Look for the Helpers

look for the helpers

I suppose that I am showing my age by admitting that much about the world today feels unfamiliar and uncomfortable to me. I hear a constant refrain of complaining about virtually every aspect of society. Gratitude for what we actually have is rarely mentioned. Instead grumbling about every little thing is the mode. I find the whining to be contrary to my nature and unlikely to bring answers to the real problems that we face.

I have no doubt that we are always in need of improvements, but I think we would get a great deal more accomplished if we would stop all the trash talk that is hurled back and forth and just get down to observing what is right about the world and using that information to correct the difficulties that need improvement. Instead we can’t even seem to get through a natural disaster or tragedy without folks ramping up our divisions instead of highlighting our goodness. The true test of our mettle is not to be found in the mistakes that we humans are bound to make, but in the positive contributions that we offer over and over again.

These days we allow the media and people with an ax to grind to create a number of self fulfilling prophecies of doom. When horrific events occur we spend far too much time highlighting “might have beens,” angry mobs, unintended slips of the tongue, and other such mistakes rather than looking for the helpers, finding the light. The truth is that from the beginning of humankind’s adventures on this planet there has been a kind of duel between those who would hurt us and those who would sacrifice for our welfare. In truth the later far outnumber the former but we tend to give more attention to the ugly side of life, especially of late.

When I was in a classroom I found that each group of students that I encountered was a microcosm of reality. The vast majority of children were well behaved and willing to learn. Invariably I encountered a kid who was filled with venom and determined to run the show with his/her unacceptable behavior. When I was somewhat inexperienced with such things I tended to engage in battles of wills that rarely ended well. It took me quite a while to learn that focusing on the goodness of the youngsters in my classroom was a far wiser thing to do. I took away the very attention that the trouble makers desired and instead heaped it upon the students who always tried to do the right thing with only minor lapses now and again.

I did not totally ignore the young people with major problems whose cries for help were masked in aggressiveness. I understood that their ugly behaviors were indicative of needs that had to be somehow met, but I also did not engage in public combat with them. I refused to turn my classroom into an unending debate over what was wrong. Instead I continually highlighted what was right and good. I looked for the goodness and embraced it publicly while working on the troubles quietly.

I suppose that we almost naturally pay more attention to outliers than to the average. A story of a single doctor who hurts patients trumps one about the thousands of miracles taking place every single day with the help of dedicated physicians. We see the flaws more quickly than the overall appearance of a situation. When a disaster strikes somewhere the big story is what the victims did not get rather than the overflow of kindness from countless strangers wanting to help. We make the mistake of lumping entire groups of people into baskets of “deplorables”  when a single gunman shoots up a venue. Like the first year teacher we yell at the entire class and punish them for bad behavior even as we know that most of them are not guilty of anything at all.

I am still haunted by memories of hurricane Harvey that hit my city of Houston with a vengeance. I was terrified during those days of unremitting rain. I watched images of the city filling with water as though some heavenly presence had forgotten to turn off a giant faucet. What I loved most about the local news coverage is that every single story focused on the helpers. We saw everyday heroes rescuing people that they did not know. There was a joint effort both during and in the aftermath of the disaster to reach out to anyone in need. While there might have been mistakes made it was not the time to belabor points about what should have or could have been done differently Instead we were treated to a vision of the very best of people and it helped us to weather the storm. By looking for the helpers we realized that we would ultimately be okay.

I don’t mean to paint an unrealistic picture of the world that does not include evil for it is most certainly present. What I do know is that horrific people and horrific acts are an aberration. Most immigrants are good, Most teachers are dedicated to their students. Most police officers are working to keep us safe while risking their own lives. Most teenagers want to become outstanding adults. Most humans try to be the best possible versions of themselves. While we have many imperfections they are not the whole story of who we are and yet they are the ones that we see in every headline and newsflash. They bring notoriety to the few who are bad while ignoring the good. Maybe when we see them our first inclination should be to avert our gaze and look for the helpers. It is in the goodness of people that we will find the answers to the problems that we hope to solve.     

Advertisements

I See You

I See You

I went to a fairly small high school in which we tended to know of everyone of our classmates, but often did not really know details about all of them. Some of my friends from that stage of my life are still very much part of my world, and what I have learned over the decades is that each of us have had to deal with difficulties both when we were young, and when we were adults. None of us have gone untouched by daunting challenges that sometimes took all of our reserves to overcome.

