“Adulting”

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The conversation was with a young man in his early twenties. He remarked that he was struggling with the act of “adulting.” I told him that if that was the case then he is rather normal. In fact, it’s not all that unusual for even a senior citizen to sometimes long to run away from adult responsibilities.

I just celebrated my fiftieth wedding anniversary. I was not quite twenty when I walked down the aisle on my brother’s arm. I made a number of pledges on that day that I soon enough found were easier to voice than to actually follow. Before my first anniversary my mother had a nervous breakdown. I attempted to lay all responsibility for her care at the feet of my aunts and uncles, but they were as befuddled by her illness as I was. They passed the torch back to me. I found that not even the pastor of my church was willing to assist me, so I took a deep breath and accepted the challenge of finding care for her. In the process I was transformed from a shy naive childlike young girl into someone able to argue for my mother’s cause and ultimately for my own. I found strength that I did not know was there, and I was all the better for my baptism by fire.

In the meantime my husband was struggling with being a full blown adult in his own right. He was not yet fully ready to become the hard working person that would ultimately emerge. He was in graduate school and often stayed out late with his buddies. He was unhappy with his classes and the arc of his future. He found himself feeling confused and wanting to just chuck it all. It was when he saw me struggling to accept and meet the challenge of my mother’s care that he rose up to support me, a habit that would become his forever crusade.

Often it is in meeting the trials and tribulations that befall us that we find our inner selves. All humans suffer in one way or another. We are beset with problems that force us to make choices about how we will live. That is when “adulting” often feels the most painful, but it is also the moment when we have the most potential to find out who we really are.

Throughout my life of almost seventy years I have encountered difficulties from which I wanted to flee. Most of the time running away was not an option. I sometimes initially reacted by screaming or crying in frustration. I literally begged God to take away the pain I was feeling.  I vented the anxiety that I was experiencing, but over and over again faced whatever demon was attempting to bring me to my knees. On most occasions I made I through with a sense that I had made all of the right choices. In others I knew that I had made terrible mistakes. Even then I learned that there are few decisions, no matter how poorly conceived, that cannot be corrected.

None of us are perfect or capable of always demonstrating maturity. We become tired or frightened and “lose it” as the saying goes. I’ve had moments as a mom, a wife., or a teacher when I’ve done or said things that later embarrassed me. Most of the time this resulted because I had simply had enough of stresses that seemed to pile up higher than I was able to stand. Our coping mechanisms are wired to only take so much before we blow a gasket. As long as our explosive moments don’t become habit, we are actually entitled to a loss of control now and again. Nonetheless, if our comments or actions have hurt someone, we are obligated to reach for our adult sides and fix the damage.

When I was in high school one of my teachers cautioned us to have as much fun as possible while we were still young. He advised us to sow our wild oats in our youth rather than waiting until we were middle aged. He pointed out that there was nothing quite as pathetic as a forty year old suddenly going through a second childhood. He spoke of individuals who eschewed their parental or marital responsibilities simply because they felt entitled to more “fun” than the day to day grind was allowing them. He painted a picture of how pathetic such people might be. We had visions of a balding guy riding around in a red convertible with a blonde woman young enough to be his daughter while his long suffering wife and kids were left behind. I have to admit that it was indeed a disgusting image.

I would not want anyone to have to deal with the difficulties that I faced at a very young age. There are other ways of slowly but surely becoming a responsible adult than having to face tragedies. My advice is to enjoy the freedom of youth as much as possible while also building a foundation that will ultimately support a strong sense of responsibility. The early twenties are a time for exploring and even making mistakes and learning from them. It’s when we begin to understand ourselves and the world around us, and when we develop the skills that will lead us through even the toughest trials. At the same time it can be one of the most enjoyable and liberating eras of our lives. In the end, if we have kept a balance between having a good time and building meaningful skills and relationships “adulting” will almost naturally come to pass.

