“Are We Still of Any Use?”

Hello from my kitchen bar counter on a Thursday afternoon, 

When I began writing this, we had just managed freezing weather, wind chills of the lower 20s in May, and then during a week of grading, yesterday felt like summer might actually be on the horizon (and even in my yard). It was a week of three constants (two of the three at least as of late). I worked on things for various aspects of my life as a professor. Contrary to what many think, we do not really have vacations. We have times where the focus on the immediate changes. For instance, I did not have classes this past week, although I start again tomorrow for summer already (and I know that is a choice I make). While it is only one class, it is in a condensed format, so I need to manage 15 weeks material in 4. This is a tall order, and when it is remotely, it is more work. Again, it is not a complaint because I love teaching college aged students (and some high school students as well as non-traditionals). My first 8 or so years at Bloomsburg, I focused on my teaching, service, and developing a professional writing program. For those who understand the academy and its demands, that means my scholarship suffered. I did not have the time to write and publish as I should. Therefore, over the last two years, I have changed focus, and I need to continue doing so.Therefore, for the coming summer, I have created a plan to work on classwork for the fall, work on strengthening my Polish, and working on my scholarship. While we might not be locked down as much as we have been, I will still be quite cautious about how I return into society and whatever it looks like. I am not anxious about that, but I do believe pretending that Covid has disappeared would probably result in my disappearing and I am not quite ready to do so. While it might appear I am everywhere, all of the meals I have prepared and only been dropped off and left for those who I deliver to. We have chatted at the door from a distance a couple of times, but otherwise, with the exception of the Covid (Corona )Cafe group, I have not been around a lot of people. As we move forward, I am sure the ways I can safely transition or cannot, will be figured out. As I write now, I am considering turning on the central air because it has reached 87 degrees in my upstairs. 

Contrary to what it might seem, I have never been a person who wanted to go into politics. I find them fascinating, but to be an actual elected politician is not something I wish to do. It is kind of like administration at the university. While I have chaired a college committee, served as a program director, and worked closely with some in administration, I have no desire to be a chair, a dean, or any such thing. I admire those who do those things, but it is not where I see my gifts. I think that is the point of what I have been thinking these past weeks, and perhaps even more so during the last two months. It was two months ago yesterday that we began a second week of Spring Break, which would lead to where we now find ourselves as a country. I had noted that we would lock down and some of my students believed I was bit alarmist. I am not really that sort of person. I am not a sound-byte-hear-and-repeat person. I am a thinker and a ponderer. I do not disrespect or dislike people who think differently than I. I am not a person who believes those who are content where they stand are bad people. What I do, however, have a problem with is people who are unwilling to think or question. As seems to be the exception rather than the rule, this latest national issue (which spans from the individual to the world) has created yet another we versus them. I am not sure where I fall in the continuum, but being confrontational and unwilling to consider all the consequences of this pandemic is ludicrous. I understand the economic issues and that there are incredible hardships both on a personal as well as a national or global stage. Do I understand all of it? No; in fact, it would be interesting to have Lydia to explain it. She was an international economist and she was brilliant about how it all worked. In our own country, the pandemic has exposed a number of fiscal and economic shortfalls in our current system. The fragile reality of many small businesses, the actuality of the job growth that has been touted by both Democrats and Republicans, and the continued argument that we had the best economy ever has been shown to be not much more that the famed fairy tale, The Emperor’s New Clothes. Without the PPP, which has fallen short of hopes, many more small businesses would be gone already. What will happen at the summer’s end is still open and unsure. While 11 years of job growth has certainly been trending upward, many of those jobs do not pay as many union jobs did. I know of many people who work two or even three jobs to try to make enough to manage. And finally, while the stock market was in record territory, 50% of Americans do not own stock. Those who do average about 90,000.00 a year; those who do not average about 45,000.00 (Schrager, 09/05/2019).Those are three important considerations before we consider what has happened in the past 8-10 weeks. 

The Congress has passed two bills  that have pumped almost three trillion dollars into propping up the economy. Jerome Powell, the Chair of the Federal Reserve, has, in just the last week and a half, noted there will be a need for more. It does not matter where your political leanings are at this point. The first three trillion dollars is an example of social democracy. It is the government stabilizing the economy for the entire country. That is a form of socialism, that dreaded word. In the meanwhile, and there has been some rebound, but there is little doubt that all the gains in our portfolios over the past three and a half years were wiped out in less than 6 weeks. How stable are we? How amazing is the economy? Not that much. Again, we have rebounded, but the volatility in our market (and the global markets) is real. Before this had hit, Germany, the economy that under-girds the EU had retracted for two consecutive quarters. The economic retraction for the second quarter here in the US was 37%. That is unheard of. More significantly, we have no idea what the third quarter will be nor do we have sense of what the next year will bring. What does all that mean? It means a great majority of us are at the mercy of the few. Again, I say that, but still have a job, so please know that I am both aware and blessed at how fortunate I am. I know the difficulty for most is wanting to play a blame game, and I, myself, have been guilty of succumbing to that process, but I think the more important question is the question that Bonhoeffer’s co-conspirators posed to him after 10 years of Hitler begin the chancellor of Germany. They wanted some sort of absolution, some forgiveness, for their plan and the action they believed necessary to save their country. Yet, Bonhoeffer was not willing to offer such an easy way out. He instead asked the question that all must ask themselves at difficult times. Are we still of any use?

