Have Mercy

business-money-pink-coins.jpgWhen I was a rather young child I stole about fifty cents from a friend. I almost immediately regretted what I had done, but didn’t know how to rectify my infraction. Eventually I saved my money and collected enough to discretely leave a dollar for her as compensation for the original transgression. I felt so horrible about what I had done that I became obsessed with the idea of setting things right. I went to confession, admitted my sin, and continued to leave more and more money to assuage my feelings of guilt. Somehow nothing that I did would ease my conscience, but I was never quite willing to do the one thing that might have helped me to put the matter in the past. I could not bring myself to admit to my friend what I had done. Instead I neurotically carried my dark feelings all the way into my teenage years when I once again spoke to a priest about my shame in a confessional. His advice would change my thinking about being judgmental of either myself or others.

The good man reminded me that Jesus had a forgiving nature as dramatically exemplified on the very day that He died on the cross when He pardoned the thief. The priest then suggested that my unwillingness to be merciful to myself demonstrated a kind of lack of faith in the generosity that God felt toward me. He insisted that I let go of the feelings that were causing me to think less of myself than the Lord did. He absolved me one more time and said that my penance was to practice compassion starting with myself. I felt as though a great and needless weight had been lifted from my very soul, and I never again berated myself up for simply being human.

I know that there are penitents who literally beat themselves with little whips and work themselves into frenzies of grief over their actions. I have come to believe that there is no purpose in such self loathing, which makes me particularly dismayed by current attempts to pour feelings of guilt on certain people or groups for things that they often did not even do. For example there are those who classify anyone with even a modicum of wealth as being selfish or accuse someone with white skin of having unearned privileges. In today’s society glib self righteousness is a weapon designed to condemn people based on stereotypes rather than realities in the hopes that they will feel the need to atone for the supposed sins of their fathers or people that they have never known. These self styled arbiters insist that certain people be chastised for belonging to a particular stratum. The tactic is designed to divide rather than unite, and it is an ugly and unlikely way of accomplishing the true progress that we need. The healthier method of dealing with our societal problems is to follow the way of Christ, which is to accept and love people as they are rather than forming judgmental stereotypes about them.

We live in a time of national neuroses in which rather than assuming the best about people we all too often harbor unfounded suspicions about them. Sadly getting along is not a good story and so the media often focuses on the negatives rather than admitting that few people are either all good or all bad. The always heroic figure is almost as mythical as the ever evil villain and yet we classify individuals one way or another depending on our personal beliefs and then proceed to lay blame like a suffocating blanket.

The truth is that not all immigrants are criminals nor are they all wonderful loving people. Not all Democrats are kind and giving nor are all Republicans selfish gun toters who don’t care about people. Not all young people are lazy, but they aren’t all perfect angels either. In other words nothing about reality is as simple as we so often wish to make it. Fox News isn’t particularly fair and balanced and neither is CNN if truth be told. Christians are imperfect and so are people of other faiths or no faith at all. It is in our natures as humans to have tragic flaws, but those imperfections don’t and shouldn’t define the totality of our lives.

We do our best, but in the long haul we are certain to make mistakes.  It is in how we ultimately address both our successes and our failures that we shape and define our individual character. I am not my mother or my father or anyone who came before me, but I have learned from the lessons of their lives. I am as unique as every other person on this planet. To view anybody based on group think is as ridiculous as insisting that all of us are capable of being exactly the same. The beauty of the world lies in our differences and the power of the talents that we use to better ourselves and others.

I have grown to spurn the use of guilt to control people’s feelings and actions. Atonement is a very personal and private thing. We all must learn how to forgive and forget just as I eventually did. On this very holy day when Jesus died on a cross His purpose was to sacrifice His own life to lift the stain of sin from ours. His last action on this earth was all about mercy. We would all do well to remember Him whether or not we believe that He was God, and follow His beautiful example by embracing and attempting to understand each person that we encounter without any preconceived notions. In the process many of our current problems just may be resolved.

