Better Angels

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I’m not one to advocate fighting, especially among family and friends. A colleague once told me that I would probably be able to find something good about anyone, including Charles Manson. I suppose that I am the way I am because I so value life, and believe that each of us has the potential for great good. Nonetheless we are also imperfect, and I try to remind myself that I do not have all of the answers and neither does anyone else. Our humanity leads us in many different directions, and often it is only in retrospect that we are able to determine whether or not we have always chosen the best pathways for living. Each of us is so complex as is the world in which we live as well as the long history of mankind. I feel that we must be far kinder and less judgmental that we often are. Somehow of late we have become a very divided nation with each side virtue shaming the other. The rancor that I see is toxic, and even more troubling is that all too often anyone who attempts to bridge the ever growing gaps is viewed as lacking in values.

Mark Twain once said something to the effect that the two most important moments in a person’s life are when he/she is born and when he/she discovers why. I love the idea that each of us has a purpose, and firmly believe that it often takes us a very long time to know what that may be. In my own case I suspect that my suffering has lead me to be far more understanding and compassionate than I might otherwise have been. Losing my father taught me how fragile life truly is. My mother’s mental illness showed me that each of us has a kind of brokenness, some more severe than others. I learned to embrace people just as they are, not as I wish them to be. I have been humbled by the realization of my own imperfections. I have embraced the power of listening to each person’s story and learning from what I have heard. History speaks to the truth that humankind has struggled for centuries to survive and to understand the world’s many mysteries. That epoch journey has been wrought with both failures and glorious successes. I suspect that if we were to analyze every single person who has ever lived we would find it to be true that even the most gloriously amazing individual still had a share of doubts and mistaken beliefs. It is who we are, and something that we seem to forget from time to time.

So here we in 2018 fighting like Cain and Abel all across the world, hurling invective at one another to the point of insisting that anyone who doesn’t agree with our opinions is no longer a friend. We are defensive and angry and unwilling to stop our ranting long enough to realize that as a nation we have become our own worst enemies. It seems as though the warnings that my seventh grade teacher proposed over five decades ago have come to pass, for she was prescient in urged us to be wary of the power of propaganda. She taught us how to watch for it, and insisted that it was all around us, even when it was not apparent. It was a shocking revelation, but one that I have never forgotten. I see its impact now more than ever before, and realize that we are being manipulated into turning on people that we once may have loved simply because their ideas do not conform with ours. It is a truly sad state of affairs and it has caused me to grieve and to feel a sense of desperation as I attempt to draw people that I know back together. The din of the rancor has become oppressive and I have worries about where it will eventually end that might never otherwise have occurred to me.

In the midst of the darkness I have discovered a small ray of hope. I have heard about a group called Better Angels, an organized effort to bring disparate forces together in a spirit of understanding. The idea behind the movement is to sponsor what are known as red and blue conversations between groups of Republicans and Democrats. Participants agree to discuss issues in a highly structured environment that focuses on listening. The gatherings are weighted equally with people from both sides of the political spectrum, and kept somewhat small so as to allow each person time to speak. Using a number of formal structures there is an agreed upon topic and the emphasis is on simply hearing each point of view. Only one person speaks while everyone silently considers what is being said. It is not a debate, but rather an opportunity to learn from one another. Nobody is allowed to speak out of turn or launch into heated arguments. It is a controlled and quiet attempt to find understanding, areas of common ground and possible solutions. Those who have participated have generally reported feeling enlightened and far more open to considering new ways of thinking. The system is so powerful that many teachers and university professors use it in their classrooms to invoke more critical thinking and less emotional argument.

I have personally participated in similar groups in past years. They were not affiliated with Better Angels but they were constructed in a similar manner. Generally there were a very small number of people in the groups and there was no effort to keep them balanced, but there was a very structured set of questions and rules for speaking about them within a limited amount of time. Usually one person served as a mediator who insured that everyone followed the rules. Such situations almost uniformly resulted in more listening than talking, serving to quiet the mind and open possibilities that had not previously been considered. They worked to build a sense of team and family even among very different individuals.

I believe that we have been approaching our shared problems in the wrong manner. We only hear what we wish to hear in an atmosphere of shouting and accusations. We align ourselves with like minded people and unfairly judge those with whom we disagree. We behave as though we have it all figured out when the truth is that every problem is filled with complexities that require consideration of many different ideas. In truth it is only when we quiet our own souls and begin to listen to everyone that we will ever find ways to agree on solutions. My guess is that much like our ancestors we will have to make compromises that may not perfectly suit us, but which will settle our differences just enough to make progress. The better angels that live inside our souls need to overcome the demons that are leading us astray.

