And So I Worry

WorryI sit at home during this time of self isolation and I worry. Let me make it perfectly clear that I do not worry about myself. I will either get the virus or I will not. If I get it I will either survive or not. I am seventy one years old and my journey on this earth has been good. I feel very close to God and that belief brings me great comfort. My anxieties and concerns center on other people whose lives are being upended or may be upended by what is unfolding at warp speed. I am one of those individuals who wants our president to know that I am very scared of the repercussions of this pandemic and how they will affect the entire world, not just my little corner of it. I am most especially concerned for the young who stand to inherit a situation that will forever impact their lives in ways that few of us are even considering because nothing of this magnitude has ever before happened.

I am fearful for the medical community, people who understand what protocols they need to stay safe and keep their patients safe. They are on the front line and their pleas for our attention and help are real. They are not children crying wolf. They are highly educated, highly qualified individuals who are trained to stay calm. When they are afraid I know that the rest of us should also be afraid and that our job is to insist that immediate measures be taken to assist them in any way possible. If that means that we all stay in our homes avoiding contact with others, so be it. We need to listen to them, not a man whose claim to expertise in science and medicine is his relationship with a very bright uncle from M.I.T. The medical community tells us that this is serious and I believe them and so I worry about them.

I am anxious about the people who are already losing their jobs and their businesses. I know who they are and how vulnerable they are feeling. Nothing about their situation is typical. They have no guarantees that our economy will quickly return to a normal enough state to provide them with secure employment when all of this is over. My own city is the oil capital of the United States and that industry is collapsing almost as quickly as the virus is spreading Already there have been furloughs and layoffs. Sadly if the general outline of the Senate’s plan to stimulate the economy comes to pass many who have been most affected by economic loss will receive no relief even though they are the ones who need it the most. The proposed bill would only send checks to people at or below a certain income level based on 2018 tax returns. These people were working and doing well back then, but now they have no income and their retirement investments are in a shambles. Thus I am anxious for them.

I see a political game of back and forth insults playing out on social media even as we should be working together to achieve the common goal of defeating this virus. If there ever was a time when we should set our differences aside it should be now and yet I see so many instances of the quarreling only intensifying. Blame and finger pointing is on the rise as though it must surely be the fault of some nation other than our own or some group that does not believe in God or those who voted for a certain person in the last presidential election. The political paranoia and poison is operating at full tilt when we should instead be working together. Covid 19 is apolitical, a virus that randomly chooses its victims, and so I worry because I keep hearing accusations and excuses instead of a united front from those in charge of guiding us through this battle. I would be far more calm if the press conferences included members of both of our major political parties. I would be relieved to hear that plans were being made in a bipartisan way for the good of the country. I would feel less anxious if we were able to heal the wounds and divisions of our nation and the world even as we fight the virus. Since I don’t see as much of that as I think we need I am ill at ease.

The  millennials are more like those of us who are Baby Boomers than either demographic may think. We Boomers were a rebellious group that was often misunderstood by our elders. We looked honestly at the world as it was and were unafraid to point out its problems. We witnessed racism that made no sense and we stood up to our elders and spoke out against the ways things had always been done. We worried that the war in Vietnam was not being waged in an honest and legitimate manner and we voiced those concerns. Our parents and grandparents thought we were rude and too inexperienced to have valid points of view.  They disapproved of our audacity. So too are today’s young people taking note of things that bother them. Surely we should remember how demeaning it felt to have our concerns silenced when our intentions were so sincere. It’s time we listened to our young because they are about to step into an adult world that will be riddled with residual problems created by this pandemic. We are handing off immense challenges without acknowledging them and supporting them as much as we should. I worry about the future not because I don’t think they can handle it but because so many of us are not willing to consider that the millenials have a bigger stake in making things right than us older folk do. It would serve us all well to remember that aside from people like Benjamin Franklin most of the revolutionary men who forged the independence of this nation were very young.

I am an admitted worrier. I do not need anyone to tell me to set aside my worries and be happy. I am already happy, but I think about things and fret over solutions for problems. I do not need anybody to suggest that if I only trust in God all will be well. God and I have a beautiful relationship and I know that He/She does not play favorites nor smite people in spite. What I do believe is that God gave us wondrous minds and imaginations with which to tackle our challenges. I worry because we don’t always use that precious gift as well as we should. I worry because even in a pandemic we sometimes forget that the most important commandment of all is to love one another.

