On Memorial day we often think of those who gave everything so that others could enjoy the normal pleasures of human life, especially the love of family. It has also become a day when loveless political bullies bluster at some already-stigmatized set of people unlikely to hit back. Their cowardly ugliness hardens our social spaces and hurts people who have already been hurt by their families. It continues partly because they rarely go after groups that can’t easily hit back. They don’t attack older white heterosexual married hospital executives. Or ordained Baptist ministers. Like me. I recently presided at the wedding of two kind women whose hearts had found each other. Why would they be attacked and not me? Because bullies are weak, the kind of people the heroes of memorial day faced down.
I wore the robe and read from the Bible my mother gave me upon my ordination:
“You can see, feel and hear that the whole universe sings, hums, buzzes and claps its hands on this happy day. We signed the North Carolina State marriage license before the ceremony to get the government out of our family affairs. So why do a marriage ceremony at all? The State permits love, but only a sacred event with family and friends cements it.
“We know that some in our hard-hearted world think that these two lovers should not even hold hands, much less be joined in matrimony. So it is important that we support their love for each other from this time forward.
“These two wise and thoughtful women considered their decision carefully; they do not need any wisdom from me about how to live their lives or give themselves faithfully to each other and the world. We can see they know this.
“It important for an ordained minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to grant sacred blessing to carefully considered committed love. There are those who would not; those who fear the overflowing love of a wildly abundant God. But if we did not celebrate this love as holy, true and sacred, the rocks, trees and earth would cry out and sing instead. This love and this marriage is of a loving God who has made us to have love and then make commitments and keep them so that love matures over decades as a gift for each other and for each of us who are also blessed by their love.
Anyone could see their natural kind way in the world. They grow things, repair things, clean things, bring stuff into order. They give themselves in labor and skill. They are thrifty, kind and wise; and better at everything because of their union. This is obviously a union made by God, even if some of the family was still getting used to the idea.
I pronounced them married. What God made One, let nobody and nothing separate, especially some loveless bully who wouldn’t know love if it walked up and kissed them on the lips.
We did the wedding in the backyard of our home shared with six hives of mostly girl bees– 150,000 sisters who provided the mead with which we celebrated over dinner
We need lots of love.
Last weekend TC and I were in New Hampshire to dance at another wedding. Like most love, it was improbable and inevitable. This woman and man had been so bruised by earlier marriages that they had given up on love entirely. It fell to their children to encourage them to try again. And love found a way! The wedding ceremony lasted at least three hours with all that Irish, Indian, Bhai, and random 21st century meaning-making had to offer. Fire, flame, music, bubbles, knots, turmeric, dance. We didn’t really need any of it, as there was no possibility of missing the light of love between this man and woman shocked to find themselves loved and cherished by one another. Thank God their kids didn’t give up on them!
There is no way to out-bully bullies. I may be best to ignore them; starving them of the attention and fear they crave. Only their children can reach them, after all.
But it would help for those of us they are not likely to attack, to speak up for love. Especially those of us who they think look like people who agree with them. Instead, we should encourage every bit of every kind of committed love it is possible to nurture, bless and protect.
The life of Reverend Dr. Christopher Patrick Bounds doesn’t fit in a blog; it hardly fit into Memphis! He and the Bounds brothers once opened for the Temptations on Beale Street and he knew the labyrinth under those streets working with public works department. And, oh my, did he do public work as the soul of the “Memphis Model.” He and Dr. Bobby Baker built a meshwork of trust in a city with almost none, certainly none that crossed over the broken boundary zone between the powers, principalities and structures of faith that kept dreaming of mercy and justice decades after Martin preached his last sermon down the street at Mason Temple.
I knew only a shred of this great life. Technically, he worked for me as a chaplain at Methodist LeBonheur Healthcare, but I was never confused about who knew what to do and why. He and the Reverend Dr. Bobby Baker once took me to breakfast after the Congregational Health Network was rising up from the delta mud; they told me I needed to hire more white people to balance the risk of the work being dismissed and targeted as just Black: “surely you can find some!” Chris lent his considerable store of trust to CHN, Methodist Healthcare and me. He once took me to preach at the Historic First Baptist Church of Millington (the white people named their later thing First Baptist, too). The congregation had come for church and found me in the pulpit; they were skeptical based on a few centuries of history. Chris explained in his introduction that I talked softly and, frankly a bit oddly about the leading causes of life; but it was worth leaning in and listening.
Dr. Bounds was never surprised by the ugly claws of injustice. He closed the door of my office and told me that while he knew I was a liberal and did not have room for Satan in my cosmology, I was dangerously exposed without some way to understand that chaos fights back when justice and mercy begin to rise up. It did and does.
He was the lead chaplain at University Hospital which put him inside rooms where justice could be carefully titrated and found inconvenient amid the pressures of big time healthcare business. He spoke in clear language that ripped the veil when quality wonks spoke of gross disparities as “opportunities.” We found, somewhat surprisingly, that our data showed equal treatment inside the ER; but that Black men died on the way at shocking rates. And the hospital had trouble keeping track of the ones that survived. Chris said these were his brothers and that they were dead.
It is hard to live with such clear vision and a heart of mercy. He was one of the few Black preachers to preach white funerals, including one for a recovering alcoholic chaplain. Their love for each other was a beacon fire in a dark land.
He spoke life in places that only spoke death. He preached leading causes of life in a funeral that released a family full of repressed anger and grief. The deacons and lawyers had to protect him. He warned me that these leading causes of life were a lot more powerful than they look.
