Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Can Anything Good Come Out of a “S***hole”?

Jesus of the People, Janet McKenzie (1999)

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

"Why do we want all these people from 's***hole’ countries' coming here?"

This past week, the CEO of Trumpland, Inc., proclaimed that while white Europeans from countries like Norway were welcome to immigrate to his country, people of color from countries like Haiti were not. "Why do we want all these people from 's***hole’ countries' coming here?" he asked.

Later in the day, he would act to end the protections for refugees from another “s***hole country,” El Salvador. Up to a quarter of a million Salvadoran-Americans now face deportation to a country torn by violence and crime, a country the younger potential deportees have never really known. But it is a country I know a bit about first hand.

You may think we live like animals…”

The man was perhaps in his late 30s though his weather-beaten hands and face suggested many more years. He stood in front of a long barn with a number of stalls in it. Inside the barn, families had created living quarters, sleeping on straw and cooking over charcoal fires.
“You may think we live like animals,” he said, “but this is the first roof many of us have ever had over our heads.” Where did you live before, we asked. He pointed to the wooden bridge spanning a small river on the edge of the farm. 

“Under the bridge.”

Just at this moment, a handful of children came to join us. All of them bore the distended bellies of malnutrition. The man saw our expressions of discomfort on our faces as we observed these children. “Two of our children have died this week from starvation,” he said. “One of them was my son. He was 10.”

This story is one of many that I carry from my two visits to El Salvador in the early 1990s at the end of the civil war there. We were in the conflicted zone, the area in the countryside outside the capital. A UN patrolled cease fire had tentatively been established in this place where the guerillas of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation movement (FMLN) had battled the US supported Salvadoran army and its US trained paramilitary terrorists to a standstill.

The farm had once belonged to one of the famous 14 Families of El Salvador. At one time it had housed prized Charolais cows imported from France only for their oligarch owners to discover that these animals did poorly in tropical climates with their tropical diseases and parasites. The barn in front of which we stood had actually once been air conditioned to keep the Charolais alive.

The sharecroppers who worked in the nearby fields managed by global agribusiness entities with names like Dole lived in view of the barns under the bridge. When they dared to organize and begin to demand three basic needs – education for their children, access to health care and the right to form cooperatives to market the fruits of their labor – the Salvadoran government dominated by the oligarchs declared war on them.

It was a war the US government under Ronald Reagan was only too happy to join even when it was legally prohibited from doing so. Under a rubric of anti-communism that only marginally applied to this uprising of working class peasants, the Salvadoran army was furnished arms, funding and training, much of that under the auspices of the School of the Americas then operating out of the Canal Zone of Panama. The evidence of that war was everywhere around us as we made our way past the blue helmets of the UN peacekeepers along unpaved country roads where signs on either side warned of mines capable of blowing up our vehicle and its occupants.

But it was the less obvious results of that School of the Americas training that proved most deadly to these campesinos relegated to living under bridges. Called la Escuela de los Asesinos by many Central Americans (asesino being a general word for murderer, not just those who target governmental figureheads), the School provided training in terrorist tactics designed to keep the peasants under control through fear of paramilitaries who operated in the shadows.

                           Maryknoll sisters, 1980

The handiwork of the paramilitaries who operated under cover of darkness was everywhere to be seen in the light of day: the bodies of those designated as enemies of the state who were “necklaced,” rubber tires tied to their bodies and set afire only to burn all the way through its human anchor; students, journalists and union officials who simply disappeared, their mutilated bodies later appearing on the highway to the San Salvador International Airport; Maryknoll sisters who dared to seek to bring health care, education and a modicum of hope to the anawim of El Salvador run off the road, raped and killed; an archbishop who dared to speak out against the terrorism and its governmental and corporate sponsors shot down at the altar as he celebrated the Eucharist.

This is how s***holes come into being. None of them ever arise in a vacuum.

