What Is Old Seems New Again …

Since the earliest days of COVID, I have been struck by the parallels between the onset of the HIV/AIDS crisis as the onset of COVID.  I say that as a 54-year-old gay man who was just 12 when HIV/AIDS first appeared.  Let me share a few of those parallels.

In the early days of HIV/AIDS, we talked about condoms being a major tool of prevention.  In the early days of COVID, we talked about masks being a major tool of prevention.  In both cases, people resisted using those tools of prevention – often lashing out and saying their preventative abilities were overstated.

In the early days of HIV/AIDS, we talked a lot about safer sex as a way of reducing transmission.  In the early days of COVID, we talked a lot about social distancing as a way of reducing the risk of transmission.  In both cases, many were reluctant to adopt the practices since they were “clunky”, inconvenient, and uncomfortable.

In the early days of HIV/AIDS, we talked a lot about the belief that all we needed was a vaccine.  Once we had one, then things could return to “normal”.  After nearly 35 years, PrEP was developed to help insulate many from the virus. While it’s not the same as a vaccine (PrEP is a pill that must be taken daily instead of a shot that’s given once every 6 months), it does provide a degree of protection that was only dreamed of in the 1980’s.  In the early days of COVID, we talked a lot about the belief that a vaccine would defeat the virus and let us return to normal.  In just a few months, not just one but 3 vaccines were developed to insulate many from the virus.  In both cases, however, the promised “return to normal” did not immediately follow the development of vaccines.

In the early days of HIV/AIDS, those who contracted the virus felt a great deal of shame and judgment.  They were often explicitly told they deserved what they got since they hadn’t taken precautions.  In the early days of COVID, those who contracted the virus felt a great deal of shame and judgment as many told them they too got what they deserved.

In the early days of HIV/AIDS, many in the gay community felt it was inevitable that they would get the virus.  Consequently, they decided not to use protections.  In the early days of COVID, there was much talk about “herd immunity” – and some thought it would be a natural part of the process of defeating COVID.  As a result, many of these folks decided not to use protections.

In the early days of HIV/AIDS, religious extremists were HUGE obstacles to overcome in the efforts to stop (or at least slow) HIV/AIDS.  They refused attempts to fund prevention efforts (be they educational efforts that talked about anything other than abstinence or prevention methods like condoms).  In the early days of COVID, religious extremists again were HUGE obstacles to overcome in the efforts to stop (or at least slow) COVID.  They screamed about their First Amendment Right to gather (even when such gatherings were killing members of their congregations) and they often flaunted their beliefs that vaccines and masks don’t work (despite scientific evidence to the contrary).

I could go on an on about the parallels between the early days of HIV/AIDS and the early days of COVID – but I think you get the point.

So why am I talking about this?

Well, when the latest surge of COVID began to unfold this December here in LA, I hit a sort of wall in my efforts to be the sort of loving, empathetic person I normally am when dealing with those in need.  I began to be extremely angry and frustrated with folks for not GETTING the seriousness of the virus with which we are dealing.

So many I dealt with held the belief that because they had gotten vaccinated and used masks that things were supposed to return to normal.  In fact, there was a sense that because they had done all the right things, they were entitled for things to go back to the way they were.  They could travel just as much as they had before COVID, and they could attend social gatherings at the holidays (especially at the holidays) just as they had done before.  Many would say things like, “After nearly two years of this COVID stuff, I’m tired.  I just want things to be the way they used to be!”

On one level, I can understand their feelings.  That’s because for those of us who are gay or bisexual men over 50, we thought the same thing – back in 1982.  When HIV/AIDS sprung on the scene publicly in 1980, we thought it too would be a short-lived experience.  When the treatment of AZT was developed, some of us felt entitled to return to life as we had known it.

And yet – 42 years later, here we are.  Our worlds have been changed: forever.  We have had to rethink our approach about nearly everything – from sex, to relationships, to what a healthy lifestyle looks like … you name it, and 42 years later we are still negotiating the effects of the virus.  HIV changed our worlds forever.

I say that because every day I wake up and deal with folks who are angry and frustrated that the world has changed, I tell myself, “Craig, remember that the vast majority of these folks are not a part of the LGBTQIA+ community.  Even those who are allies don’t know what it’s like to have their world turned upside down overnight.  They haven’t had to live with the consequences of a virus for 42 years.  This is brand new to them.”