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The Children Will Lead Us

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Back in the late nineteen sixties many members of my generation became actively involved in protests against the Vietnam War. We voiced our concerns by taking to the streets and marching to draw attention to the cause. On one occasion there was a rally that was described in an article in our local newspaper as a gathering of long haired hippies. My husband reacted by sending a letter to the editor in which he suggested that it might have been more fruitful to listen to the arguments of the protestors instead of focusing on superficialities like appearance. A few weeks later he received a response in the mail from a rather famous older man who had written a single question, “What’s wrong with a little conformity?” Obviously this individual had missed the point of my spouse’s argument which had been that perhaps it was time to consider what the young people of the country had to say.

Ultimately the Vietnam War came to a close and over time the evidence supported the view that the government had known from almost the outset that the conflict was unwinnable, and yet they had continued to draft young men and send many of them to their deaths. It was only after there was no way to hide the realities that the United States withdrew, leaving South Vietnam to deal with the North on their own. It was the first time that the United States was forced to admit defeat.

Today we have a new generation of young people marching for the cause of gun control, and once again many who are older are choosing to either ignore or make fun of their efforts. I see a number of posts on Facebook and Twitter that are derogatory and insult both the students’ behavior and their intelligence. They are accused of being spoiled and arrogant while also knowing little about the government and how it actually works. Instead of just listening to what they have to say, opponents of the protestors have reverted to name calling and mockery. Perhaps it would better serve us all if they would instead calmly sit down and hear what the kids have to say. After all, just as it was the youth who fought in the jungles of Vietnam with the strong possibility of dying, so too is it the children and teens who are being killed inside schools. They have a legitimate stake in the discussion and we older folk would do well to consider their ideas.

I remember a time when President Nixon felt frustrated by the anti-war protestors. He learned that many of them were having a sit in near the Lincoln Memorial, and so he decided to go talk with them. Sadly instead of attempting to learn what they were thinking he spent most of his time arguing with them. I always thought of how different things might have been if instead he had actively listened to them and then attempted to incorporate some of their beliefs with his. Perhaps he would have become a revered leader. Instead he only became more and more paranoid about those who disagreed with him and ended up breaking the law because of his insecurities.

I think that the students who marched across America this past weekend sincerely wish to make a positive difference even if some of their ideas are a bit over simplified. It would have been incredibly positive if all of our lawmakers had joined the ranks of the protestors not so much in agreement, but with an eye to letting our young know that all of us are proud of their activism and really do understand that they have concerns. This was a grand opportunity to hear rather than talk, and to find areas of agreement, for surely it is apparent that we must attempt to find answers that will make our schools safer than they presently are. At the same time I would suggest to the students that they be open to ideas as well. It is counterproductive to insult entire groups of people with foul language or to indict leaders who are attempting to find solutions that may be different.

Right after the shootings in Florida many of the leaders of the current movement appeared on the Dr. Phil Show. A wonderful discussion ensued, but Dr. Phil advised the students to take care in how they presented their arguments. He noted that people will tune out anyone who yells at them or insinuates that they are somehow bad people. He agreed that the kids have a very worthy cause and he expressed his deep admiration for their courage while coaching them in the best methods of persuasion. Some of them appear to have followed his advice while others have veered into a more argumentative posture which probably won’t be particularly successful in changing minds.

Many of our Founding Fathers who created the foundations of this country were very young at the time that independence was declared. Alexander Hamilton was only twenty one. James Madison was a mere eighteen. Sometimes it take the adventurous spirit of the young to show us all a better way to live. Preventing gun violence is a worthy goal, and we should be quite proud that some of our young are willing to take on such a complex topic. They are attempting to find answers to questions that are long past due. If we are to demonstrate our own maturity we should be willing to model the kind of respect that everyone with a stake in the debate deserves. I’d like to think that we are capable of helping them to forge an agreement that will have meaning for everyone. Let’s cheer for them rather than casting aspersions. What they are doing is noble indeed.