When we have so little power, particularly when the economic processes that drive the country, and the world for that matter, are so much bigger than any one individual (save perhaps a Jerome Powell or the President). I can only do what I know is possible in my limited situation. What is that? Go to work, do the best I can, and hope that my job stays secure. So far, it seems to be the case. And yet, I have wondered what might happen should that change. What would I do? I can certainly sell what I have and downsize. I could certainly consider other options in terms of what I do or where I live, but all of that is pretty daunting at the very least. What use am I in this given situation? I can try to make others’ lives more hopeful, more reasonably comfortable, if even for a day. I think to use Bonhoeffer’s words in this address, which come from a sermon or mediation, if you will called “After Ten Years.” ” . . . We have been drenched by many storms; we have learned the art of equivocation and pretense. Experience has made us suspicious of others, and kept us from being truthful and open. Are we still of any use?” It seems that almost every day we are battered by arguments from both sides of our political divide about what is happening to our democracy. As a storm of sorts, they do not stop. On both sides, we have learned to speak out and receive the ire of those who disagree with us, or we learn to merely be quiet and let whatever happens happen. Is there a happy medium somewhere? Is pretense all we have in this present political/economic/medical turmoil? What is honest pretense? It means that it is impossible to merely stand idly by. “Justice for Bonhoeffer required a sense of mitleiden. One could only be involved if one was willing to suffer with those who suffer. It was the costly solidarity of participation” (Rasmussen, Bethge 70). Bonhoeffer, by choosing to return to Germany and plot against Hitler, rejected equivocation or even evasion believing that speaking out (through action more than word) was necessary even at the cost of his own soul. The struggle to find the good in the other now seems to be much like what I see and hear daily in our news. As such, too often we are suspicious of someone who thinks differently. We are afraid to question what is truth be it the newspaper, the news media either in our sets or on our computers? And yet, if we are willing to ask tough questions, and yet ask respectfully, the consequence is we have even less power than the minute amount we already have. 

Our real power is still in our ballot and casting a ballot as an informed and thoughtful citizen. Too often I hear people say, well I do not know enough, so I do not vote. That is a terrible excuse with a dreadful consequence. Too often, we are only willing to listen to the things that make us comfortable or solidify our limited viewpoints. I too can be guilty of this at times. Someone incredibly close to me reminded me that people who think differently than I do, do think. It was important for me to hear that from them. So are we of use? Yes, one voice, one vote, one decision at a time. I struggle in this time as much as the next in terms of wondering where it will lead and what sort of a world we will have. We have a changed world. The other day someone noted their struggle with the term “the new normal.” It was an eye-opening comment for me. It is new . . .  as they noted, but there is nothing normal about it. As I walked around with my mask on, which I do whenever I am off my property or not in a place where I know the others and their habits, I questioned what small children must know or think. I wondered what they imagine as they see so many adults walking around with masks. One of my colleagues has been questioning the rhetorical consequence of mask-wearing. What will the university be like in the fall? What will we do? What will a classroom look like? What will events look like? From concerts to professional sports, from large lectures to churches? Will it be safe once there is a vaccine? Will it be safe if there are enough people with antibodies? What will happen to travel: cruises, planes, trains, subways? Whatever new will be, there is little to no normal? Perhaps it is good this happened in an election year? Why? I am not even sure, but somehow I think so. 

Whatever we have on the other side of this nationalism will not fix it; globalism will not fix it; and certainly no one vaccine or company, no single political ideology or small groups of companies, and no one religious or ethnic position can manage this virus. Are we still of any use? Yes, I believe we are when we become one collectively, hopefully, and openly. Yes, when we chose life and care over individual self-aggrandizement. When we believe we are all of value and each person is important, I believe we are of use. I am continually humbled by things I learn both from others and my return to my dissertation topic, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. We are of use when we seek justice for our world and we are willing to stand for that justice, even at the expense of our own lives. Bonhoeffer pushed the limits of what sort of things could be questioned. That is nothing new in our country, and one of the people I most admire in terms of what they have done is Alan Alda from M*A*S*H. What he offers here is interesting to me. 

Thanks as always for reading.

Dr. Martin


Published by thewritingprofessor55

As I move toward the end of a teaching career in the academy, I find myself questioning the value and worth of so many things in our changing world. My blog is the place I am able to ponder, question, and share my thoughts about a variety of topics. It is the place I make sense of our sometimes senseless world. I believe in a caring and compassionate creator, but struggle to know how to be faithful to the same. I hope you find what is shared here something that might resonate with you and give you hope.

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