What We Need

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There were horrid things happening across the globe before I was born. There were horrid things happening across the globe when I was a child and a teen. I have witnessed horrid things happening as a young adult and now that I am in my seventies I still see horrid things happening both near and far. For a cockeyed optimist like myself it can be quite distressing to admit that there is something in our human natures that is sometimes violent and cruel. I always wanted to believe that mankind has been slowly evolving into a better version of itself, and I still think that is indeed true, but sadly it is such a slow process that it’s difficult to define the progress at times.

On a more personal level I see goodness in each of my friends and family members, people striving even sacrificing to be kind, loving, wise. Each individual has small moments of imperfection but on the whole they are grand examples of what mankind might aspire to be. They give me hope for the population at large because I do not believe that they are the aberrations, but rather that it is in the hateful and violent members of society that we find the outliers. Normal is good, abnormal is an unusual data point removed from the cluster of morality that defines most of the people in the world.

There are those who believe that the current times are somehow worse than other eras, but I would urge them to more carefully and thoughtfully study history because there is little that is actually new in the ways of our relationships and our politics. People have been lead astray by demagogues and tyrants for all time whether it be in a family, a friendship, a neighborhood, a town, a state or a nation. You would think that we would be more circumspect given all of the information about past troubles that we have, but in truth most of us are busy taking care of ourselves and those that we love. We tend to only have time to react rather than to reflect. Besides, with so many ideas and ideologies being thrown at us at once it is daunting to determine what is actually best. Instead history has often been a vast experiment of trial and error with some decisions enhancing mankind and others being dangerously abysmal failures. All too often hindsight becomes our teacher.

We can indeed learn from past mistakes but even then it’s important to realize that we are different from our ancestors. Times continually change and we are influenced heavily by our environments, what we love and what we fear or even hate. Making choices that will affect us and the people around us can be a gamble. Because each person on earth is unique there is no one size fits all way of educating or governing and yet we try even as we know that it is impossible to exactly meet everyone’s needs. Someone always seems to feel left out, abandoned either by family or nation. Such is the conundrum of our human attempts to make sense of the world and the reason why it is so difficult to enact solutions to the problems that plague us.

Freedom is a word with many meanings. Taken too far it can lead to trouble. Constricted too much it creates hostility. The key to a healthy person and society is providing just the right dose of fairness which may mean that the balance will sometimes seem unequal. Even within families a wise parent understands that no two children are identical, not even twins. So too it is with societies that attempt to be fair and just. It is difficult to know the best course of action.

As a school administrator I learned that some of my teachers wanted to be free to be themselves without much direction while others actually desired to have precise sets of rules by which to guide themselves. The trick in working with them involved crafting individual plans that took their specific needs into account. Allowing for differences sometimes created tensions because there were always those who insisted that everyone had to be treated exactly the same. The trouble with that logic is that it does not consider our human uniqueness and sounds good until it is executed in a real situation.

I find myself becoming increasingly disturbed by the urge of various forces to make us all think and act the same. We become enraged when we witness someone deviating from the thoughts and actions that we find the most appropriate. We harangue or shame those who disagree with us in the false hope that we might force them into submission to our way of looking at the world. Such has become a national pastime with celebrities being lauded or ostracized based on what they believe. In truth it is a kind of nationalized bullying that we need to abandon. We should be extremely careful that we are not ruining people’s reputations based solely on a desire to force agreement to our individual thoughts about how things should be. 

Propaganda and unwillingness to allow freedom of speech is growing all around us. Such efforts to control beliefs has been tried throughout history but it has never worked. We should be wary of those who would insist on conformity and resistance to divergent ideas. Right now we have people on both the far left and far right attempting to shut down our freedoms. What we need is for those who treasure liberty to lead by example which means acknowledging that we must make more efforts to consider the needs of each voice, not just our own. We must curb the outrage and find ways to understand and respect the very natures of our humanity. In doing so we might find the common ground that we both desire and need. As long as we keep censoring one another we will escape from the current cycle of outrage.

Stranger Things

mcleod-slave-quarters

We had spent the day touring plantation homes in Louisiana. We were tired and incredibly hungry but seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Our friend announced that we were near a unique and highly rated restaurant so we eagerly headed toward what we hope would be good food and some much needed rest.

In less than fifteen minutes we were in the parking lot of our intended destination. Even though there was a large crowd inside we got seated at a nice table rather quickly. The menu was quirky but yummy sounding, at least at first. While we all perused the many choices I suddenly lost what had only moments before been a voracious appetite. In fact the mere thought of food made me feel nauseous. As everyone in our party eagerly spoke of the selections they had made I announced that I only wanted some tea. The group looked at me with puzzled expressions and asked if I was feeling well.

