Happy and Helpful

3rd Medical Battalion nurse helps by U.S. Navy Medicine is licensed under CC-CC0 1.0

For six years in a row Finland has been named the happiest country in the world, but a deep dive into how the country won this title is more complex than just seeing smiling faces all around. In fact, the title is mostly about contentment, rather than what we normally think of as happiness. It is about feeling satisfied with just enough to live a good and secure life. The people of Finland live simply for the most part with programs that provide them with education, medical care, transportation and even strong support for the arts and entrepreneurial efforts. While geopolitical issues may cause them to have concern about the war in Ukraine, their membership in NATO and their often tenuous relationship with Russia they mostly persevere as one citizen notes with”grim determination even in the face of hardship.”

I found myself thinking of my mother when I read about the people of Finland. If ever there was a happy person, it was my mother. The irony is that she also suffered from bipolar disorder which often presented itself as depression. In truth sadness was only an illness that my mother had. Her true personality was always optimistic and joyful. She was perhaps the most content and grateful person I have ever known. Instead of grieving over her difficult and often tragic life, she found ways to celebrate the roof over her head, the food in her pantry, and the sun shining outside her window as though she was the richest person on earth. When really hard times came her resolve to remain happy was evidenced in her own grim determination not to be overcome by the trials that she had to endure. 

I am more of a worrier by nature. I was angry that my mother had to struggle so much. I often became enraged that someone as good hearted as she was had to had to face an almost continuous onslaught of difficulties through no fault of her own. Mama never saw it my way. She found the blessings in every single day. If she had a few extra pennies for some cookies she thought herself undeniably fortunate. She praised God for the happiness and love He had given her rather than asking him for favors. She was the most saintlike and content person I ever knew. In fact, she was always the first person in the room to share what little she had rather than storing up a fortune while someone near her was suffering from want. 

On the same day that I read about the people of Finland I saw that Boston ranks as the most helpful city in the United States. The title comes from a willingness of people to informally help their neighbors, donate to causes, join organizations whose goal is to assist others in some way. Once again I harked back to my mom. Perhaps her happiness came from her altruistic nature. Every one of her days seemed to be dedicated to helping or cheering up someone who was suffering in some way. She was always quick to send money to wounded veterans or Native American charities or St. Jude’s Hospital. It was never much, but in proportion to what she actually had it was a most generous donation. She could not pass a homeless person without digging into her purse. She had compassion for everyone without judgement. Her favorite saying was, “but for the grace of God there go I.”

Mama loved to tell stories of her own mother’s selfless acts. She noted that there were many times when my grandmother would prepare a fish for the family of ten people and quietly the head while her children feasted on the best parts. At other times when there was meat, Mama remembered her mother sucking on the bone while the rest of the family enjoyed a bit of protein. I suppose I believed my mother’s stories of my grandmother because my Grandma’s needs appeared to be so simple and yet she shared whatever she had be it a cup of sugary coffee or a slice of bread with anyone who came to her humble home. 

Somehow I got the message that happiness is never about things or trips or tangible items and yet I have often been lulled into our hypnotic national obsession with success and money. We are so often more in awe of the person who has stored away treasures and possessions and power than humble folk like my mother or my grandmother. We unconsciously send the message to our children that the measure of a person lies in collecting things and honors rather than in being content with just enough. Perhaps it’s time we learn from people like the Finns who are simply satisfied and willing to live without all of the frills that sometimes seem to make us less happy than we might otherwise be. 

There is the momentary happiness of buying a fancy car, but eventually that automobile wears out. We can fill our closets with expensive clothes but they are soon out of style. When our days on this earth are done I suppose everyone would like to believe that he or she will be remembered as someone who generously spread joy and compassion. I can’t think of a single time that I have heard a eulogy about a person’s money and power or even the size of his/her home. The Finns have it right and so do the people of Boston. Life is about finding joy in each moment and each person we encounter. It should be about sharing our blessing as best we can. Happiness is all about being content and helpful even in the face of hardship.  


A Light Shines In The Future

When I was a little eight year old girl my world fell apart, at least in my childish eyes. I had been so happy at my school, with my friends, in my home. All of that was going to change in ways that would ultimately create an existential crisis for me even though I had no idea what that meant at my young age. It began when my father and mother announced at dinner one evening that our family would soon be moving from Houston to San Jose, California. 

