A Few Emergencies Away

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Poverty exists across the globe, even in a country like the United States that appears to be so rich. We are often judgmental of those struggling to survive. We see their situations as self induced, the result of laziness or poor planning. It is sometimes difficult for us to understand how someone might get themselves into so much of a dilemma that they become homeless. We see all of the opportunities that our country affords and can’t imagine why everyone is not doing well. 

Sometimes it feels as though some people simply do not want to do the hard work that we are doing or make the sacrifices that might help them become financially sound. We see people on welfare who spend their money on frivolous things that we do not believe they really need. Sometimes they appear to be overweight begging the question of why they require donations from a food pantry. We find it irritating that they have cell phones and name brand purses but can’t seem to pay their bills. 

The truth is that some people are indeed irresponsible but many of the poor have simply become entrapped by unexpected circumstances. It only takes a few disastrous events to destroy the financial security of a family and when the head of the household is a single mom the odds are even better that a catastrophic illness or emergency can literally wipe out all previous efforts to budget and save for a rainy day.

My mother was only thirty years old when my father died. She had been enjoying a comfortable life with my college educated father who was a mechanical engineer. She had no reason to believe that she would find herself scurrying just to keep a roof over her head with her three small children but fate intervened and sent all of her plans and dreams crashing down. On the day of my father’s death there was no life insurance policy to tide her over because he had only recently begun a new job. The car he was driving when he crashed was a total loss. There were no funds in what had once been a nice savings account because of the expense of a big move that our family had just made. She had to reclaim her life from ground zero.

Things might have improved financially for my mom save for the fact that she would ultimately be plagued with mental illness. Her bipolar disorder came and went in regular cycles that made it difficult for her to ever get ahead. She literally lived from one paycheck to the next often worrying about what she would do if her car needed repairs for which she had no money. As things broke down in her home she simply learned to live without them. She was rather masterful at budgeting with what she had but living on the edge took its toll on both her physical and mental well being. 

The PBS series Frontline recently featured three families in Ohio that were struggling with poverty during the Covid-19 pandemic. All of them shared the common story of having a single parent who for one reason or another had lost her jobs and was having to make ends meet with an average of a thousand dollars a month. 

One family lived in a dilapidated looking trailer that they were renting. The mom had done her best to keep it clean and inviting. She had a kidney disease that had caused her to lose her job but she nonetheless found part time work at the Salvation Army where she helped to distribute food to the needy. She had two sons in the eighth grade and a toddler. They were a wonderfully loving family and one of the boys had become a kind of brother parent to his siblings. When the pandemic came and schools shut down this young man juggled watching his younger sister with attempting to do his lessons. When the family car broke down everyone had to walk wherever they needed to go no matter how far away that might be. 

They put on a good face but in the quiet of their own minds they were continually worried. The young man did not want his mother to know how sad he was because he believed she had enough on her plate, but he worried that his own anger over the situation might one day erupt and cause trouble. He enlisted the help of a kindly school counselor who would meet him for therapeutic sessions. When one of the boy’s favorite teachers suddenly died he felt overwhelmed but more determined than ever to one day break the cycle of poverty that seemed to have a relentless hold on his life. 

One of the families in the film was homeless. They found shelter with friends, moving from place to place as their welcome ran out. the mother had been working until the pandemic hit but had lost her job when the business had to close for a time. She had been unable to find anything and while waiting for unemployment assistance to go into effect she had been evicted from the apartment where they had been living. She had rented a storage facility for the family’s belongings but when no income or relief was forthcoming she had been unable to pay the rental fee and all of the family’s worldly goods were seized. She and her girls went from one place to another with only a suitcase of clothing. They all made the best of things and felt optimistic that their lives would once again turn around. When the mother landed a job as a nail technician they were overjoyed but still worried that they were somehow trapped in an endless cycle from which they might never escape.

The final family lived in a dilapidated house. The mom worked nights at a gas station for minimum wage. The two girls took care of one another while she was gone. They had lived in a state of chronic poverty long before the virus came. The cycle that had been unbroken for generations. The eldest daughter was a senior in high school dreaming of being able to attend college, becoming a teacher, and living happily ever after in a nice neighborhood in the suburbs. She had grown weary of living on the edge and worried intensely about what would become of her little sister who had a number of learning disorders. The crushing weight of want almost felt impossible to overcome.

