Atonement

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I often joke that I may have to spend some time in purgatory when I die before earning a place in heaven. I note that I can rock along for quite some time doing my best to be a good person and then I do or say something not so nice that cancels some of my kindnesses. Truth be told I’m about average when it comes to my humanity. Like the scores of people who came before me and those who inhabit this earth with me I make mistakes. Such is the inevitability for most of us.

Now and again I see another soul who seems to have achieved a bit more perfection. Both of my grandmothers would fall into that category. They were generous, loving guileless women, but I have often thought that being isolated from most of the ugliness of the world as they were may have helped them not to back slide. Women today spend decades out in an often unforgiving world and the temptation to fight back sometimes leads to anger and invective of the sort that my grandmas never invoked. I believe that I will ultimately be forgiven for my lapses because I also firmly feel that my God is all about redemption. I mean, isn’t that more or less what Jesus told the world as He died on the cross?

I have been reminded of the power of honest contrition by admissions of weakness by heroes of mine like Mother Teresa, Jimmy Carter, and John McCain. All three made it clear in their writings and orations that they sometimes failed to follow their own principles. They spoke of making faulty decisions. In other words they were as human as any of us, which I suspect was also the case of my grandmothers, not withstanding my idealized image of them. As humans we are filled with imperfections and contradictions. When all is said and done the question becomes how we have attempted to live the majority of our days, and whether or not we have been willing to admit our transgressions and attempted to change.

My mother and my teachers all taught me that to sin is human, but to ask forgiveness is divine. They also insisted that once I demonstrated true contrition it was important that I move forward rather than eternally looking backward at my failings. I was schooled in the idea that I should love all of my fellow men, and that my hatred should be aimed at behavior that I found to be egregious, not people. That’s an admittedly difficult formula to follow, but it became a glorious model to use in my work as an educator. I was able to separate the flaws from the person, and deal with behaviors while still caring about the child.

We are in a cycle of judgmental excess, all around. We even take our self righteousness to the extreme of looking back in history and condemning entire civilizations and ways of thinking. We forget the rule of social science that tells us that generalizations are rarely acceptable in assessing humans. We also forget how different the world was from ours even a hundred years ago.

I have been watching the Amazon Prime series Lore and have been taken by the ignorance and superstitions that were prevalent in the world of my ancestors. Scientific and medical knowledge was so antiquated. Philosophies were often based on superstitions. People were generally uneducated much like my two sweet grandmothers who were unable to read or write, much less understand scientific and sociological intricacies. I find it oddly ridiculous that in our modern era there are so many who would overlay our own knowledge and understanding on people who often lived in isolation with little or no education simply because they appear to have behaved badly in a past that was as human as the present.

I also have a problem with pointing fingers of judgement at historical figures who attempted to atone for admitted transgressions and mistakes. It is so easy to insist that none of us would ever have been willing to follow bad leaders, but then we will never know if that is true or not. We cannot possibly put ourselves totally in the shoes of someone from another time and place. We would have to become them in every sense of the word, and of course that is impossible. Instead of looking backwards and admonishing people who lived in times far different from ours it is up to us to look forward. We can do that by learning from the past. Reading and studying with an open mind will teach us how to find the best thoughts and ideas. If we are to be fruitful in our quest for a more equitable society then we must spend more time constructing than tearing down, finding the good and building on that foundation.

I saw a group of students from Harvard who asked a professor what they might do right now to begin to foster positive change in our society. His answer stunned them a bit, but it was brilliant. He suggested that they take full advantage of their educational opportunity by becoming persons who have knowledge and the ability to think critically. He challenged them to acquire the tools that they will one day need to become great leaders, He spurned the idea that they spend their time protesting before they knew enough to come to reasoned decisions.

I also seem to go back to the folksy wisdom of my mother who was indeed a brilliant woman. In her times of clarity she understood human nature as well as any sociologist or psychologist. She often told me that people evolve over time, and that life is a journey through many seasons, all of which make us better people if we are willing to grasp the importance of each. She noted that youth was a time for observing and learning. She spoke of knowing when and how to grasp the reigns of leadership and when to pass them down to the next generation. She felt that a wise person would understand that we are all hoping and dreaming and failing. Each of us is an imperfect being with the potential for greatness. Our journeys in that direction challenge us to be humble and compassionate and forgiving. She always believed that there is an overwhelming goodness to this earth that beats with one heart. If that is our focus we will find happiness and purpose, even as we falter.

