The Silence Breakers

person-of-year-2017-time-magazine-cover1In what has become an anxiously awaited tradition Time magazine selected its Person of the Year last week. Much as has often happened this year’s winner of the cover spot was a group of women known as the “Silence Breakers.” In bold moves that have toppled the reputations and careers of a host of powerful men, women both famous and unknown have stepped forward to reveal acts of sexual harassment and violence long hidden from the public eye. In a veritable deluge of accusations the stories have dominated the news cycle for weeks and pointed to a societal problem that has generally been unspoken but well known. The tales of mistreatment have included men of all stripes and have initiated a national dialogue that heretofore existed mostly in the shadows.Many wonder how and why so many women are suddenly speaking of incidents that they kept secret for decades. Particularly among doubters there are questions about why it took so long for them to reveal what happened to them and what has made the present time so different that the #metoo movement that has gone viral.

I suppose that for some the first thoughts go back to the story of the boy who cried “wolf” so many times that when the sheep were really being attacked nobody was willing to listen. Some wonder if the number of accusations has been exaggerated by a kind of mass hysteria, and I suppose that it might be easy to go to that place. Instead I would venture to suggest that the very reason that so many women have been silent is because of the doubt that is historically associated with such incidents, particularly when the man involved is a powerful person. We only need to consider the denials and insults that ensued when a number of women spoke out against former President Bill Clinton. Paula Jones was described as trailer trash. Monica Lewinsky was defamed. Kathleen Willy was thought to be unhinged. Such are indeed the reactions toward women who have the audacity to reveal acts of personal degradation that have been perpetrated on them. It is little wonder that there is great fear when it comes to speaking of such things. When a man who brags of highly degrading behavior with women then goes on to be elected to the highest office in the land it makes all of us fearful of being heroic.

There is also the strange psychological phenomenon in which the victim actually wonders if somehow she either imagined the abuse or brought it upon herself. I can attest to such situations myself that I did not discuss for a very long time because what happened was so shocking that I was unable to know for certain that it even took place. One of those times occurred when I was a young adolescent at the beach with my family. As I walked along a fishing pier my gaze was suddenly averted toward an old man with a smirky grin on his face. He pointed downward and that is when I saw that he was exposing himself to me. I turned and ran away, but I was so embarrassed that I said nothing to anyone. Instead I stayed close to my aunts and uncles and told everyone that I was feeling sick. I have since learned that my reaction is very typical. My mind twisted the shocking event into something for which I felt responsible.

Even as an adult I hesitated to admit to a situation in which one of my coworkers frightened me with highly suggestive language. I kept it to myself for many days before speaking of my discomfort to my husband who insisted that I inform my boss immediately or he would. I felt a great deal of relief when my employer believed my story and began to investigate other whispers that he had heard about the man. In only the space of a couple of days the offender was fired from his job and a number of us felt immediately safer. The news of the man’s departure was greeted with applause.

Sadly not all such situations turn out so well. On another occasion in which I informed the Human Resources Director of the highly unprofessional behavior of a supervisor I was accused of attempting to foment a rebellion. It was long after I had decided that my only recourse was to leave that job that it was determined that everything that I had said was true and that the reality was even worse than I had described. It had felt horrible to be deemed a trouble maker and someone who might be stretching reality. While I treasured the fact that I had done the right thing, I also understood why so few women are willing to endure the humiliation that I suffered at the time. The pain associated with being a witness can be quite real.

My mother was a beautiful single parent, someone who was quite attractive to men. She often told me of situations that became very difficult for her. In her infinite wisdom she taught me how to proactively avoid the pitfalls. She instructed me to watch how much alcohol I drank when I was out at night so that I might be in control of my faculties. She noted that I would be better served if I did not dress too suggestively. She taught me how to sit and stand and carry myself around strangers. She cautioned me to never ever meet with a man alone in a hotel room. She even worried about the moments when I was in a car at night with a male that she did not know well. At times I thought that she was overly paranoid or that she only imagined her allure, and yet over time I realized that she knew exactly what she was saying to me. Her intentions were profoundly protective and effective in a world that can be hazardous for women.

