people fall into, those who see it as “the normal flu here, move along,” and the “Run!!!!!” 

I’m not sure what camp he would place me in, but I believe that there is definitely a middle ground between those two extremes.  My own position is that Covid-19 does present a unique threat to the ‘normal’ flu, in that it is a novel virus and currently killing by at least a whole order of magnitude greater or more.  But, at the same time, I’m not in that window of those most vulnerable and most people will survive. 

So, no, it is not the end of the world.  Humanity has come through many similar events, many plagues far worse than a virus that potentially kills 3.4% of the current population, and here we are.  Covid-19 won’t kill us all.  As of March 6th, at the time I am writing, the virus has already killed 14 here (in America) and 3,300 worldwide.  Not much when you consider how many die in automobile accidents, etc.

Do I think it is a big joke?

No, absolutely not!

If Covid-19 continues to get past all containment lines, as it has, and spread into the general population the death rates could be much higher as our medical infrastructure would reach capacity, as supply chains break down (watch this video) due to the extreme worldwide demand coupled with decreased production, and more people, afraid of the infection, began to stay home rather than go to work and risk their health.  

In an era of just in time deliveries and global supply chains, we are actually more vulnerable than ever if the proverbial excrement were to hit the proverbial fan and would very soon learn how very dependant we are on those who produce, transport and distribute our goods.  Even those in rural areas cannot escape the potential fallout if there was a breakdown of the systems that we take for granted as potentially millions would flee urban areas in search of basic necessities or simply to get away from the chaos.

Even if the social order didn’t collapse and death rates remained at current levels, are you really going to say that burying three out every hundred people you know is not a big deal?  That could include your grandparents, your parents, possibly close friends, and coworkers.  It could also mean that you spend weeks in the ICU, as medical bills pile up, gasping for breath and wishing to die, thinking you might and possibly even being right.  I would not do anything where there is a three percent chance of death for myself or a friend, would you?

Should you panic?

I’m reminded of the refrain of a movie “Bridge of Spies” where Tom Hanks plays a lawyer defending a captured KGB spy and asks his client, who is likely facing death at the hands of the Russians if he’s turned over or the Americans if he is not, “aren’t you worried?”  To which the old spy answers, with a deadpan expression, “would it help?

Bridge of Spies

Panic would do absolutely nothing to help a person trying to survive a deadly viral outbreak and is something that must be avoided.  It is why you see the true experts (not the talking heads on the media) taking a measured approach and treating Covid-19 as if it is not a big deal.  Ultimately, what will be will be and tanking the economy ahead of time, with dire predictions, would only make matters worse.

If the worse case scenario were to play out fear would likely be as big a threat as the disease itself and that is why I say…

Prepare Now!

The best way to prevent future panic is preparedness.  No, I’m not talking about taking things to an extreme, you probably won’t need that hazmat suit and I’m doubtful converting your life-savings to gold is a good idea.  But having a few weeks of food stocks (canned goods, dried beans and rice) along with purified water, iodized salt, ethyl alcohol, and other disinfectants, some N95 masks, all things that could be good to have around anyways, could be enough to ride out the worst case scenario.  

Remember the parable about the wise and foolish virgins (Matthew 25:1-13) where some came prepared with extra oil, thus were ready for the bridegroom, while the others had run out and desperate?  That story has some general application and can be applied to our attitudes pertaining to Covid-19.  It is better to have some foresight, to be aware of the various scenarios that could play out, and plan accordingly, rather than wait until the last minute when it is already too late.  There is still time (at least as I write this) to be reasonably prepared and that is my suggestion.

Failure to anticipate and plan accordingly can be fatal…

As 339 students boarded the MV Sewol, a Korean ferry, for a school outing, I’m doubtful any of them could’ve imagined the nightmare that would soon play out.  I’m still haunted by the videos made as they chattered nervously while the stricken ship began to list.  They had been told, by those in authority on the vessel, to stay put in their cabins—and that is exactly what they did up until those final moments of terror as the ship capsized.  Had they been proactive, had they disobeyed and went on the deck rather than allow themselves to be trapped, they would have easily avoided a terrible fate.

MV Sewol

People would do many things differently had the chance. The ill-fated OV-099 Challenger would never have left the launch pad had warnings about potential O-ring failure not been ignored.  Likewise, had those trying to tell the Titanic about icebergs been heard rather than told “shut up” by the overworked radio operator, or had the lookouts decided to break the lock for the binoculars rather than squint into the darkness without them, countless lives would have been saved and the Titanic not become a symbol of excessive human pride.

OV-099 Challenger

We are able to make predictions based in available evidence.  But many are distracted (or just plain oblivious) and otherwise unable to sift through the information to find the signs of danger and make the correct call.  I would venture a guess that those thousands who have contracted Covid-19 had no idea, when the first symptoms started to show, that they would have their lives upended.  Those who died probably thought this was just another flu, like the many they had experienced before, and their lack of awareness would not save them.  

And yet we can’t prepare for everything...

We can’t know the future. An asteroid could collided with our planet tomorrow, end life as we know it, and there is very little we could do now to be ready for that.  

