Complacency Is Our Enemy

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I’ve always been drawn to books and television programs that feature true crime cases. I regularly record Dateline, Forty Eight Hours, and 20/20. I don’t watch them until I am performing some tedious task around the house like ironing. Then I fill the boredom with mysteries of murder and intrigue. Most of the episodes are somewhat similar in nature, and I have learned how to use my detective skills to put together the clues and determine whodunit. Once in a great while one of the features is different in nature, and it pulls on my emotions to the point of tears. Such was a recent Forty Eight Hours that told of a young man named Blaze Bernstein who was viciously stabbed to death.

Blaze was a happy and incredibly talented young man who lived in southern California with this loving and devoted parents. He was considered to be brilliant by both his teachers and his friends. His talents ran the gamut but it was writing that truly showcased his creativity. He also enjoyed cooking and being with and helping people. He was one of those young people who seemed to be heading for greatness when his life was so viciously ended.

At the same time that Blaze was impressing everyone that he met with his goodness and his potential, another young man was following a different path. He went to the same high school as Blaze but that is where the similarities end. This boy was filled with anger and hate. He became known for racist remarks that included vandalizing a copy of Raisin In the Sun with scribbles of the “N” word throughout. He drew pictures of guns and war, and made his classmates so uncomfortable that they whispered that he had the markings of a school shooter. Unfortunately nobody felt comfortable voicing any of their discomfort aloud. Eventually the hateful kid transferred to a different school, but everyone remembered the fear that he had engendered in them.

Blaze went on the an ivy league college where he was almost immediately a stand out student. After his first semester he returned home for the winter break, and all seemed well. Blaze of course was Jewish, and he had come out as gay, but none of that mattered to those who loved him, and they were many. During the break he got a message from the disturbed young man who had once been a fellow classmate. Without telling anyone where he was going, Blaze agreed to a meeting in a local park. He never came home.

Were it not for an unusually strong rainfall Blaze’s body might never have been found. He was buried under a tree in the park and a passerby noticed a muddy mound that seemed unnatural. Blaze’s body showed evidence of a raging knife attack. In the meantime, Blaze’s parents had done a bit of sleuthing and found a message on his computer indicating his intent to meet the former classmate in the park. When detectives descended on the suspect’s home they found a bloody knife with Blaze’s blood still on it, as well as blood in the perpetrator’s car.

The murder alone was so horrific that I cried several times during the episode, but even more frightening was that the killer had been a member of a neo-Nazi group called Atom Waffen that has chapters all over the United States. The goal of this organization is to literally destroy the United States of America. They celebrated Blaze’s death as a glorious victory with the double benefit of eliminating both a Jew and a gay man. The members are so violent that they consider the Alt Right to be a group of cowards who are not willing to bring about the level of anarchy needed to cleanse the world of all sorts of people who are undesirable in their minds. Most troubling is that they are gaining traction particularly with young white male teens who feel part of something important for the first time in their lives in joining ranks.

We all need to be fully aware that such groups exist, and we need to do our best to find ways to eliminate them. Nonetheless, Blaze’s parents have embarked on a positive and loving pathway to bringing tolerance into more hearts. They have established a foundation called Blaze It Forward in honor of their son. The goal is to encourage people to perform acts of kindness and to donate to causes that help people. They have been able to provide college scholarships and work with young people who feel disengaged. They have channeled their sorrow into love, and in the process have brought great meaning to Blaze’s short life in spite of his death.

I sobbed when I witnessed the courage and grace of Blaze’s parents, and found myself thinking once again of the importance of each of us working systematically to stoke the fires of compassion, acceptance and goodness in every corner of the world. We need to continually model the behaviors that we wish to see, and be on the watch for the wounded souls among us. I suspect that Blaze was such a good person that he may have agreed to meet his killer in the hopes of somehow changing his murder’s tortured soul. It was just the sort of thing that he was prone to do. His parents have followed his lead and focus their healing on good works. It’s something that we should all consider doing. At the same time we must speak out against hate groups and make everyone aware of their dangerous agendas. Complacency is one of our worst enemies that will only lead to more violence.