I’d like to believe that there is a movement afoot that will make things safer for women in both the workplace and private life, but when a politician who is accused of child molestation is ahead in the polls I lose heart. When the members of his party are unwilling to speak out for what is right, I become cynical. I realize that we have a very long way to go and that mothers still need to school their daughters in how to take care of themselves. I also understand how brave the “Silence Breakers” are, because I know that even now there are those who doubt their motives and perhaps even think of them as liars.

I believe that we all have to be silence breakers to the extent that we have to condemn the actions of men who sexually harass women. The process of reeducating our society begins with each one of us. It’s critically important that we teach our children the importance of mutual respect and individual dignity. Our actions will be more important than our words. When we condone sexual abusers by ignoring their grievous actions we are guilty of creating an environment that accepts the degradation of women as simply locker room antics. Instead we must send the loud and clear message that such behaviors are wrong and that those who cross the line of propriety will be duly punished.

We must take this movement seriously, and be just as angry with anyone who falsely accuses a man as we are with the perpetrators of indecency toward women. It is well past time that we make the relationships between the sexes less fraught with dangers. It is obviously possible because the numbers of men who treat women with the respect that they deserve far out distance the predators. We have the capacity for making incidents of sexual harassment less and less frequent if we all agree that we have reached a watershed moment, and if we honor the women who finally took the first step in regaining control of their lives. 

Update: In a dramatic election decency won last night. Thank you, Alabama.

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The Number Line of Our Lives

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Last week I was at the University of Houston where I was planning to have lunch with a student who is considering returning to Texas from his out of state college. Our first stop was at the offices of transfer counseling services in the Cougar Village. I waited near the reception desk while he met with a representative to outline his needs and learn how to proceed in making the change. It was somewhat quiet in the office and my chair was right in front of the receptionist who was a tiny young woman who appeared to be quite businesslike but nonetheless polite and inviting. I thought of my own experiences with academic counseling at U of H in the long ago and remarked that I truly appreciated her kind demeanor, relaying a bit of my own experience when I too was little more than a slip of a woman.

My initial contact with the university had been quite a discouraging affair that almost sent me running. I sat for well over an hour before I was even seen by anyone. When my moment to garner information finally came I was greeted by a surly woman who literally barked the obvious fact that she was behind schedule and had very little time for conversation other than that related to the business at hand. There were no warm greetings, not even a tiny smile. Instead her angry demeanor set a tone for the interaction that left me flummoxed and almost as ignorant about policies and procedures as I had been before I came. My session ended on such a rushed note that I felt as though I was being pushed from the office. I somehow maintained my composure in spite of how I was feeling until I reached the ladies room down the hall where I found a stall and proceeded to cry for at least five minutes. Luckily once I got past the bureaucratic arm of the university it was smooth sailing. My classes were challenging and interesting, and my professors were always accommodating and determined to help me navigate through the years of my college life. I grew to love the University of Houston, but shuddered at the thought of having to deal with the business and paperwork associated with entering and exiting.

I joked a bit with the student with whom I had outlined my story and then she in turn relayed hers. She was from Asia and was majoring in mathematics. There were a number of career pathways that she was considering, but she was most interested in applying math in the business sector. She was excited about graduating in the spring and spoke of the many people at the university who had supported her when she first came and knew so little about the city or even our country. It was apparent that her efforts to be hospitable to those who visited the office had stemmed from her own experiences and the appreciation that she felt for those who come to the university attempting to make life changing decisions. She delights in the fact that she is now the one who greets so many of them. She wants their first impression to be be positive because she understands their fears.

I enjoyed my little talk with this stranger who now seemed a bit more like an acquaintance. I appreciated that she had taken the time to relate her own story with so much candor. I felt the kind of bond that two people enjoy in that brief moment when their worlds collide and they are willing to approach each other with mutual respect. It amazed me that even though our collegiate ties were separated by many decades we had both felt the same sense of apprehension and hopefulness as we imagined our lives stretched out before us. I was now viewing mine from the rearview mirror of nostalgia and she was just placing her foot on the accelerator to forge into unexplored territory full speed ahead. Both of us felt a kinship and gratitude for those who had helped us to reach our respective points in life. In particular I understood that her lovely demeanor toward everyone who walked into the office would set the tone for a wonderful experience that might encourage even those who felt lost to take the risks that most certainly would lie ahead.