TC and I got married in South Africa but with a blessing of the marriage on Mud Island in Memphis. Chris did the prayer which went on for quite some time. Several minutes into the prayer we realized he had wandered off into supplications for the Affordable Care Act, which somehow seemed appropriate given the many tribes attending. Pastoral love and politics were never far apart in the eyes of Dr. Bounds.
When I think of—dare I say brother—Chris, I can think of many times he spoke the urgency of justice. But I can only remember him with a smile and gentle eyes that did not give up on anyone. We knew when his love Bren passed last year, that Chris would not have much more use for this world. He passed at 10:30 Monday morning in the residential hospice he helped build, surrounded by many whose lives were dignified by his.
Jimmy Carter is not dead quite yet. Counting him out was almost never a good idea whether he was running for an improbable office (every one he ever held) or an improbable health goal (guinea worm, polio, smoking or handgun violence). Or embracing improbable relationships—the Allman Brothers Band so key to the first steps of his race for President, Charles Taylor, the Liberian Pariah President or North Korean Pariah President, Kim Jong-un. Carter was able to live across improbable boundaries because he was comfortable with his own complexities and complicities; he knows he is human like all of the 8,018,082,868 of us. And he is clear-eyed about his own death, which most of us ignore until the last final shock.
Carter was always misread as being somewhat simplistic and moralistic. In fact, he worked through his own complexities to still choose to act, speak and do what he thought right. He was not surprised that his relationships sometimes made that harder; he was a loyal to people who made his life more complicated than a more ruthless man would have (thinking of a few bankers and entrepreneurs who clung to him like barnacles). A religious man with eclectic curiosity, he often confounded Baptist Christians who feared the grey areas (most of life). And he confounded secular friends who loved the grey so much they found it odd that a man could choose commitment and follow through. Not satisfied with a simplistic stab at polio, he did the hard work decade after decade after decade. Never satisfied with pontificating in a hotel ball room, he took African presidents to left-behind places in their own countries they had never seen. And then he went back again and again. He knew the complicated reasons for homelessness, but he never failed to pick up his own hammer and build one more home. He loved one woman his whole life, even though he was honest enough to almost lose an election by admitting “lust in his heart” for others. He gave the word “human” a good name.
Like many thousands, my life would be unrecognizably different had it not met his. Not long after he was involuntarily returned to civilian life from the White House, he started The Carter Center as a launching pad, more than a museum. He and Dr. Bill Foege, who had run the CDC under him, held the first global conference called Closing the Gap, even before he had a building. An engineer’s kind of conference, it asked how much of the burden of premature morality could be prevented based on what was already known. What could we actually do with what we already know? About two thirds was preventable back in the 80’s, as your grandmother would have guessed. And who needs to act? Among others, the ubiquitous faith networks who he knew tended to sit around and wait for something terrible to happen and then act surprised at the most predictable things (cancer, war, diabetes, river blindness). Could religious people grasp the vast moral chasm causes by not acting on the patterns we know cause needless suffering? He and Dr. Foege got the attention of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and started the Interfaith Health Program, which I ended up leading. Why me, and not some famous academic bishop? Frankly, I’m not sure, but both men had a preference for action over formal qualifications.
The first thing we did was blow up the perfectly respectable grant plan of work, which began with a big formal conference at the new Carter Center. We replaced it with two years of scrappy meetings in dumpy basements and raggedy centers all over the nation (not unlike his run for president, now that I think of it). We asked the leaders actually doing things what they would commend to him as worth replicating. And we asked where they were stumped for lack of a clear vision of what might work. The two lists were identical, of course, which meant that the big innovation was having enough humility enough to realize that somebody down the road had probably already figured out the answer we thought we had to invent. It is actually harder to adapt something as it demands even more intelligence than simply plopping down another idea from somewhere. He called this a “mundane revolution.”
Carter is known for protecting the Arctic reaches of the Alaskan wilderness. I rafted the Canning River which borders that vastness and I was grateful; what other President even knew it was there, or would spend scarce political capital to protect it? It wasn’t just big nature he loved; he never missed participating in the Audubon bird count in Plains. He personally called the American Chestnut Society to get some hybrid seedlings to plant at The Carter Center, where they are improbably growing strong. He accepted some gift of Koi from the Japanese government but refused to purify the pond so people could see them. (A Georgia pond is brown.) Life, even the mundane, is spectacular when you have eyes like his.
My very best ideas are tiny footnotes in the extraordinary legacy left by this special man. These include the “Memphis Model,” emulated by dozens of major healthcare systems all over the nation, the “religious health assets” which paved the way for the WHO into activating faith networks all over the world and, of course, Leading Causes of Life, which I spoke about the first time at a Conference in Milwaukee to which the former President sent me to in his place (imagine their disappointment!). Carter created a physical and a mental space where it seems reasonable to imagine things that had never happened and then try to do them. And then keep trying, maybe even for 98 years.
After decades of one unbearably oafish Christian after another desecrating the very idea of faith, he quietly gave his life as a long gift to his church and all people of faith: an example of sacred dignity and integrity. Not that the oafs understood. When he was gracious enough to invite evangelical leaders to the White House, more than one publicly prayed that he would become a better Christian. However, when my secular friends think that anyone who tries to believe is foolish, I could always say, “No, I mean people like Jimmy Carter.” They had to nod.
He had little patience with superficial piety. Once he had all of us Directors reflect on whether Newt Gingrich had any good ideas in his “Contract with America.” I choked and noted this was not likely to go down well with the faith people who actually do the work on the streets. He snapped that the churches rarely break a sweat, while the government at least knows where all the poor live.
