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Essential workers n the ER

1 Oct

September 12–I am writing this from my hospital bed which is parked in the hallway of the emergency room. I am watching the workers, the technician, the people who push hospital beds, the stock clerk, and the people who deal with the mountains of trash that hospitals produce. At the entrance to every room there is a cupboard. I watch the worker—the stock clerk—going through each drawer of the cupboard, checking to see what they are lacking. In one drawer, he places urinals. In another, various types of catheter bag. Each drawer needed to be refilled with the items that he has on his cart. When the nurses, the doctors, and technicians need an item, they know exactly which drawer to go to, and they expect to find it supplied. I know the name of my doctor, and I know who the name of my nurse, but I have no idea who the stock clerk is. I note, as well, the women who are filling their carts with trash bags piled high. They replace each bag with a fresh one. The woman who navigated the labyrinthine hallways to get me to the x-ray lab was obviously expert in what she does. She told me she is working in four different hospitals in this complex and she hast to know the tunnels below ground and the hallways above. My situation posed real difficulties for the x-ray technician. On several occasions she had to stop, scratch her head and devise a way to deal with what the doctor’s orders called for.

I was watching a team at work. Each worker, no matter how humble their task, is essential for the team. If the garbage piled up, if the nurse can’t find the urinal or the catheter bag, if the x-ray technician is not ingenious in doing her work – – the doctor will not be able to make a diagnosis, and nurses cannot implement orders.

There is evidence of our class system here in the hospital. Sociologists tell us that the social class system is the way society distribute status and rewards.The team is not primary in the social class system. Rather, there  is a pecking order of individuals—not a team. And the pecking order does not take into account how essential the worker is. It is not even based on native intelligence – – the x-ray worker displayed a lot of that. It is based on how many years of education it takes to qualify for the position. And then there is the Gee-Whiz factor. Gee-Whiz, the doctor can perform amazing surgery. Nobody says, “Gee-Whiz, that stock clerk is really doing a great job.”

In other words, the work of the hospital requires a team of  many members, interacting with each other in a competent and professional manner. But the people in the team are not rewarded for their teamwork and for their essential place in the team. They are rewarded, both monetarily and in terms of respect, according to the American capitalist social class system, which the French call “savage capitalism.” Karl Marx saw that the whole system is faulty and needs revision. Unfortunately, Marx is passé today, largely because the people who took his ideas most seriously were just as tyrannical and cruel as the capitalist systems that Mark was denouncing.

The last time I was in the hospital, I read about Walt Whitman’s view that his fellow citizens and their needs must become items of his own self-interest. That is essential, he wrote, if democracy is to flourish. 

I think of Benjamin Franklin’s proverb:
“For want of a nail, the shoe was lost.

For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

(c) 9/30/2022 Phil Hefner

September

19 Aug

September is a metaphor

days grow shorter

leaves take on colors

winter’s cold corpse

coming to blanket the land

the calendar heads into

the home stretch—

our thoughts turn to

mortality—it’s metaphors 

all the way down

But metaphors stay true

though September is 

a time of dancing and loving

the days to December

are precious and few 

September’s days are golden

and warm—days for 

feeling and holding

and not letting go

(c) Phil Hefner 8/15/2022

Essential Workers Day

14 Aug

Labor Day falls on the first weekend of September. I propose that we change the holiday’s name to Essential Workers Day. The term, essential workers, has taken on a new and important meaning during the pandemic, and it should change the way we think about Labor Day.

Who are essential workers? They are the base, the infrastructure, on which the work of society depends. The chef imagines and puts together the meal that brings oohs and aahs from the diners. But without line cooks, waitstaff, bussers, dishwashers and janitors, the chef will never be able to begin work. Koehler and Moen may design breathtaking bathrooms and kitchens, but without plumbers and their helpers, the water will never be hooked up. Architects ,and general contractors may envision fine buildings, but those buildings will never rise without hod carriers, common laborers, bricklayers, HVAC workers and the other trades. Medicine at the forefront will not be practiced unless doctors have the support work  of nurses, orderlies, technicians of many sorts, janitors, and tradespeople who keep operating rooms functioning. This applies to all health care facilities and retirement communities. These workers are the truck drivers who make the supply chain work, and factory workers who produce cars and refrigerators. Recently, the exploited sector of academia—teaching assistants and athletes—have formed unions.