When I remember that, I’m much more likely to be patient.  But I think with this latest surge, I’ve come to the realization that being my better self doesn’t just involve keeping my mouth shut and letting them rage.  Being my better self includes saying things like, “You know other communities have dealt with similar challenges before.  If you want help in processing these things, it might be helpful to seek out someone who has been there before.  Someone who can share insights into how to manage some of the things that seem unmanageable for you today.”

I am grateful for this opportunity to share what has been building inside me for the past 21 months.  And on my good days, I’ll be happy to share my experience so that we can overcome expressions of entitlement – and begin adapting permanently to this new (post-virus) world in which we now live.

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The Power of the Personal Inventory

One of my favorite parts of the 12 Step movement is something called a daily inventory.  The daily inventory was born from the 10th Step which reads: “We continued to take personal inventory, and, when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.”  That beautiful and transformative Step runs counter to the way so many in the world operate these days.  Let me give you an example of what I mean.

When an individual gets into a fight with another, for instance, it’s very natural for the individual to focus on what the other person said or did that set the individual off.  The individual then spends a ridiculous amount of time and energy re-living the way in which the other wronged the individual.  In placing their focus on the other person, the individual overlooks the ways the individual’s own words or behaviors contributed to the conflict.

It took me a while to warm up to the 10th Step.  That because I – like many – would MUCH rather play the role of “the victim” in a conflict rather than consider the ways in which I stepped into the role of “the perpetrator” as well.

So what helped me warm to the 10th Step?

As I stepped back and watched the dynamics of most conflicts, I’ve begun to understand why we have such a hard time overcoming our differences these days.  When we put the bulk of our focus on the ways in which we feel wronged – and spend our time and energy lobbing nasty accusations at the other party, that’s a recipe for intractability.  For that dynamic means both parties are immediately put on the defensive.  Each party becomes obsessed with first defending themselves (and then proving why the other party was wrong) – that it becomes impossible for anyone to get at the heart of the problem (which, let’s be honest, both parties contributed to in most cases).

When an individual breaks that long-standing pattern and accepts responsibility FIRST for their piece of the conflict, the dynamic of the situation begins to change.  These days, I’m trying hard to begin tough conversations with sentences like these: “You know John.  I’ve stepped back and looked at the situation and realized that I contributed a great deal to the conflict by not taking the time to listen to what you were saying.  And consequently, I reacted to what I thought you had said and not what you really had said.  I’m sorry I did that.”

Such an opening makes it more likely that John might respond by saying something like, “I appreciate you saying that Craig.  And I need to say that I helped things get out of hand as well.  When I heard you misrepresent my position, I got mad and started interrupting you.  I never gave you a chance to share your perspective.  I’m sorry about that as well.”

Of course, that response doesn’t always follow.  But you would be surprised at how frequently it does!

This approach might seem common-sensical in the context of personal relationships.  I believe the principle can also hold when one deals with larger social issues as well.

Take the example of the six workers killed in the Amazon warehouse located in Illinois – and the ten workers killed at the Mayfield Consumer Products candle factory in Kentucky in the tornadoes last week.

The way the story is typically discussed, much of the blame for the deaths is laid at the feet of the two businesses involved.  People talk about how things would have turned out differently if only the companies had acted in the interests of their workers.  Believe me, that’s where my head was at first.

After a few days, however, I’ve taken time to look at my role in all of this.  And I didn’t like what I found.  Let me tell you why I say that.

One of the primary reasons employers push their employees so hard these days is that consumers are becoming increasingly aggressive about getting their products at the lowest possible cost in the shortest possible time.  These expectations (combined with a desire to generate the biggest possible profit, of course) lie at the heart of what pushes companies to act in ways that keep their employees on job sites when those job sites are threatened by natural disasters.

As I looked in the mirror this week, I realized I am one of those consumers that pushes companies to deliver their products as cheaply and as quickly as humanly possible.  I spend a good amount of time scouring the Internet – looking for the cheapest price for a product.  And when I find it, I switch gear and look for free shipping that comes as quickly as possible.  In other words, my own actions lie at the root of the dynamic that puts companies in the position of driving their employees too hard – and putting those employees at risk.

As a result of my daily inventories, I’m asking myself questions that take me out of my comfort zone.  “Will I be willing to pay a little more for a product if it comes from a small business or corporation that has a record for treating their employees well?”  “Will I be willing to wait a week to receive my product and paying for shipping, instead of demanding free 2-day shipping?”