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On the Road or At Home

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We humans are funny. We want to explore, but we also need a sense of security, safety. Who among us has not had the urge to just drive away, while still longing for the tranquility and familiarity of home? We love those glorious vacations when we throw caution to the wind, but almost always find ourselves longing for the comfort of the routines that await us. We oscillate between wanting to just chuck it all and drive away, and needing to spend time wrapped in blankets in our beds. It is as though we can’t really decide what makes us the most happy, and so our level of contentment all too often wavers.

We have so many choices, and yet it seems as though we have too few. Why is it so hard to decide what we really want? Would we indeed be better off if our lives were more constricted to fulfilling our basic needs rather than offering endless opportunities? Such is the conundrum for those who question what form of government intervention is best for the most people. The socialists offer a safety net for all when it comes to what Franklin Roosevelt called the four freedoms of speech, want, fear and worship. In an ideal world each of us would have total assurance that we would never again have to worry about whether or not we had food on the table, a place to live, healthcare when we needed it, the ability to speak our minds or to praise the God of our choice. Still the cost of such programs would almost certainly lessen the likelihood of having great differences in the manner in which we all lived. Our choices would be reduced, but we would not be without.

In a free enterprise, capitalist system each person has the possibility of making it big, attaining levels of wealth that also insure a life without want. The very nature of the system is competitive and results in disparities, but there is a great deal of freedom to experiment and try all sorts of ideas. It breeds creativity and excitement, but also some fear. It’s difficult to rise up from the bottom of the socio-economic heap, but not impossible. Many a person has found great success because the opportunities are indeed abundant. Still there are constant fears of losing all in the event of a tragedy or disaster. There is a push and a pull that creates tension and worry while it also nurtures our adventurous spirits.

It’s difficult to decide what is actually best for a society. I know that human nature is such that if we remove all of the incentives characteristic of a capitalist society we tend to be less inventive. At the same time if we are too worried about our futures our stress can work against us as well. Then too there will always be souls who are plagued with the bad fortune of illnesses and tragedies over which they have no control. I think of my mother who was left to raise three children with so little money that just surviving was a constant worry that was exacerbated by her mental illness. She somehow muddled through, but I wonder if our society would not be better if we had more mechanisms for assuring people such as her that they need never worry, because we will not let them down.

I truly believe that we might do such things without completely tearing down our economic system. Thee are brilliant aspects of capitalism that bring hope and dreams to all of us. At the same time we need to find ways of supporting those who truly are unable to help themselves. We have much room for improvement without taking away from those who have worked hard to achieve success. The problem is that the differing ways of thinking about economic matters have created such a chasm that we find it difficult to find common ground. One side raves that the more fiscally cautious are little more than greedy ogres, and the other side accuses the people who want more security of attempting to destroy our government. Surely there is a midpoint at which we might meet. Do we really need to throw the baby out with the bath water?

I grew up hearing stories of my grandparents who had fled from an authoritarian government that eventually had been forced to bow to Communism. I heard horror stories of what happens when there is a kind coup that overturns most of the customs and ways of doing things too quickly. For that reason I am still wary of trusting that quick overhauls will bring satisfactory results. I much prefer an approach that considers many different points of view and finds a way of fixing only the most broken aspects of society. I know that we need to do something, I just don’t want that process to be extreme.

I’ve read a great deal about the Russian Revolution. It is true that the common people were suffering, but the promises from Lennin and his ilk did not pan out the way most had hoped. Countless were purged simply because they disagreed with what was happening. Life was restrictive. The four freedoms were all but nonexistent. The new government was formed with too little thought, too little input from all sides. It was founded on fear rather than wisdom, tribal thinking rather than inclusion. I would hate to see such a movement take place in my own country.

At the same time the naysayers have to realize that we are reaching a tipping point. For too long there have been too many who feel like outsiders in a society that is supposed to feel free. Until we demonstrate a willingness to listen to what they have to say and then search for ways of helping them, the gap between groups will only widen.