In the very first article for the Interfaith Health Program he wrote, “We must make the choices that lead toward life.” And who is accountable for those choices? Not just improbable Presidents, but hundreds of thousands of improbable grown-ups doing the right thing when people notice and when they don’t.
This is true, even unto the very end of their days, when the right thing means releasing into the love of one’s family, instead of the normal vain and fruitless medicalized struggle against death. James Carter was proud, but never vain, often overlooked, but few lives bore so much fruit. I hope he lingers in hospice to savor the deep joy of a life well lived.
Rulers have held conferences about food, hunger and health since the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers was farmed 11,000 years ago. Now every five years the United States Congress passes a comprehensive Farm Bill in that great tradition of balancing complicated and conflicting ideas about how to feed another generation. Governments have usually gotten their citizens enough calories in the short run, but screwed up the long run, turning farms turning into deserts. Mesopotamia, now Iraq, was “the fertile crescent,” just as northern Africa was the grainery of the Romans, just as Iowa is for us. Doesn’t bode well for Iowa.
At Joe Biden’s White House Conference on Food, Hunger and Health last week I sat behind Dr. Dean Ornish, the cardiologist who was derided for showing that one could reverse heart disease with nutrition, exercise and, even more controversially, social/spiritual support. On my left was the President of American Soybean Association, which has so successfully lobbied for their bean that it is second only to corn syrup as the most common ingredient in the American diet, including many products that are only barely identifiable as food. There were many such ironies in the room: food bankers munching on lunch provided by Google. Hospitals like mine highlighting community food initiatives in the shadow of our massive surgical towers that Dr. Ornish proved unnecessary decades ago. Meals on Wheels executives jostling with Instacart lobbyists. Organic farmers next to pesticide people. Chef José Andrés, the electrifying Puerto Rican Chef sounded the call to simply feed everybody…now; just do it.
The last time food rated a White House conference was under President Nixon 53 years ago when I was in high school. He opened the door to China, just as he opened the kitchen cupboards to food stamps, now called WIC and school lunch programs. He also had Earl Butts as Secretary of Agriculture who considered small farmers a silly distraction in favor of industrial behemoths. The mishmash of noble and industrial programs had all sorts of unintended consequences that their advocates understand need to be corrected. New York Mayor Eric Adams (sitting next to Dr. Ornish) wanted the health experts to be responsible for designed school lunches to be about nutrition, not calories: “we’re just feeding the next health crisis.” Donna Martin, The head of Burke County Georgia school kitchens asked for the same thing: “come to school, work in our kitchens, feed our kids.”
Food doesn’t come from a warehouse or even a kitchen; it comes from soil. The kitchen just links two astonishing complexities, the soil biome and the one in our gut where food turns into…us. We know now that the human gut biome determines much of our resilience and lifespan health. Many even speak of the “gut brain” to describe how the biome shapes our choices, emotions, patterns of behavior. The only thing more complex is soil itself. Bad dirt, bad gut, bad health.
Those complexities of soil and gut are largely shaped by the third, politics. Perhaps as complex as food and soil is the social biome; how the 8 billion of us love, fear and choose over our lifespans. Our social choices emerge from our social soil, not surprisingly these days producing poorly nourished decisions. Our civil society, Congress and courts are like children raised on Twinkies and Red Bull; our democratic process staggers in puff and bluster.
It is easy to be cynical about events like the White House Food, Hunger and Health Conference. But this is how democracies muddle our our way, and nearly infinitely smarter than letting the rich royalty dither. The day before the Conference, the White House released a thoughtful national food strategy with 5 pillars—the first one focusing on economic stability. This thoughtful document is only paper until it gets translated into the 2024 budget and the $1.1 trillion Farm Bill. That legislation will determine how many soybeans get subsidized, what kids get free lunches, what moms watch their kids grow healthy or smaller. As President Joe said, “if a mother can’t feed her child, what the hell else matters?” A handful of contested house seats will decide whether that legislation will will be shaped by the people who put together the White House food strategy or people with no strategy at all. Food policy shapes generations; Wendell Berry thought we should enact 50-year Farm Bill’s to break the dangerously short-term thinking. ( Jackson, Wes; Berry, Wendell (January 5, 2009). “A 50-Year Farm Bill”. The New York Times.)
The food conference should make everyone uncomfortable a half century after the last one. Different decisions could help our community systems produce much more health. But we have to include capital investments on the screen, which is especially sensitive for hospitals and industries such as soybeans and food chemicals. Once you’ve built something, you have to pay for it. Better scientific critique would prevent us making extravagant and unfounded investments that produce little real gain in health. Our non-profit industry has shielded our capital investment side from visibility to the community benefit legislation, so I don’t sense we have a lot of moral high ground on the soybean people. Like fixing the food stamp and school lunch programs, the hungry would have us fix community benefit legislation, too.
Most politics is mostly projected out of the past, not the future. The arguments focus on keeping privileges, not getting new ones. That’s how the 3/5th of a citizen idea got into our founding documents: it kept slavery and made inevitable the Civil War. This is also how the subsidies for cotton, sugar, soybean and petrochemical industries end up the Farm Bill cycle after cycle. I was representing Stakeholder Health which has dozens of healthcare non-profits, so I was not comfortable about our illogical privileges, too. We give away a lot of free care. But we could be way more scientific about our investments, including the vast sunk cost of buildings. If we stacked all our bed towers next to all the soybean silos, I think ours would be higher, more expensive and harder to defend.
The day before the White House Conference I was part of a workshop convened by the Stand Together Foundation—a child of the Koch Brothers Foundation. It would have been easy to be cynical about this one, too. But the invitation was just as hard to turn down as the White House Conference, as the subject was just as fundamental: “social dynamics of health.” The two were windows on opposite side of the house peering into the same phenomenon.
