In the Blink of An Eye

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As I write this post the cold has returned to Houston again. In fact it blew in with a vengeance during the afternoon. I had spent the morning tidying up the yard in my shirtsleeves, but by one o’clock strong winds and a cold rain had overtaken the area. Such is the nature of winter in my part of the country. There are no guarantees that a given day will maintain the same kind of temperatures over a twenty four hour period in my neck of the woods. In fact we have to be ready for pretty much anything until at least mid March. Just when that little groundhog up north predicts an early spring and we get excited about outdoor baseball games and track meets old man winter shows up again and we have to skitter around the house looking for the jackets that we finally hid away.

I actually like the cold so I’m not really complaining, but my knees tend to prefer a nice non humid day that lingers in the seventies. My hair agrees as well, so about the time that I was grumbling because my trip to a doctor’s appointment was marred by a chilly rain I saw a sight that both humbled and saddened me.

Underneath the cover of a bus stop shelter sat an elderly woman all hunched over as though she was grabbing a quick nap. She was wrapped in a big coat and wore a scarf on her head that only allowed a bit of her stone gray hair to peek through. Her feet were shod in flimsy slippers and she wore white socks that drew attention to her noticeably swollen feet and ankles. I might have thought that she was simply resting while on her way to or from a visit to her own doctor but for the telltale clues that told me that her story was far more complicated. On one side she had a pile of blankets and assorted sleeping supplies. On the other was a large bag neatly filled with clothing, food and other items. It was apparent that this unfortunate soul should was either a runaway or homeless.

Our vehicle was pushed forward by the moving traffic all too quickly. We were in the wrong lane to stop to ask if the lady needed some help. She became a passing vision that buried itself in my mind. I could not help but wonder what her brought her to such a tragic state. I worried about her safety and worried about what she might do when the even colder nighttime arrived. Mostly I tried to understand how her life had spiraled so out of control that she ended up alone on the streets.

There are populations of the homeless virtually everywhere. Many of them are addicted to drugs or alcohol. It is estimated that at least thirty percent of them suffer from mental illness. There are old and young, singles and families who for one reason or another find themselves with no place to go even on a day when the rest of us are scurrying to our offices and homes to keep warm. These people are someone’s sons and daughters, maybe even mothers and fathers. They did not always live this way but something in their lives went terribly wrong.

When I see someone like this old woman my stomach churns and my heart weeps. I find myself thinking about them and worrying about them. I want to know their stories and what tragedy led them to such an horrific fate. I wonder if there are family members somewhere grieving their loss or if they are all alone in the world with nobody to love them or care about them.

I have known truly good people who work with the homeless. They tell me of the joys and the frustrations associated with their jobs. There are places dedicated to providing  shelter and food, but so often the diseases of the mind that stalk the homeless drive them away from any kind of restrictions including walls. They run from structure and prefer the freedom of the streets, at least until the weather turns foul. Then the temporary housing fills to the brim and sometimes there is literally no room at such inns.

Admittedly homeless folk frighten most of us. They are dirty and often bear faraway looks on their faces. We don’t know if they are kind hearted or filled with criminal intent. We worry that if we give them money they will use it for drugs or alcohol rather than food or a place to stay. Surely they need more than stacks of blankets which they all appear to have in abundance. We just don’t know what to do.

Underneath the freeways along the southern corridor of Interstate 45 tent cities have popped up here and there. They are like little communities of urban campers. They huddle closely together and probably provide a small measure of safety to the occupants. I don’t know how they found the means to purchase their makeshift homes or why they are not stolen during the day when the occupants appear to be out and about. I’ve heard that there is a kind of code of ethics that homeless groups follow and that sometimes they even develop their own secret language. They mostly take care of one another and respect the meager possessions of their fellow street folk, at least until some disagreement ensues.

I still worry about them and wonder if being a vagabond is a choice for them or simply a circumstance. I think about that old woman who somehow doesn’t seem to fit into their world even though she appears to have the necessary instincts to survive. There is something remarkable about her even as I grieve for her. She should be in a nice warm home surrounded by children and grandchildren who love her. Has she been forgotten?

We constantly carry on about things that seem to be so unimportant compared to the fate of the homeless who live among us. We hardly pay decent salaries to the blessed individuals who choose to work to help them. Programs and doctors and counselors for those with addictions or mental illnesses are scarce. We barely skim the surface of doing our best to insure that little old ladies like the one I saw will be safe and secure. We look away, or drive past quickly only to forget them in the blink of an eye. Surely we can do better.

