When In The Course

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It always amazes me how we humans generally follow the rules. On any given day millions of people adhere to speed limits, stop at red lights even if there is nobody around, stay inside their designated lanes. There is always an implied threat of being caught and given a citation for breaking the law, but mostly people do what they are supposed to do because they realize that the statutes have been set in place for safety and the common good. We innately understand the value of working together for the benefit of all even if it is sometimes a bit inconvenient.

There are thousands of examples of how most of us know, understand and appreciate conformity to the directives that keep our society running smoothly. Now and again, however, we encounter situations in which it becomes uncomfortable to simply sit back and adhere to the status quo. In those moments we feel a grip in our stomaches and ask ourselves what our role should be. Do we sit back and quietly watch or do we rise up to voice our concerns? When is it best to avoid the fray, and when must we say something lest we no longer be able to gaze at ourselves in the mirror? How do we decide which aspect of a complex disagreement is the most right and just?

Since I am a huge fan of history I tend to be a documentary fangirl. Netflix is all too aware of my viewing preferences, and they continuously alert me to any new features that are available for my viewing pleasure. Recently they suggested that I might enjoy a program about Winston Churchill and his role during World War II. The story began at a time when much of the world was doing its best to ignore the warning signs that Adolf Hitler was a maniacal and dangerous dictator. Churchill was one of the few who consistently voiced concerns about the direction in which Germany was heading, in part because he was so vocal, Churchill’s views were initially thought to be a bit kooky. Nobody wanted to engage in controversy, and doing so was thought to be risky. Thus most of the world donned rose colored glasses and went about their routines hoping that the shenanigans in Germany would at worst be little more than an annoyance. Of course we know that such was not the case and Churchill was proven to be the right voice at the right time. His analysis of Adolf Hitler was insightful and he never quelled his criticisms of the dangers that he saw unfolding in Europe. If not for his steadfast diligence, Britain might have endured the same fate as Czechoslovakia, Poland and France.

Churchill somehow sensed that quietly accepting Adolf Hitler and hoping that he would simply fade away was an untenable stance. He raised his voice at a moment in time when it was unpopular to do so. People were tired. They had lost much in World War I. They worried that becoming divisive might shatter the peace that was precarious at best. it felt better to just ignore the craziness, keep the boat from rocking. Eventually the entire world would be forced to take a stand, choose a side, something that most had hoped to avoid. The question that lingers to this day is what people might have done from the very beginning to prevent the carnage that ensued. How different would that phase of history have been if Hitler had been defied not just by other nations, but by the German people from the moment that his ideas began to appear unhinged? 

The problem with such wishful thinking is that it is utterly useless after the fact. It is only in the moment that each of us has an opportunity to be heard and to do what we believe to be right. The trick is in unravelling the complexities of a situation and reaching the heart of the matter. To be willing to stand on a mountain top warning our fellow human beings of danger, we must first believe with all of our hearts that we will not be viewed as just another boy crying wolf. We must sense that what we have to say is so important that to secret it away in our hearts would be morally wrong. In such instances we sense that we must bend or even fracture the mores and rules that confine us so that our warnings might be heard.

My Facebook wall has been filled with impassioned pleas for love and understanding of late. Mothers worry about the contentious world in which their children must grow into adults. It feels as though hate is festering in the most unexpected places. We can’t even get a sense of well being from listening to our president, because he is more concerned with defending himself than being a beacon of hope. It feels as though we are being torn apart as a nation and within our relationships. So many are choosing to lock themselves away from it all. Only a few brave souls are willing to take the heat of criticism by voicing their concerns. The rest try to pretend that the unrest will soon all just go away, but even recent history has shown us all too clearly that the issues that trouble us only become more and more complex when we ignore them. Furthermore, they are rarely resolved when we are unable to find ways of working together.

I truly believe that the evil of this world represents a small minority, but it is nonetheless up to all good people to keep it in check. The hate that we see must always be called out for what it is. There can be no excuses, no watering down of our contempt. We cannot just look the other way when we see it, for it is when the good people join forces that they transform into an immovable power. They cannot be stopped until the depravity is eradicated. This truth has been demonstrated time and time again, so I wonder why we are so often reluctant to use it.