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A Quiet Revolution

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Sometimes it’s good to get away from the never ending information stream that surrounds us on a daily basis. Even with a concerted effort it can be almost impossible to drown out the the noise that has become so much a part of life in the world today. We are literally exposed to an overload of news and opinions that swirl so closely together that it becomes difficult to differentiate between the two. Fact becomes opinion and opinion becomes fact. We find ourselves growing cynical in an upside down universe where believing is sometimes fueled by misinformation and propaganda posing as truth. We feel overwhelmed, and attempt to cope by purposely creating a “time out” for ourselves, a brief moment in which the sound and the fury is silenced so that we may sort out our thoughts and renew our spirits.

Thus it was a couple of weeks ago when I traveled to a an enchanting campground in Arkansas just outside of Hot Springs. The view from my trailer was gorgeous and tranquil, so much so that I suspect that my blood pressure went down several notches. An added bonus was that I had no cell phone coverage or Internet. I was essentially ignorant of the happenings in the world outside of my little cocoon, save for the brief moments each morning when I visited the ranger station to check on family and friends. At first it was uncomfortable and even a bit frightening to be so cut off from the barrage of information,  but I soon found myself feeling a sense of well being and independence. I did not miss all of the furor and rancor and editorializing that sometimes feels so unavoidable. I relaxed, communed with nature, and even allowed myself to enjoy a few foods that I had cut out of my daily regimen. I slept like a bear hibernating in a cave, and felt an inner peace with myself and the world.

Then came the news of the senseless shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh. It raddled my new found feeling of security, and thoughts of what had happened rolled around in the back of my head even while I tried to maintain the lovely distance from anger and hate that I had been enjoying. I wanted to speak of what had happened, but I remained mute lest the emotions of joy and tranquility that I had would be replaced by sorrow and anxiety. I pushed my feelings down as far as I possibly could and did my best to retain the sense of well being that my little retreat from reality had been providing me. I found myself wanting to wander off in the forest that encircled our campground in the hopes of finding refuge in some Thoreau like cabin in the woods where I might live my life immune from ugliness. Of course, I understood that such a world is in truth an impossible dream. A voice in my head was calling me back to a place where reality lurks, a place where people struggle and suffer and find little ways to keep a hold on happiness and optimism even when cynicism appears to be the best armor.

I came home and threw myself into performing mundane tasks that required me to avoid the television, the radio, the Internet. Still I was unable to escape the dreadful feeling of how much more divided our nation has become, and how our differences are causing so much unnecessary anguish. There are lost souls among us whose diseased brains taunt them to do despicable things. There are purely evil people whose putrid hate compels them to hurt innocent people who have nothing to do with the imagined slights that make them rage. We have an epidemic of incivility and fury that is making those of us who are stable to feel somehow uncertain, and those who are sociopaths to feel entitled to violent retribution. It is unsettling and frightening when even the people who are supposed to be our unbiased reporters and those designated to be our leaders only know how to respond by arguing and accusing one another of outrageous sins. Little wonder that we are witness to a level of murderous aggression unlike anything that I have witnessed in all of my years on this earth.

I want so badly to find a level of wisdom to impart that will literally change the course of our present history. I have hoped and prayed that there will be a tipping point after which we bind our wounds and join hands in a united effort to insure that the precious lives of good people will not be cut short when they find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. Our children should not have to practice lockdowns in their schools. Churches and synagogues and temples should not have to form emergency committees whose job is to take action if a shooter interrupts a worship service. We should not have to carry clear purses to big events lest to insure that no weapons will be used to destroy others. There is really no excuse for our willingness to  accept that occurrences of violence are now simply part of the way things are. We should not feel compelled to arm ourselves in places that should bring us joy.

