We are already at home in this moment. Yet we spend so much of our lives denying what is here. We get lost in all our storylines, believing that we are permanent, that we are separate from other beings in the world.
We chase after ideas of happiness while fearing to lose what we have. We buy a fancy convertible, work in an office with a window, marry our high-school sweetheart, drink alcohol on Friday nights, climb up a mountain, write a book, study for a bachelor’s degree, make money on the stock market, and on and on. Nothing is ever enough to satisfy our growing desire. In the end, no matter how much we resist, we are all subject to old age, sickness, and death. We cannot capture life. It slips through our fingers, drifting away.
Rather than facing ourselves directly, we repress what causes us to suffer. We act out. We project our personal issues onto others. It is so hard for us to sit with our confusion, fear, and loss. It is so hard for us to soften our hearts to our grief.
“When we find ourselves in a situation in which our buttons are being pushed, we can choose to repress or act out, or we can choose to practice. If we can start to do the exchange, breathing in with the intention of keeping our hearts open to the embarrassment or fear or anger that we feel, then to our surprise we find that we’re also open to what the other person is feeling. Open heart is open heart. Once it’s open, your eyes and your mind are also open, and you can see what’s happening in the faces and hearts of other people. If you’re walking down the street and way off in the distance — so far away that you can’t possibly do anything about it — you see a man beating his dog, and you feel helpless, you can start to do the exchange. You start out doing it for the dog, then you find you’re doing it for the man. Then you’re also doing it for your own heartbreak and for all the animals and people who are abusing and abused, and for all the people like you who are watching and don’t know what to do. Simply by doing this exchange you have made the world a larger, more loving place.” (Chödrön, Pema)
We can react to suffering by hardening or softening our hearts. When we are genuine with ourselves, we can look deeply at our sorrow, our fear, our irritation, and transform that energy into compassion. Every moment, we are being tested.
“If we are wholehearted about wanting to be there for other people without shutting anybody or anything out of our hearts, our pretty little self-image of how kind or compassionate we are gets completely blown. We’re always being tested and we’re always meeting our match. The more you’re willing to open your heart, the more challenges come along that make you want to shut it.” (Chödrön, Pema)
There is no true distinction between what is within us and what is outside of us. When we cause other beings to suffer, we are suffering. When we love others, we love ourselves. When we are aware of life, we can use all of life as a humble lesson for our growth.
Our mistakes are opportunities for us to be more vulnerable and honest and kind. An irritating person is our teacher, a mosquito is our teacher, a crying baby is our teacher. We cannot be in this world without encountering the suffering of others. Rather than reacting, we can mindfully tend to where we are and who we are. We are gardeners who are planting seeds of compassion and love and peace. We can turn our compost into a bloom of flowers.
“We make a lot of mistakes. If you ask people whom you consider to be wise and courageous about their lives, you may find that they have hurt a lot of people and made a lot of mistakes, but that they used those occasions as opportunities to humble themselves and open their hearts. We don’t get wise by staying in a room with all the doors and windows closed.” (Chödrön, Pema)
When we understand our own suffering, we can understand another’s suffering as well. We practice not only for ourselves, but for all the beings who have felt pain, sadness, hatred, envy, and anger, because we have been them. We are them.
When we blame and repress and protect our hearts, we alienate ourselves from the world. We stick to limited notions of who we are, categorizing existence into conceptual frameworks. We water the seeds of suffering in ourselves, which harm everyone around us. Rather than moving toward what is true, we resist what is unpleasant. We cling to our expectations and suffer through our ignorance, attachment, and aversion.
“It seems that we do attack our own image continually and usually that image appears to be ‘out there.’ We want to blame men or we want to blame women or we want to blame white people or black people, or we want to blame politicians or the police; we want to blame somebody. There’s some tendency to always put it out there, even if ‘out there’ is our own body. Instead of working with, there is the tendency to struggle against. As a result, we become alienated. Then we take the wrong medicine for our illness by armoring ourselves in all these different ways, somehow not getting back to the soft spot.” (Chödrön, Pema)
We are not separate from nature. We are not separate from other beings. Rather than pushing others away, we can share who we are, even from our presence alone. We often want to escape from being aware of who we are, of where we are, distracting ourselves with TV and drugs and jobs and sex. We miss the sacredness of our ordinary experience when we look outside ourselves for happiness, truth, permanence, and security.
“Because we escape, we keep missing being right here, being right on the dot. We keep missing the moment we’re in. Yet if we can experience the moment we’re in, we discover that it is unique, precious, and completely fresh. It never happens twice. One can appreciate and celebrate each moment — there’s nothing more sacred. There’s nothing more vast or absolute. In fact, there’s nothing more!” (Chödrön, Pema)
We begin to heal when we stop hiding from ourselves. When we are right here, right now, we are no longer resisting our confusion, our fear, our pain. Our tendency is to cling to certainty while hiding from uncertainty. We waste so many years of our lives running after achievements and rewards and goals, never feeling entirely satisfied.
“This moving away from comfort and security, this stepping out into what is unknown, uncharted, and shaky — that’s called enlightenment, liberation.” (Chödrön, Pema)
We do not have to eliminate our thoughts and feelings and perceptions. We can accept them as they are and then let them go. Trungpa Rinpoche said, “Good and bad, happy and sad, all thoughts vanish into emptiness like the imprint of a bird in the sky.”
We can kindly be with our vulnerabilities. As we learn more, we open up more. Life is a dance, an ever-changing movement. We are “willing to give, willing to open, willing not to hold back. It is described as letting go of holding on to yourself, letting your stronghold of ego go. Instead of collecting things for yourself, you open and give them away.” (Chödrön, Pema)
We can be gentle with ourselves. We can be curious about the moment we’re in. Our maturity comes from being with what is unfolding, while releasing it. Giving without holding on. We don’t have to judge ourselves as winners or losers, right or wrong, good or bad. Our practice is to be ourselves completely.
“The truth sinks in like rain into very hard earth. The rain is very gentle, and we soften up slowly at our own speed. But when that happens, something has fundamentally changed in us. That hard earth has softened. It doesn’t seem to happen by trying to get it or capture it. It happens by letting go; it happens by relaxing your mind, and it happens by the aspiration and the longing to want to communicate with yourself and others. Each of us finds our own way.” (Chödrön, Pema)
“The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts. They alter patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance.”
Our nervous systems are plastic. We are always in the process of forming new neural connections while losing old ones. In the microscopic spaces in between our neurons — whenever we perform a task, experience an event, or think a thought — chemical reactions “register and record experiences in neural pathways.” (Carr, Nicholas)
Certain sets of neurons in our brains are activated. They join together and exchange neurotransmitters with each other. When our experiences are repeated, synaptic links between our neurons strengthen while irrelevant synaptic links weaken overtime. Our brains are constantly growing, reorganizing, and developing “ever-changing cellular connections inside our heads.” (Carr, Nicholas)
Our nervous systems adapt to different environments. How we think and feel and perceive reality is not entirely determined by our genes or childhood experiences. We’re capable of changing our nervous systems through what we do, how we learn, how other people treat us, what we think, how we feel, where we live, and even the tools that we use.
While our neuroplasticity gives us a chance to recreate ourselves, we can also develop bad habits. We can be stuck in rigid behaviors, repeating what causes ourselves and others suffering. While certain neurons strengthen overtime, others are pruned away. If we are not careful, we can become more efficient at what hurts us than at what helps us.
The tools that we use are also using us. They are molding us, shaping us, the more that we use them. Some of these tools, such as intellectual technologies, impact our brains far more than other tools.
Nicholas Carr, technology writer and author of “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains” wrote, “Although the use of any kind of tool can influence our thoughts and perspectives — the plow changed the outlook of the farmer, the microscope opened new worlds of mental exploration for the scientist — it is our intellectual technologies that have the greatest and most lasting power over what and how we think. They are our most intimate tools, the ones we use for self-expression, for shaping personal and public identity, and for cultivating relations with others.”
We aren’t yet aware of the total effect of our intellectual tools and how they will change us as a species. Some tools, such as the printing press and Internet, have moved beyond our control. We cannot predict how far they will technologically progress.
Intellectual technologies are not merely our aids. They have the power to reshape our lives. They change our activities and meanings and identities. They extend our capacities. These tools are developed with a certain set of rules while we also adapt to the rules of what we create. As we manipulate information, as we interpret our world through the logic of the tools that we use, our brains change. The more closely that we use these tools, the more our senses, thoughts, feelings, and actions are fused into what we create.
While the clock, map, printing press, and television have all revolutionized our existence, the Internet has dominated us on an unprecedent scale. “It’s becoming our typewriter and our printing press, our map and our clock, our calculator and our telephone, our post office and our library, our radio and our TV. It’s even taking over the functions of other computers.” (Carr, Nicholas)
We can send and receive messages every hour of every day. We can connect for commerce and business purposes: placing orders, tracking shipments, banking, advertising, selling, searching through catalogues, and reviewing products.
We can also connect with other people socially. We can upload and download. We can post our videos, blogs, music, paintings, poems, and podcasts. Our creations can be liked and commented on. They can be edited and reuploaded and blogged about and tweeted. Users can gossip and share and argue and show off and chat and like. Communities can unite, political causes can gain traction, and news about our daily happenings can spread to other people.
We use the Internet far more than other intellectual technologies such as the television and newspaper and radio. Our Internet usage has risen every year while our offline reading has diminished. With so many options available to us in one tool, we’ve become endlessly distracted by what is offered to us, sacrificing our attention for hyper-stimulation.
“By combining many different kinds of information on a single screen, the multimedia Net further fragments content and disrupts our concentration. A single Web page may contain a few chunks of text, a video or audio stream, a set of navigational tools, various advertisements, and several small software applications, or ‘widgets,’ running in their own windows… Whenever we turn on our computer, we are plunged into an ‘ecosystem of interruption technologies,’ as the blogger and science fiction writer Cory Doctorow terms it.” (Carr, Nicholas)
The Internet is a medium that is made to attract us while distracting us. While the book is an intellectual technology that supports our calmness and attentiveness, letting us develop our ideas in a sacred space of silence, the Internet is designed to compete for our attention all the time. As we enter into an online environment, we are conditioned to rush through our thoughts and scan for relevant information and seek our next reward.
