Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Who’s to Blame for Our Homeless Problem?


Nicholas Nault, homeless by Fort Eddy Road
CC Jean Stimmell

Leo Tolstoy wrote  “What Then Must We Do?” back in 1887: ‘I sit on a man’s back, choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by all possible means – except by getting off his back.’

He wrote this book of moral and political philosophy at a time when he had stopped writing novels and was devoting himself to trying to alert people to the insanity of modern life, including its violence and social injustice. 

I share his angst now when things in America appear as crazy as when Tolstoy wrote. I become incensed whenever I shop on Fort Eddy Road and see the homeless panhandling. It bothers me when I give them a few bucks and bothers me more when I don’t. My anger is fueled by guilt and shame that our state has come to this, forcing people to beg in the street because of circumstances beyond their control, whether from mental illness, disability, or the  price of housing is beyond what they can afford.

I admire Tolstoy for “his willingness to think outside the box, to offer a radical assessment of social reality that most people most of the time simply accept as a given.” And I applaud Matthew Desmond’s new book, Poverty By America,⁠1 which wrestles with the same problem that Tolstoy did: why is there so much poverty around me?

Homelessness in NH is “Exponentially worse today than it was three or four years ago,” according to Craig Henderson with Southwestern Community Services. He says rising costs are contributing to the crisis. “Whether it was rent oil, fuel, food. So, people who were living at the cusp of homelessness now simply can’t live.”⁠2

In addition, we have an alarming housing shortage; this lack of supply is pushing the cost of renting out of sight. A new report by NH Housing discovered that the deficit is much worse than previously indicated. In the next two decades, we will need 90,000 additional units just to catch up.⁠3

It will take a shift in public consciousness to make the necessary changes, starting with a radical change in our zoning laws, forcing towns and cities to mandate more affordable housing, including more multiple-family dwellings. But that only scratches the surface!

Our whole attitude needs to change. As a nation, we stand in a class by ourselves, permitting poverty to blossom like runaway algae, unlike any other industrialized nation. As a fabulously wealthy country, we could virtually eliminate poverty if we wanted to – but we don’t.

Poverty persists, according to Desmond, because too many of us, with varying degrees of self-awareness, benefit from its perpetuation. He points out we are just as generous with our assistance as those European welfare states: the only difference is we don’t give it to folks experiencing poverty: Instead, “The biggest beneficiaries of federal aid are affluent families.”

Desmond says, “Poverty infringes on American prosperity, making it a barricaded, stingy, frightened kind of affluence.” How can we not experience “emotional violence” from “knowing that our abundance causes others’ misery?”

Rather than guiltily slinking by the homeless on Fort Eddy Road, let’s stand up for them: no one should be doomed just because they’re poor.



1 https://www.nytimes.com/2023/04/21/podcasts/ezra-klein-podcast-transcript-matthew-desmond.html

2 “NH homeless crisis persists as emergency hotel program ends”

April 6, 2023: Vermont Station: WCAX

3 https://newhampshirebulletin.com/2023/04/25/90000-units-in-two-decades-new-report-puts-a-big-number-on-states-housing-crisis/?eType=EmailBlastContent&eId=4dccc99e-46fe-49a9-bc87-7ef9f030546a

Wednesday, April 19, 2023

Water the Flowers, Not the Weeds


Meeting Others Where They Are
Concord Farmer's Market 2019

CC Jean Stimmell

Since Donald Trump entered the national consciousness in 2016, he has harped on everything  wrong with America. While it’s healthy to confess the bad things we’ve done as a country in order to do better in the future, it is also vital to remember the good stuff. Or, in the words of the Buddhist Thomas Bien: Water the flowers, not the weeds. 

Concentrating on negativity is contagious: If we listen only to gloom and doom on the news and social media, pretty soon it will seep into our subconscious, causing weeds to proliferate within us. Unfortunately, politicians are capitalizing on that.

According to Stanford University research, online incivility on Twitter surged 23% after Trump became President. Perhaps unsurprisingly, in our cynical age, politicians were rewarded for following the President’s example: the more uncivil their tweet, the more attention, and approval it got, as measured by “large quantities of “likes” and “retweets” on the  platform.”⁠1

It now appears politicians believe they must fight dirtier to keep up. It’s a race to the bottom.

I’ve also observed this trend spreading to usually broad-minded Democrats. In cascading numbers, they are copying the other party, vilifying not just their policies but the character of Republicans themselves. Everything has turned into a hyperpartisan street fight where those with the sharpest rhetorical elbows get the most attention – which, at least in the short term, puts them on top.

My question is, is it possible to stop being so toxic? To find an answer I turned to Krista Tippett, the host of On Being, who is a genius at untangling moral snarls. Back in 2018, she tackled the question, “what does civility actually mean and is it enough?”

She quotes Rainer Maria Rolla, who counsels that when we cannot live the answers to our questions because of societal discord, we are called upon to live the questions by having conversations with those with whom we disagree.