The link between the tiny San Diego workshop and massive WH Conference is hard to miss as both events raise fundamental issues of how to achieve fundamental public good. One of the big changes since the last WH Conference is the huge expansion in the non-governmental non-profit sector, especially in healthcare. Neither meeting was about more charity. Rather, the issue is how to appropriately recognize our part of the community systems that create the population scale patterns of health. Whether we are big hospitals or soybean farmers, we should thoughtfully subjecting all of our community-facing policies to basic science critique, especially procurement and capital planning.
The place to start is the same place as doctors do, “first, do no harm.” Wendell Berry was a young man during the Nixon Conference. He was already famous for taking on the agro-industrial machinery that found small farmers so inconvenient and illogical. “What I wish to speak for here is the discipline in the Human character that makes him able to forebear and restrain himself when he’s doing obvious damage to other people.”
Bad food and bad food policy comes from ravaged social soil. Ours is worse than depleted; actively poisoned. Carpet bomb spraying of pesticides makes it impossible for bees to fly or think. Anyone who would do that has drunk their own poison. Dirty politics? I only wish that politics were as healthy, resilient and self-cleansing as dirt.
The maven at the heart of the San Diego meeting was Tom Romeo, VP of the Charles Koch Foundation. Tom had gathered a group of thinker-doers working with the homeless, in public housing developments, with police and troubled kids and two surprisingly cheerful economists. Tom gifted the participants with copies of Ivan Illich’s 1973 book, Nemesis and Deep Economy by Bill McKibben. The third hand-out was a paper TC, Jim Cochrane and I wrote for the National Academies of Sciences about “the health of complex human systems.” These are not what you’d expect of a Koch workshop; a signal that something very basic is changing in the idea soil out of which grows the social dynamics.
Illich, McKibben and my team argue that we have to see human health as the fruit of nested complex systems, just related as soil and gut. This is not a metaphor; this is why things happen as they do. It is why the planet is melting, bees dying and neighborhoods go hungry. If we do not think, analyze and dialogue in the complexity of the nested systems, we will break those systems. The farms will turn to desert and our children will grow small, theirs smaller still.
The data say that we are well beyond the tipping point and that we should despair. However, the natural systems testify that they rebound once the poisoning stops. The ozone hole we thought our doom two decades ago, is already half healed. The Monarch and the Honeybees will thrive too, as will all that comes from healthy soil, meadow and forest. The only question is whether our grandchildren will be here to enjoy it.
Winston Churchill used to say that you can on Americans to do the right thing…after we have exhausted all possible alternatives. Surely we have arrived at that place now since there is still a chance for the children. Bill McKibben, in his latest book, The Flag, the Cross and the Station Wagon notes that there aren’t many things an old person can do better than a young one, except getting arrested on behalf of their grandchildren. We have to try, take risks, be bold for those we love.
Trying in complex human systems means grown-ups talking to each other, especially those expecting to disagree. That’s why I reluctantly went to the San Diego conference and found myself among new friends. Trying means thousands of committees, some dealing with the trillion-dollar Farm Bill, some about the neighborhood school kitchen, some with the homeowners’ association figuring out how to stop spraying dumb chemicals.
Complex human systems seem overwhelming. But they invite us to be part of the complexity because everything matters. Just as every quart of poison spray matters, just as does every choice, every vote, every conversation with someone you thought opposite. Every kindness is honored; no love wasted, no healing intention lost. Chef Andreas is right; we have all the ingredients; we just have to try.
Even an electric vehicle depends on the kindness of strangers now and then. Good thing there are always kind strangers. In this case it was Mike Carnett, a car salesman in Wytheville, Virginia, 90 miles from home when we only had 78 miles of battery life.
TC and I had enjoyed the glories of Pipestem State Park in West Virginia, which overlooks the ancient Bluestone Gorge. And it has a modern little free charger for both Tesla and our union-made Chevy Bolt. (I love to park next to Tesla’s who paid three times what I did for our 250 miles of range.)
We decided to take the long way home down the New River as my EV app told us about a charger in Blacksburg. From there we would have plenty of electrons to get home to Winston. We travel these days guided by clever iPhone Apps and the scattering of charging stations in in Walmarts, shopping malls, gas stations and the occasional city hall parking lot.
Even the cheapest EV (mine) has more than 200 miles of range, which is a lot more than I can go without stopping to pee. I’ve put just under 20,000 miles on my Bolt ranging from Atlanta to Cincinnati to DC with only flutters of anxiety.
Butyou still have to get the electricity into the battery. Our Bolt would not accept the charge at the EVGo charger in Blacksburg even after 45 minutes with a very helpful young man on the help line. No problem as we had plenty of juice to get down to Wytheville as a gas station where we had charged the day before. But, it wouldn’t charge there either, even after an hour on the phone with another delightful lady. We were now 12 miles short of the 90 to get home.
The Nissan Leaf was one of the first legit EV’s so every dealer has a free, but really slow, charger. We drifted slightly nervously across town to Dutch Miller Nissan. It almost worked. Out walked Michael Carnett, who poked and joked as salesman do. He noticed that the charge nozzle didn’t seem to be quite seating correctly. So I stuck my naked finger into the gizmo and dislodged a little chunk of plastic that was wedged in, probably broken off from an earlier session. A teeny-weeny trickle of electrons began to move. It was like watching a bucket of water heated by a match. So we went back to the fast Electrify America and ate ice cream as the big wire poured in 100 miles in 25 minutes. Home by dinner.
