Our Moral Obligation

john lewis

Each of us look at the world a bit differently. Our beliefs about the world and the people around us begin in our childhoods. How much we are willing to trust others is often rooted in our relationships with our parents. Children model the behaviors that they see in their parents’ actions. Children adapt and learn inside their homes. If there is nurturing and ethical guidance they generally become confident, capable and compassionate adults. If there is neglect and physical or mental abuse they are more prone to struggle with dysfunctional behaviors. Bullies are not born. They are made.

Of course there are malfunctions of the brain that cause a variety of mental disturbances that do not reflect on family influences other than perhaps through genetics. Even in the best of situations mental illness can cause problems for both individuals and those close to them. Because we still have so much to learn about the how and why of our brain our treatments for psychological disorders are often limited and sometimes even ineffective. Still, the worst possible response to them is to simply ignore them.

As a teacher I often encountered young people whose behavior indicated either a psychological problem or a toxic home environment or both. Often such children were boastful, aggressive and mean. They had a kind of swagger and inflated sense of self importance. They dominated their peers and sought to dominate the teachers as well. They were masters of deceit and bravado. Generally nobody really liked them but followed them out of fear often emulating their mean spiritedness.

I worked in schools populated by gangs. There were leaders and their followers. It was a way of surviving in neighborhoods stalked by poverty and a lack of interest from the rest of society. Many of my students were virtually raising themselves and sometimes had the responsibility of caring for their younger siblings as well. Their fathers were in prison or had simply left the families to fend for themselves. Their mothers were sometimes “ladies of the night” addicted to alcohol and drugs. They had little guidance and had to navigate independently in the world far sooner than most of us ever must do. It was a harsh environment in which they learned how to adapt as best they could. Sometimes they became tough skinned, angry and mean.

I also worked in schools with middle to upper class students some of whom were living in emotional deserts. Their parents were well known and highly regarded in the community but they saw very little of them. Instead their care was relegated to hired helpers and they were given money to spend as they wished rather than time and attention. Their sense of what is important was confined to the satisfaction of their own desires. Their thoughts focused on things rather than people. They were boastful and domineering for many of the same reasons as the gang leaders I had encountered in my other schools. They were feared by their followers rather than loved.

Generally the healthy and happy children grow into successful adults who rise to the challenges of responsibility. Society has tended to value character over brutishness in selecting people to lead. From time to time a scarred and pitiless bully has incited the fears of enough of a citizenry to overtake the reigns of power but here in the United States we have mostly been wary of such persons. They have tended to be outliers operating on the fringes of influence but of late their tactics are more and more often viewed as a sign of strength and wisdom and even goodness. Meanness has been elevated to an acceptable way of life and it has been accompanied by an unwillingness to call it out.

The effect has been to divide us into “gangs,” tribes, groups warring with one another over our differences. Once beloved friends and family members are turning on one another simply because they have opposing points of view. Rational discussions have been replaced with accusations, stereotyping and name calling. Each side believes that the other is destroying our country. Politics have become a zero sum game that brooks no compromise. Our vocabulary is filled with hyperbole that only further increases our differences. We are being led by dysfunctional souls who were never taught how to love and lead with compassion. They care nothing for us and yet we blindly follow them because winning means more to us than doing what is right.

We are essentially on our own in one of the most critical times in our nation’s history. We now wee entire races of people described by single words and phrases like thugs, criminals, rioters, rapists, purveyors of kung flu. The most broken among us have taken up the cadence of hate. They attack an Asian woman in a grocery store as though she has single handedly caused all of the misery of our pandemic.

We see classifications of entire age groups of people with dismissive descriptions like snowflakes, millennials, Boomers. We more and more hear women being called nasty or “Karens” or skanks who have slept their way to the top. We can’t even agree on whether or not Covid-19 is a hoax or on the necessity of wearing masks to save lives without enduring vitriol. It is as though we have given up even trying to get along or be kind.

