2020
August
14
Friday

Monitor Daily Podcast

August 14, 2020
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TODAY’S INTRO

Trump's rhetorical tricks

On Thursday President Donald Trump used the one neat trick he often employs to say things he wants to be able to distance himself from later, or even disavow.

Scholars call the trick “paralipsis.” At its most basic it goes, “I’m not saying it. I’m just ... saying. That’s what I’ve heard.”

President Trump used paralipsis this week to make a false “birther” charge reminiscent of his untrue insinuations in 2016 that Barack Obama wasn’t born in America.

Speaking with reporters, Mr. Trump said that presumptive Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris might not be eligible to run because her parents were immigrants.

“I heard it today she doesn’t meet the requirements,” Mr. Trump said. “I have no idea if that’s right,” he added.

This is erroneous. Senator Harris was born in California. Under the Constitution, all children born on U.S. soil are Americans.

Mr. Trump has used “I’m just saying” paralipsis throughout his public career, to spread false information while trying to avoid consequences.

Dr. Jennifer Mercieca, a professor of rhetoric at Texas A&M University, has for years been studying the ways politicians use popular desires and prejudices to appeal to voters. In Mr. Trump, as she details in her new book, she sees someone who uses these rhetorical tools to powerful effect.

Traditionally, paralipsis et al. have been divisive strategies, used to sway voters without resorting to eloquence or reasoning through different policies. Voters need to weigh that background carefully as the cacophony of the 2020 campaign intensifies.

“The thing we can do is point them out and let people decide. It’s important for all of us to be umpires,” Dr. Mercieca says.

Mideast ‘breakthrough’ a long-sought win for deal-maker Trump

Progress toward peace in the Middle East has been an elusive goal for many U.S. presidents, and Donald Trump’s unconventional approach, including the use of his diplomatically untested son-in-law, has had many doubters.

Peter

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From the beginning, President Donald Trump turned the U.S. approach to Middle East peace on its head. Instead of enticing Israel to reach a deal with the Palestinians by promising peace with Arab countries, Mr. Trump prioritized Israeli-Arab relations as a way of pressuring Palestinians to strike a deal.

That new approach logged its first win Thursday with President Trump’s announcement that Israel and the United Arab Emirates have agreed to start a process toward normalization. Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, was largely credited with the diplomatic coup. Mr. Kushner said the president had instructed him to take “an untraditional approach.”

The Israel-UAE deal “is the first unambiguous diplomatic success for President Trump, and such successes are few and far between for any administration,” says John Hannah, an expert in Arab politics at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

Political experts differ over whether the deal is likely to have any measurable impact on the president’s reelection fortunes, with the pandemic, the economy, and social unrest over race relations leaving little room for foreign policy issues. The deal may not deliver a bump in the polls, Mr. Hannah says, but it will likely energize the president’s supporters, among them evangelical Christians who put a premium on Israel’s security.

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1. Mideast ‘breakthrough’ a long-sought win for deal-maker Trump

When President Donald Trump unveiled his long-awaited Middle East peace plan in January, a major difference between the new effort and decades of dashed U.S. initiatives was the role the Trump administration envisioned for Arab-Israeli relations.

The Trump plan turned the traditional U.S. approach on its head: Instead of enticing Israel to reach a deal with the Palestinians by promising that peace with Arab countries would be Israel’s reward, Mr. Trump’s plan called for placing the priority on reaching normalized relations between Israel and the Arabs as a way of pressuring the Palestinians to strike a deal with Israel.

That new approach logged its first win Thursday with President Trump’s announcement from the Oval Office that Israel and the United Arab Emirates have agreed to start a process toward normalization of relations.

The agreement, to be negotiated in the coming weeks, would make the UAE only the third Arab country, after Egypt and Jordan, to establish diplomatic ties with the Jewish state.

Moreover, as part of the deal, the Israeli government has agreed to suspend, at least temporarily, any plans to annex large parts of the occupied West Bank, including lands the Palestinians see becoming part of an independent Palestine.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s agreement to shelve West Bank annexation allows Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed to secure his stature as the Gulf’s preeminent diplomatic force while claiming the deal preserves Palestinian aspirations for a viable independent state.

The deal announced Thursday, which the White House called a “historic diplomatic breakthrough,” is clearly a feather in Mr. Trump’s foreign policy cap – a cap that by most estimations has had few feathers to boast.

The Israel-UAE deal “is the first unambiguous diplomatic success for President Trump, and such successes are few and far between for any administration,” says John Hannah, a senior counselor and expert in Arab politics at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington.

Pointing to the renegotiation of NAFTA, relations with NATO, and North Korea diplomacy, Mr. Hannah says, “It’s hard to identify an issue or accomplishment this president has made … that doesn’t have a serious element of controversy or criticism from other people.”

But he notes that even former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, praised this agreement.

Political benefit?

Political experts differ over whether the deal is likely to have any measurable impact on the president’s reelection fortunes. Most say the COVID-19 pandemic, the economy, and social unrest over race relations, leave little room for foreign policy issues to have an impact.

The deal may not deliver a bump in the polls, Mr. Hannah says, but it will likely energize the president’s supporters, among them evangelical Christians who put a premium on Israel’s security.

“Foreign policy always plays at the margins” of presidential campaigns, he says, adding that “this could be the gift that keeps on giving” – especially if additional accords with Arab states allowed the White House to orchestrate “one of those iconic signing ceremonies on the South Lawn that everyone remembers.”

Nevertheless, some regional experts remained cautious about Thursday’s deal, noting that within hours of President Trump’s announcement, both Israel and the UAE were issuing conflicting statements on what they had actually agreed to.

“There are more questions at this point than there are answers,” says Shira Efron, a visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. “Each side frames the accord very differently.”

She notes the Emirati crown prince, known colloquially as MBZ, spoke of the agreement as a “roadmap” for establishing ties, while Mr. Netanyahu spoke in English of a full peace agreement – while then insisting in Hebrew that West Bank annexation “is still on the table.”

Raneen Sawafta/Reuters
Palestinians take part in a protest Aug. 14 in Nablus, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, against the United Arab Emirates' deal with Israel to normalize relations.

In the Oval Office, flanked by most of his top foreign policy and national security advisers, Mr. Trump hinted that additional similar announcements could be forthcoming from other countries.

Some regional experts pointed to Bahrain as the next likely candidate for any normalization plan with Israel.

Jared Kushner’s role

Mr. Trump’s Oval Office entourage included son-in-law Jared Kushner, who was largely credited by officials and outside experts with securing the diplomatic coup.

Speaking after Mr. Trump, Mr. Kushner said the president had instructed him to take “an untraditional approach” to the Middle East, advice he said has started to pay off. For his part, Mr. Trump said, referring to his son-in-law, that “people don’t always understand what he’s able to do.”

The president fancies himself, however, as the great deal-maker. Yet other diplomatic coups he has promised have proved to be illusive, which is one reason securing the Middle East breakthrough is clearly important to him.