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My Hybrid Feminism

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If there is one thing of which I am certain it is that politics have become toxic, and there is no such thing in most cases of a rational conversation about beliefs. While there are multiple points of few, most of them are immoveable. The idea of possibly changing someone’s way of thinking is ridiculous for the most part, and yet so many continue to try. Their posts and rants litter the commentaries of social media essentially for naught other than allowing the world to see where they stand. Those who agree with them rally in support and those who are at odds often condemn them for their ignorance and even ugliness. For those of us caught in the middle it can become a kind of irrational nightmare as we too struggle to enforce a bit of diplomacy which never quite gains traction. Instead we are accused of being without moral compass, cafeteria citizens who pick and choose what we support. We independents are seen as the worst form of persons because we don’t appear to be guided by a philosophy that might describe from whence we form our opinions.

I’m a combination of many different political persuasions. As a woman I am a hybrid feminist, part progressive and part conservative. I grew up in a world when most women stayed home to care for their families. My mother was somewhat unique in our neighborhood in being a single parent due to our father’s death. She was the child of a woman who was unable to either read or write. Mama’s high school diploma was considered a great achievement, and she might have been content with stopping her education there had she not suddenly found herself responsible for supporting a family. She worked hard to hold down a job and earn a college degree, but at the same time she urged me to always put my husband and children first because she believed that nothing was more important.

I grew up surrounded by friends with large families because birth control was still somewhat unreliable. My mother cautioned me to be “ladylike” and to save myself for someone who loved and cherished me. While she emphasized the power of education and urged me to go to college, she also maintained that all of that was secondary to building a strong foundation for the family that I would one day have. Once I was married, she urged me to be respectful of my husband, and sometimes criticized the amount of time that I spent on my job when I would become involved in projects that kept me away from my family far into the night.

I rallied around the feminist movements of the sixties and seventies. I planned my family by carefully using birth control. I earned two degrees and moved up the ranks in my profession. All the while my always enlightened husband supported every single idea that I had for living my life both in conjunction with his, and independently at times. I fulfilled my own wishes while also somehow balancing the many duties of family life. To this day, my husband and I see each other as equal partners, and we confer with one another in all of our decisions. He is as proud of my accomplishments as I am of his. As a woman I have enjoyed the freedom to be the person that I want to be.

Sadly, for the most progressive women, my brand of feminism is not enough to satisfy them. When I note that I struggle with the concept of abortion because in my heart I believe that it is a form of murder, they maintain that I am ignorant and that I obviously don’t care about the plight of women. When I mention that I did not work full time during my daughters’ early years so that I might build a strong foundation for them, I am told that my thinking is old fashioned and quaint. If I suggest that all women should allow each other to form their own opinions, I hear that there is only one way on  “ the right side of history.” If I complain that the rhetoric about men is often too generalized and damning, I am met with derision and disbelief. I am often made to feel that I am not a feminist at all, but an ancient throw back to a time when women were degraded and made to be prisoners of a male dominated society.

I’m not an angry woman. Perhaps I have been lucky in my interactions with men and the world of work. I have found boorish “male chauvinist pigs” to be the exception rather than the rule. I have been supported again and again by amazing people both male and female. I have enjoyed a freedom of mind and action that might have amazed my female ancestors. I don’t want to have to walk in tandem or be dominated by any form of group think. I take each issue individually and after study and contemplation form my own personal opinions. I firmly believe that this is the way feminism is supposed to be. I support my sisters by allowing them to think however they wish, but ask them to respect my philosophies as well. We need not argue because I know that we react to the world based on a lifetime of experiences. We form our conclusions depending on who we are and who we have been.

I suppose that many women are still trying to determine what their places in society should be. To attempt to create a one size fits all way of doing things is ridiculous. Neither do we need to destroy the men who live beside us with insults and slurs that demean them. Ours is not so much a fight as a process of discovery. Each girl child should be encouraged to approach life in a way that feels right. She should understand that men need not be her enemies. There is good and there is bad in both sexes. We must teach our daughters and granddaughters how to discern who is who, and that it is always okay to have personal beliefs and preferences, even when they diverge.

I like being a hybrid. I like being independent. I have had a very happy experience as a woman because the people closest to me have allowed me to be the person that I choose to be. In turn I hope to always honor the choices that my “sisters” decide are best for them. True feminism demands that we understand that there is no one pathway, and our quest is doomed if we demand that it be so. Our journey has to include a wide range of views and the other half of the human race known as men. Our power will come only when we see ourselves as individuals with all of the rights that such and idea implies.

