Confronting a time of peril
Nuclear threats, democracy at risk, economies on the edge: How are we to react?
Some days are promising, others portentous. Facing challenges, it’s hard to know how to respond. (Photo by Jake Weirick on Unsplash)
There are moments when you know that everything is about to change: when you look at a home for the last time in your rearview mirror, for example, or wait for a devastating storm to hit, or stand beside a loved one’s bed as death nears. Compared to those very personal examples, we’re not nearly as much affected by what happens from one day to the next around the world, we figure, until suddenly we are — like on 9/11, or on that day in late 2019 when, apparently, an animal at a market in central China transmitted a potent virus to a human. Then everything changed for everybody.
After those big moments, we remember the days before as seeming so bright — the days when bags weren’t searched and bodies scanned everywhere, or when we could travel freely because America hadn’t yet squandered international goodwill by blundering into Iraq, or when we didn’t worry that a crowd at a concert hall might infect us with an illness that can linger as months of brain fog. In those “before times,” we happily didn’t know what was about to hit us.
Right now feels on many days like one of those times. There are a lot of perils at hand. Every good autumn morning seems like one we ought to celebrate, but with one eye on our news feed, because a smackdown must be coming.
Maybe Vladimir Putin really will use a nuclear weapon; there would be no good response to that. Probably the oil price hike announced this week will lead to both disruptive inflation and then crippling recession worldwide — while in this country, it’s likely to drive up the cost of filling your gas tank or oil furnace, which in turn will lead voters to elect a lot of Republicans next month. And that will be bad for democracy because, according to The Washington Post, a majority of Republican nominees for Congress and key statewide posts endorse Donald Trump’s lie that the 2020 presidential race was rigged.1 A Congress led by politicians who disrespect the will of voters and grovel before a deranged demagogue will probably stifle all our recent progress on climate change and economic justice.
So, yeah, tomorrow looks pretty lousy. In a rather perverse way, that might make us feel better about today — you know, gather ye roses while ye may — but it might also make us feel like just crouching in fear, or at least averting our gaze from what lies ahead.
Of course, everything that happens changes what follows, at least to some degree. We’re all familiar with the so-called butterfly effect — the notion that a disruption as tiny as a butterfly’s flapping wings can set in motion a series of results that will yield something much more profound. If you don’t think that’s true, just pay attention when somebody is rude to you, and watch how you treat the next person you see.
A few remarkable people are able to overcome that sort of negative impact. They are energized by moments such as this, and see the threat of imminent disruption or even disaster as the right time to act. It speaks to something that the philosophers of ancient Greece would call kairos — a word that signifies a moment that is critical, or opportune. A kairos moment is one that exists when circumstances are ripe for change.
What may be our salvation in these tough days is if enough of us see this as a kairos moment that demands action, rather than a time of despair when we slink away.
We all know people who thrive as they contemplate adversity, like an athlete whose skills are elevated by a tough opponent. There’s a biological reason for it: a little almond-shaped bundle of neurons in the brain, known as the amygdala, which reacts to fear by setting in motion a series of physical changes that include sharper eyesight, aroused awareness and a squirt of adrenaline — which, in turn, gives us energy.2
That doesn’t happen to everybody, and it doesn’t happen to anybody every time we confront a challenge. That’s why the brain’s response to fear is often labeled the “fight, flight or freeze” syndrome. You freeze when the cerebellum sort of overrules the amygdala, and tells you to stand pat. Evolutionarily, that was useful for animals that were well camouflaged, and it can still help 21st century humans, such as when we need to avoid over-reaction in moments of stress.
But in the face of challenges that current events present to our communities — as we confront anti-democratic charlatans at home and ultra-nationalistic predators abroad — the instinct to freeze isn’t one to trust. We need to act.
The Greeks who gave us the concept of kairos also had a second word for time: chronos, which is the simple notion of sequential time, as one moment and one day after another. We each have a limited quantity of that at our disposal, of course, and we don’t know when it will run out. While that might also be a cause for anxiety, there’s opportunity here: If we can turn chronos into kairos — that is, if we might seize the perilous moment and make it an opportunity for progress and change — then ordinary time can become more powerful.
I’m not a scholar of either theology or philosophy, but I know just enough to recognize that there are more classical definitions of both those Greek words that have drawn academic study. Perhaps I can be forgiven, however, if I offer this notion from the writings of Paul, the architect of early Christianity: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people…”. 3
That opportunity only comes if we have time, in the chronos sense, and there may be little of it left to make a difference before events overtake us. So, yes, these days of uncertainty may well precede a dark event, or a series of them, but it’s also true that in this moment, we may yet influence that imagined or predicted future.
So this is no time to freeze in fear. Political campaigns need our support; conversations about current events need our voices; would-be learners need our teaching. At the same time, it would be a mistake to let despair rob us of the pursuit of beauty and fulfillment in the arts, or in the experiences we pursue that give us joy, or in our relationships with others. We need to take time for all of that.
It is possible, after all, that this is a kairos moment in which the change ahead is one that we can yet influence to be for the good. So there’s no time to waste looking in the rearview mirror or crouching in fear. Not now — not in this clear and vital moment.
