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Meditations on Independence Day, 2022

When we bought our new house, a flagpole and the American flag came with it.

Photo by David Beale on Unsplash

The day Roe v. Wade was overturned, we took down the flag. I don’t recognize America anymore. The democracy I grew up in is languishing and I no longer feel our government represents the best interests of people or planet. It certainly isn’t interested in surviving and thriving for any but a select few power-over people who are impotent, incompetent, and emotionally bankrupt, not to mention unbelievably stupid. These times are the logical end stages of capitalism. We are so far astray we have made money into a god and worshiping that god has us all on our knees and many of us face down in the street being murdered. I’m not celebrating. I’m grieving. I’m angry.

The pandemic years and increasing awareness and visibility of systemic racism brought the discussion of freedom into daily discourse. What freedom is. What freedom isn’t.

Freedom is power. People who work for power with others focus on supporting an equitable playing field for all. That means some people need to lose some power and others need to have theirs restored so we all have equal access to resource.

Power, by the way, is not defined by money. We’ve been culturally brainwashed to believe it is, but it’s not. Who benefits from the persistent and relentless narrative insisting it is? Are you benefitting?

People who work for power-over are afraid. Fear breeds hatred. Other words for hatred are racism, homophobia, and bigotry. Power-over people, like any tyrant, fear rebellion, and all their energy goes into controlling information and brutally silencing dissent or discussion.

What we are allowing to take shape is a dystopian world. It’s not a movie we’re going to walk out of in two and a half hours. It’s not a science fiction book. It’s not a role-playing game.

It’s real, and it’s really happening. Just like climate change, it’s not something to scare or depress ourselves with and then, like Scarlett O’Hara, tell ourselves we’ll think about it tomorrow. Tomorrow was yesterday. Climate change and the end of democracy are not far-off footsteps in the night-dark and scary forest. They’re here. They’re now. They’re in our tent with us.

Here are characteristics of a dystopian society:

  • Communication (misinformation) is used to control citizens.
  • Information (facts), critical thinking, and freedom are restricted.
  • Citizens worship a figurehead or ideology.
  • Citizens perceive they are under constant surveillance.
  • Citizens fear change, new information, or new experience. Anything or anyone different is perceived as a threat to existence. Conformity is paramount. Individuality and dissent are stamped out.
  • Citizens are stripped of their humanity.
  • The natural world is raped, poisoned, and distrusted.
  • Controls force citizens to accept the illusion of a perfect utopian world.

Dystopian controls include corporate, bureaucratic, technological, and philosophical/religious entities.

Welcome to the dawn of dystopia, people. For most of us, freedom is slowly vanishing, but it’s still possible to reclaim it. There are people who see clearly and speak and write the truth. Some of us believe in the common good and in living in service to others, to justice, and to the planet. We can fight. We can refuse to be silenced. We can hold fast to one another and balance the growing hate in the world with our love and righteous anger.

I’ll leave you with a couple of thoughts from Toni Morrison:

“The function of freedom is to free somebody else.”

“Freedom is choosing your responsibility. It’s not having no responsibilities; it’s choosing the ones you want.”

Be well. Take care of yourselves and each other.

Photo by Sue Tucker on Unsplash

Censorship

Now that I publish my fiction on Substack, I read regular content from the platform, and a few weeks ago the platform runners wrote an essay about censorship titled “Society has a trust problem. More censorship will only make it worse.”

I’ve read and reread that essay.

I’ve been trained as a librarian, and one of the most important tenets of professional librarians is freedom of information. One of the things that drove me out of my job as an elementary school librarian in a public school system was pressure to take Harry Potter off the shelves. I told the school board I wouldn’t do it. If they had to fire me, so be it, but I wouldn’t take the books off the shelves. I asked if any school board member had actually read one of the books in question. None had. Surprise, surprise.

Photo by John Salvino on Unsplash

Freedom of speech and freedom in general have been hot topics since the 2016 presidential election and COVID. I’ve written before about freedom of speech, which is not all-inclusive.

In the last six years, cultural censorship has increased enormously, but it’s failed to silence anti-vaxxers, proponents of the election Big Lie, COVID naysayers, and people who believe men cannot become women, or vice versa. It’s also failed to address increasing civil violence, disconnection, and unrest.

