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. 

    

The Innocence

Babies sitting on floor together

Children are so beautiful. They are born with such innocence. A newborn baby is capable of learning any language on earth and embracing any culture. There is not a hint of prejudice in a tiny human’s heart. Children are filled with curiosity that naturally prompts them to explore their world and learn about it. They are fearless in that journey, so much so that we have to protect them from tasting toxins or putting their hands into fire. They look to adults to guide and influence them. If they are surrounded by love and care they tend to thrive but if all they see is anger and abuse their unblemished purity of heart can slowly become tainted. Adults who hate have been somehow taught to be that way.

I have been thinking about children a great deal of late, but then I suppose that I really always think about children. It is in them that I have found my greatest purpose and joy in life. They are my calling, a reason for maintaining optimism and hope. They are precious gifts whose guilelessness is waiting to be directed toward honor, compassion, purpose, courage.

I have been thinking about my mother a great deal of late. I suppose that hearing George Floyd call for his mama with his last breaths has awakened a sense of how important the relationships between mother and child, father and child, teacher and child truly are. When I think of my own mama I see unconditional love. I have tried to remember if she ever spanked me and I honestly can’t think of a single time when she did that even though there might have been occasions when I certainly deserved such a consequence. I suppose that I learned more from witnessing her example than from any lectures or lessons she may have given me. As children we watch and learn from action.

My own mother was a model of kindness and generosity. That is what my brothers and I saw on a continual basis. At the end of each day she tucked us in, reassured us of her love, apologized for any mistakes she may have made. She was not flawless, no human is, but the pattern of her life demonstrated the selflessness that was her vocation. If I have even a smidgen of goodness in me I most certainly learned it first from her.

As I grew people were mostly kind to me. In that regard I was fortunate, but as happens with virtually everyone I also encountered tortured souls who taught me lessons in their own perverse ways. The grossly unjust teacher that I had in the fourth grade showed me how not to be. The man whose racist political views stunned me enlightened me in how not to think. The boss who publicly raged against his employees convinced me that there were better ways for dealing with problems at work. In other words I was not swayed by forces that were so contrary to the foundations of character that my mother had built in my soul but rather her influence strengthened my resolve to emulate her.’

Some children are not as lucky as I was. They endure neglect, physical and emotional abuse. They are psychologically torn down. The are taught that violence is a natural way of living. They hear adults spewing hate as gospel and they begin to believe it. Over time they endure insults and degradation so often that they perversely see it as a sign of strength. They hide behind violence to solve problems. They have learned this from watching and hearing the adults in their little corner of the world. Their innocence has been transformed into meanness, brutality, racism. 

Perhaps the most difficult memories from my long teaching career occurred when I met parents that I knew were somehow teaching their children to be angry bullies. It pained me to wonder how their own twisted ideas had been so firmly implanted in their youngsters. Often they would boast about the firm control they had over the members of their family. They viewed the world as a zero sum game in which the only way to win was by crushing competition. I knew after meeting them that my own influence on their sons or daughters would most likely be minimal and yet I understood that I had to nonetheless provide an example of a more positive way of being. I hoped that I might somehow spark a realization in my troubled student that life does not have to be about dominance.

It can be discouraging to see people who are so obviously mean and self absorbed. It is even more disheartening to witness them having a negative impact on the shaping of a young person. Even worse is how often their ugliness is enabled either from fear or hopelessness or because those around them actually hold the same disturbing views. Sweet babies subjected to such influences all too often become broken souls capable of indescribable acts. The cycle of physical and emotional violence is handed down from one generation to the next.

I am a mama to my daughters but also to the many students that I have taught. I have tried to be the kind of example that my own mother was to me. I did my best to demonstrate the power that love always has over hate. I tried to defended the  young people in my care from harm and prejudice and hate, but every child eventually has to make his/her way through a world that has far too much cruelty. Few of us have never encountered such things. My only hope has always been that the hurts that my babies endure will be minimal and that they will have the strength of character to push back on its fury. The battle for good over evil begins in the home, in the classroom, in our relationships. It’s up to us to keep the love and the understanding alive, especially when we see it’s adversaries rising up.

