On “Going to Hell in a Hand Basket”

On “Going to Hell in a Hand Basket”

Three of my friends suffered much in the last year: one woman grieved the unexpected loss of a spouse of several decades; another suffered permanent disability in a bicycle accident; and a physically active, heath-conscious man was hit with a severe medical diagnosis.

Although very painful and life changing, these events seem common in the flow of human life. We expect them. At any moment, I too may face an unwanted event.

But over the last year, I’ve also listened to friends talk about a different kind of suffering. Not anguish over personal events, but a deep dismay at what’s happening around us in society. This distress may be less personal, perhaps, but it nevertheless feels profoundly threatening. I hear words like divisive, xenophobic, narcissistic, authoritarian, and hopeless. To some, the very democracy that holds the USA together feels under siege.

Examples of the threats are many: mass shootings by lone gunmen, random killings by political zealots, the disparagement of science and public education, the torrent of lies that flow from officials high places, violent language that inflames religious and racial tensions, hate crimes directed toward those regarded as inferior, and the vicious, mean-spirited, and vulgar language of politicians entrusted with addressing society’s problems. This list could be made much longer.

What to do? How to respond to these large-scale destructive events? Is the country really going to hell in a hand basket? Where are the diplomatic politicians, the courageous peacekeepers, the skilled mediators, and the creative problem-solvers? I’ve wrestled with these questions so much more over the last year. Perhaps you have, too.

I certainly don’t have all the answers. But for what it’s worth, I offer the following – not as a model – but as one man’s attempt to live a satisfying and fulfilling life in the midst of momentous national turmoil. Here goes.

Slow down. When I see a leaf falling from the lovely catalpa tree in my yard, can I pause for a few moments, just to watch its colorful flight to the ground? When I read about the Voyager’s breathtaking trip across the solar system, can I linger with the feelings of awe and mystery that arise? When I have a little discretionary time, can I choose poems, essays, and music that lift my spirits? When I focus on quieting my inner apprehensions, can I pay full attention to the slowing of my breathing, to the cardinal outside my window?

 Notice goodness. Not all national news programs emphasize tragedy and aggression. Can I take the time to find stories that inspire or encourage me – about someone who has been kind, heroic, generous, creative, consoling, appreciative, courageous, dependable, or philanthropic? Can I keep those stories on my mind, and let them influence me?

Enjoy friends. I have great friends. Can I initiate suggestions about things we can do together – a conversation over coffee, a long bike ride, a concert? Can I enjoy friendships with others doing important work in our community – volunteering time or resources for charitable organizations, or participating in a social justice project?

Relieve Suffering. I cannot do much on my own to address the national madness and disarray. But I can do something about the personal suffering of another in my community. I can sit in the same room with someone who is suffering in some way –from misfortune, loneliness, pain, illness, aging, or loss. I can be present. I can listen. I can comfort. I can assist. I can meet some needs. And I can do this often and regularly.

Be Generous. I cannot have a national reach to address problems that concern or alarm me. But I can donate to organizations that do have such a reach, and to people who are making constructive contributions toward resolving major problems, challenging wrong-doing, increasing mutual understanding, or relieving suffering.

Be Kind. To everyone. Each person, each conversation. Simultaneously, can I avoid aggressive thinking toward those who injure and destroy? While financially and politically supporting efforts to confront and contain them, can I avoid hating those who hate?

Well, those are my thoughts. What are yours? How are you managing to live in this time of national discord and disunity?

John Robertson

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