Saturday, January 16, 2021

Ask Aunt Dorcas: Fearing What They Fear


Aunt Dorcas and Uncle Paul


Dear Aunt Dorcas--

What to do, how to respond, and what not to do when friends and even family embrace things like conspiracy theories. They adamantly defend something they believe with, “I read it online!” For example, they believe doctors have long had the cure for cancer but refuse to use it because it would rob them of our money. Technology and the era of Covid has exacerbated this problem a million-fold. Like, early on, the theory that Covid was only a coverup by government in order to stage a mass arrest. (I’m not hearing any acknowledgement now that they realize they were wrong.) They believe that ventilators and hospitals kill. When one of our own was hospitalized with COVID, one quavered, “You don’t think a nurse will slip him a pill that will kill him, do you?”  What to do when those who “watch for our souls” embrace this kind of mentality? Where does critical thinking come from and where, oh where, has it gone?

--Sharon

Dear Sharon—

Your questions are universal right now, I think. We are all appalled at family members, at fellow church people, at community members, and at humanity in general.

They horrify us because they’re flag-waving Trump supporters, or because they drank the Liberal Kool-Aid and supported the demonstrations in Portland. They make embarrassing scenes in grocery stores, refusing to wear a mask. Or they are so overly conscientious about Covid that they miss family reunions and funerals. Maybe they won’t give their kids any vaccines at all, or they insist on every vaccine available and won’t let Grandma visit because she didn’t get the flu shot.

And you think, “Oh. My. Word. Who are these people that I thought I knew?”

We are all a bit off the rails in someone else’s perspective. I believe in God and a literal Creation, for instance, which puts me in some people's "wacko" category. I remember how the Canadian news media made fun of Preston Manning, head of the Reform Party, for believing in the imminent return of Jesus.

Let’s look, though, not only at beliefs we consider a bit flaky but also at the alarmist theories and ideas that people embrace. There’s a terrible undercurrent of nefarious plans going on in high places, they say. People know this, but they are silenced, because we aren’t supposed to find out. In some way or other, the bad people are coming for us. We are powerless unless we band together and get the word out in spite of opposition.

You can’t argue with this, because every “fact” you bring forth from science, history, or the newspaper is shot down with, “Well! That’s what they want you to think, but you can’t trust them. They’re lying to us.”

So there you are, knowing good and well that the nurses at the local hospital, who took such good care of you when you had gallbladder surgery, would never slip someone a pill to kill them.

It’s tough being in your shoes. If you speak up and try to change their minds, you are likely to get eviscerated. The level of antagonism in current discourse is frightening.

So here is my perspective. As always, I could be wrong. But this has helped me tiptoe across the broken glass of my current world and take a longer view.

Conspiracy theories and “calamity howlers,” as my husband calls them, have been around for a long time. You might remember when Communism was going to come here, and with it, great persecution and the collapse of life as we knew it. It might come via a massive nuclear attack from the USSR, with a mushroom cloud in every big city. Or it might grow from within, like a mushroom on a damp bathroom floor. Preachers and books warned about this. The word “cells” came up often. I recall a preacher stating confidently that the Communists were working to develop an array of cell groups in Mexico. They were going to sneak across the border, little by little, and infiltrate the Hispanic population, which would then overthrow the US government.

We were all afraid. I know I wasn’t the only little girl who lay awake at night wondering how I was going to endure being tortured for Jesus.

In the mid 80s we heard that the New Age Movement was filtering into American society and particularly into the church. Care Bears, with the rainbows on their tummies, and Cabbage Patch Kids dolls, with their Indian-sounding names, were lures to entrap our children. Yoga was doing the same to adults. We watched films of bearded swamis in India teaching confused American young people. I remember wide-eyed discussions about this at sewing circle.

When the Rajneeshees took over a compound in Oregon, we all got really really nervous. As it turned out, we had reason to, because they were evil people who would stop at nothing to take over the town. But the idea of them spreading their religion all over the land? That was kind of ridiculous.

So these threats never materialized, maybe because God answered our prayers, or maybe because the threats were a lot bigger in our minds than in real life.

What we didn’t see was that there were actual conspiracies and creepy agendas going on right under our noses. Catholic priests were preying on children, the American government was involved in terrible, unethical intervention in other countries such as Nicaragua and Iran, pharmaceutical companies were plotting to addict us to painkillers, cigarette companies hid research on addiction, and city planners were deliberately keeping non-whites from buying houses in decent neighborhoods. 