Listening to the Stories

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My grandson recently wrote a paper for his Pre-AP English class and asked me to critique it before he turned it in to his teacher. He discussed stereotyping and the human tendency to form biases based on the limitations of personal experiences and perceptions. In his piece he quoted author, Chimamanda Adichie, and her comments from a TED talk which she called The Danger of a Single Story. Ms. Adichie noted that as she was growing up she was an avid reader of British novels which she enjoyed even though she had always lived in Nigeria and was often unable to even imagine some of the cultural aspects about which she read. When she attempted to begin her own writing career she often mimicked the style from the novels she had so loved, but because she had never actually experienced such things her writing was artificial. It was only after she discovered African authors that she realized that there was indeed a place and a need for the thoughts of an African woman.

Ms. Adichie understood not only that in limiting her own story she had not been real, but also that others continue to see people of Africa from stereotypical perspectives just as her college roommate did. When Ms. Adichie arrived at an American university the young woman with whom she would share living quarters was shocked that Ms. Adichie spoke perfect English and was already so well educated. In fact, Ms. Adichie’s father was a college professor and her family lived an affluent middle class lifestyle in Nigeria complete with servants. In an interesting twist, Ms. Adichie admitted to her own prejudices by telling of a young man who worked for her family whom she thought of as being poor and somewhat ignorant. Over time she learned that while his family had very little in terms of wealth or possessions, they nonetheless had amazing artistic abilities.

It seems that each of us is sometimes guilty of seeing other people with whom we are unfamiliar through the lens of a single story. For example, we may watch a war torn nation in the Middle East and think of all such places as being chaotic and violent. We may make the mistake of presuming that the people who live there have the same characteristics, and we place them into a kind of caricature of who they really are. If we think that a particular place is dangerous, then we may be suspicious anyone who lives there. It is a kind of protective mechanism that we assume, but it also leads to thinking that puts whole groups of people into unfair categories that are mostly incorrect.

I found myself really thinking about this and wondering how many of the world’s problems are actually caused by this idea of clinging to a single story based on our own beliefs and feelings rather than attempting to truly understand how and why other people are reaching different conclusions form our own. I was reminded of my teaching days when I found success in reaching the hearts and minds of my students whenever I was willing to truly understand them. That meant suspending all of my preconceived notions and then helping them to surrender theirs as well. Once we met each other from the perspective of truly respecting our differences we made progress in building  meaningful and mutually satisfying relationships.

I think of so many problems in our current divisive political climate that will never be fully resolved until we are ready and willing to get the whole story from every side without insisting that we already know who is right and who is wrong. We have to be willing to read and listen and learn. When someone has a point of view that bothers us, our question should not be, “How can you be that way?” but rather “Tell me why you feel that way? I truly want to understand.” It is critical to the health of the world that we do our best to see the whys and wherefores of different cultures and then allow and celebrate the diversity of thoughts and customs. The only reason for demonstrating disdain for another person should be when it becomes clear that he/she is dangerous and evil. Otherwise it would behoove us to learn as much about the people and places that puzzle us as possible. Most of the time there are very good reasons why each individual is the way he/she is.

As humans we have certain ways of coping that are somewhat universal. We tend to ally ourselves with groups and people who appear to be much like ourselves, and often fear those whom we do not understand. We can break down barriers only if we are willing to suspend judgement and see through the other person’s eyes. Doing so make life better for everyone.

As my grandson noted in his essay each of us is different and special in many ways. Until we take full advantage of every opportunity to broaden our experiences by opening our minds and our hearts most especially to people that we can’t quite understand, the specter of the many “isms” that plague societies will continue to fester. So, the next time you find yourself feeling uncomfortable about anyone, take a moment to find out more about them. Try to truly understand how they came to adopt a certain point of view. Listen not to reply or argue, but only to learn. Really hear the stories. They are as exciting and enlightening as a great book.