I explained that I just didn’t feel well and was afraid of putting anything into my now queasy stomach. I mentioned that I might just be a bit car sick, but in truth I wanted to bolt from the place. Something about it made me quite uneasy. There was no logic whatsoever to my feelings.

The waiter came to our table and took the orders looking obviously puzzled at my request for only a glass of ice tea. As the conversation at our table grew more animated I began to feel as though I was somehow not present. My mind wandered and I had an overwhelming desire to escape to the car, but without a valid explanation for my sudden flight response I instead just sat silently listening to the chatter without really hearing a word.

The food arrived and admittedly looked delicious but I had no desire to try any of it. Once the waiter had placed all of the items on the table he asked if we needed anything else. My friend said that she had a question. She wanted to know what the building had once been because it was obvious that it had been repurposed. To my shock and dismay the helpful server told us that the structure had at one time been part of an expanse of slave quarters. He pointed out that there had no doubt been much misery inside its walls. He admitted that he was glad that it was now a happy place where people enjoyed themselves.

Suddenly I understood why my body and my brain were in such a bizarre state. Somehow I had intuited that I was in an evil place. It was as though I was feeling the spirit of the souls who had been enslaved and tortured there. I had to sip some tea to keep from retching. It felt wrong for us to be so casually eating in what to me had been a house of horrors.

I did not say these things to the people who were with me. I suspected that they would either laugh at my silliness or think me bizarre for having such thoughts. Instead I nursed a growing pain in my gut as I imagined the wretched souls who had been enslaved there. It felt disrespectful to be there under circumstances of being entertained and indulged.

I suppose I must have seemed sulky to my friends. There was no logic to my feelings. It was silly of me to believe that I had somehow sensed the hurt of the people who once lived there and yet how might I explain the physical and mental pain that overtook me? My symptoms were real in spite of their superstitious nature.

I don’t believe in ghosts but I do think that I had some kind of sixth sense regarding the nature of that place. I suppose that there will be those who dismiss my state of mind as just a coincidence related more to being tired than any supernatural experience. I, on the other hand, believe that somehow the spirits of those poor desperate people had somehow permeated the walls so much that a part of my brain that has yet to be defined led me to the conclusion that something terrible happened there.

I am an observant person. Maybe there were clues that sent messages to my subconscious without my realizing it. It may not have been spirits at all but instead just an uncanny ability to notice small details on my part. Perhaps I simply put pieces of a puzzle together without being able to connect the dots well enough to understand what I was seeing. Or, maybe I really did feel something, have a kind of communication with those who had suffered.

Whatever happened left me in a state of profound disturbance. I had spent a day marveling at the immense wealth of people who had seemingly thought that owning another human was acceptable. The foundations of those magnificent homes had been built on the backs of labor from people judged to be unworthy of enjoying their God given right to freedom. My body reacted with a sickening revulsion.

Mankind has the capacity to be both magnificent and horrific. I’d like to believe that we humans continue to learn and evolve toward goodness. I’m saddened whenever I see evidence to the contrary. We have made much progress but it’s up to us to be watchful for signs that we have lost our way. Those monuments to a disturbing way of life will be instructive only if we agree that we must never allow such things to happen again.

Serenity

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I tend to be a person of moderation. I’ve never smoked. I drink very little and I actually get so sick when I eat too much that I avoid gluttony like the plague. I was once addicted to Diet Coke, a habit that started when someone told me that I might forestall my migraine headaches if I drank the brew regularly. I got to where I was gulping down one for breakfast, another at lunch and two more during the day. I was terrified to quit because the drink was like a magic elixir that actually kept my headaches more at bay than prescribed medications. I was so known for drinking Diet Coke that my Secret Santas often included a carton of them with my gifts.

Two years ago I decided that enough was enough. I did not like the idea of being controlled by a substance and so I went cold turkey. I haven’t touched a soft drink of any kind since then for fear that I might resurrect my habit. It has been especially difficult at movies. There’s nothing quite like a big cup of soda with some popcorn to feel content. The same is true whenever I eat Tex-Mex or a Whataburger. In spite of my urges I’ve kept religiously to my goal of shutting Diet Coke and all other carbonated drinks out of my life,

I suppose that I do not like the idea of doing anything to excess, but in reality I know that my hidden secret is that I worry too much. I’m good at telling others not to waste time fretting over things, but not so good at following my own advice. My grandfather often warned me not to take after my grandmother who was a chronic ball of anxiety. I suppose that my genes are predisposed to being concerned about what might be, even when I have no power to change many of the situations that occupy my thoughts.