Each of these families was valiantly attempting to keep it together under dire circumstances. Their situations had been disturbing even before Covid-19 but the changing economic scene had created new almost insurmountable problems for all of them. Such stories are being repeated in a million different ways all across the United States. Those of us who are more secure cannot be indifferent to their needs. We must see them and hear them and attempt to help them in some way. But for the grace of God we might find ourselves dependent upon the kindness of others. We would do well to remember that sometimes poverty is only a few emergencies away. 



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My introversion is becoming incredibly comfortable with the forced isolation of Covid-19. For a time I balked and felt trapped in my home, but of late I have settled nicely into a comfortable rut. It would not take much for me to become the “crazy hermit” of the neighborhood. My quarantine is becoming a way of life. I only wear shoes when I’m on the treadmill and I have not worn a lick of makeup since February. I live in jeans and comfy t-shirts and only have a strict routine on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays when I teach math classes. Otherwise I’m free to stay up half the night working crossword puzzles and then sleep in until nine the next morning. 

I manage to shop for virtually anything I need or want online. I have not been inside a store in six months and I don’t miss in person shopping at all. I get take out food now and again but have no desire to sit inside a restaurant. I order all of my groceries for either delivery or curbside pickup. My pace is so relaxed that my blood pressure must be at an all time low. I no longer feel as though I am missing a thing. 

I’ve taken trips with my trailer as far away as Colorado without encountering very many people face to face. I buy gasoline but don’t use the facilities. I have my own restroom in the trailer I drag behind my truck. I get lunch, dinner and supper from my little kitchen and it is always delicious and way more healthy than anything served in a restaurant. The people watching is fabulous and I avoid crowds, something that my tendency toward claustrophobia does not mine at all.  

I’ve been thinking about the Tower of London and some of those famous folk who were imprisoned there like Sir Walter Raleigh. I suppose that he would have rather been free but he and his family lived in a fairly nice area and he even had the privilege of walking the grounds and tending a little garden. In some ways Covid isolation feels like that only I have the right to go join society if I so wish and I don’t have to worry about losing my head.

I’ve decided that I am doing myself and my fellow citizens a favor by just enjoying my time in my home until all of this one day goes away. I’m of the mind that in times such as these we would all do well to make a few sacrifices. If I stay well that is one less person the doctors and hospitals need to worry about. Besides I won’t infect someone else who may or may not make it. I enjoy the idea of doing my part to help others. I seriously do not understand anyone complaining when we are all going through a difficult time. We each have a part to play. Mine is staying home, serving as a remote teacher for eight students, and sending financial help now again to those who are out of work and struggling. I even try to give hefty tips to anyone who delivers something to my home while also using local businesses as much as possible.

I watch movies from the comfort of my sofa. I can even ride my stationary bicycle and do stretching exercises while enjoying a good flick. It costs a great deal less than a trip to a theater and my snacks are much better. My only concern is that the virus has prevented the making of new films and I fear that one day I will run out options to watch and that people who make a living in the movie industry are having trouble making ends meet. 

I suppose that going to church is the one thing that I miss more than anything. Watching the mass on my laptop is nice but I miss the community feeling that is always so moving to me. We humans are all in this crazy messed up dilemma together and I enjoy being part of a group of worshippers intent on praising and thanking God. I know that I have been quite blessed and I talk with God all day long but it’s not the same as being with the fine people of my parish.

I doubt that I would want to live like this forevermore, but I have become resigned to the necessity of doing so. I know that others are having a far tougher time of things than I am. I still decorate for fall and make pumpkin bread for an autumn treat. I celebrate the milestones and traditions even if only for myself. I’ve even completed some of my Christmas shopping already lest the mail slows down and I get caught without gifts for my family on December 25.

I learned to have patience a long time ago. This too shall pass eventually. I hope with all my heart that the virus does not take too many more precious people before it is done with us. I wish that we had handled things better from the beginning but it’s far too late to look back. Instead I have my eye on a time when all the world will awaken again. 

While I am feeling a certain level of contentment I grieve for those who have suffered and indeed there have been many. People have died, often without family around. People have lost jobs and businesses and are still wondering how they will mange to survive much longer. Students and teachers are struggling to keep learning without knowing how things will ultimately evolve. The specter of another surge of Covid-19 hovers over the world. 

I’d like to think that we have learned enough to change. Surely we have a better idea of what and who is actually important. I doubt that “normal” will ever again mean the same to us as it once did. Hopefully we understand that we are part of a global community that must work together if we are to survive the ever more difficult challenges that we face. Now is a time for patience and earnest assessment of the way we should move forward when the time comes.

