I write this evening looking out into the eerie and somewhat foreboding blurry haze from the forest fire smoke that has invaded the west coast. Unlike the Covid virus that lurks silently and unseen among us, the haze is a visible and tangible threat to our health and spirit. Even a short walk to the mailbox left my eyes burning before I could get back into the house. And we in northwest Washington don’t even have nearly the worst of it. The smoke haze thus joins the virus for a “lock down #2” of dual confinements. (And I can’t help humbly comparing my situation with what it is like for an inmate entering his cell tonight, also surrounded by prison walls.)
So it’s easy to feel discouraged and besieged. The haze becomes a metaphor for a more pervasive sense of anxiety, confusion and uncertainty for life in general. The combination of the virus, the invasive haze within the context of climate change, my heightened awareness of my nation’s struggle with racism, and the pending election challenges my confidence in our individual and our nation’s ability to adapt and cope with the demands for change that are before us. As much as I would like to trust the ability of science, government and and human sensibility to rise to these challenges, given the unpredictability of the political climate I have my doubts.
But I also need to remember I have a basis to believe that positive change is possible. I have great confidence in science, and medical science in particular, to mobilize the wherewithal to meet a challenge such as Covid. Growing up in the 1950’s I remember well how fearful we kids were for a good long time that we would get polio. It was a terrible disease that included being confined to an “iron lung” for months and the possibility of a lifetime of being crippled. When Jonas Salk produced the Salk vaccine that eliminated the threat of polio he was rightly a national hero. And I have witnessed amazing success in my lifetime in landing a person on the moon, and, culturally, making significant progress in defeating the worst of Jim Crow and LGBTQ discrimination along with addressing issues of gender equality for women. So I have at least some reason to trust that science, technology and social progress will have success in dealing with the current challenges before us.
The reality, however, is that it is very difficult to unwind such a long buildup of negligence, harm, and malfeasance in our nation’s treatment of the environment and minorities that is now demanding a reckoning. In some ways, given how many issues are impacting us all at once, the year 2020 can well be labeled “The Year of Reckoning." And further, given all the complexity and intertwining of the issues we are dealing with, we are consumed by a “haze" of anxiety and doubt about how to proceed in unravelling it all. The old G.E. ad slogan that “progress is our most important product” is not very applicable now. Our current goal is more to create the resiliency and courage to engage in the truth and reconciliation process with our irresponsible and destructive past that will provide us with a vision and a covenant to recalibrate how we are to live sustainably and justly with each other and the earth.
I don’t know how long we will be dealing with the expansive forest fires and the wood smoke haze in the coming weeks. And that also goes for the Covid virus, the time we will need for economic recovery, the ongoing dismantling of racism and, of course, climate change itself - among a list of our other “reckonings." The uncertainty may be as bad as the problems themselves, but most of life is uncertain; this era may be more complex, deep-rooted, dramatic and dangerous, but it is, after all, just another era in the life of our planet. Of course we want assurances and a time line. We are, after all, an impatient people. As much as I want to believe science and technology and progressive political policies will steady and heal us, it seems clear to me the threat and the challenge of these years will demand something more. And that brings us down to the personal and a faith perspective.
The particularly discouraged may well offer the succinct and realistic reply to the "something more” is some sort of miracle. And I am OK with that as a default position. In the meantime, however, we each unfortunately must learn to cope with increasingly difficult limitations and deprivations such as the home and social confinements we are experiencing. In addition, out of the haze of political confusion we personally and collectively will likely need to embrace nonviolence practices that both actively resist injustice while also accepting and engaging people with whom we disagree. As Gandhi and the Civil Rights movement learned, we need to be committed to improving skills of nonviolent discipline of both resistance and acceptance. (I am working with groups engaged in this training. I will provide more information about this process in the coming weeks.)
As I stare out at the smokey haze this evening my soul reflects a sadness with the murky sky just as it warmly reflected the sunlight and full moon earlier this week. I am blessed with friendships and faith that constantly remind me that it is not mine alone to make things right, that the redemptive power of love and truth will always (Gandhi emphasized always) overcome bigotry and hatred. I want to encourage all of us to also embrace a life of active nonviolence as together we cope with the many forms of haze and uncertainty in this epochal time.