The fact is that there are groups of people in our country today who advocate the most detestable ideas possible. Under the guise of protecting an object, a statue, such groups held an abhorrent rally in Charlottesville that ultimately resulted in the death of an innocent young woman and the injury of others. Their only intent was to spread their poisonous ideas, not to somehow save the history of the south. They travel from venue to venue hoping to gain attention and new followers. They besmirch the legacy of the generation who defeated Hitler and all for which he stood when they parade through towns imitating the one of the most vile regimes that the world has seen. They are petty and lost souls who fester in anger, blaming imagined  slights for their own inconsequential lives. Any good thinking person should shun them and their despicable ideas, not find excuses for their behavior and thereby fuel their momentum. In other words, this is a watershed moment in which decent people must stand together to let such groups know that we will not accept their torches, their Nazi salutes, or their philosophies of hate. We will not allow them to enlist us in their misdirected causes. We will not find ways to mitigate their responsibility for spreading a disease of prejudice. We will make them the pariahs that they deserve to be.

Don’t turn away. Don’t tune out. Sometimes we have to make noise. Sometimes we have to demonstrate our courage. Our children are watching. Let’s show them what to do when in the course of human events we have no other choice than to stand firmly, proudly and publicly for what is right.

Unleashing Horror

tsar-bomba1I am a child of the Cold War. I grew up hearing an air raid siren every Friday at noon. I practiced crouching under my desk along with my classmates in readiness for a possible nuclear attack. I watched movies that featured apocalyptic scenarios and creatures that had grown out of proportion from exposure to radiation. I saw reports of individuals building bomb shelters and observed adults worrying about the Cuban Missile Crisis. The threat of attack from Russia seemed to be a fixture of my childhood and teen years. Somehow the danger was so insistent that I and most of my peers actually began to ignore it. Of greater importance to us were the young men being drafted to fight and sometimes die or be injured in Vietnam. Violence was featured on the nightly news programs that entered our living rooms each evening, but we never became immune to the horrific images that we saw. Instead we grew weary of the constant hints that one day our world might explode. More than a few of us became peaceniks ready to do whatever it took to keep our country and our young men and women out of harm’s way.

For a time things settled down into an illusory peace. It felt as though the whole world agreed that we all loved our children too much to keep fighting. Unfortunately the lull in the militarism was brief and once again we have a generation of young people who have literally spent their entire lives hearing of wars, terrorism and the threat of nuclear annihilation. It is a horrible place for them to be. It takes great mastery to shelter our kids from the worry of horrors. Even with our best efforts they will no doubt hear of the realities of the world just as I did, and it will worry them.

There is great saber rattling taking place between the United States and North Korea that is frankly far too reminiscent of the fear mongering that forced me and my classmates to endure those drills underneath our desks. The power of nuclear warfare that was unleashed at the end of World War II has been a specter that won’t quite go away. The arms race has placed dangerous weapons in the hands of tyrants capable of doing very unexpected things. This makes for great tension and requires great diplomacy and skill in reading the minds of those who would harm us. We are presently engaged in a nuclear chess game with potential consequences that are almost unbearable to consider.

It would have been impossible for my generation to spend all of our time concerned that one day our civilization as we know it might be wiped out with the push of a button. We had to believe that our leaders and the leaders of other nations would take their responsibilities for the safety of their people seriously. John Kennedy and the men and women that he had assembled in his cabinet proved to be more than worthy of the task. They averted what might have been a disaster of Biblical proportions. The true story of the thirteen days in October in which they stared down the Russians is one of courage and rationality. I think that after that particular occasion most of us continued to live our lives confident that we would never have to actually witness another nuclear attack like the one that was rained down on Japan. We grew more and more aware that with great power comes even more responsibility. Our leaders seemed up to the task.

I hate to admit this but many of my old childhood fears have come back to haunt me since President Trump has decided to take such a belligerent stance in reaction to learning that North Korea has the capability of attacking the United States. The game that he and Kim Jong Un are playing is high stakes, and we can only hope that it will remain in the realm of schoolyard taunting. The leader of North Korea is young and notoriously unstable. He may have little real appreciation for the consequences of launching a nuclear attack, but President Trump is of my generation and he should know full well that even thinking about such a thing is worrisome. His words may be designed to scare Kim Jong Un, but I wonder if they also might push the dictator to demonstrate that he is not afraid. Dealing with someone known for being unpredictable takes great finesse and I am not convinced that remarks about destroying a country are the best way to prevent the ultimate tragedy.