I remember feeling instantly betrayed, but I remained silent as my parents happily spoke of the grand adventures we would enjoy. I could only think of how content I was with things just as they were. I loved visits to my grandmother’s house on Friday nights where I would meet up with my dozens of cousins. I had a best friend named Lynda who was my confidante. I liked my teacher at school and my classmates. There was no adventure, no matter how grand, that would compete with what I already had. Still, I complied with my fate without complaint, keeping my sadness to myself. I was a child and maybe my parents knew better than I did what would be good for our family. 

I thought of my eight year old self when I watched Steven Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical movie, The Fabelmans.” The hero, Sam, watches his family fall apart as his father follows opportunities in his career that precipitate moves and loss of friendships. Ultimately the Fabelmans end up in northern California just as I did when I was eight. The culture shock of being there made Sam the butt of jokes and even bullying. As his family slowly fell apart Sam found hope in his amazing talent for making films. 

My own story is more mundane. I was shy, awkward and a year younger than my California classmates. I had difficulty making friends and missed the ones I had back in Texas. The promise of opportunity did not work out well for my father either. He quickly announced that he had left the job that had lured him out west and his search for work began again. With it came other moves and a feeling of tension inside our home. Our odyssey would take us all the way back to Texas after a brief stop in Los Angeles. With each new school I withdrew deeper and deeper inside myself. 

Our last hope seemed to lie in Corpus Christi, Texas where my father had spent his high school years. He was suddenly happy again and somehow his joy affected me because I too felt comfortable in my newest school. My teacher was kind and my fellow students were welcoming. I could see my family living happily there, but it was not meant to be. Ultimately my father would find work back in Houston and I would attend the fifth school of my third grade year to complete the circle of our journey. 

I don’t recall much about the end of that school year. By then being the new kid in class had become a role that I played without fanfare. It would soon be summer and my parents were looking for a new home where we all would start anew. I was able to see my cousins on Fridays and visit with my friends from the neighborhood that we had left only months before. I felt more comfortable than I had since that fateful revelation that we were moving from the place that I so loved. There was hope on the horizon that would soon be dashed into a million pieces for me when I awoke one morning to learn that my father had died. 

I suppose that I might have lost any shred of optimism at that moment. I know that I was devastated by the loss of my father, but somehow in the one of the darkest times of my life I made myself a promise. I created a goal that would guide me all the way to the present. My plan was to take full advantage of my education just as my father had always urged me to do. I knew that he wanted me to fulfill my potential and I was determined to do so in his honor. I would challenge myself to use the gifts and skills that he had given me. I would become the person he knew I might be. 

My life has been a rollercoaster ride of challenges. My goals have been threatened by circumstance. Nothing has ever been easy for me, but I kept reminding myself of my father’s encouragement when he insisted that I could be a better person than I believed. I created a kind of roadmap of hope for myself and for my family. I knew that with sacrifice and optimism and the love we felt for each other we would be okay. I conquered one difficulty after another with the kind of determination that my father always insisted that I must have. I watched my courageous mother caring for me and my brothers alone and found that I had her grit as well. I constantly pushed my many fears aside and moved forward, sometimes after being pushed way back. 

I did not become a world famous movie maker like Steven Spielberg did, but I conquered my fears and used my talents to create a life that has had great meaning for me and hopefully for those around me. I kept my optimism and hope alive. I saw tragedies and knew how to plan to overcome them. I kept the faith that I had to power to keep going even when roadblocks made me stumble. I’m not finished yet, but I believe with all of my heart that we humans with the grace of God will work together for all that is good and just. Somehow we always find a way to become the light in the world. Even in a dark present in which so many seem so lost, a light shines in the future. Of that I am certain. I will push on. I will keep hope alive.


I spent many years teaching mathematics to students who ranged in age from twelve to seventeen years old. Some of them viewed compulsory education as a dreadful impingement on their individual rights as Americans. The would complain as though they were imprisoned in school and boast that as soon as they were of age they intended to drop out of the system. Many, but not all of them, were from low income minority families. Often none of their relatives had ever graduated from high school, but still managed to survive and care for their families. These student saw schooling as a punishment rather than one of our rights and privileges.