I suspect that the world lends itself to being a source of worry. I think about school shootings, trouble in the Middle East, climate change, poverty, the education of our children and a hundred other things. Sometimes it feels as though we are in deep trouble. Other times I’m able to control my mind and do whatever is within my capabilities and leave the rest to those in power and to God.

Mostly I think about my family and my friends though. I want to fix things for them, help them to have perfectly wonderful lives, even though I understand that sometimes each person has to face his/her own problems. I am a fixer who is constantly tidying up messes in the world, That is in fact the one thing that I do excessively even though I know full well that it is impossible for me to be all things to all people.

I suppose that I am not alone in desiring to mend hearts, educate minds, heal wounds. It’s not bad that I do my best to be considerate of other people’s needs. What makes my efforts a bit on the cray cray side is when I obsess and feel as though I am never able to do enough. I become addicted to being a panacea as surely as I was hooked on those Diet Cokes. Just as I understood that it was wrong to need that drink so much, so it is a bit prideful and presumptive for me to think that I can solve the world’s problems if only I try hard enough. In fact, if I’m not kind to myself I don’t think I can be really effective in helping others. In other words, I need to get my own house in order first.

I suppose that it is never too late to learn how to be empathetic and loving without becoming overly anxious. My resolve this year is to begin thinking logically about what is possible for me to do with regard to the difficulties of others and then let things go as the ear worm song says. Even love and worry in excess can be lethal. It’s time for me to change what I can and leave what I can’t to those who are more able. The Serenity Prayer is going to become my mantra. For those who haven’t heard it for a time here it is:

God grant me the serenity

to accept the things I cannot change; 

courage to change the things I can; 

and wisdom to know the difference.

Amen.

If I have been able to give up those darn Diet Cokes I think maybe I can achieve a bit more serenity as well.

Renewal

revolution

We humans like traditions. They tend to be anchors that keep us moored. We often attach our ways of doing things to special dates so that we might have reminders that it is time once again to repeat them. We turn on the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade while we prepare for a family gathering later in the day. We watch fireworks on the Fourth of July. We hang lights on our houses and set up trees for Christmas. We celebrate birthdays with cakes and candles. Each year we plan for a succession of such events to break the routine of work and daily living, Traditions give us something wonderful to dream about when we are weary of the trials that so often beset us. They are mostly about spending time with people whom we love, forgetting about our challenges until another day.

Sometimes our difficulties are so overwhelming that they intrude upon our traditions. A death or a serious illness may make it impossible to feel the joy that usually comes with such occasions, We feel like outsiders as we see what appears to be the entire world having fun around us. We can’t imagine how they can be so happy when we are so bereft. Our woes are part of the natural cycle of life just as much as our joys but somehow we have a very difficult time accepting them in the midst of general revelry. We can’t imagine how it will ever again be possible to join the fun without heavy hearts.

Life is a repetitive cycle whether or not we humans take note of the changing seasons. It goes on and on and on just as it has done for centuries. We are part of its story and in our tendency to manufacture ways to take control of it, we create those traditions and cling to the constancy of them. They somehow help us to feel better but they can also be vivid reminders of loss. Our emotions are tied up with our traditions and we associate certain people and places with them so much so that they can at times hurt as much as they help.

Today is the first day of a new year and a new decade. In our human need to demonstrate a modicum of mastery over our existence we have created traditions to mark the passage of the earth’s journey around the sun. We eat special foods that we associate with good luck and we make resolutions to improve ourselves in the days ahead. Renewal and redemption is a constant theme in the human experience. We falter and then we forgive ourselves and hope that others will as well. We begin again hoping to be our best. It is perhaps one of our most noble characteristics.

I hear of many worthy resolutions on this day. People vow to take better care of their health or to pursue learning. They set goals of traveling more or spending time doing more purposeful things. The list of possibilities is endless and wonderful. It feels good to have the opportunity to renew ourselves, to jump start the goodness in our lives one more time. It’s also a moment when we might glance around us to find those souls who feel so broken and lost that they are unable to join the rest of us in the feelings of happiness and renewal. Perhaps there is no greater resolution than to show them comfort.