A mother with photo of one of the desaparecidos

It is also how waves of immigrants came to seek refuge in the United States, ironically fleeing to the very country which was the primary cause of their need to leave. When the hostilities in El Salvador waned, the US pulled out much of its largely covert military presence, leaving behind a country decimated by war, a government incapacitated by deep distrust, families and communities broken by two decades of civil war and a country floating in a sea of weapons. The rise of the most ferocious gangs in North America in the wake of the US exit is not terribly difficult to understand.

But there is more to this story.

Their Lives - Lessons That Changed My Life

My visits to El Salvador were life changing. I went each time as an Episcopal seminarian under the auspices of the World Council of Churches, first as an observer of the cease-fire and the second visit as an international election observer.

The Gospels were more alive in Central America than anywhere I’ve ever been. The people Jesus loved, who served as the raw material for his parables, were all around me. “Blessed are the poor” takes on an entirely different significance when poverty that results in literal starvation to death is present all around you.

Like Roman occupied Judea, the brutality of the Salvadoran army and the obscenities carried out by the agents of empire - US trained paramilitary men - were everywhere to be seen. Archbishop Romero would compare his beloved people’s reality to that of Jesus himself: The people are being crucified. Soon, he, himself, would be crucified.

A vivid reflection of that assessment would confront us on our visit to the University of Central America, a Jesuit institution where six brothers and their two housekeepers had been shot to death in a rose garden, their brains beaten out of their heads to send the message: This is what happens to those who would use their brains to question the oligarchy. In the university chapel the Stations of the Cross took the form of those martyred people of El Salvador, the moment of their tortured deaths graphically conveying the suffering of those who dare to challenge empires.

But it was precisely the people in this hellhole created in the death grip of a modern empire who proved to be my teachers, their lives the lessons that changed my life.

I learned that it’s quite possible to distinguish people from their governments. Frankly, I had no idea why any Salvadoreño could stand to be in the same room with a citizen of the country that had been the author of such misery. Yet they made very clear that their own government was not the same as the people I was encountering, people whose hospitality and openness was astounding given their suffering. Why should I be any different?

Their lives were lessons in perseverance under conditions that would long ago have staggered people of the First World like me. Their hope for a better El Salvador rising from the ruins of the old, a relic of an older era whose time had now passed, was amazing if not counter-intuitive. 

Their generosity in sharing the meager material goods their lives of back breaking labor and overwhelming poverty managed to produce overwhelmed me again and again during my days there. It stood in stark contrast to the villas of the oligarchs we passed whose broken glass capped concrete walls and iron gates guarded by men with machine guns shielded them from the misery their privilege required for its existence. And it brought to consciousness my own privilege in what most in the First World would see as a very ordinary life, a privilege made possible by the suffering of the Third.

That privilege would become very clear to me within hours of arriving home the first trip. My husband needed to go to the local K-Mart for something. Inside the store, shelves of material good stacked to the ceiling required a rolling ladder to retrieve them. I had just come from a place where people were living in cattle stalls cooking over charcoal fires.

What did people here need all this stuff for?

We left the K-Mart for the Sizzler Steak House. The first thing to greet my vision upon entering the restaurant was the open food bar covered by the obligatory translucent plastic sneeze guard which stretched nearly the length of the room. The bar was stocked to overflowing. But the chances that all this food would be eaten this day were slim to none. Much – perhaps most – of it would be thrown away at the end of the night. Within the past 24 hours I had seen people starving to death, people who may well have picked some of the very produce I now observed headed for a dumpster before day’s end.

How does one make sense of this?

We Could Learn From This…

The lessons learned in countries like this one which frightened, ignorant men of privilege call s***holes have much to teach those of us in the First World. They are lessons in the harsh economic realities that, far from being “just business,” are the result of deliberate choices that create and maintain privilege for a few at the expense of enormous suffering for many.

This reality is never a given. These ongoing choices can be made very differently with different results.

Perhaps more important, it is the people of the s***holes in the world who have the potential to teach those of us leading privileged First World lives about our own humanity. It’s not just our privilege and the unexamined sense of entitlement we hold regarding that privilege. It’s much deeper than that.