The Future Depends On Us

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It is now easier than ever before to gain knowledge about the world around us. The Internet is filled with information that rivals the greatest libraries of all time. With a quick search it is possible to find and read books of every sort and academic tracts and studies from the most enlightened minds of history. Ignorance is steadily on the decline as more and more of the world’s people learn to read, understand the scientific world and use numbers. The ability to use our minds is our most precious human gift and yet sadly far too many are still kept from reaching their highest potential due to cultural barriers, poverty, wars, and political indifference. Even among the educated there is often a tendency to blindly accept ideas without researching and critically analyzing them. Sometimes it is also true that there is such an abundance of knowledge that it is virtually impossible to know everything. 

We tend to get tiny slices of information during our youth. There is only time to expose our students to the very basics of science, mathematics, literature, philosophy, history. Unless a person continues to pursue learning after high school and dig deeply into a particular aspect of interest he/she misses so many remarkable ideas. Lifelong learning should be our goal but life itself often gets in the way of being able to continue our education. We get busy, set aside our books, lose interest in anything other than surviving from one day to the next. We close the windows of our minds and rely on others to keep us informed on an as needed basis. We often believe what we hear without taking the time to verify. We become more and more susceptible to manipulation because what we know is dreadfully incomplete. 

History is long and filled with contradictions. In the grand scheme of things our current situation is but a blip. The arc will continue after we are gone and it won’t take long for those left on this earth to move forward and forget the past. Sadly it is human nature to measure the merit of traditions based on the present rather than an understanding of history. Few of us know or care to know how things came to be, what prompted changes, why we are where we are. Yet sometimes deeply understanding the past allows us to make proper decisions in the present. If we learn what was really happening in the times before us we are able to critically assess the actions that have led us to where we now are. Unfortunately most of us have only a tiny slice of historical knowledge that is often sugar coated for presentation to the young. The truth is sometimes difficult to bear. 

Humans like to be happy. Life is difficult enough without stewing over former transgressions. We tend to want to ignore such things, just keep moving forward. We don’t want to worry too much about the future either. It feels better to just enjoy each day and muddle through any problems that appear along the way. The quicker we can shove difficulties out sight, the better. Life seems too short to spend time lamenting and yet there are moments when we humans cannot ignore what is happening around us. There are times when we know that we have to roll up our sleeves and become involved in the global connections that we all share as people whether we wish to or not. 

We appear to be in such a moment. We are facing two epidemics and if we are to survive either one we need leadership to unite us, not purposely pull us apart. We must accept that Covid-19 is a threat to all of us and that if we are to defeat it we need honesty and a united effort. As long as any of us are being falsely lead to believe that there is no danger, no need for precautions, everyone of us is at risk as well as the foundations of our economic and educational institutions. Wise leaders would tell us the truth and demonstrate a concern for both our physical and economic health. They would understand the need for unity and a willingness to sacrifice. They would work together, not with disdain. History has demonstrated time and again that ineffective leadership in a time of upheaval leads to unspeakable horrors. It is up to us to demand that our elected officials think first about the well being of the citizenry and do what is right with total transparency. 

We also have much civil unrest in our society. In truth our journey from a nation that embraced slavery to one in which justice for all is a given is not yet complete. We are still wandering in a desert  of sometimes overt and sometimes subtle racism. Even when we feel certain that we have never judged any other person on the basis of skin color or nationality or religious affiliation our indifference to their cries is an indication that we have not yet completed our obligation to set that original sin of our nation right. When hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens tell us that they are still hurting, our response should be to believe them instead of attempting to silence them. We cannot and should not just turn out backs in righteous indignation. If we truly care about law and order then we should want to make it equitable for all. Instead so many shake their heads and click their tongues while our president daily attempts to make us fearful of those exercising their right to speak of their concerns. 

We are living in a modern day version of Alice in Wonderland. We are being led to believe that we need not fear Covid-19 when we should indeed be taking strict precautions. We are being told that rioters and looters are coming to destroy our nation and our neighborhoods when we have yet to truly learn what they need and we should not fear them. We are so busy attempting to drown out reality that we barely even take note of fires destroying people’s lives and hurricanes that level cities. We have enough real problems that we cannot afford to live in a land of make believe. People matter and many, including our president, are making things worse. None of us can afford to cower inside our homes quietly ignoring what we see happening before our very eyes. We have to speak up no matter how painful that may be. History demonstrates that the future depends on us. Do some research. Think without prejudice or self interest about what you are seeing unfold then use your voice, cast your vote.   