But, that said, there are many things we are able to anticipate and should.  If you are not concerned about pandemic, I suggest you do some reading about the Spanish flu or Black Death and consider that we would not necessarily be any better off the day that the ‘perfect storm’ flu finally does arrive. Vaccines cannot be developed overnight (sorry, antivax conspiracy theorists) and a third of world population (including you) could be gone before an effective solution was found.

That is reality.  There are many who had their lives planned out, they had hopes and dreams, before meeting their unexpected demise.

Death is coming, are you ready?

Sounds dark and yet it is true.  If it isn’t Covid-19 it will be something else and it is good to live with a little awareness of our true vulnerability and eventual end.  We might make better use of our time if we were a bit more mindful of death.  

Fools laugh when they should be sober and consider their time is short.  There are many things that are easily take for granted could be wiped away in an instant.  Those of us born at the top can have a tendency towards arrogance.  But neither God nor the universe care about your feelings of self-importance and one only needs to consider how many powerful civilizations have collapsed as fast as they rose in prominence.  Oftentimes the “writing on the wall” was there and had they not been too drunk with their own hubris they may have changed course.

I’ve needed to deal with my own regrets for having not taken an illness seriously enough.  It simply did not occur to me that an eighteen month old child could die from what had seemed to be mundane and easily treated medical issues.  Had I known what would happen to her I would have moved heaven and Earth to be sure that she received top notch treatment.  I’ve dealt with years of post-traumatic stress symptoms as a result of my own failures then.  And even today it is a reminder to be vigilant and to do today what is too easily put off until tomorrow.  Being ready for death means living a worthwhile existence in the present moment.

So what is my final position of Covid-19?

In the end, I’m not losing any sleep over Covid-19, it is still something on the horizon and what would it help to get all worked up about it?  

At the same time, I do believe it is a serious threat and am glad for the resources being directed to combat and contain the virus.  We should be taking precautions for the good of ourselves and our communities.  A little more conscientiousness in our society could do a whole lot of good.  Consider the example of the Japanese who, because of measures taken to stop the spread of Covid-19, had a far less severe flu season this year.  Think about it.  If we were to practice a little better hygiene and show a little more respect to the reality of our environment we could, at very least, avoid suffering through a few days of sickness.

I really do not know for sure what will happen in the coming weeks, months and years.  The disruptions caused by Covid-19, already being experienced, will probably be short-term.  We might even forget about the whole story by April.  Soon enough, by the diligent efforts of some, a vaccine will be developed and those skeptical of the attention being brought to this virus can convince themselves this success is proof they were right not to be concerned.  But it is very likely that millions around the world will not see next Christmas. 

If you are a man over fifty it very well could be you.

Are you ready?

Why the Princess Had to Kiss a Frog

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Those who had early success in the romantic realm can be excused for thinking of it as some sort of magic. For them the “right one” comes along, his awkward introduction goes well enough, then very soon they are entering that world of “meant to be” and marriage.

That was the world of my own teenage fantasies and remained a hope resilient enough to carry me through a decade of disappointment. Reality would slap me in the face over and over again. But, after some moments of despair, I would always refuse to believe the evidence and go with my heart instead: Eventually that mythical creature would come along, the one who loved me for my heart rather than my status or stature, and finally prove my hopes.

Hope, even hope at the level of magical thinking, serves an important role in our survival. Too much concern about the chances and a man might never get out of bed (or leave the cave) and confront the challenges ahead of him. Life requires faith and courage or the ability to overcome fears (based in our previous experience and/or a reasonable assessment of outcomes) and plunge blindly forward into the unknown. It was a bit of foolish hope that enabled our ancestors to continue the species.

Hope Is Not a Strategy

Unfortunately, hope is not a strategy and a positive attitude, while often attractive, is not a guarantee of success. For every miraculous rescue, there have been countless others who likely clung to their hopes until the last hour. Like those students on the ill-fated MV Sewol, desperately clawing for a chance to save themselves to the point of broken fingers as the ferry boat capsized, many have fought hard to survive against the odds and died cold and alone. The lucky ones didn’t spend their last moments in sheer terror and desperation.

Fortune may favor the bold, but if you are a man, in America, standing 5′-2″ tall, and you want to experience happily ever after, then you better be rich or dripping with charisma. Because, whether we like to admit it or not, women (like men) are selective and statistics tend to favor a particular height range in men. First of all, women state their preference for taller men outright and, second, the numbers seem to bear this reality out—taller men have a distinct advantage. Again, this doesn’t mean that men on the average or shorter range have no chance, but it may mean that they will be less sought-after and thus, to be successful, they need to be less selective.

In the religious context that formed my expectations, the above reality was something that I could accept for “the world” and yet wanted to deny as it applied to the women whom I consider to be virtuous. I mean, I’m not extremely short or anything, I’m also in decent physical condition, but I’m definitely not above average in any regard and certainly did not draw as much interest from women as some of my friends who only needed to show up to make the list of the swooned after. It could be a bit nauseating, at times, when women would use me as their means of intelligence gathering about a “hot” friend, but at least I could be a good wingman for my friends, right?

Still, despite my knowledge of how things really worked and a growing number of failures, I remained a hopeless romantic. In fact, as a final act, before everything went totally sideways, rather than retreat or settle (a strategy that had never worked for me anyway) I decided to double down in faith and act in a way that I knew was irrational. For the first time in my life, I would ignore the odds, hope against hope, and find victory over my old nemesis of agnosticism that had always nipped at my heels. This young woman, the impossibility, became symbolic of my struggle to preserve my Mennonite identity and cling to the child-like innocence that had begun to fade over the years.