Mr. Trump’s personal diplomacy with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un caused a lot of fanfare but achieved little, leaving the North Korean regime to develop more nuclear weapons and steadily perfected ICBM missiles.

The president did strike an initial trade deal with China in January. But since then relations with Beijing have sharply deteriorated in large part over the coronavirus pandemic, and now Mr. Trump has turned his back on a trade deal that in any case isn’t meeting modest expectations.

Mr. Trump’s Iran policy based on crushing sanctions has devastated the Iranian economy but alienated the U.S. from its traditional allies and left the regime in Tehran with a restarted nuclear program and making mischief in the region.

The president recently told a group of supporters that if reelected he would have a new deal with Iran “within four weeks” – which in any case was acknowledgment that his hopes of reaching a “Trump deal” with Tehran in his first term had fallen short.

At the White House Thursday, national security adviser Robert O’Brien said Mr. Trump had inherited a “mess” in the Middle East when he took office, but that the Israel-UAE deal was one more step in fixing the region. Few Middle East experts share that assessment, however, with many critical of a policy they say is based on waning U.S. focus on the region and lacking a strategic vision.

But some more supportive observers say the Israel-UAE deal will strengthen the U.S. effort to work with regional allies to counter Iran’s destabilizing activities. A normalization of business relations and security ties that had already existed not-so-secretly for years between Israel and the UAE will likely prompt other Arab states to follow suit, they say, and enable Israel and Gulf states to more effectively work to weaken Iran’s influence.

Some had doubted approach

Some regional experts acknowledge that the UAE-Israel deal represents a significant success for the Trump Middle East approach that they had doubted could work.

The UAE’s "willingness to move down the path to full diplomatic relations without settlement of the Palestinian issue" is clearly "in line with the Trump peace deal," says Michael Koplow, policy director at the Israel Policy Forum. “I had been doubtful about that step,” he says. The Israel Policy Forum is a New York-based organization that supports cementing Israel’s security through the conclusion of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Additional success of the Arab-relations-first approach – for example a decision by Bahrain to follow Abu Dhabi’s lead – would constitute a further setback for the Palestinians, Mr. Koplow says.

"The Palestinians will have even less ability to pressure the Israeli government if they lose the normalization with Arabs" as a bargaining chip in negotiations, he estimates.

At the same time, however, some remained cautious about trumpeting the initial Israel-UAE deal as a cut-in-stone success. “By the end of Thursday the UAE was tweeting that it would require a full rejection of annexation to go forward” and not just Mr. Netanyahu’s suspension, says Ms. Efron, who is also a policy adviser with the Israel Policy Forum.

Still, Mr. Trump was happy to bask in the glow of the deal. At the Oval Office announcement, he said the deal would be known as the “Abraham Accord” in honor of the father of three faiths – Christian, Muslim, and Jewish. He then quipped that he “wanted it to be called the Donald J. Trump accord,” but he said he “didn’t think the press would understand that.”

Graphic

For working women, a recession like no other

To get an honest picture of how an economy is faring, it helps to look at working women. The pandemic recession has been challenging for them, but rapidly changing norms around work offer a sliver of optimism

Peter

So many women lost their jobs during the pandemic-led downturn this spring that it has acquired a title: the “she-cession.” In past recessions, men bore the brunt of the job losses. In the 1970s and ’80s, women’s long-term move into the job market was so strong that an economic contraction would barely register in their job numbers. But this pandemic recession has turned past patterns on their head. It has hit hard many of the sectors where female workers predominate, so that their job losses outnumbered job losses for men. 

For female entrepreneurs, it’s a similar story. They, too, made gains over the decades and now own more than half of the sole proprietorships in the United States, according to a recent survey. But many of their businesses are concentrated in sectors, such as retail and leisure and hospitality, that have suffered from the lockdowns imposed by the coronavirus.

In a typical recession, the gap between women’s and men’s pay narrows a little because more men are thrown into unemployment and women with jobless spouses take on more work. But a new National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) study suggests that the pandemic-led recession is doing just the opposite: expanding the pay gap because this time more women are thrown out of work and can’t take on new work, because they have increased child care duties with schools closed by lockdowns.

If there is a silver lining, it’s that in the long term the pandemic may narrow the pay gap as working from home becomes more accepted and fathers, getting a taste of child care during the lockdowns, will accept doing more of household duties, according to the NBER study authors Titan Alon, Matthias Doepke, Jane Olmstead-Rumsey, and Michèle Tertiltwrite. “[T]he rise in work flexibility during a pandemic recession is likely to be persistent, and disproportionately benefits women who have major childcare responsibilities,” they write. – Laurent Belsie

SOURCE: Chart 1: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics; Chart 2: UENI survey of 39,000 U.S. businesses; Chart 3: "This Time It's Different: The Role of Women's Employment in a Pandemic Recession," National Bureau of Economic Research, August 2020
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Jacob Turcotte and Laurent Belsie/Staff

A deeper look

From life in prison to out on parole: One group easing the transition

“Lifers” who get a chance at parole have singular needs. In California, one pioneering program to support them enlists ex-offenders. “They’re going to hold you accountable in ways that nobody else can,” says the relative of a lifer.

Peter
Ann Hermes/Staff
Peer mentors Louie Hammonds Sr. (No. 28 jersey) and Joe Calderon (blue shirt) talk with participants at a monthly meeting of a program that helps former “lifers” now out on parole.

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Nationwide, the population of prisoners sentenced to life increased by nearly five times between 1989 and 2016, according to the nonprofit Sentencing Project. In many states, the chances of a “lifer” being released have been slim to none. But in California, that began to change in 2008 with key legal decisions, and since 2010, more than 6,000 people with life terms have been granted parole.

For the newly released, the tripwires of daily life lie in wait. That’s where the Peer Reentry Navigation Network (PRNN), launched five years ago, can come in. The program, in which ex-offenders serve as mentors, is based on the premise that those who have already successfully navigated life on the outside are best suited to light the way for others.

“The most important people you have are the people in this room,” says Joe Calderon, a peer mentor, at PRNN meetings in San Francisco.

Mr. Calderon’s past included gang involvement and the fatal shooting of a security guard during a botched robbery attempt. Eventually, he became a lifer parolee, and in addition to his PRNN mentoring, he’s now a senior community health worker. “Helping is my medicine,” he says. “It keeps me humble.”

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3. From life in prison to out on parole: One group easing the transition

During the time he was serving 18 years to life for second-degree murder, Joe Calderon would reflect on an incident from his childhood in which he and his cash-strapped parents were living in the family station wagon. They pulled into a Kentucky Fried Chicken for dinner, but there was only enough money to feed “little Joey.”

While the attendant was distracted, little Joey’s father burst in, jumped over the counter, threw 20 or so pieces of chicken into a bucket, and ran out. Mr. Calderon remembers being overjoyed that there was enough chicken for everyone. In his young mind, it was the beginning of “the little linkages between survival and crime.” 

Those linkages would eventually lead to gang involvement and the fatal shooting of a security guard during a botched robbery attempt. His gun was perpetually hot and ready. “I was a knucklehead,” Mr. Calderon says of his turbulent past. 