Electric vehicles are still vehicles with thousands of moving parts. There is no oil to change or engines to pour gas in. But EV’s are still complicated machinery built to ride up and down mountains at high speed. Stuff happens in the real world.
I can’t wait for the deluge of charging stations after Senator Coal Mine (a compliment in West Virginia) changed his mind and permitted the future to edge into our lives last week. I don’t know how our Nissan friend votes or what he thinks of global warming. I know I was grateful for his practical curiosity and kind spirit. It’s gonna take all us strangers showing a little kindness to get to the future.
Humans are a very young species so it is hard to tell if the idea of humanity will stabilize or not. It’s not looking good. Jane Goodall writes in the forward to Regeneration: Ending the Climate Crisis in One Generation that “what separates us from our closest living relatives, the Chimpanzees—and all other animals—is the explosive development of our intellect. … How bizarre that we, the most intellectual of all species, should be destroying our only home.
No honeybee would do something that dumb. I wonder if we can learn from them?
We do not deserve to stand in the presence of such wondrously complex creatures. But they don’t mind as long as we are quiet and let them work. When I do, I can’t help but reflect on our own way and Spirit. It gives me both hope and instruction.
That’s what the workshop is about August 17 and 24th (online). I’m leading it at Threshold Retreat and Farm (here). You might want to join with people who will gather in humble, hopeful curiosity to ask how can we humans might find our way illuminated by the honeybees.
It is worth pausing to study bees carefully because many of the things we think we know about them are exactly wrong. For instance, they are not rigidly organized around a totalitarian leader. They are democrats with no one bee deciding anything, certainly not the queen who is busy laying eggs. When they vote on a new home, they do so in the open, transparently and while dancing. No mean spirited puffery. Good decisions happen.
The honeybees are not invulnerable. Three of my hives died within two weeks when gardeners nearby sprayed poison ivy, which have little flowers the bees like. Nothing bad for bees is good for humans. We breath in the same crap that kills them. Dumb us.
Honeybees remain wild, even after millennia of being managed and robbed by humans. We think of bees as orderly, hierarchical and well-behaved because we steal their precious honey. About four thousand books have been written purporting to teach silly humans how to manage them. And yet honeybees are still untamable for thirty million years and counting,
Honeybees survive because they are wild. They mate high in the wind with six or ten boys not from the neighborhood. It reminds me of my Norwegians who were often led by women as fierce as honeybees, finding mates and raising children across the waves to Newfoundland and down long rivers all the way to Turkey.
Human cultures also find life through shared–not shed–blood. Our story includes violence, often organized and sustained over long period of time. But the species as a whole thrives because of what flows across the boundaries where we find new blended life. Zero immigration adds up to….zero.
Wild works. I’d rather live in the wild USA than teeny weeny Hungary which used to have a diverse empire. Now it is afraid of the world, encouraging us to be afraid with them. Look rather to the honeybees.
Honeybees don’t teach us; they probably think we’re unteachable. They do pose a damn good question: how do we humans remain wild and expansive? How do we remain curious about where love might be found, Spirit unleashed, new songs and vibrations pointing to new possibilities?
We are so young that we are still stupidly proud. Surely it is obvious that every human structure, hierarchy, creed and scientific certainty has passed like the dew in the dawn. Wild, adaptive, ever beginning, ever new–that’s what works. The honeybees have been a stable success for at least 300 times longer than we’ve been painting on cave walls. Generously, they invite us along for the flight.
Register here for the workshop, August 17th and 24th. Zoom, of course. $75 tuition goes to Threshold Retreat and Farm. Participants will receive a PDF draft of a book I’m writing about this. And a real copy when it is published. I’m glad to scholarship a bit, if you’ll give me some feedback. Email me at email@example.com. Please join us!
Note: The honey from the bees who live with TC and I is called Warthog From Hell honoring the wild untamed nature of southern women. We also bottle honey blended from five other sites to make Honeybee Spirit. Both are available at the Threshold Retreat and Farm booth at the Cobblestone Market in Winston-Salem.
These days I tend to forget how much we know about finding our way through really difficult, depressing, anxiety-fomenting, soul-sucking, hope-chilling stuff. I wrote Speak Life: Crafting Mercy in a Hard-hearted Time in 2018 before COVID, Ukraine, the 2020 election and insurrection and falling glaciers.This section, from pages 182-3, 196 helped me today.
The past deceives us by asking us not to take the possibilities of our one life seriously.
In anxious times, we listen too carefully to all that the past teaches us about what has not worked. The past hides the most important things in plain sight, including the simple fact that history doesn’t repeat. It happened, but it isn’t destiny. It circles, as does the hawk above me as I type this; once, twice, then another six times, but never in quite exactly the same way. Finally, having seen enough, it lets the breeze over the ridge carry it down and away into another life. History is not a circle but a spiral, never quite repeating.
The challenge for us short-lived ones is that some life les- sons take more than one lifetime to clarify. This is especially true for the bad things. Wrong can triumph for a long, long time, far beyond what you’d think possible. Bad people often get away with things for pretty much their entire lifetimes. Sometime their kids pick right up where the parents left off and they get away with bad things, too. But Dr. King wasn’t delusional when he saw the arc of history bending toward justice.
Sometimes it takes more than one lifetime for even the most obvious good things to mature. All my life it seemed obvious that the sun was giving us plenty of energy every day, beyond any possible amount that could ever be needed. That could be enough for billions of trees to grow and trillions of plankton to feed all the fish in the swirling oceans. Or surely enough to warm our little human houses and to allow us to move around without bothering the horses. It was always out of reach, the iconic tree- huggers’ folly. Until in a blink it wasn’t. And in another blink the Peabody coal train was the folly. China—no country of tree huggers—cancelled a hundred coal-burning power plants and started covering desert sands with silicon wafers. Some dreams long deferred are just waiting for the converse to emerge.