A New Family

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My father died in the nineteen fifties, a time when it seemed as though everyone had both a mother and a father. My mother assumed the role of both parents and did a rather remarkable job, but back then she was somewhat of an anomaly. Families were fairly clearly defined by tradition and ours was strange in some people’s minds. Nonetheless my brothers and I turned out quite well in spite of the naysayers who worried that our upbringing just wasn’t natural.

I would be an adult before I learned that my grandfather’s childhood was even more exotic than mine. His mom died from childbirth complications and his father felt unprepared to care for a baby, so Grandpa was taken to his grandmother’s home where he would spend his boyhood years being cared for by a single woman in her eighties. When he was thirteen his grandma died and an uncle became his guardian. In spite of what appeared to be a rather chaotic childhood with unconventional parenting, Grandpa grew to be a fine man with exemplary character traits that he learned from the two people who loved and cared for him. He would always remember them with both a sense of gratitude and a feeling that he would have done no better had he enjoyed a more typical upbringing. The fact is that good families are created from love, not some predesigned template, and there is no one right way to form a strong unit.

I sometimes worry a bit about the growing trend among young adults to shy away from commitment to another person, even when a child is part of the picture. All too often there is a reluctance to make lifelong promises of loyalty to another. That is why I find it refreshing that members of the gay and lesbian community are so eager to legalize their relationships with marriage and pledges of love. Sadly their efforts have often been thwarted and even condemned by the very people who are proponents of more stable partnerships between men and women. Somehow many in our society have failed to see gay marriage in the light of genuine love between caring people that is truly present when two souls take the step of solidifying their bond. It is in reality an example of trust and loyalty that is all too often lacking in today’s way of doing things.

I learned that my nephew Daniel was gay many years ago. I was initially sad for him, not because I thought his feelings were wrong, but because I understood the world of hurt and humiliation that he might have to endure. For a time he was quite circumspect in admitting who he really was, sometimes out of respect for people with different opinions about such things, and other times because he knew that he might be shunned for his way of life. It worried me particularly because he is quite possibly the sweetest individual that I have ever known, a sincerely generous and giving person. He has always been a bright light of kindness in our family and most likely to be voted everyone’s favorite person. Because I knew how cruel some people can be I often thought of all of the beautiful aspects of life that Daniel might never be able to experience in the light of day. I wanted as much happiness for him as all of the straight people in our family had, but wondered if the time for such possibilities would ever come.

Attitudes toward gay men and lesbian women have slowly improved from what they once were, but are hardly perfect. Still my nephew was more and more able to be completely honest with everyone as time passed. He was open about his life and enjoyed a modicum of joy that had once been denied, but he really wanted to be able to marry the person that he loved just as his sister and cousins had done. He envisioned a life with his partner Nathan that was duly sanctioned and that would be indicative of how much he cared. Thanks to the sacrifices of legions of gay and lesbian individuals the day finally came when marriage became a reality and he and Nathan began to speak of joining together for all time.

As a family we were overjoyed for both Daniel and Nathan. They seemed perfect for each other and for our crazy quilt of a family. We hoped and prayed that there would one day be an announcement of an impending union and this month we rejoiced when invitations to their special day arrived in the mail. We were giddy with excitement.

Last weekend Daniel and Nathan were married in one of the most beautiful and touching ceremonies that I have ever witnessed. Many of us who love my nephew and his new husband gathered together in his parents backyard under a beautiful blue Texas sky on a picture perfect spring day. Lovely baskets of flowers hung from the branches of a big tree that shaded the deck on which the two stood with smiles that showed their joy as they joined hands and spoke their vows. They were so handsome and so obviously relieved that this wonderful day had finally come. Tears formed in their eyes as they listened to the minister while everyone present choked up with emotion when we saw the depth of their love and felt its power. It seemed so very right for these two men to promise to honor and cherish one another for the rest of their lives. Seeing so much sincerity up close moved our hearts,

A new family was created on Saturday. It is a good and wholesome one where love reigns supreme. It is a union that all of us should celebrate because it is filled with the selflessness that is so important in making such things work. I know that years from now it will be even stronger because it is based on the best of reasons, and I am filled with happiness in knowing that maybe one day it won’t be thought to be unusual by anyone.