On a recent morning, he was scribbling the words SELF-LOVE on a whiteboard in front of a boisterous roomful of former knucklehead criminals like himself. A disciplined type with the biceps to prove it, Mr. Calderon now serves as a peer mentor and Yoda of sorts to some 50 men, and a smattering of women, who meet on the second Tuesday of every month at the parole office of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in San Francisco. 

They’ve gathered for a pioneering program designed to support the singular needs of “lifers” who are returning to “the free world,” as they tend to call it, after decades in prison. Nearly all did time for murder. At one point, they figured out there were 1,462.5 years of prison time in the room.

“I was addicted to the hustle,” says Mr. Calderon, who is also a senior community health worker for a network of health clinics for the formerly incarcerated. 

The parole group, which has a rotating cast of characters and a new theme each month, is officially called the Peer Reentry Navigation Network (PRNN). The program was launched five years ago in response to the unprecedented number of lifers being released in California, which has the largest number of inmates with life sentences in the world, just over 34,000.

For years, the chances of a lifer being released were slim to none, which remains the case in many states. In California, that began to change in 2008 with key legal decisions that shifted the basis for parole from the heinousness of the original crime to the question of whether an inmate, if released, would pose a serious risk to public safety. Since 2010, more than 6,000 people with life terms have been granted parole. 

“It’s not prison bravado or social pleasantries,” Mr. Calderon says of the group. “It’s real.” 

For the newly released, heady with freedom in the makeshift classroom, the tripwires of daily life lie in wait. Most entered prison young and headstrong and have come home as middle-aged Rip van Winkles with bad backs and a host of more serious chronic conditions. Forty-five to 60 years old on average, with many looking far older due to decades of confinement, they have never used a smartphone, Googled an old flame, memorized a PIN, or swiped a touch screen. They are starting from scratch at a point where others their age are watching their 401(k)s.

They have made it through the excruciatingly complex gauntlet of parole, a protracted process that demands intense introspection and accountability for one’s crimes; years of participation in groups dedicated to substance use disorder, domestic violence, and other issues; and a detailed reentry plan. 

But the universe outside the gate is more daunting still. When Mr. Calderon writes SELF-LOVE/HEALING RELATIONSHIPS WITH SELF on the whiteboard, the responses of the group are telling:

I left a lot of guys in prison I love. I did 41 years. I can’t beat myself up for the fact that they’re still there.

They took me away from females, and in my mind, I have a lot to make up for. That’s undue pressure that can distort your thinking. I need to stay in the slow lane. Settling for someone is not self-love.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Louie Hammonds Sr. (No. 28 jersey), a mentor, asks former life-term inmates to share their experiences during a monthly meeting of the Peer Reentry Navigation Network in San Francisco on March 10, 2020.

Safe space for frank talk

The group’s premise is that those who have successfully navigated life on the outside are best suited to light the way for others. Although the atmosphere varies month to month, the meetings always provide safe space for frank talk. It’s a freewheeling blend of mutual aid, self-help, 12-steppish recovery, tips for defusing triggers, and a network for building social capital, with job leads and resources frequently coming from alumni. It also includes advice for the lovelorn – as in, “I’m having a relationship with more than one woman.” Mr. Calderon’s response: “Be careful about cheating. That’s a sign you’re going south fast.”

It’s a place for learning from each other’s mistakes. “I’d suggest that if you have a substance issue, stay on it,” Englebert “Bert” Perlas tells the group one morning before taking off for work as a glazer in an orange construction sweatshirt and caulk-splattered pants. “I thought my 20 years of sobriety in prison meant I got this thing beat. But coming off a hard day’s work ... the beers in the fridge ... the glistening condensation. It was ... ‘that’d be good.’”  

The cascading effect of his brief relapse with alcohol led to what he says is a domestic violence charge, two restraining orders, and a parole violation for which he is still in legal limbo. He is prohibited from seeing his 3-year-old daughter, which visibly grieves him. “Sobriety has to be No. 1,” he cautions. “I’m living proof of that.” 

Shadd Maruna, a criminologist at Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland, considers experts-by-experience like Mr. Calderon to be “wounded healers.” Mr. Calderon thinks of his work as “living amends.” “Helping is my medicine,” he explains. “It keeps me humble.”

The meetings were piloted here in “felon-friendly” San Francisco. Along with Los Angeles, the city has a plethora of services mandated by the parole board and California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, including job skills training and six-month transitional housing, where blood-alcohol and urine tests, metal detectors, and tight curfews are the norm. Los Angeles County and the San Francisco Bay Area are home to what experts say is the densest concentration of released lifers in the country.

The concept for the group was loosely based on a Canadian correction services program, since closed, that trained former lifers to mentor incarcerated people and parolees. “Lifers build communities with each other in prison, so the group is a way of extending the runway,” says Elizabeth Kita, a clinical social worker who helped develop the program for the parole office in San Francisco. “Most have been in groups for decades. So having people they can talk to, check in with, and give and get ‘pull ups’ instead of ‘push downs’ is important.” 

Ann Hermes/Staff
“We want to maximize their success reintegrating with society, but we want to honor the victims as well. If a lifer is committed to giving back to the community, it can give the victim’s families solace that the person has turned their life around,” says Martin Figueroa, a supervisor with a state parole office in Oakland, California, who oversees released offenders formerly serving life sentences.

The consideration of releasing long-term offenders began in earnest in California under Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, who morphed from a tough-on-crime governor in his first term to a believer in rehabilitation and second chances. Mr. Brown created a special parole process for inmates who committed their crimes as juveniles and were charged as adults. (Mr. Perlas was one.) In 2011, the governor appointed Jennifer Shaffer as executive officer of the state’s Board of Parole Hearings. At that time, “it was not uncommon for lifers to not know of anyone who had been granted parole and released,” Ms. Shaffer says. “Now every lifer knows someone who went home.”

Unlike younger parolees, whose social networks often remain relatively stable, lifers have been removed from society for decades. Nationwide, the population of prisoners sentenced to life increased by nearly five times between 1989 and 2016, according to the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit criminal justice organization. The escalation, in which African Americans were almost seven times more likely to be incarcerated for violent crimes than white people, was the result of harsh laws that increased mandatory minimums for criminal sentences. 

The PRNN, which has since expanded to 28 locales statewide, was designed to exploit the protective factors that studies show help released prisoners succeed. Chief among them is a sense of agency and being around people who model “pro-social” behavior, in criminology-speak.

Researchers have found that people tend to age out of criminality and that lifers who have been released after many years in prison have a low risk of recidivism. “There is a misconception that those who have committed murder will re-offend in violent crime,” says Tarika Daftary-Kapur, an associate professor at Montclair State University in New Jersey, who found a 1.14% recidivism rate in a recent study of juveniles in Philadelphia who were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole and later released. 

Ms. Shaffer reminds parolees that they have a responsibility to succeed not just for themselves and the safety of the community but also for those remaining “behind the wall.”