This is not just true of technology, which is created by small groups of people acting ahead of what seems possible at any given time. In recent decades millions of wholly new organizations have been invented for the purpose of doing something new, usually intended for some sort of good. These groups compete with each other in some sense, always prompting someone to complain about innovation clutter. But mostly they compete with the past and almost always win.
Love sees most clearly in the aftermath of loss, betrayal and pain, when the cynical smirk seems most appropriate. Love does not always see how to restore that which is broken, but it always has eyes for how life can find a way. Love in the aftermath of loss is tuned with the sensitivity of a bruise.
I tend to hang around with groups of people with hopes verging on grandiosity. On many days we actually do think about world peace, saving the planet, and about the least of these. This is good; what else should grownups think about? The challenge is that we are deceived into thinking that the hero of the story always tends to be…us…because we can see the possibilities and those possibilities tend to be extrapolated from our kinds of skills. We can see the future and it looks like more of us at an even larger scale: Health insurance for all (so that everybody could come to our great hospitals!), public health unleashed to prevent everything possible to prevent, education so wide- spread and enlightened that nobody would ever do anything dumb again.
History exaggerates what has happened and undervalues what could have happened just as easily. And it says little about what is possible, what has not yet happened. Emmanuel Kant insisted that the possibilities are just as real as the actualities (McGaughey & Cochrane, 2017). The possibilities are all we can do anything about.
The point is to give our life to the possibilities that allow life to emerge with the most mercy and justice possible. History also exaggerates the power of boundaries and differences, projecting today’s identities inappropriately backward across time, giving them far more power than they deserve. The actual testimony of life is all about dissolving boundaries, especially the ones in our head.
Love sees the unpredictable consequences of life more accurately than history because it knows that the future is not determined yet. The most important thing about the future is that it comes out of the utterly unpredictable expression of collective creative imagination.
Honeybees are the most successful species of the most recent thirty million years. The honeybee in the fossil record is essentially the same as you can find on your nearest batch of clover. Humans, inexplicably proud of our brief ten thousand years, should pause in wonder. We are doing poorly as a species, unlikely to see more than a few generations. Ironically, is common to read stories on the human internet about the demise of the honeybee! These stories are based on the widespread collapse of commercial hive operations, which often ship hundreds, even thousands, of hives on trucks to pollinate vast almond orchards. The bees die by the billions as disease spreads easily in the unnaturally weakened hives, especially from the dreaded varroa mite—the “destructor.”
Dr. Thomas Seeley notes that in nature, hives are usually dispersed two or three per square mile and seem to be rapidly adapting the behavior to resist the mite. Smart money would be on the honeybee to outlive humans by another several million years.
So perhaps we should pause and ask what we might learn from the bees about ourselves. Bees are highly evolved with every body part honed to perfection. My favorite is the middle leg joint which has a little notch through which the bee pulls the antennae to clean them when they become clogged with pollen. My knees barely permit tennis.
It is not the body parts that teach us; we are stuck with two legs and no wings. In any case, you can’t build a strategy on what we do not have. What do we have?
The main distinctive of the honeybee is not its body, but the wonderous social structure of the hive. The hive—the same 3-pound weight as a human brain—is social, intelligent and highly adaptive. It makes complex decisions, including where and when to send out the mother and half the workers create a whole new hive. For 30 million years in a row they have made that decision with stunning success. Its most experienced foragers switch from looking for the daily nectar to become scouts or, I like to think, wayfinders. They find the way, help the hive decide and then literally lead them. They couldn’t find our home; we need our own wayfinders.
What do we two-leggers have to work with as we face a tougher challenge– finding a new way to live on the one and only planet we will ever have. Despite the fantasies of a handful of delusional narcissists with so much money they can’t think straight, we can’t go anywhere. Mars? No honeybee would think about it for a nano second.
Honeybees have a vast advantage in that their social life emerges from a shared purpose every single bee will give their life for. Just this afternoon I noticed as a bumble bee found its way into my backyard Warre’ hive, which has an observation window that allowed me to watch her being chased by a guard bee a tenth its size. Humans, cursed with social media can no longer distinguish common threats, easily distracted by individualized fantasies and fears. Bees never take their eye off their common future.
Humans do have Spirit, which some think gives us the capacity for wisdom, social imagination and common courage when facing a true discontinuity as we are now. No hardwired species would have a chance. We still do because we have Spirit, which gives us the subsidiary capacities for lamenting the lost beauties and then deep accountability for making the choices that lead to life. We can do that and have in other times of radical challenge. It is not enough to be homo sapiens, or even as we like to claim homo sapiens sapiens ( the species that knows it knows). Our only hope is to claim our capacity as homo sapiens sanctus-the Spirited species. That one might be capable of metanoia—the Great Turning so obviously required.
A tiny step in the Great Turning happens these next two Wednesdays as some wayfinders gather on Zoom for a workshop based on a book under construction. I’m delighted to be doing this with Threshold Retreat and Farms, itself a worthy harbinger of the possible. We’ll also gather in July at the farm for some in person mingling with the honeybees. We’ll help each other be a little less afraid of our wonderful world and a bit more clear about how we might live with it—especially the magnificent honeybees.
Register here. The $75 goes entirely to Threshold Retreat and Farms, of course. I’ll even sweeten the offer by making sure that anyone who registers gets a pound of the wonderful single hive vintage honey from Warthog From Hell Honey—made by fierce southern Italian bees on our porch. If the registration keeps you away, let me know and we’ll find a way, of course.