Does censorship work? Is it a useful tool?

It doesn’t appear so. I’m irresistibly reminded of the “Just Say No” drug campaign for school kids and sexual abstinence programs for teens. Do they work?

Not so much.

It seems to be a human character trait that the minute we’re forbidden to do something we move heaven and earth to do it. Look at Adam and Eve. Look at Pandora. Dozens of old oral stories from around the world are about people who broke their promise not to look and suffered the consequences.

I’ve never thought to ask myself what problem we’re trying to address with censorship.

Is it cultural trust?

Possibly. Trust is an easily manipulated quality, because it’s a belief. Belief, as we’ve seen demonstrated over and over during the last years, is more powerful than facts. People will die for their beliefs. They’ll kill for them.

Are beliefs strengthened or weakened by access to all kinds of information (facts) or opinions? Are beliefs strengthened or weakened by censorship?

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

I’m not sure trust is the root problem, though, or not the entire root. Perhaps the deepest root is education and, paradoxically, freedom. Authoritarianism is characterized by blind submission to authority. One of the tools of authoritarianism is censorship, including limiting the rights to vote, read, write, report the facts, speak, and teach.

Censorship implies people can’t be trusted with a full range of information. They are unable to make the “right” choices, according to the authoritarian(s) at the top. Thus, the public is spoon-fed only that which supports the authoritarian power. Asking questions is not allowed. Challenge is not allowed. Discussion and debate are not allowed.

Don’t you worry your little head about substance abuse. Just say no. We don’t talk about sex and our bodies in this house. It’s dirty and shameful. Just abstain from inhabiting your healthy young body.

The subject of censorship is tricky, because I suspect we’d all like to have the power to censor certain voices on social media, on radio, on television, in the bookstores, on YouTube, and on platforms like Substack. Some of the propaganda and opinions out there, the lies masquerading as facts, are horrifying. However, my lie might be your fact. Your heart-felt ideology about eating meat may be in direct conflict with what I need to sustain my health and quality of life. Should one of us have the power to censor the other?

This is where the trust problem comes in. We don’t trust one another to make the “right” choices or believe the “right” people. I think many don’t trust themselves to make the “right” choices. They rely on someone they have faith in to tell them what to do.

The “right” choices imply the possibility of “wrong” choices, but this is black-and-white, overly simplistic thinking. Perhaps you need to be a vegetarian in order to sustain your health. Perhaps I need to be a carnivore. We’re both right. Does that mean a full range of diet and nutrition information should be available to all? Can we, as a culture, agree to live and let live?

I have my doubts.

The current specific issue on Substack is the subject of COVID. Evidently, there are writers on the platform spreading dis- and/or misinformation about COVID. Scientists on Substack sending meticulously researched, linked, and data-driven information take issue with that and want Substack to censor such writers for the sake of the public good.

Substack, in response, wrote the above essay, maintaining their position against censorship and explaining their thoughts about it.

I’m in sympathy with both sides. I, too, am frustrated with the sheer volume of unmitigated bullshit out there. But I never forget many people would say my sources of information are bullshit, and I would fight hard to maintain access to those sources.

Maybe the problem is not how deep the bullshit is, but how bad we are at recognizing it. And that’s a product of our broken education system and our inability to think critically. Both these cultural trends make us increasingly vulnerable to authoritarianism.

As I’ve discussed before, choice goes hand-in-hand with responsibility. If we want optimum freedom to choose, we must accept the consequences of our choices.

Taking responsibility for our choices is not humanity’s greatest strength at this moment in history.

If I was Supreme Ruler of the World (God forbid), I believe I would vote with Substack on this issue of censorship. Silencing people does not address the root of the problem, only a symptom. We need to figure out a way to fix our educational system so we all learn critical thinking at every stage of education. Not only does this empower people to make their own choices and recognize the difference between lies and truth, opinions and information, it allows public access to a full range of viewpoints.

We are never going to silence the liars and manipulators. They will continue to try to obtain power and money, and they will continue to aggressively work to silence those who disagree with them. The best weapon against them is to firmly empower ourselves and others with education and the ability to think critically. We don’t need to be protected. We need to be armed.

