Hello 2020: What Do You Have In Store For Us?

The turn of a year is always a good time for reflection. Here is my shot:

First, I would like to say thanks to 2019 for what on a personal level was a very good year for me and Embry. Embry and I did a lot of travel, which if you have been following the blog, you know all about. We continue to be in good health for people our age and are still squeezing drops out of the lemon. Theoretically retired from the Urban Institute–Embry still goes in to work occasionally– she has reinvented herself as an international consultant, specializing in evaluating US AID programs in developing nations. Mali was her first engagement in this new line of work, and she spent a week there in 2019 training villagers on how to do focus groups. No telling what will be next.

My volunteer work in 2019 on several nonprofit housing boards was especially rewarding, and I feel valued and appreciated.  Our two children and four grandchildren are doing fine. I value and cherish my relationships with close friends. We are enjoying apartment living in DC and are secure financially. I am still racing our sailboat, Second Wind, along with a great crew, and we even won a trophy in one of the series. And Embry and I were also able to get in some long cruises on the Chesapeake Bay with friends. At my Davidson 55th reunion in the spring I received a “Distinguished Alumni Award,” for which I am especially grateful and—I will admit it—proud.  Life was good for us in 2019.  I feel blessed.

I also understand that for others this was not the case. My best friend lost his wife, and we lost several other friends as well. Funerals are a lot more frequent nowadays than weddings. At our age this is what you expect. Other friends are struggling with health issues, some with memory issues. Anyone my age (soon to be 78) understands that we are running our last lap. That is the way life is on the planet Earth for us homo sapiens, in fact for all life.

But while I can say that for me 2019 life was a good year, when I look at the bigger picture, well, I am not so sure.

Actually, the year was not all bad. In an op ed essay in the Sunday, December 29, New York Times, Nicholas Kristof points out that 2019 was the best year ever in terms of reduced, world-wide poverty, improved health, reduced infant mortality, empowerment for women, and better educational opportunities. We are making progress on many fronts. The U.S. economy has been strong, and we have averted any major, new wars or huge catastrophes. (For now anyway. Note the developments with Iran and North Korea.) Good news too rarely finds its way into newspapers or newscasts.

But still….

The year 2019 saw continued gun violence, the opioid crisis, an increase in hate crimes, increasing income disparities, attacks on Obamacare and the social safety net, widening divisions in our country, and more fires, devastating storms, and flooding due to climate change. And, of course, there was Trump.

For anyone paying attention, it is hard to miss the storm clouds gathering on the horizon. The major question that will be answered in 2020 will be, do we get another four years of Trump. If he is reelected, this would assure at least one more right wing, Supreme Court justice and probably the end of Roe v. Wade, continued denial of climate change, widening social divisions in the U.S. population, a diminished role for the U.S. in world leadership, less trust in government, more hostility to immigrants, cutbacks to help for the poor, an increase in hate crimes and vigilante groups, increased attacks on the free press, and God only knows what else. I am not sure that our institutions could survive another four years of Trump. I am not sure the country as we know it could.

Now as much as I detest Trump for the kind of person he is, for what he stands for, and for what he is doing, I also have to admit that he is as much a symptom as a cause. The major culprit, I believe, is globalism. The world is changing very fast due to the ease of travel, technology, and world trade. Much of this is good. It is a major factor in improving the standard of living for people all over the world as documented in the Kristof essay. But it has created major upheavals and produced winners and losers. In the U.S. the losers include many in the white working class, mainly men, who have seen their jobs shipped overseas, their incomes reduced, and lifestyles and values threatened. They see more people of color or who speak English with an accent taking jobs they believe rightfully belong to themselves, not to immigrants. They are fighting back. They see Trump as “their guy,” who will stand up against the “coastal elites” and others on whose watch globalism accelerated. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” is their mantra. They constitute a large share of Trump’s intractable “base,” and have gone all in. Many are also Evangelicals, who I believe have crossed over to what I call “the Dark Side” for many of the same reasons.

All the blame, however, should not be placed on the uprooted, white working class. You can understand where they are coming from and the reasons for their discontent. They have been aided and abetted by a Republican Party that I believe has sold out to Trump in order to hold on to power regardless of the cost to what used to be Republican values of small government, personal responsibility, balanced budgets, human rights,  and ethical behavior. A lot of Trump’s support also comes from “one percenters,” who believe that Trump is their best bet for lower taxes, deregulation, and laissez faire economics. The tools that they are using are gerrymandering, voter restrictions, and targeted social media, all threats to our democracy.

The alienation caused by globalism is not just a U.S. problem. It is a worldwide phenomenon and is responsible in part for Brexit and for the authoritarian governments in former, fairly robust democracies like Turkey, Hungary, Poland, Egypt, and Brazil, and for the neo Nazi parties and hate groups forming throughout Europe. The big questions are how far this nativist populism will go and is our democracy inching toward authoritarianism. I believe that what happens in the presidential election in 2020 will determine the direction we are headed. The stakes have never been higher.

So 2020 could  be a pivotal year. Hanging over all of us humans on the planet, of course, is the threat of unmitigated disaster caused by global warming. The clock is ticking on this one. If we–all the counties on the planet–do not take major action now on reducing the amount of carbon we generate, much greater action than anything contemplated so far, scientists tell us we are doomed. We do not have another four years to waste before we can move decisively on combatting global warming. With Trump in charge, that will be the case.

