Going along with the crowd

Dear friends, subscribers, and faithful readers,

I’ve got big news! Well, it’s big for me and maybe not so big for you. In any case, my blog has moved—or, as we in the business like to say it, it has migrated to a new platform.

After eight years on a WordPress platform—with a name that made so much sense in the heyday of blogging—I made the decision to move to another platform where I’ve noticed that a lot of the cool kids are hanging out. My mother often warned me against going along with the crowd, so (believe me) I am not making this decision lightly. But it’s the right move at the right time.

I’m making this move in anticipation of a book launch in just a few months. Which of course is also REALLY BIG NEWS, but more about that later.

The platform where the cool kids seem to be hanging out these days is known as Substack, and so I’ve moved both my archive of old blog posts (most of them), plus my precious subscribers list, here. You don’t have to do anything, and nothing will change on your end. You will still be notified when a new post appears. And your email address won’t be sold or used for any other purpose.

So, I invite you to take a look and maybe invite others to subscribe as well. My book is a memoir of my 40 years in ministry, and you’ll want to know about publication dates and such, because you may be in it. Please stay tuned.

It’s been a strange time for me and for everyone I know, but I’m looking forward to the new year with hope and anticipation. And I hope you will join me.



Rethinking Powerlessness

Here's my January column for my hometown newspaper, the Holland Sentinel...

What made the last year so difficult for me was that so much of it was out of my control.

As the coronavirus spread, nearly everything I had planned for the year was cancelled, and I found myself in an unusual position: I couldn’t do much about any of it. Decisions were made for me. No one asked, for example, if I wanted to stay home for months at a time; I was told to do it, and I don’t like being told what to do. I don’t know many people who do.

I had some control over my circumstances, but not much. For example, I could make the decision to be safe, by wearing a mask and not being with large groups of people. I could maintain a healthy distance from all but a very few family members, now referred to as “my bubble.” In other words, it was within my control to take all the reasonable precautions suggested by public health professionals. And I did.

And yet, I realized that I wasn’t in control of my life. I felt helpless, which is not something I have much experience with. The more helpless and out-of-control I felt, the more depressed I became. Not for long, though, because I am also one of those people who thinks I should be in control of my feelings. Still, I had to work hard to manage my feelings, and I had to work hard to remain hopeful, to believe that the virus would soon be under control.

There’s that word again: control.

Someone once explained to me that I have what psychologists call an “internal locus of control” (an idea first developed in 1954, I learned later, by the psychologist Julian B. Rotter). If things go my way, I tend to believe it’s because I made those things happen. My good decisions are the reason my life has turned out as it has. Similarly, my health is the result of choices I make daily about diet and exercise. (I sometimes forget that my parents and educational level and socio-economic status are also important contributing factors.) In other words, I ordinarily live as though I am in control of my life.

People with an “external locus of control,” on the other hand, are more likely to feel helpless and powerless. Things don’t go their way, they say, because of external factors, such as where they were born and how they were raised and perhaps the color of their skin, and so they are more likely to blame others for where they are in life. An “external locus of control” is also, not surprisingly, correlated with a higher degree of anxiety, depression, poor health, and despair.

Today I can understand why some people who live with an “external locus of control” have good reasons for feeling the way they do. For maybe the first time in my life I have been forced to live with a loss of control—along with the loss of freedom, the loss of meaningful connections (unless Zoom counts as meaningful connection), and the loss of so much that for me contributes to a meaningful life. The pandemic has been so full of loss!

And the result? The truth is, I am not as resilient as I thought I was. I am far more vulnerable than I expected to be. Resiliency, in psychological terms, is how we respond to changes in our circumstances, especially trauma and adversity, and like a lot of people I know I have had to work harder than ever to keep going. I thought I was a resilient person, and mostly I am, but I discovered my limits over the last year.

I have learned something else. For much of my life I could be judgmental about people who didn’t take responsibility for their lives and their health. I could be smug about the good choices I made, especially when I compared them to the poor choices others made. I could never understand why so many people gave up at the first sign of difficulty. I know better, but I often assume that people who are successful get where they are through grit and determination. (Not to minimize grit and determination, but the story is far more complicated than that.)

So, humbled by the pandemic, here’s my New Year’s resolution, and I invite you to join me: To have more empathy in the coming year with people who say they feel powerless and vulnerable. Last year I caught the tiniest glimpse of what that feels like, and it wasn’t good.

Photo: In the "before times," when international travel was possible, I saw this mask in a market in the Moroccan coastal city of Essaouira (February, 2018).

My annual Christmas letter

Here's my December column for my hometown newspaper, the @HollandSentinel...

Dear family and friends,

I’ve been writing Christmas letters every year for nearly 40 years, as some of you know, because you’ve been on the receiving end of them. Some of you look forward to reading these letters, and I know that, because you’ve told me, using just those words.

It’s always possible of course that you were lying when you said so, but I choose to believe that my letters have brought a little cheer over the years, plus a bit of connection. I’ve moved a lot, so the letters have been one way for me to stay in touch. And with all the moves, my mailing list has gotten pretty long, with friends in at least six states and a few European countries.

