Beyond Politics

by Jean Stimmell As Christianity’s hold on America has weakened, many pundits believed our politics would become more ecumenical and rational, less tempestuous and back-biting. But the opposite has happened: We are now more polarized: in danger of being torn apart by two diametrically opposed ideologies about what America represents. One party I will call “Woke;” the other, “Trumpy.” But this column is not about politics. It’s about an elementary force underlying our political food fight: Religion. And by that, I mean religion in the broadest sense: a belief in something bigger than the individual. As social animals, it is hardwired in us: we have …

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Whatever Happened to Chance?

by Jean Stimmell Today nothing happens by chance: It’s always someone’s fault. Even illness is now seen as personal failure: We blame the victim, saying it is their fault because of what they ate or didn’t eat, the amount they drank, or whether or not they exercised. Absurdly, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, the architects of the World Trade Buildings were threatened with lawsuits, alleging the design of their buildings was faulty because the occupants couldn’t get out safely. Legal scholar Jeffrey Rosen noted in the aftermath of that attack, “contemporary Americans, in particular, are not well equipped to deal with arbitrary threats …

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Dreaming about Retirement

I recently had a vivid dream about getting a call from my professional licensing board telling me they were revoking my license because I was abusing pain medication. I tried to tell them I took no such drugs, that they were prescribed for Coco, my 15-1/2-year-old dog, who is in at-home hospice care. But they hung up on me, throwing me into a tizzy. While I intend to retire the end of next month, I wasn’t ready yet. I ponder what my dream is trying to tell me. Certainly, I will miss seeing my patients, but my practice takes more out of me each year. …

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Change is driven by the young, not us grizzled elders

Recently I wrote in this space about how humans are born into this world unfinished, requiring a long childhood to learn the norms and practices of their particular community. For the community to thrive, what we pass on to our children must change in step with societal changes. This unparalleled ability to change, as psychologist Alison Gopnik tells us, “is the most distinctive and unchanging thing about us, allowing us to thrive no matter what challenging circumstances we had to face over our long evolutionary history.”1 But societal change isn’t driven by our grizzled elders but by our children. As sociologists like Tressie Cottom tell …

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The Source of Our Discontent

Conservative media and politicians whip their audiences into a frenzy, crying that the sky is falling: that we are losing our birthright as a nation because “hordes” of dark-skinned “aliens” are invading our country. They accuse liberals of being godless heathens for questioning the “natural order” of things in terms of who should be in charge, what it means to be a man or a woman, who we can love, the list goes on and on. In a word, these instigators are fueling moral panic, pitting us one against another, making us ever more polarized as a nation. Tressie McMillan Cottom, a sociologist and prominent …

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Rediscovering Who We Are

I’ve written about this before in this space: We think we act rationally with the cold logic of a computer, but beneath, we remain mere animals driven by instinct, habit, geography, time, and mystery. Toward that end, there’s even a new book entitled How to Be Animal. We are not solitary but social animals, though not always the cuddlesome creatures seen on “Animal Planet.” We can get swept up in the moment and do terrible things, prompted by something sociologists call “social contagion.” There’s a new book about that also, entitled The Delusions of Crowds: Why People Go Mad in Groups.* Examples include the mass …

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