Chances are, we are even now freaking out about the wrong things.

Not that we should be freaking out, obviously. Scripture tells us how to respond:

Isaiah 8:12-13

Do not call conspiracy everything this people calls a conspiracy; do not fear what they fear, and do not dread it. The Lord Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy, he is the one you are to fear, he is the one you are to dread.

You mentioned that technology and Covid have made the situation a million times worse.

I think conservative Anabaptists are at a distinct disadvantage in today’s world. We were in many ways contained in our safe little bubbles for generations. “We keep sin and worldiness out of the church,” as a local woman said confidently to a friend of mine, conveniently ignoring the fact that her husband was an abusive miser. She meant, I’m sure, that everyone at church adhered to a visible system of rules. It seemed safe and secure.

I’m painting with a broad brush here, but in general we were well versed in the basic 3 R’s, but we didn’t learn logic or academic processes. “Why does my daughter need to learn geometry?” a frustrated mom asked me recently. I told her someday it will help her articulate why she believes what she does. If this and this are given, then this conclusion must also be true. If not, then not.

We were not taught moderation or discernment, only abstinence. Don’t watch TV. Don’t listen to the radio. Don’t mix with the world. Don’t go to movies. Don’t listen to non-religious or instrumental music. They are all bad.

For the most part, we didn’t learn to spot scams, to figure out who was trying to make money from their message or how they were persuading us, or to sift truth from lies in popular culture. We didn’t know how to define the underlying message of a program or advertisement or song and compare it to Scripture. We never learned to check the purported facts with actual verified sources. We didn’t learn who was trustworthy and who wasn’t. We were na├»ve and susceptible.

Meanwhile, as those who “watch for our souls,” as you put it, Sharon, were at the front door with pitchforks in hand keeping those pesky televisions and radios at bay, the back doors quietly opened to the wide world of the Internet, and all the church people filed out, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, into that magical universe.

We hadn’t learned discernment. We fell for a multitude of messages from hundreds of convincing, confident voices. The fallout shows itself in Trump banners on Amish buggies, your friend’s fear of a nurse slipping a patient a lethal pill, and capable adults afraid of getting a RFID chip inserted into their arms via a hypodermic needle.

Granted, plenty of non-Anabaptists fell for plenty of schemes and stories at the same time. I don’t know all the factors involved. But I am Anabaptist, and I’m especially concerned about the trends among my own culture and people.

We should have known Jesus’s teachings well enough to respond to the world and its events as he did, and we should have studied Hebrews and Paul’s epistles to learn good logical thinking.

1 Corinthians 15:12 But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.

One piece of advice I’d have is to engage in dialogue, if you can. Ask questions. “I’m curious why you feel this way?” “How did you reach this conclusion?” “What are you doing about it?” “How does it affect your life?” 

This serves several purposes. They might have a sensible reason for thinking or doing as they do. Your questions help to preserve the relationship, despite your differences. And making them articulate their reasons might help them see the holes in their reasoning.

Last summer, someone confronted me about wearing a mask at my son’s wedding. “Confronted” is not a strong enough word, but I’ll keep it. I was deluded and deceived and maybe even of the Devil. Oddly, they never asked me why I wore one. If they would have asked, maybe they would have understood that no matter what your normal practices are, if there is finally a wedding in the family, and your son and his sweet little bride ask you to wear a mask to talk to people, you happily do it. Goodness, I would have done and worn a lot more than that--whatever they wanted. Plus I had made a mask to match my dress and I was proud of it.

But this person never asked, so they didn’t change their minds or understand.

Which brings me to my next bit of advice, and that is to be kind. These are hard hard times. Kindness will get us through. Also, kindness will change my mind more than harsh condemning words that attempt to set me straight. 

Another bit of advice is to compare the adamant, hard-line people with those who say, “It depends.” I’ve found that the more someone knows on a subject, the more nuanced their answers are. Beware of the person with no experience on the subject who is absolutely sure of one specific view.

So find someone you trust who has formal training or experience in a specific field. Your niece who’s a nurse, your family doctor, your cousin in law enforcement, your neighbor who works for the newspaper.

For instance, the debates about logging and forest fires in Oregon tend to be really binary, polarized, and heated [heh heh]:

"Forest fires are caused by logging and climate change."

"Forest fires are caused by not logging enough, and there’s no such thing as climate change."

