The Gathering Storms and Grief

In this post I will briefly surveil the deeply divisive trials of these times,  and carefully examine various theories about our deepest psychological/physiological ways of thinking in search of explanations for the lack of reason and goodwill.  I will then propose my own theory about what is most fundamentally troubling us– grief – and what can be done to heal it.

I am enjoying reading The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson, because it is about the first year of Churchill’s wartime prime ministership, including his family life.  I am comforted by being reminded about how terrible things seemed and were, knowing as I read that the good side won, albeit with terrible sacrifices.   Knowing the apprehension and fear present in that year, and many others, strengthens me as I consider the dangers of our time:  the pandemic, the climate crises which have come upon us much, much faster than even true believers anticipated, and the possible collapse of democracy in the U.S. and the consequences for Canada and the rest of the world.  I read that even Churchill did not believe that England could prevail unless he could get the U.S. into the war, so I know that even he, along with many, many other people, was frightened about the future of the world.  That is one similarity with our own time.

Another is that no one could predict when the war would end, as the pandemic’s end cannot be forecast. Those there would be already planning what to do if England fell – a possibly endless post-war period of strife and fear and sacrifice.  Aside from the pandemic, into which we will soon begin our third year, we don’t know what will happen in the other two crises.  The climate crisis is definitely underway, and we don’t really know how bad it will be, but hope that it will not be as bad as some predictions.  And we don’t really know that American democracy will collapse – we are just trying to think our way toward and through it just as people planned resistance if England collapsed.

The title of this blog post (probably the first of several parts) is an homage to Churchill’s The Gathering Storm, the first volume of his history of the second world war.

The problems for informed consent:

The problems for informed consent, the theme of this blog, are many:  informed consent to vaccination and any lock-down measures, together with QR codes to get into restaurants (currently closed to indoor dining in Ontario); informed consent to government income supports for people who have lost income; understanding enough about the extraordinary bifurcation of the States and the damage to democracy there, and finding a way to dissent from that; informed consent to decisions advised by scientific evidence of the climate crisis: the summer’s heat dome in western Canada, followed by floods, followed by forest fires, followed by extraordinary cold temperatures; the extraordinary weather in the western states, and the December tornadoes and floods in the American south.  These will cause many changes about which people will want to give consent or dissent.   All this is magnified by there being so many problems at the same time.

It is also complicated by the effects on our brains of the greatly increased interaction with social media and with computers designed to seduce our minds to deal with many different subjects quickly, often, and repetitively.  According to the leading proponent of the theory of neuroplasticity Norman Doidge (The Brain That Changes Itself,  and The Brain’s Way of Healing)  peoples’ brains are adapting to the new demands, and perhaps letting go of earlier abilities such as deep reading, listening to lengthy lectures, etc.  He refers to this  (in an interview with the Centre for International Governance Innovation  https://www.cigionline.org/big-tech/the-brain-is-not-a-computer/?utm_source=cigi_newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=cyber-as-the-tip-of-the-spear as “losing privacy,” i.e., losing the ability to  detach from outer stimuli and to choose where you will place attention, or the ability to choose what to think at a given time. Our very brain structures are being changed.

It’ s just all so much at once, and we are sure that all but the pandemic will pester us for a long time.  The problems are real, immediate, and fast-paced, but so also are the changes to the brain.  No wonder it seems so overwhelming.

The problem for economics:

Stepping back a bit from the daily news and demands of living amid these crises, we see that Canada and the U.S. will have to invent new economic theories, because everything is going to continue to cost so very much. Canada’s debt will be augmented by the $40 billion settlement with first nations’ land claims, added to the doubtless billions to rebuild British Columbia and fortify it against the wild weather for the long future, ensuring the reliability and safety of roads and rail, and supply routes, and enabling the return of farms.  The cost of caring for long-term COVID patients, the full number of whom are unknown, will be added to these.  Transitioning from fossil fuels entirely to electricity, not only the cost of technology but the costs of retraining people in the one industry for new industries or elsewhere, will be expensive.  It’s all too easy to build a wall against all these measures in the name of fighting deficits and debts.  We need a theory of economics which will not leave us standing facing that wall.  It seems clear that Basic Income will be needed, particularly if we will be shutting down and reopening frequently for many years in the face of the next pandemics.  See, for example, https://basicincomecanada.org/.  We will, I think, also need to turn to Modern Monetary Theory (see, for example, Stephanie Kelton’s The Deficit Myth:  Modern Monetary Theory and the Birth of the People’s Economy), although an economist friend assures me that we can get along quite well by simply following Keynes.

We will need to build new social-support structures.  Governments must recruit public service people and advisors from business/industry/education to analyze what has so far been done well and what poorly; to conduct the same analyses during ongoing efforts, working across disciplines and departments in whole-of-government (and private equivalent) thinking and planning for the future. We must recruit appropriate people NOW to do this, which will cost more money. I am encouraged by the federal government’s hiring both outside consultants and more civil servants, although I don’t know what positions are being filled A warning sign of government bloat – The Globe and Mail. We must plan to find people to plan; plan what the things are which will need to be planned; set out timelines for all these (soon), and communicate the results to people so that democratic informed consent can be offered, or withheld.

Where are rationality and good will?

There are extraordinary schisms in the U.S. over a variety of issues, but most obviously voting rights, abortion, race relations, policing, vaccines, and the legitimacy of the recent presidential election.  There are not the same schisms in Canada, but the U.S. rhetoric spills over into Canada and some people argue as if Canada were like the U.S.  I keep wondering why rationality and goodwill are no longer obvious, no longer seem to be available to solve these issues so that not everything is a matter of win or lose.  I have discussed the deep background of some of these matters in earlier blogs

Is It Really Possible to Effect Informed Consent? – Upon reconsidering…Removing the appeal of authoritarianism – Upon reconsidering…, Restraint and Civic Virtue – Upon reconsidering… Despair – Upon reconsidering… and have cited much useful reading material.