I hope that I am wrong in all of my fears. I pray that we will rise up and become better for all of the difficulties that lie before us. We may be in for a hard road ahead. We have everything we need to do well but I fear that we will be so busy chiding and advising anyone who does not think exactly as we do that we will miss opportunities to find the way forward without a world of pain…and so I worry. 

Respecting the Young

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I recall once reading quotes from ancient Greeks in which they expressed derision toward the teenagers of the time. Adults all too often have expectations for youth that are unrealistic and hardly in line with adolescent development. While it is true that seventeen and eighteen year olds often took on great responsibilities in earlier times, it is also undoubtedly as fact that those same adolescents also made mistakes from which they had to learn valuable lessons. The time between sweet sixteen and about age twenty five is wrought with both wonderful opportunities and major struggles. Becoming a happy and healthy adult is no small feat, especially in today’s world. Sadly those of us who are well beyond those young years often forget how fraught with anxiety and challenges they can be.

I worry constantly about our young. Our world does not always treat them kindly and they are still working to perfect the life skills that will enable them to survive in the on their own. The process of growing up is a grand adventure on many levels and one of the most uncomfortable moments in life on others. Teens and young adults will make many mistakes before they finally figure things out, and it is up to those of us who are older to support them in their efforts, even when they appear to go astray. Many a young person’s life has been unduly scuttled because the adults around him/her lacked compassion and understanding.

I watch grown people who should know better deriding young folk who are earnestly expressing their points of view. Instead of congratulating them for caring enough to form opinions and speak out on certain issues there are those who insult them and even suggest that they should be ignored. A more reasonable reaction would be to have an honest and respectful conversation with them about their concerns rather than insulting them or simply writing them off as too immature to know have a meaningful opinion.

While I think that Greta Thunberg from Sweden has taken the wrong approach in scolding entire generations with a broad brush of disdain, I applaud her interest in bringing attention to the problems of climate change. She is quite sincere in her worries and she deserves to be heard even if we find her ideas hyperbolic and even a bit insulting. In fact, when a teen expresses the most anger and frustration that is the very time when they must be heard. In those moments they are thinking out loud and letting us know that they are attempting to make sense of the world as they know it. Simply writing them off only confounds their anger and does little to help them learn how to channel their anxieties into constructive ideas.

In the past I’ve written about the boy with the MAGA cap who was raked over the coals by adults who should have known better. They made assumptions about him based on a single image that could not possibly have told his full story. It was very wrong of the press and the world of social media to publicly scold him without really knowing him. As it turned out he was unfairly taunted and then judged by standards that most adults would have a difficult time achieving.

Then there is the young man from Parkland High School in Florida who has spoken about against guns. He has been ridiculed and insulted in grossly inappropriate ways simply because he espouses a point of view with which many disagree. Instead of complimenting him for taking the time to attempt to solve a problem that personally affected him and his classmates, he has been continually maligned.

As an educator I watched young teens do very stupid things that got them into much trouble. They were the ones who got caught and often the punishments given to them far outweighed the nature of the crimes they committed. In the most extreme cases too much emphasis was placed on retribution toward them rather than using the instance as a teachable moment. The adults in charge did indeed change the course of the youngsters’ lives, but not in the intended way. They took good kids who had done something wrong and turned them into hardened criminals. Without compassion and counseling they broke and felt as though their lives were so ruined that there was little reason to continue along a path of righteousness.

My grandfather was a storyteller. I loved sitting with him and hearing his tales that always held a kernel of wisdom. Hearing him speak was a calming and learning experience. You might say that he had been around.

  Once he told of a time when he was working in a general store as a young boy. Times were hard then and there were families that were unable to afford even the basic necessities. Many of them ran up tabs with the owner of the store with promises of repayment once things got better. One man in particular owed so much that the proprietor of the store had to deny the man anymore credit. The poor soul ended up stealing a bag of flour in desperation and my grandfather witnessed the crime.

Grandpa felt compelled to tell the owner of the store what had happened and soon enough the sheriff arrived. The lawman and my grandfather went together to confront the man who had purloined the flour. When they got to his house they found a chaotic scene in which the woman of the house was attempting to make bread. Her children were so hungry that they were eating balls of raw dough. When the sheriff saw what was happening he looked at my grandfather, winked, and suggested that my grandfather must have been mistaken in thinking that the unfortunate father had stolen anything. My grandfather understood the sheriff’s reasoning instantly and nodded in assent that he had been wrong.