“They’re not higher risk, despite their crimes,” she says. “But they are high stakes.” 

For Mr. Calderon, who was 23 at the time of his crime, “heavy changes” occurred within him while holding his daughter Jessica (now 26) during prison visits. “My dad chased skirts and was never around,” he says. “I had told myself if I ever had kids, I’d do better.” 

But his status as a respected professional does not always inoculate him from the aftershocks of incarceration, such as getting hypervigilant in public places because of years of watching his back in prison. When he catches himself in vulnerable situations, he picks up the phone and calls a lifer brother.

“Get over ‘I’m going to do it myself,’” Mr. Calderon tells the assembled throng at meetings. “The most important people you have are the people in this room.” 

SIX-MONTH GOALS FOR 2020: 

Get a driver’s license.
Get my tattoos removed.
Stay drug and alcohol free.
Get a job.
Learn how to tie a tie.
Meet the grandkids I’ve never met.
To not go back where I came from.

Many lifers who have been released say prison saved their lives. They grew up in households where unspeakable trauma and abuse occurred, which can sometimes result in a razor-thin line between victim and perpetrator. “It’s a twisted irony that in prison, one of the most trauma-inducing places ever created, people are expected to find a safe space to heal from trauma and understand their own fears, motivations, and decisions,” says Keith Wattley, a lawyer and founding executive director of the Oakland-based nonprofit UnCommon Law, who specializes in lifers seeking parole. “Personal transformation isn’t something that’s imposed on people; it’s something they demand and create for themselves.” 

Wanting to be “Scarface”

Louie Hammonds Sr., who co-facilitates the parole group with Mr. Calderon, was once “Lou-Dog,” a major gang leader on the fearsome south side of Stockton, California. “I wanted to be ‘Scarface,’” Mr. Hammonds muses, referring to the vicious drug lord played by Al Pacino in the 1983 movie. “People would say, ‘Do you see how he died?’ And I’d say, ‘Do you see how he lived?’”

When Mr. Hammonds was 12, a drunken driver crashed into the family car, hurling him and his 10-year-old sister through the windshield. Both children were hospitalized, and his sister died shortly thereafter. He says his mother, a retired military officer, had a nervous breakdown and his father, a bartender, spiraled into addiction. Young Mr. Hammonds found himself overcome with guilt and shame, convinced that “my sister sacrificed her life for mine because she went through the window first.” 

He had already been sniffing gas and paint in alleyways. His emotionally distant father had a close friend who was a big shot in a gang. Mr. Hammonds was impressed by a scene he witnessed in an alley where a 5-foot-2-inch gang leader, with a reputation for violence, had scores of bigger and brawnier young men held rapt in his orbit. If he could wield that kind of power, Mr. Hammonds reasoned, perhaps his father would love him. 

He transformed himself into the Scarface of Stockton, presiding over a savage milieu in which “keeping up with the Joneses” meant killing them. After shooting an unsuspecting man at a bar seven times with a 9 mm handgun, he was incarcerated and, deemed a security threat, ultimately sent to Pelican Bay State Prison, the notorious supermax that houses the state’s most violent offenders.

“In our belief system,” Mr. Hammonds says of being sent there, “that was a graduation, a bar mitzvah, a coming of age.” 

Ruthless and dangerous, Mr. Hammonds was assigned to a high-security housing unit, where gang leaders steeped him in the manifold tactics of war against corrections officers – making knives from clipboards by sharpening the metal fasteners on concrete floors, for instance. 

One day, Mr. Hammonds cooked up an excuse to visit the medical unit, his hands shackled to a waist chain. Two officers brandishing batons escorted him. Along the way, Mr. Hammonds realized that one of his sneakers had come untied. He noticed another corrections officer heading their way and waited for the guards accompanying him to press him against the wall so their colleague could pass by. Instead, he recalls, the approaching guard “leans down on one leg and ties my shoe, doing it in a bunny knot like my grandmother used to. Then he walks away. He humbled me. He didn’t break the glass ceiling of my insanity all the way, but he cracked it. He had humanity in him, and when he touched my spirit, he gave me some of that humanity.”  

Thus began Mr. Hammonds’ slow journey from the precipice to the multidimensional person he now is – someone who was always inside him, he insists, but whom he never learned to protect. The process involved extensive debriefings with gang investigators and multiple prison transfers.

Today, Mr. Hammonds supervises the citywide COVID-19 response for Urban Alchemy, a California nonprofit that monitors the safety and habitability of public spaces and is committed to hiring former lifers, many from PRNN.

He is keenly aware of the things that trip people up – especially relationships. “You’re dealing with issues and emotions out here that are unfamiliar to you,” Mr. Hammonds observes. “There’s no way to adequately develop in a men’s correctional setting. You’re not being open. You’re afraid to cry. It stunts your development. So you’re behind the curve coming out.” 

Reestablishing meaningful connections with family members is by far the thorniest task lifers face. “So many of them are at different stages than you are,” says Mr. Calderon, who has several cousins who are still involved in “the life.” “Many are unhealthy for my reentry [back into society], as much as it hurts my heart.” 

A rude awakening

The divide between outside reality and hopes and fantasies nurtured behind bars can be devastating. “I believed I was going to reunite with my son, only to find out it was not something he wanted,” says Aminah Elster. “If you dreamt all those years, how do you deal with that rejection?” Her young son lived with her parents while she was incarcerated, though she had an iffy relationship with both, especially her mother, before she was imprisoned.

Ms. Elster earned a community college degree in prison, where she did 14 years for being an accessory to a murder. Released in 2017, she recently graduated from the University of California, Berkeley in legal studies and coordinates an ambassador program for formerly incarcerated students. She has just started a nonprofit to address gender imbalances in reentry programs like PRNN, which can be rife with testosterone.

She regularly greets newly released lifers at the prison gates. “We have to show people how to love us,” she observed at a PRNN meeting. “Because other folks mimic that.”

Irene Yi/Courtesy of The University of California, Berkeley
“I believed I was going to reunite with my son, only to find out it was not something he wanted," says Aminah Elster, a former inmate who has started a nonprofit that helps women after they’re released from prison. "If you dreamt all those years, how do you deal with that rejection?”

Available for lifers 24/7   

The idea that a murderer might be capable of undergoing the kind of social, emotional, and moral metamorphosis necessary to be worthy of love is a difficult concept for many people to grasp. Among the skeptics was Martin Figueroa, a guiding force behind the PRNN program who now oversees lifers out on parole for the state department of corrections in Alameda County. “I thought ... this is going to be scary,” he says of his first lifer parolee – a guy named Calderon. 

Mr. Figueroa, who has a master’s degree in counseling psychology and won a Jefferson Award for Public Service, grew up in a violent neighborhood similar to his charges, a place where “everyone expects you to be nothing.” He encourages his parolees to call him 24/7.

He also fields calls from distraught family members. In the foreground of every release are the survivors whose lives have been shattered by the acts of violence marking the lifers’ pasts. Mr. Figueroa puts it this way: “How do we balance recovery and public safety? We want to maximize their success reintegrating with society, but we want to honor the victims as well. If a lifer is committed to giving back to the community, it can give the victim’s families solace that the person has turned their life around.”