Be Not Afraid

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We tend to rock along in life tending to our basic needs, going to work, caring for our families, seeking diversions, creating comfortable routines. It’s easy to take things for granted and sometimes even become a bit bored with how our lives normally are. Then something happens that rocks the world, the death of a special person, a worrisome diagnosis from a doctor, a terrible accident, a betrayal of trust, a cataclysmic event. We have an instantaneous reaction that is often emotional and filled with fear. After a time we learn to deal with our new reality and if we are fortunate we learn truths about ourselves and the world around us. 

A conundrum of being human is that we want order and a sense of normality in our lives while also desiring surprise and excitement to spice things up. Of course there is good change and bad change and we never want the latter, but unexpected events come to every human as surely as days become colder and shorter as winter arrives. There are periods of darkness for every person. They are as much a part of the cycle of life as happiness and light. Sometimes we have to endure challenges to fully appreciate our blessings.

My father’s death when I was eight years old changed me. First it sucked the joy out of my heart and I became a frightened and sad little child. Then it prompted me to be more aware of the importance of my connections with people. I began to make choices based on how they would affect my relationships with family and friends rather than how they would enrich my bank account or endow me with honors or titles. I understood with every fiber of my being that there is nothing on this earth more important than the people that we encounter as we pass through this life. I found both purpose and joy in dedicating my talents to helping my fellow humans.

Wars, terrorist attacks, natural disasters destroy things and also sadly take lives. For most of us the loss of any person is a million times more horrific than losing possessions. We can rebuild the inanimate but we are never able to bring back the people who so suddenly left the world under horrific circumstances. When they are so quickly taken from us we long for just one more moment with them, one more opportunity to tell them how we actually feel about them, one more beautiful gift of embracing them. When we remember them it is always about the simplest of times, a smile, a laugh, a story, a shared experience. 

Autumn and winter are coming in a time of pandemic. The leaves will fall from the trees and days will grow short. Our most festive holidays will come and we will approach a new year, a new beginning but somehow no matter how hard we try we cannot make any of our traditions feel the same way they did before Covid-19 invaded our lives. It is like the dreary times after a loved one dies. That first Thanksgiving without them is punctuated by the empty chair where they should be sitting. The first Christmas feels like walking through a bad dream because no matter how hard we try to be merry, we know that there is a huge hole in our hearts. So too will it undoubtedly be during the coming months. 

The virus is still stalking us and we won’t be able to just wish it away but we can carry on in a different manner if we are willing to make some sacrifices. The number of cases of Covid-19 appear to be slowing. We have to be careful not to ascribe this good news to some idea that the virus has simply gone away when in fact our good fortune is more the result of the enforced precautions we have been recently taking. More people than ever are wearing masks in public. Distancing is being enforced at work, in schools, in churches, in stores and almost every aspect of our lives. We are avoiding crowds when possible and canceling events that might become super spreaders. Our actions have made it more and more difficult for the virus to find hosts, but it is still out there just waiting for us to become weary of the new routines and throw our caution to the wind. 

The count of deaths in our country and even the world are also decreasing, not because the virus is any less dangerous than it initially seemed to be but because the medical community has shared observations and best  practices from all over the world. Our scientists and doctors are learning more and more about Covid-19 and using that knowledge to save lives. They are like soldiers engaged in a military offense and we would do well to follow their advice and instructions. They are not traders in fear but rather dedicated individuals whose oaths insure that they do us no harm. We would do well to heed their cautions rather than placing our lives in the hands of politics. The medical community tell us to carry on with our masks and our distances and our hand washing. We would do well to listen because the virus is just waiting for our hubris to make us think that we are immune to its reach. 

Those of us who are older like myself have a certain obligation to curtail risky behaviors so that the adult workforce may carry on with the business of life and the children will be able to continue their schooling. The Bible tells us that there is a time and season for everything. Now is the time and season to do whatever possible to keep the virus at bay. It does not mean totally shutting down life as we know it but it does entail making changes and sacrifices in the way we do things. It is the story of living. Nothing ever stays the same and perhaps it is best that it does not. The only constant is our capacity to care and to love enough to protect one another.

As winter comes do not fear but take charge of life by continuing to be cautious. That is the way forward. That is the way to take control. Wear masks. Keep a safe distance. Stay away from crowds. Wash your hands. Stay warm and find happiness in the quiet moments of life. Do your part to help us all.