A Bitter Pill of Truth

What I found, in the end, is that Mennonite girls are really not that different from their secular counterparts. Sure, they wear a different costume, they also have some unique culturally-specific expectations, but being “thirty years old living in Milton” was still something unforgivable to a young woman full of her own ambition. And the more damning truth came in retrospect and in my further consideration of how a medical professional characterized this quixotic pursuit as mere sexual attraction. I had bristled at this. How dare this doctor say such a thing? But I was, like so many others, a victim of my own delusion.

The paradigm of my Mennonite identity came crashing down, despite my best efforts to preserve it, the night that I realized that she was dating and would marry taller more prototypical Mennonite guy over this hopeful fool. The gig was up. And, to pour salt on my wounds, this generically luckier fool, had the audacity to take to social media and crow about his success as a sign of God’s special favor—where did that leave me as the one who had put forward a truly faithful effort and failed? Of course, I didn’t lash out directly against his childish exuberance, I mean had I been successful you may have never heard the end of it. That is some of the reason why I started this blog, to chronicle my irrational belief that the impossible could be made possible and as a means to prove wrong some cynical faithless naysayers.

The hard truth, the wall that I hit, was that my faith could not overcome my lack of tangibles (at least tangibles that mattered) even amongst those seemingly most sincere. On top of that, despite my initial thoughts of this girl having a sort of strange or alien appearance, the reality is that she was a hot commodity amongst many guys. In other words, the very idea that my admiration of her was something special or spiritual fell flat against the clear contrary evidence. I had fought against my cognitive dissonance, refusing to accept things were not as I had imagined they should be, not as I was told they would be, and no amount of faith would change what was true about my culture.

The Rejection of Average

Anyhow, my sentiments aside, the trends that I encountered in selectiveness reflect a growing inequity in the dating economy of our time. This selectiveness is found in the data of various dating sites and as it turns out, is a phenomenon especially true of women. That according to studies cited in an article, “Attraction Inequality and the Dating Economy,” bearing this reality out. The summary is that around 80% of women consider about 80% of men to be of below average attractiveness and thus are competing for the top 20% of men.

It doesn’t take a degree in probability and statistics to see the problem. As a result of a variety of factors (our affluence, ability to travel, exposure to marketing and media, etc) our expectations have gone through the stratosphere. A young woman believes she can afford to wait and is thus willing to turn down a dozen potential suitors who she deems to be too average for her tastes. I mean, why settle for the frog, doesn’t every princess deserve her prince?

Sadly, for women of high expectations, this increased selectiveness does not correspond with increased numbers of above-average men. What it does mean is that fewer men, born with the right physical features and charm, have more women at their disposal. It also means that there are many other men of average stature or appearance who get very little attention. And, whereas marriage used to take some off the market (at least on paper) that is no longer the case. So, as it goes now, many women are eagerly awaiting the opportunity with those few of exceptionally attractive men who do not need to take them seriously and, meanwhile, are ignoring those whom they have a real chance with.

Mennonites Raise the Threshold

In the conservative Mennonite world where I came from the expectations are even more stringent. Not only do we have the influence of Hollywood, but we also have an increased starting commitment that comes with the purity culture teachings that crept in with the embrace of Protestant fundamentalism. In other words, not only are Mennonite young women as superficially selective as their secular counterparts, but they are also afraid to so much as having coffee with an average guy lest they are somehow defiled by this frog—accidentally marry him or something?

But the big difference is that, in the conservative Mennonite world, the guys are also as selective as the girls. Basically the threshold of commitment has been raised so high that a guy wouldn’t dare risk his reputation by dating that average girl. No, he’s going to go for that cherub-faced icon of Mennonite beauty and that’s because he already knows that the average girl will likely reject him as well. So, unlike the secular situation, where the problem is that 80% of the women are only attracted to 20% of the guys, with conservative Mennonites it is also 80% of the guys who are after 20% of the girls.

In such circumstances it is amazing anyone gets married at all. Of course, it helps that conservative Mennonites often marry younger when they are still too dumb to have established their impossible standards. It also helps now that there are more opportunities for Mennonite young people to humanize their other gender counterparts through fun group activities, like global missions or Bible schools. Nevertheless, there are many of average attractiveness who are left behind in the current Mennonite paradigm and I was one of them—there simply was not a path for me to romantic success within that context.

Willingness To Kiss Frogs

Fairytales are not only fun stories, but many of them are also full of meaning waiting to be unpacked and applied like a Biblical parable. And such is the case with the fairytale about the princess who kisses a frog and ends up with a prince. Sure, that never happens literally in real life, but it does illustrate the utility of taking a chance on an unproven commodity and the potential for a change of perspective. That awkward guy in the youth group or in the gym might not seem like much of a catch from a comfortable distance, I mean he can’t even protect himself from tripping over his own feet let alone be that dragon-slaying hero of female fantasies, right?