Fully human beings have learned that it’s never “all about me,” the moral reasoning of children. They have learned that if one of us suffers, all of us suffer. They have learned that if we are to fully develop our humanity, we must find something larger than ourselves to devote our lives to. They have learned that if we foul this nest in which we all reside, there will be no others to shelter us.

I am hardly the only person to benefit from the lessons that people in the developing world - the fully human beings living in places that angry white men of privilege call “s***holes” – offer us.

With a voice quivering from outrage and pain, CNN announcer Anderson Cooper reacted to the “s***hole” comments speaking of his time spent in Haiti:

I have never met a Haitian who isn't strong. You have to be to survive in a place where the government has often abandoned its people. Where opportunities are few and where Mother Nature has punished the people far more than anyone should ever be punished…Haitians slap your hand hard when they shake it. They look you in the eye, they do not blink. They stand tall. They have dignity. A dignity many in this White House could learn from. A dignity the President with all his money and power could learn from as well.

Indeed. A highly insecure, narcissistic man who by a fluke of an archaic electoral system now holds power has much to learn about what it actually means to be human. Those lessons could begin with the humility that is immediately evident when one steps off the plane in virtually any country in the developing world.

From the S***holes, Hope for Salvation

In the 1st CE Roman Empire, the region of Palestine was seen as a hardship post. It contained several tetrarchies including Judea and the Galilee exploited to the point of breaking by the First World elites of its time. Within the region, local oligarchs scrambled to insure their own privilege while denigrating those they deigned to be beneath them.

In the Gospel lesson read in Sunday’s common lectionary in the western churches, a figure named Nathaniel is being recruited by Philip, a disciple of Jesus, to join the inner circle of this Galilean prophetic sage. Nathaniel’s response reflects the same level of contempt and dismissal as the recent pronouncements of Donald Trump: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

Even within tense, exploited Palestine with its imperial extraction economy, not all places and residents were alike. Judeans despised their northern neighbors in Galilee, seeing them as country cousins, their lack of Jewish sophistication compounded by their greater openness to Hellenistic influence. Within that despised region, a backwater village off the main road to the nearby Roman city of Sepphoris named Nazareth would decidedly have been seen as a “s**hole.”

It would be from that s***hole that a man would rise whose brief but incredible life would change the world forever.

It is from the s***holes of the world – the places least suspected of harboring anything of value - that hope for salvation - the journey to wholeness - often springs. It is often the daughters and sons of the working poor whose wisdom draws into question the common sense and implicit values of empire and exposes the destructiveness of its deadly grip. It is often the anawim, the little ones, of backwater provinces who often possess the very means to a full humanity that those of us leading privileged lives of superficiality and the constant escape we seek from them so badly need.

It is always easier to dismiss the wells of suffering in our world as s***holes than to admit we have ourselves created them and benefit from them. It is always safer to stone our prophets than to admit that they have something to tell us we badly need to hear and to open ourselves to the wisdom they might offer us.

As Anderson Cooper observed, it is precisely the example of their life experience in the face of enormous suffering that offers us a lesson in dignity so many of us so badly need. And truth be told, in a country whose CEO conducts the nation’s business in the scatological terms of a middle school boy, a little dignity would go an awful long way. 

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami ShapiroWisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993) 

 © Harry Coverston 2018

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Of Flat Tires and Unexpected Grace

It was just a short trip across town. I was taking a gag gift from Christmas – the Blair Witch Santa sculpture given to us by a friend as a joke -  and a couple of unopened bottles of Mountain Dew left over from Thanksgiving to my Brother’s house across town. He loves Mountain Dew (G-d only knows why and She ain’t tellin’) and I left a note under the Santa sculpture so he and Ruthie Lamb would know this was not a drive by trolling:

 “Happy 11th Day of Christmas!”

No doubt he would know immediately that it was his crazy Episcopal priest Brother who left it.

I tend to take alternative routes to common destinations simply to keep my mind fresh and not to fall into too much of a routine. On the way home I drove down busy Semoran Boulevard and turned into Baldwin Park.

