"I think this is way worse than we can possibly imagine."

It’s impossible to predict just how bad this Coronavirus outbreak will get. Given the entire situation, there is no need for panic….yet. But we must be prepared for a major outbreak in this country now and in the future. But are we?

What makes this situation potentially far worse is that China is not an open society, and so we cannot trust the information coming out of China. And without reliable information it becomes hard to calibrate and prepare a response.

On Rod Dreher’s blog he passes on a comment from “Wyoming Doc,” a physician he knows who’s married to a Chinese immigrant and they get the People’s Republic of China’s official TV station piped into their home. Watching this station unfold, Wyoming Doc starts out by describing something you’d read in a totalitarian novel:

There have now been four occasions where I have witnessed on live Chinese national TV public officials being frog-marched out of press conferences in hand irons. Their crimes? One had his mask on upside down. One did not have a mask on at all. One was stating (translated by my wife) that he had repeatedly been telling Beijing about the problems for weeks – and there was no response. One was answering every question with obvious double-speak (not unlike listening to Nancy Pelosi or Ted Cruz). Shortly into the press conferences, young men from the PLA show up – slapped on the hand irons – and hauled them out and in all 4 cases – it was just stunned silence in the rooms. My wife just casually tells me – “no one will ever see them again.”

And between Wyoming Doc’s own medical expertise and what he’s witnessing in China he thinks things are far worse than the Chinese government is reporting.

It is also clear to me as a physician – listening to the Chinese doctors – and viewing footage from the hospitals and clinics – that this is many orders of magnitude worse than what they are saying. Common sense will tell you that as well – are they really going to torpedo their entire industrial heartland for months – just because 300 people have died? — I think not – I think this is way worse than we can possibly imagine.

And this leads Doc to ask some serious medical and political questions about preparedness in the U.S.

My other question is for us in the USA. Our supply lines – especially in things like medicine are DEPENDENT now on China. I have been saying for years this is a national security issue. And now their industrial heartland is on its knees. I do not know anything about auto parts and widgets – I do know a lot about medicine. There are many many things (saline bags, cardiac IV meds, antibiotics, blood pressure meds, diabetes meds, I can go on and on) that are only made in China. For the first time since this crisis began – late last week saw the very first issues I am having with my patients not being able to get things. We are promised this will just be the beginning. [emphasis mine — rd] There is no way that we can re-engineer factories quickly to start making things here – it will be at least a year. WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO? When will the Chinese be able to get back to work – is an open question….. This situation was brought on by globalization and neo-liberal policies. It is truly a national security issue at this point – and I think we are all about to get a big dose of blowback. OUR ELITES ON BOTH SIDES HAVE COMPLETELY FAILED US. THE COUNTRY NEEDS A POLITICAL ENEMA IN THE WORST WAY.

This situation should remind us—again—that a major global outbreak is a national security issue of the highest order, and our governments—federal, state and local, had better have serious plans (and laws) in place to deal with it. Of course the Feds must take the led. This is a reminder of how important good, competent government leadership is for our society and our own well-being. This situation can go critical very quickly. If you read enough virology, you know that eventually a very deadly virus will erupt in our society and be hard to contain. It’s only a matter of time. Are we really prepared for this in the U.S.?

Libraries, books, and education

Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent. ― Henry David Thoreau

Now here is a piece of good news. According to Gallup polling, visiting the local library remains, by far, the most common cultural activity Americans engage in. It’s nice to know Amazon hasn’t yet put libraries out of business!

For the most part, I think libraries have remained relevant in the cultural landscape because Librarians have adapted to the changing times fairly well: Bringing in advanced technologies—computers, Wifi, digital, etc, etc,—and continuing to be innovative in sponsoring various events at their libraries that attract young families. So let us applaud the librarians and the local government officials who’ve continued to support them at budget time.