The Golem Effect

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Most teachers have heard of the Pygmalion Effect. It is a psychological term that refers to the art of setting high expectations for individuals. It has been found that people will generally respond to positive thinking. If an environment seeks the best in all individuals and then nourishes those traits people and organizations tend to excel. On the other hand the Golem Effect is tied to negativity and self fulfilling prophecies. Assuming the worst in people is defeating and often leads to failure, mistrust, anger and possibly violence. It is an abusive tactic that tears people and organizations apart and should be avoided in all relationships. 

In my years in education most of my fellow teachers used the Pygmalion Effect to promote success for their students. Now and again someone would be guilty of either wittingly or unwittingly falling prey to the Golem Effect. I would hear such teachers exclaiming that all of the students in the school were lazy gang members and thugs or that an individual student would never amount to anything or even be capable of graduating from high school. Those who expressed such negative ideas tended to have management problems inside their classrooms. Their students were unmotivated and generally expended the lowest common denominator of effort. In other words they felt beaten down and defeated from the outset so they usually just gave up. 

On the other hand there were teachers who were inspiring the very same students to reach incredible levels of excellence simply by continually reinforcing the idea that they had everything they needed to succeed. With positive feedback the students enjoyed a feeling of accomplishment that drove them to work harder and harder. 

I have seen the Pygmalion Effect in all its glory over and over again but unfortunately the Golem Effect still reigns in many corners of education, business, family dynamics and politics. When we demean or demonize people or entire groups with broad generalizations the Golem Effect takes hold. This tendency leads to all manner of “isms” that unfairly categorize people. It creates misunderstandings, divisions, and injustice all derived from a kind of misguided self righteousness.

Those teachers who proclaimed the defects of students as though they were indicators of permanently flawed character may have believed that they were helping but in truth they were unfairly creating a kind of doomsday scenario for those who were victims of their words. Perhaps they believed that it was a waste of time to bother to even attempt to help people who appeared to be unsalvageable. In turn their students felt that they had already been why tossed on a trash heap of judgement that precluded any chance of redemption. They felt that any efforts to improve were fruitless and not worth the effort. The self fulfilling prophecy was an infinite loop that almost ensured that there would never be positive change. In fact it often lead to escalation of the very behaviors that were troublesome in the first place. 

We should all be wary of anyone who hurls generalized accusations or whose expectations for a particular person or group are all negative. When the President of the United States automatically assumes that using mass mail in ballots will lead to hundreds of thousands of fraudulent votes he is deftly using the Golem Effect. He is implying before the fact that if he loses the election it must have been because of voter fraud. On the other hand if he wins he will claim that it is because he was able to keep the voting criminals at bay. An entire swath of American voters who vote by mail is judged to be defective and they lose whether they are honest or not. 

The growing anger in our country today is the result of the Golem Effect silently eroding trust in our systems. If we hear that many of our Muslim immigrants are terrorists often enough we become fearful of all Muslims. If we are told that many of the Hispanics coming across our borders are gang members, rapists and criminals we become wary of all Hispanic immigrants. If we hear the BLM protests and demonstrations described as the domain of rioters and looters often enough we begin to fear and denounce even those that have been peaceful. If we only hear about the bad police officers who are rogues and racists we begin to fear all police officers. If we hear an individual being constantly denounced with innuendo and propaganda we may lose all trust in him/her. 

The Golem Effect breaks down trust and may even lead to dire consequences for all parties. Lenin and his allies slowly eroded the Russian peasants’ trust in the Czar that led to a dictatorial government. Hitler and his henchmen created a state of fear and envy in Germany that led to war and genocide. The Golem Effect is negative in all regards and is so abusive that it can tear down individuals, organizations and entire nations. It has the capacity to create so much desperation that people do unspeakable things that would not ordinarily occur to them. 

Golem was a fictional creature who had such a dire effect on the world that he had to be defeated. As humans we surely know that abusive behaviors never lead to positive outcomes. It should be apparent that we need to defend ourselves and our society from anyone who appears to be using the Golem Effect either purposely or unwittingly. It has always been an exceedingly unhealthy way of keeping order and it makes little sense to use it when we have seen over and over again how much better it is to bring out the best in people. 

Of course we sometimes have to punish evil deeds but in the process of doing so we must also be fair. We must take care to judge individuals on the merits of specific situations and when possible work to reshape bad behavior by encouraging the goodness that lies in most people’s souls. Unless there is some underlying defect most people will respond in positive ways to those who assume the best. Embracing high expectations and believing that they are possible should always be the foundation for solving problems.