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.

Snakes and Dentists

emblem_bwpho·bi·a

/ˈfōbēə/

noun

  1. an extreme or irrational fear of or aversion to something.

I’m not superstitious nor to I believe in things like good luck charms. In general I am a very rational person who eschews conspiracy theories and urban myths. Still, I have to admit to having a number of phobias, among them being forced off of a bridge while driving my car and being caught in a burning building. Without a doubt, however, my two most heart pounding fears are of snakes and dentists.

We humans once lived in trees and so the fear of snakes is primordial and I suppose even a bit Biblical. In my own case it tracks back to two events from my childhood. The first occurred when an elderly neighbor was bitten by a water moccasin that wandered into her backyard from a nearby bayou. She stepped on it in the dark and at first thought she had accidentally stumbled over her dachshund. When she felt the sharp sting of the reptile’s venom she looked down and saw what had really happened. She spent many days in the hospital lingering near death and those of us who knew her kept vigil and prayed. I suppose that her advanced age had more to do with the seriousness of her condition than the actual bite but the thought of danger lurking in the dark of my yard haunted me so much that over time I developed a total aversion to any form of snake whether poisonous or not.

Like Indiana Jones I become mush at the mere thought of a snake and my anxieties with regard to them only increased after an incident with my grandmother when I was about six. She and my grandfather were living on a farm in Arkansas back then and they prided themselves in being able to live mostly off of the bounty of the land. They planted crops that kept them generously supplied with fruit and vegetables and raised chickens and a cow for meat and milk. Grandma was a kind of pioneer woman who was handy with a rifle and she proved her mettle by bagging deer and squirrels as well. More than anything she was an expert fisherwoman. I suppose my father learned to love fishing from her.

One afternoon when we were visiting the farm my grandmother and grandfather decided to go angling for fish and asked if I wanted to come along. I so enjoyed being with them that i joyfully agreed to go. When we got to the place where they hoped to get some fresh trout for dinner my grandmother first went to inspect the area. Without any sort of explanation she returned to the car with a concerned look and sternly warned me to stay in the car assuring me that they would not take long. To say that I was disappointed would be an understatement. It was a warm summer day and even though the car was parked under the shade of an enormous tree I soon became hot and bored. I defied my grandmother’s command and decided to join her on the rickety wooden pier where she was so intent on fishing that she did not see me coming up behind her.

As I approached my grandparents I suddenly saw what seemed to be an army of snakes lifting their heads out of the water as though waiting for a handout from the humans invading their habitat. When one of them attempted to slither up a pillar of the structure where she was standing Grandma took her fishing pole and beat it away. I was so stunned and horrified that I began screaming in terror. Grandma spun around to see me and without a word hurried me back to the safety of the car, chastising me for ignoring her instructions. As she and Grandpa gathered up their catch and their fishing gear I sat in the automobile more disturbed than ashamed. I could not get the horrific vision of all of those snakes out of my mind. In all honesty it still haunts me if truth be told. From that moment forward I have been totally terrorized by the mere thought of snakes.

My dental anxieties are also a product of my youth. I had the unfortunate bad luck to have a pediatric dentist who never should have been allowed to interact with children. From a very young age I needed a great deal of work on my teeth and he did little to make the process bearable. In fact he berated me for what he was sure were bad eating habits each time I visited his office. In truth my mother never purchased sugary treats or drinks with the exception of very special occasions and she was fastidious about having me brush my teeth both morning and night, so the doctor’s harangues were always confusing to me because I was only about five years old when he seemed to take delight in punishing me by inflicting pain.

I never mentioned any of this to my mother because I just assumed that his methods were the way it always was. As I grew older I simply armed myself with prayer which on one occasion included bringing a set of rosary beads to pray while he tortured me. When he saw me clinging tightly to the beads and moving my fingers along them one by one he became enraged and called my mother back into his office. His tone was accusing when he demanded to know why I was insulting him by insinuating that I needed the help of the Blessed Mother herself to endure my session with him. At that point all of my concerns spilled out at once in a kind of core dump of fear. My mother gathered me up immediately and we never again returned to his office.

Since that time every single dentist that I have visited has been kind and virtually pain free but my phobia continues. It is as though I worry that one day I will once again encounter a thoughtless dentist who will subject me to pain. I can’t seem to get over the trauma of my earliest experiences of keeping my teeth strong and healthy. Such is the nature of a phobia.