It would be easy to lay the blame for our difficulties at the feet of a single individual but our problems are much deeper than that. Ours is a nation of freedom and democracy. Nobody is forcing us to think or behave in a particular way. We have made our own choices and at least for now we are allowing and even encouraging the ugly behaviors. We have made those who would stand up for what is right and just afraid and in our frustration we are faced with the recklessness of protesting as a last resort. In other words we have brought this on ourselves and it will be up to us to end it.

Our nation is our child and we have been neglectful. We have looked away too often when problems arise. We have allowed inappropriate verbal tantrums when we should have corrected them. We have become afraid to do want we know is right. It’s time we model the behaviors that we want to see. We must demonstrate a willingness to work together with respect and dignity. We must once again value every person and relearn the ways of honoring our differences. As grown ups it’s time we set things right. It is our moral obligation to do so. 

    

Becoming the Warrior I Have Wanted To Be

man with fireworks
Photo by Rakicevic Nenad on Pexels.com

 

After more than fifty years I once again found a neighbor who had grown up across the street from me. Kathy and I used to play with our dolls on the driveway. She had one of the first Barbies and I had a pretty Madame Alexander doll called Suzette. We made furniture for our make believe ladies and created a fantasy world for them. Kathy was known as “Candy” back then and she seemed to know so much more about the world than I did.

Kathy’s father was an incredibly handsome man and her mother was a petite woman with a strong will and no fear. My father had died shortly before we moved across from Kathy. It was a great shock when Kathy’s father also died. Her mom and mine became quite close after that, often going out to together and joining an organization called Parents Without Partners. Once both of our families even traveled to Dallas together for a visit to the Six Flags amusement park.

Kathy’s family eventually moved away and I saw less and less of her until finally she and I had completely lost touch. Then came Facebook and when I spoke of my childhood pet, Buddy, she remembered how he used to climb our fence and wander around the neighborhood sporting his summertime haircut. After that I followed her posts and eventually suggested that we have lunch together. We met at a local Mexican restaurant and spent four hours catching up on the details of what life had been like for each of us. It was one of those amazing moments when it felt as though our last conversation had been only a day or so before.

Kathy is much like her mother and I am like mine. Both of them had to be strong women after the death of their husbands and both of them were extraordinarily compassionate, but Kathy’s mom was someone who never seemed to worry what anyone might think of her. She simply did whatever she felt was right whereas my mother was quieter and more circumspect, often worrying about the possibility of offending. In truth I secretly admired Kathy’s mom and often wished that I had the fortitude to be more like her. It seemed as though she would be willing to stand up to the devil himself and I thought that was quite grand.

When my mother and Kathy’s mother were spending so much time together my mom encountered a man that she had known from her youth. Naturally they recognized one another and began a friendship based on their common history. After a time they went on a date. At the end of that first evening my mother swore that she really did not like him and that she would gently end their relationship before it became too complex. Instead my mother’s heart was so big that she felt sorry for him and was not able to turn him down when he kept calling her. Before long they were spending more and more hours together and she had little time for Kathy’s mom. I suppose that is part of the reason why Kathy and I drifted apart.

Of late I have marveled at how much alike Kathy and I are. I suppose that the hardships of our youth after our fathers died both strengthened us and made us more understanding of anyone who struggles. We both assumed adult roles at very young ages when our peers were enjoying more traditional lives of fun and limited responsibility. At times we both found ourselves in the position of being more like parents to our younger siblings. Eventually we became the caretakers for our mothers both of whom died fairly young. We experienced a rather large share of tragedy but it did not harden us, instead it made us more aware of the suffering of others.

I have been admittedly saddened by the last few months with the pandemic continuing to sicken and take lives. I have watched with utmost compassion as Black Americans struggle to demonstrate that racism continues to stalk them in ways that we might not always notice. So much pain has bubbled to the surface of our society and instead of coming together we appear to be divided into camps. Much like my mom often did I have shed more than my share of tears over what I see happening. My usually optimistic personality has been challenges by the realities that I see. I have witnessed the sorrow of those who are having a very difficult time right now and it pains me.