But sometimes those average guys have something beneath the surface that those other catered to “top 20%” guys don’t have and that is a thing called character. I mean, it isn’t easy being last picked in gym class. A clumsy guy is indeed very aware of his shortcomings and especially while he’s tripping over his words, despite a large vocabulary, to talk to the slightly above average girl (in his eyes) who treats him with that carefully hidden distain. If he just had a chance, if he would just be allowed to show a little of his heart, then maybe he would start to look more and more like a handsome prince rather than an ugly frog?

And not at all saying that we should not take the opportunity to better ourselves. There are plenty of guys and girls who refuse to make any effort to change themselves or adjust their approach to reality and end up repeating the same failure over and over again. They are a lost cause.

But there are many more, like me, who do shine when given a chance. There is a beautiful woman (not Mennonite) who allowed this frog an opportunity to speak into her life. She learned about some of my better qualities. However, more than that, her mere presence in my life created a new kind of strength in me. She gives me something to protect, she gives me a specific purpose and a reason to develop my abilities. I love her because she calls me her “average bhest” and uses that as a reason to embrace rather than disqualify me. It is because she knows that I am dedicated to her, that I am not like the guy who took from her yet never provided the security she needed for herself and her son.

The metaphor of a princess kissing a frog comes from the reality that women need to be selective and the other reality that most men need some catalyst to reach their full potential. The tragic part is that when impossible expectations are allowed to creep in the result is impotent men and dissatisfied women. Even those who are successful in getting married, who do not shed their romantic perfectionism, could very well end up with a relationship on the rocks. We need to renew a practical love, the ability to love people who are just average, like we are, or we will end up missing out on the opportunity for romances that go deeper.

It is time to show some faith where it actually matters. Most men aren’t six feet tall with the face of a Hollywood lead man. Most women don’t look like Ariana Grande or whomever else the entertainment industry puts on their billboards. Most women, whether they know it or not, are more frog than princess. Most men, even the decent ones, are not as worthy as they think themselves to be. Most of us are average. It is time to stop being so full of ourselves and start kissing some frogs. Or we could just keep hoping for that magical prince (or princesses) to show up and love us for no reason other than that we exist. Your choice.

 

Cautionary Tales About Pigeons, Sparrows and Ideological Extremes

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For those who still remember Paul Harvey and miss his “and now you know the rest of the story” delivery style, Lance Geiger will scratch the itch. His episodes, on “The History Guy” YouTube channel, have been my entertainment in the morning before work and enjoy the storytelling adventure before his “forgotten history that deserves to be remembered” wrap-up at the end.

His show is not political. But two of the episodes sparked my thinking about the danger of ideological extremes and the need for checks and balances. One story an example of the central planning gone seriously awry, the other about the unfortunate consequences of technological development combined with market forces, and both stories involve the extinction or near extinction of a species of birds.

Socialized Sparrows and Starvation

The first video, “When China went to war with sparrows” is about the “Four Pests Campaign” that was part of the “Great Leap Forward” from 1958 to 1962. The idea was to eliminate certain types of critters as a way to increase hygiene and reduce disease. The targets, mosquitoes, rodents, flies, and sparrows, were picked by the Socialist regime of Mao Zedong. Claiming that “birds are the public animals of capitalism,” armed with a population bound to statist fervor, they dramatically reduced the numbers of sparrows.

The end result of this sparrow control campaign was an ecological disaster. As it turns out, holding to Marxist ideals does not make a person an expert on economic development or biological science, and this deliberate elimination of sparrows came with some very serious consequences. This misguided policy is believed to be a leading cause of the Great Chinese Famine, a catastrophe that cost between 15 to 45 million human deaths and was abandoned when Chinese authorities, on the advice of an actual ornithologist, finally realized their terrible mistake.

Che Guevara T-shirt wearing, professional far-leftist ‘rabble-rousers’ may celebrate “people power” when it aligns with their personal prejudices. They often sit smugly and sanctimonious, on their intellectual ivory towers, confusing their book acquired knowledge and ideological indoctrination for wisdom. But given real power these people are dangerous. Mao Zedong, the well-educated son of a wealthy farmer, was not an idiot or especially ignorant. But the masses he controlled (with his anti-Capitalist rhetoric) amplified his mistakes, caused great suffering and claimed many innocent lives.

Sparrows, as it turns out, help to control locust populations. These bugs, now unrestrained by the sparrows, quickly proliferated and went on a crop-destroying rampage. This, along with the reckless use of pesticides and poisons by the Chinese government, was all well-intentioned. Likewise, there are many Socialist policies, championed in the past century in this country, that have failed us as miserably and yet continue to be touted as solutions. Unlike Mao, however, our crop of ‘progressives’ more often doubles down on their mistake, hiding behind their ever more convoluted logic, rather than ever reconsider.

Capitalized Pigeons and Profitable Purges

The second video, “How the extinction of a species affected whiskey production,” deals with the plight of the passenger pigeon. This North American species was once so numerous that the flocks would blot out the sun was hunted to extinction, the last of the birds dying September 1, 1915.

Native Americans had hunted passenger pigeons as they were plentiful and a good source of protein. But, because of the limits of their technology and smaller population size, never put a dent in the numbers of pigeons. But this would all change with the newly arrived settlers from Europe. Trains, telegraphs, and gunpowder enabled more people to join the hunt at pigeon nesting grounds. One well-aimed blast from a two barrelled shotgun could kill as many as 61 birds and tens of thousands were slaughtered with great ease.