“The Net delivers a steady stream of inputs to our visual, somatosensory, and auditory cortices. There are the sensations that come through our hands and fingers as we click and scroll, type and touch. There are the many audio signals delivered through our ears, such as the chime that announces the arrival of a new e-mail or instant message and the various ringtones that our mobile phones use to alert us to different events. And, of course, there are the myriad visual cues that flash across our retinas as we navigate the online world: not just the ever-changing arrays of text and pictures and videos but also the hyperlinks distinguished by underlining or colored text, the cursors that change shape depending on their function, the new e-mail subject lines highlighted in bold type, the virtual buttons that call out to be clicked, the icons and other screen elements that beg to be dragged and dropped, the forms that require filling out, the pop-up ads and windows that need to be read or dismissed. The Net engages all of our senses — except, so far, those of smell and taste — and it engages them simultaneously.” (Carr, Nicholas)
The Net immerses us in a universe of fast-paced stimuli. Whenever we click on a link, we are rewarded with Web pages, videos, articles, comments, posts, etc. Whenever we Google a topic, we are provided with pages of answers. We send texts and receive replies, we post on Facebook and notifications pop up, we blog daily and gain new followers. The hyper-interactivity of the Internet reinforces us with so much dopamine that we’ve become “lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment.” (Carr, Nicholas).
The more that we go online, the more the “real world recedes as we process the flood of symbols and stimuli coming through our devices.” As we become oblivious to what is around us, we use this hyper-interactive tool to engage with each other online. We create profiles of our identities and update our statuses, evaluating our social standings. The more that we use the Net, the more self-conscious we become. We judge others and compare our lives to their lives and fear losing our preferred status.
The Internet is designed to keep our attention for as long as possible. The more time we spend on it, the more distracted we are, which ruins our ability to concentrate for long. This medium distracts us with its competing messages and stimuli. We’re seduced because we are constantly seeking out more novelty, complexity, and information. The Net indulges us with stimulation. We are overloaded with fleeting information, seeking more and more.
“What we’re not doing when we’re online also has neurological consequences. Just as neurons that fire together wire together, neurons that don’t fire together don’t wire together. As the time we spend scanning Web pages crowds out the time we spend reading books, as the time we spend exchanging bite-sized text messages crowds out the time we spend composing sentences and paragraphs, as the time we spend hopping across links crowds out the time we devote to quiet reflection and contemplation, the circuits that support those old intellectual functions and pursuits weaken and begin to break apart. The brain recycles the disused neurons and synapses for other, more pressing work. We gain new skills and perspectives but lose old ones.” (Carr, Nicholas)
Net users experience extensive activity across all regions of their brains. Book readers experience neural-activity in “regions associated with language, memory, and visual processing, but they don’t display much activity in the prefrontal regions associated with decision making and problem solving.” Net users mentally coordinate through a swarm of competing distractions, all while making judgements in seconds. While readers digest information at a slower pace, they are comprehending what they are learning at a deeper level. Internet users, on the other hand, are overtaxing their brains and learning superficially.
Our brains need a lot of space and time to process information. We have to transfer information from our working memories to our long-term memories, intertwining what we have just learned with what we knew before. We store this information in our conceptual schemas. Our schemas are interwoven with our long-term memories. They are organizational frameworks that enable us to look into new patterns and deepen our understanding.
“Imagine filling a bathtub with a thimble; that’s the challenge involved in transferring information from working memory into long-term memory. By regulating the velocity and intensity of information flow, media exert a strong influence on this process. When we read a book, the information faucet provides a steady drip, which we can control by the pace of our reading. Through our single-minded concentration on the text, we can transfer all or most of the information, thimbleful by thimbleful, into long-term memory and forge the rich associations essential to the creation of schemas. With the Net, we face many information faucets, all going full blast. Our little thimble overflows as we rush from one faucet to the next. We’re able to transfer only a small portion of the information to long-term memory, and what we do transfer is a jumble of drops from different faucets, not a continuous, coherent stream from one source.” (Carr, Nicholas)
When we are distracted, we cannot remember much. When we cannot remember, we cannot develop rich networks of connections in our brains. Our understanding then becomes shallower. When we can read a linear text without links, ads, retweets, likes, comments, tabs, and other potential distractions, we can retain more, reflect more, and develop our knowledge. Frequent interruptions, on the other hand, scatter our thoughts, make us feel anxious, and weaken our memories.
We gain skills with the Net but those skills generally involve our “lower-level, or more primitive, mental functions such as hand-eye coordination, reflex response, and the processing of visual cues.” We’re also better able to scan through a lot of information to find what we are pursuing. By repetitively clicking on links and headlines, we are adapting into quicker problem-solvers, looking for relevant patterns in data. While we are better at multi-tasking, we have sacrificed our ability to think creatively, concentrate for longer periods of time, and process information.
“Given our brain’s plasticity, we know that our online habits continue to reverberate in the workings of our synapses when we’re not online. We can assume that the neural circuits devoted to scanning, skimming, and multitasking are expanding and strengthening, while those used for reading and thinking deeply, with sustained concentration, are weakening or eroding.” (Carr, Nicholas)
We are given more information than we can handle. “We are forever inundated by information of immediate interest to us,” so we are conditioned to crave more, while never feeling fully satisfied. Rather than developing our knowledge, we are skimming through the Net, barely registering what enters into our nervous systems.
“The Web places more pressure on our working memory, not only diverting resources from our higher reasoning faculties but obstructing the consolidation of long-term memories and the development of schemas. The calculator, a powerful but highly specialized tool, turned out to be an aid to memory. The Web is a technology of forgetfulness.” (Carr, Nicholas)
We need to be attentive to consolidate the information that we have learned. Forming connections between our memories “requires strong mental concentration, amplified by repetition or by intense intellectual or emotional engagement. The sharper the attention, the sharper the memory.” (Carr, Nicholas)
The more time we spend on the Internet, the more we will unlearn our former intellectual skills. As we replace our deep knowledge with efficiency, we will depend on a tool that grows stronger as we are made weaker. While our dependence on the Net heightens our capabilities when we use it, we are diminished even more without it.
“Our growing dependence on the Web’s information stores may in fact be the product of a self-perpetuating, self-amplifying loop. As our use of the Web makes it harder for us to lock information into our biological memory, we’re forced to rely more and more on the Net’s capacious and easily searchable artificial memory, even if it makes us shallower thinkers.” (Carr, Nicholas)
We not only become shallower thinkers on the Net, but we lose our capacity for higher emotions too. Our higher emotions, such as compassion and empathy, come from a calm and attentive mind. We need time to reflect on our moral decisions. When we are constantly interrupted, we have more trouble processing the subtle emotional states in ourselves and others.
As we meld with our tools, we become more like them. When we pick up a sword, that sword stretches to feel like part of our arm. When we wear a pair of glasses, we look forward with new eyes. When we study a map, we examine abstractions drawn in space.
When we go online, we adapt to an algorithmic logic written in hidden code. We follow the scripts that the designers have made for us to follow. We consume ourselves with mindless online rituals until they are burned into our neural pathways. We now have smartphones as well as personal computers, which are with us everywhere we go: at home, at work, in school, on the sidewalk, in the car, at the doctor’s office, in bed, in the bathroom, in nature. We have over-stuffed ourselves with stimuli, craving ever more. But there is a cost.
With every breath, we can return to life as it unfolds. We can be aware of our emotions and thoughts and bodies and minds. We can gently smile to where we are. When we wake up, when we sip our tea, when we drive to work, when we shower, when we eat, we can be fully here. We offer our presence to each moment. Time is a precious gift that we shouldn’t waste with regrets about the past and anxieties for the future. Sometimes we’re so used to our habits of compulsive thinking that we are unaware of anything else. But if we practice our mindfulness daily, we can free ourselves. Rather than watching TV while scarfing down our breakfast, we can savor every bite and smell. Rather than worrying about our lost romances while washing the dishes, we can feel the warm soapy water against our skin. When we walk mindfully, we can feel the soft soil under our every step. We can breathe into the stillness our minds. We can feel alive where we are and don’t need to rush off to anywhere else. Mindful breathing harmonizes us. We are brought back to the home inside ourselves. As we breathe in and out, we are as spacious as an open sky, as solid as a mountain, and as fluid as an ocean. We can breathe with loving-awareness. There is no need to blame and praise. Our breath is our foundation for dealing with all areas of living. When we are mindful of our breath, we can develop our concentration. When we develop our concentration, we gain insight. We may feel a lot of anger, fear, confusion, and other negative emotions during our practice. Sometimes these emotions rise within us like storms. They may only be temporary, but they feel so intense and permanent. Rather than ruminating too heavily on what we are feeling, we can pay attention to the energy behind our feelings. We can notice when our face flushes, when our shoulders tighten, when our heart beats rapidly. We must offer the gift of compassion to our suffering. We can look deeply into ourselves and care for our feelings and thoughts and sensations. From looking deeply at ourselves, we can let go of our suffering, watching as it comes and goes, comes and goes. Then we can care for other living beings with the same loving-kindness that we have shown to ourselves. We can see ourselves at different stages of our lives: when we are born, when we are babies, when we are young, when we are adults, when we are elderly, when we are dying, when we are dead. We can view other people in the same way, not perceiving them only as they appear in the moment, but looking at who they were and are and will be. All humans were once vulnerable and innocent. Everyone needed to be cared for and loved. Not everyone was. Just as we are the continuation of our ancestors, those around us are the continuation of their ancestors too. Sometimes they carry their family’s violence from childhood all the way into adulthood. Sometimes they’re devastated by their traumas. Sometimes despair passes through many generations. We must meet people with the intention to lessen their suffering, to help, to embody peace and justice. When we engage others only for what we can get out of them, whether in the form of power, status, or money, we cause those around us to suffer. We become unhappy as well. It is easy to conform to what is around us. If what we consume daily, such as in the form of meals, newspapers, television, radio stations, websites, and so on, comes from negativity, then we’ll be greatly influenced by that negativity. We should mindfully pursue what is nourishing and wholesome. To avoid consuming negative sources is hard, especially when we’re forced to live in environments where there is a lot of despair, hatred, ignorance, and greed. Nevertheless, we can always water the seeds of generosity, compassion, and kindness in ourselves and in other living creatures. We can care for people, animals, plants, trees, oceans. We can love who we are so we can love the world. The two are not separate. Our lives are here or never. Often we look for our happiness in ideas of the future, and dwell on memories, not wanting to look deeply at our suffering. Even when we do get what we want, we aren’t satisfied for long, and we fear losing what we have. Our expectations are never our realities. When we chase after our desires, we only want more, noticing what we lack more than what we have. All that we have is temporary. We are subject to illness, old age, and death. Everyone we care about will deal with these same issues of existence. While we are capable of being happy, we often ignore where we are, who we are, and what is around us. There is nothing for us to gain. We are able to be peace now, happiness now, joy now. We already are where we we want to go. We already are who we want to become.
Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, poet, scholar, and peace activist. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “Your True Home: The Everyday Wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh” is a collection of his teachings for 365 days. Each of his passages, while short and simple, are meant to be studied with care. For those who practice mindfulness and compassion, “Your True Home” is a book of transformation.
Often when we see people, we don’t really see them. When we hear people, we don’t really hear them. We only know of others through our prejudices, preconceptions, and projections. Our ideas limit us to the ideas themselves, but not to other possibilities. When we are filled with beliefs, opinions and views, we are no longer here.
We must be as still as a lake before a white mountain. When we are upset, we can watch our upset. When we are sad, we can watch our sadness. Instead of reacting, we can notice our breathing, our minds, our bodies, our environments. Then we can be as still as a lake and as solid as a mountain.
We can be mindful of our minds.
We can watch our thoughts and feelings. Coming and going, coming and going.
They pass through us like clouds.
We can look at our perceptions without getting caught up in them. Our minds can open to what is here. Instead of assuming that we know all the answers, we can question ourselves. “Is my perception really true? Do my ideas encompass the entire universe or are they only a fraction of what is happening?” Instead of judging others, we can look within ourselves compassionately. There is no resistance or holding on, only letting go.
When we look into the conditions that make us who we are, we find that we are not separate. We are interwoven in the changing cosmos. We cannot exist on earth without our ancestors. Our descendants cannot exist without us either. We are dependent on the air, the water, the sun. We are dependent on the plants, the trees, the soil beneath our feet. Without the clouds, there would be no rain. Without the rain, there would be no plants. Without the plants, we cannot be here.
There is no birth, no death. Only a continuation of ourselves in another form.
Life is full of suffering, but it is also full of wonder. In our distracted society, we often forget about the simple joys of being on this planet. We can step on the grass and brush past the silky petals of blue flowers. We can sigh with the breeze. We can look up at the trees as they sway together in silence.
We can drive, eat, wash the dishes, and go to the bathroom mindfully. Everything can be a spiritual practice when we are aware enough to notice. From mindfulness, we develop concentration. From concentration, we gain insight. There is no wasted moment.
When we look up at the mountain, we see ourselves. When we look at ourselves, we see the mountain. There is no mountain without our perception, but no perception without the mountain. Both depend on the other to inter-be.
When we trap ourselves in categorizations, we forget our humanity. Then we can only see a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, a Buddhist, a male, a female, a Republican, a Democrat, a boss, an employee, a father, a daughter, and so on, without looking any deeper. These may be important parts of our identities, but they are not all of who we are. When we can peel away these labels, we can recognize each other as human beings.
We must be careful about what we consume. This doesn’t only apply to what we eat and drink, but to the music we listen to, the television we watch, the newspapers we read, who we spend our time with, and what thoughts we focus on. There are negative influences all around us. We don’t need to consume despair, hatred, fear, and violence. We don’t need to seek out the things that harm us. We can look for what heals us, what nourishes us, what helps us to awaken.
We can help to relieve other people’s suffering as well. If someone has a wrong perception, we don’t need to punish them. We can listen to them deeply, show them compassion, care for them, practice loving speech with them. These simple actions can help us to form harmonious communities and remove discrimination.
Our ideas about our happiness are often obstacles to our happiness. We believe that we’ll be happy in the future when the conditions are sufficient enough, such as when we get a new promotion, when we buy an expensive car, when we get married to the perfect spouse, when we buy liquor on a Friday night, when we hold a diploma in our hands. Our desire for happiness removes us from the present moment. We fear losing what we have and want what we do not have, but do not realize that we are alive now.
Even if we do gain what we desire, it never lasts, and our reality is never the same as our expectations. To be truly happy, we have to let go of our ideas of happiness. We have nothing to attain but ourselves.
We can treat our in-breath and our out-breath with tenderness. In meditation, we are not straining to show how much we can endure from our sitting. We are caring for ourselves as if we are holding a baby in our arms. We cradle our anger and happiness and fear and disappointment. We are lovingly aware of our joys and sorrows.
We don’t need to meditate in a cave or on a mountain top. There is nothing to attain. We already are who we want to be in the future, but do not realize it. There is nothing lacking in us. When we can be at peace in the present moment, feeling the warmth of sun on our skin, tasting the juice of an apple, listening to the birds in the leaves, we have already arrived. Nirvana is nothing more than the sound of rain.
[Note: This is an overview of Noam Chomsky’s views on Donald Trump.]
[Dates Updated: 3/27/17 — 2/18/21]
If you look at the “Trump phenomenon,” it’s not so surprising. During the last fifteen years, in election after election, more candidates have arisen that were once considered “intolerable” to the Republican establishment. The answer for this intolerability is that over the years, under neoliberal policies, the Democrats and Republicans have shifted more to the right. (3) (7)
“The Democrats — by the ’70s — have pretty much abandoned the working class.” (3)
In 1978, the Humphrey–Hawkins Full Employment Act was the last kind of progressive policy (which Carter had ordered down “so that it had no teeth”) (3). While Democrats shifted to resemble moderate Republicans, Republicans moved so far right that they fell off the spectrum. (7)
Republicans have a primary constituency — extreme wealth and corporate power — that they have to serve. It’s hard to get votes when serving those interests. Therefore, they have historically appealed to evangelicals, southern racists, and disenfranchised white people, under the pretense of certain issues such as voting against abortion or fighting for gun rights. These issues are not necessarily favored by the establishment (and were previously not supported by the Republican party), but they are tolerated in recent decades because they ultimately serve the real constituency. (3) (6) (7)
“As for Trump’s base, they are indeed quite loyal. Most Trump voters were relatively affluent and probably are fairly satisfied with the ultra-reactionary policies. Another important segment was non-college-educated whites, a group that voted overwhelmingly for Trump (a 40 percent advantage). There is a close analysis of this group in the current (Spring 2018) issue of the Political Science Quarterly. It found that racism and sexism were far more significant factors in their vote than economic issues. If so, this group has little reason to object to the scene that is unfolding, and the same with the white Evangelicals who gave Trump 80 percent of their vote. Among justly angry, white, working-class Trump voters, many apparently enjoy watching him stick his thumb in the eyes of the hated elites even if he doesn’t fulfill his promises to [working-class voters], which many never believed in the first place.
What all this tells us, yet again, is that the neoliberal programs that have concentrated wealth in a few hands while the majority stagnate or decline have also severely undermined functioning democracy by familiar mechanisms, leading to anger, contempt for the dominant centrist political forces and institutions, and often anti-social attitudes and behavior — alongside of very promising popular reactions, like the remarkable Sanders phenomenon, Corbyn in England and positive developments elsewhere as well.” (2) (13)
Trump, on the other hand, understands how to serve corporate interests while getting the votes of evangelicals and extremists. The Democrats, in their focus on his outrageous antics, are helping him succeed in the 2020 election. For example, Democrats vigorously attacked Trump for Russia-Gate, for which evidence was slight (possibly for corruption), but there is more evidence for important things like the Israeli election interference. Furthermore, the highest interference in the United States elections is campaign funding. Campaign funding alone gives the highest prediction of who will win. Not to mention, the United States interferes with elections often, overthrowing leaders in coups, installing dictators and puppet leaders, placing harsh sanctions on impoverished countries. While the Democrats invested a lot of their energy into Russia-Gate, they wasted a lot of time when they could’ve focused on crucial problems that can devastate the world, such as climate change. (5) (7) (8)
Trump is basically a conman, a showman. He’s never had any political experience prior to being president, speaks all over the place in his speeches, never showing a consistent political position.
He knows how to get the mainstream media to focus on him.
“In order to maintain public attention, you have to do something crazy. Otherwise nobody’s going to pay attention to you.” (3)
While he’s showboating, lying, or doing something to offend a lot of people, in the background, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and other members of the government that are writing executive orders, are working to “systematically dismantle every aspect of the government that works for the benefit of the population.” This ranges from worker’s rights to health standards to environmental regulations. Those in power want more power for their constituency at the expense of the people. Meanwhile, some of the most disastrous policies under the Trump administration are barely discussed. (3)
“This generation is going to have to decide whether organized human existence is going to continue. Global warming and nuclear war are the two main issues… Trump’s actions are making both of them much more dangerous.” (3)
The United States has pulled out of the international effort to reduce the effects of climate change. Trump hasn’t only withdrawn from the Paris Climate Agreement, cut a large portion of the EPA and environmental regulations for multinational corporations, but he’s actively increased the threat of climate change. Even in his State of the Union Address, he barely talked about the environment or pollution — other than “beautiful, clean coal.” (3) His administration has drastically taken away funds for research on renewable energy sources, but has increased the subsidies for multinational oil and gas companies.
Additionally, when Trump started his second year in office, “the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists advanced their Doomsday Clock to two minutes to midnight, citing increasing concerns over nuclear weapons and climate change. That’s the closest it has been to terminal disaster since 1953, when the US and USSR exploded thermonuclear weapons. That was before the release of Trump’s Nuclear Posture Review, which significantly increases the dangers by lowering the threshold for nuclear attack and by developing new weapons that increase the danger of terminal war.” (9) (12)
Meanwhile, his Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 is “an enormous gift to the very wealthy, [giving] virtually nothing to anyone else.” The architects of the bill, such as Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, worked to undermine the already weak welfare and benefits systems of the general population. Paul Ryan had successfully accomplished his goals with the “‘Donor Relief Act of 2017’ and the deficit cuts that open the way to sharp reduction of entitlements: health, social security, pensions — whatever matters to the people beyond the very privileged.” (2)
He exploded the “the deficit (a trademark of Republicans since Reagan), which means that they can move on to cut away at entitlements, as the chief architect, Paul Ryan, announced happily at once. The US already ranks near the bottom of the [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] countries — the 35 richer and more developed countries — in social justice measures. The Republican triumph will sink it even lower. The tax scam is only the most prominent of the devices being implemented under the cover of Trump buffoonery to serve wealth and corporate power while harming the irrelevant population.” (3) (9)
Trump’s policies on immigration, such as separating children (even infants) from their mothers, is having disastrous effects on people already in turmoil. Many of these families are fleeting from poor countries, suffering the consequences of US foreign policies, seeking security far from their homes. For example, “Honduras has been the main source of refugee flight since the US, almost alone, endorsed the military coup that ousted the elected president and the fraudulent election that followed, initiating a reign of terror.” (6)
Trump’s hateful rhetoric has roused the passions of many extremist groups. His leadership has further pushed the narrative of fear for outsiders or “invaders,” including his claims about a Nicaraguan army ready to invade or a caravan of miserable criminals that want to cause harm. He’s exploiting people’s resentment and anger about their stagnating conditions, which has grown for more than forty years, due to the effects of enhanced corporate power. (6)
He has strongly supported the Saudi War in Yemen. Despite UN agencies warning that the Saudi blockade could lead to one of the largest famines in modern times. The blockade prevents many “desperately needed imports of food, medicine, and fuel.”