Photo by Nicole Mason on Unsplash

Jailbreak

I’ve been thinking about this post for a couple of weeks. It’s funny how a brief note to myself, frequently glanced at, suddenly grows into a vital, dynamic idea compelling me to weave a net of words and capture it.

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For most of my life I’ve been a compulsive list maker. I had lists of lists and carefully checked items off as I dealt with them. I thought of lists as tools to keep track of things and remember what I needed to do, and that may have been partly true, but an uglier aspect was how useful they were as weapons of self-hatred for not working hard enough, not being productive enough.

After I moved to Maine, I came across the idea of making reverse lists; that is, listing what I did accomplish rather than what I thought I should accomplish. This reduced my ability to schedule shame myself, but my nasty internal critic was never satisfied. No matter how much I’d done, he thought I should have, could have, done more. However, reverse listing allowed me to see more clearly that I actually accomplish quite a lot most days, and that helped me push back against the internal critic. He lost a little power.

Still, my sense of self-worth was entirely tied to production, to doing rather than being.

Over time, my reverse listing became more of a series of short, journal-like notes, part of my daily routine. Now and then I looked back at them to see what day I’d run an errand or made a phone call, but I never stopped to consider the real value of reverse listing.

A few weeks ago, I realized the purpose of reverse listing had become a way to hold myself accountable, to be sure I didn’t slack off or forget everything I have to do to justify my existence. I needed to keep an eye on myself because I’m so lazy and undisciplined. If I don’t watch myself all the time, I won’t do any work at all. The practice was a daily no-confidence vote for myself.

Photo by SHTTEFAN on Unsplash

This is so ridiculous I had to smile. I am many things, but lazy isn’t one of them. And if I do spend a lazy hour sitting in the sun with a good book, who cares? The world doesn’t stop.

I asked myself a daring question: What if I stopped making reverse list journal notes every day? What if I closed that notebook and put it away? What if I adopted an attitude of complete confidence in myself, my value, and my effectiveness, no proof required?

Hey, less clutter on my work table!

Immediately, I felt guilty and a little scared. If I didn’t write down tasks as I did them, where would the evidence justifying my existence be? How would I hold myself accountable, keep an eye on myself, make sure I’m being useful?

Honestly, sometimes the inside of my head appalls me. It’s good no one else is in there.

Along with all these thoughts and feelings was something else. A gleeful, childish feeling of getting away with something big, a sense of freedom.

Jailbreak.

So I closed the notebook and put it in a drawer. I got up the next morning, went through my morning routine, wrote, went to work, swam ¾ of a mile, came home. And the next day. And the next day. I did laundry and cleaned the bathroom. I cooked and fed myself. I swept cat litter off the floor and took the compost out. I paid bills, took walks, and ran errands.

I lived my usual life and not one single authority came knocking at the door demanding to see my reverse list in order to decide if I was allowed to go on taking up space.

Not even me.

Which brings me to the realization that finally brought this post into being.

Photo by John Salvino on Unsplash

I build myself all kinds of jails. Lists were just one. Trying to please others is a jail. Trying to meet expectations is a jail. Trying to understand others when they don’t communicate clearly and give mixed messages can be a jail. Trying itself can be a jail. Ironically, having poor boundaries is a terrible prison that shrinks a little more every day. Shame is solitary confinement. Taking on too much responsibility, arguing with what is, agonizing over things I have no power to change, trying to fix things for other people, are all prisons.

You know what? I’m really, really tired of living in jails of my own construction.

Fortunately, I have keys to all of them.

Now, I know I’ll be back in jail, at least temporarily, because it takes me a minute to realize it’s happening again. It’s such an old pattern.

But I’m not going to put sheets on a cot and live in a prison cell. It just makes everything worse. Whatever the challenges or problems I face, they’re much better dealt with from a place of freedom and power.

I’m a far from perfect woman, but I don’t deserve to be locked up for the rest of my life with the key thrown away.

No more jail. I’m outta there.

No Freedom From Consequences

I work in a small local hospital rehab facility. Maine has recently instituted a mandatory COVID vaccination requirement for all healthcare workers.

Photo by Ashkan Forouzani on Unsplash

Here in Maine, school districts are choosing whether or not to enforce masking and social distancing as in-person school begins.