 

  

Politely Inviting More Caring Disagreement

you way or my high way different opinion,opposite disagreement o

Some things that I see and hear both embarrass me and make me feel quite sad. For example, I understand how eager many people are to return to work or a normal routine in the time of pandemic. I am fully aware that some are desperately wondering what they are going to do if this nightmare lasts much longer. They have lost their jobs or perhaps are hourly wage earners who have been unable to work for weeks. It has to be a terrible situation in which to find oneself. Nonetheless when I see a group of protesters in Michigan carrying guns and waving Confederate flags in an attempt to get the governor there to lift the restrictions on their lives I can’t help but wonder what guns and flags have to do with making a valid argument. In fact, such things only tend to make most of us turn away in disgust.

I believe without reservation that everyone has a right to an opinion and even to protest certain decisions. That being said I find it totally inappropriate to bring guns and flags that should be relegated to old history to a protest. The arguments for a particular point of view should be articulated with supporting facts, not insults. Why turn an important discussion into a school yard brawl?

We have a very young woman in our area who was recently elected to the position of Harris County Judge. I was a bit shocked at this development because I was a big fan of the incumbent, Ed Emmett. I believe that he always did a great job, most especially during the dark days of hurricane Harvey. It seemed a bit unfair to unseat him after he had been such a strong presence in a number of disastrous situations. Nonetheless, the election was fair and the voters had spoken. The new Harris County Judge is Lina Hidalgo is a somewhat inexperienced woman in her twenties who initially worried me, but I have changed my tune.

I don’t agree with everything that Judge Hidalgo does or says. In fact I rarely agree with everything that any politician does or says, but in this time of Covid-19 I have changed my opinion of her. I have been greatly impressed by her dedication and compassion. She has worked tirelessly in a stress filled environment and somehow manages to calmly come back day after day to support the people of the Houston area. Her pronouncements are always beautifully worded and based on the most recent information available to her. In spite of her good intentions I hear people bashing her facility with the English language, which is actually quite wonderful, and they question every decision that she makes.

It would not bother me at all if those with differing ideas were to voice their concerns rationally and respectfully but instead they hurl insults that sometimes devolve into racist and ageist stereotyping. I see no place for ugliness in a time when we are all reeling from the events that surround us. Our goal should only be to work together to do whatever it takes to eliminate this scourge from the face of the earth. Making our arguments political or offensive only averts our focus from finding our way out of this situation. Arguing as though we are children is of no substantive help. 

It has become popular of late to be brash and to behave like a bully to win a debate. For some reason there are many who see such boorish behavior as strength. I see it as a smokescreen to hide a lack of factual information and an inability to pose a persuasive point of view. People who are void of logic and carefully researched data usually don’t have to use meaningless rhetorical devices nor do they have to put down people based on xenophobia.

The most intelligent, knowledgeable and truthful people that I know have told me that Covid -19 poses more questions than answers right now. Nobody is certain about anything related to this virus. It will only be after a careful analysis and a certain amount of time that we will have a better idea of what will actually work best to combat this pandemic. In the meantime there are a number of cautionary practices that may help to stem the tide of contagion. We will have to wait and see what happens in the future. Meanwhile those who are guiding us  are using the best guesses as to what will work. We have to be patient with them as well as each other as we navigate our way to the other side, and there will eventually be another side.

This is America, land of the free, but if we are wise we will avoid abusive language when we strongly disagree. We will not imply threats with guns or flags of civil unrest. We will be certain that our comments reflect a loving concern for all. Nobody is immune from the horrible changes and pain that Covid-19 has wrought on the world. Each of us worries about the future. Let’s at least try to do so with a bit of love, politely inviting more caring disagreement.