I find myself holding my breath just a bit but also trying to grasp why we humans would ever have put ourselves into such a precarious position. Surely we have evolved enough to realize that the horror of war never ends well for anyone, and yet here we are again dealing with evil in its worst forms, all so that a few may keep or seize power.

I would feel far more comfortable if the men and women that we have elected to lead us would show signs of coming together in such dangerous times. Now is not the moment to argue with one another, but rather a moment for uniting to find ways to keep the world safe. The idea that one individual is allowed to voice his opinions without counsel or a filter is appalling to me. Where are the profiles in courage that we so desperately need?

Innocents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were killed and injured because their leaders boasted that they would never surrender if it meant losing every man, woman and child. Even when it was apparent that the war had been lost the Japanese kept fighting, and so the decision was made to put an end to the conflict in the most terrible possible way. I shudder each time I think of what happened. A door was opened to unspeakable horrors that have threatened mankind ever since. Our goal should be to insure by hook or crook that nobody ever again has to endure such terror. Instead we seem intent on building our own arsenals even as we dare others to invest in their own. We appear to be at a standoff which is good, but what happens if someone finally decides to test the fates?

In the past when we still remembered how truly terrible a nuclear strike can be we asked ourselves who we wanted as our protector in the event of a possible nuclear holocaust. We have tended to neglect such thoughts of late. Perhaps it is time that we assert ourselves once again and be certain that there will be a steady hand at the helm. If that person is indeed President Trump, then more power to him, but if it is not then I urge the members of Congress to speak up now. We are all depending on cool heads to prevail. Let us pray that this crisis too will pass. God help us all if anyone makes a mistake. God help us to find the kind of men and women who have brought us safely through danger in the past. I want to believe that we will rise to the challenge. Our children are depending on it.

A Not So Honorable Guest

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I’ve been quite good about leaving politics out of my blogs of late. After all who really cares what I think about such things? Most people enjoy their freedom to have their voices heard in the ballot box, but not so much in public discourse. Our thoughts about government tend to be a private thing. Just as with religion most of us don’t care to mix our work and play with our deepest political thoughts. I do believe, however, that from time to time we are remiss if we do not speak out when we sense that a wrong has taken place. After all, the silence of otherwise good people allowed the concentration camps to flourish under Adolf Hitler’s rule. Certainly those who knew what was happening feared for their own lives and thus kept quiet, but what if large numbers of people had spoken out en masse? Would the horrific murders have continued? How many individuals working together are needed to stop injustice? Didn’t the civil rights movement of the sixties teach us that there is power in united voices? When does the time come to ignore the consequences and stand up and be counted?

I’ve not been shy about admitting that I am not a fan of President Donald Trump. Nonetheless I have been very respectful of those who earnestly believe that he will bring some good to our country. I have also noted that I generally think that it is best to support our leaders. Thus I have been silent for the most part even as I worried about the state of the union with such an amateurish individual as its chief executive. I mostly ignore the tweets and rants and firings and faux pas from our POTUS, but he recently did something that really bothers me.

It’s no secret that I have dedicated the greater part of my life to working with young people. Our future depends on helping them to develop principled lives. It is our duty as adults to model the traits that will help them to be successful as humans. We must help them to understand the value of honesty, loyalty, hard work, compassion, and such. I have learned that the only way they will listen is by observing our character in action. For that reason I have always counseled other adult leaders to walk the walk of their talk. It is imperative that we demonstrate the values that we want our children to have.

I have four grandsons who have learned some incredible lessons through their participation in the Boy Scouts of America. Two from them earned the rank of Eagle Scout and the other two are in the process of reaching that distinction. They follow the example of their father who is as upstanding as anyone that I have ever known. He has taught his sons to be young men of the highest integrity, mostly because they have seen him in action day after day. Membership in the Boy Scouts has enhanced the foundation upon which their character has been built, and has provided them with opportunities to be leaders. Our family has been very pleased and proud of the wonderful experiences that scouting has given them.