I love my country with every fiber of my being. I think that in spite of its imperfections it is still a great place to be. I want to see progress in addressing our needs, our dreams, our wants. I want each of us to demonstrate care, concern understanding even for those whose ideas are complete opposites of ours. No president or lawmaker should be working for a particular base, but for everyone. Until we reach that point the uncertainty that we all seem to despise will continue. I hope that we are able to find solutions without creating so much division that we resort to embracing and enforcing only one way of thinking. We need variety in our government as much as we need it in our lives. Sometimes that means seeking adventure, and sometimes that means staying at home.

  

Why I Love Men

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A professor from Northeastern University recently wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times entitled Why I Hate Men. It was a kind of screed outlining all of the worst traits of the male half of the population and lamenting the unfair inequality of women. The author argued that it was time for all women to begin telling the truth about the horrific treatment that they have historically been forced to endure so that much needed changes might be made. She furthermore insisted that all of us who proclaim our support for feminism stop making excuses for the males who have, according to her, held us down.

I found myself feeling increasingly uneasy as I read her arguments and wanting to debate so many of her points. Mostly I wondered what had happened to her that had made her so angry. I suspect that if truth were ever told she would have a heartbreaking story in her past that had to do with abusive treatment from a man. Otherwise I can’t imagine why she would bear such a grudge against an entire group of humans.

First of all, I was always taught that the best way of living was to learn from the past, put it behind, and then look to the future. All of this dredging up of horrific acts committed by ancestors from another time reminds me of those folks who run around in hair shirts and have whips to beat themselves as penance just for having human frailties. I’ve always found such guilt trips to be nonproductive. To quote a feminist who recently ran for President of the United States, “At this point what difference does it make?” What was done was done. Now move on with resolve to do better.

Additionally, indicting the entire other half of society is akin to those times in school when the teacher punished the entire class for something that only a handful of students actually did. I recall with great disgust the times when I was subjected to a group detention or harangue and then told by the teacher that she knew that I had not been involved. I always thought that if that was the case, then why didn’t she leave me out of the indignity of the affair? It is not just bad psychology to use such methods, it also bad science. We all understand that we are a collection of individuals, each of whom differs from one another. While we might have similar traits, it is unlikely that we will all behave in the exact same manner simply because of gender.

It is true that there have been some very bad men in the world, and there are still far too many to this very day. There are men who are violent with women. There are men who are truly sexist in their thinking. There are men who are unfair to women. At the same time every one of us know men who are kind, loving, and eager to help everyone to be his/her very best.

I frustrate my husband from time to time, but in close to fifty years of living with him he has been mostly patient and loving with me. He has encouraged me to pursue my dreams more than any other person I have ever known. He is proud of my accomplishments and does not feel the need to be competitive with me or to somehow outshine me.

Is he an exception to the rule? I think not. I can name hundreds of wonderful men like him just from my own small circle of family, friends and acquaintances. In fact I would argue that the oafs and mysoginists are more the exception than the rule. We are horrified by their behavior because it is so unlike most of the men that we know.

Certainly we need to do a better job of protecting women from anyone who would do them harm. We must take firm measures to send the message that acts of abuse are not ever to be tolerated. We might also work harder to narrow the gaps between men and women in their careers. We have already achieved a great sense of progress in sending more women to college than men, but we must be careful that those same women do not emerge with their degrees intent on wreaking vengeance on the males.

I have six grandsons who are true gentlemen. They have learned how to treat all people from both their mothers and their fathers. They have terrific role models in that regard. I would be crushed if I thought that they were going to be hated even before someone knew the essence of their character. It would worry me if I thought that they were going to be denied possibilities simply because they are male. The way to reach true equality is not to take away from one group to give to another. That just creates yet another lopsided situation. The best way to even the playing field is to provide everyone with the education and the training that will ensure that their talents will be utilized to the fullest extent.

I am who I am and where I am today because of a huge cast of both men and women who loved me, taught me, mentored me and pushed me to be the person I wished to be. There was nothing in the equations of my life that was marked with a preponderance of male domination. Both sides were kept equal by people who supported me. I encountered a few men who attempted to use their masculinity to side track me, but other men (and women) always helped me to move right past them.