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The Wedding of a Die Hard Democrat and a Die Hard Republican

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One of my cousins recently posted a commentary about his parents that made me smile. He remarked that one of his folks was a die hard Democrat and the other was a die hard Republican. They used to joke that when they went to vote they canceled each other out. Mostly though they were good people who taught their son to be tolerant and to love his country. He served proudly in the military and learned how to be a  good person in his own right by following their example. He wonders, however, what has changed to cause so much derision, division and incivility today. He wants to know why it is increasingly difficult for people with differing philosophies to get along.

His post got me to thinking about my own parents. In all honesty I don’t really know what political persuasions they had. I only recall my father arguing about a political topic on one occasion and that was with his father. Since I was only privy to the noise of their voices rather than the actual debate I will never really know who advocated what position. It was not any easier to discern what my mother’s thinking might have been. She was an enigma when it came to voting and such. She often told me that she considered Franklin D. Roosevelt to be the greatest of all the American presidents, insisting that he had saved the nation in more ways than one. She broke into tears when remembering how she had once seen him when he visited Houston. She always spoke glowingly of Harry Truman and John Kennedy as well, but on the other hand, she felt almost as much allegiance to Ronald Reagan as to Roosevelt. In all honesty I can’t think of many times that she even spoke of politics or her feelings about them. To her a vote was a sacred and private thing between her and God. She didn’t discuss her leanings nor did she find it necessary to know about those of anyone else. Her only commentary was that it was glorious to have such a right, even if the elections didn’t always go her way.

Mama was from an immigrant family that was not always treated in the most welcoming way. She told us that her father insisted that in spite of a few prejudices here and there the USA was still preferable to the land that he had left. He insisted that his children take full advantage of the opportunities of being citizens and in turn pay forward the favor by demonstrating their pride in being Americans. When my mom and her siblings were taunted as being foreigners, their father urged them to just ignore the slights. He taught them that there are ignorant folk everywhere, and they need not nurse their anger. Instead he wanted them to become educated and fully involved in the culture and ways of the country. All eight of his children were patriotic, and his sons confirmed their love for the USA by enlisting in the Armed Forces and serving during World War II.

I suspect that my mom would be both confused and amused by the craziness on display these days, but she would have also insisted that everyone has a right to voice their opinions if they so choose. She would often tell us how important that cornerstone of democracy was to her father and ultimately to her and her siblings as well. It was something all too often denied in their homeland of Slovakia, so they were quick to welcome all ideas.

What would have most baffled my mother is the way that so many people are now determining friendships based on political beliefs. She would have first noted that it is none of anyone’s business to judge others, especially with regard to their political beliefs. She would have also wondered why we are talking about such things so openly and so much. Mostly she would have been utterly appalled at the idea of friendships and relationships being based on how people feel about particular hot button topics. I suppose that she had the same high level of tolerance as her older brother who was so fittingly described by his son in the Facebook post.

I often muse that the media is too much with us. There was a time when there was a news hour around dinner time. Thirty minutes were devoted to national events, and thirty to local happenings. Most stories merited only two to three minutes of discussion, rather than the twenty four hour blathering on and on that is possible today. Something has to fill those hours and unfortunately there is a great deal of sensationalism used to attract our attention. We have become news junkies and can’t even escape the grasp of the drama when we are away from our televisions. Our phones and computers constantly alert us to the latest breaking story. There is little or no rest and after a time we become so emotionally involved that we can’t seem to turn off the feelings that send us into emotional frenzies. It sometimes appears as though we are puppets being manipulated by some unseen master.

The reality is that we don’t really need to see every single kook who does something outrageous. The truth is that on any given day most people are busy going about their lives. They are not sitting at home plotting ways to make other’s miserable. They are not evil or uncaring or hoping to undermine the government. Most people are just trying to get by and get along. They do their duty as mothers, fathers, friends, employees, and citizens. They appraise the issues and make choices, and unless they do something illegal or hurt us in some way, it really should not matter to us what their political philosophies may be. Instead we should be focusing on what kind of people they are and admitting that if it actually is possible for a die hard Democrat and a die hard Republican to have a beautiful and loving marriage then maybe we also need to try harder to get along. 

Being Kind To The Unkind

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The real test is being kind to unkind people.