I’ve done my best not to write letters full of bragging about my children or the fabulous vacations we’ve taken. My children are wonderful, and it’s enough that I know that. As for our vacations, it’s possible that you have a different definition of fabulous, so I’ve tried not to bore you with what we’ve seen and done which, I’m happy to say, is a lot.

My wife says that my letters were funnier years ago and that they’ve lost some of the old appeal, but she stopped laughing at my jokes years ago, about the same time she stopped telling me how strong I was whenever I loosened the lid on a glass jar. In a relationship that has lasted as long as ours, these things will happen. I try not to let them bother me.

A couple of times in the last few years, I’ve given some thought to ending the practice, but each year when December rolls around I think of you and how we came to know each other and how much you meant to me (and still do!) that I just want to say hi and please don’t forget me. I count on memories more and more these days, and my memory of us means more than I can say.

If we’re already friends on Facebook, then you know as much about my life as anyone needs to know. These letters aren’t useful in the old way anymore. Before the era of social media, I would have to catch you up on important details, such as the death of our dog, maybe, or how I did in the Chicago Marathon that year. But these days I post most of that information within minutes. And then Facebook and the other big tech companies sell my information, and in the following days and weeks I am bombarded with digital ads about dog ownership and running shoes. When I used to let you in on my important news, you never tried to sell me anything, which is one reason I still want to be your friend.

This year was not one of those years I thought about ending this annual exercise. I have more to say this year than most years—and not because I went anywhere or did anything. Just the opposite. I did little that I could brag about, unless taking in my younger daughter, her husband, their two-year-old son and dog for nine weeks during quarantine is something to brag about, and I’m inclined to think it is. The five of us, plus the dog, got to know each other pretty well and made life a great deal easier during what was for most people an extraordinarily difficult time. I’m glad we did it. It will go down as one of our most important family memories—something we’ll always mention, with some wonder that we were able to do it—and yet we don’t have a single photo to memorialize it. It happened, and we can visualize it any time we want.

I usually end my letters with something spiritual because I was brought up to think in spiritual terms. I have to say that I’m sick of streaming church, though the pastors I know should be congratulated for their hard work under terrible circumstances. I’m also not very happy with my fellow Christians right now because of their political allegiances, but that’s all I’m going to say about that. It’s possible you’re not very happy with me about my own political allegiances. That’s fair, though I still don’t agree with you.

What I want to say more than anything, in spiritual terms, is how much I needed the season of Advent this year. I don’t think I’ve ever wanted God to do something in the world more than I’ve wanted it this year. There’s more longing in my heart right now than in the heart of any five-year-old. O come, O come, Emmanuel.

Love, Doug

Nothing will change

Here's my November column for my hometown newspaper, the award-winning @HollandSentinel...

I hate to write this, but nothing is going to change.

A week ago, I checked in with the editor of the Holland Sentinel, Sarah Leach, and asked about my deadline. I wanted to be able to turn in my column after the election, not before, but even then I knew that the outcome of the election didn’t matter.

Well, it matters a little. We’re apparently going to get a new president on January 20. But in the bigger picture our country hasn’t changed much in the last week. Citizens managed to get worked up enough to vote in larger than usual numbers, and that’s good. But the underlying causes of our anger and discontent as a nation are the same today as they were before the polls closed on Tuesday.

We’ve got work to do, and I’m not optimistic. Hopeful, maybe, but – as I’ve written previously in these pages – not at all optimistic. Having hope, after all, is a matter of courage. Being optimistic is always looking for the silver lining.

“Elections have consequences,” Barack Obama famously said in 2010. (Those words, which sounded too much like gloating, came back to haunt him when his party lost decisively in the mid-terms.) But the consequences Obama had in mind, and the consequences we have right now, might not be as big as we imagine them to be.

My men’s book discussion group recently read and discussed The Accidental President by A.J. Baime, an account of Harry Truman first four months in office, and I reported to them this week that I had tears in my eyes more than once as I read that book. When Truman addressed a joint session of Congress, for example, three days after the death of Franklin Roosevelt, he received a thunderous ovation. And then, after being introduced by the speaker of the House, he received another, even longer, thunderous ovation.

At that moment the country seemed to be pulling together, with Republicans and Democrats standing and cheering – for themselves and for the country, as much as for Truman. In the middle of a war, with an almost unimaginable loss of life, on two terrible fronts, and with the death of a popular three-term president, the country had somehow found a way to stand united behind a former men’s clothing store owner from Independence, Missouri.

The unity did not last long. It lasted longer than I expected, to be honest, but Truman nearly lost the next election to Thomas Dewey. Truman’s soaring approval ratings gave way, rather quickly, to partisanship and bickering. He left office as a relatively unpopular president, though in recent years he has enjoyed something of a comeback and an appreciation for his service to our country.

I want a coming together this week as much as anyone. I would be thrilled with the four (or so) months of national unity that Truman enjoyed. But I’m not optimistic.