Eventually the student with whom I had come for a lunch date finished his own appointment and we headed to a restaurant on campus. I saw in his eyes that his meeting had not given him the answers that he had hoped to hear. He felt a bit discouraged by all of the hoops through which he would have to jump if he decided to transfer his work from one university to another. It would be almost like starting over and losing all of the time that he had already invested. He was caught in a quandary that I too have faced, and so we began a quiet discussion of his options over a lunch of grilled cheese and tomato basil soup. The fact that it was a grey and cold day did little to help his mood, and I could see the wheels turning in his head as he calculated the cost of staying put in a place that made him miserable versus changing to a more positive environment where he has friends who care about him and encourage him to make the move as they have already done.

Time feels very different to me than it does to a young adult barely entering his twenties. I have the advantage of knowing how quickly it passes. i have experienced enough to know all too well the importance of being happy. Our minds tell us when something is wrong and while it may be challenging to extricate ourselves from certain situations in the long run we will always land on our feet and find the contentment that we seek. I have learned all too well that life rarely follows a straight line. Instead it is a series of curves looping back and forth often throwing us off balance. It is a high wire act that is both frightening and exciting. If we take a deep breath we learn that most of the platitudes that we hear have some merit. We won’t fail as long as we follow our hearts and keep trying. The clock will keep ticking but we soon learn to ignore it as well as the unsolicited advice and critiquing from well meaning people who think that they have a better understanding of what we need than we do. We almost always find the confidence that we need to be the person that we want to be regardless of what others may think, Our happiness comes from discovering a sense of purpose rather than pursuing a job and concerning ourselves with wealth. In the process we often find that we get exactly what we have needed all along.

I can’t help thinking about the continuum on which we all fall in a kind of curvy number line of life. As long as we are breathing the ray of hope shines ahead. There is always time for adjustments to our trajectory. I am at a far end, but still aware that unknown challenges and joys lie ahead. The young lady in the office is both ending one phase and beginning another. The student with whom I had hoped to convey some wisdom is stopping and starting and making circles as he attempts to come to the right conclusion that will work for him. None of us is a fortune teller capable of predicting exactly what will happen once we make a choice, but based on what lies behind I understand perhaps a bit better that the secret to a full and rewarding life begins with a little spark that tells us when we are heading in the right direction and when we are not. We learn to alter our course and adapt more and more quickly on our journey. We become like  race car drivers whose muscle memories react quickly to bumps and turns in the ever changing environment. Somewhere along the road we also become proficient in rejoicing in our uniqueness and gain confidence in the choices we have made. We ultimately realize that when all is said and done it is in the people we have loved and the lives that we have touched that we have found the keys to our puzzling searches. 

Propagate the Good

domestic-violence-recently spent a glorious weekend with relatives in Dallas. We had three days together and in between dinners, walks, movies, and a big party we talked about today’s problems. My niece commented that while the world sometimes appears to have gone crazy, most people are in fact very good. She suggested that the best way to make society better is for everyone who is decent to propagate the good. In other words, it is not enough just to quietly follow the golden rule, but it is necessary for each of us to spread goodness much like a bumble bee pollinates flowers. She insisted that we must be purposeful in our efforts to demonstrate all that is right and just.

There are many reasons why some people are angry and prone to negative behaviors. Some of them stem from evil, but others are simply the result of giving up on life. Recently a young man attempted to hang himself at the high school which serves the students from my neighborhood. It hit all of us hard to know that someone so very young had felt so hopeless that he was ready to end it all. I still don’t have any idea what exactly may have lead to his dramatic cry for help, but whatever it was must have been horrible in his mind. I can’t help but wonder if this incident might have been prevented if only the people around him had shown enough kindness to propagate the good. Perhaps he might never have reached such a point of desperation.

One of my high school friends posted a message that her granddaughter had written in response to this terrible tragedy. The young girl attends the school where this student had tried to kill himself. She hinted that he may have been a victim of bullying. She urged everyone to be kind, to watch their words, and to notice whenever someone is suffering. She suggested that each of us has a responsibility to speak up when we see cruelty and to assist anyone who appears to be suffering.