You get the picture. We know the chefs, architects, and doctors by name, but who knows the name of the dishwasher or line cook on whom the chef is totally dependent? Who knows the names of the five workers who were killed, or the 100 who were injured, in the constructing of Sears Tower? These are sometimes called the “grunt” workers. They often have fewest benefits and are the first fired. If undocumented workers are available, they will be hired, because they get even lower wages and benefits. 

These workers are the people that Labor Day intends to honor. And they have not had an easy time. Karl Marx (1818-1883) turned things upside down with his theories that made these workers the pivot of society. These workers are the laboring class, the “proletariat,” the “proles” of Orwell’s novel, 1984.

Essential workers have never had an easy time of it in the United States. Workers find their voice in labor unions. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935, also known as the Wagner Act, is a foundational statute of United States labor law. It guarantees the right of private sector employees to organize into trade unions, engage in collective bargaining, and take collective action such as strikes

From the beginning, efforts to unionize have met with opposition, even violence, from employers and their hired police. Twenty-eight states have“right to work” laws, which make it difficult to form unions. Some states are anti-union. In 2014, Nikki Haley, governor of South Carolina said, “We discourage any companies that have unions from wanting to come to South Carolina.” In 2015, Governor Rauner of Illinois attempted to remove the right of  public service employees to collective bargaining. Even today well-known companies like Amazon and Starbucks actively oppose unions. This may be because union members earn on the average 11% higher wages and set the standard for non-union workers in the same industry.

The high point of union membership was in the 1980s, when 20% of workers were in unions, compared to 10.3% today. Thanks to the automobile, steel, and coal industries, along with the Teamsters and service unions, labor unions wield considerable power, especially at election time.

During the recent pandemic, essential workers were called, 

“Heroes”—but their wages were seldom increased. Today we experience a shortage of essential workers. Hospitals, healthcare facilities, hair salons, railroads and airlines, and many other places report difficulties in finding workers. There are several explanations put forth to explain this, but it remains a puzzlement and a worry. Perhaps the pandemic moved  people to reconsider their lives. Perhaps these workers feel that they no longer want to work in jobs where they are under appreciated, underpaid, and frequently overworked.

On this Labor Day there will be parades, cook-outs, and speeches. Essential workers will be praised. But will life really be made better for these workers who make our lives possible? Labor Day is also a time for reflection and deepening our understanding of how our society works and the essential people who make it possible to work at all.

(c) Phil Hefner.  8/14/2022

It is a gift to be one with all the worldd

24 Jun

It is a gif.  To be one with all the world

does not come as an act of the  will.

Even deeply yearning may be in vain,

but remaining  inwardly open and still

a sense of belonging may descend like softest rain—

That is the gift to be one. With all the world—

a bewildering array of shapes and sizes,

inert masses and strangest creatures hurled 

at us, and folk who come in many guises,

it is a gift to be one with all the world—

a gift as elusive as sublime—absurd

yet written in the stars, our lives unfurled

on this planet in galaxies enswirled.

It is a gift to be one with all the world

Phil Hefner.  6/23/2022

Guns and Lamentation

17 Jun

I want to introduce a new word into the discussion of guns and the horrendous killing that gun shooters inflict upon our society: Lamentation.

We are hurting—all of us—actual victims, families, classmates, teachers—our whole society. This is a time of hurt. Amanda Gorman expresses it in her recent poem, “Hymn for the Hurting”—

             “Everything hurts,
             Our hearts shadowed and strange,
             Minds made muddied and mute.
              We carry tragedy, terrifying and true.”

“Hurt” is pain and grief that something has been lost. One mother, getting the news that her son had been gunned down in Millennium Park, cried out”It’s like my soul has left my body,” a father whose son was killed in Uvalde, Texas, said, “My soul is broken in two.” Such comments tell us how deep the hurt is, how deeply we grieve. Parents grieve that they must leave the neighborhood where they have lived their entire lives, move to another city where their children can live in safety. Traumatized classmates require therapy.