I had a stock question and and answer lecture that I used to inspire them to take full advantage of the opportunities that their free education gave them. I reminded them that historically only the wealthiest and most powerful people learned to read and write and work with numbers. The general population was left to its ignorance sometimes intentionally lest they become more aware of the indignities being forced on them. I spoke of slavery in the Untied States and the fact that most of the time those treated like property were not allowed to read or write. I told them how in modern times the Khmer Rouge had murdered teachers and professors and destroyed the educational system in Cambodia. I pointed out how the Taliban would not allow young girls to go to school with their brothers. 

Usually at this point in the discussion the students were demanding to know how tyrants could be so unfair. They wondered why schools were often targets of suppression. I allowed them to provide the reasons why they thought that such practices were used and they always came to the conclusion that keeping certain groups ignorant also kept them from being free. They began to get angry at the thought that anyone would attempt to lie to them by not allowing them to be able to learn certain truths. That’s when I warned them to beware of anyone who would begin to censor books or movies or television programs or what they would be allowed to learn. I urged them to revel in the freedoms that they enjoyed and to view school as one of the greatest gifts they might ever receive. I told them to never let anyone take their rights to an education away from them. 

Because most of the students who railed against forced education were rather rebellious and angry many of them began to understand that education was indeed a sacred right that they should appreciate and safeguard. They often became more attentive in class and began to talk about the part that schooling would play in their futures. Of course I never reached a hundred percent of them, but it felt good to change the minds of those who had seen going to school as a curse.

During the war in Afghanistan I heard from one of the students who had participated in my little seminar. He sent me a message telling me that he had just returned from fighting there. He had been stunned by the authoritarian policies of the Taliban, especially with regard to who would be allowed to attend school and what they would be allowed to learn He remembered my warning about authoritarians who would deny education to any part of the populous. He told me that he was going to use his GI bill to go to college. 

One of my teaching colleagues was the daughter of Cambodian refugees who found their way to Las Vegas during the reign of terror that the Khmer Rouge had inflicted on the citizens. Her parents were Hmong, a minority group that was targeted by the rulers of the Cambodian government during the Vietnam War era. The movie The Killing Fields was based on the horror that was happening there. My friend told me stories about what took place in Cambodia that were horrifying. Years late she and her husband went back to Cambodia armed with advanced degrees and incredible dedication to the idea of building a strong educational system in the homeland of their ancestors. They were literally starting from the ground up. 

The educational system of the United States may be admittedly imperfect, but it has lifted the population out of ignorance dramatically over the decades. My paternal grandmother was born in the nineteenth century and was unable to either read or write. My paternal grandfather had little more than a fifth grade education. Their son graduated from high school and then earned a bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from Texas A&M University. My brothers and I all have Master’s degrees. Our children all went to college and some of them are medical doctors and have PhDs. Now my grandchildren have earned degrees in engineering or are in the process of earning degrees at some to the most rigorous universities in the country. All but myself attended public elementary, intermediate and high schools. The record for public schools is deemed wonderful by my family.

I am concerned that there are people dabbling needlessly with our public schools and the curricula that they offer, They appear to be are intent on inserting political or even religious beliefs than providing our students with the critical thinking skills that they will need for the future. While their efforts are not on the level of dictatorships, many of them are intent on banning the free discussions of differing ideas or censoring what our young may learn. Every parent should have the right to opt their children out of engaging with specific topics or books, but their views should not impinge on all students. The solution is not to ban controversial ideas from even being mentioned but to be sensitive to the idea of allowing parents to opt out of certain lessons or books for their students. 

As a parent I recall being informed that a sex education unit would be part of my daughters’ health lessons. I was given the right to remove them from the presentations of that information. The school gave me an outline of the topics covered and the materials being used. I had to sign my approval or request that my girls be removed from such discussions. I was happy that a knowledgeable person would be instructing them and the unit proved to be quite good for them. Nonetheless I appreciated that the school respected my decision one way or another. What it did not do is deny the lessons to everyone because a few did not want their children engaged in such discussions.

We are needlessly dismayed and frightened by what our young are learning in our public schools. As with any huge system whether it be churches or government agencies, there will always be a few bad apples here and there that we must ferret out. The reality is that mostly schools are places where dedicated people work harder than anybody ever realizes to help produce the future adults of our society. Neither do we need to be too concerned that historical truths will devastate our young. Quite the opposite is generally true. Young people demand honesty from us and respect our systems more when we are unafraid to tell the truth. Remember to beware of those who would tear down our educational systems. They are rarely invested in our freedoms. 