While he has his parolees’ best interests at heart, public safety comes first. If a released lifer is returned to custody, “a little part of me dies,” he says. “Because I had so much hope for them.”

One cautionary tale

When Clinton Thomas was released from San Quentin in 2014, he quickly became the charismatic and articulate public face of the returning citizen. He was the golden boy who met with the mayor, the ex-lifer who crushed it on public television.

Mr. Thomas had grown up in East Oakland, where his mother, a nurse, developed a heroin addiction. He lived alone with her as the household descended into poverty. Upon her death, his behavior was so out of control that a family member put him on a bus to Texas to live with his father, whom he barely knew. By the time Mr. Thomas returned to Oakland, the streets were overrun with crack cocaine. His best friend, who had dropped out of school after eighth grade, had become “hood rich” with designer clothes and a fancy car. Mr. Thomas wanted in. 

He was 17 years old when he persuaded two friends to help steal a suitcase full of cash sitting in a “drug house” down the block. At the time, the neighborhood was a narcotics bazaar and Mr. Thomas had become an excellent salesman. Though his goal that day was mercenary, one of his friends wanted to extract revenge from a girl at the house who he thought had informed the cops about an earlier killing. When the friend pulled out his gun, Mr. Thomas was already bolting out the door and heard the screams as he ran to the nearby railroad tracks – the “little getaway” from his youth where he and other boys would throw rocks and watch pennies get flattened as trains sped by.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Parolee Clinton Thomas stands near the train tracks where he fled the scene of a crime in the neighborhood in East Oakland, California, where he grew up. Mr. Thomas has been working with a network of ex-offenders to ease his reintegration back into society after nearly 30 years in prison.

Mr. Thomas was arrested in 1991, tried as an adult, and convicted of first-degree murder. He entered the adult system at age 18. He got out 26 years later after a new state law required meaningful parole opportunities for juveniles who were tried as adults and convicted. He was 44. 

Mr. Thomas was a stellar parolee. But during Year 3, several problematical developments started to undermine his newfound – and, it would turn out, shaky – stability. Working as a welder, a skill he learned in prison, Mr. Thomas was injured by a falling piece of steel and started taking opioid painkillers so he could continue working. Then he moved on to cocaine to stave off dope sickness. 

The illness and death of his older sister – who had been his legal guardian and a sort of second mother – nudged him further downward. Mr. Thomas withdrew from the community of lifers as well as his family. He started violating parole, walking away from his residential substance abuse treatment program, and flying to Miami with one of many girlfriends, in defiance of his 50-mile travel limit. While there, he accidentally pocket-called Mr. Figueroa. He couldn’t bring himself to lie about where he was. 

He says he almost dropped the phone. “It broke my heart,” Mr. Figueroa recalls. 

Mr. Thomas spent two years back in San Quentin before being released earlier this year. Forsaking his peers after his first parole was a major contributor to his unraveling, says his brother Gary Welch. “I believe you have to stay with the community of lifers out there,” he says. “They’re going to tell you the truth, push you to a higher plateau. They’re going to hold you accountable in ways that nobody else can.”

Mr. Thomas revisited his old haunts in East Oakland recently. He retraced his steps from the faded peach-stucco house where he committed his life crime to the railroad tracks down the block from the childhood home where he and Mr. Welch raised homing pigeons on the roof as youngsters.

He had not set foot on this ground for 32 years and the grief caught him unaware. “I remember the victimization and the hurt,” he says, dabbing his eyes. “My mother taught me better than that.”

He is grateful that he is now in a different place, living in transitional housing with a good job and a fiancée he has known since their teens, and regularly attending the monthly meetings. Mr. Thomas says he has learned the hard way “to never stop communicating with your support system.” 

“I didn’t use the tools in my toolbox,” he acknowledged in a phone call from San Quentin last year. “Stress came and I thought I had it licked.”

Back at the PRNN meeting, Mr. Calderon stands at the whiteboard, where he’s written another topic, and responses to it.   

FIRST TIME YOU HIT THE GATE:

My family picked me up. They told me “we wear seat belts out here.” I’m still in awe.
My uncle came. I thought, “let’s get out of here before they change their minds.” 
We went to Denny’s. It felt weird to have people treating me nice. I felt I was undeserving.
I was wearing a sweatshirt. People weren’t paying any attention to me. It was my dysfunctional thinking that everyone knew where I was coming from.

On the whiteboard, Mr. Calderon writes, “What is your finish line?” “Are you still on the path and if not, what do you do to get there?”

Afterward, Mr. Hammonds suggests to the group: “Let your character be your currency.”

They are all saving up.

‘Don’t stop having optimism’: combat vets on surviving the pandemic

Five veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars offer perspective on perseverance, resiliency, and what we might gain from our struggle against the coronavirus outbreak.

Peter
David Goldman/AP/File
Sgt. Misha Pemble-Belkin, with the US Army's Bravo Company of the 25th Infantry Division, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment, hikes to an observation post on Sept. 4, 2011, in Kunar province, Afghanistan. In medical retirement from the Army, he now works in Vermont with disabled children and adults.

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Constricted living conditions, unseen threats, mental fatigue: What we’ve all been through in the pandemic echoes some of the experience of soldiers in war. What they learn in combat gives them insight into surviving prolonged adversity, and adapting to ambiguity.

After an Army career cut short by a rocket blast in Afghanistan, Misha Pemble-Belkin moved to Vermont. Working as an apple picker and stock clerk, his searing back pain made rising from bed a Herculean feat. Depression linked to his deployments shadowed him as he fell below the poverty line.

The ordeal taught him to find meaning in the moment. “As hard as things are, the pandemic will eventually pass. Until it does, look for simple joys,” says Mr. Pemble-Belkin. He recalls pausing each morning as he picked apples to watch the sun crest the Green Mountains. “It doesn’t sound like much, but those little bits of beauty can help you survive the day.”

He realizes that unemployed Americans face a dire plight as the economy sputters. He urges them to keep rising from bed. “You have to get up and take those first breaths,” he says. “The only chance tomorrow will be better is if you get through today.”

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4. ‘Don’t stop having optimism’: combat vets on surviving the pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic at once slows and blurs time. Each day suspends us between monotony and uncertainty, rendering tomorrow almost identical to yesterday, and foiling our efforts to imagine much beyond the present.

For five months, and to varying degrees from state to state, most of us have lived inside a closed-loop routine that resembles shampoo instructions: wake up, shelter in place, repeat. Confronted by that daily sameness, Colleen Ryan-Hensley relies on coping skills she honed while deployed aboard Navy destroyers in support of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“The way I maintained sanity was focusing on what I could control,” says Ms. Ryan-Hensley, who served in the Navy for 11 years and lives in Frisco, Texas. “I’ve tried to do the same during the pandemic, and that’s been helpful in keeping things in balance.”

