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In one sense or another, we are all procrastinators. Most often, that moment comes first thing in the morning when, even if we’re not inclined to slap the snooze button a dozen times, we still lie in bed for a second thinking, “Do I really have to get up right now?” We are endowed with a sense of hesitancy born of an abundance of caution. Our ancient ancestors had to question, “If I leave the cave now, am I going to be eaten?” For most of us, that particular concern has dissipated, but as a metaphor, it still stands. We put off what we don’t want to do because, somewhere in the back of our minds, we’re not convinced that the action is safe or worth the effort required to complete it.
So, when we think of the terms “procrastination” and “change,” the two don’t seem to go together. Yet, that’s exactly what humans have been doing for centuries. We understand that change is inevitable. The changes someone else makes, often without our consent or consultation, ripple out to others in dramatic waves.
Over the past year, we’ve endured a most dramatic example of this effect and the real-world consequences of procrastination. The global pandemic required severe change in how we live our lives: social distancing, washing our hands, and especially controversial, wearing a mask in public. No one liked those restrictions, but most of the world mandated they be applied quickly and uniformly across the entire country. While they still had severe spikes in the number of infections and deaths, they were able to manage those increases and get past the worst relatively quickly.
Americans, on the other hand, resisted. We put off having any response at all. Our president told us, “It will be gone by Spring, don’t worry about it.” As a result, this past week we surpassed 400,000 deaths from COVID-19 and we have to ask ourselves, and our government, how many of those souls would still be alive if we had adapted to the necessary changes faster?
Procrastination has consequences, and too much of the time those consequences create a larger problem. One of the things that made me happy this past Wednesday was that after the inauguration was over and after all the official celebrating, President Biden went to the Oval Office where a stack of 17 black folders was waiting. In each folder was an Executive Order waiting to be signed, orders that had the power to dramatically change the course of the country. As he took his seat behind the Resolute Desk, the new president, referencing the quick timing of the orders, said, “There’s no time to start like today.” As he signed each one, he addressed critical issues that have been backing up in some cases a lot longer than the past four years. Some of the changes implemented Wednesday evening were:
- Requiring masks and social distancing, kicking off a 100-day mask challenge.
- Rejoining the World Health Organization
- Rejoining the Paris Agreement on Climate Change
- Creating the position of COVID-19 response coordinator and restoring the Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense
- Extending eviction and foreclosure moratoriums until at least March 31
- Extending the existing pause on student loan payments and interest for Americans with federal student loans until at least Sept. 30
- “Embedding equity across federal policymaking and rooting out systemic racism and other barriers to opportunity from federal programs and institutions.”
- Requiring non-citizens to be counted in the Census
- “Preserving and fortifying” the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program
- Reversing the “Muslim ban” and assessing the damage caused to those not allowed to enter
- Revoking “harsh and extreme immigration enforcement” at US borders
- Infinitely pausing the construction of the border wall, diverting funds elsewhere (such as back to their original sources)
- Directing the government to interpret the Civil Rights Act as prohibiting workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, in addition to race, color, religion, sex, and national origin.
- Requiring executive branch appointees to sign an ethics pledge, barring them from acting in their personal interest.
- Pausing all regulatory processes across all federal departments pending further review.
And while that sounds like a lot, it’s just the start of a long list of crises that have been pushed to the back burner of our stove for far too long. Disaster still looms in a number of critical areas:
- World hunger has gone practically nowhere for years now and the number of people in the US who are victims of food insecurity has only grown over the pandemic.
- Economic equality, especially for women of color, has taken steps backward from a nothing-to-brag-about position.
- Adequate education, especially making sure that growing up in a rural environment doesn’t create an unfair disadvantage and that children of color are not left behind.
- Public health is somewhat on the front burner with the pandemic, but it’s also highlighting severe issues with the core healthcare system that need desperate attention.
- Equality in Justice and policing was behind last summer’s riots and that along with surrounding issues of systemic racism has yet to be addressed.
- Water scarcity has been pushed so far back few people realize that it’s even an issue but it stands ready to cause the deaths of millions. As a reference, consider that two billion people still use a water source contaminated with human waste.
- Iran and North Korea still remain nuclear threats.
- Russia and China still remain threats to all forms of democracy.
The list seems to go on and on and on to the point it is all overwhelming. We end up doing nothing because there’s so much to do we’re not sure where to start. One of the choices I fear we’re already making is that now that there’s a new administration in town, we think we don’t need to be as vigilant about what is going on as we were with the previous occupants. What we must realize at this moment is that our part in the ongoing saga of this country and the multi-volume series on democracy doesn’t stop. Ever.