I now have a new nephew to love as much as I do the one whom I held in my arms long ago when he was a baby. Both Daniel and Nathan are truly wonderful people and knowing that they have an opportunity to enjoy the gift of true love just as they have always hoped is an exciting notion. I wish them all the best and pray that they will experience a lifetime of adventure and quiet comfort. I thank them for demonstrating so much courage and honor. I look forward to spending many more happy occasions with them. 

If Only We Had Tried Harder

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I’m a student of human nature. I watch people all of the time, even when I’m at the gym. My mother used to correct me for staring when I was a child. I suppose that I become so interested in observing that I sometimes forget how invasive my glances may appear to be. My interest in people watching worked well when I was a teacher because as anyone who has been in charge of a group of youngsters knows, it is potentially lethal to look away for even a second. Thus my skills in noting the goings on around me worked fairly well although there were always sly individuals who snuck past my notice.

I am particularly fascinated by criminal activities. Mysteries have always been my favorite kinds of books and true crime has the power of fully engaging my thoughts. The television programs and movies that I enjoy the most are those involving investigations of murders and such. I suppose that I might have been a good candidate for the FBI or even the CIA. I wouldn’t want to be the person working in the streets to prevent crime, but rather someone who does the detective work after the fact. Mostly I am the kind of person who wants to know what causes an individual to act beyond the confines of normal law abiding behavior. I wonder what circumstances lead to violence and murder, and more importantly whether there is a critical moment at which such tendencies might be noted and deactivated.

I believe that we only know a fraction of what goes on in the human brain. Somehow illnesses and dysfunctions breed there just as they do in other parts of the body. We have yet to unlock all of the secrets of the mind or the impact of environmental factors on human behavior. We are certainly more advanced that in the past, but there is still so much to learn, and in those discoveries may lie the keys to helping the wretched souls who become monsters in our midst.

Unlike many who believe that we are born with the stain of sin and must be saved, I have always thought that we are the most innocent and pure as babies. It is in our future development that we become either good or bad people, and the complexity of how that process works is difficult to unravel. The chemistry and makeup of our brain, the ways in which we are raised, the events that befall us, the people with whom we come in contact and every little interaction with the world around us slowly molds our character and influences the ways in which we make choices and how we react to their consequences. Two people from the very same family will quite often be very different in spite of experiencing almost identical circumstances. So how are we to learn how to effectively build character, and how do we judge what the best practices for doing so should be?

I am quite troubled by the mixed messages that we send our young. On the one hand we want to eliminate the means of committing acts of violence by enacting laws restricting the use of guns, and at the same time we allow our teens to spend hours defending themselves with electronic arms on video games. The programs that stream into our homes are filled with murderous tales and some of them even provide a kind of hero status to characters whose actions are as questionable as the villains that they pursue. The line between good and evil is often so blurred that it is difficult to determine right from wrong without lengthy debates. We depict serial killers with a hint of sympathy and barely examine the lost lives of their victims. We no longer insist on a certain level of public decorum from those who lead us, and yet we wonder why so many children today are bullies. We see hypocrisy and lack of personal responsibility all around us and then shake our heads in disbelief when someone loses it and strikes out against complete strangers in murderous rage,

I heard an interview with a man on NPR the other day that was fascinating. He claims to have had violent urges from the time that he was only about five years old. He was continually in trouble during his school days and became known as a troubled child. Somehow he managed to turn things around in high school and landed an appointment at West Point but he still felt those horrific urges in his mind. While at the academy he met a teacher who spoke of the role of the military in striving for peace rather than automatically opting for war. The professor taught the students the skills of finding a place of calm inside their own minds so that their reactions would be reasoned and calm even in times of great stress. This concept changed the direction of the young recruit’s life. He became a disciple of such thinking and made it his vocation to study ways to tame the beasts that seemed to lurk inside his mind. He devotes his career to helping others to find the peace of mind that he now possesses. He truly believes that given the right situation it is totally possible to help many violent people to set aside their aggressive tendencies.