I know it feels better to process the news when I look at situations like those in Illinois and Kentucky and simply point my finger at others in self-righteous anger or indignation.  But sadly, I know that when I do it plays into a situation where things are less likely to change.  The accused will simply spend millions hiring lawyers to fight the inevitable lawsuits, and corporations will spend even more on lobbyists to protect laws that minimize the rights of workers.  And sadly, little time or more is spent on those things that could solve the problem.

When I begin to accept the role that my actions contribute to the way things play out in the world, I begin to realize that things CAN begin to shift quicker than most of us would think possible.  When I change my patterns of consumptions and re-claim my power in the process, I don’t have to wait for court cases to be settled or laws to be passed.  Corporations that would normally spend years fighting lawsuits and policy changes will begin to adapt their business practices quickly when they see the spending habits of consumers like myself change.  Once we’ve taken our own inventory (and addressed what needs to be changed in our own lives), then we can work together to challenge the corporations and companies to do their part as well.

Here’s hoping that more and more of us will adopt the practice of taking a daily inventory.  That simple act can – and WILL – change the world: one life – one inventory – at a time.

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Closed vs. Open Sourcing

One of my favorite things to do in life is bring together two ideas that seemingly have NOTHING to do with each other – and explore expected parallels.  As a former classroom teacher, I love getting people to think in new ways!

As I was heading toward Advent this year, I was talking with my friend James Mills about his job.  James spent several years working as a minister (or what he calls “pastoral steward”).  Now, he works full-time in the field of technology. As James was describing his job, he said he works on what he called an open-source platform.

“Open-source?” I said.  “What’s that?!”

He went on to explain that most of the technology platforms we use on computers (ranging from word processors to social media sites) are called closed-source.  This means that the company operating the platform goes to great lengths to hide their design code.  By hiding their codes, they prevent regular users from getting into the code and “messing” things up.  Companies that used closed source platforms include biggies like Facebook, Google, and Microsoft.

Many of us have been trained to think that closed source platforms are the ONLY way to go.  We assume its good that only the “experts” have access to the code.  That’s because we have been trained to think that experts produce the very best product possible.  That’s why, we tell ourselves, that it’s okay for them to have exclusive (or proprietary) rights to the content.

“But is a closed-source approach really best?” James asked.

Those like James who work on open-source platforms use a VERY different set of assumptions.  They don’t assume that only the “experts” know what’s going on.  They believe there are thousands and thousands of gift computer users who have much to contribute to the development of a platform.  The best way to produce the very best product isn’t to lock the majority of the world out of the process.  The better way is to make the computer codes available to all so that more people can participate in the process – and improve the product.

So what does this conversation about technology have to do with theology – and Christmas?

In many ways, some of the largest and most dominant expressions of Christian community have approached the development of spiritual community like closed-source technology companies.  These communities designate some as “experts” (i.e., popes, priests/pastors, Christian educators, theologians, etc.).  They are the ones allowed to do theology on behalf of the community.  Then they use things like creeds and ecclesiastical rules to tell others what is – and what is NOT – acceptable.  They rarely allow regular folks into the process of evaluating and re-forming the tradition.

Sadly, this approach has strongly influenced the general public’s perception of Christianity.  Many think that Christianity – by definition – is closed-source.  That its primary goal is to use Jesus as the ultimate litmus test to divide people into two camps.  No, those camps aren’t Google or Microsoft.  Those camps are the “saved” and “not saved”.

I see Christmas very differently, however.  I see the Christ-child that came into the world through what had previously been a closed-source (a faith tradition designed exclusively for God’s chosen, the Israelites) and opened things up to the Gentiles as well.  The Christ-child set in motion a powerful chain of events that extended God’s unconditional love and grace to all.  That’s why the Gospel represents truly Good News.  Not just for some people – but for all of creation!

If you would like to check out the conversation I had with James (a powerful theologian as well as technology aficionado), click on the link below.  I hope you enjoy this early Christmas gift – as the conversation might give you an opportunity to think about a variety of things in new ways!

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Questions Raised by the Kyle Rittenhouse Verdict?

Today’s decision in the Kyle Ritttenhouse case was a tough decision to process – whether you supported the decision, opposed it, or weren’t quite sure what to make of it.  Rather than try to use my space to present my own take on the decision (which would represent my own limited life-experience and perspective), I thought I would use the space to raise five questions that the verdict raised for me – in hopes that you might ask yourself some of these questions and share the questions with others.

I know that some of you might be compelled to post answers to my questions on the blog.  Of course, I can’t stop you from doing that.  I would, however, like to put forth a much more helpful (and challenging) alternative.