I was going to write about Buffalo but then Uvalde happened which I was going to write about and then the NRA with Senator Cancun and the Former Guy happened. I just don’t have any words for the cultural/political dumpster fire. I’m in no mood to pile on to the 19 officers who had no idea what to do. I am curious about how in such a tiny town and such a blazingly screwed up kid, no pastor or youth minister had any idea either. I appreciated President Biden not giving a formal speech. Time to shut up and make something happen as there are a lot of towns like Uvalde. I’m shutting up about it, too.
Honeybees have a perspective on life we could learn a lot from. They have a fossil record, not a Facebook timeline. They are focused on doing the next right thing and doing it right (paraphrasing Seth Greer’s great song). That makes them lock in on the next generation, which causes them to bring the center of the hive up to 95 degrees in late winter when it is freezing out so the Mother can start laying the eggs that will become the workers and foragers the hive will need when the Maple begins blossoming in early March.
This season I got a nucleus hive in place just before the bloom from John Lineberger, who is also a high end race car machinist. Racing bees! And, indeed, they took off and haven’t stopped even for a pit stop, piling in the honey.
We’ll have 5 gallons bottled available at the Threshold Retreat and Farms booth at Cobblestone Market Saturday just down the street from where the bees call home. This honey is a single hive vintage, sort of like the single vineyard vintages offered at the high end Round Pond Winery where Kathryn and Fernando work. Their Bovet Cab runs just under $150 a bottle. Our honey, which is technically healthier, will be $12.
This vintage will be bottled as Warthog From Hell Honey, honoring the fierce southern women bees who produced it. TC—untamable herself—suggested the name, thinking of Holly Hunter in Raising Arizona—“give me that baby you warthog from hell!” Mothers of every species are fearless on behalf of their kids. The Uvalde cops had to handcuff a mom; the bees would have approved of the mom and wondered about the drones.
Next month we’ll bottle another 15-20 gallons in a mélange from hives in Old Salem, Hispanic Waughtown, Buena Vista, Clemmons and Yadkin. The friends who work with those hives have sharply different perspectives on nearly everything except bees, but we help each other find our way. Despite politics and theology, if I needed something at 3 am at the very end of my rope and hope, I’d call one of them—probably the one I disagree with the most. That honey will be bottled under the name Honeybee Spirit, honoring exactly that.
Honeybee Spirit is also the name of the workshop I’m doing through Threshold Retreat and Farms next month. We’ll explore what we can learn about human spirit in the presence of bees. We can’t learn from the bees, since they would not deign to teach anyone without wings, antennae and only two feet. They know our species is still primitive, barely emerged from larvae stage. They trace to the wasps, before breaking off 30 million years ago to gather nectar in highly social hives that would give up their lives for each other. We’re more like the wasps, I regret to say—meat eating with limited social skills.
To learn from the bees, one has to slow down and attend. Pay close attention to what they are actually doing. I have a Warre’ hive in the back of our house. It uses a different design than the one my racing bees are growing to ridiculous scale. The Warre’, designed by a French priest to be more like the tree cavities bees prefer, has a Plexiglas window that allows me to watch the sisters build comb, tend to the larvae and even see some chewing their way out of their cell to start working. After three weeks inside the dark house, the bees become foragers, navigating by the light and position of the sun to scour in about a two or three mile radius. They invite us to look as carefully at our neighborhood, noticing what is bloom and where the best pollen is, also the rotted wood piles with the medicinal mycelium.
The bodies of the bees are perfectly evolved to read the reality of their environment and then thrive with what is offered. Every little body part is perfectly adapted. Fred Smith once asked me for what are we humans perfectly adapted? We can’t fly or even run fast; not very acute eyesight—none at all in the ultraviolet ranges bees favor. We can smell ok, but nothing like the acuity that allows bees to find subtle blossoms at distance. We can reason when we choose to, but often choose not to. We can invent entirely new things and then make them be; but often choose the most ancient and crude ways—handguns.
And then we have Spirit. I would not go so far as to say humans are the only sentient creature with Spirit. I’d be surprised if dolphin do not. Golden Retrievers, in my experience, do. And surely in some way we can’t grasp, the hive. But for what do humans’ Spirit perfectly adapt us? Africans understand that every human has spirit energy. Kant believed every human has that and creative freedom, that makes it possible for us to invent entirely new social forms, not just the iPhone and AK-15. We are obviously not going to make it another few generations if we don’t pick up the pace on growing up.
It seems likely that we humans will be known only by one of the thinnest layers in the archeological record, facing away before we barely got going. But maybe not. Maybe our capacity for Spirit might allow us to change into something more wise, generative and resilient.
I’m working on a book about all this by the same name, Honeybee Spirit. Should be ready to take wing later in the year. If you sign up for the workshop, I’ll share a working draft of the book with you. And a bottle of Honeybee Spirit honey, too. The workshop is whatever we make of it; the honey is what the honeybees have made and I can assure you, it is for the ages.
“We will live together, or not at all. We will build hope and wholeness, or watch our children grow small, surrounded by ineffective barriers against their fears. We know that acts of compassion, nobility, faithful caring for the earth and her people are all we can do. It was once thought that acts of virtue, conservation and care were only of personal consequence. But surely it is the most fundamental adult responsibility to build and nurture systems that carry our hopes forward.(Faith&Health, The Carter Center 2001).