We would all do well to follow the sheriff’s lead and demonstrate more compassion, particularly with teens and young adults. Our first thought should always be to help them to become better versions of themselves. Stern insults and harsh punishments are not the answer. It’s up to us to be better than that.

I Choose to Stay

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A few weeks after I was born my mother and father took me to All Saints Catholic Church to be baptized by the Reverend John Perusina. My Aunt Polly was my godmother and like my mom she was a very devout Catholic. In fact all of my cousins from Mama’s side of the family attended Catholic schools where we spent as many as twelve years learning about our church and participating in the sacraments. On Sundays we dressed in our best and attended mass at various parishes across the city of Houston.

The first Catholic community that I actually remember is St. Peter the Apostle where I attended first grade. I was quite young then, barely five years old. Much of that time is a fog because here was much havoc taking place in my home with the birth of my youngest brother, the constant illnesses of my middle brother and the death of my dear Uncle Bob. What I do remember is the great kindness that was extended to me by my teacher, Sister Camilla, and a friend, Virginia. I also enjoyed visits from my Aunt Polly who lived just down the street from the church. She checked in periodically to be sure that I was doing well. I suppose that none of the wonderful people who took the time to care for me that year ever knew how much their consideration meant to me, but in my heart I began to associate my Catholicism with love.

My family moved to another home just before I began second grade. We lived within walking distance of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church. With only a brief interruption I would spend the rest of my growing up years in the hands of Carmelite priests and the School Sisters of Notre Dame. I made many lifelong friends during those times and it was at Mt. Carmel that I made my first confession and my first communion. In the fourth grade I was confirmed in my faith. Those were glorious years in which I felt safe and loved and supported. My church family was like a great big extension of my own family, and when my father died all of the wonderful people from the parish watched over me and my mother and brothers. I was often frightened then, but the steadiness of the Church always came to my rescue.

I married my husband at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church and the same  Father Perusina who had baptized me was the priest who performed the ceremony. For a long time I kept driving back to Mt. Carmel for mass on Sundays but it was just too far away from where I lived. I ended up going to Sacred Heart Cathedral in downtown Houston but it felt so unfamiliar and I did not know anyone there. I floated around from parish to parish as we made our moves, but once we purchased a home I found St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church where my own children would grow up as Catholics. I felt that same sense of family that I had enjoyed in my youth among the priests and parishioners there. My young adult life was spent teaching there on Sundays, managing the religious education program for a time, and making some of the very best friends that I have ever had.

When we moved from the house that had been our abode for over thirty years I found myself once again driving a rather long distance just to remain at St. Frances Cabrini but that became rather tedious and so I began searching for a closer parish in which to invest my faith. By happenstance I found Mary Queen Catholic Church.

The summer of 2017 had been wrought with pain for me and my husband. He had endured a stroke and we felt so much uncertainty about the future. Only a few short weeks later hurricane Harvey inundated our area. For days on end we sat in our home worrying that the waters might find their way inside while watching dreadful images of destruction in places that we knew quite well. When all was said and done we were fine but many of our family members and friends had lost most of their possessions and the security of their homes. It felt as though nobody was completely immune.

Two of the mothers of friends with whom I had gone to school at Mt. Carmel died during the time of our city’s recovery. Sadly Mt. Carmel had not been spared by Harvey. It’s roof had collapsed from the weight of the rain and it would be months before it was repaired. The families had to find alternative places to hold the funerals and it was Mary Queen Catholic Church that agreed to open their doors to provide them with a proper service. At the very same time the ladies of the quilting group at Mary Queen sent a prayer quilt to my husband with assurances that they would pray for his recovery and improved health.

We were so moved by the generosity of the people at Mary Queen that we decided that we had finally found our new home parish. We have not regretted our decision because we once again feel the kind of love and generosity that I experienced at St. Peter the Apostle, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, and St. Frances Cabrini. The community of worshipers are the true leaders of a parish. It is in the people who fill the pews each Sunday that I find the word of God living and breathing around me. My new Mary Queen family quenches my spiritual thirst.