I drove down the main entrance of the neighborhood into the development that at one time housed the Orlando Air Force Base and the Naval Training Center which succeeded it. As I turned left onto Lake Baldwin Circle, I caught a glance out of the corner of my eye of a black SUV which had failed to stop at the sign on the southbound lane and was barreling through the intersection toward me.

I floored the accelerator and cleared the intersection. But the narrow roadway around Lake Baldwin is bordered by a rather high and rigid curb. My right front tire hit the curb at just the right angle and immediately exploded.

Whap, whap, whap.

My only choice was to pull into the first side street I came to, an entry into a residential neighborhood. I came to a rest in a parking place just off the main road.

I was going to have to change a tire. It would be my first time doing so in this new car, a hybrid Prius about which I know less than any other car I’ve ever owned. Indeed what I’ve known about my previous cars largely came as a result of having to fix things that went wrong with them.

I got the jack and spare tire out of the trunk. I was unsure where to place the jack and so I ended up placing it under the front bumper (as it were) of the car and began jacking. Soon I had the car lifted high enough that I could get the tire, with its six inch gaping hole, off the axle.

That’s when the trouble began.

From Annoying to Grave

The “bumper” under which I had placed the jack turned out to be little more than plastic. I thought I had felt a metal strut of some kind prior to beginning lifting the car but apparently I was mistaken. I heard the plastic begin to crumple, jumping back quickly to keep the car from coming down on my foot.

It slowly settled to the pavement, the axle where the tire had been now resting on the pavement. The jack was trapped beneath the front of the car. I finally managed to shimmy it out and kicked it from beneath the car.

That was when I saw that the jack itself had been caught by the weight of the descending car and the end of the grooved rolling portion that expands and contracts the lift had been bent at a 45º angle.

Suddenly the gravity of my situation swept over me. Here I stood in the parking lot of a condominium complex on the coldest day of the year wearing little more than a sweater over a polo shirt. The sun was beginning to go down and a chilly wind was blowing across Lake Baldwin unimpeded.

My car was parked halfway into the driveway of the complex where I had pulled over to fix the flat and leave myself enough room from the curb to do so. While my car was not blocking the entrance road, should another driver as distracted as the one who had just run me up onto the curb come along, Wilson, my ailing Prius hybrid, could be toast. 

Worse yet, I did not have my cellphone with me. I commonly take it on trips of any duration, down to Kissimmee to teach, over to Bushnell to work on our family home. But today I was just making the 8 mile trip to my Brother’s house and figured I didn’t need it.

Until I did.

I got back in my car and slumped down in the seat. I felt tears welling up as I heard myself pleading, “Aw, come on, can’t you give me just ONE break today?”

“Better Things to Do….”

Resident after resident in SUVs (is there a law that one must own an SUV to live in a ”planned community”?) passed me on the street as I stood there doing my best damsel in distress imitation (a pretty mean trick when you have a three days growth beard). The only person to actually stop was a young man in a jeep. He was headed to the gym and seemed anxious just talking with me.

I asked if he had a cellphone I could use to call AAA. He said he’d left it in the condo. (Apparently I’m not the only one who leaves their needed cell phone at home). He also said he had a jack but didn’t think it would work to lift the car. He apologized and headed off to the gym.

If nothing else, I appreciated the recognition of my humanity. That was more than I got from his neighbors.

That was when the unexpected began.

A couple minutes later, a truck from a construction company pulled up alongside. Three young Afro-Caribbean men were inside. They were headed from one interior reconstruction project to another within the complex. “Do you need some help?” the driver asked.

I told him my plight and asked if I could use his cell phone to call AAA. He handed it right over adding with a sheepish grin “Don’t pay any attention to any naked women photos you might see.” I smiled.

Nude photos were the least of my worries this day.

My telephone encounter with AAA can only be described as adding insult to injury. My husband had created this account for me only last year and I’d never used it before. I called the number on the card and not surprisingly got a telephone chain. The first announcement essentially said “If you want service, download the app and use it. Otherwise we’ll get to you whenever.”

