Nonintervention produces a "nonevent."
Every time I'm faced with a decision...
My college friend Dave Friedman, now Professor David A. Friedman, wrote the title sentence in a law journal article entitled Micropaternalism. I will not even attempt to summarize Professor Friedman’s argument in the article for fear of messing it up, but if you want to read it, it’s very interesting and you’ve got the link. [A warning about the article though. You are likely to get the Peter Gabriel song “Sledgehammer” stuck in your head for the foreseeable, if not indefinite, future if you read it. I won’t even give you a hint as to why.] I read it because it is one of my friend’s articles that touches on public health, my field, and I figured it would be interesting. What I did not count on is that I would start laughing, repeatedly, at the line above. In context, it makes perfect sense. But out of context, it’s like, uh, yeah?
It reminds me of a wonderful scene with another of our college friends, Joe, now Joseph, and I’m now wondering if Dave now David was there for this one (what’s up with y’all using the long versions of your names as grown ups? I don’t even have a long version to use. It’s not fair!) Flyers had appeared all over Yale advertising a protest put on by a newly formed group called “Yale Students for Change.” Change to what, you might ask? I have no idea, and I doubt they did either. Joe started this wonderful monologue that went, and I paraphrase but I probably get it close to right, “I want to start Yale Students for the Status Quo. We want you to stay in your rooms and do exactly what you would do anyway.”
The other morning while I was attempting to sit zazen (that’s Zen meditation) the thought suddenly occurred to me that I don’t think I’ve ever been invited to a “non-event,” and I’m wondering what I would wear. Probably what I would wear anyway, were I not at something that one would call an event. In my case, yoga clothes.
But enough Yale inside baseball (is there ever really enough?) and on to our point.
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If you don’t do anything, nothing will happen.
Most of the time, this is a good thing. I used to spend a lot of time doing things, then putting out fires because they were the wrong thing. Typical behavior of anxious people. I’ve always said that while depression may make you unable to do anything, anxiety makes you able to do a lot of things. They’re just the wrong things.
I learned the hard way that inaction is usually the way to go. I further refined this lesson when I watched Game of Thrones videos for probably the equivalent of a year on YouTube while I was trapped in Reading, PA with no friends and no HBO. I memorized tons of quotes from Lord Petyr Baelish, the love of my life (too bad he’s a fictional character, but hey, he’s not married!) who everyone knows is the one actually controlling the game. One of his best quotes goes like this:
“Every time I'm faced with a decision I close my eyes and see the same picture. Whenever I consider an action I ask myself, 'will this help make this picture a reality? Pull it out of my mind and into the world?' And I only act if the answer is ‘yes'.”
See what he’s saying there?
The default is not action. The default is inaction. He only acts if in his considered opinion the action would bring his vision closer to reality.
(“A picture of me on the Iron Throne and you by my side” but that’s beside the point so I left it out of the quote.)
When I was teaching middle school just off of Kensington Avenue in 2021 - 2022 I had my eight graders consider this quote and write up a short paper on what their vision for their future was. What did they want? What kind of job, family, where did they want to live, who did they want to be? Then I had them list three things that would bring them closer to that vision. Then I had them list three things that would pull them farther away, or put the vision out of reach all together.
It was a wonderful exercise. They thought through not just things like studying at school but also avoiding drugs and gangs. For anyone who doesn’t know, Kensington Avenue is the drug center of Philadelphia, home to an open air drug market, and these kids live in deep poverty. Staying out of jail and keeping from getting shot would be a heavy lift for many of them. I wanted them to clearly see their vision, and see what would get them there and what actions might prevent them from ever seeing their vision come true.
The default might be inaction, in fact it should be. But what about when inaction is the wrong course of action?
What about in the face of a grave injustice, or an intolerable situation? What about if a cat wants to play and you have a laser pointer? What then?
Henry David Thoreau is often quoted saying that “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.” I see a lot of people living lives of loud inertia. Every day life can be so loud that if you don’t take up a practice like meditation and turn off your phone, you can’t listen to your inner voice, or God, or whatever you would call the thing that gives you the best, truest guidance.
I think that one’s inner voice often speaks very clearly, but it can be drowned out by what we think others want, what we think society expects, or worse, just plain fear.
There is a great quote from the Harriet Tubman movie that I think of a lot. “Fear is your enemy.”
Today is the 21 year anniversary of the day when 1200 registered nurses at Fletcher Allen Healthcare in Burlington, Vermont, voted to organize a union. I led the campaign at age 27. It was the biggest campaign ever won in Vermont and the biggest campaign won in the country in 2002. 1200 nurses overcame fear to create quite the opposite of a nonevent.
Perhaps we should all join them in overcoming fear.
It would be quite the non-nonevent.
To win a union campaign, workers have to go public about their support. It is terrifying. Their jobs, relationships with their supervisors and coworkers, everything is on the line. This is only the front of the We’re Voting YES poster from Fletcher Allen. Happy anniversary union sisters and brothers. Solidarity forever.