I suspect that most phobias are born in our earlier memories of painful situations. We sometimes assume that frightening experiences need little explanation but sometimes they linger in the subconscious growing into monsters that never leave us. When my eldest daughter was only three we took her to a lovely park in San Juan, Puerto Rico. As we sat on a bench enjoying the view a huge swarm of pigeons flew in to greet us and perhaps get a snack or two. We laughed with delight but it was apparent that our daughter was quite disturbed. A cousin who was with us happened to also be a psychologist. He insisted that we talk with our little girl about what had happened and allow her to express her fears Over the next few days he gently brought up the incident several times until he was certain that she truly understood that it was okay for her to feel frightened and that the birds had actually meant no harm.

Perhaps if someone like the cousin had been around to counsel me way back in the past I might be comfortable with both snakes and dentists. Sadly that is not to be.

Opening Hearts and Minds

peacemaker

I am what is sometimes known as a people pleaser, not so much because I want to impress anyone with my goodness but because I have an uncanny ability to sense people’s feelings. I have spent most of my life striving to help others to be their best selves and making great effort to see differing points of view. My work has included titles like mother, teacher, peer facilitator, dean of faculty. In those roles I focused on walking hand in hand with my charges rather than being an authoritarian. I prefer being a diplomat to executing orders. To my utter dismay I more and more often find myself in a kind of new world order in which I am constantly challenged to choose a side or be considered outmoded and ineffective. The middle ground where I have long stood so that I might extend a hand to each side is now considered the choice of wimps, those unwilling to take a stand. I find it more and more difficult to please anyone and I am often accused of being the kind of person who has actually caused most of the problems of the world.

We appear to be in a phase during which manners and decency toward all is considered passé. Tough guys, bullies, those willing to hurl insults are thought to be the new saviors of the world. Being polite and soft spoken is out. Being brash is in. Passive resistance and peaceful assembly has lost its lure. Instead shouting and insistence that all agree to a kind of tandem manner of thinking is the way of the new heroes. Sound bites have replaced thoughtful discourse.

As a teenager I read John Kennedy’s Profiles In Courage with an almost reverential mindset. I saw the heroes that he described as role models for my own life. I liked the stories of fortitude in the lives of the saints that had so fascinated me as a child. I wanted more than anything to be a fair and just individual who held tightly to the belief that each of us has an important purpose in this world. I read and reread tales of men and women who changed the world without harming others. I came to believe that the most glorious aspect of living where I do is the unalienable right of individuals to have the liberty of their own thoughts. I enjoyed the idea of bridging gaps between diverse groups. It is who I am and what I do.

It seems as though a perverse stubbornness has invaded the world. We are at an impasse with one another. Society has become judgmental without taking the time to analyze situations devoid of prejudice. Our favored leaders often hurl insults at one another. We blame entire generations for our problems with sweeping pronouncements. Some taunt the “snowflakes” while others dismiss the “boomers” as the lot that has destroyed the earth. Anger is even invading families and rending friendships in two. There is a kind of worldwide psychosis that is making all of us sick.

It has become almost impossible for me to use my diplomatic skills. Of late I seem to anger everyone whenever I attempt to consider all sides of a discussion. My efforts are derided as useless and perhaps even counterproductive. I am reminded of how souls like Mitt Romney are not the heroes I think them to be, but spineless cowards who are of little use to the world. People are demanding action and those who attempt to broker compromise and peace are thought to be a large part of the world’s problems.

As a student of history I know how dangerous such thinking can be. While mankind divides itself into winners and losers suffering prevails. The power brokers unwilling to give an inch one way or another wreak havoc on innocents. Problems fester and grow in an atmosphere unwilling to consider compromise. When people no longer listen to one another grave mistakes are made. Divisions like north and south, left and right, red and blue, Christian and atheist, Sunni and Shia, Israeli and Palestinian, educated and uneducated, rich and poor are the sources of conflict and war. It is only when we truly attempt to work together that solutions begin to arise.

I was quite taken by an image that one of my friends posted on Christmas Day. In the photo were two women, sisters from a loving family. One of them stood in front a blue car with a “Warren” sticker and the other posed by a red car with a “Trump” sticker. Both women were laughing and obviously quite happy with one another, unwilling to allow their political differences to change their feelings of warmth and affection. It was a hopeful sign for me, a reminder that when all is said and done we humans may have differing opinions of how to solve problems but we are united by love.