Our son Ben, who has studied forest combustion extensively at Oregon State, had a different perspective. “It depends,” he said, “on so many factors. The terrain, the height of the canopy, the wind, the species of trees, the weather, the amount of undergrowth.” He said that climate change affects forest fires a little bit, but that catastrophic fires are actually regular occurrences in Oregon’s history.  They occur when there’s a combination of factors—lack of rain, lightning, lots of dry undergrowth, and so on. 

He said a lot more besides. It was fascinating.

Then there were the debates about whether or not the fires in September were started by Antifa. After I posted a news article on the subject, someone from another state called me up to make sure I knew that that article was wrong. Antifa had started the fires. That was the fact, and it was important that I knew it. 

In contrast, our son Steven, fire engineer at a local station, said that yes, a number of fires were started by people. It wasn’t important to him to know who they were or what they stood for. He left that to law enforcement. “Fire danger always brings out the crazy arsonists,” he shrugged.

The debates about Covid were equally heated. Masks are of the Devil. Masks will save us. Covid was a government conspiracy. No it was not. And so on.

I found it interesting to get our son Matt’s perspective. He spent seven years working for the Federal government. “Anyone who thinks this was a government conspiracy highly overestimates what the Federal government is capable of,” he said. True, the CIA manages to work out some complicated schemes, but Matt has seen what an enormous tangle of bureaucracy is in DC and how hard it is to get different agencies to work together or anything of substance to get accomplished. 

In his current job, he works on ways to inventory and keep track of items on a future moon mission and advocates for using RFID chips, consulting with one of the world’s leading experts on the subject. He isn’t nuanced about this. There is no possible way those things could get inserted into you via a hypodermic needle, he says. And even if they would put one in your arm, you have to have a scanner within a few feet of the chip to pick up a signal. There’s no way they could track you from across the country.

I admit I trust him more than that lady on YouTube who found an RFID chip in her bra and was sure that that was how “they” were tracking us.

My sister is a nurse who has seen the worst of Covid’s devastation in Chicago. Somehow I expected her to have insistent opinions on all aspects of Covid and be eager for a vaccine.

Her answers were more nuanced. She thinks masks are a good idea, since we have so few options, but she’s seen Covid take so many weird twists that she’s not sure what the answers are. And she’s seen new medical treatments get rammed through and then turn out to be terrible, so she was hesitant about the vaccine. She ended up choosing to get the vaccine for the sake of her vulnerable patients.

Oddly, she was less sure of herself than many many people I know who have no medical credentials and no experience with dying patients.

Somehow, I find her cautious answers more trustworthy than a hundred Facebook people's emphatic and unflinching statements.

 In conclusion:

Teach your children to think.

Pray for discernment.

Study and apply Scripture.

Be kind.

Ask good questions.

Find experts you can trust and talk to, rather than online sources.

Be comfortable with nuance, mystery, and not knowing for sure. We might all be wrong about many things.

Wait for history to unfold. Chances are good we are not taking seriously what we ought to be afraid of, and we are freaking out about things that will wash out with the tide and never come to pass. 

Most likely, we are not aware of the actual alarming conspiracies simmering below the surface as we speak. 

That’s what I think. I wish you grace for these troubled times.

--Aunt Dorcas


41 comments:

  1. "We were not taught moderation or discernment, only abstinence."

    Oh my goodness, yes. And to so much detriment!

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  2. I find this blog post a real breath of fresh air. I've seen so much political and medical garbage propagated on FaceBook by Mennonites that I was actually tempted to leave the church at times. I decided to leave FB instead. :) I totally agree with your point about rational, logical, reasoning abilities being lacking so often in the church. Unless we start improving our school curriculums and producing teachers who can teach these skill, we will continue to go downhill.

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    1. Thanks, Lester. Intriguing points, especially about schools and teachers.

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  3. This post is such balm for me - you take the craziness of our times with such calmness and perspective. Thank you so much. It gives me hope!!! (And yes, I was one of those little girls who quivered in bed imagining how horrible the concentration camp was going to be)

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    1. Thanks, Margo. Not that I wish such worries on anyone, but it's weirdly comforting to know I wasn't the only little girl lying awake, imagining.

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  4. The "be kind" part of this is very important. I don't see the point in confronting someone who isn't following the COVID precautions that I follow. I don't want someone to walk up to me and give me a hassle about wearing a mask. So I'm not going to go out in public and confront everyone who's not properly masked up. I just go out much less frequently (mostly not at all) and when I do, I avoid the maskless. I do what I believe I need to do to keep myself healthy. Other people are going to do what they are going to do. Having a confrontation doesn't change anyone's mind or make anyone safer. If we could all just be kind, we might be able to get to the other side of the COVID challenge without tearing each other's throats out. The disease itself causes enough illness, heartache and death. Why add to it?