Grief is loss that can never be restored, hurt that has no healing. “Thoughts and prayers,” words that we hear so often carry sympathy and wishes for a better future. “Action” is also spoken—pass new laws, limit the guns. In our current times, thoughts and prayer sound like mere lip service and action almost always settles for half-measures. Action eyes a better future. None of these plumbs the depths of hurt and grief in the here and now. Better laws and heartfelt prayers are good, but they do not put a parent’s soul back together. They don’t take hurt seriously enough.

Lamentation points to something different. Mourning, taking into oneself the hurt of the grieving people. It’s a very deep sympathy and empathy—both of which speak of suffering with someone else.

We may learn from the Latin American healing traditions, curandero. Chicano writer Rodolfo Anaya’s great novel, Bless Me, Ultimate, is a fine introduction to these traditions. This centuries-old tradition has been described as “radical empathy,” because the healer takes into herself the situation of the person she will heal. The healer establishes a relationship with that person. In the process, the curandera is herself transformed. It has been said that the curandera model doctors and psychological therapists today.

Lamentation can come close to radical empathy. It can contribute to healing this time of hurting. But it will require that we go beyond thoughts, prayers, and action—and allow ourselves to be transformed by relating to those who hurt from gun violence.

When God became incarnate in the first century, he appeared in Jesus of Nazareth, a man  of the hurting segment of humanity—Jews oppressed by Rome. He grew up in the world of the working class, subsistence farmers, hungry people, and beggars. He lived with people who were outcasts. He did not make excursions to do charitable acts for those who hurt—he became one of them. Paulos Pasolini portrays this most forcefully in his 1964 film, “The Gospel according to St. Matthew” and Gerd Theissen does the same in his novel, Shadow of the Galilean. Jesus was executed because he identified with hurting people—and called for changes that enraged the powerful people who benefited from hurting others.i

In Matthew 23, we read Jesus’ lament over the Jerusalem that put him to death: “O, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.“ This is the lament of a healer.

There is much more to be said about hurting, healing, and transformation. How to bring it to bear on our present gun violence is an even greater challenge.

(c)Phil Hefner 16 June 2022

April—Between Memory and Hope

20 Mar

April—Between Memory and Hope

April brings warming days and signs of Spring’s fertility. We associate April with hopefulness—cold wintry days are only a memory. But what is happening in the world around us can sometimes dash our joy and hopes. When the  poet T. S. Eliot, was writing in the early 1920s, the effects of the First World War were all too real, and the Great Influenza pandemic of 1918-1922, the second worst pandemic in human history, was just winding down. 

In his monumental poem, “The Waste Land,” published in 1922, Eliot wrestles with the questions, Can we hope again? Can we be happy? He introduces his doubts with the lines,

        “April is the cruelest month, breeding

           Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

           Memory and desire.”

His desire was for the life and beauty that April brings; his memory was that of war and pandemic.

It has been said that history does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme—that rhyming seems real today. How deeply we hope for an end to Covid, yet, as I write,  millions are still in lockdown in Asian cities. And we have already lost a million Americans to this plague.

April is a time of war today in Ukraine and—who knows—where else? On April 28, Holocaust Remembrance Day marks the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto. In the early 1940s, a quarter million Jews from the ghetto were transported to the death camp Treblinka; more than 35,000 were killed in the ghetto. Against overwhelming odds, the ghetto Jews began their armed resistance on the eve of Passover in April 1944. They attacked the Nazis and held them at bay for a month.

It was in April 1937, on the 26th, in support of the Spanish dictator, Franco, that the Nazi Air Force destroyed the Basque village of Guernica. Since it was a market day, people throughout the region joined townspeople at the market, in restaurants, and athletic events. That day was deliberately selected, so that the civilian populated would be decimated.

Pablo Picasso was moved by the bombing to create his monumental painting, “Guernica.” This work was judged by theologian Paul Tillich to be the greatest religious painting of the 20th century. “Religious,” because it brings the viewer face-to-face with the depths of evil, with terrifying effect. The artist depicts dying children with their mothers screaming in agony, a dead fighter with the wounds of Jesus on one hand, a broken sword in the other. The painting is dominated by two dying animals—the bull, symbolic of Spain, and the horse in agony. There is much more symbolism is this large work (11.5×25.5 feet), and its overall impact in overwhelming.

