Tag Archives: covid-19

Deep in the Heart of Texas

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“It is my task / To wear a mask / Deep in the heart of Texas.” – Me (July 2020)

I have the personality type that keeps me on the burnout watch list, so during this pandemic journey multiple people (predictably including both those who work for me and those I work for) have dropped multiple hints that I should take some time off and recharge. I also have the personality type that can ignore sound advice regarding my personal mental health, but I gave in, and not reluctantly. Our youngest daughter invited my wife and I to help her move, and since that was the only way I would get to see her this summer, it was an easy decision.

And yet, she lives deep in the heart of Texas, so of course as I tied up loose ends to take vacation around a long holiday weekend, Texas became a focal point of this blasted virus right on cue. I spend months going nowhere, and then when I do, I get on an airplane of all things to fly directly into the belly of the beast. It is like spinning the wheel on vacation locations and landing on Hell. Or, Chuck E. Cheese.

Nevertheless, I masked up and headed to Texas late last week.

I always wanted to visit Austin, although sitting in a hotel room was not at all what I envisioned. But I am glad to be here, enjoying the gift of family, resting, reading, relaxing—and washing my hands every thirty seconds.

I was most assuredly not trying to be irresponsible. Ironically, getting away was my attempt to be responsible. That, and being a dad. But I suspect others can relate to having the very best intentions and then looking up to discover that those intentions ended up as asphalt on the road to you know where.

Texas. Ha! Just kidding, although it is that hot down here.

Innate Potential for Joy

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One of the many programs that I love at Lipscomb is the LIFE Program (a program that received global attention in the story of Cyntoia Brown Long). The LIFE Program holds classes inside the Tennessee Prison for Women and the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, and I shared before how the opportunity to lead a class session in the LIFE Program impacted me, not to mention the soul-cleansing experience of a graduation ceremony that came later on.

Statistics of incarceration in the United States are troubling. Our country has 25% of the world’s prison population but only 5% of the overall population. You may be surprised to learn that women represent the fastest-growing demographic going to prison in the United States. The mass incarceration of Black men is particularly egregious—statistically, Black boys have a 1 in 3 chance of going to prison in their lifetimes compared to White boys whose chances are 1 in 17. I am glad to be a part of a university program that has at least engaged and invested in shifting such troubling narratives.

Unable to hold in-person classes due to COVID-19 or allowed to communicate with its “inside” students by phone, the LIFE Program deftly shifted to writing letters. If not for COVID-19, I would have had my first opportunity to teach a class session at Riverbend this week, the facility that holds most of Tennessee’s fifty-one death row residents (of which over 50% are Black, compared to 17% of Tennessee’s population). This summer, Dr. Kate Watkins has initiated a “common read” to connect with the residents. I was honored to be invited to read The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky and exchange letters with three men at Riverbend.

I should say that my admiration for the work of Bryan Stevenson knows no bounds, and I agree with his statement “that each person is more than the worst thing they’ve ever done,” but I learned too late that it is not the best idea to Google the names of your prison pen pals. And yet, that made the choice of book and the thoughts it had generated in me even more profound.

I confess that The How of Happiness would not have been my natural book choice. I have benefited greatly from several self-help books in my life, but that is not the section of the bookstore that I gravitate toward. However, it has turned out to be exactly the book that I needed to read, and I devoured it. (Thanks, Kate!)

So, consider: The book is based on scientific research, and the underlying premise is that a full half of our happiness is basically genetic—i.e., some of us are simply hard-wired to be and feel more cheerful than others—another 10% is based on our circumstances, and the remaining 40% is within our power to change. As the back book cover describes, we each have an “innate potential for joy.”

So here’s the deal: I am exchanging letters with men who live in a prison that houses not only them but also the State of Tennessee’s electric chair and lethal injection facility. And we are reading a book that argues from science that despite any possible circumstance that we face, we all have within ourselves four times the power to experience (are you ready for this?) happiness.

It is unquestioned that 2020 will be unforgettable, but in the middle of it all I will be checking my mailbox for letters from men who are considering how to find happiness and joy while in prison. Talk about unforgettable. I love that we are providing education for people who are incarcerated, but as is often the case, I suspect that I will be learning from them.

 

 

 

 

 

Coming to Terms

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“You’re likely to get the coronavirus.”

