We may not know that the capital of Bhutan the small Himalayan country is Thimphu but we more than likely know that it values and prizes happiness. Strange as it may be to our Western values, their secret, or at least part of it, is thinking about death. Most Bhutanese think about it 5 times a day. A while back I ran across an article by a travel writer for the BBC, Eric Weiner writing about all this. I somehow put it aside and only re discovered it a bit ago. The message is still fresh and certainly necessary so I am sharing it now. Weiner went to talk to a sage while visiting Bhutan. Uncharacteristically for him he writes, he confided his problems to him. The sage told him to think about death once a day. He did, and the advice worked. In his piece for the BBC Weiner cites recent studies in the US, one from the journal Psychological Science, which reports on the positive effects of taking the advice of thinking about death.
Western society and the
American culture in particular, shun notions of death. And what is important
about this study and about the case of Bhutan is that we do so at our own
loss. Despite a predominantly Christian
culture, a culture that stands for its message of life eternal, we think of death
as an end rather than a step, a bridge, a chapter. It’s not that we are focused on living, it’s
the way we prioritize our efforts to live, the way we ignore death, see our
life in the world as an end in itself rather than part of something larger. Several
years ago I was at a dinner party and the discussion turned to what would we do
if we had a year to live. Somehow ever since, I’ve incorporated the idea of
dying into much of my thinking, perhaps not daily, but often enough and I’ve
discovered that it guides my actions in rewarding and unexpected ways. I wish
you the same.
I first saw the story in the NYT and then on NPR and The Verge and other publications. I am sure you saw or heard it somewhere because it was one of these stories the media feels it has to cover. Originally published in the journal Science it dealt with an experiment that over 200 economists thought would go contrary than it did, would not reveal people’s capacity for honesty. Some 17000 wallets usually with money in them were dropped in places like banks and post offices in over 40 countries by people posing as tourists. What they found is that people did try to return the wallets, in much larger percentages than imagined. The name and email of the purported owners were included and efforts were obviously made to contact the owners. To note was that the names were changed according to the country. What’s more the greater the amount of money in the wallet the more likely the wallets were returned.
We have come to have a negative, if not cynical view of human nature, which of course can at least in part be substantiated by the amount of violence, greed, cruelty and meanness in the world. But to someone like me, someone thoroughly steeped in the existence and potential for good of our inner transcendent self, this finding only confirms what I’ve long known. I as so many have witnessed the manifestations of this good, this part of us that goes by many names, including spirit or Maslow’s positive instinctual core.
It’s time we change
our view of human nature, not with naiveté but with the knowledge that given
certain circumstances, the good does prevail.
In case you haven’t heard, there’s a new kind of abolitionists. They want to abolish prisons and those aspects of the government that make prisons possible including having police departments. Of course all abolitionists are not alike and some have more rigid expectations while others seem to have more realizable goals. And neither is it a recent phenomenon. It may date back to the 60’s with the ideas of Angela Davis and with the work of trail blazers like Ruth Wilson Gilmore. What gave this movement flight however was CNN host Van Jones suggesting several years ago that the prison population should be cut by half. Then he was criticized but things have sufficiently changed he is now hailed. What is new is that many committed to reform the criminal justice system have endorsed some of the abolitionists’ ideas. Closing Riker’s Island prison in New York City for example was once thought ridiculous, but it no longer is. Besides incarceration, probation is also being looked at including the possible use of ATM-like machines through which people could check in without having to report to a probation officer. Other ideas that seem to have traction are what crimes should be prosecuted as well as the seeking of out of court remedies. Still another idea filtering through to a more general acceptance is that the system as it is creates harm seriously mitigating whatever public safety it yields. Those who work toward criminal justice reform from within the system can be frustrated by die-hard abolitionists who would want to not only abolish the whole structure but redirect the monies spent on it. But an outsider like me can be indebted to both for instigating long overdue reforms and looking to continue reforming a system that is no longer serving the society, and much less the human beings caught within it.
Twenty five years from now the US will look different. It will be darker and older. Those we now call minorities will be the majority by 2045. There will be more immigrants than ever before in the country, and since there will be more people over 65 than children, they will have to help carry the economic burden of so many on social security—assuming it is still viable. The census projections that give us these numbers remind us that although the white non college educated evangelical men who help elect Donald Trump will be a minority, that will not mean that racial tensions will disappear. Christians will also cease to be a majority. There will be more Muslims than Jews, and about a fourth of the population will call themselves non-affiliated with any religious tradition.
So much behind
Trump’s election and its aftermath, about the loyalty of his base seems to me
at least, a backlash against race, against having had 8 years of a black
president whose Muslim parentage was not understood. And now sheer demographics
and sheer facts make the very people Trump and his supporters are and were trying to avoid on their way to be the controlling majority.