How can we expect the unhinged among us to remain calm and without rancor when we are fighting with one another at every turn? Why are some of our politicians inciting unrest, suggesting that being tough and angry is the only way to solve our problems? We are pushing and shoving one another with words and actions. We are engaged in a kind of national anger fest that sees no end. For now there are flareups of murder here and there, but if we do not find some way to seek our common good I have come more and more to fear that we will find ourselves engaged in a real civil war, not just one of words. I now find myself praying continuously that there will be a revolution of good people to bind the wounds of our country and bring us together to quell the sickness that festers in dark places.

I grieve for the souls who were killed in Pittsburgh, good people who were only trying to honor their God. I grieve for anyone who has been a victim of the kind of unspeakable tragedies that occur far too often. I challenge all people of loving hearts, and I believe they are many, to convince our leaders that we will no longer just sit back and tolerate the hate. I want to see a swell of support for kindness, in the style of the peaceful and measured protests that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr once led. We need to join hands with all people of the world regardless of religion, political affiliation, sexuality to demonstrate our intent to being civility and kindness to the forefront. We must work together to fix the real problems that we face, and let those who would thwart our efforts know that we are no longer interested in fighting and bickering. We must much honor those whose lives have been lost by becoming better than the evil. We must forego the hysteria, and bring order to our world. Love must prevail.

Promote Love

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I have only recently returned from a ten day camping trip with dear friends. For most of the time I had spotty phone service and little access to the Internet. It forced me to forego my addiction to receiving instant news alerts and to reading political comments and commentaries during this election cycle. I found that my vacation from the noise and chaos of the world allowed me to quiet the anxieties that I sometimes feel about the state of the world. It also helped me to slow down my responses to events that might otherwise have angered me. By listening to the wind, the birds, and the beating of my own heart rather than the chaos that has become so commonplace I found a kind of wisdom and ability to calm my emotions. It made me realize that the world really is too much with us. We have in many ways become as raucous and disturbing to the peace as the flock of crows who sometimes babbled overhead as I sat near a beautiful lake eating my meals.

If I were to only be exposed to my friends and the members of my family I would never see or hear hate. The people in my sphere are good and kind, just as I found the individuals that I encountered in my travels to be. Most of us only desire to live our lives with as little drama and ugliness as possible, but we are all too often reminded again and again that there are indeed tortured souls who are filled with murderous anger and venom. I often wonder what has made them this way. Surely they were at one time innocent children. Were they abused, taught to be hard hearted? Did their minds become infected with illnesses that were ignored and left untreated? Were they abandoned by society in some way, alone and afraid? What led to their evil acts of violence? Why did they feel compelled to hurt innocents who had nothing whatsoever to do with causing them to have so much anger seething inside of them? How did their minds become so tortured?

I have come to believe that much of the murderous rage that we witness is caused by the twenty four seven barrage of information and talk that is suffocating us. Headlines are created to garner our attention. The more salacious they are the more likely we are to be curious about them. Yes, we have a president who stokes the fires, but the news outlets are more than happy to constantly give him the attention that he so voraciously seeks rather than learning how to ignore his rudeness. Perhaps if they took away his audience he might change his ways.

We can’t watch an awards show without hearing unwanted political commentaries from people who somehow believe that their opinions should matter to us. There is to much talk, talk, talk, most of which resembles a disagreement among kids in middle school. Seemingly all of us are guilty in one way or another of judging people by the ways in which they vote. We are at war with those with whom we disagree in ways that are destructive to our society, our friendships and our families. Instead of seeking common ground our words are used mostly to insult and push away anyone who differs from our own ways of thinking. Sadly, the level of self righteous indignation is fueling the violent responses of those whose minds have somehow become twisted, incomprehensible and filled with hate.

So what can we do to help the situation? Simply turning our backs on the problems will do little. We cannot ignore the reality that something must be done, but we also need to approach the matter in a way that demonstrates our willingness to value the differences that we have. We can indeed reshape the environment, but it will not be easy nor will we rid ourselves of all evil. The one thing that we can control is the way in which we choose to react to people who appear to be so aggrieved that they are shouting in true pain. Rather than insulting them, perhaps it is time that we ask them what they really need.