Those Thoughts That Rumble Around In Our Heads

Teachers often demonstrate to students how to think about their thinking. It’s an interesting process known as metacognition that involves strategies for literally analyzing the ways that we individually process learning and decision making. It is meant to improve the ways that we interact with the world by removing the tendencies to operate with instant emotional reactions to the situations that I encounter.

Thinking about our own thinking is quite challenging because sometimes those thoughts that enter our heads like little whispers in our ears can overwhelm us. I know that there have been many times in my life when my inner voices were so loud and argumentative that I had to distract myself to keep from feeling anxious. Since I keep quite busy, I sometimes get the messages from my mind in the form of dreams that are not always so understandable. The process of metacognition challenges us to question even our own prejudices and beliefs in search of truths. 

Philosophers, writers, and teachers have been using different aspects of thinking about thinking for centuries. Socrates had a method that offered questions rather than answers, forcing his followers to consider that there are often many possibilities rather than a single correct answer. The key to finding solutions to problems lies in a willingness to consider differing points of view. 

As a mathematics teacher I knew that in many cases there was clearly on one right answer to a numerical problem, but I also understood that there were multiple ways of arriving at that answer. I taught my students certain algorithms and formulas but almost always encountered students who had arrived at a solution in unique but logical ways. I had one student named Robert who might have appeared to be lazy and unwilling to follow instructions to some because his mathematical mind was almost magical. Without putting a pencil to paper he imagined the numbers and computed them with vivid images that only he could see. He was brilliant and remarkable but often misunderstood by others who did not take the time to understand the processes of his thinking.

Right now my head is filled with thoughts that rattle constantly in my head. I wonder how I might convince my ninety four year old father-in-law to surrender his car keys and end his days of driving around town. I believe that his hands are too shaky, his mind is too prone to forgetfulness, and his reactions are too slow for him to be anything but a hazard to himself and others when he is behind the wheel of a car. He insists that he is perfectly capable of being a safer driver than most. I constantly debate myself about this situation in the confines of my own mind. I attempt to consider all of the possibilities, but I mostly realize that the biggest roadblock to any kind of mutual solution with my father-in-law has to include finding a way to convince him to think about his own thinking just as I am doing. Perhaps if we had a Socrates in our midst each of us might be guided to a reasonable agreement about what to do next. 

Most of the worst historical tragedies might have been averted if more people had learned how to think about their own thinking and that of others. We humans have tendencies to develop our own sets of beliefs and then attempt to force them on others. We descend into name calling and refusals to even consider another person’s point of view. We align ourselves in camps that sometimes end in small wars in our personal relationships or geopolitical battles that bring destruction and death to vast swaths of the world. 

In most cases such schisms occur because we have allowed those little voices in our heads to rule us without any analysis of what they seem to be telling us to do. Our old habits die hard and unless we are willing to be very honest with ourselves we push them forward without consideration that maybe we have been wrong in particular assumptions all along. We follow a pattern of instantly reacting, voicing our opinions and moving on without first questioning  or challenging ourselves. Particularly in the political arena we tend to label anyone who evolves in their thinking as a whimpy flip-flopper rather than viewing them as individuals who has taken the time to analyze and critique their own ways of thinking. Such persons tend to be shunned by both those with whom they once aligned and those whose views they are now ready to consider. Therein lies a terrible human tendency to force people to remain constant in their thinking even if changing situations require new considerations. 

It can take a great deal of time to engage in metacognition. The process can even be painful. It is not meant to brainwash or force change. It is only intended as a way of viewing all ideas critically with an eye on determining both the logic and the flaws of our beliefs. It generally demonstrates that there are rarely single answers to any question. It allows us to open our minds to new ways of thinking about any situation. 

We are in a critical moment of history as we slowly emerge from a devastating pandemic. Political forces are rattling sabers all over the world. Depression in both young and old appears to be at an all time high. Anxiety over so many issues is pushing us farther and farther apart. In the name of peace we would do well to adopt a willingness to think about how our own thinking may be contributing to the problems. How wonderful would it be if our leaders were able to sit together and attempt to begin to understand each other’s needs rather than making their differences a spectacle. 

Evolving in our thinking may be difficult and even a bit painful but it almost always results in better solutions. It’s not about giving in to pressure, it is about a willingness to find the flaws in our beliefs and repair them. Thinking should not be about blindly supporting gangs or tribes or political groups. Cults rarely accomplish anything. Real thinking almost always leads us to understand that there is greatness to be found in our differences.   