The Insanity of It All

anger

So here we are in another election year and I’ve been a fairly good girl in my resolve to stay as neutral with regard to the political race as much as possible. I suppose that I have become numb to the whole situation because the campaigning and sloganeering has never really stopped for several years now. We seem to be trapped in an infinite loop of divisiveness, hyperbole, and propaganda which always reminds me of my seventh grade teacher who taught us all about the methods that people use to influence our thinking. I recall that we argued that only the Soviet Union did such things and she insisted with a sweet and knowing smile that we were constantly being subjected to rhetorical methods designed to persuade us to accept one side over another.

Somehow her lesson stuck with me because it seemed so shocking at the time. Since then I have found myself watching for the methods that people use to bend us to their ways of thinking. Like some paranoid cynic I see them everywhere, and most notably in the political arena. The voices of reason and honor seem to be so small while slogans and soundbites rule the day. I’ve taken refuge from them by avoiding the furor as much as possible, but it has become increasingly difficult to find a source of news without a tinge of political commentary. I’ve had to attempt to ferret out the facts and ignore the hysteria. It has become an ever more difficult task and I have actually grown rather weary of it all, even as I know that one of the tricks of propaganda is to wear people down.

I honestly don’t know how I will endure the political season this time around. I suppose that what worries me most is that it will not end regardless of who is actually elected. The fighting will go on and on and on. It’s like being caught in a middle school food fight that nobody is able to control. We can’t even enjoy a sporting event or a nice night of entertainment without the injection of politics and protests. It has grown so tiresome.

I realize all too well that we have many problems facing our country and the world as a whole. They will only be solved when we begin to address them together which seems unlikely for the foreseeable future. There is so much emotional manipulation on our minds that many of us have become hypnotized into walking in tandem with one political philosophy or another. Actually discussing ideas has become virtually impossible, and being the voice urging caution results in political suicide.

So we just go back and forth, topsy turvy, without a sense of security because we know that whoever wins the elections will undo anything that their opponents accomplished or go all in for their own side even when it is ridiculous to do so. Meanwhile we are stuck on a ferris wheel that never stops, and while it might have been fun for a time, I for one have grown weary of the posing and preening and warfare.

I remember a conversation that I had long ago with a priest who was a dear friend of our family. He told me that every difficult situation required an adult in the room, someone willing to logically and emotionally make reasoned and fair decisions. I spent most of the rest of my life attempting to be that person. When my mother was in the middle of a mental breakdown I had to be the steadying force. Inside my classroom I needed to stay calm and not allow my personal feelings to rule me. I took hope from leaders who demonstrated honor and thoughtfulness in times of chaos. I found diplomacy and compromise to be powerful tools for bringing disparate groups of people together. I accomplished wonderful things by knowing when to be firm and when to bend.

Dividing ourselves into one side or another without respect for our varying opinions, desires, and worries is a zero sum game. It will only lead to an increasingly virulent standoff. It will take great courage for someone to break the loop that has us so entangled in vitriol. If we support such a person when we see him or her we just might be able to signal to all the rest that we are done with their antics. We have to be the ones who push back on the rhetoric. If we become the adults in the room those who long for our approval will follow because their only goal is to win. That means that we cannot praise childish behaviors from anyone regardless of which side he/she represents. Wrong is wrong and we should be able to point to it without being pilloried by any person or group. When our basic rights to an opinion are heckled or degraded by a mob we should always wonder if we are being victimized by propaganda.

I suppose that some may view this blog as a screed given the political environment. They will believe that my remarks reflect only on one party or another. They will not understand the idea that I am looking at all of the arguments and philosophies and sifting the good from the bad. In that process I have seen that nobody has all of the answers or best plans but everyone has a few very good ideas. It’s time for each of us to be more discerning. If we accomplish that, the poisonous partisanship will subside, but sadly I think that we are still a long way from being able to bring ourselves together. For now I will just have to continue to find ways to endure the insanity of it all. 