That was the headline of an article in The Atlantic that caught my eye way back in February before the world entered into an impressive barrel roll. The author, a physician who lectures at Yale School of Public Health, quoted a Harvard epidemiology professor who said, “I think the likely outcome is that it [COVID-19] will ultimately not be containable.” The Harvard prof guessed that “40 to 70 percent of people around the world will be infected with the virus that causes COVID-19.”

Sobering, to say the least. But then there was this:

The emerging consensus among epidemiologists is that the most likely outcome of this outbreak is a new seasonal disease—a fifth “endemic” coronavirus. With the other four, people are not known to develop long-lasting immunity. If this one follows suit, and if the disease continues to be as severe as it is now, “cold and flu season” could become “cold and flu and COVID-19 season.”

I haven’t been able to shake that early prediction.

Of course a couple of weeks later we all learned phrases like “flatten the curve” and “social distancing” and then there was Carole Baskin and Joe Exotic and now a few months later American Idol is broadcasting from living rooms while ESPN featured the 46th Annual Cherry Pit Spitting Championship. So we’re all a little dizzy.

But I keep thinking back to that article from February and wonder if we should consider that COVID-19 might be here to stay.

Another headline recently caught my attention: “Scientists fear the hunt for a coronavirus vaccine will fail and we will all have to live with the ‘constant threat’ of COVID-19.” Consistent with my nagging thoughts, David Nabarro, a professor of global health at Imperial College in London, was quoted as saying, “…for the foreseeable future, we are going to have to find ways to go about our lives with this virus as a constant threat.”

So, how is your day going so far?

I may be unconvincing when I say this, but I’m not writing to depress anyone. Quite the opposite. Instead, I deeply believe that the greatest psychological danger is to ignore reality and that coming to terms with the journey ahead is the healthy approach to life.

In my humble opinion, while continuing to focus unprecedented attention on protecting the vulnerable, we must also determine how to rearrange our lives to carry on with COVID-19 in the neighborhood because, like the common cold, it is possible that it is not going away anytime soon.

Closure One Way or Another

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Hillary’s Bedroom, Ocean Springs, Mississippi (2005)

I turn in my grades this week, and graduation is scheduled for Saturday—a “virtual” ceremony, of course. We plan to have as many graduates as possible return here in December for the in-person version, but it made sense to do something now to commemorate the occasion since these wonderful students have completed the requirements and are college graduates. Many faculty and staff have given their best to make the virtual ceremony meaningful. Our hurt for our graduates’ loss is only exceeded by their own pain. But we sure are trying our best.

Closure is important, and when the typical ways are impossible, we need to create some version anyway.

When my youngest daughter was eight years old, we lost our house to a hurricane. We gutted the house and sold it at a significant loss, and that little girl asked me to take her to visit the house one final time in early December to say good-bye. That seemed like a harmless thing to do.

It was cold that afternoon [note: the picture above was months earlier], and looking back, I guess it was sort of fitting. The wind cut straight through you, foreboding. We didn’t need a key to get in. Or even hands now that I think of it. All of our doors and most of our windows had not been on the house for the past quarter of the year, so when Hillary and I walked in the house, there really wasn’t much to see. But it felt different.

Hillary took over as tour guide and led me from room to room. At times she was less tour guide and more tourist, asking me for some clarification in each place. “Daddy, was this where the couch was?” “Daddy, wasn’t this where we had the television?” From time to time, the tour guide would pop up with a few declarations: “This is where the big red chair was.” “Here is where I would play with my bouncy-balls every once in a while.” “Here was my bed!”

I didn’t recognize what was happening because I am a moron. Hillary was studying. It was cramming for finals time. She did not want to forget.

I started to see that little “I wanna cry” face a few times, but I told myself I was wrong. It’s probably just the wind whipping through the house, making her cold. I didn’t take any chances, however, so I asked Hillary if she wanted us to pray and thank God for all the good times in this house. She did. So we held hands in that cold and drafty gutted-out mess of a house, that house where Hillary left for her first day of school, the place where magical creatures like Santa and the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny brought wonder to that child’s imagination, the site of bed-snuggles and family nights and fevers and boo-boos and birthday parties and loose teeth and special suppers and homemade cookies and every single one of Hillary’s memories that defined “home”—and we prayed. And God saw it. And it was good.