I saw this quote on a friend’s Facebook wall and it spoke to me. I believe that it is difficult for any of us to demonstrate courtesy and compassion to someone who is unlikeable in the way in which they treat others. As I considered the idea of being kind to unkind people I thought of a man who lived near my family when I was about six or seven years old. His house was across the street from ours, situated on the corner of the block. The location was such that people constantly passed in front of his home which he meticulously kept in a lovely state. He was particularly proud of his grass which adorned his lawn like a thick green carpet. He was continually fertilizing, trimming, and watering. It appeared to be more than just a hobby. It was an obsession, and his efforts paid off because there was no yard as beautiful as his.

There were many children who lived nearby. Virtually every residence was filled with boisterous and happy kids, but the man had only his wife. For reasons that seemed strange to me they had no offspring, and so the man focused hours and hours of attention on his gardening. Because he was unaccustomed to the habits of youngsters he seemed almost afraid of us as we ran up and down laughing and being a bit louder than we probably should have been. He glared at us whenever we passed his way, and woe be unto us if we took the liberty of trodding on his grass. He would howl dire warnings, yelling and screaming that we should never again desecrate his yard with our dirty feet. We received his message with a combination of fear and loathing, thinking him to be a vile creature. We literally hated him, but were also so scared that we took to walking in the street to get past his place rather than tempting the fates by staying on the sidewalk.

I remember complaining to my mother one day, vowing that my friends and I would find a way to show him what it felt like to be treated so badly. I spoke of our loathing for our neighbor, feeling totally justified in my assessment of the situation. My mom listened patiently and then suggested that perhaps the man had reasons for his behavior that we did not know. She urged me not to be unkind but rather to simply be respectful of his wishes, and to be as friendly and kind as I might have been had he been more pleasant.

It was a difficult assignment and I was unable to convince my friends to join me in overlooking the angry threats that he had hurled at us. I was on my own and it was admittedly a frightening place to be, but I slowly began to be neighborly each time I saw the surly guy. I would wave, smile and shout a hello. I would gingerly walk along the sidewalk making it very clear that I was doing my best to be careful. When he was working on the landscaping I complimented his efforts and told him how nice it felt to live across from such a beautiful expanse. Once I even offered to help, knowing that I would no doubt be turned down.

As time passed the man’s demeanor began to change. He would exchange greetings with me and ask me how I was doing. He began to bring vegetables from his backyard garden to our home when he would talk with my mother and tell her how lovely it was to watch the children in the neighborhood having so much fun. He revealed that he and his wife had been unable to have children, but had always hoped that a miracle would bring a child to them. He had been sad and angry that their prayers had been denied, and he had thrown his energies into creating a kind of garden of eden to make his wife happy.

I learned at that very young age that those who are unkind often have become so because of circumstances that overwhelm them. We never really know what someone is experiencing when they are mean and hateful. While their actions may be aimed at us, they are often symptomatic of some deep seated pain that they don’t know how to heal. They are angry at the world, and maybe even themselves. As their tempers increase, so too does their isolation become ever more intense. They create a vicious cycle that leaves them unloved and lonely. When those around them pay back their surliness with compassion, sometimes they begin to change.

Our society is enduring an era of meanness. We seem to equate anger with toughness. As with a playground brawl we have people trying to outdo one another with insults and even threats. There are those who answer what they see as injustice with rudeness and suggestions of violence. None of those things will do much more than raise the level of heated argument. It is only when we stay calm and offer peaceful resolutions to problems that we stand a chance of making positive changes.

Being kind to unkind people is very hard indeed. Our instinct is to follow the dictates of “an eye for an eye.” We would prefer turning our backs on such people, avoiding them at all cost. It is only when we at least attempt to follow our better natures that we can feel assured that we have done the right thing. If our efforts are spurned, or if the person only becomes worse we most certainly should simply walk away. Never, however, is it right to join in the fray. We only demean ourselves when we go down into the gutter with unpleasant people.

I’m genuinely hoping and praying that the current tendencies toward street fighting among rivals will be a phase that has soon passed. It does little to solve problems and we certainly have our share of those. We can pat ourselves on the back for spending most of our days being kind to people who return the favor, but we should be especially proud whenever we are able to be caring to someone who has been disagreeable to us. We never change minds or personalities with viciousness. That only leads to schisms and sometimes even wars. Our best bet is to smile and reach out a hand of understanding and warmth. Most people will respond and we may learn something new and important in the process.