Not having my own cellphone to work with, I simply pressed the number to wait. The voice cheerfully announced it would be at least 10 minutes. I told the guys in the truck what I was up against and the driver simply said, “Don’t worry, man. It’s cool”

After nearly 15 minutes of enduring some of the most irritating wait time music ever, I hung up, called Andy’s cell phone and left a message. I knew he’d never answer a number he didn’t recognize. So I simply told him I was in trouble, where I was and that I’d be waiting for him when he arrived. With that I handed the cell phone back to the driver and told him thanks for his kindness.

Back in my car, angry tears were brimming in my eyes. I was truly feeling sorry for myself. And I thought “Dammit, I have better things to do with my time than sit in a broken-down car enduring the cold.”

It was just at that moment that some of the teaching Richard Rohr had imparted to me in the Living School came back to me: Our irritation and anger usually result from not having our expectations of life met.

The reality was, I was safe and I would be rescued eventually. Everything that had occurred this day was reparable. I was simply inconvenienced.

Then a Living School reading from Thich Nhat Hanh swam into focus: Suffering results from attachments, starting with our presumptions about the way life should be. Today, life was having nothing to do with those presumptions. My job was to accept the reality I faced and deal as best I could. And my initial response left a great deal of room for improvement.

Strangers Willing To Help

It was only about five minutes later when a maintenance man in a golf cart drove up. He was a working-class man of Celtic descent with an Australian accent. I asked if he could call a towing service to come get me, that I was broken down and concerned that I was partially blocking his driveway.

“What’s the problem here?” he asked. I explained what had happened. He came over to look at my poor disabled Prius. He asked to see the jack, thinking perhaps we could jack it up and get the tire on. When I showed him the jack with its bent end, he smiled, no doubt thinking some variant of “Dumb Yuppie.” And in this case, he would have been close.

“That’s not going to work anymore,” he said. “But hang on.”

In a minute he had called a fellow maintenance worker to the site, another Afro-Caribbean man whose English bore a strong Latin accent. His Aussie coworker asked him to go get a jack. The man appeared within five minutes bearing the jack and looked over the situation.

“I don’t think that’s going to be enough,” he said. He took off in his golf cart only to return five minutes later with a second, larger jack. With the first jack, the men got the axle up off the pavement and enough space under the side of the car to get the second jack under it. They then lifted the car, put the spare on and let it down again.

“You’re going to need to take your car directly to the Wawa right over on Semoran,” the second man said. “Your spare is almost flat. You can’t drive it around like this.”

Just like that, I was ready to go.

I fumbled in my wallet to find some cash to give them. I didn’t know if it would insult them by cheapening their good deed or be appreciated as recognition of their good work. Guessing that condo associations probably are not the most magnanimous employers, I erred on the side of the latter. They both grinned as I profusely thanked them and handed them each a $20.

Before my little adventure with my Prius was over, it would cost me another $90 for a new tire and an hour and a half wait at the Firestone. I still needed a jack. Moreover, I was hearing a scraping noise when the car came to a stop.

I headed to the Toyota dealer.

Two hours and $50 later, I emerged relieved. The bumper had folded in when the car settled on the parking lot enough to rub against the tire. The dealer also had a replacement jack which set me back another $230. But I was back in business, a new tire, a jack and a full spare just in case.

I hope whatever had distracted that driver in the black SUV was damned important. It ended up being pretty costly to me. But it could have been much worse.

Reflecting on Unexpected Generosity

As with all the events of my life, I have spent a good bit of time the last few days trying to make sense of these exchanges. What occurred to me as I thought back over these events was that while it would seem on the surface that I was the victim of some bad luck, in fact I had been the recipient of unexpected generosity. Had it not been for the folks who came along and were willing to help a complete stranger, I’d have been sitting in a disabled car partly blocking a residential street for a lot longer, possibly placing my car and my life in danger.

The Christian tradition has long described such unexpected generosity of spirit as grace, the evidence of the active love of G-d in the world. Problem is, we too often want to taint the goodness of that generosity with egocentric adjectives like undeserved or unmerited, notions more inclined to foster feelings of dependency than gratitude.