As I have aged I have had opportunities to get to really know some of the people who went to school with me who were once little more than acquaintances or names and faces in a yearbook. Even those that I thought had a golden touch have endured painful experiences, and many of them occurred even as they sauntered through the hallways of our school with smiles on their faces hiding the hurt and fear that was stalking them.

We are in a strange kind of era in which we almost appear to be vying to determine which people among us have been the victims of the most unjust tragedies. Certainly some among us have always had more resources for dealing with difficulties, but none of us have ever been entirely free of troubles. My brothers and I had a heavy dose of sorrow, poverty and exposure to mental illness but we also had more than a generous share of emotional support from our mother, our extended family, our neighbors, the people at our church, our teachers and our friends. We may have been thrown into the maelstrom more than we might have wished, and wondered at times if we would survive, but time and again we learned the very important lesson that we were never alone. That realization was more valuable than money or possessions or influence or privilege. In fact, we were quite young when we knew beyond a doubt that there is always is source of kindness and that often it comes from the most unexpected places.

The one thing that most people desire is to be seen and heard. I recently read a book that my grandson chose for his summer reading that reminded me of our human need to be noticed and honored for being exactly who we are. A Monster Calls is the story of a young man plagued by nightmares in the midst of his beloved mother’s battle with cancer. It is a gorgeous flight of fancy that speaks to our desire to be understood. There is no race or class that does not share the desire to be fully and totally accepted.

Just as the boy in A Monster Calls was filled with anger because he believed that nobody fully understood him, so too are many people in society today filled with rage because they feel misunderstood. They are mad about this or that and don’t want to take it anymore. They seem to be unaware of the fact that we all have been burdened with challenges beyond our control that have made our lives more difficult than we want them to be. They carry on because they want someone to empathize with their plights, some of which appear to be more deserving of our concern than others. In truth it is impossible to discern the difference between rotten apples and moldy oranges. Problems are problems and we all have them. When they pile up and become unbearable, which they tend to do in spite of our efforts, we simply want some compassion and for those around us to acknowledge our sorrows.

When humans feel abandoned they are more likely to lose hope. They lash out or devolve into depression. There is no telling where their thoughts of desperation will lead them. Sometimes they become ugly and violent versions of themselves. I always ponder when I encounter such a person what brought them to such a terrible place. I find myself wondering if someone along the pathway of their lives might have helped them to find positive ways of dealing with tribulations. I contemplate the possibility that they became so invisible that they broke.

I  have been greatly saddened by a tragedy that occurred near where my grandsons live. On a summer afternoon just before the start of school two boys the same age as my grandsons met in a park. One of them shot and killed the other. They were sixteen and my grandsons knew both of them from their high school. The shooter was in the same advisory period as theirs. The victim’s mother was an acquaintance of their mom’s. It hit all of us hard just as it did the teachers at the school. Everyone wondered what might have prevented such an horrific moment. Was there something that might have been said or done? What was the defining event when things began to go so terribly wrong?

We tend to operate as though laws and rules and allegiances are more important than individual lives, and yet there are stories after stories both in literature and history of people who were saved because someone witnessed their pain and did something meaningful to help them. Kindness often does wonders. I know for a fact that it made an enormous difference for me and my brothers when we were growing into adults. Just having someone see us and offer a hand taught us to be optimistic even in the darkest hours. Little acknowledgements were enough to sustain us.

I was reading about Latinas going to college and feeling different and a bit frightened when checking into their dormitories. It reminded me of my own college days. I was unable to live on campus. I went to the university in my city and commuted to and from school each day. I did not have a car but I had two dear friends who offered to get me there and take me back home. They went out of their way to help me.

I would have liked to have been part of college life with a dorm room and all of the activities associated with that experience, but I barely had enough money to cover my tuition which I paid from summer jobs and little bits of work here and there. I instead got something even better, a lifetime relationship with the two wonderful souls who made sure that I got to my classes. They saw me and they listened to me then and all the way into the present. I don’t know what I might have done without them, but I’ll never have to wonder because they were there.

Perhaps instead of growing irritated by those who are shouting about their pain and sorrow, we simply need to let them know that we do see them and we will listen to them. That is the first step in helping someone to find the way to a better life. I had angels who gave me that gift, I pray that other frightened souls will find someone willing to provide for them.