Another Ding, Another Scratch

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I saw a woman on television laughing about a dent in her car and philosophically shaking off her concern by exclaiming, “Another ding, another scratch, just another chapter in the story.” I had to laugh along with her because in truth she had summed up life quite brilliantly with that little utterance. It seems as though each of us carries dents and scars on both our bodies and our minds that ultimately contribute to becoming the persons who we are. In spite of our own efforts to take control of things, we are continually blindsided by accidents of nature and disappointments from relationships. As we travel through our individual stories we experience collisions with diseases and toxic people, along with all of the regular intersections and interactions that bring the wear and tear that is a normal part of being human.

Some of the things that happen to us are quite natural. As children we may skin our knees or break a bone or two. We form friendships and experience disappointments. We learn and dream and if we are truly lucky we get through our childhoods without too many traumas or losses and work on embracing adulthood. We search for loving friends and partners and attempt to fulfill the dreams and goals that push us to become better each day. We may choose wrong and have to rethink our plans or accept that someone that we loved has betrayed us or simply grown weary of us. If we are lucky our troubles are average, and our health is good so that we make it to our so-called golden years of retirement. We grow older and feel the aging of our bodies a bit more. We must say goodbye to departed friends and look a bit less toward the future and more at finding contentment in each day. Eventually every single one of us reaches an ending, and if we are lucky we will be able to look back on what we have accomplished and the relationships that we have fostered with a sense of contentment and maybe even a bit of pride.

The truth is that living is a bit more complex than that. We are faced with challenges at times that feel almost unbearable. It becomes difficult to write them off as just another ding or scratch. We feel as though our collision with some horrific force has totaled us out, reduced us to heaps of junk. Unless we are extraordinarily lucky each of us has faced a moment in which we might even ask God where He is because we feel so alone in our pain and suffering. I have had my own share of troubles that threatened to overwhelm me, events so terrible that they rendered me almost useless for a time. In those moments I had to rely heavily on faith, hope and love wherever I was able to find it. I was always humbled in learning who my most loyal angels were, because often they were not the people to whom I had given the biggest chunks of my heart, but instead unexpected souls who miraculously came to my aide. Of course there were also a handful of people so reliable that I was able to call on them time and again to rescue me from many difficult situations.

I recently watched a movie called Hostiles. I had not heard of it before, but it had a good cast with Christian Bale and Rosamund Pike, as well as a very decent Rotten Tomatoes rating. It is a western and thanks to my Uncle Jack I grew up loving those kinds of stories. This one reminded me a bit of the old John Wayne movie The Searchers, but with a more modern and philosophical twist. While there was plenty of adventure, the tale was mainly about people caught up in the kind of accident of life that transforms them and provides them with the answers that they have needed. It speaks to the idea that sometimes in our most tragic times we find the faith, hope and love for which we have been searching.

An event can be so unnerving that it causes us to reassess everything that we have believed about ourselves and the people around us. It rips us apart and threatens to destroy us, but we somehow find what we need to repair ourselves and come out whole again. The process of fixing our very souls can be gut wrenchingly painful and lonely. We may not even want to continue down the road because the darkness does not allow us to see what lies ahead. We may cry out and hear no response, lie down and wish it all to be over. That is when we somehow find the tiniest bit of encouragement as though the hand of God Himself is reaching down to rescue us.

We humans are fragile creatures who are nonetheless stronger than we realize. For centuries we have endured the dings and scratches and wrecks that mar our journeys, but also provide us with the character that makes our stories more real. Still there are those among us whose suffering is so intense that they cannot repair themselves alone. They need someone to help them to restore the faith and hope that they require to continue into the future. Love is the panacea that they seek. We need to be aware of them and be the person who gently demonstrates the compassion for which they have been searching.

We all have a ding here, a scratch there, and sometimes a big gaping hole. Some of our injuries are of our own making, but most come from out of nowhere like a speeding Mack truck driven by a drunken driver. We endure collisions that test us more than we believe that we are capable of handling. That is when we often feel the most alone, but in truth there is always someone who will miraculously help if only we allow them to hear our cries. As humans we have two duties. One is to humble ourselves just enough to ask for assistance, and another is to be ready to provide aide whenever someone calls. If we follow these guidelines we are less likely to wind up forgotten and alone in the junkyard of life. We have the power to rewrite our stories and those of the people around us. When we embrace our dings and scratches they take on a lovely patina that brings out the true beauty of life.