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Just Keep Going

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We’ve all known people who are sad sacks. They view life through a negative lens. When things don’t go their way, they blame themselves or perhaps their lot in life. On the the other hand we know people that we would describe as being optimists. They encounter just as many disappointments as the rest of us, but they remain positive by finding important lessons to be learned or they see a disheartening event as providing potential for growth. When we look at each type of person we find ourselves wondering how there might be such differences between people. We prefer the cheeriness of optimism, but worry that perhaps each of us is endowed with a set of immutable personality traits that determine our reactions to life’s ups and downs. It feels as though we are somehow the victims of fate rather than the captains of our own souls. 

The truth is that both optimism and pessimism are learned traits, barring chemical imbalances, brain disorders and injuries or mental illness. It is possible for any of us to become more positive if we focus on a few simple practices to assess both the successes and failures that we experience. I’ll use a couple of examples to illustrate how this works.

When I was in high school I ran for Student Body Secretary against two other classmates. We each campaigned for a week, restricted by certain guidelines as to what tactics we might use and how much we were allowed to spend. At the end of the period each of us spoke to the assembled students outlining reasons why they should vote for us, and describing our plans for improving the school. That afternoon everyone voted. I lost and will never know how badly because the actual tabulation of the votes was secret.

If I had reacted pessimistically I might have charged that the rules were unfair and that I had somehow been slighted. Even worse, I may have felt that the defeat was a sign that my peers disliked me. I would have questioned myself and my own self worth. I might even have sworn never again to submit myself to such humiliation, after all during the campaigning a boy had insisted that nobody liked me and that I didn’t have a chance of winning. I might have believed that he had been right.

Instead I chose to be a bit more optimistic about my loss. I was surely disappointed and even a bit saddened that I did not win, that was only natural. Nonetheless, I understood that the two individuals who had run against me were extremely accomplished and even a bit more well known in the school at large. They were good people who undoubtedly attracted the support of many members of the student body. It wasn’t that I was somehow worthless, only that I didn’t quite garner as much support that I needed. I had to pat myself on the back for even trying because it was scary to stand in front of everyone and open myself up to criticism. It was a learning experience for me on many, many levels. I have never regretted my decision to run, and I believe that I actually entered adult life with a bit of an advantage over my peers because I had learned how to compete and how to gracefully accept the disappointments that were sure to come now and again.

My grandson who is a runner has also exhibited the classic traits of an optimist during this year’s cross country season. He had become accustomed to landing in the top rung in competitions, but this year he has been challenged by a team from a school that is consistently taking the prizes. He has found himself just behind them again and again, but instead of hanging his head and speaking of unfairness or wondering if he had overestimated his own abilities he decided to compete with himself. His goal was to keep bettering his own time and thereby inch closer and closer to being in the winner’s circle once again. He has developed a friendship with a runner from another school and the two of them push each other in the races. It’s become their way of improving. What had begun as a frustrating season is now beginning to show progress, mostly because my grandson refused to wallow in pessimism  and instead focused on the things that he had been doing right. He worked on perfecting his strengths rather than worrying about his weaknesses and he is doing better with each passing week. Given that he is only a sophomore, it seems certain that he will be doing great things by the time he is a senior if he keeps up his positive attitude.

We know that being optimistic is a healthy way to be. It makes life easier all the way around, but what are the characteristics that we might learn to use as we go through the ups and downs of our lives?

First, and perhaps most importantly, in a bad situation optimists look for the things that went well, rather than dwelling on mistakes. They are able to pinpoint the good aspects of even a disaster. They also use failures as learning opportunities, ways to improve in the future. They do not take rejections personally either. In other words they don’t obsessively wonder what is wrong with themselves. They understand that sometimes we just can’t quite achieve as well as we might like to do, but if we make small changes here and there we will surely improve. For this reason they tend not to give up. They pick themselves up and try again and again. They also realize that each of us is a bit imperfect and that bad things sometimes happen to good people. They don’t dwell on the negativity or over analyze the bad aspects of an event. They have a healthy relationship with themselves and don’t allow others to intimidate them into feeling inadequate. They are able to take note of all of the blessings that they most surely have.

It would be worth practicing optimism as often as possible. There are certainly times when we deserve and honest critique and we would do well to grow from it. The trick is not to become so obsessed with an idea that we are fated for bad luck or that we are so damaged that we are somehow unworthy of happiness and success. Whenever we find ourselves falling into a kind of pity party, it’s time to consciously reflect instead on all that we know is good. When we do that we will generally find ourselves laughing again, and ready to just keep going.