What will 2020 have in store for us? It could be, as the saying goes, a game changer. Tighten your seat belts and get to work—for Democrats!








The Meaning of Christmas

On Christmas Eve of 2019 the Howell clan assembled at our daughter’s home in Portland ME: our two children with spouses, our four grandchildren ages 10 to 14,  our niece and nephew with spouses, and our two teenage grandnieces. Quite a houseful!  Embry and I are truly blessed.

 A week before our daughter, Jessica, asked if I would lead a small, family religious service on Christmas Eve. I readily and enthusiastically agreed, realizing that I would be addressing a gathering of the “unchurched”–two Buddhists, two self identified atheists, and the balance, for the  most part, “nones.”  Sort of typical for our time and era. 

The service consisted of a short introduction, a reading of Luke’s gospel of the Christmas story by the grandchildren and grandnieces, a “sermon,” by me,  a Christmas prayer, Christmas music lead by our nephew, a professional jazz guitarist, and to my pleasant surprise, an impromptu discussion regarding my Christmas message, which is shown below: “The Meaning of Christmas.”


Christmas is the day that Christians set aside to celebrate the birth of Jesus. This happened over 2000 years ago and is a major feast day for over 2 billion people on the planet Earth who are Christians, more people than in any other religion. We are honoring the occasion tonight in a small, family gathering where for a few moments we think about what is the meaning of Christmas, the religious meaning of Christmas.

It occurs to me that some here might ask the question, do you have to be a Christian or a member of a Christian church to understand, appreciate, or participate in the meaning of Christmas from a spiritual or religious perspective. 

My answer is no. Now you know that Embry and I do go to church regularly and in fact Embry is on the governing board of All Souls Episcopal Church in Washington. You may even recall that I went to Union Theological Seminary in NYC and studied to become an Episcopal priest. So you can say that we probably have paid our dues. That maybe we are in a better position to understand the meaning of Christmas more than someone who doesn’t attend church.

There may be some truth to this, but on a deeper level, I think that you do not have to go to church or even have to call yourself a believer to “get it” when it comes to what Christmas is all about and what the meaning of Christmas is. But you do have to pay attention.

My understanding of God and the spiritual aspect of human life expands beyond any one church or any one religion. I believe there is a spiritual and holy dimension to the life all us humans live and experience. This is evident when we ask the question why we are here on this small, obscure planet. When we ask what the meaning and purpose of life is, why are things the way they are, and why aren’t they better. Why does evil exist? Why do we have to die? And what happens after we die? I venture to say that these questions are asked at one time or another by virtually every person. It is our nature. It is the way our brains work. It is what makes us human.

In my thinking and experience, “God” is the word we use to refer to a spiritual force and reality that is by definition beyond  human understanding and our ability to describe in language. But I believe it is real.

“Religion” is the word we use to describe our effort as humans to connect to this reality.  There is  a  lot about life that we can’t  understand. We live on one small, blue planet which circles around a run-of–the-mill star we call our sun. This star is one of more than 250 billion stars that are in our Milky Way galaxy. This small galaxy is part of more than two trillion galaxies in what we call the universe. But this universe may be only one in what some scientists speculate is actually  a multiverse where there are an infinite number of universes.  Is there anyone who can say that they figure this out, that they know what it all means?

We do know some things. Scientists tell us we now know that the universe all started with the Big Bang 14 billion years ago and is expanding. But they don’t tell us why.  We don’t know the answer to why or what or what it all means. We never will.

But what does this have to do with Christmas?  While science can tell us a lot about what, it cannot answer the question why nor does it try to. This is where religion comes in. Having faith and belief that it all makes sense somehow is what religion is all about. Now there are many different religions on the planet earth and about a half dozen or so “major religions,” Christianity being the largest of all, just a tad larger than Islam. However, I am not one to say that Christianity has all the answers or that it is the only way to make sense out of the world as to the meaning of life or, even more important, about our ability to experience on a deeper level what this meaning is, to experience the Divine. I look at the search for meaning as one destination with many pathways. Christianity is one pathway.

And what is that pathway? For me Christmas day is all about a small child being born in humble conditions. A small, innocent child—every child, I believe–represents hope for the future. It is a miracle when you think about it—that life continues and goes on. A new human being has entered the world! The birth of any child I think has a profound religious meaning.

And in the case of Christianity, this child became special because of the life he lived, which many people—those who call themselves Christian—believe provides a roadmap for us humans to follow, and a glimpse of the Divine . This roadmap can be boiled down to one phrase: love your neighbor. That love is the connection between humans and the divine, between humans and God. That is good enough for me, and I think,  good news about life on our fragile planet, Earth.

 What we do about it and how we live our own lives, of course, is another matter. We know we often fail. But this person we call Jesus also said that God loves us and that there is meaning and purpose in life even if we do not and cannot live up to a life of loving our neighbor. That there is hope.  That we are forgiven.

So the story of the birth of Jesus tells us that you do not have to count all the stars in the universe to find meaning and purpose and know that while it is all beyond our understanding, in the end our life on this planet does make sense. In the end it is good.

This is why Christians rejoice at Christmas. But I say it is not just for people who call themselves Christians or believers. It is a message for all humankind, and for that we all can rejoice.