Historians will argue about how the country came to be this way, but the divisions among us did not begin when Donald Trump was elected president. His presidency was a symptom (and a beneficiary), not a cause, of our division. With no foreign enemy to fight – with Germany and Japan as our allies, astonishingly enough – we have managed to find an enemy on our own soil. I’m thinking, of course, of the other side, either the fascist Republicans or the socialist Democrats, depending on your point of view: They must be stopped at any cost! They will destroy our country and life as we know it!

Our way out of this mess rests in the way we look at the world. I was raised by Dutch Calvinists in West Michigan who were clear-eyed about the human predicament. No one I knew ever said, “The question is not why God allows evil to exist in the world, but why human beings do.” That would have been faith based in optimism, the belief that together we can find the solution to any problem. The people who raised me had no such illusions about human beings. They knew we were rotten to the core – utterly incapable of helping ourselves.

The solution was never to condemn the world, though sometimes we couldn’t help ourselves, but instead to acknowledge that we cannot save the world (or even ourselves), to trust God’s mysterious providence, and to face our fallen world with humility and integrity.

We need a few more people in our community – let’s not look to our politicians to point the way – who believe this and live as though it’s true.

Photo: While trying to avoid looking at yard signs in my neighborhood this week, I came upon this ... thing, which is clever and novel and more fun than the political displays which I found disheartening, even though political scientists say they're good for democracy.

Lordy, Lordy, look who's voting!

Here's my October column for my hometown newspaper, the award-winning @HollandSentinel...

The one and only time there was a sign in my front yard, it wasn’t my idea.

My wife decided to celebrate my 40th birthday by hiring someone to put 40 pink flamingos in front of the house. And then, a sign close to the street announced: “Lordy, Lordy, look who’s 40!” By the next morning, happily, both the flamingos and the sign were gone.

I’ve never put out a yard sign for an upcoming election, and not because I don’t have strong political convictions. I do, just ask me. But putting a sign on the front lawn and announcing my political preferences to the world has always seemed to me like picking a fight, like taunting my neighbors, a bit more aggressive than I need to be. Mostly, with only one or two exceptions over the years, I try to get along with the people who live on my street.

I grew up in a household where voting was considered a private, almost sacred duty. My parents never told their children how they were going to vote, though I’m almost certain they voted Republican every time they went to the polls. (I have reasons to believe that my mother voted for Johnson over Goldwater in 1964, but she still won’t tell me because, as she says, quaintly, “voting is a personal, private matter.”)

Few people think about their votes like that anymore. These days I can’t avoid knowing how everyone in my neighborhood intends to vote. Yard signs are coming up everywhere like dandelions. One of my favorites, on a street I drive almost daily, is homemade, apparently after the theft of the official kind: “Some socialist stole our signs—Trump 2020.” (Just to be clear: Socialists don’t steal; they want everything handed to them.)

My guess has always been that yard signs don’t do much to influence an election. I’ve never seen a sign and then thought, “You know, I should go home and re-read that candidate’s platform.” But the truth is, signs do make a difference. According to a 2012 study by researchers at Columbia University, signs typically “have an effect that is probably greater than zero but unlikely to be large enough to alter the outcome of a contest that would otherwise be decided by more than a few percentage points.”

I know it’s naïve these days to trust experts, but I was trained to trust a peer-reviewed research paper over, say, my cousin Dave’s strongly held opinion. With that in mind, I found another, more recent study about yard signs, and that study was also more positive than I expected. Researchers at the University of Colorado-Boulder found that yard signs might actually be good for democracy. They show solidarity with neighbors who agree and spark dialog when there is disagreement. (Seriously, does that ever happen?)

The project took more than ten years to complete, involved researchers from three universities, and included 30,000 households across four elections and three research sites—two in Ohio, one in Broomfield, Colorado. Sounds like slipshod research to me—I mean, I don’t know a single person who was interviewed, do you?—but I kept reading. Anand Sokhey, a political scientist, concluded: “There is something very powerful about putting a sign in your yard and saying this is who I am and this is what I believe.”

I was surprised to learn that men, white people, high-income individuals, families without kids, and churchgoers are most likely to put up yard signs, as are—not surprisingly—extroverts, ideologues and partisans. I fit more than one of those categories, but have never had the urge to put a sign out front.

One final bit of research data: Those who stumble upon yard signs report intense emotional reactions, with one in five saying they make them anxious, one-third saying they make them proud, and one-fourth saying they make them angry.

The response that most signs provoke in me is to wonder if they accomplish what we all, presumably, are hoping for—namely, a better country where all people are given the opportunity to flourish in safety and security.

I will continue to believe what I learned in childhood. Voting is a personal and private matter. I don’t need to put signs on my lawn. People who know me don’t have to guess about my allegiances. I’m going to follow President Trump’s strong leadership and reject scientific consensus: I think yard signs are a bad idea.

Douglas Brouwer lives in Park Township. Contact him, if you must, at douglas.brouwer@gmail.com.

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