Total Eclipse of the Sun

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This happened for a few hours on August 21, 2017. Much of the United States of America was profoundly united by the majesty and mystery of a total eclipse of the sun. I wasn’t lucky enough to be in the path of totality, but the images of a 66% eclipse that I saw in the sky were breathtaking nonetheless. Somehow I was reminded of how infinite and mind-blowing our universe truly is, and how small we are when we consider its expanse. Still, the fact that we have unlocked so many secrets of the cosmos with our mathematics and science is humbling to realize. We were all ready to witness this historic event because astronomers have mastered the tools to make such predictions. We saw images streamed from NASA and wore glasses that allowed us to look heavenward without doing damage to our retinas. Later we shared our experiences with people in distant places using technology that is as amazing as nature itself. Somehow this incredible moment left me in awe of not only the heavens, but also the intellect of mankind.

One of my favorite all time books is The Ascent of Man by Abraham Bronowski. It is a chronicle of the leaps of human knowledge that have brought us to the advances that we often take for granted today. The miracles of farming, construction, astronomy, physics medicine and technology that we enjoy are abundant, and provide us with a standard of living unimagined even two generations ago. Nonetheless we must be careful of relying on our hubris. Just as gazing at the sun during an eclipse without protective eyewear may cause us to go blind, so too will thinking that we unequivocally have all of the answers cause our downfall. We would do well to consider that our place in the universe is but a tiny speck. There is so much that we have yet to learn, but happily there are minds of geniuses working to continue to expand our knowledge just as they always have. I marvel at the thought of what is yet to come.

I sometimes like to consider what developments I would like to see. It would be so wonderful to be able to eliminate mental illnesses, or at least control them effectively. How nice would it be to have an injection or a pill to eliminate addictions to drugs, alcohol or food? I dream of a time when we are able to produce forms of energy that do no harm to our environment and are readily available to anyone anywhere. I’d love to see advances in food production that would eliminate hunger in all corners of the world. The possibilities are endless, and often the most humble sounding discoveries are the ones that have the greatest impact on society.

We still have so much to do with regard to bringing peace and synergy to our world. I often feel that the best possible human advances may one day come in the way we live together in harmony. We still have so much work to do in that arena, but if we can come together to watch the moon blot out the sun, then maybe the potential for humanity to ascend to a higher level of integration is truly there. I’d like to believe that this is not just an idealistic pipe dream.

At the moment in which the eclipse in my town reached its apogee I felt a kinship with the universe and its people. After all it seemed as though we are all more alike than we are different. I viewed the event in a park surrounded by hundreds of fellow amateur astronomers. Everyone on that day in that place was smiling. Somehow there was no room for jealousies or comparisons of one another. There was a definite feeling of unity and a spirit of cooperation. Everyone cheered the passing of the moon in front of the sun and declared that it was a remarkable sight that they will never forget.

We all agreed that we can’t wait for the next big event that will take place in the USA in 2024. That time the totality will happen right in my home state, and I plan to watch it with my children and grandchildren, By then they will be either in college or all grown up  with jobs and maybe even families of their own. The sun will have risen in the east, the moon will have illuminated the nighttime sky and the earth will have rotated on its axis for over two thousand days. So many changes will have taken place, but our fascination with the sun and the moon and the stars will not have waned. Somehow those celestial bodies still rule over our hearts and our minds. We are as fascinated by them as primitive man was. In their presence we realize both our potential and our limitations. We long to totally understand them and we marvel at their power, or at least we should.

Our planet is but one infinitesimal part of a universe so vast that we cannot truly imagine it. We measure our history with the rising and falling of the sun.

Everything

Turns,

Rotates,

Spins,

Circles,

Loops,

Resonates,

And

Repeats.

Circles

Of life,

Born from

Pulses

Of light,

Vibrate

To

Breathe,

While

Spiraling

Outwards

For Infinity

Through

The lens

Of time,

And into

A sea

Of stars

and Lucid

Dreams.

—- A poem from Suzy Kassem

It’s All Good

Newsslett_COP2If ever there was someone who had every right to complain about the cards that life dealt her it would have been my mom. At thirty she was a happily married woman with three children who were the center of her universe. Overnight her entire world changed. She woke up to a shocking phone call informing her that her husband of eleven years had died in a car accident. She had little money in the bank, no car, no job and was so consumed with grief that she struggled just to wake up and face each day. From somewhere deep inside her soul she found the grit that she needed to move forward, coping with the challenging lifestyle of a single parent with so much aplomb that she managed to earn a college degree and become a highly respected figure in the community.