God Willing And The Creek Don’t Rise

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Ladybird Johnson was a Texan through and through. Growing up in east Texas she adopted mannerisms and a style of speaking that is unique to our state. One of her best quotes always reminds me of my own mother, “God willing and the creek don’t rise.” My mama rarely gave a definitive RSVP to an invitation. Her assents were invariably prefaced with a “God willing” admonition. She often cautioned us to consider that events beyond our control might suddenly change even the best of plans. The sudden and very unexpected death of my father only served to demonstrate the wisdom of her thinking. I often find my self tentatively setting dates on my calendar that I hope will come to pass, knowing that the good Lord may have other ideas in mind. On this July 3, I am reminded all too well of the whimsy and challenges of life.

A year ago I was enjoying one of many events that would entertain me in the summer of 2017. I had already travelled to Cancun for a beautiful wedding and was luxuriating in the promise of more joy to come. My husband and I were spending the Fourth of July holiday with all of our children and grandchildren in San Antonio. Later in the month we were scheduled to camp with friends in east Texas near where Ladybird grew up. In August we planned to drive to a mountain cabin in Colorado to meet up with one of my brothers and his family to relax and hike, and then go to Wyoming to watch the total eclipse in one of the best vantage points in the country.

God willing it was going to be a fun filled summer, but things began to unravel without warning. On July 3, after enjoying breakfast and lunch with our family we were in the process of deciding what to do for the remainder of the day when we heard banging and a faint voice from the guest bathroom. Our inspection of the source of the noises lead us to the discovery of my husband Mike lying on the floor unable to rise on his own. It was immediately apparent from the crooked line of his mouth and the slurring of his words that he was having a stroke. From there life changed in ways for which I had no plans.

Of course we cancelled the camping with friends, the travel to the mountain cabin and the journey to view the eclipse. Our attention was focused entirely on making Mike healthy again. After his release from the hospital we returned home to Houston to begin a year long regimen of visits to doctors, healthier diets, exercise and enjoying life quietly from day to day. We had been warned that there is a statistical danger of another stroke that is most likely to occur within the first three to six months after the initial one. Needless to say I hovered over Mike like a hawk, noting his every breath, listening for signs of trouble. We were instructed not to go to isolated areas or places without cell phone reception and good hospitals, so we mostly stayed at home.

We watched the eclipse here in Houston along with others who had crowded into the Museum of Natural History in Hermann Park. The was not as dramatic as it might have been because it was not directly over our city, but we felt grateful that Mike was still here to enjoy whatever slice of life he was afforded. Only days after we heard on the news that the proverbial creek might rise here in Houston from the predicted rains of hurricane Harvey. We did not leave to find a safer place because we wanted to be near the Houston Medical Center if anything happened to Mike, and besides we could never have imagined how bad the historic weather event might actually be. We hunkered down as instructed by a county commissioner and waited for the storm to pass, only it took its precious time in doing so. In the process of constant rain for three day our little neighborhood became an island in a sea of flooding that was overtaking Houston and surrounding areas like Noah’s epic torrent. How could I have ever known just how much our creeks were going to rise? Who had ever even heard of 51 inches of rain in a single event?

It’s been a year since our trials began on July 3. Mike has not had another stroke, and God willing he never will. Houston has mostly healed but we still shudder when storms come our way. I suspect that we have an entire population suffering from a form of PTSD. I still worry from time to time and have not yet been able to plan the kind of adventures that I have always loved. I find myself tempering my enthusiasm for coming events with the realization that they may or may not come to pass. Our biggest journey in the last twelve months was a five hour trip to east Texas to visit with a former neighbor who is now in her eighties. Being with her was a healing experience for us because we have learned all too well the importance of embracing those that we love as often and as tightly as we can.

Some great friends were not as lucky as we were last year. I attended far too many funerals and still think about the wonderful people that I will no longer see. My home was spared from the damages of the floods, but people that I know had to deal with the horrors of  water rushing inside their houses. It took months for their lives to return to normal. In an ironic turn of events I experienced a small slice of their trauma when my own domicile was damaged from a rush of water coming from the hot water heater. Eight weeks of frustration later we returned to normal, but not without a taste of just how terrible the suffering of the flood victims had actually been.

We’re wiser and far more grateful for even the tiniest joys than I was a year ago. We’ll spend July 4, in San Antonio hoping for a better outcome than last year.  We’re also looking forward to finally completing the plans to camp with good friends in October, and it looks as though we may get another chance to view a total eclipse of the sun when it comes right over Texas a few years from now. There is much for which to be happy and new adventures ahead, “God willing and the creek don’t rise.”