I spend a bit of time on Facebook each day just to get a feel of how my friends and family are doing. I see so much joy on my wall but hidden in the corners are hints that tell me of those who are suffering. I suspect that their sorrow is compounded by the celebratory images that they see. This most wonderful time of year can be quite hard for them, at least for awhile. Healing is a slow process but it need not be endured alone. There is nothing more curative than receiving small gestures of kindness and remembrance from people who care.

A friend posted a wonderful idea just before January 1. She suggested that each of us choose one person for whom we will pray each and every day of this new year. I’d like to add the idea of making time for that person as well. Giving to others is a tonic not only for them also but for us as.

May this new year of 2020 bring you and those you love the contentment and strength that you need to keep moving through another revolution of the sun and an opportunity for renewal.

Opening Hearts and Minds

peacemaker

I am what is sometimes known as a people pleaser, not so much because I want to impress anyone with my goodness but because I have an uncanny ability to sense people’s feelings. I have spent most of my life striving to help others to be their best selves and making great effort to see differing points of view. My work has included titles like mother, teacher, peer facilitator, dean of faculty. In those roles I focused on walking hand in hand with my charges rather than being an authoritarian. I prefer being a diplomat to executing orders. To my utter dismay I more and more often find myself in a kind of new world order in which I am constantly challenged to choose a side or be considered outmoded and ineffective. The middle ground where I have long stood so that I might extend a hand to each side is now considered the choice of wimps, those unwilling to take a stand. I find it more and more difficult to please anyone and I am often accused of being the kind of person who has actually caused most of the problems of the world.

We appear to be in a phase during which manners and decency toward all is considered passé. Tough guys, bullies, those willing to hurl insults are thought to be the new saviors of the world. Being polite and soft spoken is out. Being brash is in. Passive resistance and peaceful assembly has lost its lure. Instead shouting and insistence that all agree to a kind of tandem manner of thinking is the way of the new heroes. Sound bites have replaced thoughtful discourse.

As a teenager I read John Kennedy’s Profiles In Courage with an almost reverential mindset. I saw the heroes that he described as role models for my own life. I liked the stories of fortitude in the lives of the saints that had so fascinated me as a child. I wanted more than anything to be a fair and just individual who held tightly to the belief that each of us has an important purpose in this world. I read and reread tales of men and women who changed the world without harming others. I came to believe that the most glorious aspect of living where I do is the unalienable right of individuals to have the liberty of their own thoughts. I enjoyed the idea of bridging gaps between diverse groups. It is who I am and what I do.

It seems as though a perverse stubbornness has invaded the world. We are at an impasse with one another. Society has become judgmental without taking the time to analyze situations devoid of prejudice. Our favored leaders often hurl insults at one another. We blame entire generations for our problems with sweeping pronouncements. Some taunt the “snowflakes” while others dismiss the “boomers” as the lot that has destroyed the earth. Anger is even invading families and rending friendships in two. There is a kind of worldwide psychosis that is making all of us sick.

It has become almost impossible for me to use my diplomatic skills. Of late I seem to anger everyone whenever I attempt to consider all sides of a discussion. My efforts are derided as useless and perhaps even counterproductive. I am reminded of how souls like Mitt Romney are not the heroes I think them to be, but spineless cowards who are of little use to the world. People are demanding action and those who attempt to broker compromise and peace are thought to be a large part of the world’s problems.

As a student of history I know how dangerous such thinking can be. While mankind divides itself into winners and losers suffering prevails. The power brokers unwilling to give an inch one way or another wreak havoc on innocents. Problems fester and grow in an atmosphere unwilling to consider compromise. When people no longer listen to one another grave mistakes are made. Divisions like north and south, left and right, red and blue, Christian and atheist, Sunni and Shia, Israeli and Palestinian, educated and uneducated, rich and poor are the sources of conflict and war. It is only when we truly attempt to work together that solutions begin to arise.

I was quite taken by an image that one of my friends posted on Christmas Day. In the photo were two women, sisters from a loving family. One of them stood in front a blue car with a “Warren” sticker and the other posed by a red car with a “Trump” sticker. Both women were laughing and obviously quite happy with one another, unwilling to allow their political differences to change their feelings of warmth and affection. It was a hopeful sign for me, a reminder that when all is said and done we humans may have differing opinions of how to solve problems but we are united by love.

I’d like to believe that our current state of rage is only a temporary phase and that the peacemakers will come into fashion again. In the meantime I pray that relationships that have been broken by differences in points of view may be mended. We need each other now more than ever. Life is far too short to spend time quibbling when we might be better off finding ways to get along. All it takes is a willingness to open our hearts and minds. Perhaps that is the best resolution that anyone might make for the new year and new decade of 2020.