I have to say in all truth that I love men because I know all too well that they are an important part of our world. We need them and they need us. Together we make a great team. I will continue to fight for more opportunities for women, but I refuse to hate men as a weapon for achieving that goal.

 

Gratitude

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It was during the middle of the Great Depression that a monastery in New York began offering food each afternoon to citizens who were hungry and out of work. The fare was rather plain, just a sandwich with nothing special about it, but it was substantial. Often it was the only meal of the day for some of the recipients. Those who came reacted to the meager offering in many different ways. Some were so hungry that they gulped down the food in only seconds. Others ate half of the sandwich and saved the rest for a later time when they would once again feel the pangs of starvation. There were those who took the food home to share with others. Then there were always a very few who grumbled that the meal wasn’t very tasty, somehow forgetting the gratitude that they might have shown. Nonetheless the monks continued their daily ritual giving as much as possible to the multitudes who came even though their own pantry was sometimes bare.

I heard this story a few Sundays ago and I thought of how often we tend to take our blessings for granted, and sometimes even complain when given a gift out of the generosity of someone’s heart. We are truly a land of plenty compared to some parts of the world where hunger is rampant. In such places children regularly lie dying from lack of nourishment, their bellies swollen, their eyes sunken. There are many places in our own country that offer food for those who are not able to provide for themselves and for the most part people are grateful for whatever they receive. Nonetheless we have all seen or heard of those who grumble and seek more than the charitable groups are able to provide. It hurts us when we see generosity being so under appreciated, even as we understand how deprivation can breed anger.

I’m reminded of a chapter in the classic novel To Kill A Mockingbird in which Scout describes a cantankerous old woman who lives near the Finch family. The lady invariably hurls insults at Scout and her brother Jem as they pass in front of her home. One afternoon the woman says such vile things about the children’s father that Jem becomes enraged. He later returns and cuts off all of the blooms on the neighbor’s favorite bush and breaks Scout’s new baton in half. Ultimately he is confronted by his father who chides him and insists that the he be kind to the woman because she is old and sick.

As a punishment for his egregious actions Jem has read to the cranky lady each day. He chooses Ivanhoe as his subject and visits her home every afternoon. Little by little his task becomes less onerous and the woman less and less demanding. When she dies shortly after he has fulfilled his duties Jem learns that she had been addicted to a powerful drug given to her because of her illness. She spent her last days weaning herself from its hold by listening to Jem’s recitations. She died clean and sober with her pride intact. Jem’s father insists that she was one of the bravest people he ever knew.

We never really know what is causing someone to be grumpy or inappreciative. It is easy to chide them for their seeming lack of graciousness, but if we take time to find the source of their crossness we often learn that something quite terrible is plaguing them. Sometimes it is simply the idea of wanting to be thought of as being just as good and important as everyone else. Still, on the whole we would all be better served by being more thankful for whatever we have rather than wishing for more. We appear spoiled, churlish and even a bit childish whenever we judge any kind of gift to be unworthy. Often the things that we receive from people who care about us are the very best that they have to offer, even when they are quite humble. We need to think more about the intent to please us and less about the actual object.

Each day there are probably wonderful opportunities for demonstrating a sense of appreciation. A smile is a gift. Having someone help us with a problem is a blessing. Having a roof to shelter us from the elements is wondrous. Experiencing joy and laughter is beautiful. An education is one of the greatest gifts we might ever receive. Seeing a sunrise one more day, watching a baby play, enjoying the quenching goodness of clean water, sitting under the shade of a tree are such simple things that in reality are glorious. We forget to be thankful for such things because we take them for granted, but we notice immediately when they are gone.

I used to feel embarrassed because my mother sent me to school on most days with a fried egg sandwich. I often tried to hide my meal in shame because it seemed to shout that I was poor. I forgot to be happy that I did not have to go hungry. That egg filled my belly and gave me energy for the afternoon. It was more than better than nothing. It was tasty and made with my mother’s love. It took me years to understand just how lucky I was to have that meal wrapped in waxed paper and gently placed in a brown paper bag to keep me nourished. I was silly and superficial not to be more grateful. It took me many years and many experiences to realize my folly.