Truth is, I’m not sure there is any living being who does not deserve compassion. I have never been convinced that constructs of a G-d who did not love all of Creation without exception or condition were worth taking seriously. The whole point of Creation, as I see it, is the inception of loving relationship between Creator and creation.

I also find notions of merit unhelpful. By even introducing that notion into the equation it brings the idea in through the back door that one must somehow earn the love of G_d through one’s thoughts, words or deeds before G-d is willing to love you. 

There is no such thing as conditional love. Attitudes, words and behaviors induced – if not coerced - by the conditional acceptance of another may be a lot of things but they simply aren’t love.

What I experienced Friday was neither undeserved nor unmerited. It was simply unexpected. And yet it occurred. In the end I was not so much blessed as lucky. But I am grateful for that unexpected good fortune. And in that moment I experienced myself as the beneficiary of grace.

Those Who Looked Like Me Looked Away

Today it occurred to me that there is a parallel to this encounter in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Scholars believe that parable is one of the few we can authentically trace back to Jesus himself and not a later developing Christian tradition and it has long been one of my favorite bible passages.

In that story a man going down from Jerusalem to Jericho is set upon by robbers who take his goods and leave him seriously injured and vulnerable to the elements. The people who pass by the man, averting their gaze to keep from even looking upon his afflictions, were the religious leaders of the day – the Pharisee who defined himself by his right actions in the light of the developing oral tradition, the Sadducee who defined himself by a purity code that permitted him access to the Temple complex.

In the end the one who helped the man in need was totally unexpected. Samaritans were seen as inferior by the Judeans, country bumpkins whose tainted religious ideas were a threat to the pure religion practiced in Jerusalem, unclean people to be shunned at all cost. And yet it was the Samaritan who “proved neighbor to this man,” the point Jesus is raising in this provocative parable which he ends with “Go and do likewise.”

What was striking about this incident with my car is who the players were. I don’t know who the person was who ran me off the highway, I just know they had a nice recent model black SUV. Chances are, given the neighborhood, this person was from a socio-economic background and professional status not much different from my own.

The people who passed by without stopping were those who looked like me and shared my life circumstances as well. They drove nice cars and wore clothing that signaled their membership in the professional middle class. Chances are they held similar educational attainment and socio-economic status. With the exception of the one young man in the jeep who stayed long enough to commiserate with me, none of them stopped to help. Indeed, like the Pharisee and Sadducee in the parable, they looked away to keep from seeing me.

The people who did help me were people very different from me. With the exception of the working class young man with the Australian accent, they were all people of color. The young construction worker in his truck who handed over his cell phone and then waited 15 minutes for AAA assistance that never came was of Afro-Caribbean heritage, speaking to his coworkers in Spanish and to me in English. The second maintenance man who rounded up all the jacks was also Afro-Caribbean working class.

The ones who shared my achieved and ascribed characteristics were the ones who passed me by unnoticed. And the ones who had every reason to resent the privilege usually afforded white, professional middle class middle aged men like me – the ones people like me have been told to mistrust and view with condescending contempt – were, like the Good Samaritan, the ones who ultimately saved me.

“Which one was neighbor to this man?” was the rhetorical question Jesus posed at the end of the parable, adding “Go and do likewise.“

May I Go and Do Likewise….

I believe that unexpected goodness in the world is what grace is all about. I think it occurs around us all the time in unexpected situations waiting to be noticed. I see that unexpected goodness as the evidence of the goodness of a Creator G-d who loves all of creation without condition or partiality. It is a Creator G_d who freely showers grace, like the rains, “on the righteous and the unrighteous alike.”

While thoroughly egocentric if not anthropocentric concerns about whether such goodness is deserved or merited have long been part of the Christian tradition’s construction of grace, they are completely unhelpful in appreciating the role that unexpected goodness plays in our daily lives. What is clear to me is that it is precisely through the agency of people we often least suspect that the grace of G_d is made manifest in this world. And for that lesson learned on the side of a condo complex entry road on a cold, blustery Friday, I am deeply grateful.

