A sampling of some of the items I’ve found left behind during my early morning walks along the South Peachtree Creek PATH and Stone Mountain.
While many might believe life on Earth would be simpler if we could all be brought together under a single, unifying philosophy, no one can come to any sort of agreement on what that should be. Every social, political, economic, and religious movement since the dawn of civilization has sought to unite people under a common set of beliefs, or economic system, or way of life. Utopian movements speak of such a time, when everyone finally agrees on a guiding set of principles as the end of history. This does not mean the end of human advancement, just the end of our struggles to find a system which best promotes that advancement.
Few can doubt that the old order is swiftly passing away and a new one is taking its place, but rather than controlling how the future will develop, I see people like the current administration in the US as a catalyst for finally destroying what’s left of the old ways of thinking. They’re the last gasp of the tribal mentality dying out. Once they and their cronies are done, it’s up to the enlightened throughout the world to pick up the pieces of what’s left and start over.
We are seeing, on the world stage, the beginnings of a global movement aimed at protecting the environment, insuring peace and prosperity for all, encouraging women and protecting them from such brutal practices as enforced marriage and genital mutilation, and respecting individual rights and beliefs. We need to take the initiative to insure that what develops promotes the goal of uplifting and empowering all people. Philosophies such as that of the Taliban, which holds that it’s okay to shoot a teenaged girl in the face for wanting an education, are so abhorrent that they deserve no place in the discussion, and humanity will be best served when such ideas are wiped from the face of the Earth.
Race, religion, politics, gender, national origin, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status, are all used to exclude people. Remove these as barriers and we all have a seat at the table. The truth is constantly being revealed to us. It’s not written in any particular book nor does it come from any particular period of world history, but it’s always there, always speaking to us in everything that exists, and all that occurs. We should stop assuming any one set of beliefs should predominate and start embracing the uniqueness of each individual. In a universe of infinite possibilities, we exist. We should strive to make the most of this opportunity.
Science shows us what makes up the world around us, but it’s not always so concerned with the metaphysical why. Water is a basic building block for life on Earth, for instance. Does it matter why hydrogen and oxygen combine to create water? Was there some sort of divine plan underlying this behavior? A divine creator, who spoke everything into existence, wouldn’t need to worry with the details, and yet, the world we inhabit is infinitely complex. The physical realm we experience is built on top of an electrical level, where atoms and molecules are bound together by a tremendous amount of energy. If we exist simply at the whim of the creator, why is there such an enormous level of intricacy?
To question whether this creator intervenes in the universe one must first develop a clear notion of how this intervention is manifested. If a child is about to run out into a busy city street and an adult is standing nearby, any attempt by the adult to prevent the child from entering the street can be construed as intervention, but can we not also say that whoever built the road intervened in the situation, by providing the means by which it came about, or that the parents intervened by not keeping closer watch over the child? If any act which influences the situation can be considered intervention, doesn’t that include taking no action, and allowing the situation to play out as it will? Do the drivers on the road intervene by being there and reacting to what occurs?
Our ancestors came up with the idea of a divine creator because they could not conceive of a spontaneous world which sprang from nothing. They could only see the finished product without all the steps that went into it. They crafted tools and artifacts with their hands and so they assumed objects in nature had been crafted as well. They couldn’t see the cells, couldn’t observe the DNA of the plants or creatures, couldn’t peer beyond the surface to the microscopic level to see the molecules and atoms and quarks. They made the best guess they could with the information they had.
Those who maintain that the universe could not have sprung from nothing ignore the fact that being spoken into existence by a creator also constitutes springing from nothing. When we get to the molecular level, “nothing” takes on a different meaning. The most basic elements which make up all existence have lives of their own, and exhibit their own unique behavior which influences what they become. Perhaps the creator does not exist on a massive, universal scale, but in the tiniest, most imperceptible bit of that which underlies the fabric of all that is, the matter that makes up everything, including us, and the energy that binds it all together.
In contemplating our place in the cosmos, perhaps we’re looking at the process backwards, starting with the fact that humans are able to perceive the world around us and attempting to reconcile why this is. Thinking this way, however, ignores the many steps that came before, which led to our acquisition of reason. To understand the world, one must first have a means for organizing one’s thoughts, a language for defining the phenomena we experience. Language arises from the need to communicate basic ideas, find food, build shelter, fend off predators, procreate. Humans are social animals who naturally come together in tribal configurations, which necessitates coordinated efforts. We communicate to better understand one another and to avoid conflict. From simple necessity sprang more complex reasoning, eventually leading to contemplating why it all developed this way.