The real compounding factor was not the hunters, not the tools that they used, but was rather the money and markets that gave them motivation. Unlike in times past where it only made sense to hunt for only enough to sustain your own family or village, the railroads made it possible to ship vast quantities of the fowl meat to city markets back East. The apparent plentifulness of the birds masked the severe drop in their numbers and the cheap source of protein (or profit) they provided ensured the hunts would continue.

That is not to say that nobody was aware of the decline of the species. There were indeed attempts to reign in the slaughter in the mid-1800s. But these conservationist efforts never gained enough traction to make a difference, the legislation introduced too little too late, and extinction followed.

It would be easy to say this plunder of natural resources was a product of greed. But, insomuch as greed is a selfish excess, that is not an accurate diagnosis of the problem. If it were greedy or selfish for one to merely act in their own self-interest then we would all be equally guilty for breathing. The real problem is that no individual accounted for more than their own harvest. There was not nearly enough consideration for the big picture and market forces took care of the rest.

In a Capitalistic system, productive behavior rewarded. That reward is distributed to those who have the ability and motivation to work. But, without anything to hold this motivation in check, a mass of humanity can quickly become like a swarm of locust devouring everything in its path. The beauty of the Capitalistic system is that it allows people to do more to advance their own self-interests and that is also the downfall of Capitalism as well.

What Is the Moral to the Story?

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.” (Matthew 10:29 NIV)

Perhaps if God cares about the sparrows we should as well?

In the two stories economic systems that could not be more different and produced nearly the same results. Both cases demonstrate the power of a mass of people and remind me of the demotivational poster in my bedroom (gifted from my awesome little sister) featuring a circle of skydivers and the text: “Idiocy: Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups.”

The poster, a satirical take on motivational posters, is meant as tongue in cheek humor and not to be taken too serious.

Nevertheless, as there is truth to every joke, the useful message is that it is prudent to stand apart from the crowd, to resist conformity and ask questions. Had enough people questioned the party propaganda or the collective actions of their profit-seeking neighbors the death of millions of Chinese and the extinction of passenger pigeons could have been avoided.

These accounts of pigeons and sparrows are also cautionary tales about two opposite ideological extremes. In Socialism the stupid decisions of a small group of people can be vastly magnified by the subjugated masses. In Capitalism the masses, motivated by profit and market forces, can become a source of terrible devastation. The central planning of collectivists and the lack thereof in individualistic and free-market systems both come with their own unique manifestations of the same risk.

It is worthwhile to note that the unchecked power of the central state, in the path century, is responsible for more deaths (due to wars, genocides, famines, etc) than any one person or group of people motivated by profit. Government policies, often favoring big corporations or particular individuals, at very least contribute as much to the problem as individual desire to profit and are, in fact, responsible for some of the worst man-made ecological disasters in modern times.

However, the properly restrained state can provide a good counterbalance to market forces, to keep the masses from acting like a runaway train unaware of the destruction at the end of the tracks and offers some necessary protection for endangered species. It is for our own long-term good that there are limits to our freedoms.

In the end, I’m not for unrestrained Capitalism anymore than I am for unrestrained government power. As much as possible I prefer to let people make their own choices and therefore, for that reason, shade towards free markets—which, when not interfered with by governments through subsidies or social programs, are the most democratic institution known to men. It is better to allow mistakes to be corrected at a lower level through bankruptcy and individual loss. That said, the extinction of the passenger pigeon speaks to the need for a collective consciousness to hold back our self-interested impulses.

Much destruction can be caused by taking a good thing too far or not keeping it properly restrained by other equally valid principles and concerns. Do not repeat the mistakes of these competing ideological extremes and their equal potential for economically or ecologically disastrous results. Remember the sparrows. Remember the pigeons.

Pure Nonsense: The Courtship Idealism That Failed

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I’m sure you are familiar with them, you know, that family who has a life that resembles a Thomas Kinkade painting, always so idyllic and cute. In fact, they are so adorable they are annoying. This sort of charmed life comes a sort of “holier than thou” smugness. Sure, they are too perfect to say it outright, they always religiously maintain that facade of sweetness, but they often have the easy answers that often betray their true cluelessness.

I can recall, for example, a lovely twenty-something, themselves engaged, who with complete sincerity suggested that my romantic struggles may be God’s will for me to remain single. They themselves successful because of their endearing charm and connections (which to them meant divine favor) whereas my own inability to navigate was to be taken equally as a sign. Apparently they worship the God of circumstances, one that absolved them of any responsibility to help those less fortunate—other than to offer some words of encouragement and advice.

Anyhow, thank God that doctors do not subscribe to a similar thought process: “We know you are lots of pain, broken legs are not easy for sure, but have you ever considered that it might not be God’s will for you to walk? Here’s an ice cube, I suck on one of these when I’m feeling down and out…” That sort of response would probably fall under the category of medical malpractice. Likewise, the advice of those who heap a burden on the shoulders of others and yet are unwilling to lift a finger to help (Matt. 23:4) are guilty of spiritual malpractice:

“Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:15‭-‬17 NIV)

The passage above, from James, contrasts the mere words of the pretentious and the gritty hands-on sacrificial love that true faith requires. Talk is cheap, my darlings. And what my advice giver really meant to say is that they were unwilling to pull out all the stops on my behalf, they themselves were comfortable with my circumstances as they had persisted for years and thus they were unwilling to confront the prejudices or cultural assumptions that had made an impossible hurdle for me. But, rather than take personal responsibility for their own indifference towards my plight, they turned it into God’s will.

