5 Losses

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Last week, we began three connected weeks of 5 Things with 5 Wins, a list of some of the good things that emerged in 2020. The next two weeks, we will be talking about 5 Losses and 5 Draws.

Next week, we will dive into the 5 Draws. The 5 Draws will consider those things that were not quite a win, but not quite a loss either. The things that were in the middle. I want us to think about what it means to live with complexity, and for simple answers and definitive solutions to elude us. Because that is often what life is.

This week, we will be focused on the 5 Losses of 2020. The 5 Losses will take a hard look at the stuff that went sideways this year. My god there was a lot. But losses are complex, just like wins. They can point the way to future success, and they can show us what we can do better. It is important to think about our losses and be prepared for the consequences they bring. And. Nothing is one thing. Even in our losses there can be joy.

I urge you to think about the losses you have experienced this year. I want you to think of them not because I want you to hurt, or feel bad, but because I want you to honor your loss. I want you to take the space and time to mourn. This year has been filled with trauma. Hell, even a cursory reading of the news can cause heartbreak and distress, to say nothing of all the things that we have experienced individually.

This week, as you read the 5 Losses, I encourage you to give space and time to your own. Mourning is valid. It’s okay. It’s okay to feel sad. It’s okay to be pissed and say bad words. There is much this year that has fucking sucked. And it’s okay to say that. Out loud even.

Feel your feelings. Even the hard ones. Especially the hard ones. Thank them for reminding you that you are still here. You are still human.

One good thing about a broken heart is that it is a reminder that you still have a heart. And as long as you have a heart, you have hope.

So let’s do this together. Let’s reflect on some of what we have lost this year.

Loss #1

Democracy

Every year when I was a kid, one of my mom’s best friends (who I referred to as my aunt) threw a 4th of July fish fry. It was a BIG party, and around a 100 people would gather at their house on the lake to eat fish and hush puppies and drink massive amounts of beer. The adults would be off drinking and talking about whatever adults talked about in 1984, while the kids would be left to their own devices.

Their lake house had a finished basement that they had converted into a game room. There were ping pong and pool tables, various kids toys, and a whole bunch of tennis equipment. My “aunt’s” husband had played varsity tennis at TCU, and still played at the local country club. There were dozens of tennis balls laying around, and they soon became missiles as the kids descended – as all large groups of unsupervised children do – into Lord of the Flies. We soon divided into groups and pelted each other with tennis balls.

There was one girl there who was a little bit older than me and who I thought was very cute. She was somehow actually related to my “aunt” but I wasn’t sure how. I had tried several times that day to impress her, but kept coming up short. At one point she threw a tennis ball at me that harmlessly bounced off my shoulder. I decided to take a different approach to get her attention.

“That didn’t hurt,” I said. “You throw like a girl.”

She smiled and grabbed another tennis ball. “Go ahead, I said. You aren’t gonna hit me. And besides, even if you do, it won’t hur—“

I vaguely remember the flash of yellow as it streaked toward me. I definitely remember the tennis ball making full, solid, and very aggressive context with my block and tackle. My twig and berries. My familial equipment. She pegged me right in the junk with that tennis ball. And she threw hard as hell.

I was barely able to wheeze out “Good throw” before I doubled over in pain and started seeing stars.

I don’t remember how I got up to where my mom was, but I do remember my mom asking if it hurt. “Hell yes,” I said. She told me that she was sure it did and then looked at me. “It may hurt, but you’ll live. It may not seem like it now, but the pain will go away. Nothing serious will happen. Probably. Now go play.”

As I limped off to plan my revenge, one word kept going through my mind… probably?

Democracy in 2020 has taken a tennis ball right in the nuts. And right now it hurts. It may not seem like it, but I think the pain will go away, and nothing serious will happen.

Probably.

We are living through one of the most aggressive and sustained attacks on the basic foundations of our democracy of my lifetime. Donald Trump and his authoritarian impulses, along with the complete capitulation of the Republican Party and with the enthusiastic cheering of half the country, have threatened to usher in nothing less than post modern fascism. Norms have been annihilated. Simple and basic tasks that have been taken for granted for years have been called into question. We have been subjected to dozens of frivolous lawsuits, claims of rampant (although nonexistent) voter fraud. The President of the United States of America is openly calling for state legislatures and the Supreme Court to overturn the actual votes of actual citizens and simply declare Trump the winner.