It would have been fine if her story had ended on such a high note but it was not to be her destiny to lead an uncomplicated life. Instead she was eventually afflicted with the debilitating symptoms of bipolar disorder and that illness would stalk her for the remainder of her life. She would struggle to keep her health and to balance her checkbook. From the outside looking in, hers appeared to be a dreary battle just to stay afloat in a sea of health and financial troubles. The cycle of debilitating challenges might have defeated most ordinary people, but my mom was not so inclined. In fact, I can’t think of a single time when she became so low that she was willing to just give up. In fact, even in her darkest states of depression she cried not for herself but for the pain that she saw others enduring. In regard to her own situation she remained ever optimistic, convinced that she was a special child of God and that He would provide for her.

I was often angry that my mother seemed to be the target of the fates. It bothered me that her very existence was so difficult. I raged over the facts of her life and its unfairness. Oddly she would smile and console me, assuring me that she was quite content. She would recount her blessings, which seemed so meager to me, as though she had been the recipient of great wealth. It took so little to make her happy, and everyone who ever knew her was infected by her laughter and almost childlike generosity. I never quite understood how she was able to maintain such a positive outlook on life given the relentless pounding that she received. Her faith that all was exactly as it was supposed to be was unending.

I was watching a bit of Joel Osteen’s weekly sermon at Lakewood Church a few weekends ago entitled, “It’s All Good.” He spoke of the premise that it is only when we are able to see the totality of our lives that we begin to realize that there is a beautiful plan for each of us that makes perfect sense. When we are focused only on a particular moment we may be unable to understand the reasons for the events that have happened. We instead harbor anger about those instances when the trajectory of our existence appears to be rushing downward. We forget the good times and somehow feel as though we will never again be able to see the light of our lives. We become discouraged, sometimes even shouting at God about our discontent. We don’t notice what we have, only what we lack. He argued that if we were able to step back just a bit we might see that in truth “it’s all good.”

I find the idea of every situation being part of an “all good’ totality to be a somewhat simplistic idea that I personally struggle to embrace, but I know for a fact that it defines the way my mother chose to live. She did not believe it was up to her to question the events that conspired to bring her down. Instead she always accepted her realities and then dealt with them as best she could, confident that her God was always right behind her, ready to catch her if she started to fall. Again and again she rallied against forces that might have defeated most of us. I can’t help but believe that her willingness to trust in God without reservation was the main reason that hers was ultimately an extraordinary life. She had somehow taken to heart the idea that “it’s all good.”

I am not as faithful in my religious fervor as she was. I am as doubting as Thomas the apostle. I see the pain of the world and seriously wonder why a higher power would allow it to even exist. It seems a bit ludicrous to suggest that we should all strive to find the good even in our darkest moments, and yet I have seen the power of such willingness to surrender in the saintly glow of my mother’s eyes as she was drawing her last breaths. It is a vision that haunts my thoughts because it tells me that she somehow found the very secret of how to live well that we all seek.

It doesn’t stop with my mother. I saw it in my mother-in-law as well. I have found it in some of my former students like Danny, Jezael, Shaun and Martin. Such people possess an intangible aura of positivity that literally radiates from their very beings. They approach the world not with worries about themselves but continual concern for others. They have found the golden ring that allows them to seize each day with a sense that when all is said and done “it’s all good.”

I have to admit that I would so love to become like them. Most of us really do fight battles with ourselves that cannot be won. We lose sight of the endgame and get caught up in the babble and strife of daily living. We forget to be truly thankful for whatever we have, even if it is only the fact that we woke up for one more day.

Perhaps those who face the greatest challenges life are better able to appreciate the small moments of beauty. My mother-in-law had a heart condition that was supposed to shorten her life by decades. She felt an imperative to pack as much into every single minute as possible, and so she did. She did not have time to become mired in the pettiness that so often distracts us. Like my mother she saw her troubles as a gift that allowed her to see her destiny and purpose more clearly. She drew every single breath with profound appreciation.

Life is filled with both wonder and ugliness. How we choose to deal with each aspect is up to us. Perhaps we can learn from those who emerge again and again from the ashes with unwavering hope. I suspect that they have somehow learned that when all is said and done “it’s all good.”

When Happiness Is Lost

635954839284874644-229042456_Depression

I often write about being optimistic and choosing to be happy. Of course such prescriptions are fine and dandy for those of us who are not afflicted with clinical depression, but for those who are it is virtually impossible to simply will away dark feelings.

My mother was one of the happiest people on the planet as long as she was not in the throes of her bipolar disorder. When the illness hit, she was literally unable to just wish its debilitating symptoms away. One of the characteristics of her disease was a profound sadness that would overtake her with life changing consequences. She often sat in the dark, drapes drawn tightly closed, crying and worrying for no real reason at all, unable to even venture into her front yard. It was both frightening and heartbreaking to see her in this condition. It was so contrary to the person that she really was.