On a recent Sunday the Gospel story told of Jesus traveling to Jericho where He encountered a blind man named Bartimaeus  who begged the Lord to pity him and help him to see. The crowd yelled at Bartimaeus and told him to be quiet. They wanted nothing to do with the wretched man, but Jesus stopped, listened to his pleas and healed him.

We need to follow that example. It is so easy to just write someone off because we do not like what that person does or says. We meet their anger with our own and often hurl insults at them or even turn our backs on them, leaving them to grow more and more isolated and desirous of vengeance. We tell ourselves that helping people who are overwrought is none of our business, sometimes even when they are members of our own families.

I read an ironic description of the man who sent pipe bombs to democrats. It was from one of the members of his family. The man told of how sweet the his cousin had always been. He then went on to note that things had changed in the last three to five years. The world fell apart for the man now charged with attempted murder. He lost his business and had to file for bankruptcy. He was living inside of his van which was plastered with outrageous political messages. He worked as a pizza delivery man, a job usually populated by younger individuals. He had frequent run ins with the law and made unrealistic boasts about his talents. Those who knew him realized that something was very wrong and yet they did little more than shake their heads. He had not seen many of his relatives in over five years. Still, nobody seemed willing to reach out to him and ask what they might do to help him. He turned to a strangers in a twisted political world for the comfort that he sought. What if instead, someone who truly loved him had been willing to ask him what he needed? Might the direction of his life turned just by being noticed? 

We will never know. Indeed he may have pushed everyone away in spite of their efforts. Sometimes evil cannot be persuaded to change. That is when we must punish violent acts. Still I think that it would benefit all of us to begin to approach the sound and fury that surrounds us with more compassion and less anger. I think of an episode of the famous literary detective Hercule Poirot that I watched not long ago. In it he solves a murder before it even takes place, saving an unfortunate friend whose life was falling apart from total ruination. It’s time that we return to love, even for those that we do not understand,. We must notice the suffering people among us even when they appear to be ugly and unhinged. Let the crows be raucous. We should be kind. Promote love even for those we do not understand. Maybe in the process we will prevent evil from taking root in a misguided and tortured mind.

There Can Be No Excuses

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I’m a Catholic. I was born into a Catholic family and baptized as an infant. I attended twelve years of Catholic school and have received all of the sacraments but Holy Orders and the Anointing of the Sick. I’ve been a rather lackluster cafeteria kind of Catholic for the last several years, but of late I have returned to the fold on a regular basis. I can’t imagine myself being a member of any other Christian denomination, but I have to admit to being angry and sorrowful over the latest accusations of priests engaged in sexual abuse with young children and seminarians. The details are literally vomit inducing, and I can’t even imagine how dreadful it must have been for those who had to endure such horrors. In my mind there can be no excuse for such egregious behavior from any adult, much less one in a position of trust.

My church has to face the problems that brew in its ranks and accept full responsibility for such incidents beginning with a willingness to report such violations of decency to the police as soon as they are discovered. Anyone who simply moves a priest to another location or thinks that sending them for rehabilitation without alerting law enforcement should be viewed as an accessory to a crime. The days of hiding the abuse from the public must be long gone. It is only right and just. If the church leaders want to demonstrate compassion and forgiveness, they may do so, but first there must be adherence to the laws of the state. If that means watching one of their own being sent to prison, then so be it.

I have long believed that the church’s insistence on maintaining celibacy with the clergy is an outdated and problematic ideology. I see nothing wrong with having married priests. In fact, I suspect that opening up the priesthood to those who wish to have families would be more conducive to finding psychologically healthy individuals to maintain the parishes. It would certainly be a boon to vocations, and would lead to clearer understanding of the problems that faithful face. One of my all time favorite priests became single after he had raised his children and lost his wife. He was allowed to enter the seminary, and he brought a wisdom and compassion that is heart warming. He knows what it means to have the challenges of raising a family. His life with a wife and children has provided him with a unique point of view. I truly advocate for changing the ancient rule that seems out of place in our modern world.