Picasso’s work has come to symbolize the horrors of all war, especially the attacks on civilians, specifically women and children. In these April days, the terror of war is in Ukraine—the bombing of hospitals, refugee shelters, maternity centers. Wars always exact the Guernica toll. The Nazis bombed residential centers, like Coventry, where more than a thousand were killed—880 lying to this day in a mass grave. In 1943, British and American bombers carried out “Operation Gomorrah” over Hamburg Germany’s residential quarters, killing more than 35, 000. The infamous Allied bombing of Dresden, Germany, killed 25, 000. The most Guernica-like bombings of all were our dropping atomic bombs on Japan, resulting in a quarter million deaths.

Like Eliot, we live between memory of a death-dealing past and hope for a better future. We like to say that wars are only relics of history and that the pandemic is finally over. We must hope—our lives depend upon hope. But memory is also essential. If we truly remember the Guernicas, we may be able to eradicate them. If we repress the memories, we will repeat them. 

Perhaps April is the cruelest month—mixing memory and hope.

Hopes and hopefulness are signals of God’s presence among us. The memory of the past never goes away, but hope points to new possibilities—the past need not imprison us.

Phil Hefner (c) 3/19/3022

STEM v. History

28 Jan

STEM and History—

An American Irony

STEM is very big these days in the US of A. It’s the well-known acronym for “science, technology, engineering, and math.” If you watched the Tournament of Roses Parade, you noticed that its theme was STEM. Every bass drum that marched in the parade had the STEM motto stenciled on its drum head. 

In the past decade or so, high schools, colleges, and universities across the country have rearranged their curricula to emphasize STEM—sometimes drastically. It is increasingly difficult in many institutions to find courses in foreign languages, religion, philosophy, psychology, and history.

The reason for these changes is simple: the job market guides our education. A new engineer can expect to earn $80,000 per year. A humanities graduate might earn $50,000. An education major can count on the same.

This has prompted many state legislatures to put a premium on STEM. Some suggest that humanities students receive no financial aid at state institutions or even be charged higher tuition as penalty for insisting on “irrelevant” courses. A  governor of Kentucky said, “All the people in the world who want to study French literature can do so; they’re just not going to be subsidized by the taxpayers like engineers will be.” A liberal arts education is increasingly limited to students who can afford to attend expensive private institutions.

This should be no surprise. STEM is fundamental for the future of our society. Our place on the world stage depends on our science, technology, engineering, and math. Nearly every human being on planet earth depends on infrastructure, services, and care that are maintained by STEM.

Now comes the irony of present-day America. We aren’t spending much time debating the merits of STEM. The  hotly debated issues that capture our attention and divide us today are abortion and how to tell the story of American history and racism.

These are not issues that are relevant to a job seeker’s education. But these issues condition the lives of  those job-seekers and their families. STEM does not tell us when an embryo/fetus can be considered a human person; nor can it deal with the complex moral questions— yet our entire nation is forced to deal with such issues.

Local communities and many state legislatures are caught in a juggernaut of conflicting pressures about how to present U. S. history. Should Confederate statues be toppled? Should schools named for bygone racist leaders be changed? What about critical race theory? Or the history of Native American Indians? Local school board members are receiving death threats because of how they answer  these questions.

You might think that we would shape our education to include these burning issues, but we don’t. And the finest STEM education  is of little help when it comes to wrestling with history and morality.

This doesn’t mean that our STEM emphasis should be changed. But it does mean that our de-emphasis on humanities is short sighted, to say the least. Furthermore, we need to recognize that even if a historian or an ethicist may never earn as much as an engineer or a doctor or a nuclear physicist, they have important roles in our society today.

We also need sociologists, psychologists, therapists, and school teachers—for other reasons. Understanding our history will threaten some people: whites, especially white men, who are losing their traditional places of power and preeminence. Other groups are making their claim to power and privilege. This brings trauma—both personal and social. Psychologists, therapists, sociologists, and school teachers have much to offer in times of trauma.