I normally write uplifting blogs because I know that my readers will enjoy them. I tried that at the beginning of our national ordeal but somehow my happy words had a hollow ring and then I noticed Kathy being as honest as usual about what she saw happening in our country. She was  bold and unconcerned with other people’s opinions just as she and her mother had always been. I knew that it was time for me to quit wishing that I were more like them and take a leap of faith by actually following their lead. I realized that it was time for me to speak the truths in my heart because one of the things that has been bothering me the most is how so many people are attempting to look away from the facts that are creating the despair in our nation.

I have lost some of my most faithful readers and puzzled many of my long term friends and family members with my newfound determination to speak my mind. I can no longer sit meekly by cloaking my beliefs in happy and pleasing phrases that are designed to make everyone feel good. There is a poison in our society that returns again and again because our nation has not yet addressed the issues with truth and reconciliation. So many speak of freedoms and patriotism and then complain about making sacrifices so that everyone will enjoy the fullness of liberty. Systems and icons and words continue to hurt people among us and many in our country have an unwillingness to even try to understand and address matters that even our founding fathers attempted to ignore. There is a national tone deafness that is shamefully toxic. Kathy has been unafraid to point these things out. She has given me the courage to do the same.

There is a bit more to my story. It is about the man who for a time overtook my mother’s life. He was a boorish and brash individual, so unlike anyone I had ever known. He was hateful in almost every utterance that came from his mouth. He was a bitterly unsuccessful man who blamed his failures on others. He belonged to a racist organization and had convinced himself that all of the woes of society were derived from Black people attempting to be equal to whites. He mentally abused my mother until she eventually had a psychotic break. She was afraid of him but unable to get away from him. My uncles had to convince him to leave her alone. Even in his absence he stalked her mind. 

I suppose that I feel as though our country is now being led by a man so small that he is unwilling to take responsibility for his own actions. Instead like that pitiful man who broke my mother’s beautiful spirit our president is abusing the most vulnerable in our country.  I have heard the kind of language and rhetoric that our president uses before and I know that it is very dangerous. I feel compelled to speak out because I failed to do that for my mother even as I witnessed her being destroyed. Now I have become a warrior like Kathy and her mother. I refuse to sit back and allow our country to be destroyed. I will search for and speak the truth because I love America just as I loved my mom. 

Becoming the Helpers, Healers and Caretakers

person wearing white long sleeved top
Photo by Tatiana on Pexels.com

We are meant to be social. We form communities. We join groups. We have friends. It is the way of being human. Suddenly we have been forced into a state of isolation by a virus that is not even visible to the eye but which may lurk in any corner through which we pass. This fact changes our plans, cancels traditions, upends our lives. We watch as our world appears to be descending into chaos and confusion. We just want to go back to normal but it feels as though our efforts to do so are thwarted again and again. We are disappointed, confused, sad, maybe even angry. We want to blame someone. Surely we should be able to rise above all of this. Who is at fault? When will we feel safe again?

The times are like no other even when we desperately attempt to make them so by ignoring or even doubting the evidence before us. We think that if we just stay positive and talk about something else we may find a semblance of the world as we wish it to be. We wonder why people cannot just focus on prayer and happy thoughts. We want to be calm. We want serenity now. We cannot understand why some among us insist on stirring up trouble. We want lazy summer days and laughter. We are tired and scared even though our bravado attempts to tell a different story.

We have people using this moment to demonstrate the magnificence of humanity. They are helpers, caretakers, healers. They are compassionate, selfless souls. They use this time to do the heavy lifting that keeps our society working as much as possible. They faithfully carry on even as they know that there is danger in doing so. They cure and nurse and teach and cook and clean and deliver and complete the payrolls. They make things, build things, repair things. They wear masks and wash their hands and follow uncomfortable guidelines out of the love that is apparent in their work. They face the problems that they encounter not to glorify themselves but to celebrate the value of every human being.

We also have people who are sadly using this moment in selfish ways. They stir up hate and divisions to cement their own power. They sow seeds of discontent. They appear to be unconcerned by the needs of others. They engage in false dichotomies and blame. Instead of taking positive steps to be part of the solution, they spend their time accusing others of bringing a scourge on our land. They point to the worst aspects of every situation rather than focusing on what is working and what is good. They seem to be tone deaf, insensitive, uncaring.