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    1. I like how you are deliberately choosing kindness.

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  5. Thank you so much for sharing your common sense and wisdom!!

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  6. The friendly outsider1/16/2021 2:34 PM

    I don’t know much about you at all, but I can discern from this article that you are a woman of depth and wisdom. Thank you for this post. You connect the dots on so many different levels! :)

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  7. Well written and sensible. Thank you!

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  8. I haven't commented before but I really enjoy your writing & this calm, sensible view is so, so refreshing! Thank you for taking the time to write this! Jo

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    1. I'm glad it spoke to you, Jo.

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    2. Would love to see a post sometime on teaching children to practice moderation & discernment...

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  9. Thank you Aunt Dorcas for these wise words. God bless!

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  10. Thank you! This was a breath of fresh air, and wonderfully clarifying to me as to why the "plain people" are so prone to spread misinformation.
    I ask myself when the conspiracies fly, "Does this in any way affect how I'm supposed to live today? Does it change the requirement to do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly with my God?"

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  11. Beth Passmore1/16/2021 8:08 PM

    Dorcas you are right on so many levels! Thank you for putting into words what I think so many of us are thinking.

    Beth Passmore

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  12. Thank you Dorcas for this. Your post is so encouraging to me. I agree we just need to be kind to one another. People unfortunately have become busybodies and confront total strangers. And here in Arizona people are allowed to carry guns so I would hate for someone to confront the wrong maskless person and end up being shot.

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    1. Wow. Let's hope it doesn't come to that.

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  13. Fear sells. A lot of advertisers seek to create a fear, and then offer to sell us peace. And our adversary wants us in fear because it takes our eyes off Jesus. I'm trying to remember these things when any fear comes along, trying to get me to sign up. And like you said, to be kind. It helps to have level-headed friends who calmly give another perspective, and as you said, those friends who actually know what they're talking about. Thank you for this article.

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    1. Thanks for reading, and I like your insights on fear. "Fear comes along, trying to get me to sign up." I'll have to remember that line.

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  14. Thank you, Aunt Dorcas, for coming through with some foundational wisdom on a sensitive issue. I love the way you leave us with a 1,2,3 list of directives we can use to help bridge the chasm between the two camps. The “conspiracy theory” I believe in - is that there is an ominous force that would love to pit brother against brother and sister against sister on these matters and is tragically wreaking havoc among many of God’s children. (Eph 6:12). Your answer gives a clear sound to all of us engaged in this tension. God bless you for your willingness to take on hard questions and I thank God for a way forward!

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    1. Thank you, Susan, and that is an excellent point that the primary conspiracy theory is the divisive force among us.

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  15. Aunt Dorcas Fan1/17/2021 6:26 PM

    Three cheers for Aunt Dorcas! And thst's too funny about the Care Bears. More recently I remember how Satan was using the Teletubbies to turn kids to sodomy. Or maybe they're behind all the gender stuff?
    I remember when we were going to lose all the deciduous trees to acid rain, and also when we weren't going to be able to go outside without protective clothing because of the hole in the ozone layer. Very interesting point you make about things slipping in the back door!

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    1. Thanks! I forgot about the Teletubbies!

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  16. Thank-you! Breath of fresh air. Good work.

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  17. An all encompassing good article. Education is so important. Getting your info from time tested research & nuanced reporting. Maybe a little less facebook & instead read a good history book.

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    1. I like that--less facebook and more history book.

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  18. It will take more than an education, discernment, and creeds to be overcomers in this day and age. Church politics took the place of the Holy Spirit.

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  19. Thank you! A voice of reason in a world gone mad.

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  20. Thanks, I have encountered so many theories lately ranging from the absurd(Bill Gates patent on Covid) to the misguided (Trump was put there by God, but Obama wasn't). Like you I believe that this problem is cultural do to our years of separating ourselves from the "world" so we will easily believe that the world is out to get us. The Amish are just entering the information age and have not learned to discern truth from fiction, or that anyone with an opinion can post their thoughts. Unfortunately as well, history is not prioritized so everything that is happening currently is "unprecedented" (currently my least favorite word). Those that study the past can take comfort in knowing that humanity has survived worse. Thank you for being the voice of reason.

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