Yemeni people are tragically dying from the world’s worst cholera outbreak. With “firm U.S. backing of systematic Saudi destruction,” priceless antiquities destroyed and countless deaths out of control, there seems to be little help for civilians.
There is little help for victims elsewhere either, such as in Raqqa, after a US-led attack on ISIS had absolutely obliterated the city. Rather than rebuilding or helping those harmed from such destruction, Trump has instead “sharply cut funding to the [United Nations Relief and Works Agency], which barely keeps millions of Palestinian refugees alive. In general, ‘make America great’ means great at destroying, and that’s where the greatness ends. It’s by no means entirely new, but is now raised to a higher level and becoming a matter of principle.” (8) (9)
Trumpism is a consequence of neoliberal policies. Many lives have declined or stayed the same while only a few have become more powerful. Deregulated financial institutions are bailed out of multiple crashes while those who suffer are ignored and forgotten. American voters have become bitter, angry, and depressed, while they compete on a global scale for stagnated wages. “The real surprise in the election was the Sanders campaign, which broke with a long tradition of pretty much bought elections, and was stopped only by machinations of the Obama-Clinton party managers. The Democratic Party is now split between the donor-oriented New Democrat managers and a growing activist social democratic base.” (1) (12)
“What all of this portends, worldwide, is far from clear. Though there are also significant signs of hope, some commentators have — with good reason — been quoting Gramsci’s observation from his prison cell: ‘The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.’” (8)
[On Trump’s response to the George Floyd protests during the coronavirus pandemic] Trump wants to call forth a strong military response to those protesting against police brutality. His ideology is very simple. It’s called “me.” He wants to appeal to his white supremacist/racist base by calling for law and order. (11)
Trump is concerned with his own power. His outrageous antics will be tolerated by the corporate sector as long as he enriches them (the already rich and powerful). While at the same time, during COVID-19, he’s removing regulations for how much air pollution can be emitted. This is estimated to increase the number of deaths by the tens of thousands, mostly of poor black people. What matters to him are his electoral prospects, not the people who suffer the consequences of his policies. (11)
Trump-Republicans are trying to pass legislation to immunize corporations, so they can order their workers back to work, despite the threat of Covid-19. White-collar crime prosecutions, such as for wage theft and environmental violations, have dropped significantly, while the general public is being consistently robbed through tax havens and stock buybacks.
[In response to the Coronavirus pandemic] The government could have used their resources to do research on viruses and prepare for vaccines. They’re blocked by (Reagan and Thatcher) neoliberal policies, which aim to put decision-making power into the hands of private tyrannies (corporations), whose goals are short-term profit. While the government is partially accountable to the public, the corporate sector is not. (11)
“This is a capitalist crisis exacerbated by neoliberalism, exacerbated further by malignancies like President Trump. Countries did respond in one or another way to the crisis. The US just didn’t respond… Since the stock market went down, he finally noticed. Since then it was just efforts to cover up on chaos. Some of the things that have been done are just surreal like [for example] everyone’s concerned, of course, about getting a vaccine. There was a scientist in the government in charge of vaccine production. He was fired by the president. Why? Because he questioned some of his quack remedies.” (12)
Trump has surrounded himself with sycophants like Mike Pompeo. Everyone else has been kicked out and not just in the last few weeks. For example, he had purged all the inspector generals, who were hired (incidentally by the Republicans) in the departments of the government to weed out corruption.
“Trump has created a total swamp of corruption. He has just fired all of the inspector generals. That’s a coup reminiscent of a fascist state.” (12)
This pandemic was caused by a “capitalist crisis, neoliberal crisis on top of it. Gangsters from the top capitalist class exacerbating it.” The corporate sector manipulates this terrible crisis to make profits, while the poor suffer the most. (12)
“The Trump administration has purged the executive branch of the government of any independent voices. Nothing left, except sycophants. The Congress, years ago, had installed Inspectors General to monitor the performance of executive offices for corruption, maleficence. They began to look into the enormous swamp of corruption that Trump had created in Washington. He took care of that just by firing them. They’re gone.” (12)
There was an election on November 4, 2020. It was a total disaster. The Republicans — who completely fell off the political spectrum — are now comparable to European parties with neofascist origins. They are “environmental denialists, ultranationalists, evangelical Christians, militarists, xenophobic, racist, white supremacists… very dangerous organization.” (12)
The Republicans won the election at every level — from state legislature up to Congress. They only lost the presidency because of a hatred for Trump rather than a love for Biden. Trump will presumably leave office on January 20, 2020, not conceding that he lost. Trump’s absurd legal maneuverings (suing with claims that the election was rigged, that dead people voted, etc.) will energize his base, showing them that the election was stolen. He wants to appear to be a hero who lost a rigged election because of the deep state. His increasing support will enable him to set up his “true” government, alternative to the “fake news, liberal” government. (12)
The Senate, which is controlled by the Republicans with Mitch McConnell as Senate majority leader, will block anything that the Democrats propose. They want to pass legislation that empowers the corporate sector, enriching the already rich, while passing the burden onto the public.
Secondly, they want to stack the judiciary with ultra-right lawyers who will “block any mildly progressive legislation for the generation, no matter what the public wants.” With Trump removed from office, they will do whatever they can to make the country ungovernable.
In regards to the pandemic, countries such as China and Korea, have taken measures to effectively deal with the coronavirus. In the US, the government has given up on its people. US citizens are inundated with right wing propaganda, which says that there is no virus, the liberals made it up, there is no real crisis, masks take away our freedom. “People are literally dying in hospitals, claiming that there is no disease.” (12)
There was an attempted coup on the Capitol. It may not have been a military-backed coup with “ample bloodshed, torture, [and] ‘disappearances,’” but it was a coup. The people who stormed into the Capitol believed that the election was a fraud and they were saving their white Christian country. Many believe that Trump is their savior. They are reinforced with propaganda daily (from Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, the communities they live in, etc.), so their beliefs are not often challenged by outsiders. (10)
Donald Trump is “…the malevolent figure in charge,” who “deserves credit for his talent in tapping the poisonous streams that run not far below the surface of American society, with sources that are deep in U.S. history and culture.” (10)
He has become a successor after decades of neoliberal assault. While he may have “harmed the image” that neoliberals often “project as humanists dedicated to the common good,” he still enriched private enterprises at the expense of the American people. (10)
Trump is not finished as a politician. His base is too loyal to him. He understands how to manipulate people into following him by taking advantage of their suffering condition. “Trumpism will not be so easily contained. Its roots are deep. The anger and resentment raised to a frenzy by this talented con man is not limited to the U.S. The $50 trillion robbery is only the icing on the cake of the neoliberal disaster, which itself is built on foundations of deep injustice and repression. We are not out of the woods, by far.” (10)
1. Chomsky, Noam. Noam Chomsky: If Trump Falters with Supporters, Don’t Put ‘Aside the Possibility’ of a ‘Staged or Alleged Terrorist Attack’, 27 March 2017, chomsky.info/20170327/.
4. Johnson, Stephen. “Noam Chomsky Says Trump and Associates Are ‘Criminally Insane’.” Big Think, Big Think, 7 Feb. 2019, bigthink.com/politics-current-affairs/chomsky-says-trump-is-criminally-insane?rebelltitem=3#rebelltitem3.
9. Polychroniou, C.J. “‘A Complete Disaster’: Noam Chomsky on Trump and the Future of US Politics.” Truthout, Truthout, 7 May 2018, truthout.org/articles/a-complete-disaster-noam-chomsky-on-trump-and-the-future-of-us-politics/.
10. Polychroniou C.J. “Chomsky: Coup Attempt Hit Closer to Centers of Power Than Hitler’s 1923 Putsch.” Truthout, 19 Jan. 2021, truthout.org/articles/chomsky-coup-attempt-hit-closer-to-centers-of-power-than-hitlers-1923-putsch.
Richard D. Wolff is a Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of Massachusetts and Visiting Professor in the Graduate Program in International Affairs at the New School University. He holds a BA in History (Harvard College), an MA in History (Yale University), an MA in Economics (Yale University), and a PhD in Economics (Yale University). For the last twenty-five years, professor Wolff, in collaboration with Stephen Resnick, has expanded the “Marxist notion of class as surplus labor,” while rejecting the concept of economic determinism, found in most schools of economics. Besides writing, teaching, and lecturing, Wolff is one of the founders for the Association of Economic and Social Analysis (AESA) and its quarterly journal (Rethinking Marxism).
On September 20, 2020, Richard Wolff published “The Sickness is the System: When Capitalism Fails to Save Us from Pandemics or Itself.” In this collection of over fifty essays, Wolff examines the deepening economic crash, systemic racism, and the coronavirus pandemic, and how they have all coalesced under an unjust economic system.
[Note: The most recent data from this review are from 2020]
American wages have stagnated since the 1970s while the cost of living has steadily increased. The federal minimum wage, for example, is $7.25. It has remained at $7.25 since 2009. Meanwhile, 2,153 billionaires own more wealth than 4.6 billion people from around the world (making up 60% of the global population). In the US alone, the three richest people own more wealth than 50% of the population. As inequalities rise, millions of ordinary citizens are chasing the American Dream into a deepening hole of student, credit card, mortgage, and auto loan debt, while stressing out over job security, flat wages, and eroding benefits.
Many American corporations have moved their businesses overseas rather than providing American workers with protections, salaries, benefits, and retirement packages. They are driven by maximizing their profits, not with helping the people of their own country.
In developing countries, there are fewer (health, safety, environmental, and so on) regulations imposed on corporations. There are also natural resources to be exploited, which indigenous populations often depend upon for their daily survival. Poor workers in developing countries are often coerced into working for these corporations under unfair conditions. They usually work for pitifully low wages and long hours.