We know that our present state of fear and unrest is unsustainable. We will eventually have to face down the demons that plague our society whether they be microbes or beliefs. We might learn from the helpers, caretakers and healers. No problem is ever solved by being ignored and some difficulties require much patience, hard work and even pain to overcome. We might begin by agreeing to be guided by goodness rather than self centered motivations. We may need to make uncomfortable changes to set things right. We will need to look ahead to the future while learning from the past. We will do well to rely on the kind of experts and knowledge that have moved humankind forward in the past. We must be willing to open our minds rather than clinging to outmoded and ineffective ways of doing things. A brighter future is possible but only if we set aside ignorance and hate.

I am an optimist but that does not mean that I only allow happy thoughts to enter my mind. Sometimes I have to walk through darkness before I see the pinpoint of light ahead. I am religious but I also believe that our institutions devoted to the praise and glory of God are sometimes too rule driven and not centered enough on the preciousness of people. Just as I do not think that it is right to take the life of even the unborn, so too do I see it as our duty to fight for justice for anyone on earth who is being abused by word or deed. In our own country we have too long found excuses for the deplorable treatment of an entire race of people who were brought here in chains. We may not be guilty of racism of our own but we have certainly been guilty of allowing the continued glorification of those who fought to keep slavery alive. We must be as willing to admit to that wrong as we are willing to confess our personal sins. It is our duty as believers in the words of Jesus to finally embrace our Black brothers and sisters with the unconditional love that they deserve.

The truth is that we are now engaged in a battle for lives being attack by Covid-19 and lives being attacked by continued “isms.” If we are to become a greater nation of the kind imagined by Abraham Lincoln and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. we must stop fighting with one another. We need to proudly don our masks out of love. We need to value the life of every person on this earth out of love.  When we see or hear hurtful behavior we must decry it out of love. We must become the helpers, healers and caretakers out of love. 

Becoming Profiles In Courage

congress

To the members of the House of Representatives and the Senate of the United States of  America:

Dear Sir or Madame:

I recently penned a letter to President Trump offering some unsolicited advice regarding  the kind of behavior that we need from our nation’s chief executive during this unprecedented time of pandemic, social unrest and economic difficulty. It has occurred to me since I offered my views to him that in reality his duty as the president is to be an administrator, not someone enacting rules and laws. Sadly during the tenure of the last several presidents there have been far too many executive actions taken in the absence of actual lawmaking from your chambers. As a result it all too often feels as though we have one person deciding how to approach the nation’s many problems much like a monarch might do while all of you act more like presidential lackeys or critics than actual lawmakers. The phrase “do nothing Congress” seems quite apt in describing the nature of the standoff between republicans and democrats in the legislative branch of government. The result is that most of the country’s pressing problems are being mostly ignored by the men and women elected to represent us. Instead for years now we have endured a patchwork of temporary directives announced by our presidents to repair the damage done by the inactivity on your part.

It has been far too long since I have observed any efforts in Congress to work together for the good of the nation. A while back you attempted to pass a law to reform immigration and you even came close to a compromise that would have created a pathway to citizenship for immigrants and the dreamers but in the end you froze under pressure from your more vocal so called bases and ended up doing nothing. Somehow it seemed better to you to just let the problem fester and grow while President Obama decided to protect the dreamers by executive action and President Trump used his power to divert taxpayer money to building a wall. Years after the moment when a bipartisan immigration bill was on the brink of passing, we still await a permanent solution and waste precious time and money on stop gap measures.

We have watched time after time as you have battled with one another over the budget with ridiculous scenes of a Senator reading from a children’s book to filibuster rather than to work out a deal good for the people. You have special investigative panels seeking information over and over again but in the final analysis they seemingly accomplish nothing. Even in the midst of a pandemic you only seem capable of sending out one time checks to some of the citizens without regard as to who might actually need the assistance at the moment.