On national bee day (May 20) twenty leaders from Atrium Health met at The Carter Center to see how we might align our efforts to “To improve health, elevate hope and advance healing – for all.” This is a very large organization—some 70,000 people—serving 400 miles of rough Southern country. If the FTC allows, the circle of care will grow to include even rougher neighborhoods in Chicago and Milwaukee as we combine with Advocate-Aurora. Most of the people work inside traditional hospitals and clinics, but increasingly both science and mission draw us over the sidewalk and into the neighborhoods where elevating hope is like pushing a glacier uphill. Despite superabundant healing science and technology to see disease at the molecular level, the fundamental drivers of ill health remain mired in ugly patterns of race and poverty, often in the very same census tracts for many decades.
Adults are flunking adulthood; our children are growing smaller.
Many of my best thoughts were born at The Carter when the oak trees were smaller. The very first major project of The Carter Center was called “Closing the Gap” which asked, “how much of the current burden of premature mortality could be prevented based on what we already know.” Turns out the answer is about two-thirds. Who can act on what we know? Formal healthcare and public health are only a small part of the answer. The knowledge must come alive in the hundreds of thousands of non-profits, businesses and….faith networks. My Atrium Health collegues and I have made reducing live expectancy gap by 2030 our top level goal, so I am back face to face with the same great and still unsolved opportunity that started me in FaithHealth, still difficult for much the same reasons. The ideas that grew out of The Carter Center soil, with major help from our partners at Advocate 30 years ago, included the basic ones we are still working with today: strengths of congregations, boundary leadership, leading causes of life, religious health assets and now the prayers of the people. These ideas were like bridges across troubled water.
One idea we had at The Carter Center was “not even one,” the name from Dr. Fred Smith. Simple public health logic matched with fierce faith that refused to look past even one gun death of a child. We thought adults could be organized at the level of their town to investigate where they—the adults—had missed a chance to prevent each young persons’ gun death. It would take a lot of adults talking to each other.
The oak trees are now much larger and I find myself less hopeful than at any point in my life, sobered by war and melting planet and, most of all disabling political vitriol. So it was good to be at The Carter Center where preposterous things are made practical through tenacious and smart work: eliminating polio and guinea worm. Elections in places they are obviously impossible: Zambia, Liberia, Ghana (where I helped once). Again, diligent and non-naïve preparation, training of thousands of volunteer poll-watchers. Work in the service of noble values. Tenacious. Qualities that national Bee Day brings to view.
Yascha Mounk writes in The Atlantic about the doom spiral of “pernicious polarization”—when a society becomes fearful of its fellow-citizens, expecting ill-will and hurtful actions unprotected by law or norms that can interrupt the most ordinary days, say shopping in a neighborhood grocery story. The research indicates that the spiral is only broken by a cataclysm. You’d think losing one million people to a pandemic would do it, but it seems to have only accelerated the polarization.
Who is crazier, the shooter of children or millions of adults who allow themselves to be radically polarized?
Nobody at The Carter Center has ever been naïve about religion as both an asset and profound barrier to boundary-crossing labor. There was a time when religion itself was the agent of polarization, but that seems quaint now, replaced by raw political anger untethered by any traditional norms or rules. Our children grow small. Some are shot.
On National Bee Day, I wondered, “how do the bees avoid our kind of doom spiral?
Thomas Seeley is an impeccable researcher and professor at Cornell who has written graceful books about how bees make decisions. He has focused on the most profound risky decision of all, which is when a hive splits, sends out the current mother/queen with about half of all the workers to form a new hive. In “Honeybee Democracy” he describes in mesmerizing detail how the oldest members of the hive switch from seeking flowers to scouting for a new homesites and weigh the options. If they choose one too small, they won’t have enough honey to make it through the winter; too big and will be too cold to survive. There are six life-death criteria. The bees get it right more than 90% of the time. They have for 30 million years.
We face no less perilous a passage in finding our way toward a new political, healthcare system, economic and, yes, faith systems even as the natural systems writhe, shudder and buck. We can’t get it wrong. Seeley says there are five clues from the honeybees. The scout bees tell the truth about the many alternatives over 40 square miles. The process takes whatever it takes, maybe an hour, maybe three days. No leader warps the process. No bee lies to another.
Bees use their pin-sized brains collaboratively to scout for the alternatives and compare them to make a choice. (p100) It helps that the idea about “good enough cavity” is hardwired into those little brains. And, as in many things bee, there seems to be no detectible pride at the individual bee level. They share, then release, their individual perspective so the truth comes clear. Not shooting grandmothers and children is hardwired into even human brains. So we at least what not to do. Bill Foege, who led The Carter Center and led the field of public health to embrace gun violence as a disease once said that it is easy to have a brilliant idea; think of the dumbest thing possible and do the opposite. How do we choose the opposite?
There is no future when leaders warp our ability to talk to each other. Nothing works, choices become random and disconnected from reality. We cannot see each other or our children. We are absolutely certain to perish.
Humans do have Spirit to work with, which seems like a slim reed on which to lean. Since we have little hardwiring to move us toward common purpose, we can only hope Spirit is stronger than venal stupidity. We do have a few mature humans, so we know it is possible. But it seems like a slim hope amid the manipulated deluge of divisiveness.
The oaks at The Carter Center grow a little each year. About 15 years ago the Carters planted a small grove of American Chestnut hybrids selected from among the tiny handful that have not succumbed to the blight that wiped out millions. Real science. Tough hope. Carter—then 80 years old–knew he would not see if the experiment “worked” to again blanket the Appalachians. None of us can know any more about the seeds we are planting with our lives.
He is 95 and the trees are still growing. Listen to the man: “I have one life and one chance to make it count for something… My faith demands that I do whatever I can, wherever I am, whenever I can, for as long as I can with whatever I have to try to make a difference.”