What about pastors, priests, rabbis, imams, and other religious professionals? They are witnesses to the transcendence that surpasses the traumas of the present day. They are links to great traditions of well-winnowed wisdom that can guide us. They are moral teachers and exemplars, even though they, too, are fallible. STEM snaps their world, too, but it cannot raise them up or provide their training.

I quote my friend, Stewart Herman, who commented on an early draft of this blog: “STEM is morally mute and can’t help us with divisive political issues, which require the capacity of a citizenry to engage in empathetic listening and complex moral consideration. And that is the point of the humanities particularly religion, to help us imagine how others of different faiths understand their lives, and to give us a vocabulary and sensibility in order to engage in the kind of mutual understanding necessary to avoid blunt instrument politics. The developed capacity to listen, observe, absorb, and converse with what is different than you is absolutely critical to the survival of a democracy.”

I call our situation ironic, because of the disconnect between our STEM educational emphasis and the actual situation in which we live.

Bring on the STEM, by all means—but bring on the humanities and social professions, too!

(c) 1/28/2022

As If—

16 Jan

Ann is Ann Sexton, her poem, “Rowing toward God”

Occasioned by Neva’s Covid positive.

As if 

Why must it always be faith?

Why do you pose

masked as 

the great As If

Ann called you a card sharp

played your game and rowed away

as if it is a game

as if the rowing is real

Your game for me plays out

locked in your embrace

more dance 

than journey 

held fast and tricked

at once

you’re always changing steps

I do not follow

but am drawn

along the way 

you’ve chosen

I’m free you say 

the dance does not feel free—

free to call it dance

not mindless crapshoot

or aimless lurch

I’d rather say

it’s empathy—

for the steps

for the others

stomping 

gliding 

through

it’s not a dervish 

move symmetrical

graceful spinning

reaching out

to where you are

not predictable order

as marks the minuet

this is no square dance

caller shouting out

 “bow to your partner”

and “time for do-si-do”

more a blind

stomp and stumble—

as if it really is a dance

as if the dance is yours

(c) Phil Hefner 1/14/2022

Image

To friends who have died

15 Dec

Three of my seminary colleagues have died in recent months. I think of them frequently. Out of my reflections, this poem emerged.

To Friends Who Have Died

I.

You belong—

you whose bodies lie

in the earth covered

with sod

names chiseled

in stone—

You belong to all

those who carry

you in their hearts

but no less to me

you inhabit my mind and my soul

not gone to some

far away land.

In each moment

I call forth

your being-here

into my present

for conversation in which

it is true you listen

but seldom speak

II.

You have received

the blessing

that you need not

walk through the present

desert—we shared a

wilderness walk

of our own together.

Our walking a template

even as now I go

another course different

from what was set for us.

We learned what you

know well—the trek

in the wilderness

does not end with

forty years.

III.

God’s best work

is done in the desert—

so it is said.

Let me say

we were formed as friends

on a wilderness trail—

that is what I miss—

old companions

in a changing desert.

IV.

Why did you leave off?

Why am I left bereft?

Is God’s winnowing

not finished—

I need more desert time?

We said the desert

is a place for dancing—

we can dance today,

but the old moves

passed away with you

(c) Phil Hefner   12/13/2021

There is a time for everything to rest in peace

27 Oct

There is a time for every thing to rest in peace.

There is a time. For everything to rest in peace 

       requires a certain time,

       a special pace

       to create suitable

       conditions that enable 

       rest in a grueling race.

There is a time for everything. To rest in peace

        that is true shalom,

        the entire world must

        share the stillness.

        It is a covenant at heart,

        a resilient bond of trust—that

there is a time for everything to rest. In peace

         things hold together,

         form a nest 

         for the human spirit,

          where the depths within it

          gather force to attest—Indeed

there is a time for everything to rest in peace—

        A time we know 

         Shabbat is real.

         Today our work is whole,

         our struggle has received the seal.

         The sense of things we now can toll: 

This is the time for everything to rest in peace.

(c) Phil Hefner.  10/24/2021.