We tend to get very busy, so that we often purposely look the other way if we see someone being abused. It’s easier to just shrug and ignore such situations, but we never really know how a victim will react to the pain of being emotionally or physically tortured. Such individuals often need a hero, a person strong enough to stand up for them or at the very least comfort them. When we walk away from such situations the message that we send is that the world is an uncaring place.  Little wonder that so many people feel alone in their trouble and decide that it would be easier to stop the pain with death. How many times might such thoughts be changed by a bit of kindness?

Even as adults it is very difficult to stand up to bullies and the type of toxic individuals who berate and insult others. Those kinds of people are more often than not intimidating, and since so many people are unwilling to confront them doing so requires tremendous courage. When the obnoxious person is an elder or in a position of power it is even more troublesome to even think of standing up to them. They harm their victims with relative impunity and begin to believe that they are untouchable. Meanwhile the person who is the brunt of their bullying begins to feel that there is no means of relief.

Of late we’ve witnessed far too many instances of people unfairly exerting their power over others. In some cases the ugly behaviors are insults and in others they are actually physical attacks. We’ve learned that often such activities were generally known and tolerated by large groups of witnesses out of fear.  In spite of the fact that most of us believe that propagating the good means stepping up to the plate even when it is frightening to do so, we continue to be reluctant to take the initiative.

I heard of a young man who went to see a play that featured acting by some of his friends. His intent had been to demonstrate support for the cast but things took a bad turn. He and a group of classmates sat together at the performance and one of the group began to kibitz and joke about the play’s message. Soon enough they were all laughing inappropriately and angering members of the audience as well as the actors. The young man felt horrible about what was happening but rather than moving, asking his buddies to cease their rude behavior or at least sitting in silence he chose to go along with the antics. His apologies only came after the director expressed his anger. He had allowed himself to become involved in a situation that he felt was wrong, but he simply did not have the courage to do what was right. His was a case of allowing peer pressure to dictate his poor judgement.

Each of us has no doubt been guilty of such cowardly inaction. We really don’t want to get involved in something that might get messy. It’s easier to just ignore acts of ugliness. Few among us are able to honestly say that we have never left an individual to fend for him/herself in a bad situation, even understanding that our intersession might have ended the abuse.

I wonder how many times a suicide might have been stopped had someone been willing to defend a tortured soul, or at least to seek help for him/her. We know how harmful words and actions can be, and yet we are all too often seized with fear when faced with such realities. If such unwillingness to become involved were confined to the very young it might be understandable, but all too often even adults prefer to protect themselves, their relationships or their jobs rather than speaking the truth that might make a world of difference for someone who is being unfairly targeted with hatefulness.

There are indeed more good people than bad, but when the good people are silent we end up with innocents being loaded into boxcars that carry them to concentration camps. When we refuse to speak we may later find someone battered or even murdered. If the good people shout with a collective voice they will be heard just as surely as the world eventually listened to the words of Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi, or Martin Luther King. Goodness must be shared if it is to have the desired impact on the world. 

Changing Lives

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Again and again I am reminded by experts that my brothers and I are not supposed to be doing as well as we are. On a recent offering on NPR I learned that the odds of making it out of the cycle of poverty while growing up in a single family household are daunting, and yet my siblings and I not only managed to break a cycle that had haunted our ancestors for generations, but we also managed to be emotionally healthy as well. At the end of a glorious Thanksgiving Day that we shared together the three of us sat back and attempted to analyze the factors that had been important in bringing us to our current state of happiness and success.

We all agreed that it would have been impossible for any of us to make it as adults had it not been for our mother. She was at the center of our upbringing, a task that she took perhaps even more seriously than most. She understood that from day to day she played the role of both mom and dad. Every major obligation was placed squarely on her shoulders, and her start after my father’s death could not have been more difficult. We had no car, no home of our own, no money in the bank, no life insurance pay out, and she had no job. Things were so financially grim that I caught on to the direness of our situation even though I was only eight years old. I had enough sense to rightly interpret the whispered concerns that I heard my aunts and uncles voicing as they worried about what would become of us. Somehow my dear mother would manage time and again through thrift and intellect to weave gold out of straw, and keep us afloat as a family without ever burdening us with her troubles, but she never would have been able to manage all alone.