Thus it was with profound displeasure that I learned of President Trump’s speech at the annual Boy Scout Jamboree. It is traditional for the President of the United States to address the gathering or send a representative to do so. It has historically been understood that this speech is supposed to inspire the scouts to become their best selves. It is not meant to be a political opportunity. In the past those who have spoken have understood this quite well and made the occasion an enjoyable one for the young people. Enter Donald Trump who chose to bring his own personal politics and travails front and center. While he eventually settled into a more traditional celebration of the goals of scouting, he found it necessary to make digs about his predecessor, Barack Obama, his opponent, Hillary Clinton, and the press. To the dismay of many his remarks even encouraged some of the boys to boo and cheer.

His speech should be an embarrassment for both him and the Boy Scouts. His politics besmirched the unity and purpose of the occasion and caused many to question the role of scouting, which is a genuine travesty given that so many who participate hold political views that are diametrically opposed to his. It was a very uncomfortable moment that should never have happened. If the young men learned anything it was that one need not hold fast to time honored principles to get ahead in this world, and that is a tragedy. President’s Trump total disregard for the spirit of the Jamboree is unforgivable.

I’ve held my tongue until it is black and blue from the tooth marks that I have left on it. When will this man begin to show respect for the people of this country and quit worrying so much about himself? His immaturity and petulance is embarrassing and only appears to grow worse each day. If he really desires to make America great again, the first change that he needs to make is within himself. Sadly it’s unlikely that a seventy something year old man is capable of a character makeover. I can’t help but wonder what kind of horrible message he is sending to the young people of our country, and I find myself thinking that if he can’t control himself then perhaps it is up to the rest of the adults in the room to remind the kids that we shouldn’t act the way he does. In imparting that advice I intend to include myself, which is why I feel the necessity of stating loudly and clearly that he was and has been very wrong in his behavior over and over again.

It is one thing to be brave and strong in the face of injustice. We need our fighters for they are the ones who have set us aright throughout history. It is another to just be a loudmouthed and selfish braggart, which is the impression that President Trump is leaving wherever he goes. It is not good for our nation and it is heartbreaking to me that there appears to be little hope that he will rise to the requirements of the job and begin to show a semblance of dignity.

I hope that the Boy Scouts of America will not suffer too much backlash from the fiasco that recently transpired. In spite of fits and starts here and there it is still an amazing organization. It’s too bad that someone who had the power to inspire instead chose to inject so much whining and negativity into what should have been a grand moment. I hope that the leaders and the parents take the time to let the boys who were present know that scouting is not about backbiting, complaining or boasting. There are lessons that might be learned even from such a negative event. If on the other hand nothing is said the lasting impression may result in unintended consequences that will not be good either for the boys or for the organization. I sincerely pray that this is handled properly.

All of us have had childhood experiences with adults who should have been better than they were. We took note of their bad behaviors and in many cases did our best not to repeat them. This is my wish for the scouts. They have just witnessed how a true leader does not act when he/she is an honored guest at a special occasion.

When Children Lose Hope

Sad ChildA recent study reported that for the first time ever more middle school students are dying from suicide than from car crashes. Not only that, but the number of suicides among children as young as eight, nine or ten years old is also increasing. Researchers are only guessing as to why so many of our children and teenagers are ending their lives in such record numbers. The trend has become an epidemic that is rarely mentioned and far too many parents are unaware of the signs that there is trouble.

There are a number of possibilities suggested as to why suicide has become such a problem. Young people today increasingly see the world as being a dangerous and violent place. News stories often make them feel as though they are living under constant threat of harm. In addition there has been a breakdown of healthy relationships in many families leading children to feel insecure and sometimes even unloved. Ours is a fast paced world that stresses hard work and excellence. Some kids feel unrelenting pressures to excel in every aspect of their lives. Television and movies all too often depict suicide as a good way to end problems. Of course there is also the specter of social media which sometimes serves as a catalyst for bullying and the creation of unrealistic expectations of beauty, luxury and unending happiness. There is also a problem with adults, particularly parents failing to acknowledge the signs of depression and its power to lead their children to suicide.