Christopher Ryan, in Civilized to Death, provides an example of what these conditions are like for locals, who are forced into this kind of dehumanizing work. “Multinational corporations routinely expropriate land in poor countries (or ‘buy’ it from corrupt politicians), force the local populations off the land (so they cannot grow or hunt their own food), and offer the ‘luckiest’ among them jobs cutting down the forest, mining minerals, or harvesting fruit in exchange for slave wages often paid in company currency that can only be used to buy unhealthful, industrially produced food at inflated prices at a company-owned store. These victims of market incursion are then often celebrated as having been saved from ‘abject poverty.’ With their gardens, animals, fishing, and hunting, they had been living on less than a dollar per day. Now, as slave laborers, they’re participating in the economy. This, we’re told, is progress.”
In America, around 30 million citizens have no medical insurance. They cannot afford the astronomical costs of insurance, especially if they are suddenly confronted with a medical emergency. 100 million Americans who do own insurance still struggle with “high deductibles and/or sizable co-pays.” And many American workers, despite the state of their insurance, don’t have sick leave. They can’t afford to take time off from their job if they feel sick. Then there are millions of undocumented immigrants who are afraid to go to medical facilities because they don’t want to be locked in cages, separated from their intimate families, and deported.
When many workers become sick and have to quarantine, they aren’t given enough (if any) money to cover their costs. A lot of workers, especially those with families, live from paycheck to paycheck. They have no economic incentive to go into quarantine if they get sick. All through the Trump Administration, corporate profits were protected, such as with tax reliefs. Essential workers, whose health is threatened daily by the pandemic, receive inadequate protections, if they receive them at all.
Viruses have always been around throughout the centuries. They are not uncommon. During the 1918 flu epidemic, more than 700,000 people died from H1N1. “H1N1 resurfaced again in 2009 as ‘swine flu.’ Other recent viruses include SARS (2002–2004) and MERS (since 2012).” (Wolff)
Systematic preparation for future outbreaks of dangerous viruses is a social necessity. Producers of ventilators, masks, hospital beds, and so on, should have stockpiled them. There should have been extensive planning for a distribution of supplies and a training of volunteers to cope with sudden outbreaks.
“To block disease transmission, plans should have been made to accommodate supervision, distribution of supplies, etc. likewise, the consequences of social distances — lost jobs, closed businesses, disrupted supply chains, crippled purchasing power, chaotic credit markets, etc.–should have been planned for.” (Wolff)
Capitalist industries failed to prepare for this public health crisis because they had no incentive to prepare. Their goal is primarily to increase their private profits. The Trump administration didn’t compensate for the failures of the corporate sector because political interests often overlap with corporate interests.
Viruses happen periodically in history. They are not new, but they can be devastating when they are not researched and prepared for. The only rational, humane response to the inevitable threat of a pandemic is to plan to minimize death, sickness, damage, and loss. The US government should have (but did not) produce a necessary supply of masks, ventilators, hospital beds, gowns, protective gear, and testing kits. They should have invested more into medical research, economic support for citizens, and public health measures.
In a capitalist system, however, profits are more valuable than efficiency. Capitalism tends to move overtime toward instability and inequality. Minimum wages, universal basic income, progressive tax structures, redistributive schemes, and so on, may slow, stop, or reverse these tendencies temporarily.
In our present system, corporations first accumulate massive amounts of debt. Then they borrow vast sums of money at lower interest rates, trying to cope with past economic crashes (which recur every four to seven years on average), while building toward the next crash, and the next.
When the pandemic sent the economy into a full-or-partial lockdown, with businesses closing down and profits stopping, corporations could not pay off their debts. As a result, Wolff wrote, “Defaults then undermined and froze credit markets that traded securitized corporate debt, the derivative instruments insuring that debt and those securities, and so on.”
Toward the end of April 2020, 30–40 million Americans were estimated to have filed for unemployment. 10–12 million undocumented immigrants, who were not included in this figure, might have lost their jobs as well, but couldn’t file for unemployment insurance out of fear of deportation.
Capitalism has been an economic system for 300–400 years. Its modern form dates back to England in the 17th century. Then it spread from Europe to America, from America to Japan, and so on, eventually becoming a global system. Wherever capitalism settled, every four to seven years on average, there has been an economic crash.
Our current crash is already the greatest economic crash since the time of The Great Depression. The Great Depression began in 1929 and ended in 1941. In this century already, from 2000–2020, there have been three economic crashes, each named for their triggers. “The trigger in 2000: dot-com stock prices. In 2008: people failing to pay mortgages. In 2020: a virus.” These recurring crashes are due to an unstable system but only the symptom is named for each crash. Nobody addresses the system itself.
Richard Wolff wrote that “We have a system that doesn’t work for most people. It produces grotesque inequality, it is unstable, and it has proven incapable of securing our safety during a global pandemic. This virus came at a time when we should have and could have known that our economic system was vulnerable to crashes. Make no mistake, blaming the virus for this crash muddles the issue. The problem is the system.”
Nobody will know the true devastation of this economic crash for many years. Hundreds of thousands have died, millions are sick, millions are unemployed, countless businesses are shut down permanently, renters are being evicted from their homes, industries are collapsing, families are falling into deeper debt, depression has risen, suicide has risen, and on, and on.
The Trump administration downplayed the seriousness of the coronavirus, scapegoated other countries (like China) rather than accept responsibility, undercut funding for medical research before the pandemic began, ignored outcries for help early on, pressured employees to return to their jobs without providing them with safe work environments, provided barely any economic support for struggling citizens, failed to adequately plan for distribution, all while playing political games about election frauds to manipulate a diehard base.
Workers are urged to return to their jobs to help out the stock market economy. They are even hailed as essential. But they are not provided with protection, supplies, or livable wages. Stimulus bills are given out of political deliberations rather than economic necessities.
Over the last half-century, in both the US and UK, neoliberalism overtook Keynesian capitalism. Private capitalists used the ideology of neoliberalism to cover their attacks on Europe’s social democracy and America’s New Deal programs. With goals of privatization and deregulation under neoliberal policies, manufacturing work moved to low-wage countries, unions were brutally attacked, automation replaced human workers, and more illegal immigrants were hired because they were unprotected (unable to legally contest unfair conditions such as unpaid wages, poor wages, and an absence of benefits,). Meanwhile, venture capitalists, executives, shareholders in multinational corporations, and so on, through capital gains, dividends, merger fees, bonuses, and higher salaries, enriched themselves at the expense of the majority of the population.
A small minority of the population controls (owns and runs) public and private enterprises. They reap most of their profits from their enterprises, while working to undo whatever reforms the working class has struggled to achieve. Reforms may have been hard won over many decades, but they will not often endure under consistent neoliberal assaults. These enterprises are anti-democratic in nature. Inequalities and imbalances will recur unless the system is changed to be more democratic.
On March 27, 2020, the first stimulus package was truly disappointing for the average American. The 2.2 trillion dollars spent in The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act was paid for with government debt. This debt only encouraged the corporate sector to borrow more money from banks, insurance companies, wealthy individuals, foreign governments, and so on, even after already being laden with debt from previous crises during the past twenty years. Ordinary working Americans will have to pay back the interest to the initial loan with their taxes, while all they had received was a pitiful one-off check.
The US treasury has borrowed vast sums of money, trying to force the economy back into its pre-pandemic state. Monetary authorities have lent money at extremely low interest rates to corporations and banks. The economy before the pandemic was not an ideal state. Global capitalism hadn’t healed itself from past crashes and was building toward another one before the virus hit. The pandemic was a trigger for a crash that was inevitable. Pre-COVID capitalism has always valued private profit over public health and safety. These priorities eventually led to vulnerabilities and instabilities.
On July 2020, over 50 million Americans filed for unemployment in the last 16 weeks. The number is still rising. Many who are unemployed want to give back to society, to produce, to meaningfully contribute. Many desperately need to work to support themselves and their families. They need to eat, to have access to healthcare, to be able to afford shelter, and so on.
During the Great Depression, a Federal reemployment program was founded by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. People who lost their jobs could get new jobs, helping to build up national infrastructure. From 1935 to 1943, the WPA (Works Progress Administration) had given jobs to over 8.5 million people. They worked to build parks, schools, bridges, housing, airports, and roads.
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica: “The agency’s construction projects produced more than 650,000 miles (1,046,000 km) of roads; 125,000 public buildings; 75,000 bridges; 8,000 parks; and 800 airports. The Federal Arts Project, Federal Writers’ Project, and Federal Theater Project — all under WPA aegis — employed thousands of artists, writers, and actors in such cultural programs as the creation of art work for public buildings, the documentation of local life, and the organization of community theatres; thousands of artists, architects, construction workers, and educators found work in American museums, which flourished during the Great Depression. The WPA also sponsored the National Youth Administration, which sought part-time jobs for young people.”
It is possible for millions of people to return to work. The federal government can create a program of reemployment, where citizens can use their unique skills to teach, perform, and build. They can be trained to create more sites for testing. They can aid in distribution, administration, education, construction, manufacturing, and cleaning, working with dignity and respect. Sadly, though, many politicians believe more in private enterprise than in public reemployment, even when the economy has undergone a market failure.
Under neoliberalism, government intervention is avoided whenever possible (with the exception of the military, police, judiciary, and so on). Laissez-Faire capitalism is valued highly. Neoliberals argue for a “free market,” where private enterprises are left alone without government taxation and regulation. Neoliberal politicians do not want to stockpile, organize, support, or endorse anything that private enterprises can do instead.
In societies influenced by neoliberalism, such as the UK, US, and Italy, preparation for the coronavirus pandemic was weak. In societies less influenced by neoliberalism, such as South Korea and China and New Zealand, preparation was much stronger. Private employers, who belong to the minority of their capitalist societies, prefer a neoliberal ideology. They want to maintain their economic dominance, motivated by self-interest more than compassion. They’re threatened by government interference, union organization, regulation, and so on, because they could lose out on their profits.
Executives of private enterprises enjoy the free market, but only when it benefits them. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “It’s socialism for the rich and rugged capitalism for the poor.” When the stock market fell in early 2020, the US government intervened to support those who owned the bulk of stocks. Many of these people are billions of dollars wealthier since the pandemic began. Other major benchmarks for securities, such as the Dow Jones Industrial Average, The Standard, and Poor 500, have also recovered economically. While neoliberals claim to hate government intervention, they like it when they’re made wealthier from intervention.