The restrictions on civilian life, if as onerous for military veterans as everybody else, recall aspects of what they endured in war. Their memories of deployment – the constricted living conditions, the unseen threats, the mental fatigue – give them insight into surviving prolonged adversity, and their experiences after leaving the military offer lessons about adapting to ambiguity.

What can we learn from them to navigate the pandemic? Five veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars share their perspectives on perseverance, resilience, and what we might gain from our collective struggle.

Finding meaning in the moment

Misha Pemble-Belkin intended to serve 20 years in the Army. A rocket blast during his second combat tour in Afghanistan in 2011 derailed his plan, inflicting injuries to his back and neck that forced him into medical retirement four years later.

The loss of a military career that began in 2006 cast him adrift. He moved to Vermont and worked as an apple picker and stock clerk, despite searing back pain that made the simple act of rising from bed a Herculean feat. Depression linked to his deployments shadowed him as he fell below the poverty line.

The ordeal taught him to find meaning in the moment. “As hard as things are, the pandemic will eventually pass. Until it does, look for simple joys,” says Mr. Pemble-Belkin, who appeared in “Restrepo,” an Oscar-nominated documentary about his Army unit’s 15-month tour in Afghanistan that ended in 2008.

He recalls pausing each morning as he picked apples to watch the sun crest the Green Mountains. “It doesn’t sound like much, but those little bits of beauty can help you survive the day.”

The father of two young daughters, he fought against despair, willing himself to meet the day. In time, he joined the staff of Vermont Adaptive Ski and Sports, an organization in Killington that works with disabled children and adults. He realizes that millions of unemployed Americans face a dire plight as the economy sputters. He urges them to keep rising from bed.

“You have to get up and take those first breaths,” he says. “The only chance tomorrow will be better is if you get through today.”

Reordering life priorities

The end of Jeff Hensley’s 21-year Navy career in 2009 cued an identity crisis. The retired fighter pilot deployed twice to Iraq and lost one of his closest friends there. He returned to his native Texas with his first marriage collapsing, three children to raise, and his sense of self in free-fall.

Hanging up his uniform prodded him to redefine his purpose, to emphasize personal growth over professional pursuits. He suggests that the upheaval of the pandemic has illuminated the need to nurture emotional well-being and reorder life priorities.

“If we search for answers to the question of who we are beneath our work and within our relationships, we’ll be more comfortable with ourselves no matter what’s happening around us,” says Mr. Hensley, a veterans advocate and pilot for United Airlines. “That’s especially important right now because we’re dealing with something that’s so beyond our control.”

The widening impact of the coronavirus “makes it clear that all of us are vulnerable,” says Mr. Hensley, who is married to Ms. Ryan-Hensley. As the number of cases climbs, he adds, we can seek to alleviate our own unease by showing empathy for others.

“This is something that everyone is going through. Everyone has fears, anxieties, occasionally anger,” he says. “If we recognize that we share those emotions, even if we show them in different ways, that can bring us together. This is a shared experience, and there is a common humanity.”

Treating hardship as an opportunity

The long months at sea during Ms. Ryan-Hensley’s wartime deployments in 2003 and 2005 offered ample time for bleak thoughts to fester.

She reined in her mind with a resolute focus on her tasks as a combat systems analyst, and she has applied a similar discipline since the pandemic arrived. A set of routines – for work, household chores, family conversations, exercise –  serves to reassure her in the absence of the old normal.

“We have no other choice except to adapt,” says Ms. Ryan-Hensley, who works for Unite Us, a tech company that coordinates health care and social services for vulnerable populations. She attempts to treat hardship as an opportunity to build inner strength.

“There is value in recognizing your ability to overcome circumstances that you’ve never encountered before, that you never imagined,” she says. “It can give you the confidence to face difficult situations in the future.”

Ms. Ryan-Hensley established a wellness program at the San Diego naval base where she was stationed before leaving the military in 2010. She later provided counseling services for active-duty troops, veterans, first responders, and caregivers, and she encourages those mired in distress over the pandemic to ask for help from clinicians, trusted peers, or friends.

“If you’re suffering, realize you don’t have to do so in silence,” she says. “Because the reality is, almost everybody is suffering.”

Nurturing ambitions

Kevin Miller mustered out of the Marine Corps in 2006 after two combat tours in Iraq that included surviving a roadside bomb explosion. The war stayed with the onetime infantryman in the form of a traumatic brain injury, chronic neck and back pain, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

A range of physical and psychological therapies aided his slow recovery over the ensuing years, and in 2013, he found work with Swords to Plowshares, a veterans advocacy organization in San Francisco.

“I didn’t want to get blown up any more than any of us want to be going through a pandemic,” he says. “But now I can see the resilience I gained from that experience in Iraq, and there will be something we gain from this experience that will make us stronger. It’s just not something we can see yet.”

Mr. Miller summoned that willpower when the coronavirus outbreak threatened to upend long-gestating plans to move east this summer with his partner. They packed up last month and drove to their new home in a suburb of Washington, D.C., and he exhorts people to nurture their ambitions as a way to sustain the spirit.

“We decided not to put life on hold,” he says. “Obviously, not everyone can or wants to make a big life change right now. But at the very least, don’t stop planning your future and don’t stop having optimism about what you want to accomplish.”

Delivering hope

Joshua Mantz died in Iraq in 2007. A sniper’s bullet caused his heart to stop for 15 minutes, until field medics revived him.

Mr. Mantz, a former Army platoon leader, recounts his physical and emotional recovery in his 2017 book, “The Beauty of a Darker Soul: Overcoming Trauma Through the Power of Human Connection.”

“The struggle that follows trauma pulls us where we need to go – not necessarily where we want to go – to feel whole again,” says Mr. Mantz, who lives in Las Vegas. The economic fallout from the pandemic has wrought a psychological toll that he describes as a kind of living death for Americans whose jobs have vanished.

“Losing your business, career, or life’s work – there’s severe trauma and a grief process involved with that,” he says. “So it’s important for people to seek out conversations that delve into that struggle rather than avoid talking about it. When we articulate feelings like shame and powerlessness with each other, it creates resonance between us.”

Mr. Mantz has founded a company, Phaedrus Factory, that teaches clinicians, military personnel, and law enforcement officers about the moral psychology of trauma. His call for compassion defies the country’s partisan rancor, reflecting his own journey out of the abyss and his gratitude to those who lifted him.

“A big part of healing comes down to hope and what we do to deliver hope to each other,” he says. “We’re really not in this alone, no matter how isolated we may feel.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, we have removed our paywall for all pandemic-related stories.

Interview

Waterboys frontman calmly waits for the lyrics to come. They always do.

How do people access creativity? Longtime musician Mike Scott, frontman for The Waterboys, does so by maintaining daily habits – and an unwavering understanding that inspiration can take time.

Peter
Barry McCall/Courtesy of Chart Room Media
Mike Scott is the founding member, lead singer, guitarist, and songwriter of the rock band The Waterboys.