With that said, I’ll add that while it’s encouraging to see how well libraries are doing, it would be even more encouraging if we knew Americans were actually reading more good books. The Gallup poll tells us that Libraries are being used and visited, but that doesn’t mean Americans—especially adults—are actually reading more quality books. The jury is still out on this one.

For example, when visiting my local library I notice all the computers are usually taken up by someone researching (or surfing). I notice people in the various conference rooms, and I usually see a few young families with small children walking the book aisles or sitting in the children’s area looking through a stack of books. But typically I don’t see a lot of adults checking-out or turning-in stacks of quality history, biography, or science books. Of course I’ll note that I have no idea how many adults check-out books via digital audio or print, which can be done online. So maybe I’m wrong. I hope so.

But then maybe it’s just me, but I don’t detect in a lot of people’s conversations that a lot of deep reading about complicated subjects, or the biographies of great men or women, or ideas in general, are something they do regularly…or at all. And I completely understand that some people may not care for reading—tragic though that may be. Maybe they’re just not interested or too busy. What people do with their time is their prerogative.

I just tend to feel that a democracy—especially one that’s “of the people, by the people, and for the people“—is hard to maintain when a sizable amount of the population appears to be terribly uninformed or just plain ignorant about the nation’s history, government, policies, social challenges, or things like basic science. We can’t properly defend our own or our family’s self interests, better yet the nation’s, if we don’t understand enough to know whether the choices we’re making are actually serving ours or our nation’s interests at all. Many of us, for example, vote for policies or people that are in direct opposition to our interests.

A lot of us uncritically adopt the opinions of others—from our family, group, favorite media source, or some other talking head on TV. But the measure of our own education and personal freedom is when we get to a point where we can intelligently challenge (openly or in own mind) our relied upon sources of information—by weighing and analyzing in light of our own personal readings and observations and then being able to change our mind on a topic or cherished belief….and then having the courage to say it.

Knowledge and education, of course, aren’t a guaranteed cure human folly, prejudice, or our politics. Only a fool who hasn’t read History could honestly think that. Educated people can be just as willing as anyone else to ignore their conscience, twist facts, and advance deep seated prejudices.

But what deep and focused reading can potentially do is introduce us to ideas and thoughts that may gradually crack our caked prejudices and inherited world views and open us to the idea that maybe what we’ve believed all along may be wrong or misinformed or at least in need of some updating. That maybe we need to rethink some of our beliefs about people, your society, and the world.

I should add, that along with quality books and literature, Art in general typically aims at doing this, especially serious films and other performing arts. They can expand our ability to empathize with others—open us to feeling our shared humanity. Note, that’s one big reason authoritarian rulers immediately shut down writers and artists when they take over. Genuine Art is subversive in the authoritarian’s world view.

And then, of course, I can’t leave out, the reading of books that elevate our cognitive grasp. As we read about science and the methods of scientists and the incredible amount of experimentation and research put into their findings, we learn how successful the scientific approach to knowledge has been in promoting human flourishing and, in the long run, democracy itself. As we look back through history we see that science and democracy tend to rise together—a phenomenon to be discussed at length in another post, eventually. With an education in science (reading science books) we learn to think more systematically, more scientifically in other words, about things and ideas and the opinions of others. And that’s a good thing.

And so I’ll close with encouraging you to go to the library, check-out books, or buy books at the store, and then read those books whenever you can. Hopefully you’ll learn, grow, see and feel more deeply.

That’s what being truly educated is all about.

A Sunday Reflection

While looking through a box of books, I found my copy of William Butler Yeats’s Autobiographies. I read it probably 15 years ago. I opened it and saw these words I’d underlined in pencil during my reading.

I have remembered to-day that the Brahmin Mohini said to me, ‘When I was young I was happy. I thought truth was something that could be conveyed from one man’s mind to another. I now know that it is a state of mind.’

Here we have Yeats remembering a bit of wisdom passed on to him which he then memorializes in his own memoirs. Lucky for us. It’s a quote worth some deep reflection.