Government intervention subsidized those recoveries. The Federal Reserve pumped unprecedented amounts of money into the economy after mid-March. This wealth caused the stock market to rise again. Corporations benefited while ordinary Americans suffered. Corporations hired more lobbyists, donated vast sums of money to politicians, and so on, influencing policy decisions in their favor. They received a lot of help from the government while smaller businesses received little help in comparison. The Federal Reserve provided banks with lower interest loans and bought up corporate and government debt. Banks, corporations, and wealthy individuals bought stocks off of each other, selling them at higher prices than before.
Unlike during the New Deal, where programs were developed to help people out, such as with Social Security, a minimum wage, and the WPA, millions have become unemployed during the coronavirus pandemic. There is no guarantee that their old jobs and benefits will return. Those who quit their jobs, refusing to work in unsafe environments, may not be eligible to receive unemployment insurance. Many employees are expected to work under unsafe conditions, while fearing to ask for a safer environment, benefits, and higher wages. They are threatened with the prospect of joining millions of unemployed citizens. The Labor of Bureau Statistics has confirmed that employee wages are declining at a much faster rate than predicted.
There are social movements that are pushing back against these unfair conditions. Black Lives Matter marches, teacher’s strikes, nurse’s strikes, fights for debt relief, protests to prevent eviction, and so on, have risen up in contrast to corporate interests. Corporate wealth and power have concentrated in the government, influencing who the government will help and how. As inequality deepens, as more people become desperate, calls for justice will rise out.
The corporate sector holds the most dominant influence on the US economy. They were tied to the creation of the Federal Reserve in 1913. The Federal Reserve is the central bank of the United States, established by Congress and signed into law by the president. They’re supposed to maintain the stability of price, preventing extremes of deflation and inflation. They’re also supposed to moderate the regular business cycles of an economy, which includes dealing with recessions, downturns, depressions, etc. The Federal Reserve has a mixed record with price stability. They have an even worse record when it comes to the prediction, moderation, and prevention of certain business cycles.
The Federal Reserve has, on the other hand, created trillions of dollars (out of nothing) to deal with recent crises. They have lowered interest rates to almost nothing. This created money goes to large corporations and banks. These corporations are not hiring large numbers of unemployed people into the workforce — as trickle-down proponents claim — because it is not profitable for them to do so.
Millions of unemployed people cannot afford to buy what is produced by these corporations as much as they did before. After 40 years of stagnating wages and rising debt, they’ve lost their means to consume. Rather than help the economy to grow, corporations spend the money they’re given in the stock market.
They buy more stocks and hope to sell those stocks for more. As a result, the economy suffers from higher levels of inflation. The Federal Reserve, which supplies money to these major corporations, cares primarily about preserving the system. Their priority isn’t about protecting citizens from a deepening inequality.
American politicians often promote the idea that all citizens are free and equal in a democratic society. The Declaration of Independence said, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
George Carlin, an American comedian, retorted that “This country was founded on a very basic double standard. It was founded by a group of slave owners who wanted to be free! So, they killed a lot of white English people in order to continue owning their black African people, so they could wipe out the rest of the red Indian people, and move west and steal the land from the brown Mexican people, giving them a place to take off and drop their nuclear weapons on the yellow Japanese people.”
While the majority of the population suffers from rising inequality, a minority of citizens are super wealthy. While many groups are historically oppressed, other groups are privileged because of their sex, race, and class.
Capitalism unequally distributes its wealth and burdens. Racist ideology distracts the working population from fighting against their unjust circumstances by dividing them apart, categorizing them in sub-groups of superiority and inferiority. The powerless are blamed for their predicaments, but the system is never addressed.
Poor people, people of color, and immigrants are demonized for capitalism’s failures while they are given far less of an opportunity to succeed. Mass incarceration, social isolation, job insecurity, unemployment, and so on, are methods to keep powerless people in an endless cycle of poverty and desperation. They are often forced to live in slum conditions, unable to afford better housing, healthier food, insurance, etc. Their neighborhoods are policed much more harshly than affluent neighborhoods. They are arrested more frequently and are subject to more police violence.
Capitalists use racist ideology to undermine the solidarity of the working class. Their racism is infused in media narratives, hiring practices, police treatment in different communities, education, housing, public policies, attitudes, and so on. Politicians focus more on condemning the vile behavior of lone individuals than in dealing with systemic issues.
As Professor Wolff wrote in The Capitalism/Racism Partnership, “The business cycles ever besetting capitalism threatened the entire working class with periodic unemployment, poverty, etc. That constant threat — as well as the recurring downturns themselves — risked provoking working class opposition to capitalism as a system.”
“Racism facilitated offloading instability’s risks and costs onto the African-American community that was last hired, first fired. A large part of the white population could thus escape capitalism’s instability or suffer less from it. Racist argument then blamed African-Americans for their unemployment and poverty by contrasting it with that of most whites. Racism and capitalism reinforced one another in this way… Racism assigns African-Americans to the bottom of the income and wealth distributions (via racist hiring, housing, schooling, public policies, and attitudes).”
Wolff went on to write, in regards to how neoliberalism has spread to more of the working population since the 1970s, “Long-Term wage stagnation and profit driven technical changes are subjecting more and more whites to conditions previously limited largely to African-Americans. Hence the household disintegrations, drug dependencies, etc. long afflicting African-Americans are affecting whites as well… The resurgence of white-supremacy represents anxiety about descent into conditions that capitalism and racism had earlier let most whites escape…”
White working-class people have historically suffered from poor conditions too. They’re another shock-absorber for capitalism’s instabilities. While they have occasionally joined forces with the black working-class to great effect, their efforts at solidarity are often undermined. Rather than paying the working-class higher wages and providing them with adequate protections, wealthy capitalists have divided the working class apart on racial lines, pitting them against each other for scarce jobs. The white working-class has also used their privileges to gain more work, better housing, and so on, using racist ideology to their advantage.
Just as African Americans have suffered from unjust conditions due to capitalism, so too have women. Before capitalism, there was the system of feudalism, where serfs worked for and answered to lords. They were subordinated under the dominion of churches and governments. There was no separation between work-life and home-life. Serfs had little to no money and were often resigned to the land of their birth. They were under a moral/religious obligation to obey their lords and God.
When capitalism replaced feudalism, proponents of capitalism promised that the new system would be free, equal, and democratic. Capitalism meant an escape from rigid social hierarchies, belonging to lords, and remaining for life on one patch of land. People could choose who they worked for, where they went, and what they did.
Women, however, were excluded from most of the benefits of capitalism. They were at first forced to remain at home. At home, they cleaned, cooked, took care of their children, working like feudal serfs under the power of men. After WWII, more women entered the workforce, but they were often forced into low-paying jobs, suffering from sexual harassment. In the 1970s, as wages began to stagnate, women needed to bring money into their household while still maintaining that household. They worked double-shifts at home and at work, while being funneled into lower-paid “pink collar jobs,” which were often essential but not valued as much.
Since the coronavirus pandemic hit, millions of people have become unemployed. At first, there was a tremendous drop in jobs in March and April. Then slowly jobs began to return. In December, however, the comeback slowed down and even reversed. There were 140,000 fewer jobs in December of 2020 than in the month before.
In the last month of 2020, men gained 16,000 more jobs while 156,000 more women lost their jobs. White people gained more jobs while non-white people lost more jobs. 40% of jobs gained by white males, on the other hand, were in the hospitality industry. These types of jobs are usually temporary. They’re also places where workers are vulnerable to the coronavirus.
The Trump Administration pushed people to go back to work as soon as possible, but not to improve safety conditions for workers. Corporate CEOs wanted to “get the economy going” as well. While the United States locked down, there was a low level of support for people who needed rent money, food, clothes, shelter, and so on.
Millions are out of work now. Many who do hold jobs work fewer hours. Essential workers often work in unsafe environments for no additional compensation. They risk their lives and may potentially infect those they live with. Those who have worked virtually, but fear returning to in-person jobs, will be fired if they do no not come in. They’re trapped in a position where they either must work to keep their benefits/salary or quit.
Poor people of color have disproportionately suffered the worst effects from this pandemic. Indigenous communities have suffered tremendously as well, but they are rarely ever talked about, even though they are one of the groups at highest risk to the disease. Many companies still haven’t ensured proper safety measures for their employees such as with frequent testing, ventilators, socially distanced workspaces, paid sick leave, masks, contact tracing, daily disinfecting, etc.
Many businesses don’t want to pay for proper safety measures, but expect people to return to work. In the US, where more people are put into prison per capita than in any other country, a lot of prisoners are forced into labor under dangerous conditions. They often are paid a fraction of what most citizens make. Because prisoners are forced to work for so little, ordinary workers are undercut whenever they demand higher wages and more safety measures.
In the United States, a lot of employees depend on their jobs to receive their medical insurance. In Europe, most developed countries have a universal healthcare system. Healthcare is considered a basic human right. Meanwhile, US citizens spend more money on medical care than any other advanced industrial country in the world. Despite insurance being so costly, Americans still do not receive the best healthcare overall.
A lot of European countries provide their citizens with public or public-and-private healthcare. The United States healthcare system, however, is a business first. Pharmaceutical companies, insurance companies, device manufacturers, and so on, desire to make a profit. They want to minimize costs and overcharge to make more money.
During the coronavirus crisis, the US imposed mass unemployment on its citizens. In Germany, fewer people lost their jobs (ticking up from 5% to 6%). While the German government bailed out employers, most employees were allowed to keep their positions. The German working-class have protections (unlike in the US). They have social influence due to the strength of their labor unions and political left.
European leaders told their people that COVID-19 was a serious threat as well. They wore masks, gloves, and went into lockdown. President Trump gave Americans ambivalent messages about the severity of the virus, even lying about it on multiple occasions. According to a John Hopkins study, four countries with authoritarian leadership — the United States, Brazil, Russia, and India — experienced a far higher rate of coronavirus cases than other countries did. The United States, for example, makes up 5% of the world’s population but has 25% of its positive cases. Countries, such as South Korea and New Zealand, fared far better in preparedness and execution.
Viruses have affected human civilizations for centuries, while responses have differed. The Bubonic plague (also known as the Black Death) was a disease in 14th and 15th century Europe. Fleas, which lived on rats, carried the disease. This plague killed a third of all people in Europe.
Centuries later, in 1900, the Bubonic plague spread into San Francisco, California. Henry Gage, the then-governor of California, hid the reality of the disease from the public. The federal government denied its truth too, not revealing that large numbers of people were dying from it. Then the virus became too big to ignore.