Did You Know?

There are few people who have not heard about the sinking of the Titanic, a grand ship built in Belfast and meant to be almost impregnable. The tragic story of the ship’s encounter with an iceberg as it crossed the Atlantic is told in books and movies. It’s a cautionary tale of human error and hubris that is heartbreaking. I have been both fascinated and appalled by what happened on that disastrous voyage since I was a young child. In some ways it might be said that I have been haunted by the many “what ifs” that lead to the destruction of the grand ship and the loss of so many lives. 

What I did not know is that the Titanic was only one of three huge steamers built in the Belfast shipyards along with the Olympic and the Britannic. After the unbelievable tragedy of the Titanic, the construction of the Britannic was reconfigured to take into account flaws that lead to the Titanic’s misfortune. Watertight doors were included in the new design to operate as a second defense in the event of a breach in the hull of the ship. Extra lifeboats were placed on the ship as well. The Britannic was thought to be one of the safest ships in the world after all its new features had been added. 

As the newest ship of the White Star Line it sailed across the Atlantic until the outbreak of World War I when it was commandeered to be a hospital ship. Staffed with doctors and nurses, it traveled from Great Britain into the Aegean Sea on regular missions to bring wounded soldiers back to England. In November of 1916, the ship was on its way to a location in Greece when tragedy struck.

It was early morning on the day before the ship would be crowded with patients. The crew and the medical personnel were enjoying breakfast and relaxing a bit before what they knew would be a frenzy of activity caring for the needs of the soldiers that they would soon meet. Some of the employees had also worked on the Titanic on the fateful night when it sank. They were grateful to be alive and dedicated to their work. It seemed impossible to even think that a similar fate might befall the strong ship that carried them into supposedly safe waters. Not until everyone heard a loud explosion and felt a horrific jolt did a quiet panic begin to spread through the occupants of the ship. 

Below deck in the bowels of the ship water began to rush in, nearly drowning many of the crew members. The doors that should have shut mysteriously stayed open and before long the entire ship was listing. The captain had been called from his cabin just before taking an early morning bath, so he stood at his post in his pajamas. He decided that the best bet for the safety of the ship and its passengers would be to run aground. He instructed his crew to head for land which was not far away in the hopes of saving every person as well as the ocean liner itself. 

We now know that the Britannic had hit a German mine creating a huge gash in the hull of the ship. It is believed that the doors did not properly shut because the ship had been twisted out of shape from the explosion. The water was free to fill the ship quickly. Additionally doctors had opened portholes in the hospital area to allow the sea breezes to ventilate the rooms. This allowed more water to enter the already endangered Britannic. The ship was only minutes away from sinking.

Many of the crew members who worked below were so frightened by the rushing waters that they climbed into a lifeboat meant for eighty four people and lowered it into the water before getting the proper command from the captain. This lapse of protocol ultimately resulted in an horrific death for many of them. As the ship shifted forward from the weight of the water, the propellers came out of the water and sucked the lifeboat into its vortex. The poor souls were cut to ribbons by the spinning of the huge metal blades. 

Within less than an hour everyone realized that the Britannic was going down. The captain ordered the lifeboats to be lowered and he told the officers of his crew to leave the ship. He himself waited until the deck of the Britannic was level with the water when he walked into the sea as the ship fell from under his feet. He would swim for thirty minutes until being rescued by Greek fishermen in the area who came out to save as many of the passengers as they could. 

Only thirty people died that day but the rest of the over one thousand humans on board would forever be devastated by what they had witnessed. The sinking of the Britannic became lost in the tragic headlines of World War I as Great Britain and the souls who had endured unimaginable terror simply went back to work in the war efforts of the day. It would later be learned that many of them had also worked on the Titanic and had somehow escaped the fate of death once again. 

The terrible irony of the sinking of the Britannic was that even with all of the precautions that had so carefully been included in her construction, the foibles of humanity took it down. That mine lurked as surely as the iceberg that tore the Titanic apart, only it was invisible and far more evil. A ship and its passengers on a mission of mercy became victims of a war that ushered in decades of tragedy for the world. The story of the Britannic is in some ways even more touching than that of the Titanic because it was an horrific example of man’s inhumanity to man.