Choosing to pay attention

These where some memorable lines in David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest:

You can be shaped, or you can be broken. There is not much in between. Try to learn. Be coachable. Try to learn from everybody, especially those who fail. This is hard. . . . How promising you are as a Student of the Game is a function of what you can pay attention to without running away.

In the novel, the context of these lines are a conversation about competitive tennis. But of course they’re ultimately about life. Like it or not we’re all in the great Game, and there is no opting out. We can only choose to try and learn from our mistakes and, more importantly, from the mistakes of others.

As the experience of life shapes us…and, at times breaks us…our task is about “being conscious and aware enough to choose what [we] pay attention to and to choose how [we] construct meaning from experience.”* This is how we shape ourselves. It’s very hard. It can take a lifetime. But no one said the Game would be easy. It can crush you. But we’re better off to keep trying, to keep learning, to keep playing on, to pay attention…and to consciously choose.

New Year's Day at Washington National Cathedral

Most of you recognize Washington D.C. by its neoclassical buildings like the U.S. Capitol, the Supreme Court, and the ancient Greek temple-style memorials of Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson.

But off in the distance, away from the National Mall and all the government buildings and memorials, on the heights of Mount Saint Alban, is probably my favorite building in all of Washington D.C.: The Washington National Cathedral.

Washington National Cathedral (Photo by J.D. Wills)

The Washington National Cathedral is among the largest of its kind in the world. The massive stone structure sits at the intersection of Massachusetts and Wisconsin Avenues in Northwest Washington, D.C.

For me it’s always been that initial right turn from Mass Avenue onto Wisconsin that gets me. The gothic stone facade of this colossus immediately awes you. Believe me they don’t make them like this anymore.

The full and complete construction of the Cathedral took 83 years. President Theodore Roosevelt laid the corner stone in 1907 and the final finial was placed by President George H.W. Bush in 1990.

The view as you walk into the main sanctuary is magnificent to say the least. Your eyes are drawn up toward the heavens.

Main sanctuary or “nave” (Photo by J.D. Wills)

The above picture of the nave is only a narrow part of the main sanctuary area. At the far end of this photo is the entrance to the choir stalls and the alter, another 3rd or more of the building.

My family and I visited the Cathedral yesterday for the New Year’s Day communion service and to hear the full peal of the Cathedral’s massive bells (a small sample below).

I’ve been visiting the Cathedral off and on over the almost 30 years I’ve been living in the D.C. area. I’ve attended services and communion a number of times, but we’ve always sat in the nave during those visits. But yesterday we had the rare privilege of sitting in the choir stalls. These wooden benches are located just prior to the main alter. In my experience, this area is typically not open to visitors.

My view from the Choir Stalls (Photo by J.D. Wills)

It was interesting that only a small group of people showed up for the New Year’s Day service. There weren’t many of us, maybe 150 people at best. We (my family and friends) were all feeling a little special that the cathedral staff had decided to have the service in choir/alter area. As we quietly made our way in and sat on the choir benches, our eyes were drawn up to the religious art, architecture, and stained glass, and our mood was made even more solemn by the majestic sound of the cathedral organ playing low.

The message given at the service was about the power of words and their meaning and the importance each of us has in choosing our words wisely. From the use and meaning of our words we reveal the state of our soul.

Whether you’re a Christian or not, it’s hard not to be moved by a group of people reading aloud together the beautifully simple words of the Common Book of Prayer. The beauty and meaning of those words draws you out of yourself and makes you feel connected, if only momentarily, to something greater than our own little ego. It’s in this sacred space, these moments of grace, that we feel our capacity for greater love, charity, and forgiveness.

I cannot say for sure, but this may have been my last visit to the Cathedral since there is a good chance we’ll be moving this year. If that turns out to be true, then I was fortunate and saved the best for last.

After the service we all went outside to hear the bells.

Sound of Full Peal (Bells) at Washington National Cathedral (Video by J.D. Wills, 01/01/2020)