Those Kids

bad kids

A cousin shared a story from The Washington Post written by a teacher who considered the dilemma of THAT kid, the one that drives teachers crazy and worries the parents of the “good” children. I was sobbing by the time that I reached the end of the very well crafted piece because I thought of all of THOSE kids who crossed my path during my teaching career. They touched my heart when I taught them and to this very day I worry about what may have come of them. They were the youngsters whose lives were riddled with troubles that not even an adult should have to face. Their behavior all to often reflected the pain that they were feeling and the confusion that they riddled their minds in having to face situations that were beyond their control. I hope that I helped them in some way, but I also know that there were times when they frustrated me so that I let them down. I see their faces with those looks of longing for compassion that were often masked by actions that seemed so horrid.

The first of them was a child of only ten who disrupted class on a regular basis. Most did not know that she lived in dire poverty with absentee parents. She was followed by the nine year old boy whose mother left him to watch his little sister while she worked nights as a prostitute. There was the young man whose mother had attempted to set him on fire when he was only an infant and the girl whose uncle impregnated her when she was only twelve. I’ll never forget the teen who witnessed his father murdering his mother or the one whose mother shoplifted to keep the family from starving. They were all part of a band of children whose lives were often defined by poverty and parents struggling to fight their own demons. They did not start life as troublemakers. They did not want to be viewed as bad seeds. They were innocents who got chewed up by a world that they did not fully understand. In their fight for survival they asserted themselves and pushed back. They became angry and difficult to handle.

How many of us would have been able to endure some of the horrors that they faced? Fate had subjected them to ordeals that no child should ever encounter. They acted out. They behaved badly. They were screaming for someone to help them.

I did my best with most of them but sometimes I became tired and frustrated and passed them along in anger. I wanted them to be punished for ruining the calm of my classroom. I disliked them for the distractions that they were. I fell into the pattern that they had already experienced hundreds of times from adults, that of being ignored or punished for the sin of reacting to adversity the way most of us probably would given the circumstances of their lives. I feel guilt for the times when I gave up on them.

There was a young man from a decidedly dysfunctional family. He exuded a tough guy image. It was his way of coping with abuse by those who were supposed to love him. He made an ugly racist comment to another student. He claimed that he was only joking, but I knew that he was really just crying for help. Our answer was to expel him from our school. A counselor sobbed for him and begged us to reconsider. I was afraid to counter the majority opinion even though I did not believe that sending him away was an appropriate answer. I voted with the group rather than following my instincts. He only became worse because in a sense we had convinced him that he was as worthless as his parents constantly told him that he was. I still grieve over my lack of courage in defending him along with his braver advocate. He needed love at that moment, not rejection, but we we not willing to listen.

So it often is with THOSE students. We adhere without thought to sets of rules that do not take into account what is behind the reprehensible behaviors. We wash our hands in innocence insisting that exceptions only make matters worse. It’s easier to operate from words on a paper, set in stone without consideration of all of the facts.

I think of one of my very best principals, a woman who cautioned me to be flexible with my rules and consequences. She urged me never to paint myself into a corner. She warned me that there will always be those for whom the so called rules do not really apply. She was as wise as Solomon in guiding me when I was just a pup in the beginning of my teaching career. I understood what she meant as I met more and more of THOSE kids. I realized that I had to attempt to reach them rather than judge them. I had to love them as much as I did the ones who were no trouble at all.

I witnessed transformations. The boy who threw books and told me to F off graduated with honors as the president of his class. The young man who ran with gangs doing despicable things changed his ways and became a police officer. The kid who nobody could control went to college and earned multiple degrees because “somebody took the time to care.” Nobody should ever wantonly be tossed on the dustbin of society while they are still young. Our goal should be to redeem them rather than to urge retribution against them.

I still cry at the thought of what some of my students had to endure. I flinch with guilt at the realization of how I may have failed them too. I hope that I made a difference for most of them. I’d like to think that perhaps they are now doing well. I still love THOSE kids. I hope they know.

When One of Us Hurts

facesbottom_V2_tripleline

We can’t run and we can’t hide. Problems will find us no matter how hard we try to escape from them. Not only that, we can’t avoid the reality that all of us live in a symbiotic relationship even when we have never met each other. In fact, we intersect with all things on this earth and in our universe. The old adage that we feel a butterfly flap its wings in Africa is not that far fetched. Sooner or later the cumulative effect of our interactions and those of the natural world have an impact on us. To deny this simple truth is to threaten the very health of all humans and the survival of the earth.