Then, like a march to an execution we began our last trip out of that house of memories, though an eight-year-old seemed to skip playfully more than shuffle in shackles even if the journey was final and difficult. She made the declaration on her way out that this would be the last time she stepped foot in that house. She didn’t say it in such a sad voice, but she said it from a sad heart. The house had to have been sad, too.

The bone-chilling wind was just a bit colder on the outside of the house, and I was ready for some heat in the car, but Hillary wanted one more treasure-hunting trip to the front ditch where we had tossed our belongings for debris removal months earlier. Like a good father, I said, “Okay, don’t step on a nail. I’ll be in the car.”

This was another in my long line of parental mistakes.

The good news is that she didn’t step on a nail. The bad news is that she saw her prize-winning science fair display ground into the front ditch. That was not good at all.

She made it into the car without crying. She bravely mentioned that she had spotted something very important to her in the front ditch, then went on to share what it was. She had the face-thing going full strength now, doing her best not to cry. We told the house good-bye, made one last drive-by of the front ditch, and we made it part of the way down the road before she lost it. As always, Hillary had my full permission to do just that.

Fifteen years later I still remember the lesson that little girl taught me: Closure matters. Even if it is a weak substitute for normal methods, it matters.

It is hard to explain and even harder to fathom, but we think back on those hurricane stories with some odd type of fondness now. It turned out to be a special and unforgettable time in our lives.

It is my prayer that our graduates can do that someday, too. But for now, and this weekend in particular, let’s make up some kind of moment to close the door on a special time. And it is more than okay if it brings a tear.

Brave New World

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via Pinterest

The jury is out on whether we are living into a dystopian or utopian novel, but it seems apparent that the future will necessarily be different than the past. The “how” remains TBD.

Like many, I watched the Bill Gates TED Talk on pandemics five years after the fact and was simultaneously fascinated by its prophetic nature and wistful that we as a collective society did not insist that such preparations be a major topic in the 2016 election and since. Had we all been so forward-thinking this great loss of life and livelihood could have been greatly mitigated.

But since we can’t go back, what now? How should we be forward-thinking today? Those of us who live in the American Midwest and American South are familiar with storm shelters, and I am toying with that concept as a public policy metaphor for the future.

For those unfamiliar with storm shelters, in parts of the country where the terror of tornadoes is a constant threat, many homeowners install a storm shelter, an underground safe room for retreat when tornadoes suddenly appear (see the picture from Pinterest above). When the haunting tornado siren cries out, the family (and often neighbors) rush in, secure the door, let the storm pass, and emerge to survey the damage—and if all is well, get back to life as normal.

We may need to consider a similar idea for the entire planet. Let me explain.

It may be a couple of years before a vaccine for this particular coronavirus is confirmed, but regardless, there will be others, and as a result there will inevitably be more opportunities to practice social distancing for weeks at a time. It seems wise that governments, businesses, schools, churches, and families are much more prepared for those times. Like a proverbial storm shelter, we could build plans and budgets so that we can quickly pivot when we face the next biological storm.

I avoid talking politics publicly anymore for a thousand reasons, but I do wish we could understand and agree that our economic system is neither pure command nor pure market. Experience has taught us that both extremes are dangerous and there are times when it is in the best interest of everyone to ensure that certain basic things are provided to everyone—things like electricity, water, and roads, just to name a few. So for example, this brave new world might lead us to consider modifying the list to include things like WiFi and computer access for those occasions when the world needs to shelter in place. (And, despite your political party of choice, surely the pandemic can help us see the need for a better conversation about health care in general.)

I’m not trying to engage a debate. Instead, I am simply trying to imagine the future in the hopes that we are better prepared next time. For there will be a next time.

It is one thing to build a shelter to jump in when a storm rushes through. It is quite another project to consider how the entire world might do that for weeks at a time—but that might be worth considering.

Unlucky Thirteen

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My wife enjoys telling the story of her missing thirteenth birthday.

As the story goes, as Jody began to open a gift at her twelfth birthday party, she exclaimed for some unknown reason, “If this is Charlie powder, I will just die.” (Stay with me boys and girls: “Charlie powder” was some sort of Revlon beauty product once upon a time.)  Jody doesn’t understand why she said such a thing, but she did, and the present turned out to be Charlie powder—a gift from her mother. Her mother was rather upset. Not insulted, but upset. As the story continues, her mother scolded her by saying, “What if that gift was from one of your guests?”