I pray that when the time comes, I, too, will go and do likewise.      

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami ShapiroWisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993) 

 © Harry Coverston 2018


Sunday, December 31, 2017

When Texting Zombies Become Parents

            And lead them not into temptation
            But deliver them from evil
- Lord’s Prayer, paraphrased

It was the day after Christmas, Boxing Day in Anglican circles. I was en route to the Party Store to get plastic table clothes to cover the dining room and card tables which would soon be covered with snacks and potluck offerings.

We could not have asked for a more beautiful day. Temperatures were in the upper 70s, mostly sunny, nice cool breeze. The party would be able to spill outside onto the deck and into the yard. These are the days we cherish here in Central Florida, our repayment for enduing far too many weeks of ungodly subtropical heat that have only increased in number and intensity in these days of climate change.

“And a Little Child Shall Lead Them…”

Ahead of me on the street I saw a family walking, two parents and a little boy no more than 3 years old, likely headed for the park around Lake Underhill at the bottom of our street. He was the typical curious child, darting here and there to examine the many amazing things he discovered along the road that fascinate three-year-olds.

It was a joy to watch him.

Sadly, his parents did not share that joy. Indeed, they were almost completely unaware of him. Both of them stumbled in and out of the street, texting zombies oblivious to the world around them – including their little boy.

I slowed down instinctively, as I often do on this street leading to a main north/south artery. There are a number of children living in this neighborhood which once housed WWII veterans who had retired from nearby Orlando Air Force Base, now Executive Airport, when we first moved here in the mid-1990s. Over the years we watched those vets  age and die and their families move away. In their place have arrived new families with children and dogs.

For a brief second, the mother looked up from her cellular device and barked a command at the little boy to stay out of the street. Just as quickly she was right back to the device, unaware of whether he actually heeded her command or not. The father never looked up at all.

The child waved at me, huge grin on his face. Down to about 5 mph at this point, I smiled and waved as I drove past. Coming to the cross street a few feet away, I turned toward my destination in the shopping center.

In the rear view mirror I could see that the parade of the oblivious led by a child proceeded unabated.

Grieving Lost Opportunities

As I turned the corner, a wave of sadness swept over me. Sadness for this child, orphaned by the clever ploys of consumerist advertising which had successfully convinced this couple that the most important things in life could only be found on the tiny screens of their cellular devices. But more importantly, sadness for his parents and their squandered opportunities.

They had taken the time to actually get out of their house and take a walk on a beautiful day. But they were essentially unaware of that beauty. As intently as they stared at their screens, the day could just as easily have been marked by an approaching firestorm. 

Worse yet, they were missing the joyful, excited discoveries of their little three-year-old boy, discoveries that will all-too-soon cease to amaze and delight him in the wake of a waning childhood, no doubt soon to be replaced by the mediocre life of an obedient consumer.

Indeed, this child probably has little chance to become anything other. Children learn expected adult behaviors by watching and then imitating the adult authorities in their lives. 

The behaviors these parents were modeling will no doubt be perfected soon in this child’s life, ready to be passed on to yet another generation of well trained consumers. In the end, they will rear a child at risk for deficient interpersonal social skills and prone to public behaviors that can at best be described as excessively self-focused if not simply rude.

But perhaps the saddest part of that entire encounter was the implicit message their behaviors clearly and powerfully communicated to this child: You are unimportant. At the very least, you are less important than the tweet or the Instagram or the snapchat I’m consuming.

The excitement of this three-year-old and his joyful discovery of the world around him had proven to be the loser. The winner? Never ending waves of hypnotic intellectual pabulum reduced to the reading and intellectual level this child will hopefully attain and surpass very soon in his educational process, all conveyed on a medium from which complex thought is effectively banned.

Imagine a lifetime of trying desperately to convince yourself that you are at least as worthy of attention as the latest viral cat video.