A lot of what makes democracy particularly shitty (factionalism, tyranny of the majority, and dis/misinformation) were challenges that were acutely seen, understood and DEEPLY feared by the founding fathers. The concerns that are enumerated in the Federalist papers (and a not insignificant number of the anti-federalist papers) could have been written this week. The American system was created specifically to deal with the shortcomings inherent in large scale democracy. Only there was one circle that they couldn’t square.

The American system (and therefore the one that got exported at the barrel of a cannon around the world) hinges on two things. The first is that people elected to office will place the welfare of the nation above their own self-interest. America must have leaders who put the good of the country ahead of party or personal goals. The second key is that the system is run by moral people who take moral actions. There is an assumption running through our founding documents that people will do the right thing.

The founders wrote quite presciently of the damage that could be done by demagogues acting on their own self interest who sought to use the system for personal gain. Their misplaced belief is that people of good faith would stand up to the demagoguery. And that people of character would rise to leadership. They assumed every American president would be Washington.

They were wrong.

In the end, this will probably end with Joe Biden being sworn in as the 46th President of the United States. In the end, our institutions will probably hold, although they will have taken an awful beating. Like a tennis ball in the nuts. Probably everything will be okay.

But the fact that I have to say probably is one of the huge losses of 2020.

Loss #2

Mental Health

When I was at Fort Bragg, I had a good friend named John. John went to our church and had two kids (a little girl and a baby boy) that were a little younger than ours at the time. His wife and Barb frequently got mixed up because they both were both beautiful stay at home moms with long, dark hair and blue eyes. John was also a member of the US Army’s Special Forces (a Green Beret) who was, in colloquial Army terms, “tabbed out.” He had been to numerous special schools, and his achievements and accommodations appeared all over his uniform as various tabs and badges. The first time I saw him wearing it all I asked if we all had to wear 37 pieces of flair. Oh, and HUGE bonus points if you get that reference without looking it up.

John was a lead instructor for the Special Forces Qualification Course. The “Q course” as it is known is one of the most grueling and physically, mentally, and emotionally challenging courses in the military. Any military. Anywhere in the world. It calls on trainees to push themselves well beyond their mental and physical limits. Those that graduate (and far fewer finish than enter) earn a Green Beret and membership in Special Forces. When I asked John what his job entailed he said “it’s simple. I stack challenges and line up misery.”

John went on to explain that human beings are remarkably resilient. We dominate the world not because we are stronger or faster. In fact, a human alone in the wilderness without support is among the most vulnerable animals in the world. What we do have, John said, is the ability to adapt to our circumstances, by using tools and our ability to work together to solve problems. The key, for John, was our resilience. Our ability to continue to try to solve problems when most animals would give up and move on. My job is to find that resilience in people, he said. And the way I do that is by putting multiple challenges in front of people. Most people will overcome a challenge when you put it in front of them. When it gets really hard, John pointed out, is when there are multiple challenges that hit us all at once, when multiple supports breakdown, when we things hit us when we are tired or hungry. THAT is when you find out what someone is really made of, John said.

John said that his favorite “stack” of challenges was to make people cold and wet. Most people can handle one or the other pretty much indefinitely, he said. You get used to cold. You can get used to being wet. But stack the two? Then add in some sleep deprivation, not enough food, and a movement to enemy contact? Then people start to question themselves and the people around them.

I have thought a lot about that conversation with John during 2020. This year has been all about stacking challenges and lining up misery. We have had to endure an ongoing series of struggles.

One of the things that I say a lot is that everybody has something. Trauma is universal. The first noble truth of Buddhism tells us that life is suffering. If you are a human, then you have had to deal with setbacks, struggles, disappointments, and heartbreak. However, as John pointed out, human beings are resilient. We can overcome challenges. We learn to adjust, to cope, to deal with things. But all the resilience in the world doesn’t help when the challenges get stacked. When you put one trauma, one struggle, on top of another and another and another, then it becomes impossible to shake it off.

We may have been able to handle a global pandemic. But not with Trump as President. We may be able to deal with climate change, but not with political movements and major corporations around the world committed to denying science, or even basic reality, and limiting aggressive action. Wildfires in the western half of the US and most of Australia are horrific, but when they come in the middle of a pandemic, they become existential threats. Trump whining about losing to Joe Biden is one thing, but when he uses the power of his office and weaponizes half the country’s citizens, it becomes something else entirely.