You have witnessed the social unrest that has bubbled over in cities and towns and the best you seem to be able to do is sponsor bills declaring Junteenth to be a national holiday. Rival legislation offered in the democrat controlled House and the republican controlled Senate is not even allowed to see the light of day. Efforts to actually do something are ignored without so much as an open discussion that might demonstrate a real intent to create meaningful and systematic change. Instead you appear to compete with one another for the most righteous indignation and pontification. None among you seem to have the courage to actually cross the aisle to insist that everyone work together to legislate the badly needed changes. As usual you talk and talk and talk but get nothing of substance done. Then you complain and worry about presidential overreach depending on which party holds the executive reins at the time. With your abdication of the responsibilities of legislation you have turned the role of the president into a monarchy.

I know that there are fringe groups that exert great control over each of you with the threat of taking away your office if you do not follow their dictates. I would like to suggest, however, that your duty is not to be herded like lambs to the slaughter but to have enough courage and character to do what is necessary for the American people. You should be less beholden to the current thinking of a party or the president and more concerned with passing laws that repair the flawed and broken institutions that are demanding your attention. If you were working in any other capacity you would all be fired for dereliction of duty. When the members of any organization cannot get past the stage of norming and storming that group is doomed to failure.

I respectfully suggest that each and everyone of you read the duties of each branch of government as outlined in the Constitution. Then I recommend that you take back the powers invested in you and begin a process of repairing the ridiculous divisions that have left you unable to address the pressing problems that now face us. There are real people who feel forgotten and ignored who need your help. They can no longer accept your antics as an excuse for inaction. The grandstanding and partisanship and executive ordering needs to stop and that will only happen if you decide to finally do your jobs.

I am weary of knowing what you are going to say and do before you even show up for legislative sessions. You have only two minds, democrat and republican. You are puppets being animated by Mitch McConnell and Nancy Pelosi and Donald Trump. Cut those strings and think for yourself, think about this country and its people. Take back your role and begin the work of providing us with the common sense laws that we need. Remind the president that his duty is to enforce the legislation, not to create it through sleight of hand. Let’s see who loves this country enough to become a profile in courage.

Dear Sir

purple mountian

President Donald J. Trump                                                                                                            White House                                                                                                                      Washington D.C.                                                                                                                          United States of America

Dear Sir,

I am an American who loves this country with every fiber of my being even as I realize that it has problems which must be addressed. I am only a few years younger than you are. When we were  children the world was recovering from a terrible world war. Our elders had been heroes fighting in Europe and the Pacific for the very existence of democracy and justice. We grew up hearing of the horrors of autocratic leaders that lead to the murder of millions of innocent souls. What we heard less about was the unfair treatment of citizens in our own country whose ancestors had once been slaves. We were young and lived in a white bubble with our privilege of freedom to go wherever we wanted whenever we wanted. Only now and again did we witness hints of the inequities in our society and so in our minds the America of our youth was a beautiful thing, a safe and lovely world. We did not yet know of the injustices that some of our fellow citizens with darker skin were enduring even as we reveled in our own safety.

I was born and raised in Houston, Texas. My father was a college educated man who provided our family with luxuries that I took for granted until he died suddenly when I was only eight years old. I quickly learned what it was like to worry that my family’s most basic needs would be difficult to meet, but even in our greatly reduced economic situation I knew that we were better off than many Americans and so I began to better understand the plight of the poor and suffering.

I was mostly sheltered from the racism that existed nearby me. It was only when we would ride a bus downtown to enjoy a Saturday of shopping for sales in the basement of Foley’s department store that I saw the water fountains and restrooms marked with signs for “whites” and “coloreds.” I found myself wondering why the black people on the bus had to sit away from the rest of us. I knew them only from such brief encounters because they lived in neighborhoods segregated from mine. I only saw them when they came to clean the houses or work in the yards of white friends. Even as a child I felt an element of mystery and injustice in their situation but nobody really spoke of such things with little ones. They must have believed that we were too ignorant to see the evidence of prejudice that was so clear to me.