There have always been young people who decided to take their lives, but never in the numbers that are being recorded today. When I was young virtually everyone sat down together with members of the family to share dinner. We took that opportunity to talk about the days’ events and to reinforce the idea that we cared for one another. All too often today the tradition of gathering around the table has been replaced with meals quickly consumed in front of the television or on the go. Members of the family are often moving in so many different directions that opportunities to actually talk with one another are brief or rare, especially once children become teenagers.

Latch key kids are abundant and they spend their afternoons unsupervised. They may become isolated by hours of playing video games or may even find inappropriate television programs to watch. They spend hours texting friends with their parents rarely being privy to what kind of messages are being exchanged. They may be engaged in dangerous situations for which they do not have the maturity to react in a healthy manner. In a sense they often lead secret and disturbing lives apart from their parents without anyone knowing the extent of the treacherous paths down which they are travelling.

There are ways that adults should more closely monitor their children rather than just assuming that all is well. When my own daughters were teenagers a very good friend advised me to find out as much about what they were doing as possible. I did so in both overt and covert ways. I talked with my girls constantly and observed their behaviors, watching for even subtle changes. I also listened to their friends and the parents of their friends to find out more information about their habits. I enlisted the help of an army of caring people to make sure that all was well. Even then I missed cues now and again.

My youngest daughter suffers from depression just as my mother did. She began to exhibit more and more isolated behavior and seemed to be in a continual state of tears when she was in high school. I remember the night when I found her sitting in the dark in her bedroom rocking back and forth while crying. I sat on the floor with her and held her in my arms as though she was a toddler, coaxing her to tell me about her feelings and what was driving them until she finally admitted that she felt lost and confused. I made an appointment for her to see a doctor the next day and began to engage in more and more frank conversations with her. She made it past that valley of despair, but she often told me that ultimately it was her profound belief in God and the sanctity of life that had prevented her from harming herself. Ironically my mother had often told me the same thing about her own moments of mental distress. Needless to say I rejoiced in knowing that by providing my child with a religious foundation I may have saved her life.

If parents see dramatic changes in their children it is dangerous to simply assume that the new behaviors are hormonal or typical. Warning signs come in the form of falling grades, difficulties sleeping, headaches or other physical manifestations. Children who lose interest in hobbies or friends are sending signals that something is very wrong. Changes in personality are another clue. Frequent tears, outbursts of anger, long periods of isolation inside a darkened room may all be pointing to problems that must be addressed. While teenagers are infamous for their constant texting, if this habit also appears to be associated with aggression or a lack of self esteem there may be a need for getting to the bottom of what kind of information is being exchanged.

We’ve always had bullies but never to the twenty four seven extent that some kids now endure. Social media all too often becomes a minefield for attacking youngsters. Sometimes those participating in the emotional assaults don’t even know the people that they are intimidating. For them it is just a sick game, but for the teenager who is the butt of their commentaries it can become unbearable. There is nowhere to hide, no way to stop the misery. They all too often hide what is happening out of a feeling of shame. Being so alone bears heavily on them. They need help but don’t know how to find it. It is up to adults to be conscious of such situations and work to assist the victims in retrieving their sense of security and self respect.

It’s become popular for some adults to refer to youth who struggle to adjust to the many challenges that they face as “snowflakes” as though they are simply so delicate that they cannot adjust to the realities of life. This is akin to the people who would urge my mother to get control of herself when she was in the midst of a psychotic episode as part of her bipolar disorder. At the time the chemistry of her brain was so askew that she did not possess the power to stop the madness that engulfed her. She needed the help of caring family members, friends and medical professionals to get her life back on track. The lack of understanding that she continually faced made her challenges even more difficult than they needed to be. Such it is for youngsters who are in crisis. Shaming them for falling victim to depression so debilitating that they have suicidal thoughts is not an answer. Instead we all must be vigilant in assisting anyone whose ideation becomes dark and worrisome.