The punishment? No thirteenth birthday party. Oh, but that’s not all. In fact, no recognition of a thirteenth birth-DAY.  As the story concludes, that is exactly what happened one year later. No song, no cake, no balloons, no happy wishes—it was as if it never happened.

It became clear to me over time that at some point in the future Jody wanted a thirteenth birthday party. And hypothetically speaking, let’s imagine that my wife had a major life milestone birthday coming up sometime around, let’s say, now. Then hypothetically speaking (of course), as someone who tries really hard to be a good husband, one would think that such a time would be a perfect opportunity to celebrate the milestone birthday and the missing thirteenth birthday—all at once. Two parties in one, if you will. And while we are in Imaginary World, if our daughters would have flown in from across the country, that would have been a nice touch. And getting her friends and family together for a surprise party would have earned some major brownie points, too.

Darn you, COVID-19.

Well, we had a party anyway, just the two of us in person, and thanks to Google Hangouts, our daughters and many other family and friends popped in to surprise her and share sweet words from afar.

My wife is the most amazing person that I know and the love of my life. And after all these years there is one thing that I know now more than ever:

That unlucky thirteenth birthday surely is cursed.

(Ab)Normal

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I have experienced more than my fair share of disasters, but someone opened up a big tent for this one to include a whole lot more people. Thinking back to the first time I encountered an upside-down world, I recall a particular phrase that made me crazy when interacting with someone outside the disaster zone: Are things getting back to normal around there?

I strongly oppose throat-punching in general, but the thought did cross my mind.

While recognizing the innocent ignorance of the question, what made it particularly infuriating was the lack of understanding that “normal” is the first fatality in a major disaster. Normal is gone forever. Coming to terms with that is not easy.

Classes resume at Lipscomb University today, online of course, and my “student life” team is reinventing the ways in which we facilitate the special Lipscomb community while physically separated from one another. But there is nothing about today that indicates life returning to “normal.”

A new normal isn’t necessarily bad. Change is inevitable, and change represents an opportunity to let go of negative habits and routines and embrace positive habits and routines. What is bad about situations like this is that we did not get to choose the destruction of normalcy; thus, we did not get the opportunity for closure. We did not choose the new normal—it chose us.

So here we are in this new world, and from past experience I do not recommend devoting a lot of energy longing for things to return to the way they were before. That’s just not going to happen. Now grieving that loss is more than okay. We owe it that.

But once you are finished grieving, work to create a new kind of normal that is somehow better than ever.

Resilient in Adversity

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I realize there are a few people who still think COVID-19 is a hoax because I have a diverse set of acquaintances and a Facebook account, but it is safe to say that the reality of the global pandemic has hit almost everyone. And hit hard. No one needs me to list the unpredictable disappointments and challenges that have combined to produce predictable emotions like anger, frustration, grief, and fear. Nevertheless, here we are.

And as we sit in this universal timeout, we find ourselves considering our individual purposes on this planet. For many, like grocery store workers, housekeeping staff, truck drivers, and healthcare providers, there is no longer a question whether what they do is important or appreciated. But as the rest of us reconsider how we work, we are forced to drill down to remember what our work is. I have surely been thinking about mine.

The student affairs profession in higher education exists to complement the academic work of faculty in educating the leaders of tomorrow. We complement by teaching outside the classroom and focusing on “life” competencies. In my new role and with my new team, we identified nine things we are trying to teach—our “mission”—and it is not difficult to understand how each is valuable during this time of crisis. We want every student to be:

* Spiritually disciplined
* Professionally prepared
* Resilient in adversity
* Intellectually curious
* Socially skilled
* Culturally competent
* Physically fit
* Financially literate
* Environmentally aware

Every single one of those matters now more than ever. But today, I am particularly interested in the one that says—resilient in adversity.

Adversity: A state or instance of serious or continued difficulty or misfortune.

Resilience: An ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.

Well, here we are. Practice is over, and it is game time for RESILIENCE. Even if ESPN is busy showing reruns.

But if any of us needs a little in-game coaching, I offer once again the famed quote from neurologist, psychiatrist, and Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl, who said: “Everything can be taken from a [human being] but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Resilience begins with the choice of attitude—the one freedom that, regardless of any virus, cannot be taken away.