What We Need

common-ground-dove

There were horrid things happening across the globe before I was born. There were horrid things happening across the globe when I was a child and a teen. I have witnessed horrid things happening as a young adult and now that I am in my seventies I still see horrid things happening both near and far. For a cockeyed optimist like myself it can be quite distressing to admit that there is something in our human natures that is sometimes violent and cruel. I always wanted to believe that mankind has been slowly evolving into a better version of itself, and I still think that is indeed true, but sadly it is such a slow process that it’s difficult to define the progress at times.

On a more personal level I see goodness in each of my friends and family members, people striving even sacrificing to be kind, loving, wise. Each individual has small moments of imperfection but on the whole they are grand examples of what mankind might aspire to be. They give me hope for the population at large because I do not believe that they are the aberrations, but rather that it is in the hateful and violent members of society that we find the outliers. Normal is good, abnormal is an unusual data point removed from the cluster of morality that defines most of the people in the world.

There are those who believe that the current times are somehow worse than other eras, but I would urge them to more carefully and thoughtfully study history because there is little that is actually new in the ways of our relationships and our politics. People have been lead astray by demagogues and tyrants for all time whether it be in a family, a friendship, a neighborhood, a town, a state or a nation. You would think that we would be more circumspect given all of the information about past troubles that we have, but in truth most of us are busy taking care of ourselves and those that we love. We tend to only have time to react rather than to reflect. Besides, with so many ideas and ideologies being thrown at us at once it is daunting to determine what is actually best. Instead history has often been a vast experiment of trial and error with some decisions enhancing mankind and others being dangerously abysmal failures. All too often hindsight becomes our teacher.

We can indeed learn from past mistakes but even then it’s important to realize that we are different from our ancestors. Times continually change and we are influenced heavily by our environments, what we love and what we fear or even hate. Making choices that will affect us and the people around us can be a gamble. Because each person on earth is unique there is no one size fits all way of educating or governing and yet we try even as we know that it is impossible to exactly meet everyone’s needs. Someone always seems to feel left out, abandoned either by family or nation. Such is the conundrum of our human attempts to make sense of the world and the reason why it is so difficult to enact solutions to the problems that plague us.

Freedom is a word with many meanings. Taken too far it can lead to trouble. Constricted too much it creates hostility. The key to a healthy person and society is providing just the right dose of fairness which may mean that the balance will sometimes seem unequal. Even within families a wise parent understands that no two children are identical, not even twins. So too it is with societies that attempt to be fair and just. It is difficult to know the best course of action.

As a school administrator I learned that some of my teachers wanted to be free to be themselves without much direction while others actually desired to have precise sets of rules by which to guide themselves. The trick in working with them involved crafting individual plans that took their specific needs into account. Allowing for differences sometimes created tensions because there were always those who insisted that everyone had to be treated exactly the same. The trouble with that logic is that it does not consider our human uniqueness and sounds good until it is executed in a real situation.

I find myself becoming increasingly disturbed by the urge of various forces to make us all think and act the same. We become enraged when we witness someone deviating from the thoughts and actions that we find the most appropriate. We harangue or shame those who disagree with us in the false hope that we might force them into submission to our way of looking at the world. Such has become a national pastime with celebrities being lauded or ostracized based on what they believe. In truth it is a kind of nationalized bullying that we need to abandon. We should be extremely careful that we are not ruining people’s reputations based solely on a desire to force agreement to our individual thoughts about how things should be. 

Propaganda and unwillingness to allow freedom of speech is growing all around us. Such efforts to control beliefs has been tried throughout history but it has never worked. We should be wary of those who would insist on conformity and resistance to divergent ideas. Right now we have people on both the far left and far right attempting to shut down our freedoms. What we need is for those who treasure liberty to lead by example which means acknowledging that we must make more efforts to consider the needs of each voice, not just our own. We must curb the outrage and find ways to understand and respect the very natures of our humanity. In doing so we might find the common ground that we both desire and need. As long as we keep censoring one another we will escape from the current cycle of outrage.