Mama had shown early signs of her illness that my brothers and I failed to understand. There were times when she would suddenly take to her bed for several days. We always just assumed that she had a bad cold or a virus but it was far more sinister than that. She was fighting away the melancholy that paralyzed her. In the years before her disorder became full blown and noticeably chronic she would feel down for a few days or a week and then somehow return to the person that we knew so well. Unfortunately, in 1969, she experienced a psychotic break that began with crying jags and paranoid fears. Eventually she literally believed that the FBI was trying to frame her for selling drugs. She was convinced that all of us were going to be sent to jail. Her anxiety was so acute that she was in terrible physical pain and even thought that she had died and then miraculously come back to life.

I remember one of my very sweet uncles coming to visit her during this time. He pleaded with her to pull herself together. He reminded her that she had children for whom she needed to care. He argued that she had a wonderful life, filled with love. He felt that she only needed to choose to be happy and all would finally be well. Of course we all learned that such wishful thinking was not going to materialize. It was only after a long hospital stay and medication that she was able to return to us as the person who had always possessed a sunny disposition.

My mother mistakenly believed that her illness had been an anomaly, something that would never happen again. She insisted that she was cured and that she knew how to care for herself in the future. We naively agreed with her, thinking that the worst was behind us. Little did we realize that her condition was chronic, a never ending series of ups and downs taking over the chemistry of her brain. Only with the continual help of psychiatrists would she be able to function. It was a bitter pill for her and a challenge for those of us who loved her. We had to monitor her life to an almost invasive extent because whenever we became lax so did she, and the symptoms would return even worse than the times before.

My mother was known to her doctors as a noncompliant patient. She never admitted that she had a psychological problem, instead blaming me and my brothers for her condition. She wanted desperately to prove that she never needed psychiatric care and that her illness was a figment of our imaginations. Her reluctance to accept her diagnosis and continue her therapy on a regular basis lead to one relapse after another. Her life became far more difficult than it had to be.

Mama had brilliant and caring doctors who became frustrated with her unwillingness to follow their directions. They knew as we did that as long as she followed their instructions she was able to work and be like a ray of sunshine in everyone’s lives. Sometimes her medications had to be changed, but the results were always miraculous. To her detriment and our frustration she chose to discontinue her treatments again and again. As she did so the magnitude of her depression and mania increased. It was as though she was stressing her brain to the point of bursting.

I always understood that my mother wanted to feel normal, and visiting psychiatrists and taking numbing medications with troubling side effects was annoying to her. She gained enough weight from using her drugs to go from being a slender woman to one who was rather heavy. She experienced involuntary tongue flicks and other nervous system twitches. Her ankles would swell to three times their normal size. She hated those things and would quit taking her pills in the hopes of ridding herself of their effects. Of course she would ultimately become very sick again and her doctors would have to restart her therapy from ground zero. It was a hard way of living and I always empathized with her. I tried to imagine what it was like to feel so seriously sad as she often did. I wanted to understand her pain.

Depression is a very real disease for many unfortunate souls. It is not related to an inability to see the glass as half full. Nobody consciously wants to endure its effects. Happily there are ways of improving as long as one is willing to ask for and accept help. It can be a tricky process with a great deal of trial and error in implementing a viable plan. Because it is often a lifetime disorder it can become overwhelming. The important thing is for the depressed person and those around him/her to understand that it is a true medical condition much like diabetes or heart disease. There are treatments that will ultimately work, but they often take time.

Our laws prevent us from forcing adults to accept psychiatric care unless they are deemed to be a danger to themselves or others. While this protection prevents innocents from being falsely forced into therapies that they do not need, it also sometimes makes it very difficult to get a recalcitrant patient the care that they require. All too often families simply look the other way when their loved ones refuse to accept the treatments that they most certainly need. Such situations create very uncomfortable relationships that are painful to everyone concerned. Still I am convinced that it is up to those who love the sick person to insist by hook or crook that they receive the medications and therapies that they need. We can’t just walk away and hope for the best for them.

Mental illness and particularly depression too often results in dire consequences if left untreated. It is a lifetime battle but it need not overcome those who are afflicted. Each of us must learn to see the symptoms and guide those that we know and love to find the help that they need. Perhaps if we all agree to become more educated about the effects of such chronic diseases we will be more likely to deal with their effects more openly. There is nothing about depression or mental illness that should make us feel ashamed. Just as we would seek the best possible treatments for cancer or heart disease so too must we learn how to properly react to mental health issues. We can all be happy but some of us require a little push to get there. Our happiness and that of others need not be lost.