As a teacher I encountered many children who were so troubled that they had been designated as special needs students with emotional disturbances. They would often act out with little provocation or warning. Their behaviors were sometimes frightening. It was heartbreaking to see their pain and suffering and not have enough time or training to really help them. They were often relegated to self contained groups under the direction of someone who did little more than keep them from hurting themselves or others. It felt as though their lives had already been defined.

I took a special interest in such young people. I desperately wanted to make a difference in their lives. Most of the time they would indeed improve while they were in my class, but ultimately they had to move to the next grade and I would not see them again. I would hear of egregious acts that they had performed. I would grieve for them, and consider better ways of working with them. Only once did I feel that I might have actually changed the direction of such a student’s life. He was someone with anger management issues who was generally a sweet soul, but when something set him off he became enraged and dangerous. I managed his behavior quite well. I began to sense when his frustrations were overwhelming him and I created safe spaces where he would go to unwind, He seemed to be improving as long as he was with me, but when he went to other classrooms he often lost his composure and found himself in trouble. 

Each summer San Jacinto Junior College offered a special math/science program for students who wanted to enrich their knowledge of those subjects. The college sent me applications and urged me to encourage my students to try for the limited number of spots. Interested parties had to write essays describing why they should be chosen and most of those papers were so similar in content that the selection came down to a lottery. I would allow anyone who was interested to apply, but I was somewhat concerned when my behaviorally challenged student turned in his forms and written work with great earnestness. When I read his composition I believed that he would win the competition because it was profoundly moving. Indeed he landed a spot over many of my most brilliant students. When the other teachers heard about this they urged me to ask him to withdraw lest he embarrass the school with one of his outbursts. I decided that it was more important to let him have the opportunity to do something positive.

I found out that the young man didn’t have a way to get to the daily classes at the college and so I agreed to take him. I picked him up early each day and for four weeks drove him back and forth from the college which was about a forty minute drive. During that time we talked about so many things, but mostly about how excited he was to be thought of as someone who was good and worthy. He confided that the instructors and the other kids at the program thought he was smart and good natured and so for a few hours each day that’s who he was determined to be.

The program continued all the way through the young man’s high school years and even included special events. Each time he had an event to attend I was his chauffeur. We became the best of friends during those rides and I watched him grow into a truly remarkable person over the next four years. He laughed at the idea that nobody ever knew that he was actually a bad boy, or had been deemed one at his regular school. He assumed the role of a studious and well behaved young man and soon realized that it wasn’t that difficult to be that way all of the time. His life began to change in very dramatic ways.

I was sad when I no longer had to drive him to his classes. We said our farewells and he gave me a lovely gift that I still treasure. Each time I look at it I think of how easy it was to make a difference. I still find myself wondering how many more might have been saved if only we had tried harder.

The Cries Of A Child

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I recently had a very long day. I had arisen early and prepared for a series of appointments which literally spanned the hours from nine in the morning to six in the evening. After completing all of my duties I picked up my husband and the two of us hit the gym around seven. We finished our workouts about an hour and a half later and only then began to think about having dinner. I instinctively understood that it was a bad idea to eat at such a late hour, but it had been one of those days in which I had moved from one thing to another without a moment to even think of nutrition. Since the YMCA that we use is across from a grocery store I suggested that we find one of their prepared meals to heat at home rather than opting for fast food. It would be a quick and preferable alternative to undoing our attempts at a healthy lifestyle and would cost less as well. It seemed to be a grand idea.

The section containing what we wanted was located near the front of the store and we quickly found choices of seafood and chicken coupled with fresh vegetables that ranged from four hundred to five hundred calories. We made our selections and headed for the checkout which wasn’t particularly crowded because by then the clock was ticking toward nine. As we were waiting behind a young couple buying ice cream and a number of items that we have chosen to eliminate from our diet I heard the screams and cries of a small child.