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When you ask Scottish songwriter Mike Scott about cultivating creativity, he points to a track on the new album he’s released with his band The Waterboys. Titled “Beauty in Repetition,” the song details how 19th-century philosopher William James followed an unchanging daily routine so that he could free up the higher parts of his mind. Mr. Scott recalls explaining to a former girlfriend that his habitual activities, such as eating the same meals, mean that he’s less preoccupied with banal decisions and can focus on creativity.  

“Good Luck, Seeker” is the fourth Waterboys album in five years and the 14th album in a career that has garnered the admiration of Bob Dylan, U2, and The War on Drugs – and covers by Prince. Influenced by William Butler Yeats, C.S. Lewis, and Van Morrison, Mr. Scott has developed a reputation as one of rock’s true poets. His lyrics express open-hearted wonder as he explores existential questions.  

“I used to think if I didn’t get the song done, I would lose it. I don’t think that anymore,” says Mr. Scott during a call from his studio in Dublin, Ireland. “It’s going to come down in its own time. So there’s a calmness to the way I work.” 

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5. Waterboys frontman calmly waits for the lyrics to come. They always do.

When songwriter Mike Scott recently rummaged through a box of forgotten compositions, he found a poem he’d written three decades ago. The bandleader of The Waterboys was struck by the first line: “The storm that has howled for four days has blown itself out.” It transported his memory to the coastal Irish cottage, covered in a shag of ivy, where he wrote the 1988 album “Fisherman’s Blues.”

The rediscovered prose developed into “Postcard From The Celtic Dreamtime,” a wistful track on the new Waterboys record, “Good Luck, Seeker.”   

“I used to think if I didn’t get the song done, I would lose it. I don’t think that anymore,” says Mr. Scott during a call from his studio in Dublin, Ireland. “It’s going to come down in its own time. So there’s a calmness to the way I work.”

Calmness is not idleness. “Good Luck, Seeker” is the fourth Waterboys album in five years and the 14th album in a career that has garnered the admiration of Bob Dylan, U2, The War on Drugs – and covers by Prince. Mr. Scott is the sole constant member of The Waterboys, which has had more lineup changes than any other band in rock history. At least 85 musicians have performed with the group over the decades. Its sound is often earthy but its spirit is celestial. Influenced by William Butler Yeats, C.S. Lewis, and Van Morrison, Mr. Scott has developed a reputation as one of rock’s true poets. His lyrics express open-hearted wonder as he explores existential questions. 

“As a lyricist he’s very heart-on-sleeve about his life,” says Ian Abrahams, author of the biography “Strange Boat: Mike Scott and The Waterboys.” “He’s really at the top of his game when he’s writing about himself, or maintaining a sense of anger at the mediocrity of this world, or where he’s embracing the work of writers he’s loved and building them into his sense of spirituality.”

Mr. Scott is that rare veteran artist whose sound hasn’t fossilized into a predictable style. The Waterboys have continually evolved, from post-punk anthems to rustic Celtic folk to guitar-lick rock ’n’ roll. “Good Luck, Seeker” touches on those earlier elements, weaving them into an R&B sound that’s as lush as velour. As for those hip-hop rhythms? Credit the influence of rap star Kendrick Lamar. 

“He uses all these found sounds and incidental sounds. It’s like listening to a movie for the ears,” says Mr. Scott, the sort of rock star who has the panache to wear crushed velvet jackets and cowboy hats. “It reminds me of the punk DIY days or, going back further, psychedelia with all the sound effects. ... I love creating like that.”

From habits, creativity

Asked about the conditions he favors to facilitate creativity, the Scottish songwriter points to a track on the new album titled “Beauty in Repetition.” It details how 19th-century philosopher William James, author of “The Varieties of Religious Experience,” followed an unchanging daily routine so that he could free up the higher parts of his mind. Similarly, Mr. Scott recalls explaining to a former girlfriend that his habitual activities, such as eating the same meals day after day, mean that he’s less preoccupied with banal decisions and can focus on creativity. 

Now that he’s become a father, those patterns require more flexibility. But the change has its benefits. “I’m constantly making up stories and songs for and with my kids. And that means my creative wheels are turning all the time,” he says. When the fount of inspiration flows, he needs a pen with a deep ink well. The recent single “The Soul Singer,” propelled by a horn section, features as many verses that made the final cut as didn’t. 

The second half of “Good Luck, Seeker” – a series of dramatic spoken-word pieces set to instrumental music – liberates Mr. Scott’s lyrics from the harnessed reigns of songwriting stricture. 

“It’s not that I feel the need to be free. I like working with verses and choruses and structures, and I like working with rhythm and rhyme. But the spoken word is a different kind of expression,” he says. “It has been a creative edge for me.”  

Mr. Scott’s enduring interest in poetry has inspired him to set poems by Robert Burns and George MacDonald to music. All the songs on “An Appointment with Mr. Yeats” (2011) were composed from the words of Yeats. On the new album, spoken-word compositions such as “The Land of Sunset” showcase Mr. Scott’s own considerable wordsmithing in evoking a strong sense of place. Other pieces, “My Wanderings in the Weary Land” and “Everchanging,” continue the artist’s abiding tradition of metaphysical travelogues that chronicle a search for meaning and truth. 

“I discovered deeper spiritual literature, esoteric spiritual literature, and I realized that I could find what I sought in many places. And the grey church Christianity of my own culture was not the whole story,” he reflects.

“I’m gonna look twice at you”

Mr. Scott avoids the cynical outlook that’s often fashionable among his contemporaries. He expresses his disappointment that one of his original songwriting heroes has embraced the idea that man’s conscience is vile and depraved. By contrast, he looks for the good in people. In the 1995 song “Wonderful Disguise,” for instance, he describes seeing past the outward appearance and behavior of various individuals he encounters over the course of a day. In another song, “The Christ in You,” he sings a simple recurring refrain: “I’m gonna look twice at you / Until I see the Christ in you / When I’m lookin’ through the eyes of love.”

“The proof in the pudding is in the practice of it,” says Mr. Scott, who admits he finds it challenging when it comes to President Donald Trump. “Can I look at him and say ‘I’m going to look twice until I see the Christ in you?’ And I must try that and see what happens.”

Not one to stay still, Mr. Scott has already finished the next album. He reveals that it will be The Waterboys’ first conceptually themed record. Once again, the sound will be different.  

“Hearing Kendrick’s records about five years ago, when I got turned on to them, reminded me that you can do anything,” he says. “You can juxtapose anything. If it works and it feels good, there are no rules.” 

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Summer’s antidote to ‘COVID fatigue’

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The dog days of summer are in full swing in the Northern Hemisphere. This year that annual sense that life has ground nearly to a halt has been compounded by what some are calling “COVID fatigue.”

Some people say they can’t remember the last time they received a hug from another human being.

In August people want to unmask and hit the road or the beach. In recent days some 250,000 motorcycle enthusiasts roared into Sturgis, South Dakota, to celebrate, despite concerns that it might not be a good idea during a pandemic.