We like to believe that when one person is hurting it has nothing to do with us. We may not have caused that individual’s problems, but there is almost always a kind of ripple effect that reaches out in all directions from someone with a shattered heart. In a million little ways each person has an impact not just on the people who know and love them, but on strangers who may not even realize their existence.

As parents we attempt to instill character and family values in our children. We often forget that they won’t always be with us. They will encounter people who may ultimately misguide or misuse them. Nothing hurts us more than seeing a loved one who has been degraded and disappointed by someone that they trusted. We would rather have to deal with something terrible ourselves than have to see family members or dear friends in pain, and yet such situations are very much part of human life. It’s critical that we teach our young how to work their way through the tough times because none of us fully escape them. It is impossible to be totally sheltered from hurt and betrayal.

Flexibility and resilience are two often ignored and underrated characteristics that help us to deal with tragedy. It’s critical that we take time to demonstrate to our young how to keep moving forward even when our path seems to be impossibly blocked. Providing them with a place where they feel free to vent and then communicate their fears is a first step in helping them to find solutions to the difficulties that plague them. Every person should understand the simple idea that there is always a way to resolve the conflicts in their lives. The outcome may be far different from anything they have ever imagined, but nonetheless a way of crawling out of the muck.

We don’t have to be filled with rainbows and unicorns and unrealistic expectations. Going to Disneyland is not always an answer to our prayers. Sometimes we have to endure tough times and work harder than we ever thought possible just to keep from falling into a pit of despair. It is in those times that we find our truest allies and friends and then it is incumbent upon us to always remember them when their moment of uncertainty occurs. We are in this crazy mixed up world together, and brawling over who is right and who is wrong only clouds the issues and delays solutions. Someone has to be the adult in the room.

Years ago my husband was critically ill with a disease that more often than not killed people back then. He was in the hospital for months undergoing chemotherapy in the hopes of a cure. I had two little ones at home that needed my care so I wasn’t always able to be with him. His mother on the other hand was able to sit by his side throughout his treatments. In all honesty I became jealous of her attention to him while I was stuck at home with the children. Even when I showed up at the hospital she took control of the situation and made me feel as though my concerns did not matter. I allowed a smoldering anger to build up inside until I was about to burst. I finally admitted my feelings to my mother who gave me absolutely perfect advice.

She reminded me that my mother-in-law loved her son as much as I loved my two daughters. She asked me to imagine how I would feel if one of my girls was in the hospital fighting to win a battle with a deadly disease. She said that this was not a time to have a contest of who loved my husband best because he was in a very difficult position and should not have to choose between his mother and his wife. Then she said that what was needed most was for someone to emerge as the adult in the room, someone who loved everyone so much that he or she was willing to step back and just go with the flow of things.

Of course she was not so subtly hinting that I needed to be that person. She suggested that I keep the home fires burning in my husband’s absence and let his mother sit by his side. She pointed out that each of us has a role to play in the many chapters of our lives and if we work together everyone will ultimately come out better. It was wise advice that I decided to follow. In the process I began to better understand just how interconnected we all were in the challenges that we face. I realized the love that prompted my mother-in-law’s seemingly overactive concern. Instead of thinking of how I was feeling, I began to empathize with her and with my husband. In that moment of understanding I saw the importance and the power of working as a team.

We delude ourselves if we believe that we can close our borders, lock our doors, hide in our rooms. The world will find us and if we have not embraced it before hand it will overtake us. For our own sakes and those of our children we must be willing to accept differing points of view and find ways to eliminate hurt and pain whenever we encounter it. When one of us hurts, all of us hurt and the best way to counter the suffering is to demonstrate compassion. One day it may be our turn to suffer and hopefully there will be unselfish souls to help us.

They Just Set Women Back

St Frances Cabrini

For many years in my adult life I was a member of St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church. I spent some of my happiest times there, making lifelong friends who literally changed me for the better. At one point I even became one of the Directors of Religious Education which was a groundbreaking move for the parish which had before only employed nuns in such positions. I was honored to have been chosen, but always felt humbled and a bit lacking in the ability to fill the shoes of the two inspirational religious ladies who had come before me. Not everyone in the community was happy with having lay people in charge of such an important program but the times were changing and it was incredibly difficult to find nuns willing to work at such jobs.