  

Atonement

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I often joke that I may have to spend some time in purgatory when I die before earning a place in heaven. I note that I can rock along for quite some time doing my best to be a good person and then I do or say something not so nice that cancels some of my kindnesses. Truth be told I’m about average when it comes to my humanity. Like the scores of people who came before me and those who inhabit this earth with me I make mistakes. Such is the inevitability for most of us.

Now and again I see another soul who seems to have achieved a bit more perfection. Both of my grandmothers would fall into that category. They were generous, loving guileless women, but I have often thought that being isolated from most of the ugliness of the world as they were may have helped them not to back slide. Women today spend decades out in an often unforgiving world and the temptation to fight back sometimes leads to anger and invective of the sort that my grandmas never invoked. I believe that I will ultimately be forgiven for my lapses because I also firmly feel that my God is all about redemption. I mean, isn’t that more or less what Jesus told the world as He died on the cross?

I have been reminded of the power of honest contrition by admissions of weakness by heroes of mine like Mother Teresa, Jimmy Carter, and John McCain. All three made it clear in their writings and orations that they sometimes failed to follow their own principles. They spoke of making faulty decisions. In other words they were as human as any of us, which I suspect was also the case of my grandmothers, not withstanding my idealized image of them. As humans we are filled with imperfections and contradictions. When all is said and done the question becomes how we have attempted to live the majority of our days, and whether or not we have been willing to admit our transgressions and attempted to change.

My mother and my teachers all taught me that to sin is human, but to ask forgiveness is divine. They also insisted that once I demonstrated true contrition it was important that I move forward rather than eternally looking backward at my failings. I was schooled in the idea that I should love all of my fellow men, and that my hatred should be aimed at behavior that I found to be egregious, not people. That’s an admittedly difficult formula to follow, but it became a glorious model to use in my work as an educator. I was able to separate the flaws from the person, and deal with behaviors while still caring about the child.

We are in a cycle of judgmental excess, all around. We even take our self righteousness to the extreme of looking back in history and condemning entire civilizations and ways of thinking. We forget the rule of social science that tells us that generalizations are rarely acceptable in assessing humans. We also forget how different the world was from ours even a hundred years ago.

I have been watching the Amazon Prime series Lore and have been taken by the ignorance and superstitions that were prevalent in the world of my ancestors. Scientific and medical knowledge was so antiquated. Philosophies were often based on superstitions. People were generally uneducated much like my two sweet grandmothers who were unable to read or write, much less understand scientific and sociological intricacies. I find it oddly ridiculous that in our modern era there are so many who would overlay our own knowledge and understanding on people who often lived in isolation with little or no education simply because they appear to have behaved badly in a past that was as human as the present.

I also have a problem with pointing fingers of judgement at historical figures who attempted to atone for admitted transgressions and mistakes. It is so easy to insist that none of us would ever have been willing to follow bad leaders, but then we will never know if that is true or not. We cannot possibly put ourselves totally in the shoes of someone from another time and place. We would have to become them in every sense of the word, and of course that is impossible. Instead of looking backwards and admonishing people who lived in times far different from ours it is up to us to look forward. We can do that by learning from the past. Reading and studying with an open mind will teach us how to find the best thoughts and ideas. If we are to be fruitful in our quest for a more equitable society then we must spend more time constructing than tearing down, finding the good and building on that foundation.

I saw a group of students from Harvard who asked a professor what they might do right now to begin to foster positive change in our society. His answer stunned them a bit, but it was brilliant. He suggested that they take full advantage of their educational opportunity by becoming persons who have knowledge and the ability to think critically. He challenged them to acquire the tools that they will one day need to become great leaders, He spurned the idea that they spend their time protesting before they knew enough to come to reasoned decisions.

I also seem to go back to the folksy wisdom of my mother who was indeed a brilliant woman. In her times of clarity she understood human nature as well as any sociologist or psychologist. She often told me that people evolve over time, and that life is a journey through many seasons, all of which make us better people if we are willing to grasp the importance of each. She noted that youth was a time for observing and learning. She spoke of knowing when and how to grasp the reigns of leadership and when to pass them down to the next generation. She felt that a wise person would understand that we are all hoping and dreaming and failing. Each of us is an imperfect being with the potential for greatness. Our journeys in that direction challenge us to be humble and compassionate and forgiving. She always believed that there is an overwhelming goodness to this earth that beats with one heart. If that is our focus we will find happiness and purpose, even as we falter.