I offer more here.

Is it reasonable to look for rationality and good will?  As I reconsider the matter of rational thought, I am currently buried in two books.  The Embodied Mind, by Thomas R. Verny, M.D., posits that “memory” (undefined) is found not just in the brain, but in cells throughout the body.

Whether or not we can consciously access a memory is not as important as the realization that we had the experience, the lived event, which has left some kind of impact, influence, mark, trace, record, or imprint on our cells or tissues [italics mine}.

A large number of these effects may be passed on to our children and grandchildren.

Verny discusses the enteric nervous system, the “brain in the stomach,” so to speak, and the possible effects of gut microbiome bacteria on our personality and health.  He uses microchips as analogs of cells “remembering” things. His chapter on the “memory” and cells’ inherent ability to make choices, and even molds which have no cells or neurons but which “remember”  and learn, is an eye-opener. While this book is replete with many words such as “suggests, may show, indicate, hints, etc.” with the word “prove” very seldom found, it certainly requires that I broaden my understanding of what it means to remember, think, make decisions, and be rational.  The question “Who’s really in charge here?”  keeps going through my head.  After reading so much earlier material that insists that everything happens only in the brain, and sources which insist that “thinking” is first an emotional process and only subsequently a rational one (without any satisfying explanation about how emotions “think”) I wonder whether it is unrealistic to expect people to work our way through today’s problems rationally.

At the other extreme is Steven Pinker’s Rationality:  What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters.  I enjoy going down all the labyrinths Pinker builds into his books.  But people interviewed by researchers in the books cited in my earlier posts complain that the elite like to make things too complicated, and keep themselves at higher stations in life.  I don’t accuse Pinker of elitism, but I think this book is the perfect example of this perceived problem: it might help us understand in lay terms why so many people seem so unreasonable, but instead it takes us through too many layers of intellectual onion-peeling to feel a satisfying grip on the problem at the end.

Can we not assert reason and goodwill somehow?

Of course, if we suppose that people can delay action until the products of hormones and the conscious processes, in due time, be filtered and formed more carefully by the external tools reason, ethics, and perhaps faith, perhaps we can assert control thereby. Or we risk returning to merely disagreeing about reason, ethics, and faith than the root issues. Introspection, self-examination, and mindfulness (particularly empathetic and loving-kindness mindfulness) are shown to very effectively deal with recognized and unrecognized biases in The End of Bias: the Science and Practice of Overcoming Unconscious Bias, by Jessica Nordell.    These are external processes that shape the results of internal processes.  Maybe these can help thinking as well.

Grief:

My theory: 

Perhaps seeking to deeply understand how we think will not actually explain why reason and goodwill are absent. There is another quality in all these disagreements which merits consideration – grief.  We all know grief.  We know that it can distort judgement, send you careening into thought patterns and actions which you would not do in a more settled state of mind and emotion.  Grief can attend not only the obvious situations like death, extreme suffering, and post-traumatic stress disorder, but also almost any sense of loss.  Clearly the pandemic, the climate crisis, the great recession of 2008, and for some Whites the perceived or real loss of prestige and privilege, are by themselves losses which can evoke grief.  Add to the grief process all the out-and-out deceptions, and the many social plights discussed above and in cited material. Huge amounts of grief have not only not been healed, but have been exacerbated and maintained by the surrounding circumstances.

We need to stop and remember how very radically grief can distort our world.  There needs to be an outlet for grief which recognizes it for itself.  When it is subsumed in politics or other win/lose life contests, it doesn’t get the proper recognition and attention.  My many years of experience as a pastor and counselor have shown me that the grieving process is effective only when it is witnessed.  We witness grief when we

  • are present to the grieving person, preferably in person (but during COVID more remotely), not accidentally, but for the express purpose of being present;
  • caring about the person and their welfare and future;
  • listening intently, sometimes questioning what the griever says to provide some clarity but not to agree or argue;
  • and being present this way frequently as well as being “on call.”

Many people in our atomized society don’t get to have their grieving witnessed in this way.  Instead they roil alone within themselves, or they are drawn into groups who use the grief for nefarious purposes in person or on-line or both. 

Grief has been politicized.  We must find ways to personalize it, to return the grief to the private context so that the private person can heal rather than rage. We must find ways to extract the grieving people from politics and violence.  We must seek a way to be societies of healing and respect rather than rights vs. wrongs, revenge, and winning or losing.  We must do this as individuals, being with individuals.  And we can, if wise, turn to the classic religions’ rituals of mourning and healing which can succour groups.  Then do the finer work individually.

In earlier posts, particularly The Usefulness of Talking – Upon reconsidering…, I have insisted that talking with other people, particularly people different from ourselves, is what we must do to find ways to get along without necessarily winning or losing.  But from all this reading especially Nordell’s book, I conclude that what’s important is to tell and listen to stories, that is to invite people into our lives and histories so they can understand how we have come to the positions we hold, and to accept invitations into their stories.  We should do this rather than try to convince them that they are wrong or we are right.  What can this accomplish?  It gives others and us an opportunity, to know others well enough to be with them without fear.  Break through the fear and we will be able to look for ways of enjoying one another’s presence even if we don’t agree on much.

I say this not just based on the reading I’ve done, but on experience with the many issues about which I have facilitated group story-telling.  Sharing experiences may be best done within and among groups, giving people a variety of experiences from which to choose.  You may not like what you see in my life, and may not feel comfortable as a result of my story.  But maybe someone else’s….

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