The Courtship Idealism That Failed…

When the news of the separation of Joshua Harris from his wife of over twenty years reached me this week it was hard not to connect it back to the courtship ideal he expressed many years ago. Harris, a “purity culture” advocate, rose to prominence in fundamentalist churches for his book “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” published in 1997. In this book unmarried Harris promoted a model of courtship that was supposed to lead to happily ever after and instead left many of us outside looking in—unable to overcome this stumbling block put in our path.

The Harris model of courtship required a level of commitment that, for the less beautiful and bold, made it virtually impossible for many of us to get started. This absurdly increased threshold of commitment meant that unmarried women, even in their mid or late twenties, refuse to go so much as a coffee date with an eligible bachelor for fear that it could lead to ‘defilement’ or marriage. The horrors of being sucked into a commitment after finding out that slightly awkward guy is a lovable child of God! I mean, isn’t that what King Solomon had in mind by “guard your heart”?

(I have about 1000 reasons to doubt that interpretation.)

Pushers of purity culture didn’t necessarily intend their model as a panacea. I’m guessing Harris and others would deny that there were guarantees of success that accompanied following their prescribed methods. I’m also pretty sure they did not anticipate the unintended consequences and damage caused by their teachings either. Nevertheless, they did “tie up the heavy, cumbersome loads” of fear and many have failed to find meaningful relationship with their religious counterparts as a result. It undoubtedly contributed to my own woes.

Sure, some, including Mr Harris, were able to get through this courtship minefield. However, that doesn’t mean it produced that perfect marriage as was promised by their courtship prescription. However, formulas aren’t going to produce happiness through the years and struggle of a marriage. If anything they built up impossible expectations for married life in the same way that they did for dating relationships and leads to future disappointment. At very least, while unwarranted confidence is attractive, nobody wants to be married to someone with all the answers.

True Faith Comes Through Struggle…

For all of us who weren’t born into a Precious Moments world, who had to beg and plead, compete against the odds, claw for inches at a time, to earn our small measure of success, we can’t simply rely on circumstances. Our Pollyannaish notions of destiny and love have always went up against the headwinds of fear and brick-wall after brick-wall of rejection. We weren’t born tall, extraordinarily handsome or especially wise. If we were wait for our dreams to arrive on a silver platter we would never get anywhere.

If we were fatalists and shared the mechanical view of God’s will of those who depend on circumstances rather than faith, the faith of those who “ask, knock and seek” (Matt. 7:7-12) that Jesus described, then we could also blame circumstances for our not getting out of bed anymore. I can assure you of this, there were days where I had fight to continue, where it was only the love of another person that kept me going, and that’s what real faith is. Real faith is having the guts to face down the impossible.

The cutesy patootsy life doesn’t actually require any faith, sacrifice or grace. Everything depends on their good feelings and God’s will mysteriously never goes against their own expectations. And it works until they face that first real test. When those delusions of “meant to be” are replaced with the reality of failure. I pity those who get the rug yanked out from under their idealism at a later age. That is why I pray that Mr Harris and his family find God’s grace is sufficient even when things do not go as planned.

We need fewer books giving advice. We definitely need less advice from single men, with their graceless formulas (*ahem* Bill Gothard, are you listening?), and more faith of real action. Being a best-selling author at twenty-one might be a thrill and even good for your chances of getting married. My question is what did these idealistic men do to help others across that impossibly high threshold they created? In the end what matters is what we do to help others carry their burden.

It’s time to kiss the book “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” goodbye. A courtship ideal cannot prevent divorce and it seems to more often prevent marriage. It is faith of action, not a courtship ideal, that makes a successful loving relationship possible. A faith that is willing to sacrifice, truly sacrifice, for the good of another person. A faith that makes the impossible possible rather than blame God’s plan for our own unwillingness to intervene on behalf of others.

When the Truth Threatens Our Way of Life

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Recently I was asked what books were formative for me. Two books immediately came to mind. The first being F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic, “The Great Gatsby,” a tragic tale of a man who got ever so close to his dreams that had haunted me since high school as it seemed to be a repeat story in my own life. The second book, written by Peter Hoover and far less known outside of a particular religious circle, compared modern-day Mennonites to their Anabaptist forebearers.

Hoover’s book, “The Secret of the Strength,” drew an interesting parallel between the disruptive and defiant (and, dare I say, irrational?) early Anabaptists and the Old Testament character of Samson. This exploration of the secret of their strength lay dormant in me for years, but eventually helped define my longing for more than the conservative Mennonite status quo (including the doubled down version of the same old Mennonite priorities rebranded as “Anabaptist” by some) and this put me on a collision course with the religious culture that had been my identity since birth.

