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Y2K and John McCain’s Brain

Just waking up and made the mistake (my bad!) of peaking at my iPhone (which I normally leave in my study not next to my bed) before going…


Just waking up and made the mistake (my bad!) of peaking at my iPhone (which I normally leave in my study not next to my bed) before going outside to sit on my zafu to meditate. The two items signaled in the title of this post launched a runaway thought train that wrested precedence away from my preferred morning ritual. So I’ll be quick here and just start to connect the two dots, in hopes of freeing my mind for the sit. The principal (and hardest) rule of meditation is to put everything else aside.

But first … I’m still pondering “The Uninhabitable Earth,” last week’s worst-case cover story in New York Magazine, which continues to echo through social media and in my conversations with people I love. This morning’s two news items triggered memories of experiences that speak to the essence of that echo, namely the struggle we all are called to take up, each in our own halting and provisional way, with our inescapable human dilemma, going back at least to the Stoics …

If we are going to die, how then shall we live?

The answer — an answer for now anyway (sufficient to justify moving on for the day to happier things)— was signaled for me by the unlikely convergence of the two distant memories, one of participating as a director of a bank that spent incalculable time and money over a two-plus year period preparing for “Y2K” (shorthand for the possibility of a disaster at the turn of the millennium), the other of walking with a dear friend for the two-plus years he lived after being diagnosed with glioblastoma, the aggressive brain cancer the world learned this morning, to our great and widely-shared sadness, John McCain has.

OK , that’s a start. Off to my pillow for half an hour, and then back here.

So, where were we? Last night over dinner with friends — two scientists and two humanists — we spoke glancingly of this human dilemma and the looming specter of climate change, of who we elders can be for our beloved children and grandchildren, as we ourselves wrestle with our fears and uncertainties about what may lie ahead. In one sense it has always been thus. “We all have that gene,” one of the humanists commented quietly last night when the familiar but new locution “have that gene” was floating in the air. Each of us is programmed to die. The paradox of being human — its joy and its sorrow — lies in the awareness of our finitude.

The four of us at dinner are all in our “how-terribly-strange-to-be” seventies. Two of us (the men, our husbands) have had close encounters with death. All four of us have been living those particular encounters, and others, and have experienced the increased vividness they give to life, the unsentimental and certain knowledge that, in the end, love is what remains — sharper, deeper, more precious and enduring than ever. The people we lose live on in our hearts; we know that’s true. And so we carry on. Carry them into the future, honor their lives and legacies as part of our own. We know these things, are living them.

The New York Times ran a string of tweets occasioned by the news of McCain’s diagnosis, many invoking his almost uniquely-demonstrable courage, first, during his time as a prisoner of war, enduring horrors, few can even imagine, and now in the vicious cauldron of American politics. Many said or implied that he will defeat this new adversary, knowing that the odds are about as long as odds can be for a known diagnosis. We all want to cling to a piece of hope, however tenuous. Meghan McCain, the senator’s daughter, wrote a beautiful post that balanced on the razor’s edge between despair and hope, with love as the fulcrum to bridge that tragic gap.

My friend, David Calkins, was diagnosed in 2003, at age 55, with glioblastoma, the cancer that had taken his father at the same age. David was a physician, as were many of his closest friends. A group of us had bonded deeply in the late ’80s as Kellogg National Fellows, had traveled the world together and explored existential questions of what makes for a life that sings. David’s did. As a physician among physicians, a doctors’ doctor, David knew, and we knew, what the diagnosis portended. And so he lived his life, all that remained for him, with an intensity of purpose that took our breath away. David taught us how to die and, in so doing, how to live with the reality of death. Others I’ve lost, before and since, have taught me that lesson again and again, in ways I hope I’ll manage to summon when my time comes. In the meantime?

In the meantime, we live.

I was fascinated this morning by Farhad Manjoo’s unexpected article on the lessons of Y2K for climate change. I was a director of the State Street Corporation from 1999 to 2007 and arrived as the bank was coming to terms with the reality that the computers on which it relied to balance the world’s accounts every night might seize up and fail at midnight on December 30, 1999 as the two-digit date field cycled back to 00–the year 1900 — and not ahead to 2000. The Y2K crisis.

As a novice I watched with amazement as the brightest minds at that huge corporation brought elaborate briefings every month into the board room to reassure the directors that their best and brightest were doing everything they could to prepare the organization for a potential disaster that might or might not actually happen. Two years later, I was sitting at the board table when we learned to our relief about all the ways that same Boston-based team had worked tirelessly and successfully to do their part in keeping the computers running after the attackers on 9/11/2001 had taken out the World Trade Center, the financial heart of the country. I remember wondering at that time what might have been different if we had taken a slice of the time we spent anticipating the computers’ responses to the turn of the millennium to ask ourselves about potential geopolitical threats to the viability of our business. But that wasn’t State Street’s job. And State Street did an exemplary job of its job at a moment of global crisis.

This was the thrust of Manjoo’s argument. As a student of the Y2K story on the occasion of its tenth anniversary, he wrote this about the lessons the story has to teach us now:

“The best analysis … I’ve read came from two Australian researchers, John Phillimore and Aidan Davison, who argued in a 2002 paper that fighting Y2K was an example of the “precautionary principle,” an idea well-known in the environmental movement. It essentially boils down to this: It’s better to be safe than sorry, especially if the sorry end of the spectrum involves the end of the world as we know it.

And the way to get people to understand that, Mr. Phillimore and Mr. Davison wrote, is to explain the worst case. “Y2K shows that the way problems are portrayed is crucial to how solutions are approached,” the researchers wrote. “Small, discrete problems are easier to understand than ‘slow-burn,’ incremental ones. Providing people with specific examples of things that might go wrong is more effective than general warnings.”

The Precautionary Principle.

It is past time for us to act decisively to reduce the release of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. We know that. To summon all the ingenuity we can muster on the side of being safe rather than sorry. We have our worst-case scenario in many riveting writings, including last week’s contribution that has stirred everyone up. We have a huge and encouraging scholarly and popular literature on things we can be doing, including a recent catalogue of 100 most promising solutions in the compelling book, Drawdown.

There is much we can be doing, each and every one of us. We need to ask ourselves what is getting in the way of our taking the next step and then the one after that. Is it fear? Is it defeatism? Is it liberal guilt? Is it overcommitment? Is it worry that if we begin to take this as seriously as it warrants it will consume our lives? Is it our all-too-human tendency to look away from a scary diagnosis?

What is keeping me, today, from taking one more step toward doing the thing that I can be doing in service of the Precautionary Principle?

Now there’s a question worthy of “a sit” with or without a zafu, worthy of glancing and awkward conversations with friends, family and others we trust, worthy of a slice of our attention no matter how fragmented and frenzied it may be. There’s a question that makes us human. What work is mine to do?

Off I go now to the day ahead. Maybe I’ll give my new composter (the “Yimby”) a few more spins and hope it doesn’t fly apart as I contemplate a next blog post. I have a talk to give this afternoon at a “rally” of the Cape Cod Wellesley College Club. That will be fun. And a theatre reading in the evening with friends who are celebrating their 49th wedding anniversary.

Much to savor and enjoy. Feeling lucky to be alive.

Originally published at medium.com

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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

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