Technology Always Outpaces Ethics

Our behavioral scientists are increasingly telling us that our awareness of and voluntary encounters with the natural world are decreasing.  There is no small amount of irony in recognizing that these declines are almost in perfect inverse relationship to the steady decline of that natural world in terms of extinctions and displacement of natural populations due to climate change.

There is almost a sense of repressed anxiety if not actual guilt observable on the part of a human animal population whose behaviors have become essentially parasitic on its own biosphere. Our cellular devices are not simply means of keeping us electronically sedated, they have become very effective means of avoidance and denial of the actual harm we are doing to “this fragile earth, our island home.” (BCP 1979)

As with virtually every other form of innovation, the arrival of any technology comes well before the ethical considerations of its usage occur. Indeed, most technology related ethics are responsive in nature and often are considered only in the wake of unpredicted and often destructive results of its initial employment.

Neil Postman detailed this pattern in his book Technopoly. Postman observed that in technologically driven cultures, any innovation in technology is inevitably seen as progress regardless of its nature. Thus, the presumption that attaches to such innovations is that they must be engaged without restrictions and without consideration for possible consequences.

Now, consider the innovation called the atomic bomb. Consider the rush to use the bomb, to see its effects demonstrated on a human population, even as the strategic need for such a weapon of mass destruction at that point in the conflict with Japan was at best questionable. Consider the presumed need to impress upon our then ally, the Soviet Union, the power of the post-war United States using the lives of a half million Japanese civilians as the means to that geo-political end.

It was a decision that would kick off an incredibly expensive “cold war” – both in terms of natural resources and human lives – that would consume the attention of the world for four decades. And, finally, consider the terrifying, nail-biting moments of October 1962 when frightened school children like me were being taught to duck and cover in our classrooms as the world came within a whisper of self-annihilation using its horrific new technologies.

Unforeseen consequences can prove deadly.

It Doesn’t Matter Whose Fault This Is

There are those who argue that the declining social interaction skills and boorish behaviors that begin online and spill over into real life and the detachment from nature that we readily observe in our daily lives is nothing more than a generational shift. That might be more convincing if we did not see grandmothers weaving all over the highway in the middle of the day when intoxication is an unlikely explanation for that behavior and middle aged semi-truck drivers texting at green lights, oblivious to the sea of honking cars behind them.

The truth is, many – perhaps most - of us have a problem with our personal use of our technologies. But undoubtedly, we all have a problem when those individual behaviors are extrapolated to a societal level as everything from accident rates to poisoned electoral processes attest.

In becoming well-trained consumers we have clearly lost some of our humanity.

While I tend to hold my own Boomer generation accountable for allowing their children and now grandchildren to become texting zombies, I recognize that many of us are engaging in the same behaviors. In the end, we are all well trained consumers.

But at a very basic level, it does not matter who is to blame. Where the problem arose is at this point immaterial. Once it is clear that there is a problem, the only questions that remain are whether, when and how the problem will be dealt with.

Like the college freshman who wakes up hungover and wonders “How did I get home last night?” s/he no longer has the luxury of naiveté. Clearly, there is a problem. That problem exists regardless of how it came to be a problem. The only question now is how to respond to it.  

It is the duty of mature human beings to learn from their mistakes and evolve to a higher level of functioning as a result. Similarly, it is the mark of a responsible human society to learn from its mistakes in the uses of its new technology and to rectify the unforeseen problems that technology has spawned.

That time has come.


On the way home from the party store, I came to a stop behind a black BMW SUV at a red light. The light turned green. The SUV remained in place. A few seconds expired. The SUV did not move. Behind me someone blew a horn. No response from the SUV. Another horn sounded and then a symphony of horns. Finally, I blew my horn.

Suddenly the SUV lurched into motion, speeding down the highway, probably to avoid any contact with the angry motorists he had left behind. Some of them fail to make the light before it once again changed to red. One wonders how long it will take for the first such frustrated motorist to speed up to catch the offending driver, reach across their seat, pick up the gun many now legally carry and register their discontent with the source of their frustration.

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida


If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993) 

 © Harry Coverston 2017