I can’t remember the last time I felt really settled about the state of the world. It is just so much all the time. It has taken a toll on ALL of us. Our mental health has suffered - individually and collectively.

What I know from my own experiences is that to begin to heal your heart you must first acknowledge that you are actually hurt. You must be okay with the fact that you are not okay. This year has sucked. It has been hard. We have all seen and felt things that we wish we had never had too see or feel. We have felt the weight of struggle and burden. We have spent months apart from one another. And Zoom and FaceTime are great, but they aren’t the same as a hug from someone you love.

This has probably been the hardest year that Willie has had since he moved away from home. And because of Covid we have only been able to see him a handful of time since March. That is just one weight among many that we have to carry. And I know everyone reading this could tell a similar story.

The mental health impacts of this year are real and they will be lasting. And it is okay to not be okay. We all have to be able to admit that, and walk with each other as we navigate through it.

In the end, what gets people through Q school, John told me, is their growing understanding that they can’t do it alone. They have to learn to work as part of a team. They have to know when to ask for help. If they work together, then even stacked challenges can be overcome.

The mental health challenges of this year are one of the losses of 2020. Luckily, we know that even in this we are not alone.

Loss #3

Equity

There is one fact about the coronavirus that I haven’t been able to shake since I read it a few weeks ago. It involves Filipino nurses here in the US.

Nurses from the Philippines, or who have Filipino ancestry, make up about 4% of US nurses. This may not sound like a lot, but the Filipino community makes up a little over 1% of the US population. Relative to their overall numbers, Filipinos have a very high number of nurses.

Here’s the crazy fact. Of the nurses that have died of Covid in the US, nearly 1/3 of them have been Filipino. They are 4% of nurses. 30% of nurse deaths due to Covid.

During the American occupation of the Philippines after WWII, an Americanized health care curriculum was brought to the country’s nursing schools. The high demand for health care workers in an expanding post war US economy meant that becoming a nurse was one of the best ways to secure a visa to come to the US. Nursing became a path from the islands to the States. It became a common career path even after families relocated here. This helps explain some of the over-representation of Filipino nurses.

But why the death rate? While it may take years to untangle the exact cause, there are a couple of factors that seem to have played at least some role and are also a product of racialized differences. First, Filipinos overall have worse health outcomes than the whole population. This health disparity exists for almost all minority communities. Second, Filipino nurses are more likely to work in high exposure, high risk nursing jobs (like the ER or ICU) than their white counterparts. This would appear to be a function, at least in part, of implicit bias.

While it is important to understand the reason for the higher death rate for Filipino nurses, it is also critically important that we see the underlying truth represented in these numbers - that hard times are not equally hard. By almost any measure that you choose to use, the pandemic and its fallout have had negative and reverberating effects for almost everyone. Well, everyone except billionaires who have actually seen their already exorbitant wealth increase dramatically during the pandemic. But even with the struggle and loss being felt by almost everyone, some have still suffered even more.

Recent studies have shown that all kids have fallen behind in school this year. But students of color, economically disadvantaged students, English language learners, and special needs kids have fallen even farther behind.

Medical demographers have found that Black and Latinx patients who get the virus are more likely to become symptomatic, to eventually need a ventilator, and are more likely to have Covid become fatal. Even when the hard time is a virus, it is still not equally hard.

One of the clear losses of 2020 has been equity. It is hard to even call it a loss because I am never sure it was a win, or was something that was even close to being solved. What I do know is that the people who were struggling before all this are struggling even more now.

My sincere hope is that what we have experienced over the last year will cause us to take a hard look at the seemingly intractable inequities in our system. While this is my hope, I am not optimistic. Serious and sober self-reflection is not a historic national strength.

2020 has been yet another data point for a simple truth. Hard times are not equally hard. And that is always a loss.

Loss #4

Cooperation and Shared Sacrifice

One of the enduring memories of America during World War II is of shared sacrifice. We have all heard stories of young men lying about their age in order to sign up and fight, ration cards, and victory gardens. There was an entire public relations effort by the government undertaken to encourage and ensure that America would fully mobilize for the war effort. It was a collective effort, undertaken by virtually every corner of American society and strata. 