The Earth existed for billions of years before the earliest ancestors of humans first evolved. Numerous creatures, from trilobites to dinosaurs inhabited the world before them. Did any of them gain the capacity to contemplate the world in which they lived as we have? If so, were their conclusions the same as ours? We have only their scattered remains to provide clues to their existence. Will some future species one day examine our bones to try to sort out who we were, and why we were here?
Most people would agree that 2016 has been a horrible year. The number of famous people who’ve died seems far out of proportion to any other year, and the political climate, culminating in the election of Donald Trump as president in the US, has been extremely bitter and hostile, leading many to fear what comes next. The world situation seems just one misunderstanding away from igniting into a major conflict on many fronts. On a personal level, 2016 has been very trying for me as well. I’ve lost family members, had very little success with my writing, my health has been questionable, and my “day job”, which pays all my bills, has been on shaky ground since July. Many people, myself included, will be happy to bid farewell to this lousy year.
As U2 reminds us in their song, New Year’s Day, however, not much actually changes when we make the arbitrary switch from one year to the next. Companies which operate on a calendar year may have more resources at the start of a new year, and therefore are in a better position to hire or expand, which can definitely affect individuals, but if it’s cold and rainy on December 31, it will most likely be so on January 1, and if one has a lingering illness or pending financial commitment, it’s unlikely to go away just because the calendar changes. However psychologically comforting ending a year might seem, the reality is that time itself, and, by extension the calendars it yields, is an artificial measurement created by people. Time is a tool, developed to help distinguish one collection of days from another. It’s ironic that so many people stress over deadlines and schedules, when the very time underlying it all has little to no meaning outside of its given context.
At one point in history, calendars were often measured in accordance with important events. Roman time was usually marked in accordance with the reign of a given emperor, such as fourth year of the reign of Augustus. This tradition continued among the monarchs of Europe after the Roman empire fell. The Western calendar once marked time from the estimated birth of Jesus, though most scholars now place his birth before the start of the current calendar. At some point, as the Western calendar became more prominent throughout the world, the religious trappings were removed to give us “before common era” and “after common era”. Jews maintain their own calendar, in addition to using the Western one, as do Muslims, and other nations, such as China, measure the years differently than those in the West.
It is said that, in writing, the best way to increase tension is to start a countdown, and consistently worrying about the passage of time certainly increases a person’s tension and stress level. For most, time serves as just this sort of stress inducing catalyst, with as many people hating the pressure imposed as there are folks who feel motivated by deadlines or the sense that “time is slipping away”. As with most human-made constructs, there is a great deal of absurdity inherent in creating a method of marking time, only to realize we don’t have enough time to accomplish what we need to do.
Many Eastern philosophies speak of existing “in the moment” and this is, perhaps good advice for us all. In reality, we all exist in the Eternal Present. While we can remember times past, and have the ability to envision a future, what we experience is the here and now. True, there are times when we may feel the passage of minutes and hours, usually while trying to meet some deadline, but it’s also very easy to lose track of time if one is engaged in some endeavor, like reading, writing, or having a stimulating conversation. Just as we often feel enslaved by the clock, we have the ability to turn off our sense of time, as many do by “unplugging” when camping or otherwise on vacation. Oftentimes, when people plan vacations around events, or scheduled activities, they come back feeling just as stressed out as when they went away.
Despite the precise measurement of days, hours, minutes, and seconds provided by the clock and calendar, most people mark time by the events they experience. Most people alive at the time of the Kennedy assassination can relate exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news. I can still remember where I was when I heard of the Challenger explosion. Personally, we recall births, deaths, marriages, divorces. In such instances, it’s not the calendar which governs the moment; instead, it serves its purpose of being a marker documenting an event. My mother used to remark on how unbelievable it was that so much time had passed from some event she recalled from when she was younger. I’m sometimes amazed when I look back on events like the Olympics, and realize how far I’ve come.
For better or worse, time is a constant in our lives. It serves the purpose it’s intended to serve, but, for many, it can also become an impediment, forcing us to rush toward some imaginary goal, sapping our energy for other, more desirable activities. We should never become so caught up in the so-called “rush of time” that we allow it to dictate our lives. Always be sure to steal a few moments away for oneself.
I wish everyone a healthy and happy 2017.
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These essays originated on this blog in their earliest forms, but have been revised, expanded, and, in some instances, combined in the book.