The first I heard of the civil rights movement was just before my father died. We had gone to visit my grandparents in Arkansas and there was talk of integrating the schools. My father and grandfather would sit on the front porch of the house discussing the pros and cons of the situation while I was shuttled away into the kitchen with my grandmother. I suppose they thought I was too young to hear about such things but I got enough information to begin to question so much about what we were doing to an entire group of people who had long suffered from abuse.

By the time I was in high school the civil rights marches, demonstrations and sit-ins were in full force. I watched the progress with great joy and anticipation even as I heard whispers from adults who were worried that the world as they had known it was about to change for the worst. There were great divisions in our country even as a sense of hopefulness began to spread from sea to shining sea.

In college my friend Claudia and I were active in the continuing civil rights movement. We marched and campaigned and lived in the hope that the stains of slavery and segregation would be eradicated forever. We listen to Mohammed Ali speak on our campus. He was still Cassius Clay back then and he would soon be expressing his right to freedom by refusing to submit to the military draft. It was his way of bringing attention to the inequities that were still holding our nation back from the greatness that had been the set forth in the ideals in our Declaration of Independence and the Emancipation Proclamation. We were still struggling to achieve a goal that should have been insisted upon as far back as 1776 but was compromised to satisfy those who used slaves for their economic betterment.

I entered the adult world thinking that we had resolved the problems of our Black citizens. I went about living my life and created my own little bubble of satisfaction. The world seemed to be a very happy place for everyone. I welcomed Black children to my neighborhood and I taught them in the schools where I worked. I shared stories with my Black colleagues and entertained them in my home. It was not until a group of my Black students and I prepared for a school sponsored civil rights tour of the south that I began to hear of the inequities and fears that continued to stalk even the most highly educated and economically secure Black people that I know. In transparent conference after conference they related their experiences and I knew then that we had left so much work undone.

So here we are now in a state of unrest in the midst of a pandemic as people not just in the United States but across the globe insist that somehow we must begin the dialogue and the processes of eliminating racism that is still inherent within our systems. We know that we cannot dislodge discrimination in all individual hearts, but we can and should attempt to eradicate it from our public institutions. The Black Lives Matter movement is not about the exclusion of all other lives but an insistence that we once and for all must admit that too often Black lives do not matter as much as ours. When athletes take a knee during the National Anthem they are not attempting to dishonor veterans but rather to bring attention to the reality that we are often prone to look away when Black lives are undervalued. We do not see such incidents as our problem because after all we are good people who love everyone. Sadly by ignoring the situation we contribute to the abuse. Just as we would report adults who mistreat children, so too must we take action against people and systems that are cavalier with the lives of our Black citizens. 

Mr. President, the throngs of people in the street are generally peaceful and their cause is a beautiful thing. They are protesting for the very soul of this country and in many ways they are more intent on making America great that your supporters. They are not thugs or destroyers or looters. The millions of earnest souls across the country are risking their own safety in an attempt to rebuild and redefine the systems that continue to ignore the facts surrounding the history of slavery and segregation. They are drawing attention to the racism that continues in far too many corners of the country.

If you truly want to make America great then I implore you to set your divisive rhetoric aside and serve as a model of compassion and understanding. We are all hurting and we desperately need a leader who is willing to bring us together, not taunt us to fight one another. This is a powerful moment in our nation’s history when we might once and for all admit to the egregious mistakes of the past and move forward by repairing the institutions that continue to ignore the discrimination that breeds in their midst. Truly loving this country means that we will not enable its flaws to fester and grow. Loving the United States of America means coming together to repair the damage of four hundred years of looking the other way. What a glorious thing it would be for all of us to march into the Promised Land together at last. Seize the opportunity to listen and to hear the cries for what they truly are. 

Your sincerely,                                                                                                                                         A proud citizen of the United States of America

 

(Please Note: For those who may think that my naiveté knows no bounds, I do understand that this letter is a dream but it outlines realities and hopes that I do not think any of us can afford to ignore. We must move beyond sound bites and self interests and insist on doing the right thing. This must also include those in the halls of power. Let freedom ring.)