After the truth came out, Gage lost his reelection to George Pardee in 1902. Pardee employed medical solutions to deal with the disease rather than hiding its existence. Although the plague hit two years after he first contained it, he brought it under control again.
Private enterprises have failed to deal with the coronavirus because these enterprises value profits over human lives. The US government didn’t compensate for the failures of the corporate sector either — as President Roosevelt did during the Great Depression, after a lot of pressure from the left. As a result of public and private failures, hundreds of thousands of Americans have died in 2020. Many more will continue to die.
When the Black Death broke out in the 14th and 15th centuries, wiping out a third of all people in Europe, feudalism was already a weakened system. The soil wasn’t as fertile as before, crops didn’t yield as much as earlier seasons, serfs were malnourished. As lords counted their rising riches, serfs starved and died. As the plague infected countless numbers of people, feudalism declined. Eventually there weren’t enough serfs left to serve their lords.
Capitalism before the coronavirus pandemic was already a weakened system. COVID-19 only exposed its ugliness. Corporations owed massive amounts of debt. The Federal Reserve had pumped trillions into the economy at lowering interest rates. Corporations borrowed money from the Federal Reserve at almost zero costs. This money went into the stock market, and into the pockets of the few, rather than to those who needed it the most.
— An absent husband and father, who occasionally burst with warmth and tenderness toward those closest to him, even though he was often wryly detached in his life.
After cheating on his first wife, Mileva Marić, he eventually convinced her to divorce him in exchange for half of his Nobel Prize winnings. He desired to marry his cousin Elsa, who he became romantically involved with during his first marriage. In his second marriage, he still had relationships with other women. Despite Einstein’s infidelity, Albert and Elsa shared a deep bond together, raising two stepchildren as their own. Elsa supported his scientific work, nursed him back to health, guarded him against intrusions, shared the glamor of his celebrity, and moved with him to the United States.
— A brilliantly intuitive theoretical physicist who developed the theories of general and special relativity, which led to radically new understandings of matter, energy, space and time.
— A visual thinker known for his famous thought-experiments.
— A revolutionary scientist early in his career, but a conservative later in his career.
He defended epistemological realism and often attacked the findings of quantum mechanics. He believed in an underlying reality, one that followed elegantly predictable laws, but was unknown to theoretical understanding. He failed to find a Grand Unified Theory.
— A loner, rebel, and non-conformist.
— A playful man with a childlike curiosity.
— A gifted violinist.
— A slacker in his youth.
— A patent clerk.
— An absentminded intellectual who focused so intently on the ideas that stimulated his imagination that every other concern was blocked out.
— An aloof man who delved into scientific ideas to escape from the emotional turmoil of his life.
— A German-Jewish secular humanist.
While Einstein was proud of his Jewish heritage, especially during periods of rampant antisemitism, he wrote that he was free from attachments to nationality, class, state, religion, and so on. Einstein considered himself to be a human being first. He stated that even though he was dimly aware of the laws of physics, he was too limited in his knowledge to believe or not believe in a God. He honored the mystery of the universe above all.
— A disorganized teacher who often improvised his lectures.
— A democratic socialist who denounced the atomic bomb, war, class inequality, racism, militarism, nationalism, and authoritarianism.
— An international celebrity who loved to complain about his status, but secretly enjoyed the attention.
— A German-Swiss-American citizen who criticized fascistic ideas, whether in the form of Nazism or McCarthyism.
He was considered to be a national security threat, and a Communist sympathizer, by some officials in the American government.
Some of Einstein’s Contributions to Science:
— Light is made up of small packets of energy called photons. Photons can behave both like particles and like waves, depending on what experiments are used to measure them.
— E = mc², which expresses that energy is equal to mass times the speed of light in a vacuum squared. From this formula, particles are shown to have rest, kinetic, and potential energy. Mass and energy are not separate entities, but can change into each other. Additionally, any change in an object’s energy changes its mass and any change in an object’s mass changes its energy. Knowledge of the inseparable relationship between mass and energy led scientists to develop nuclear energy, and to eventually build the atomic bomb.
— Motion in time is relative to the position and velocity of the observer, while light is constant and the laws of the universe are the same. Time itself is not absolute, but dependent on how fast an object travels, what direction that object travels in, and where it is relative to the mass and the position of other objects around it.
— Space and time are not separate entities, but rather, are interwoven in four dimensions (three dimensions for space and one dimension for time). Mass causes spacetime to curve, and the more massive an object is, the more curvature there is. Gravity is no longer a mere force in the Newtonian sense, but causes a warping of spacetime. Spacetime is not flat, but curved. Light (or photons) travels along a curved path.
“If you assume that there is no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, that there are opportunities to change things, then there is a possibility that you can contribute to making a better world.”
Hope is an expectation of a positive outcome. To be hopeful is to be confident, to be optimistic. It is to desire a favorable event and believe in its likelihood. It is to see the possibilities for future change.
Charles R. Snyder, an American psychologist who specialized in the study of Positive Psychology, developed Hope Theory. For Snyder, three interrelated elements comprise the idea of hope: goals, pathways, and agency.
Hopeful people use different pathways to reach their goals. They are realistic about the challenges they face, motivated to overcome them. After training in Hope Theory, individuals develop practical plans, set deadlines, and visualize how they can succeed.
Hope can be beneficial when it motivates people to be in the right mindset to achieve their goals. Even when negative situations happen, a hopeful person can examine what they can do and can’t do, before acting on what is possible.
Hope can be dangerous, however, when beliefs about positive outcomes are too unrealistic. People may imagine a perfect future, but if their thinking is deluded or fallacious, they will suffer when confronted with real barriers.
Pragmatic optimism, however, can often be valuable. Robert Anton Wilson, agnostic philosopher and author, once said in Eye in the Triangle: “Optimistic people outlive pessimistic people consistently if you compare them by sex, by eating habits, by diet, by lifestyle, by race, by all sorts of things. The optimists live longer. Also, optimists have more fun. And besides, maybe things are going to turn out okay, in which case, the pessimists are killing themselves and being miserable for no good reason at all. And the final reason is that if everything is going to turn out terribly, the optimists are having more fun before the final tragedy comes.”
Wilson wrote that optimists look for possibilities, while pessimists are blind to them. Pessimists have concluded that there are no more solutions, even when other options are present. For Robert Anton Wilson, intelligence is the ability to “receive, decode and transmit information efficiently.” To be stupid is to block information from coming in. Those who ignore, or resist, or deny the possibilities of life cannot function efficiently. They are stuck in robotic reality-tunnels.
Buddhists look at hope in another sense. People often strive to do more, to be more. They want to achieve, achieve, achieve. They believe that they will finally be happy only after they drive around in a fancy convertible, get promoted to office manager, marry, raise children, read the canon of Western literature, win a game, or whatever else they can think up. Once they get what they desire, they desire more, while fearing that they will lose what they have. As they possess more, they still feel unfulfilled. They’re often disappointed when what they strived for didn’t bring them lasting satisfaction.
Ordinary hope is unskillful. People crave what they do not have. They cling to abstractions of happiness, unable to let go. They expect to be a certain way, to produce a certain result, to maintain a certain persona, but are secretly afraid of uncertainty and impermanence.
For people to be honest with themselves, they must first be mindful of what they can and can’t change. For Oren Jay Sofer, author of Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication, “The wisdom of equanimity understands that we choose neither the circumstances of our life, nor the results of our actions. Both are beyond our control. What we can choose is how we relate, and how we respond.”
To accept what is happening in the present moment is to be alive. There is no denial, no resistance. Through awareness, people can transform themselves. They can look at the possibilities of their choices and how those choices will impact the world.
Those who practice the Dhamma are hopeful. They are confident that they are walking the path toward liberation. Rather than attaching themselves to dualistic ideas of good and bad, right and wrong, success and failure, they accept the fleeting nature of the world. They’re mindful of each moment, guided by wisdom and compassion.
In Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life, Thich Nhat Hanh wrote that “Hope is important because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear. If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today.”
Those who endure hardships often find value in hope. Even when they are subject to abuse, injustice and death, they remember the small kindnesses of life. They desire a better future for themselves and those they care about. A path may not exist for them yet, but they believe that there is more, much more, than what is known.
Albert Camus, existentialist philosopher and author, wrote a book called The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. In it, he said that people look for purpose in an indifferent and chaotic universe. They’re often confronted with the absurdity of their own existence, desperate for an objective meaning that doesn’t exist.
They can choose to commit suicide, but then, the point of their lives would only seem more absurd. They can refuse to examine and question and think for themselves, conforming to different belief-systems, which promise them answers. Through this second choice, they are surrendering their inner freedom for the dictates of others.
Camus proposed a third option after not being able to accept the former two. People are free to subjectively create their own meanings and values and purposes. While they have the tremendous freedom to choose, they are ultimately responsible for their choices.
Camus rejected the idea that people should have hope for an afterlife, but considered each person’s meanings (or lack thereof) to be made by them in each moment. When people prepare for another life after their death, but do not embrace their fleeting time on earth, they minimize the value of their existence.
Hope should be highly personal for each individual. People cannot ignore the fact that they will change, that they will die, that they will pursue meaning in a universe, which is not objectively meaningful.
They must be aware of these underlying tensions. They must decide how they will live, who they will be, before they perish.
There is a close connection between hope and despair. When people avoid looking honestly at their suffering and seek only pleasure, they do not find happiness. Even those who have a lot of money and power are not immune. They can only transform themselves once they are aware of their suffering.
When people understand themselves as they are, they can cultivate compassion. Like a gardener, they can plant seeds of kindness, seeds of happiness, seeds of peace, in every moment. When they are compassionate toward themselves, they can be compassionate toward others.
Roshi Joan Halifax, hospice caregiver and Zen teacher and activist, wrote an essay called Yes We Can Have Hope. In it, she suggested that people can be wisely hopeful rather than unskillfully hopeful. Whereas ordinary hope is based on a person’s desires and expectations, wise hope develops from an acceptance of life.
Through this perspective, people can embrace the impermanence of their joys and sorrows. To be hopeful is not to deny reality, but to be fully alive, helping others to awaken out of their suffering.
Halifax said, “Wise hope doesn’t mean denying these realities. It means facing them, addressing them, and remembering what else is present, like the shifts in our values that recognize and move us to address suffering right now.”