Anyhow, my own religious radicalization aside, I’m fascinated by patterns and especially when it comes to Biblical types. These patterns and types can be easily missed by the casual reader and yet are unmistakable once discovered. And, if we look closely enough, we may even see ourselves and our own patterns in these various characters. As you read, consider your own life, what defines your experience? Are you defining the future with your faith that goes beyond the status quo or are you simply defending a way of life?

Two Men Who Threatened the Status Quo

One thing interesting about Samson is how his story so similar to that of Jesus. These two men, as different as they appear at first blush, have many intriguing parallels. Their births were announced by angels, they were sanctified in the womb, they were deliverers of Israel (old and new, respectively) and free their people of oppression, and the list goes on (click here if you want to learn more), but there is one parallel in particular that I would like to explore and that is how their religious peers responded to their exploits.

First up is the account of Samson and those who decided to confront this Hebrew Hercules:

Then three thousand men from Judah went down to the cave in the rock of Etam and said to Samson, “Don’t you realize that the Philistines are rulers over us? What have you done to us?” He answered, “I merely did to them what they did to me.” They said to him, “We’ve come to tie you up and hand you over to the Philistines.” (Judges 15:11-17a NIV)

Here we have Samson running roughshod over the Philistines. And yet, these three thousand men of Judah, rather than join him in overthrowing their oppressors, decided to capture Samson and turn him over to their enemies. By their faithless reasoning, Samson was a greater threat for “rocking the boat” than the occupiers who had corrupted them with ungodly fear and turned them into cowards.

This reasoning in regards to Samson closely mirrors the discussion about Jesus, in the Gospel of John, and the threat he represented to the established order:

Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin. “What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.” Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” (John 11:47-50 NIV)

The discussion above takes place directly after Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. Can you imagine that? A man is literally bringing people back to life, they claim to believe in a God that defeated powerful Egypt, and yet their concern is with what the Romans may think?

The men who turned Samson over to Philistines and the leaders who conspired against Jesus were both guilty of moral cowardice. In both cases, the concern was about the fallout. They feared what others may think, anxiously fretting over the potential for negative repercussions, and that fear led to a moral compromise. The three thousand who went to capture Samson were willing to side with the enemy for sake of political expediency. Likewise, the religious leaders who would eventually have Jesus put to death were more willing to sacrifice a little truth for an imagined greater good.

Samson and Jesus both presented a dangerous threat to the status quo. These moral cowards, more imprisoned by their own inner fear than they were by external oppressors, reasoned that it was better to hand over the heroes of faith, the very men who offered both them and their people a path to salvation, rather than to risk losing their own lives or privileged positions.

We like to think about them as the bad guys. But be honest, what of your cherished positions or most treasured things would you willingly sacrifice without carefully considering the consequences? Would you truly put your own Issac on the altar, the one thing that you value most in the world, and trust God or would you cling to your own reasoning and come up with an excuse for moral compromise?

Good Stewardship or Love of Money and Moral Cowardice?

The failure of Christian Aid Ministries (CAM) to act appropriately in response to sexual abuse caused me to think anew about my own experience.

This organization is basically the flagship of the conservative Anabaptist missionary effort. It is one institution that represents all stripe of conservative Anabaptist more than any other—with their shared German work ethic and careful management of resources.

From early reports, the primary concern seemed about “good stewardship” as it pertained to finances. Faith that does the right thing no matter the cost, apparently, in these initial discussions, taking a back seat to the advice of a lawyer and protecting their image and material assets.

This sort of damage control approach is not unusual in worldly institutions. However, it feels completely out of place for an organization that is supposed to represent a religious tradition of those who would rather face torturous death than to compromise ever so slightly in their commitment.

Indeed, it was Jesus who said, “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Matthew 16:26a) Does an approach focused on avoid liability, punctuated by fear of consequences, the response one would expect of a political campaign, really represent Jesus Christ?

Whatever happened to “let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil” (Matt. 5:37 KJV) and simply telling the truth regardless of cost?

One defining characteristic of CAM’s response is that it is reasonable and not unlike that organization’s general approach to missions. Unlike the disciples, whom Jesus sent out with nothing besides the shirts on their backs and the Spirit of God, they go in on the power of their own resources. It is a reflection of modern-day Anabaptist culture. They are reasonable and rational, not at all radical. Sure, some of their youth might be risk-taking and adventurous, but as a reflection of modern thrill-seeking culture. However, when it comes to really taking a step out in faith, doing what is right even if it means giving up everything, most retreat back to their comfortable religious lifestyles and token sacrifices.

It is really no surprise, then, that there is a tendency towards moral cowardice and “circle the wagons” when a leader needs to step up and take personal responsibility for the mess. I mean, these are men with families, the reputation of something they’ve built over many years to protect, they have something to lose and it is perfectly reasonable that they may hesitate to be open in a way that could expose them legally. Don’t most of us act the same when it comes right down to it? Is there anyone in our time who would actually volunteer to be hung up by their thumbs. It is really easy to advocate doing the right thing when it comes at no personal cost.

So there is definitely some sympathy to be had for those three thousand men from Judah who decided to hand over Samson. It is also reasonable that the religious leaders would choose to sacrifice one man to spare their nation from potential Roman destruction. Samson and Jesus were a threat to the established order in the same way as those who bring hidden sins into the open in our own time. There are many today who would rather “kill the messenger” and bury the prophets so they can continue on as they always have and remain in denial of their own hypocrisy and faithlessness.