Disclaimer: No actual babies were harmed in the writing of this book.
How far removed are we from segregation in this country? On the day I was born in Atlanta, it was not possible for blacks and whites to eat in the same restaurant. That changed a few months later, so segregation was a reality within my lifetime. People of different races could not marry in most of the US. That changed a few years later between the years my brothers were born. While much of the stigma society imposed upon mixed marriages has lessened, there are still many people opposed to people of different races marrying. Given that it’s been more than forty years since the legal restrictions on mixed race marriage were removed without gaining full acceptance in society, one can assume those who supported legalization of same sex marriage still have a long road ahead of them, and will most likely never win total acceptance from every segment of the population.
One lingering problem within the United States is the institutionalized racism that exists at every level of society. The conservative right in this country has done an excellent job of conditioning citizens to equate the terms, “welfare”, “government assistance”, and “low income” with minorities. While it is true that a significant number of minority individuals are on public assistance, it is an unfair assumption to equate most people of a given race or ethnicity with low income or so-called “ghetto” conditions. The problem is that the attitude of many liberals is not much better, believing that minorities need public assistance because they can’t take care of themselves. Rather than arguing over the need for such safety nets, perhaps the politicians would be better advised to concentrate on the factors that lead to people requiring public assistance than debating whether or not assistance is needed. People will always have hard times, which require them to seek assistance from some outside source. Ironically, many people who oppose government programs, will gladly contribute to charities or church funds which benefit the same people they would deny food stamps or other government aid.
The term “welfare queen” has come to represent people milking public assistance while wearing expensive shoes and driving Cadillacs, but the term was originally used for a specific individual, a Chicago woman most commonly identified as Linda Taylor, whose crimes included, but were not limited to living high on the public dole. While the press in Chicago dubbed her the “Welfare Queen” and detailed her many frauds, it was candidate and future president Ronald Reagan who brought her to the attention of the larger public, thus politicizing her story. The term “welfare queens” is now racist code for minorities, particularly blacks, but the actual individual who inspired the term frequently lied about her race, and on her death certificate and census documents is listed as white.
White people, as a group, really don’t understand the problem of institutional racism, largely because we’re responsible for creating, maintaining, and benefiting from it. There are many aspects of life I take for granted, even though I grew up in a lower middle class setting. In most cases, when the police pull me over for a traffic offense, I don’t fear that the encounter could result in my death. In fact, my complaint with the police is often that they sometimes don’t seem responsive enough when something happens. I would not hesitate to contact them and while sometimes wary, I rarely fear encounters with them. I’m aware that many minorities do not have the same experiences or attitude, often with good reason. I’m more concerned that some deranged individual — with a high statistical probability that person is white — will open fire in some space I’m inhabiting than I fear an encounter with police.
I grew up in rather unique circumstances, namely, when I was around seven or eight years old, Atlanta experienced “white flight” when whites from the inner city moved to the suburbs of Cobb and Gwinnett in response to blacks moving into their neighborhoods. In a relatively short amount of time, I went from being in the majority in my school to being in the minority. By the time I was in seventh grade, I was one of only five or six whites in either class, and below that, there were only four or five whites in the entire school, two of whom were my brothers. While this gave me some insight into how it felt to stand out in a group of people, and to experience hostility directed at me for no other reason than how I look, it did not cause me to experience what it’s like to be a minority twenty-four hours, seven days a week in the US. While blacks and whites can be equally racist on a personal level, it’s usually the whites who have the power and privilege of institutionalizing racism.
Large, well-funded organizations like the NAACP do a reasonable job of going after corporations or governmental institutions which foster institutionalized racism though it can be difficult to spot or prove. When the focus shifts from institutional to individual racism, the problem is a little more difficult to diagnose and correct. It is important to confront racism whenever encountered, but simply branding this individual or stand-alone organization racist doesn’t always accomplish anything constructive, and frequently leaves the target bitter and more entrenched in his or her racist attitudes. Individuals see little incentive to change when the organization to which one belongs or the company where one works fosters the same attitude.
The US has a long way to go in addressing racial disparities but we accomplish nothing by pretending the problem doesn’t exist. Too much hostility is directed at too many people and far too much blood has been spilled for us to turn a blind eye to what’s happening. Our leaders need to work on solutions rather than fanning the flames of racial hatred, as a certain candidate has been doing. We should applaud the efforts of those who are attempting to initiate a dialogue, but more importantly, we need to participate in the conversation.
An article on the original Welfare Queen can be found at Slate.