I suspect that had our mother been virtually on her own the enormity of her task might have broken her far sooner than it ultimately did, but she was surrounded by people who continually supported her and me and my brothers. I found great comfort in the knowledge that we had guardian angels who always showed up when we most needed help. Their efforts on our behalf began on the day of my father’s death when our house filled to the bursting with members of our extended family, long time friends, and people from our temporary neighborhood and church. That trend would continue for all of our days as children and it would provide reassurances to us that someone would be there to catch us if we suddenly began to fall.

I still remember my Uncle Jack taking us to purchase a car after Daddy’s wreck with the funds that Mama had received from the car insurance policy. Even though the automobile that he was driving at the time of the crash had been virtually brand new and fully loaded with all the bells and whistles of the day, the check barely paid the balance of what was owed on the car that had been destroyed, and left only a pittance for a down payment on a new vehicle. Uncle Jack, who was a worldly wise and frugal man, counseled my mother to purchase a replacement that was within her means. He found a stripped down Ford with a standard transmission, rubber floor mats and a color that nobody would have chosen on purpose, that was advertised for an amazingly low price. He brokered a deal with the salesman by appealing to his sense of decency. Still my mother gazed at the ugly car and insisted that it was hardly the kind of model that my father would have chosen. It was Uncle Jack who insisted that she was going to have to learn how to make do with what she had. We drove away and used that “Charlie Brown” car for the rest of my childhood. It took us wherever we wanted or needed to go, but mostly it represented possibilities and the strength of individuals like my uncle who would take care of all of us for years to come.

It was the same Uncle Jack who guided us to the home where all three of us would grow into adults. It was a far more modest place than the ones that we had been viewing with my father. Most importantly, though, was the fact that the neighborhood where it stood was filled with incredibly good people who would become the steadying force that my brothers and I needed. Over the years we shed all of our fears and came to feel infinitely secure because of our neighbors who always seemed to be teaching us things and helping our mother with household repairs. It was a wholesome and safe environment that was made even better when Mama was wise enough to center our world on the nearby church and the school where we would make lifelong friends and build the happiest of memories. Everyone knew of our tenuous situation, and while they never openly discussed their sympathy for our plight, they quietly made extra efforts for us. There was a generous spirit that followed us and kept us from harm. We mostly took all of the people for granted as children are wont to do, but deep in our hearts we understood how important they were in helping to shape us into confident adults. We learned from everyone that with a bit of hard work and imagination we would ultimately be just fine.

We were admittedly more fortunate than most children who struggle with poverty. We had a huge village of adults who took us into their hearts and never let go. With our mom encouraging us to use our natural gifts and talents wisely, and a great deal of motivation from teachers and mentors we were able to break the chains of economic hardship. Today few would ever imagine that our life stories might have made us just a few more statistics had it not been for the love and wisdom that surrounded us when we most needed those things. We know that it is never impossible to rise above even the most challenging circumstances which is why I suspect that we have in turn spent much of our lives attempting to help others just as we were so magnanimously assisted. Our altruism was born in the knowledge that each of us has an opportunity to help our fellow human beings and to touch hearts in ways that alter the trajectory of lives.

It saddens me to know that we still have so many young children who are feeling broken, alone, afraid and powerless, but I regularly see the same kind of good people as those who helped my family by stepping up to make a difference. In this season that is often defined by plenty and excess each of us has the power of reshaping destiny. Even the very smallest of attempts that we make to share the wealth of our good fortune, talents and love with those who have less may create the very spark that sets a soul on fire. I was the recipient of all that I needed to redefine my life, and my gratitude for the many souls who made my rise possible will be eternally boundless. Go forth and seek out the suffering. Listen to their cries. Embrace them and you will change the world.

Twilight Dreams

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You are never too old to set another goal or dream a new dream.—C.S. Lewis

I’ll be celebrating my sixty-ninth birthday this week and I still often behave as though I’m eighteen and just embarking on adult life. Sure I’m not as energetic as I once was nor as quick-witted, but as long as I am still able to care for myself I plan to keep dreaming.