Talking To Learn

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I collect ideas for blogs, as well as quotes that I like. I save them and then one day write about them. One that struck me was, “The best way to learn about things is to talk about them.”

This is a rather profound and complex idea that represents far more than it may seem. It resonated with me because I have found that the concept of talking about things has brought me all sorts of learning, starting when I was a student. When I was attempting to unravel the essence of various concepts I would begin with a conversation with myself in which I attempted to discern the essential elements of ideas or processes. If I was able to explain such things so that they made sense I knew that I was on the way to mastering them. It was an odd way to learn that my brothers laughed about. I would pace back and forth in my bedroom chatting out loud with myself as though I was in a real conversation.

I now understand from learning theory that I was enlisting several styles of comprehension at one time. I needed to hear what I was trying to remember because my brain performs better when there is audible input. I also required the movement of pacing to provide the kinesthetic elements that enhance the process of storing and sorting information in my mind. Somehow I had discovered a methodology for my particular needs, and in my years as a student it worked amazingly well. Talking was the key to my success.

The idea that we learn what we talk about also applies to dealing with personal or psychological issues. For many years I struggled with my mother’s mental illness in silence. Like far too many, I was initially embarrassed by what was happening. I remained ignorant of the power of speaking about the challenges that I faced in keeping her healthy until one day when I broke down and revealed my dilemma to a coworker with whom I was not particularly close. With a stroke of luck I learned that my colleague had endured many of the same experiences in a quest to provide his aunt with the treatments that she needed for her psychological problems. My confidant knew exactly what I needed to hear, and it was undeniably freeing to finally open my heart about the guilt and concerns that had been bearing down on me. Over time the two of us often conferred and our conversations brought me more and more moments of enlightenment that not only helped me, but ultimately helped my mother. I eventually abandoned my secretive ways, and as I talked about my situation with different people I learned how to better navigate the through the different crises that arose. I found that I also began to help others who were dealing with the health issues of a loved one.

Long ago when my husband Mike was still in graduate school his professors often invited him to casual gatherings at their homes. The talk always centered on the concepts that were being presented in classes. It was positively scintillating to indulge in such an intellectual pursuit. I always felt as though I was privy to the kind of cafe society that was so popular in Paris in the early part of the twentieth century when the giants of literature, psychology and philosophy would gather to collaborate and argue about the big questions of who we are. I learned more at those informal seminars than in all of the courses that I took for my two degrees.

MIke’s best friend, Egon, was a brilliant man and until his mind was stunted by his alcoholism visits to his home were like delving into a potpourri of knowledge. We would spend entire evenings discussing one issue after another. I always thought that if someone had brought in a camera those conversations would have made for incredible television. Long before reality programs were popular I saw great merit in those long evenings when we dialogue into the wee hours of the morning about meaningful and thought provoking ideas.

One of the problems that I see in today’s world is that we don’t talk enough to learn. Instead we simply argue and defend. We are not interested enough in differing points of view. We prefer instead to listen only to those who parrot our own thinking. I wonder how anyone might actually learn in such and environment. I believe that we have to continuously converse with people who see the world through eyes different from our own if we are to stimulate our brains enough to really gain more knowledge about the people and the world around us. Our minds must be open and willing to consider alternative possibilities. It is then that we feel that rush of excitement that comes from truly grasping the complexities of reality.

I keep thinking of John McCain standing in the halls of Congress only days after brain surgery, admonishing his fellow lawmakers to begin to work together, to talk and to listen without preconceived notions, to get things done. It is healthy to hear from many different people. It is good to ask questions and genuinely desire to engage in polite back and forth discourse. It is like exercising the mind, a routine as necessary as working out our bodies and eating a healthy diet. We should be willing to take as much time for the care of our brains as any other part of our beings.

Start some conversations about anything that excites you. Just remember that you need not do all the talking. Be open and honest and willing to make new discoveries. Don’t be afraid to engage and experiment. It is a truly wonderful way to be, and it guarantees learning regardless of what age you may be.