Instead of simply sharing your perspective, I would invite you to find a loved one and have a conversation with that person about some (or all) of the questions I raise.  Then – AFTER you’ve had a conversation – I would love to hear how the conversation went in your post.

I prefer this response because I believe the world is already too full of people reacting – rather than responding – to the events of our day.  It is far more difficult to find instances where people intentionally go out into the world, engage others, actually listen to what the other person says, and then process what happened in the conversations.  I would LOVE it if my blog could motivate this kind of a response.

Here are the questions I would invite you to talk about.

  1. What is your definition of peace?
  2. Does “keeping the peace” mean the same thing as “preserving the status quo”?
  3. Whose job is it to maintain order?
  4. How should those who have been historically marginalized advocate for justice in a system that is designed to keep them marginalized?
  5. How might people have reacted if it was a young Black man who walked through the streets of Kenosha carrying an AR-15 semi-automatic weapon compared to how they responded when a young White man (Kyle Rittenhouse) did that?

Thanks in advance to those who get important conversations going.

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What Is It That You Are Growing?

This fall, I’ve been engaged in the process of re-defining my relationship with social media.  My effort started for very practical reasons.  By blending my personal and vocational lives online, I didn’t have a place that was just “mine” to interact with my personal friends and family.  I also found it was impossible to get away from my vocational life for even a moment – as people could use social media to contact me even when I turned off my cell phone and vocational email notifications.  That’s why about a month ago, I deleted everyone I knew from my vocational life from my Facebook friends list.

While the process of re-defining my relationship with social media began for practical reasons, over the past several weeks my reasons for limiting my participation in it has continued to expand.  And last night, I saw a documentary on HBO Max that beautifully captured what I was wrestling with: the film was called “15 Minutes of Shame”.

The documentary tells the stories of several people who were “taken down” because of social media.  One story was that of a military veteran who had purchased a huge stock of sanitizing products just before COVID hit.  Once COVID hit and the demand for the products increased exponentially, he sold them on Amazon at increased rates.  The New York Times then ran a story on the individual – and the story has nearly destroyed his life.  He has been viciously threatened constantly on social media and is now struggling with severe mental health issues.

Another woman who worked for a hospital made a comment on her personal Facebook page suggesting that those who refused COVID vaccinations should be refused access to ventilators.  It got picked up by a social media giant who identified her as a villain, and she was fired from her job with two days.  Her subsequent treatment my national media outlets was devastating as well.

Each of the stories they told about public shaming via the internet was difficult to hear.

The piece that most fascinated me was the conversation about what happens when people experience something online.  One researcher shared a study she had done in Europe that explored how people reacted when they watched soccer (or football) on screens.  One of the results, in particular, caught my attention.  They noted that while people responded favorably when their favorite team experienced success (i.e., scored a goal), people responded much more enthusiastically when a player from their most-hated team (aka their archrival) experienced.  The study suggests many people derive more pleasure from seeing those they hate fail, than when they (or their loved ones) succeed.  How sad it that!

As I thought about the way I hear people in my life talk about social media, the study hit the nail on the head.  Many of the people I know spend WAAAAAAAAAAY more time focusing on those people or organizations they hate (i.e., “Can you believe what Robert just posted this about Trump?!”) than they ever do talking about those people or things they love.

Why is that?

Because the algorithms that drive the internet have been created in such a way as to draw us to things that get us angry or agitated.  People spend more time on sites/stories that anger or irritate them than they do on sites/stories that affirm them and what they believe.  And the more hits a site/story gets, the more money it generates.  Those algorithms have caused so many to live in a world of perpetual anger and irritation.  Sigh …

My favorite quote in the documentary came from a technology ethicist who said this in regard to what social media values about us: “We are more valuable if we’re addicted, outraged, irritable, disinformed, and polarized than if we’re a human being.”

All of this is why I’m pulling back intentionally from social media.

This awareness is not just driving those on my friends list on Facebook.  It’s affecting me in other ways as well.  For instance, I’m paying more attention to the news links I click on when I’m surfing the internet these days.  I try to steer clear of clicking on article titles that use extreme language (even when I agree with what appears to be the content of the article) and click on those articles that seem to present a balanced, thoughtful presentation of the subject matter.

I may not be able to change the state of the world myself.  But I can take back some degree of control in my own little corner of the world by paying more attention to the algorithms I am playing into.  I want to magnify the algorithms that grow things like fairness, thoughtfulness, and compassion than those that grow anger, self-righteousness, and polarization.

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