For that matter, I wonder if we are also ready to accept female priests. The old ways of considering women unable to handle the same challenges as men are long gone. We have lots of proof that women are not only able to perform many of the same tasks as males, but they often bring additional assets and talents to most jobs. So many of the nuns that I knew as a child would have been remarkable priests. They were as wise and intelligent as the men, but relegated to a more submissive role. Surely we have moved beyond that as well.

I see religious men and women in other faiths doing remarkable things while still caring for spouses and children. They do not seem to lack either the energy nor the time to care for their parishioners, and they generally do so with few psychological hangups. I feel that if we create a more normal atmosphere for our priests, those with problems will be less attracted to a religious life where they think they might hide their proclivities. With a few adjustments to the way things are done, many of the problems that continue to plague the church will be eliminated or at least minimized.

You may be wondering why I don’t just leave the Catholic Church and find a new experience say as an Episcopalian or a Methodist. The answer lies in my conviction that the church is more than a single priest or even all of them put together. It is the community of the millions of Catholics the world over. It is about a beautiful faith and set of beliefs that rise above the sins of a few. As a member of this holy body I have a right to question the difficulties that I witness, and even to suggest solutions, but I do not intend to leave.

Long ago a very good priest, a holy man, Father John Perusina, baptized me when I was a baby. Many years later he witnessed my marriage and was a faithful friend of my family. Once when I was frustrated about problems that I saw in the church I threatened to just leave and find a place to worship more to my liking. Father Perusina gently and wisely pointed out that if everyone had my attitude the church would soon be run by the very people with whom I disagreed. He urged me instead to stay and to feel free to make my voice heard. He insisted that the only way to make change was for those with good ideas to remain members of the church. I have found his advice to be more than true. I have often been able to constructively note problems and bring about changes in the parishes that I have attended.

I have been a fortunate soul as were my brothers. We did not encounter the evil abuse that has been perpetrated on some innocent souls. I feel certain that most priests are as good as we expect them to be, but the unfortunate fact is that all too often the really bad ones have been treated with kid gloves when they should have been made to feel the consequences of their sins, not just within the church but with the law. Until that becomes a uniform reaction any time someone is discovered engaging in such heinous acts, a sense of distrust will remain to tarnish even the best souls.

We seem to have found a courageous pope who will be honest about the problems and will work to find real solutions. I’ll pray that a productive path will be found. I love my church and want to see it enforce the values that it taught me even when those in the highest level of authority do wrong. There can be no excuses ever again. 

No Excuses

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An old feature from CBS popped up on my Facebook page. It catalogued the most crime ridden cities in the United States and described what the infractions were. There were a few surprises on the list, but mostly they consisted of the usual suspects that are traditionally havens for criminals. What was more interesting was the commentary from readers that followed the article as people attempted to determine what actually causes deviant behavior and how we might find ways to curb it.

I’m not a sociologist or expert in criminology, but I spent my lifetime working to educate youngsters, and what I have found is that most of the kids who became lawbreakers shared certain commonalities that had little to do with their economic situation other than placing them in the line of temptation. In the vast majority of cases the kids were from broken homes that had become structureless, without guidance. Often they as well as their parental figures used addictive drugs and joined gangs as a way of belonging. Their lives were focused on getting from one moment to the next as easily as possible. They were not interested in school and no doubt would have simply dropped out were it not for truancy laws. Many of them were marking time until they reached the age of sixteen when they would no longer have to cope with rules that made it illegal for them to leave the world of education. They generally had few positive role models and they almost always laid the blame for their plight on society rather than themselves. They were angry and believed that they had the right to better lives, but were unwilling to do the hard work to take advantage of opportunities. It was heart breaking to watch them becoming more and more adrift and influenced by forces that would ultimately lead them into a very dark world.