Tippett says we must prepare ourselves before encountering someone who doesn’t think like us. We must “summon in yourself a readiness to encounter them as human beings and not just as their positions or ‘that other side,’ to open ourselves up to let them surprise us, to let them not be quite as simple or as evil as they may have become in our mind.”

As a psychotherapist, I was trained to do just that: To be open to the moment and harbor no preconceptions when meeting new patients. Inevitably, by getting to know them first without prejudgement, I found everyone to have highly commendable qualities flourishing within an complex maze of personality traits.

Because the client and I were involved in a therapeutic relationship that dealt with patient pain, not politics, it might be a long time, or perhaps never, before I found out how they voted. Often I was surprised at how they had voted because they did not fit the standard stereotypes. 

It’s a terrible thing to be prejudged as unworthy, whether one is a Republican  or Democrat.

However, civility is not simply making yourself say nice things about someone while angry steam is hissing from your ears. That’s a passive-aggressive weapon, Tippett cautions, resulting from a simplistic, binary understanding of civility. It doesn’t work with complicated selves like our fellow Americans – any more than it would succeed with us.

On the other hand, “caring is not capitulating:” civility is opening up to each other because, like it or not, we share a life together; it’s “about being willing to be present one human being to another.⁠2”  

To establish strong relationships with others, We must be able to honestly self-disclose to each other without fear or preconceptions. And, when alone, it’s equally important to do the same thing, opening up to ourselves without prejudgment. I find meditation helpful to accomplish this: it pulls me into the present moment, squelching ruminations about the past and fears about the future. The result is calming and restorative, allowing me the luxury of “just being,” something exceedingly rare in our frenetic modern age.

However we do it, it’s very simple: Water the flowers, not the weeds.



1 https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/19485506221083811

2 https://onbeing.org/programs/living-the-questions-6/

Tuesday, April 11, 2023

Will We Remain Human or Become Machines


Saying Goodbye?
CC Jean Stimmell: 2016

Our plummeting life expectancy is an extraordinary event that flies in the face of past historical patterns. We are dying younger than any other industrialized nation, according to David Wallace-Wells in a recent NYT article: We are “dying younger than in China, Cuba, the Czech Republic or  Lebanon.”⁠1

According to former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, recent research suggests our country may be in extreme peril. He emphasizes it is the most disturbing data on America he was seen in a long time and “especially scary remembering that demographics were the best early warning on the collapse of the U.S.S.R.”⁠2

Past studies have emphasized that those most likely to be dying earlier were non-college white men in middle age, often by suicide or opioid overdose, which became known as “deaths of despair.” But new research tells a different story: Middle-age mortality is no longer singularly responsible for lowering our life expectancy. As John Burn-Murdoch reveals in The Financial Times:

Except for superrich Americans, “individuals at every income percentile are now dying sooner than their counterparts in Britain, for instance. For the poorer half of the country, simply being an American is equivalent to about four full years of life lost compared with the average  Brit.”⁠3

Firearms account for almost half this mortality disparity with England, but the percentage of older folks dying is not increasing. What's growing is the deaths of children and teenagers!

“The horror is that…the average American kindergarten at least one child can expect to be buried by his or her parents. The country’s exceptionalism of violence is more striking among the young but extends into early adulthood; …Americans’ chances of dying are, by some estimates, more than twice as high, on average, as their counterparts’ in Britain and Japan.”⁠4

“As summed up by Summers, “the United States is moving not forward but backward, at unprecedented speed, and now the country’s catastrophic mortality anomaly has spread to its children.” To my way of thinking, this state of affairs can be best understood by the work of the remarkable 19th-century sociologist Emile Durkheim. 

He believed that “social consciousness” was a real and essential force. “It is only by tapping into these collective social realities that individuals can “understand each other.” A thriving society, by definition, has a highly developed social consciousness which is what gives life meaning for individual members. Anomie happens when this collective consciousness splinters: life loses its meaning, suicides increase, society flounders, going belly-up if no remedies are  taken.⁠5

Based on the statistics already cited, can be be any doubt we are suffering from anomie in America.

The culprits are numerous, but one fundamental cause is flying under the radar. Perhaps I am just a modern-day Luddite, but I believe technology plays a significant role in our malaise. I agree with Sacaras, publisher of The Convivial Society newsletter, who believes “the culture of technological modernity, while undoubtedly improving the lot of humanity in important ways, has become, in other respects, inhospitable to our   species.”⁠6

He quotes Wendell Berry from his book Life is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition: “What I am against—and without a minute’s hesitation or apology—is our slovenly willingness to allow machines and the idea of the machine to prescribe the terms and conditions of the lives of creatures.”

We are all becoming widgets on the assembly line of commerce. A good example was my recent plane trip from hell (which I detailed in last week’s column). We have no choice when we fly: Airlines require us to conform to the efficiencies of mass production rather than what’s suitable for flesh-and-blood people.