My co-leader and I met with a great deal of opposition and worked for an abysmally low salary. The Parish Council had yet to realize that they needed to balance out our pay with the reality that they were not furnishing us with a house, car and food as they had done for the religious women who before had literally lived at the church in a makeshift convent. Because I was able to make four times more working as a teacher I eventually left that job and upon my departure recommended my dear friend Pat as a replacement and that they actually pay her more than the four thousand dollars a year that they had given me. They understood and deferred to my wisdom in both choosing Pat and providing her with an income that was worthy of all of the hard work that the job required.

While I was St. Frances Cabrini Church I was always a bit too busy to learn much about the woman for whom the parish was named. It was not until much later that I took the time to read about her and that is when I understood that I should have made more effort to unravel her story while I was still in charge of the religious education of so many children. Indeed her life should be an inspiration to people of all faiths.

St. Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini was born in Italy the last of thirteen children near the midpoint of the nineteenth century. The times were quite difficult for her family which was hardworking but barely able to live adequately due to grinding poverty. Most of Mother Cabrini’s siblings died before reaching adulthood and she herself was always in poor health. Nonetheless she possessed a great faith in God and decided to dedicate her life to helping others by joining a religious group.

At first St. Frances was rejected by several orders because she was deemed too weak to handle the routine and rigors of religious life, but she persisted and finally found a place to begin her religious life. She proved to be incredibly dedicated to helping the poor. So much so that her work caught the eyes of the bishops in her country. They asked her to travel to the United States of America where millions of Italians were going in hopes of finding a better way of life. Unfortunately they rarely moved beyond New York City itself and the conditions in which they lived there were almost as bad as those they had left behind. Mother Cabrini agreed to lend her compassion and abilities to get things done for them.

While in New York City she worked tirelessly to help not just Italian immigrants but those of all kinds who were pouring into the country from all over the world. She founded schools, hospitals and orphanages that made a stunning difference in the lives immigrants struggling to get a foothold in the new land. She found time in the midst of her work to become an American citizen and before long she was taking to her talents to other cities and states like Chicago and places as far away as Colorado. In spite of recurring illnesses she was a tireless advocate for the downtrodden and by the time of her death at the age of sixty eight she had accomplished wondrous things for the poor. Eventually she would be named a saint by Pope Pius XII and be known as the patron of immigrants, the first ever American citizen to have such an honor.

Recently the wife of the mayor of  New York City headed an effort to honor women who had contributed to the development of the metropolis in a drive called She Built NYC. The intent of the program was to choose a group of women who would have statues erected in their names to correct the unbalance of male versus female icons. A committee was formed to determine who the outstanding women might be. In order to include the voice of the people of NYC a contest was held and not so amazingly St. Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini was the unmatched winner. Sadly the committee chose to ignore the votes and instead choose four women who did not even appear on any of the ballots that people sent to them. This was done with no explanation and has thus infuriated many of the people who had supported St. Frances Cabrini, particularly because she was such an advocate of the immigrant. Instead of honoring the peoples’ choice the committee decided to go with an abortion activist and two drag queens whom they deemed to be more in keeping with the intent of the project. 

I am saddened that the work of a woman as dedicated and giving as St. Frances Cabrini would somehow be considered less important and perhaps less woke than those with more radical contributions to the city. If the committee had always been looking for only those women who had upended traditions then that should have been made clear from the outset. Instead the title of the the drive is She Built NYC, and it is impossible to argue that building schools and hospitals for immigrants is not as meaningful as being a rebel. Thus a furor has arisen within the city of New York and across the country.

I have no problem with honoring unconventional women but I would argue that leaving one’s native country and traveling to New York City in the early years of the twentieth century to work in the bleak conditions of Italian ghettoes was as challenging a task as one might ever accept. To deny Mother Frances’ contribution to the City of New York because she was not audacious or minority enough is certainly to miss the essence of her work. This was a woman whose character was made of steel and she should be serving as an inspiration to women all over the world. It would have been courageous and proper for the committee to choose her, especially given that so many thought of her when considering who best deserved the honor. I’m sorry to say that the committee blew it in some contrived way of appearing to be progressive. Their efforts will forever be tainted by the kind of stereotyping that has challenged women for all time. They just set women back.