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.

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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.