In Letters From a Stoic, Seneca wrote his own advice about acceptance and choice. He had told Lucilius, the then procurator of Italy, that people should adapt themselves to the present rather than projecting their wishes too far into the future. To live for the future is to be anxious in expectation. “Fear keeps pace with hope” because people not only want to fulfill their desires, but fear not getting what they desire, and losing what they have.
Seneca cautioned against having too many desires. When a person limits their desires, however, they can still be hopeful. They are grateful for what they have been given, and appreciate who they are, while not craving what is unnecessary. Many people wish for more than they have, worried that their expectations won’t be fulfilled. They “suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”
Potential dangers may not have happened, but they fear that they will happen. They anticipate terrible futures so much that their anticipations become habits. Their minds exaggerate their sorrows. Every moment that they worry is a moment of lost time.
Seneca wrote in his thirteenth letter, On Groundless Fears, “It is likely that some troubles will befall us; but it is not a present fact. How often has the unexpected happened! How often has the expected never come to pass! And even though it is ordained to be, what does it avail to run out to meet your suffering? You will suffer soon enough, when it arrives; so look forward meanwhile to better things. What shall you gain by doing this? Time. There will be many happenings meanwhile which will serve to postpone, or end, or pass on to another person, the trials which are near or even in your very presence. A fire has opened the way to flight. Men have been let down softly by a catastrophe. Sometimes the sword has been checked even at the victim’s throat. Men have survived their own executioners. Even bad fortune is fickle. Perhaps it will come, perhaps not; in the meantime it is not. So look forward to better things.”
Seneca advised that people should not worry about what hasn’t happened or will not likely happen. Misfortunes don’t always last or remain misfortunes. Sometimes the unexpected happens too. Rather than despairing, individuals can meditate on what choices are available and then act wisely. When people indulge their hearts on fears of the future, they prevent themselves from living.
The only way to live is in the present. Tomorrow has no meaning except in the eternal now. Pasts and futures are abstractions, but people are conditioned to live for conceptualizations of time, until they can’t relate anymore to the time they’re in.
In the Money and Materialism section of Just So, Alan Watts lectured, “So only people who live in proper relationship with the material present have any use for making any plans at all, because then if the plans work out, they’re actually capable of enjoying them. But if you aren’t fully here and your mind is always off somewhere else, you’ll remain starved and always rushing to get someplace else. And there’s nowhere to go except here.”
“Our schools don’t prepare us to relate to the material present. Instead, we’re educated to become bureaucrats, accountants, lawyers, and doctors, who are all good at making money, which is said to be incredibly important. And the children who aren’t considered fit for the college education that these careers require are encouraged to take reluctantly offered courses in trades and manual skills. You hear these jokes about being able to receive your bachelor’s degree in basket weaving from any American university, but that would actually be an improvement on our current state of affairs. The larger point is that we are encouraged to become obsessed with the life of abstractions, with problems of status, and with problems of the world as symbolized rather than the world to be symbolized. This explains our hang-ups when it comes to money. When it comes down to it, most of us are incapable of relating directly to physical existence at all.”
It is easy to mistake the finger for the moon. The finger may point the way, but it doesn’t cast an illumination. In order for life to reveal itself, people must let go of what they think they know. They can only tend to the future when they tend to each moment. While they may forget, their practice is to return to life, again and again.
“Albert Camus (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, plato.stanford.edu/entries/camus/.
Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus And Other Essays. Vintage, 2012.
“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny ‘failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.’ In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.”
Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 in 1953, less than a decade after WWII. During this period, there were book burnings and banned books and a Great Purge. There were blacklists and mass propaganda mediums and censorship and imprisonments and executions. There were fears of an impending nuclear war. The annihilation of all humanity in a mushroom cloud.
Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 after expanding themes from two of his short stories and one novella. He finished his first draft in only nine days. Since his novel’s original publication, a number of schools have censored, redacted, and banned his work.
In Fahrenheit 451, Guy Montag is a fireman who exists in a dystopian future. Rather than putting out fires, he burns books. People in his society are consumed with vapid entertainment, distracted from critical thinking and wonder, alienated and lost and alone, unable to express themselves, unable to speak to each other meaningfully.
They don’t sense the miracle of life in a blooming flower, in a breath, in each other.
They lumber around with seashell radios embedded in their earwax. They consume life from inside a prism (or prison) of screens. Then when they are tired (they are tired all day), they swallow a sleep of pills, drifting into dreamlessness. They are force-fed the regurgitated information of the State. There isn’t any time to think, to sit in silence, to contemplate the flowers and trees and clouds. To be alive, meditating on the world in quiet, is not a consideration. They gaze at an amnesia of images, barren within.
Montag is at first like the Others, lifeless, married to a wife who doesn’t love him, brash in his opinions, stinking of kerosene and ignorance. Then he meets a curious teenager. Her name is Clarisse McClellan and she is unique and alive and radiating out through her youth. She sparks an awakening in Montag.
She shows him that there is more to reality than in his mechanized worldview. There is a mystery that he cannot grasp. In his realization that life is more, more than consumption, more than subservience, more than a routine until death, he desires to awaken others.
Knowledge is a fire that “illuminates away the darkness of ignorance.” It catches in the hearts of those who dare to learn. Montag is a fireman who burns books to snuff out the fires within others. Books are dangerous. They are dangerous to those who wish to control, who wish to suppress certain ideas from coming to light. When people are capable of critical thinking, they will question and consider new ideas. They will rebel against what is unjust. Their fires will expand from inside them, reaching others. They will seek their own unique meanings. They will take action.
Those who control a population, who manipulate to secure their power, money, and status, always want more for themselves, while feeling insecure about losing what they have stolen. They fear uprisings that burn for the truth. To maintain their power and control, they will distract, censor, and divide. They will use violence when they can, but if the people internalize the values of the system, then the oppressors will not need physical violence all the time.
As George Orwell said, “All tyrannies rule through fraud and force, but once the fraud is exposed, they must rely exclusively on force.”
People in Montag’s society are taught to be obedient. They desire what they are conditioned to desire. They are given the slimmest choices for personal freedom and believe that they are free. Life feels like it is free to the enslaved when they do not know any other way to be. For those who know of more but do nothing, who remain silent at times of injustice, suffer in cowardice. They could have helped, but didn’t.
Montag is reborn like the salamander of his firetrucks. In folklore, salamanders make their homes in the flames without being consumed. Montag once lived from inner darkness. Now he lives through his own glow, aware for the first time.
Many members of his society confuse their darkness for light. Their souls have withered away so much that they are only flesh on skeletons. They do not want to be freed because they desire the comfort of their ignorance. They live automatically, unable to think, to choose how they will authentically be. They do not want to challenge themselves to learn because they fear what is unknown. They fear their own inferiority in comparison to those who are educated. Beyond all their petty dramas, an entire universe stretches infinitely over them. Knowledge is their insignificance.
They huddle together in hate because they are numb to the suffering within themselves. These people plug themselves into the dominator system, addicted to the violence of the media. They’re conditioned to passively accept themselves as separate creatures with egotistical wants. They don’t realize that they live in a community, except through their shared consumption of technological entertainment, a hidden form of mass indoctrination. There’s no unity, compassion, or caring between them anymore, because any humane organization is a threat to the system. There is only a city of lost people.
In Fahrenheit 451, love is a commercial product, happiness is sold as a pill. People are not only watched, but want to be watched, under constant surveillance. Clouds choke over the black butterflies of dreams. Dissidents are silenced until their language is felt dimly but not spoken. Never spoken. Once the flames are all put out, there is absence.
Haruki Murakami doesn’t run because he’s competitive. He runs only to run, improving himself every day, at longer distances.
He recognizes his own age when he runs, slowing down years after his prime. As he pushes on, he passes scenic landscapes in different countries, seeing the steam of his breath in an Autumn park, feeling the flutter of his heartbeat, listening to the slow beat of jazz.
Running helps him to be alone, which is natural for him. Being alone is necessary for his mental and physical well-being.
As he runs, he accepts the clouds of his thoughts. Ideas float by in an endless sky, drifting in and out of awareness. Mostly, he runs in a void, unconscious of any inner chatter.
Murakami deeply absorbs the people and places in his life. Physical exertion allows him, just like in his writing, to process his joy and sorrow.
He never suspected that he would become a famous novelist. At first, he made more money from owning a jazz bar than from writing, but then he chose to sell his business to write fully. After concentrating only on writing, he worked for several hours every day, sacrificing his health.
After he ran for a while, he quit smoking cigarettes and eating junk food. He didn’t like long-distance running at first, but enjoyed the process once he could control how he ran. Running every day helped him to become better at time management, healthy eating, and losing weight. He shed bad habits while gaining more of an appreciation for self-discipline.
Murakami has run for over twenty years, starting at the age of thirty three, and considers the beginning of his running practice to be when he became a real novelist.
Running marathons has humbled him over his career. Whenever he would train too little, or think too highly of his skills, he would suffer his consequences alone.
Running can be scary and nerve wracking. It can be tough in the rain and snow and cold and heat. It can be tiring and long and painful. But then there are mornings of sun and moments of flow and high adrenaline.
Running, as well as writing, depends not only on the people who engage in those activities, but on the dynamic conditions that influence each person.
For Murakami, a novelist needs three main qualities to be successful at their craft: talent, focus, and endurance. He believes that writers are born with a certain amount of talent, which will eventually leave them, as they age and lose their energy. But a writer can compensate for a lot of their weaknesses with supreme focus.
As a writer writes, they become more skilled at concentrating on their task. To write daily is to build up one’s writing muscles, just as a runner develops their muscular endurance through running.
A novelist needs to have enough energy to write, not just for weeks, but for years. For them to be able to write for that long, they need to write often.
People are born with different levels of innate abilities as well. These abilities can be stretched overtime, but some people naturally have more ability than others. Murakami believes that people need to accept their strengths, as well as their limitations, and progress from there.
Through his maturation as a running novelist, he has learned that everyone moves at their own pace and time. He doesn’t write or run (or do anything) to prove himself to others, but rather, participates for the sake of the activity.
Through his artistic work, he inadvertently benefits his running. Through his running, he inadvertently benefits his writing.
He compares writing a novel to climbing a mountain. Eventually, his lungs will shrink, his legs will give out, but he still pushes himself farther up the steepest slopes, until hopefully, reaching the top. Every novel is a mountain.
After running mile after mile, he still steps forward. While he may not be the fastest runner, he will continue his journey, over and over, on and on, silently and alone, until he cannot go anymore.