If we stop holding our elected officials accountable, every last one of them, things stop happening. If we stop responding dramatically to the shooting of every unarmed or unthreatening person of color, more murders are going to take place. If we stop challenging unfair voter registration laws, more people on the margins lose their voice. If we stop screaming at the top of our lungs about every last gender equality issue that arises, we allow our LGBTQ+ friends to remain isolated and ignored by both public and private systems. If we dare to stop demanding universal healthcare, millions more people are simply going to die before it was necessary because they couldn’t afford to see a doctor.
This week’s liturgical readings for Xians center around urgency. In Mark’s gospel, chapter 1, verses 14-20, Jesus calls zealot fishermen to follow him and they drop everything to do so. In 1 Corinthians 7: 29-31 Paul tells his readers, “…time is running out… for the world in its present form is passing away.” The most interesting, I think, comes from the Old Testament reading, which is equally represented in Jewish and Islamic readings. The book of Jonah, chapter three, after the whole big fish episode. Starting in verse three, it reads like this:
Now Nineveh was an enormously large city;
it took three days to go through it.
Jonah began his journey through the city,
and had gone but a single day’s walk announcing,
“Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed, “
when the people of Nineveh believed God;
they proclaimed a fast
and all of them, great and small, put on sackcloth.
When God saw by their actions how they turned from their evil way,
he repented of the evil that he had threatened to do to them;
he did not carry it out.
Jonah carried a dire warning: repent or you’re toast. God’s pissed. And to the surprise of everyone, including God apparently, they changed. No arguing, no fussing, no filibustering. Before Jonah could even make his way across the city, they completely reversed course because they realized the danger.
Now, we could get into a whole mess about how superstitious the Ninevites were about threats from deities in the first place and get bogged down and miss the meaning of the story. What’s important for us to see is how that some change, the change that most dramatically affects people’s lives, doesn’t need to be put off, doesn’t need to be argued over, and certainly doesn’t need to be delayed. The time to act is now.
I get it. After four years of non-stop resisting, we’re tired. We want a break. The past year has been especially taxing and it’s nice to not be doomscrolling every five minutes to see what fuckup has happened since we last looked. We want a break and we need a moment to catch our breath before moving on to the next big thing. That’s valid.
Meanwhile, survivors in a collapsed mine in the Shandong province of China have been trapped for ten days and are told they could be there for two weeks more.
Threats are growing as a twin bombing in Baghdad this week killed 32 and wounded over 100.
Five new variants of Covid-19 are sweeping across the African continent where access to vaccines is a pitiful fraction of that in western countries.
The Buddha is recorded as having allegedly said, “However many holy words you read, however many you speak, what good will they do you if you do not act on upon them?”
One of the easiest things for us to do as Americans is to talk about what needs to be done. We have become overly proficient, myself included, at sitting at a keyboard complaining about someone not doing this or that. For the past four years, we’ve been talking about all that was wrong and everything that needed to be done instead. Now is the time for us to actually do those things and in order for those things to happen, we have to show as much passion now in getting them done as we did when we opposed them not happening.
Amanda Gorman, the 22-year-old poet who unquestionably stole the hearts of everyone at the inauguration, spoke so eloquently and yet pointedly at precisely what needs to change. I won’t quote her whole poem here, there are plenty of places online where it already exists. But in the lines of that amazing work, she says,
We will not march back to what was
but move to what shall be
A country that is bruised but whole,
benevolent but bold,
fierce and free
We will not be turned around
or interrupted by intimidation
because we know our inaction and inertia
will be the inheritance of the next generation
Our blunders become their burdens
But one thing is certain:
If we merge mercy with might,
and might with right,
then love becomes our legacy
and change our children’s birthright
There is no need for me to wax on at length beyond this point. The call to charge forward is obvious, as plain as the snot-dripping noses on our collective face. As humans, the time to relax comes only when we all can relax; when we can live without worrying about pipe bombs in our nation’s capitol; when our neighbors no longer fear imminent deportation; when our brothers and sisters all have enough to eat and clean water to drink; and when every soul has a safe roof over their head.
Buddha, again, said, “I do not believe in a fate that falls on men however they act, but I do believe in a fate that falls on them unless they act.” This is not the time to hit the snooze button. Charge on with passion until we see the real change intended for all of humanity.
I leave you with these words revised from a Franciscan benediction:
May you be blessed with Discomfort …
at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships,
so that you may live deep within your heart.
May you be blessed with Anger …
at Injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people,
so that you may work for justice, freedom, and peace.
May you be blessed with Tears …
to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, and war,
so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them
and to turn their pain into joy.
And may you be blessed with enough Foolishness …
to believe that you can make a difference in this world,
so that you can do
what others claim cannot be done.
Go in peace.