Galatians 6:9 (ESV)
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NEWSCLIPS FROM THE UPSTATES
Dispatches from our common ground *
Wherein each week we look around what we call the nation’s Upstates — those places just a bit removed from the center of things — to find illuminating news and intriguing viewpoints, which you might not otherwise see.
This week, we share reporting published here:
Kaukauna, Wisc. (Sheboygan Press, sheboyganpress.com)
Corpus Christi, Tex. (Corpus Christi Caller-Times, caller.com)
New Shoreham, R.I. (The Newport Daily News, newportRI.com)
Iowa City, Iowa (Iowa City Press-Citizen, press-citizen.com)
NOTE: The complete “Newsclips from the Upstates” section is available only to paid subscribers. Thanks for your support!
Popularity of goats growing as invasive plant eradicators
Climate change is giving extra life to invasive plants that choke out diverse native species, but officials in Wisconsin are increasingly turning to goat herds as a way to get rid of the unwanted intruders. That’s according to reporting by the Appleton Post-Crescent’s Sophia Voight. At the 1000 Islands Environmental Center in northern Wisconsin, the goats are just now munching on buckthorn and honeysuckle. “The hope is it stunts (the plants’) growth enough to be able to give our native species a fighting chance,” naturalist Debra Nowak said. But there’s a limit to the goats’ effectiveness, she noted: They need to graze where most of the plants are unwanted, because “they will eat everything.”
Big desalination plant passes a hurdle — but not the big one
Texas state regulators have given permission for one of two planned desalination plants in the Corpus Christi Ship Channel that would turn seawater into fresh water. But reporting in the Corpus Christi Caller Times by Chase Rogers notes that the permit covers only water intake — not the outflow, which is typically a harder permit to obtain. (Desalination creates a toxic brine polluted with chlorine and copper that can degrade coastal and marine ecosystems.) The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency hasn’t yet had a chance to review the projects, because they’ve been handled by state officials. Nevertheless, supporters predict they will get the permit they say they need next year. “Our ability to grow to attract new businesses and to create great jobs is dependent upon the ability to secure a water source,” the mayor told the newspaper.
Offshore wind farm offers glimpse of the future
The United States has only seven functioning offshore wind turbines, but a lot more are planned. This week reporter Zane Wolfgang of The Newport Daily News joined a group that took a look at five of those turbines, which provide all the electricity for Block Island — a 10-square-mile enclave that’s popular with sailors in summertime and home to some 1,400 people year-around. Those residents, Wolfgang’s story notes, won’t feel the pinch of utility price hikes that other New Englanders will this winter. Here’s some good news: A peer-reviewed study found no significant negative effect on the area’s important fish populations, but actually higher populations of some desirable species. “Off the coast of Block Island,” Wolfgang writes, “those who look closely can catch a glimpse of the future.”
Long imprisoned school counselor “innocent,” awarded millions
Donald Clark, an elementary school counselor, was imprisoned for six years after being convicted in 2010 of sexually abusing a 5th-grader. But he was released after his conviction was vacated when a court ruled that his lawyer was incompetent. Now, according to reporting in the Iowa City Press-Citizen by George Shillcock, a jury has awarded him $12 million in compensatory damages. Many former colleagues and friends had showed up to support him on the day he took the witness stand during his trial. The jury verdict in the civil case came six years after a judge ruled that not only was he legally not guilty, but also “actually innocent” of the charges on which he had been convicted. “‘I’m not only a free person,, but also free from the state’s prison of lies,” Clark declared in a press release.
Free to roam, to see beyond our own back yard
One of the greatest impacts of the pandemic shutdown was the limit it placed on our creativity by shutting off so much that lies outside our own homes. We couldn’t go to concerts, or movies, or art openings, or new restaurants. We couldn’t meet new people or travel. Now some of those barriers have fallen. But the threat of new variants and the continuing toll of the virus still limits those of us who want to be very careful with our health.
A lot of people moved faster than we did, but lately we have begun to venture out more — to a well-ventilated restaurant with neighbors, a concert where patrons are required to wear masks, a trip across the continent where we remained masked whenever we were around crowds indoors. A presentation by the great dance troupe Momix stirs the imagination in ways we can’t imagine without that stimulus. We are reminded in every one of these events of how much we need this sort of influx of creative energy. Indeed, the anthropologist Augustin Fuentes has put forward the argument that the greatest drivers of human evolution were creativity and cooperation. Missing out on that has in fact diminished our humanity. No wonder some of us are so eager to regain it that we have abandoned the practices that can keep us safe.
We know Covid-19 remains a threat. We have friends who have recently gotten quite sick from the virus, and others who are coping unevenly with lengthy recoveries. In our state, in fact, we’re back to what’s considered a dangerous level of transmission. So we can’t let down our guard too much. But we also cannot go back to the closeted lives of the shutdown, because that simply denies too much of who we really are and need to be.
Thank you for reading The Upstate American this week, and for joining me on “our shared ground, this place in America.