I glanced over to see a father attempting to control a little boy who had obviously reached his limit of navigating happily through his own long day. I felt for the father who was doing his best to console his son, but as a mom I knew that the youngster was simply exhausted and ready for bed. The frazzled dad didn’t appear to be in much better shape. I imagined that both of them had been blowing and going all day long and that the child had been the first to hit the wall. I thought of how tired I was and remembered the times when I would work all day outside of the home and be making last minute runs to the store to purchase items that we had to have for the following day. I just wanted to go hug the little boy and tell the man that things would be better and that he would one day be able to laugh about such incidents. Still, I worried about our often relentlessly fast paced and demanding society and wondered what it is actually doing to all of us.

I’m retired now, so one really rough day of obligations isn’t that tough on me. I am able to sleep in after challenging schedules, but that wasn’t always the case. My work hours were often erratic and almost always long. I recall so many times when I reached home after nine or ten at night hoping that my family’s needs had been sufficiently met. Routines were difficult to create because we each had such divergent schedules. There were times when we literally felt like strangers passing one another in the night. As a teacher I had to attend meetings, conferences, trainings, performances, and field trips. Those demands only increased once I became an administrator. I assumed the role of caring not only for my students, but also for my teachers. All too often my own family had to take a back seat, and to this very day I worry that I may have neglected them a bit more than I should have, even though they appeared to be quite resilient.

My husband too had to work strange hours from time to time. My dear mother and mother-in-law often covered for us when our obligations coincided and our girls were going to be home alone. I know that I missed some important moments with them, and even though they were safe and sound the guilt that I felt was far greater than I might have wanted to admit at the time. I have often wondered if we as a society have created an unhealthy new world order with our two parent careers, or if our children are actually okay with just rolling with the whatever happens. After all, the only reality that they know is the one that we as parents create for them. They do not experience the same type of steadfast routine that I did when I was growing up. The world is different for them and they seem to have adapted, but when I see a youngster like that little boy crying from sheer exhaustion, I wonder how many times I too pushed my children to the brink. I think about how I might have done things differently or at least a bit better.

Parenting is one of the most difficult jobs that there is. In today’s world many adults are raising children all alone. They don’t enjoy the benefits that I had of extended family members filling the gaps. I can only imagine the tough choices that they must continually make as they balance work and home obligations. Most organizations don’t take too kindly to absences even when they are supposedly allowed. Shirking overtime demands is a quick way of losing momentum in climbing the career ladder. Those who defiantly insist on working only the minimally required amount of time are in danger of receiving lukewarm appraisals and of being thought to be lazy. The tension between work and home is real and both men and women feel the push and pull. It’s tough to be all things to all people, and yet we seem oblivious to the toll it is taking on all of us. We just keep moving day after day like drones on a conveyor belt, hoping that one day there will be some rest.

There was a time when workers generally had a more carefully constructed schedule that allowed them to arrive home each evening at a fairly consistent time. If they worked long enough for the same company they would accrue as many as six weeks of vacation time and their bank of sick days would steadily grow. Jobs were fairly plentiful and raises and bonuses were an expected part of the packages. Many organizations provided generous pensions and health insurance benefits. One by one many of those things have gone the way of the buggy whip. A single worker today often fulfills the duties that might have required multiple individuals in an earlier era. Employment opportunities are more difficult to find and once someone lands a job he/she is expected to demonstrate utmost loyalty and dedication to the cause. It’s a dog eat dog environment that is putting new stresses on individuals and their families.

I have to admit to being overjoyed that I’m now retired, but I can’t just rest on my laurels. I actually worry about today’s workers as I see them struggling to keep pace and still maintain their own health and happiness. I wonder if it will ever be possible to slow things down once again as I think of a time and a promise that our inventiveness would one day create a world in which we would get things done in a shorter work day that would provide us more time to enjoy ourselves. Instead we have just decreased the need for workers and increased the demands on those lucky enough to land the jobs. There seems to be no end to the demands that we place on employees and I fear that many of the ills that we see in our society are incubated in such an environment. Perhaps it’s time to rethink the way we do things. The cries of our children are telling us that something is wrong. Surely we can do better.