Teachers are often the first to notice problems with a young person. Instead of ignoring such concerns it is paramount that they contact the school counselor, the nurse, the parents or all of the above. Sometimes kids are so good at hiding their pain that their families are the last to know that there are difficulties. Honest conversations have to take place, always punctuated with love and concern. At the same time we should teach our kids to be good friends who are willing to let us know if someone is struggling more than normal. We must then either contact the school or the parents to alert them to what is happening. Those are difficult conversations, but they may save lives. 

Rescuing our children from thoughts of suicide should be of paramount concern to all of us. We need to spend more time talking with them and helping them to feel safe in confessing their problems. We need to watch for the warning signs and take aggressive and loving action before the worst happens. It is up to all of us to bring down the distressing suicide statistics among the youngest in our society. We need to begin some difficult discussions with ourselves, each other and our children. Nothing else that we do is more important. 

Words As Weapons

words-are-weapons“The tongue has no bones but is strong enough to break a heart. So be careful with your words.”

How often do we hear of words “killing” someone’s soul? Jesus tells us that gossip is like letting a bag of feathers loose in the wind. No matter how hard we try we are never able to get them all back. What we say has repercussions that are sometimes irretrievable. We know this and yet time and again cruel sentences leave our lips or end up floating in the ether on Twitter or Facebook. Sometimes this happens in a moment of anger but other moments are the result our intent to brutally harm someone with our most ugly thoughts. We say that sticks and stones can break our bones and words can never hurt us, but we know that this really isn’t true.

Sadly we read again and again of young people who are so harassed by their peers that they are driven to killing themselves. I suspect that none of the individuals who poke at someone and make them feel weak actually intend for harm to happen but all too often it does. I recently watched a program about a young woman who was recently found guilty of manslaughter for taunting a depressed friend into committing suicide. Texts on his phone showed that he was reluctant to take his own life, but eventually went through with it at the urging of this young lady who assured him that his family might grieve briefly, but would quickly get over their loss. When he admitted to her that he was scared to follow through on his plan she insinuated that he needed to man up. Eventually he did the deed. The jury felt that without the woman was complicit in his death because he was trying to back out, and she pushed him to follow through on what he had started.

While this is an extreme example of how words have the power of being lethal there are so many examples of youngsters whose confidence is ravaged by the horrific comments of their peers. It’s all well and good to teach our children how to ignore such behaviors, but we also must implore them never to be part of such destructive actions. We’ve all witnessed individuals who become the butt of jokes and sometimes we do so little to help them. It’s very difficult to stand up to kids who are popular or powerful, and yet we need to show our kids how to draw upon the courage to always do the right thing. We cannot sit back and watch the suffering of another even if it means losing our own place in the pecking order. Our children need to understand that they will ultimately be much happier if their own character is strong and just.

Most of the time none of us become involved in such extreme examples of using words as weapons, but we do sometimes say things to the people with whom we are the closest in the heat of a moment. We know their weaknesses and we charge ahead ready to hurt them with a little sting. We have to be very careful in such situations because once our barbs have landed we can’t really take them back. We would all do well to think before we speak and to consider the damage that our words may cause.

We seem to believe that we have a certain level of anonymity whenever we post comments on social media. We believe that out of the millions of words being slung around each moment there is little reason to think that ours will be noticed, but time and again people have lost jobs, tested relationships and angered friends over a snarky response, when the truth is that the only result that is likely to happen in such instances is to upset someone. We rarely change anyone’s opinion with our insulting remarks, so why would we take the risk of speaking out and possibly hurting feelings?  I have literally cringed over the words that I have heard people express or seen them write.

We have almost unlimited freedom of expression in this country, but it is up to each of us to know when saying certain things goes beyond the pale. A joke about assassinating the president isn’t funny. Racist comments about those who are different from ourselves have no place in the public forum. While we cannot and should not restrict speech, it is up to each of us to monitor our own utterances and to consider the effects of what we say. Perhaps it is time to instruct our young in such things as well.

Words can be as sharp as any sword. They can mortally wound a soul. We really do need to watch what we say. Gossiping, lying, bullying, threatening, hurting should all be anathema to us. We would not point a gun at another human being, so why do we so blithely allow our words to sting? Whether we shout them or whisper them or write them down they should always be intended for the betterment of the people that we encounter, but never to tear them down.