As teachers we did our best to motivate them, but we were often uncertain as to how to most effectively help them to escape the bad habits that were bringing them down. We had only a few hours of influence each day and we knew with certainty that when they left us there was no telling how much trouble awaited them. There were many schools of thought as to what we needed to do.

I remember one administrator who felt that only by setting down clear rules and consequences for ignoring them would we ever rescue them. He actually encouraged us to give them after school detentions because at least in that way we would be keeping them safe just a bit longer as well as teaching them that some actions are unacceptable and will be punished by society. He often followed some of the teens home if he thought that they might get into trouble along the way. He indeed saved a large number of individuals, but others only rebelled even more. I began to realize that there was no one approach for everyone.

At the same school we had a coach who used to bring old cars and park them in front of the gym. At the end of the day he invited students to join him for lessons in repairing autos. He had quite a following and many of the youngsters who stayed might otherwise have been up to mischief. Instead they were inspired to learn a trade that would bring them the success that seemed to otherwise elude them. There were fine arts teachers and those who taught science who similarly engaged the interests of children who had once been without any kind of direction.

I also noticed that once some of our kids went to church they changed dramatically. Many of the priests and ministers in the area actively recruited our students with promises of food, fun and fellowship. When they learned Christian principles they began to think about their own lives and actions and even influenced the adults in their lives. The loving concern that they found in those churches felt even more powerful than the gangs and quite often wrought amazing changes in our students.

In my final years in education I worked with the KIPP Charter Schools and their many mantras emphasized hard work, good behavior, goal setting and a willingness to never offer excuses for bad choices. The aim of the schools was to offer students a positive pathway out of poverty and sometimes toxic lifestyles. The route to success was grounded in a focus on education and a belief that with effort anything is possible.

Every single day the students were challenged with rigorous academic work that did not allow them to fall behind. The long days kept them focused on learning with little time for frivolous or criminal pursuits. Those who broke the rules were punished quickly and according to the nature of their actions. Sometimes they were even expelled on a probationary basis until they were able to prove that they were willing to adhere to the standards.

Parents were as much a part of the design as teachers. The adults worked hand in hand to insure that the values of character and industry became an integral part of the youngsters’ lives. While not every individual made it, the majority did and overcame countless obstacles to earn degrees and certifications that lifted them out of poverty and danger.

Poverty alone is not the problem. My brothers and I grew up poor, but we had a mother who never allowed us to wallow in pity or anger. She insisted that we study and work hard. She modeled exemplary character and emphasized that with the will we might accomplish anything. She instilled optimism into our natures and taught us that lack of material wealth did not define us or make us less than even the wealthiest person that we might encounter. Mostly she showed us that sacrifice and honesty were noble qualities that would carry us far. She would have been horrified if we had become so jealous of others that we thought it was somehow our right to steal from them or harm them.

We certainly need to give the poor in our country a lift upward, but helping their children to become self sufficient producers cannot be accomplished with money alone. Instead it requires our efforts to demonstrate how they might survive in positive ways. We must show them the value of hard work and provide them with role models and inspiration. It is a daily task requiring a multitude of good people including their parents.

Dr. Ben Carson often speaks of his own troubled childhood in Detroit where he lived in the midst of temptations that might have lead him into dangerous behaviors. His mother was not willing to simply allow him to waste his life, and so she became a force that changed the trajectory of the person he would become. She pushed him to use the talents that he had by being adult enough to be in charge. She devoted her life to demonstrating to her sons that they had the power within them to become better and better versions of themselves.

I suspect that they key to reduction in crime is to be found in lovingly and firmly guiding children from the time that they are very young, never allowing them to become hopeless, protecting them from forces with evil intent, and slowly showing them how to focus on learning how to use their talents for good. This is a job for parents, teachers, religious groups, and mentors who are willing to demonstrate that the world is a good and inviting place that wants to embrace them. We have much work to do.