Another example is having a robot answer your phone call – something that is now becoming ubiquitous – which relays your request, after an delay, to another flunky who has no clue how to help. Our lives are increasingly determined by what’s best for the machine, not what’s good for us and our human community.

I’ve watched machines progressively take over our lives over the last  50 years. Now AI is accelerating this trend into unknown territory: taking us to places acceptable only to software programmers and bureaucrats suffering from OCD. Wendell Berry anticipated this development 25 years ago and predicted we would soon have to make a choice: 

“It is easy for me to imagine that the next great division of the world will be between people who wish to live as creatures and people who wish to live as machines.”



1 https://www.nytimes.com/2023/04/06/opinion/deaths-life-expectancy-guns-children.html?campaign_id=2&emc=edit_th_20230407&instance_id=89625&nl=todaysheadlines&regi_id=30753738&segment_id=129809&user_id=273ae8c1ede4fde7d59a2b0627accb92

2 https://www.nytimes.com/2023/04/06/opinion/deaths-life-expectancy-guns-children.html?campaign_id=2&emc=edit_th_20230407&instance_id=89625&nl=todaysheadlines&regi_id=30753738&segment_id=129809&user_id=273ae8c1ede4fde7d59a2b0627accb92

3 Ibid

4 Ibid.

5 The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life by E. Durkheim, New York: The Free Press, 1965. Page 485

6 https://theconvivialsociety.substack.com/p/apocalyptic-ai

Thursday, April 6, 2023

Walking My Way Back Home

Ecology is usually thought of as a study of nature. But because it is derived from the Greek word for household, ecology literally means "the study of home," according to Robert Macfarlane in Orion Magazine.

I thought of Macfarlane's definition when flying home; First, my airline was late getting to San Francisco, delaying to midnight, my long overnight trip to Boston. Since the last time I flew, the seats had become smaller and packed tighter together; the center corridor had shrunk so much that the hospitality cart, stuffed with pretzels and water bottles, bumped against me as it rolled past; and, on top of that, a baby in the next row – sensing this theater of the absurd – screeched intermittently for the whole ride.

I used to think of my home on Jenness Pond as a sanctuary, but, as Macfarlane writes, "Human activity... is rapidly rendering the entire planet uncanny, ... unhomely. He quotes the environmental writer Aldo Leopold's famous line about how, consequently, one "lives alone in a world of wounds."

That's how I felt: Like a wounded animal, willing to chew his leg off to escape this flying cabin. The airline, realizing that such a situation could lead to angry reactions, posted posters prominently warning that aggressive behavior would not be tolerated and could result in jail time. While I agree violence should be punished, so should airlines that treat passengers like widgets on an assembly line.

But beyond exploitive airline practices, humans were never designed to endure supersonic travel. Instead, our species' natural mode of locomotion is walking, which, as an added benefit, gives us a sense of contentment and wellbeing by allowing us time to appreciate our surroundings. Sadly that rarely happens anymore. Now, too often, we are treated like sheep, herded around at breakneck speeds by border collies. 

We can gain a perspective on this by observing Australian Aborigines: they know a thing or two about how to live, as they have the longest cultural history of anyone on earth, dating back at least 50,000 years. They live in what they call 'Dreamtime', where there is no distinction between past, present, and future. Instead, they walk through their precious landscape, dreaming reality into being.

Before you dismiss this notion as ridiculous, remember the wise words of Henry David Thoreau: "I do not know how to distinguish between our waking life and a dream. Are we not always living the life that we imagine we are?" Perhaps Thoreau became wise because, like the Australian Aborigines, he liked to saunter along on foot, dreaming reality into being.

In common with Thoreau, indigenous people have a robust and unbreakable sense of place. As they walk along, they build their reality by telling stories about their connection to the particular terrain they are passing, in both cultural and personal terms.   

I remember reading an account about an anthropologist walking beside such an indigenous person in the bush, listening as he created his story based on what he was seeing. However, things changed when he took the man for a ride in his jeep: the tribesman's speech speeded up as the vehicle did until the man was speaking gibberish. He could no longer talk fast enough to relate to the passing landscape.

That’s how I felt on that plane ride home. 

Everything is getting speeded up, in part because our world is so spread out that it takes more time to get to places. As a step in the right direction,The 15-Minute City Project was created by the urbanist Dan Luscher.⁠1   It’s a  simple but   profound concept of creating communities where you can get everything you need within a 15 minute walk from home. It would promote human values and an increased sense of wellbeing.

It is all voluntary. There are no mandates to restrict cars or curtail our liberties. Unfortunately, 15-Minute Cities  opposed by the same rightwing forces that don’t believe in climate change or mask mandates. Conservative commentators and conspiracy theorists claim such a policy would be nothing short of a communist takeover.

They forget that before 1950 –before highways and suburbs became dominant – most cities were 15-minute cities. As the Australian Aborigines understand, sometimes the best future lies in our past.



1 https://www.15minutecity.com/about

The photo at the top I took close to 40 years ago of my son standing 
beside Jenness Pond, the lake I grew up on