Finding Faith Where It Is Least Expected

My blogging over the past couple of years (although less so recently) has focused on the failure of the religious culture I was born into. But that had not been my intention for the start. My writing in this blog had started in anticipation, as a means to share how faith had triumphed within the conservative Mennonite culture.

However, that is not what happened.

What happened is that my friends, my family, and those whom I had admired most, decided to side with what was most rational and sane over my delusional hopes. My hope against hope could not overcome their cold calculation and cynicism. How could it be that people who claimed to take the Bible literally and that Jesus walked on water suddenly turn to statistics and rational arguments as an answer to my pursuit of impossibility and faith? Do they really believe that “all things are possible” as it says in the verses they recite?

They travel around the world, earnestly trying to convert others to their Mennonite understanding, and then revert to “it is what it is” fatalism and insist that hearts can’t change when something comes up that threatened their own status quo. It was this double-mindedness that tortured me for those few years—the impossibility herself recited, “with God all things are possible,” (the theme of my faithful pursuit of a beautiful vision that nobody else could see) while she walked past my discouraged husk one evening and, when I was about to give up, it actually gave me the reason to keep on in my quixotic pursuit of true expectations-defying faith in the Mennonite context.

In the end, I was betrayed, like Samson and Jesus, by those whom I most dearly loved. Also, like those two men, my own bride will come from outside of my birth religious culture. Samson, by divine plan, married a Philistine. Jesus married his bride, the Gentile church… because there was more faith found among them than where it would have been reasonably expected. Like Jesus finding no greater faith in Israel than that of a Roman Centurion, I had to go outside my denominational understanding to find a Christian tradition not mired in modern rationalism and fear of change. Mennonite love could not span prejudice and preference.

The Christian tradition I now am a part of, while not free of the problems of other churches, has provided a fresh (albeit ancient) perspective of faith and, despite the defamatory caricatures I’ve heard in warnings against them by ever defensive Biblical fundamentalist Protestants, have as much vibrancy to their worship and signs of true spiritual life as I’ve found anywhere else. In fact, if it wasn’t for one of them my faith would have foundered—crushed forever against that unforgiving brick wall of Mennonite cultural expectations.

Those Who Try To Keep Their Life…

Speak the truth and you will be maligned. Be truly radical and you will be resisted by all, treated as a threat by those who should be strong allies, betrayed by those whom you trusted as dear friends, and abandoned by the crowds seeking their own ease in your hour of most desperate need.

The same patterns and types exist today as they did in Biblical times, (albeit in a different form) and we need to choose to live in faith and for truth rather by our own understanding and in our own strength. We must stand strong even when those supposed to be our leaders shrink back in fear and urge reasonable compromise.

So, anyhow, whatever did become of Samson?

Samson, after getting an agreement from the fear-fueled Judeans that they wouldn’t kill him themselves, allowed them to restrain him to be brought to the Philistines:

So they bound him with two new ropes and led him up from the rock. As he approached Lehi, the Philistines came toward him shouting. The Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon him. The ropes on his arms became like charred flax, and the bindings dropped from his hands. Finding a fresh jawbone of a donkey, he grabbed it and struck down a thousand men. (Judges 15:13b‭-‬15 NIV)

Samson, even in being handed over to the enemy by his supposed allies, saw an opportunity and seized upon it. He snatches victory from the jaws of defeat, literally, using a jawbone, and (filled with the Spirit) singlehandedly dispatches one thousand Philistines. Those men from Judah had to feel a bit silly after that, they had clearly picked the wrong side, the moral cowards that they were, and missed the opportunity to share in the victory with courageous Samson.

Likewise, had those who condemned Jesus to death been a bit more courageous, as a group, they might have saved their cherished temple and their beloved identity as a nation. Instead, through their faithless choice, they actually brought the “or else” of Malachi 4:6 upon themselves. The destruction of Jerusalem came as a direct result of the religious leaders picking their course of action based on fear of Rome rather than faith in God. However, the effort of these morally corrupt leaders to save their way of life by killing Jesus clearly did not pan out.

Faithless leaders end up destroying the way of life they so desperately try to preserve through their own diligent efforts. Religious cowards miss the chance for real and lasting success. As Jesus said, “Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it.” (Luke 17:33 NIV) That’s a paradox of faith and pattern of Scripture, those who courageously face down giants end up winning despite the odds against them and those whose cowardice leads to moral compromise end up losing everything in the end.

Jesus, like Samson, turned what appeared to be terrible defeat into a stunning victory and made fools of these religious experts who condemned him for going against their customs. Those who rejected Jesus, despite their rational calculations and reasonable compromises, lost everything they were fighting for and missed out on something much better than the lifestyle they clung to so bitterly in their faithless ignorance. They thought they were wise and were really only fools blinded by their own prejudices and preferences.

The good news is that it is never too late to repent, step out from underneath the false security of cultural conditioning and live in the light of the true substance of faith. Change is inevitable and death too. So, live recklessly, selfless, in love for those who need it most, as one with nothing to lose and everything to gain, because that is what praying “on earth as it is in heaven” is all about! Faith means leaving behind the prison of our fears and breaking the bonds of love-limiting expectations.