As we go into Fall, these two issues are inescapable, not only here but across the country as businesses, organizations, and individuals make choices about dealing with COVID. Or not.

It’s an unpleasant atmosphere, rife with argument, outrage, broken relationships, blame, and contempt. I frequently drive home in tears, exhausted by the effort to remain calm and professional with our patrons, patients, and some staff members.

Much of the current conversation centers around the issue of freedom of choice, and those are conversations worth having. However, I’ve noticed a key part of that conversation is nearly always missing.

We are not free from the consequences of our choices and the choices of others. We have never been and never will be free from the consequences of our choices and the choices of others.

Freedom of choice goes hand-in-hand with responsibility, and choices cannot be separated from their effects. Sometimes those effects are logical, and other times they’re unpredictable. Sometimes they’re obvious and immediate, sometimes subtle and long-term. Sometimes the right choice results in heartbreaking consequences, and sometimes the wrong choice doesn’t. None of us can fully foresee where our choices will lead us. Some people are paralyzed by this fact and resist choosing.

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

Refusing to choose is also a choice, and it creates consequences.

This inescapable part of being human is something we all share and experience. Nothing can shield us from it, not power, not money, not beliefs, not government. Sooner or later, consequences catch up to us and play out.

We are not “losing” our freedom to choose. We’ve never had unlimited choice. We are experiencing the effects of our choices, just as we’ve always done. It’s a process beyond justice or injustice or good or bad. Consequences are often teachers and opportunities.

Choices and consequences are simply what life is. Everyone’s life. Every day.

Sometimes consequences are deadly and tragic, and we never have a chance to make a different choice. Sometimes we have lots of chances to choose again. Most of us are familiar with the I’ve-been-standing-at-this-crossroad-before kind of feeling.

Choices are linked together in our lives in an endless chain. We decide who to believe. We decide what to believe. We make choices reflecting our faith in someone or a source of information. Things happen. We discover our faith was misplaced, or we discover our faith was justified, or, possibly, both.

This is the human condition.

I believe most of us are making the best choices we can in life. Inevitably, we will experience consequences we didn’t expect and don’t want, and we’ll have to manage those as best we can. Sometimes we’ll need help and support to manage the effects of our choices.

At the end of the day, our power resides in making choices for ourselves and accepting the consequences. We can’t make choices for others, and nobody is making choices for others. Rules and mandates regarding the pandemic are going into place, joining countless other rules and mandates we’ve always lived with. As individuals, we will choose whether to resist or comply, and then deal with the consequences of that choice.

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

Because the globe is so densely populated, our choices, and the effects arising from them, are bound to affect others. We can’t escape from interconnection. Even so, we can only choose for and manage ourselves. Hurling contempt at one another over the choices we make isn’t useful. It doesn’t provide resource, support, or respect. It makes unwanted consequences more difficult to experience and manage for all of us. It doesn’t persuade anyone to make the “right” choice.

It doesn’t change minds or save lives.

We are comparatively free in this country, but freedom is never absolute. None of us have unlimited choice, but all of us have some, and that means all of us will experience consequences generated by ourselves and others. Freedom does not erase the consequences of our choices.

Free. Managing consequences, just like you. My daily crime.

Photo by David Beale on Unsplash

Lasting Happy

This week I finished reading Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman, Ph.D., which inspired several posts. See them here, here, here, here, here, and here.

In the concluding chapter of his book, Seligman poses a fascinating question. Is it possible that negative emotions such as fear, anxiety and sadness evolved in us in order to help us identify win-loss, or power-over games? These feeling reactions set us up to fight, flee, freeze, or grovel. If so, he speculates, might it be that positive emotions such as happiness evolved to help us identify win-win, or power-with situations?

Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash

If this is so, and I know of no data that either confirms or denies it at this point, the stakes for understanding and pursuing happiness are even higher than I first realized. If we as a species can cooperate in such a way that everyone has an equal share of peace, joy, contentment, and happiness as we form communities and families, raise children, create and invent, work and learn together, we are actively creating a culture based on win-win, or power-with.

As I watched a violent mob storm the United States Capitol this week, and have absorbed what people are writing and saying about democracy and our Constitution, I recognize an epic struggle for power.