Take the time each day to really notice the many gifts coming your way, particularly those that are sent with the best of intentions. Appreciate each little effort, every special gift. Set aside anger or feelings of want and revel in whatever you have. You will soon find your heart filling with contentment. Even a plain sandwich will become a gourmet meal.

  

We Never Know

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We hear it over and over again, and may even experience it, yet we so often seem to momentarily forget. Perhaps we do so because to consider the possibilities of such horror is just too difficult, and so we find ourselves being shocked by reality again and again.

Of course I am speaking of our need to cherish and appreciate all that is wonderful in our lives because we may one day find ourselves all too sadly staring into the abyss of a tragic loss. I learned that fateful truth at the age of eight when I awoke expecting to spend a day with family at the beach, but instead learned that my father had been killed in a car accident. There was so much that I might have said to him had I known what was to happen, so many questions I might have asked. Like so many I was blindsided and left with a nagging feeling of wondering if he ever truly understood how much I loved him.

Over the years I’ve seen such situations play out for me and others that again and again. There was the death of a dear friend from a heart attack, and my mother-in-law’s stroke both of which came so suddenly and unexpectedly. Beloved students died far too soon from car accidents and even murders. I comforted a cousin through marriage whose own cousin and best friend was killed in a freak accident while he was vacationing. A long time family friend was close to death after being injured while having an adventure with good friends. That time we all got lucky, and he did manage to survive but not without a long battle to regain his health. Like most people I might go on and on with examples of tragic and shocking events that knocked me off of my feet. 

Each of us has endured far too many such incidents. They tear at our hearts and sometimes even leave us with regrets. We want just one more hour with loved ones who are ripped from us so quickly, that we feel as though big chunks of our hearts went with them. We may have complete trust that God’s will is being done as it should be, but still feel as though the very earth has suddenly been pulled out from under our feet. We tell ourselves that we are going to be far better at opening our hearts to the people that we love. We pledge to never again take our lives for granted, and then we let the business of the world intrude.

I was reminded of that hollow feeling in times of great and unexpected loss by a heartbreaking post from my niece. A sweet family including a young couple, their two year old child, and their mom and dad had gone to Canada for vacation. They were traveling in a van down a mountainous highway when something quite terrible happened. They had a head on collision with another vehicle and in the aftermath six people lay dead and two were in serious condition in the hospital. Miraculously the toddler was unhurt, but his father and grandmother had died and his mother and grandfather were injured. The other victims had been in the other car when the fiery crash turned deadly.

My niece, Katie posted the article because her daughter’s kindergarten teacher was one of the survivors. Katie asked for prayers and explained that the young woman was an angel who had been exceedingly patient and kind to her little child. Katie was quite naturally very upset and concerned about the wonderful woman who had made such a lasting and beautiful impression on the children that she taught each day. 

Knowing Katie as I do, I am certain that she went out of her way to let this teacher know how much she was appreciated. Katie’s daughter truly loved this woman and in turn felt safe and secure in her classroom. There are probably countless other parents and students who feel the same way, but how many of them actually let their feelings be known?

It takes so little time to voice gratitude or to tell someone how much impact he/she has on our lives. So why do we seem to hesitate or get distracted by work and worries? I’ve brought up this topic so many times because I know without a doubt how important it is to sing praises when someone is alive to hear them. We’d like to think that our dearly departed know how we feel, but why take chances when we might make someone’s day while they are still very much with us? A quick call or note or email is all that it takes, and it will not just make the recipient smile, but will also bring a sense of joy to the sender of the good wishes.

I cried upon learning about the tragedy of this precious family that will never be the same after their horrific accident. I understand in a visceral way the physical and emotional pain that they will endure. I’d like to think that as they travelled together that they had so much fun that once the horror begins to fade, they will have beautiful memories to comfort them. I intend to pray for them, and remind myself once again just how fragile our existences really are. As the saying goes, we just never know what will happen from one moment to the next. We should always be prepared in both the way that we live and the ways in which we build loving relationships with the people that we encounter along our way. It’s a bitter lesson, but one that teaches us the importance of appreciating beyond measure every single breath that we take.