America is a country based on extreme “rugged” individualism, but she also prides herself on moments - like World War II - when we come together to solve big challenges. Such moments have been scarce in my lifetime, but we have seen glimpses. During the first Gulf War, the country was (mostly) unified in believing that Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait was wrong. We had an overwhelming international mandate for military action. While most Americans didn’t sacrifice, per se, we were at least unified in support. After 9/11 we came together again in pain and determination. We often see communities come together after natural disasters, and mutual aid and support become the story, not the tragedy.

The coronavirus has been one of the greatest challenges in American history. It is the worst pandemic to hit America in 100 years. It has affected every state, and every community, across the country. If there was ever a time for us to come together, to pursue collective action for the good of one another, to share in sacrifice and community, it is now. 

A couple of nights ago the Boise, ID health board met to discuss a potential mask mandate for greater Boise, the most populated area of the state. The board was unable to finish its discussion. The meeting was interrupted by anti-mask protestors who not only disrupted the meeting, but also went to the homes of the individual board members. One board member - Diana Lachiondo - interrupted the meeting in tears and said she had to get home urgently. Her 12 year old son was there alone, and protestors were banging on the doors and windows and screaming obscenities.

This is a divided country. That’s not new. We have been divided by corporations who manipulate our base motives to sell us things. We have been divided by politicians who use our natural disagreements to foment anger and mistrust. We have been divided by media Balkanization and social media algorithms that tell us only what we want to hear. And we have been divided by our own dark impulses and desire to see those that would disagree with us as enemies to be annihilated, rather than neighbors to learn to cooperate with.

If there was ever anything that should have brought us together, it was the challenges of Covid. Instead, we are farther apart than we ever have been. The rhetoric escalates every day. We are as divided as we have been since the Civil War. In some ways, we are even more divided now than we were then.

Fun fact. 2% of the American population died on Civil War battlefields. The death rate from Covid in the US is about 2%. Time is a flat circle. We keep fighting and dying for the same fundamental reason - our inability to work together for a good greater than ourselves.

There have been a lot of losses in 2020. I am not sure any of them is bigger than the loss of cooperation and shared sacrifice that once defined our country in times of peril.

Loss #5

Shared Space

It is kind of ironic that my Friday Positivity this week was about finding joy in sharing time, space, and place with others. This very joyful thing - shared space - is something that we have clearly lost over the last year. And the repercussions from that loss, for our present and our future, are profound.

I miss shared space.

I miss restaurants. Eating out is our family’s kryptonite. We love to eat out. Whether it was our Tuesdays at Moe’s (kids eat free!), stopping at Al’s for a burger, or Waffle House - anytime, anywhere. We ate at fancy places, scary fast food joints, fast casual bistros, food truck rodeos and everywhere in between. One of the reasons we love living here in the Triangle is because good food is everywhere. I don’t know how many of those places will come back from all this.

I miss the movies. I LOVE movies. Love them. I am happy watching a movie on my iPad sitting under the covers. And it is an amazing time for movies at home. I could watch movies all day and not come close to watching all that I want. And. It is NOT the same as sitting in a theater, eating movie theater popcorn with whatever that butter stuff is, seeing the stories unfold on the big screen. I have been in theaters that cheered, theaters that booed, and theaters that were full of people crying. And I don’t know that any of that will come back.

I love live music. I love the energy of the crowd. The intimacy of musicians you love sharing their gift in an intimate way. The best concerts I have been to were like conversations between musicians and fans. Even when that conversation was shouted. I once even got a call out from the stage by Tres Chicas. One of the very best moments of my life. And now? What happens to all those moments? Will it ever feel the same?

We have lost so much of our communal life. And even when we have it, it feels scary and a little bit wrong. And I don’t know if we can put that toothpaste back in the tube. 

I hope we can. I miss those places and those spaces. I miss singing together in church. I miss the passing of the peace. I miss random moments where you bumped into friends at the grocery store and caught up. I miss the drop off and pick up lines at school where community was built. 

Everyone is distant. And it keeps us safe. And hopefully healthy. I know it is the right thing. And I am proud of those of us who remain committed to doing the right thing even when so many aren’t.

And. We have lost some things. It is okay to mourn them. It is okay to be sad. It is okay to call them what they are. 

Losses.

As always, thank you for reading. Be well friends. If you are not a yet a subscriber and would like to get the 5 things (and a whole lot of other good stuff) during the week, I can’t encourage you enough to become a subscriber.

See you all soon. Keep pounding the rock.

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