It occurs to me to wonder if democracy is not a destination, but a practice. The United States self-identifies as a democratic republic, but we are far from perfect in upholding democratic ideals, as the Black Lives Matter movement reminds us. The ideal foundation of a healthy democracy is equal power, which is to say equal voice. Some of us in this country may aspire to that, but we’re not there yet.

However, we’re closer to democratic ideals than many other areas of the world where people are engaged in bitter ongoing struggles for individual power and rights, as in Hong Kong.

Photo by David Beale on Unsplash

The thing about a democracy is that it depends on the consent to share power. This means individuals won’t get everything they want, all views will not be validated, all beliefs may not be supported, and each individual is subject to the power of the majority. It doesn’t mean we have no voice. It means our voice is not more important than anyone else’s.

Many millions of Americans were heartsick and fearful after the 2016 election. Many millions are clearly devastated by the 2020 results. This is democracy in action. We are each given a vote, but there’s no guarantee our hopes and desires will be supported by the majority.

I am struck, over and over, by the clarity of using power as a lens to view current events. Any individual who seeks power-over or win-lose dynamics is not fighting for freedom, justice, or democracy. They’re fighting for power for themselves and disempowerment for others. They may call their actions strength, courage, or patriotism, but that gaslighting doesn’t hide the bottom line.

A peaceful protest demanding equal rights is not the same as a violent mob intent on having what they want at any price, including human lives, regardless of the democratic rights of others.

If it’s true that we humans are at our best and happiest in win-win and power-with dynamics, our imperfect and battered practice of democracy is worth fighting for and strengthening. However, it’s a grave mistake to assume that’s the goal of everyone in this country. Individuals currently in power, as well as some others, do not want to see equal rights. They do not want a true democracy, in which everyone has an equal measure of freedom and personal preferences are subject to the will of the majority. They want absolute freedom and power, no matter the cost to others.

I have yet to see anyone who believes they have absolute power look happy. Arrogant, maybe. Boastful and triumphant, yes. But not happy. On the contrary, people I have personally known who force power-over dynamics have been weak, fearful, miserable, and emotionally isolated. I have not seen a happy face in all the footage from the day of the riot. Rage, contempt, stupidity and weakness, gloating, attention-seeking theater, mindless violence and a desire for destruction were all present, but I saw no peace, no contentment, and no happiness in that mob.

Photo by tom coe on Unsplash

Is a largely unhappy and unhealthy culture sustainable over the long term? Do we value control of others through fear, disinformation, and violence more than strength, courage, respect, cooperation, and happiness?

Democracy isn’t a free ride or an entitlement. A healthy democracy requires that individuals take responsibility for participation in sustaining it. If we want our constitutional rights to be protected, it’s up to us to protect the rights of others. Our personal freedom is not more important than the freedom of others.

Democracy is like tolerance; it’s a peace treaty that acknowledges and even honors differences within a framework of checks and balances so that one group cannot take absolute power. This protects all of us from authoritarianism.

Our constitutional rights do not include the right to incite or commit violence, the right to disempower or injure those we disagree with or don’t like, the right to destroy property, or the right to deliberately put others at risk during a public health crisis. They do not include the right to spread disinformation. Free speech excludes the incitement of violence.

Happiness builds social capital and resilience. It encourages broad-mindedness and cooperation. It’s self-sustaining, constructive, and creative. Supporting happiness in ourselves and others takes patience, courage, self-discipline, and strength.

Manipulating others through fear, rhetoric and disinformation is easy, and weak personalities employ those methods because they possess no other tools. Destruction and blood lust are brutishly simple and direct, giving an entirely false sense of power and control.

If we stood shoulder to shoulder and stripped away all our labels and identities until we were just people of skin, flesh, and bone, all living on the same exhausted planet, all with the same basic needs for connection, food, clean water, and shelter, what would we want for ourselves and our children? Would we choose to live in an atmosphere of violence, hate, and power-over, ruled by a mindless mob, or would we choose to create a more equal system in which everyone has certain freedoms but no one has absolute freedom or power, and in which everyone has a chance to participate, both through voting and service?

Do we want to concentrate on losing or winning?

Do we aspire to lasting happiness, peace and contentment, or chronic fear, anxiety, and despair?

It doesn’t seem like a hard choice to me.

My daily crime.

Photo by Sue Tucker on Unsplash