There are certain things that were once on my bucket list that don’t matter much to me anymore. For a very long time I wanted to live in West University Place, an upscale neighborhood near Rice University. I love the big trees and old style architecture there along with the perk of being close to so much of the action in Houston. For most of my working years I held firm to the belief that I would one day get there, but the prices of the homes kept increasing, and my salary as an educator didn’t keep pace so it never happened. Once I realized that I may as well scratch that idea from my book of dreams I was briefly sad, but eventually it didn’t really matter anymore. I love my present home and my neighbors and have little desire to move. After the floods of hurricane Harvey I was was incredibly grateful that I survived without any damage and I didn’t once think of how it would have been if I had indeed found my way into West U. Sometimes such goals actually become irrelevant.

As I’ve aged my tastes and desires have changed. I’m much more mellow than I once was. I learned the importance of appreciating the many blessings that I have rather than constantly wanting more and more. Contentment has become my most worthy goal, and I am doing quite well in living the dream. I’ve become amazingly good at thoroughly enjoying myself just watching the birds and sipping on a class of wine in my backyard. I like long conversations with my husband, and the honor of helping my grandchildren with homework. I no longer have to be reminded to be thankful because I find myself thinking of my good fortune multiple times each day. I truly enjoy life whether I am doing something exciting or simply basking in the wonder of the people that I know.

When I was younger my dreams centered on finding success, accumulating things, becoming wealthy. I eventually realized that my desires were not making me happy because they were focused on the wrong things. Once I acknowledged the greater importance of being a good person and appreciating and cultivating relationships I began to have a sense of lightness even when I was merely performing routine tasks on very quiet days. It’s quite true that nobody takes any possessions with them when they die. They may be dressed in fine clothes, wearing golden rings and such, but few are ever remembered for what they owned. What truly remains are the legacies that they have created over time. For that reason my goals as I begin to approach my seventieth decade all center on people. I truly hope that I will leave love and memories of a purpose-filled life behind.

My dream is to stay healthy enough of mind and body that I will be able to continue to help and sometimes even inspire the people that I encounter. I don’t need much for myself anymore, but I would so like to be able to comfort and enrich other lives. I have begun to understand that it doesn’t always take a great deal of money or effort to do that. Just letting people know that they matter is a great gift. So many are struggling and the world can sometimes feel quite hateful. I want to be that person who smiles and improves a day that might otherwise have been bad.

It never takes great effort to bring joy into other people’s worlds, a kind word, an affirmation, just being there. When I received a “thinking of you” card from high school friends after my husband’s stroke it felt as though I had won the lottery. That little note of reassurance and thoughtfulness made what had been a very bad day seem bearable. My goal is to pay that sort of kindness forward a hundredfold. I suppose that everyone appreciates an unexpected pat on the back as much as I do.

I so admire Jimmy Carter for continuing to spend his time and talents in his twilight years helping the less fortunate. He might have traveled, played golf, spoiled himself, but instead he has dedicated his post White House years to being a shining beacon of hope for so many who might have suffered but for his largesse. I can’t think of more noble goals than the ones that he set for himself. I wonder if I would have been as forgiving as he was when the voters rejected him for a second term as president. As lesser man might have stewed in indignation. President Carter instead found a way to remain optimistic and loving. There aren’t many bonafide saints who were as magnanimous as he has been.

I have no idea when the clock will stop ticking for me. I’ve certainly witnessed friends and family members in my age group climbing the stairway to heaven. Their deaths remind me that none of us have a certain future. Nonetheless I plan to keep planning until I can no more. I think that just about anything is possible for me to accomplish as long as I don’t surrender to the passage of time. I’m just not yet ready to sit permanently in a rocking chair just watching the world go by. I suspect that there are still many miles to traverse and I want to walk them with a sense of accomplishment.

I’ve actually considered attempting to earn a doctorate, and the only thing that holds me back is that I would rather spend time with people than with books and my thoughts. I want laughter and love and life to be part of my days. I desire to have friendships and fun. I’d like to think that I have many more smiles to flash and hugs to give away. I want a twinkle in my eyes and a happy story on my lips. I believe that I have actually found the most worthy promises of my life, and I thank the good Lord that I have everything that I need to make all of them come true.