People may hold different perspectives on what are appropriate activities, but being a good neighbor doesn’t need to restrict our ability to find safe and constructive ways to feel recharged.

Just a walk or bicycle ride around the neighborhood can be refreshing. Even those who for financial or work-related reasons can’t get away can take advantage of this simple pleasure.

For those who can get away, summer weather opens up a cornucopia of thought-lifting activities that can bring joy even while practicing social distancing.

And, of course, it’s a great time to quietly pause and remember to count our blessings.

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Summer’s antidote to ‘COVID fatigue’

The dog days of summer are in full swing in the Northern Hemisphere. This year that annual sense that life has ground nearly to a halt has been compounded by what some are calling “COVID fatigue.”

The pandemic’s disruption of normal activity has pushed on for five months with no end in sight. For some, a sense of isolation may have set in. Some people say they can’t remember the last time they received a hug from another human being. 

It’s one thing to hunker down at home in frosty March; but in August people want to unmask and hit the road or the beach. In recent days some 250,000 motorcycle enthusiasts roared into Sturgis, South Dakota, to celebrate their shared interest in the two-wheeled noisemakers, despite concerns that it might not be a good idea during a pandemic.

People may hold different perspectives on what are appropriate activities, but being a good neighbor doesn’t need to restrict our ability to find safe and constructive ways to feel refreshed and recharged.  

The mental health effects of the pandemic are a legitimate concern. A recent poll found a majority of Americans believe the pandemic is harming their mental health. Those deeply affected are being urged to seek counseling. 

A beginning for everyone is to reject the false choice between either a life of isolation, loneliness, and confinement, or unwise efforts to make human contact.

Early in the pandemic people dove into projects that provided productive outlets, from new adventures in cooking to sewing face masks. Phone calls and video chats helped people stay connected. Many learned to stay away from too much social media centered on COVID-19 chatter. Relying on a moderate dose of news from a few high-quality, unsensational media sources can help keep thought calm.

All those efforts, and many others, especially ones that move thinking off ourselves and on to helping others, are worth continuing. 

In good weather, just a walk or bicycle ride around the neighborhood can be refreshing. Even those who for financial or work-related reasons can’t get away to the countryside can take advantage of this simple pleasure.

For those who can get outside, summer weather has opened up a cornucopia of thought-lifting activities. Local parks offer playgrounds for children and picnic tables for outdoor meals and games – maybe even a spot to go fishing.

This summer’s camping boom has turned families formerly stuck in front of screens into budding nature lovers and outdoor explorers.  

Water is always a big attraction. People are taking to it in craft of all kinds, from canoes, kayaks, and paddleboards to water skis and sailboats. Experiencing the sight and sound of a waterfall can provide special moments of serenity and awe. 

All of these activities bring joy even while practicing social distancing. 

Summer is the time to “follow your bliss,” the phrase made famous by scholar Joseph Campbell in 1988. It’s a great time to listen for what fulfills you. “We are having experiences all the time,” Dr. Campbell said, that give “a little intuition of where your bliss is. Grab it. No one can tell you what it is going to be.”

It’s not just about doing. Projects can be rewarding, but for those who are able to get away, this summer offers a time to step off the treadmill and gain new insights, such as how little we may really need to do so many things, such as buy more stuff. 

And, of course, it’s a great time to quietly pause and remember to count our blessings. 

A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

Fitting in

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For years, despite his best efforts, a young man had struggled to find his place in the order of things. Then he got some advice that prompted him to consider things from a spiritual perspective – an approach that made all the difference.

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1. Fitting in

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Growing up, I tried to be many things – class clown, athlete, great student – but none of them really seemed to stick. It wasn’t a popularity thing – I had friends – but I felt as though there was some place I ought to be occupying in the order of things, and I just couldn’t find it. This uncertainty about my “fit” persisted through most of my college career as well and affected my schoolwork, self-care, and relationships.

I am a prayerful person, and this was true back then as well, but I didn’t feel I knew how to pray about this abstract issue. I even felt a little ashamed and thought that maybe I needed to find my fit before I could effectively commune with God.

Then, at the beginning of my fourth year of college, I participated in a study abroad program for my art major. After the academic part ended, I was going to spend a few more weeks abroad, so I asked well-traveled friends of mine for tips.

The best tip I got? To spend time looking for what I could give, rather than what I could get. The idea was that it would enable me to appreciate what people were giving to me, whereas if I only considered what I could get, then I’d also be concerned about what people were trying to take from me. Well, this change in perspective and approach affected the whole scope of my travel. For the first time, I felt that I did indeed fit in, wherever I went.

All I can say is that travel tip not only shaped my trip, it also revamped my entire sense of where my life’s focus needed to be. It wasn’t that I’d been an ungiving person before, but my hyperfocus and concern about my fit also caused me to focus inordinately on what I might personally gain from any situation I was in, instead of what I might contribute. Now, I felt that I had a fresh start – a gift-wrapped opportunity to try a new way of thinking.

The call for that kind of fresh thinking was very much a part of the ministry of Christ Jesus. He urged his listeners to rethink things on a very deep level. He shared this message: “Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17).

It seems clear from Jesus’ example that this isn’t saying, “Shape up, bozos! The God-police are coming!” I think of it more like, “Heaven is here! God’s goodness and harmony, and your place in God’s kingdom, are already established. If you can’t see it, change your direction.” Jesus’ further elaborations throughout his ministry on the two great commandments – to love God, and to love our neighbors as ourselves – showed us all how to repent, how to change where we are seeking our sense of place by looking beyond what we see with our eyes to glimpse the spiritual reality.

Using “Love” as a Bible-based synonym for God, Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science, said, “Love is reflected in love” (“Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” p. 17). And there’s a beautiful line in the “Christian Science Hymnal” that says, “Love’s work and Love must fit” (Mary Alice Dayton, No. 51). As the reflections of Love, the work of God, as the Bible declares, we must all fit. None of God’s children is without a place.

And in our daily lives, we find a more satisfying fit not through trying to sync with a particular social strata or finding a particular role, but by intentionally living with and in Love, showing what God’s love is like by reflecting it toward others. There is always room for Love to be expressed.

These ideas continue to be a beacon for me. I’ve found that when I put love for God and a divinely impelled love for others first instead of trying to force my own way, I find an authentic sense of fitting in as well.

When God made us, He knew exactly what He was doing. Sometimes things in our lives, or our place in the world, may not seem to make sense. But when we stop looking at things from a material perspective to try to find our way, and lean in to a deeper sense of our innate capacity to love, we’ll find how deeply loved and perfectly placed we are.

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Photos of the week

Karl-Josef Hildenbrand/dpa/AP
Photojournalists strive to capture moments that tell a full story, delivering news from the remotest corners of the globe in an instant. Through them we learn more about the world, and ourselves. Here is a roundup of photos from this week that Monitor photo editors found the most compelling.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )

A look ahead

Thanks for spending time with us this week. Come back on Monday when we’ll have the final installments of our special series “Beyond the vote: 100 years of women’s leadership,” including a look at where voter disenfranchisement remains among American women.

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