I’d like to believe that our current state of rage is only a temporary phase and that the peacemakers will come into fashion again. In the meantime I pray that relationships that have been broken by differences in points of view may be mended. We need each other now more than ever. Life is far too short to spend time quibbling when we might be better off finding ways to get along. All it takes is a willingness to open our hearts and minds. Perhaps that is the best resolution that anyone might make for the new year and new decade of 2020.

The Voices We Need To Hear

Senior Woman Relaxing In Chair With Hot Drink

As I grow older I have more and more appreciation for history and the times in which my parents and grandparents lived. As we head toward a new year and new decade I find myself thinking of my grandparents as young men and women who had endured World War I and seen the influenza epidemic that killed millions worldwide. Somehow they managed to find enough optimism to carry on with their lives and their work. They began their families with hopefulness and hard working attitudes that they passed down to their children. They wanted little more than to have a home and food on the table at night. At the dawn of the 1920’s there was a feeling that the world had finally set itself aright and there was much rejoicing. They had no idea that by the end of the decade a gut wrenching economic depression would threaten the very security that they so longed to have but they were not to be defeated. Instead they took all means necessary to keep going.

Both of my parents were born in the roaring twenties of the last century. They would feel the effects of the cataclysms that were to come. The rising storm in Europe of the nineteen thirties would punctuate their youth and the attack on Pearl Harbor in the nineteen forties would send them to war. They had inherited a can do spirit from their parents that would define their lives and cause them to wonder again and again about the complaints of the generations to come. They knew how to sacrifice and save and endure hardship with a stoic determination.

The grandparents of my era have long been gone and the parents are slowly leaving this earth as they struggle with the diseases of the very old with the same kind of dignity and courage that has defined their entire lives. As one of my high school classmates pointed out about her recently deceased mother they would expect us their children to “dust off our boots and keep on.” This is the way they were and so too were their parents.

I don’t recall hearing many complaints from my elders. They took it for granted that life would sometimes be quite hard. They tackled difficulties silently and with a sense that all things both good and bad end soon enough, They seemed to have the patience of Job and the wisdom of Solomon. They needed very little to be happy, finding contentment in meaningful relationships rather than things. They never seemed to dwell on the negative, instead they set to work each day rejoicing in the simple fact of having a roof over their heads and dinner on the table. For the most part they were a happy lot who understood the ebb and flow of life and accepted both their tribulations and their trials with great dignity.

We have so much more bounty today than our elders ever did and yet we seem to be stuck in a rut of discontent. We do a great deal more complaining than they ever did. Perhaps a critique now and again is a good thing, but constant whining seems to be counterproductive and a bit ridiculous given how much progress we have enjoyed. We seem to take our luxuries for granted in ways that my generation’s parents and grandparents never would have. Our wants seem at times to be unquenchable.

As children my grandparents had no electricity or indoor plumbing. They were lucky to get seven or eight years of education before being sent to work. Both of my grandmothers were illiterate. My mother and father were the first in their families to graduate from high school and then continue on to college. They were frugal even as their prospects for success rose. They vividly recalled the depression years and the lengths to which their parents went to keep them housed and fed. When my father died and my mother assumed the role of a single parent she already possessed the survival skills that she would need to lead me and my brothers into adulthood.

I learned so much from my elders but I often wish that I had listened to them even more. They had a remarkable approach to living that is sometimes missing in today’s world. They were the generations that kept calm and carried on even in the face of challenges that should have broken their spirits. They attempted to pass on their wisdom to me but my mind was always in a hurry to be its own master. Their stories and advice were all too often like the incomprehensible babble of Charlie Brown’s teachers. Now that they are gone I find myself wishing that I had spent more time recording their voices, asking them questions and taking their experiences to heart. I suppose that the curse of our youth is our tendency to disregard the common sense of the adults who raised us. By the time we realize our mistake it is often too late.

In my own family only my father-in-law and two of my aunts remain to provide me with guidance. I find myself valuing their sagacity more and more. They all possess a kind of contentment that comes from a clear understanding that life can at times be quite hard but there is always joy to be found in the smallest of things. They have learned the value of family and laughter and seeing the sun rise in a new dawn. They have known economic hardship, war, loss, bad health and yet they still smile and feel gratitude. They know better than to sweat the small stuff because they understand that there is always small stuff that matters little. I hope I can continue to learn from them and listen with a rapt attention when they speak that I should have adopted long ago. Theirs are the voices that all of us need to hear.

The Power of Truth

lies

I was nineteen years old the first time my mother had a mental breakdown that rendered her unable to cope with the demands of caring for herself or my brothers. She took to her bed filled with paranoid anxieties, not even willing to run her air conditioner in the heat of July in Houston, Texas lest some intrigues find a way into her home. She drew her drapes and sat in the darkness imagining dire scenarios. Her fears became more and more frightening as I visited her each day hoping against all hope that she might experience a spontaneous recovery and become her old self once again. As her situation became more and more uncertain I understood that I would have to take charge of finding care for her, even though I still thought of myself as an insecure child.

My father had been dead for eleven years by then and the other adults in my life were as confounded by my mother’s sudden turn into depression and then mania as I was. Help was difficult to find. Not even the pastor of our church was willing to offer counsel as he admitted that he had a difficult time dealing with such situations. I felt abandoned in my hour of need and forced to rely on my own wits and the wisdom and kindness of strangers.

Our long time family physician advised me to find psychiatric care for my mother, an almost unheard of route in 1969. Mental illness was still a topic confined to whispers behind closed doors which was no doubt the reason why none of my elders felt comfortable discussing my mother’s sudden downward turn. I groped in the dark hoping that I would do the right thing for my mother. I found a doctor with a seemingly good reputation and crossed my fingers.

Few things went we’ll during that first battle to restore my mother’s mental health. The doctor was patronizing toward me, treating me like an ignorant child and revealing little about my mom’s prognosis as she appeared to be getting better with each passing day. I had to simply accept that our family was on the right path and that my mother would soon be her amazing self again. When I heard the words,”Your mother is cured.” I eagerly believed them and went about the business of living a routine life once again.

I kept the secret of my mother’s illness closed up in my heart. Few people who knew me, including members of my extended family, knew of her illness and I was more than happy to keep it that way. Mental illness was a conversation killer and something that felt somehow shameful as though it indicated a weakness in our family that must never  be mentioned by any of us. I clung to the hope that my mama’s mind would never again be as diseased as it had been during that horrific time even as I saw signs that she was somehow different from the tower of strength who had guided me into my adult years.

Within a year or two it became apparent that my mother was descending into madness once again. By that time my own confidence had grown and I did a great deal of research before finding her a doctor who was more open and sympathetic to her needs. It was a blow to have to begin anew but things turned out well once again. In spite of the recurrence of her illness I continued to rather naively tell myself that she would somehow beat this monster that invaded her thoughts and behavior while I also continued to hide the reality of our family’s struggles from all of my friends and coworkers.

Such was the continuing routine year after after. My mother would cycle in and out of psychotic moments and I would get her the medical interventions that she required then we would both act as though nothing was essentially wrong. Relapse after relapse occurred until we both became quite good at seemingly hiding our secret. I pretended as much as my mother did that all was well until it wasn’t.

During a particularly devastating occurrence of yet another breakdown of my mother’s mind I found myself desperately needing to share the burden of caring for her. For the first time I spoke openly to colleagues at work and discussed the toll that being her caretaker had imposed on me. I felt utterly selfish for admitting that I was exhausted. I thought of myself as an utter failure and a fraud. It was only in my moment of honesty that I found the comfort that I had needed for so long. I also became better at helping my mother. By allowing the light of day to illuminate the problem everything became easier. I learned that I was not alone in my concerns and sorrows and that people were far more understanding than I had been willing to believe.

I found a great doctor for my mom who finally provided me with the frankness that I needed to hear. He had a diagnosis for her recurring bouts of depression and mania, bipolar disorder. He explained to both me and my mother that her illness was chronic but with regular care it need not be as debilitating as it had been. He forced us to face all of the demons that had haunted us and to accept that mental illness need not be hidden from view anymore than one might pretend that a heart attack was something about which to be ashamed. He provided us with an epiphany that free us from the self imposed prison that we had build around our worries.

From that point forward I became a vocal advocate for those with mental illness and their families. I felt compelled to speak about the journey that our family had travelled and to share the struggles that had threatened to break us. While there were still those who shied away from my openness most people embraced my honesty and supported my family as we continued to deal with my mother’s lifelong illness.

Mental illness is a disease just as surely as diabetes is. There are treatments for such conditions that help individuals to lead better lives. The more we discuss mental heath the more likely it will be that those afflicted with disorders will find hope and perhaps even a bonafide cure one day. I learned that we must have conversations about such things. It is the only way to erase the stigmas that make such illnesses somehow seem unmentionable. I no longer lie to myself or anyone else. My mother was a remarkable woman who also happened to have bipolar disorder. She was so much more than her illness.