I am a Catholic. My parents brought me to the church as a child. I have stayed as an adult. There are many problems within the Catholic Church because even though it was founded by Christ, it is run on this earth by humans who by nature are sometimes frail and prone to mistakes. My faith bears the scars of many sins but it also represents the message of love that has sustained me during my most difficult times.

I have seen priests who failed in their stewardship and even felt uncomfortable around two of them that I purposely avoided. They were both later found credibly guilty of sexual abuse. It has saddened me to face the reality that the Catholic Church has for so long abrogated its duties to protect the flock, but I do not view the sinfulness of a few as a reason to leave. For most of my seventy years the priests and nuns and members of the Catholic Church have given me love, understanding, support, and a feeling of moving ever closer to God. I see no reason to leave or to turn my back on a religion that has been a source of sustenance and strength. I will stand by my church just as it has always stood by me.

Find me perfect people, perfect religions, perfect institution, perfect nations and I may be willing to admit that I should be disgusted with the Catholic Church. Since there are no such organizations that can claim to be without sin I choose instead to stay to help build my church on more solid ground. Jesus was all about love and forgiveness. That is how I view my own part in the Catholic Church. I will stay and I will love the family who joins me each Sunday to focus on what faith is really about. 

In Search of Criminal Justice

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People sometimes do very bad things, things so egregious that we do not feel safe having them live among us. We have to find them, try them for their crimes, and if found guilty sentence them to punishments that fit their actions. We have a criminal justice system for that which is struggling on many fronts. At this moment in the United States we have the largest prison population in the world both in actual numbers and percentages. We struggle with ethical questions of what we should do to prevent crimes and how to treat the perpetrators once they have been convicted. We can’t seem to decide whether our system should focus on punishment, rehabilitation, or some effective combination of both. We wonder what we might have done to prevent crimes in the first place thus eliminating the need for so many centers of incarceration.

I’m fascinated by the criminal mind. I have always wondered what drives an individual to the point of committing unlawful acts, especially those that are violent. I’ve been a reader of mysteries from childhood and my favorite television programs and movies have always been those that depict detective work, the law, and the frightening world of prison life. I suppose that I have always believed that if only we were able to unravel the threads of lives gone so bad we might learn as a society what causes them to reach a point of breaking the law. I suppose that such a dream has confounded humans since Cain murdered Abel.

I am a frequent viewer of programs like Dateline, 20/20, and 48 Hours. I watch Oxygen and Investigation Discovery. Recently Dateline featured a hard look at the country’s criminal justice system by way of Angola Prison in Louisiana. The episode focused on the problems of housing large populations of prisoners for long periods of time and asked the burning question, “Should criminal justice focus on punishment or rehabilitation?”

One of the most pressing problems in our country’s prison systems resulted from the hard line of the war on drugs. Because of the no nonsense feature of our efforts to eliminate the drug trade by giving drug users harsh sentences the prison population swelled and many of those found guilty are serving excessively long terms. The medical community has learned through research that illegal drug usage and addiction is in truth a medical problem rather than a criminal one. What most drug addicts need is assistance in beating their habits. Instead we have all too often put them away in jails where they interact with murderers and other violent sorts. The money  that we are spending on warehousing them for decades might have better been spent on sending them to centers for rehabilitation.

Another concern has to do with another outdated trend to try minors accused of violent acts as adults. There are now individuals in their seventies who received life sentences when they were only sixteen or seventeen years old. They have spent their entire adult lives behind bars with no hope for parole until the Supreme Court recently ruled that minors must always be tried in an age appropriate manner and their sentences must reflect the extenuating circumstances of their ages. We now know that the human brain is not fully formed until around the age of twenty five, In particular the centers of the brain that control behaviors are often the last to form, Thus the kinds of risky and inappropriate acts in which teenagers are known to engage appear to be part of development. Courts have ruled that inmates who were convicted and sentenced as adults for crimes committed as minors have the right to parole hearings even when they were sentenced to life without any hope of reconsideration.

The optics of the Dateline program were disturbing. Many of the inmates at Angola work in fields cultivating crops day after day in harsh weather conditions. The vast majority of them are black, begging the question of why this is so. What is so wrong with our society that so many resort to criminal behavior and what might we do to change this trend before such individuals end up in the prison system? These are dire needs that we have yet to fully meet. We have to break the cycles that plague the poor, the undereducated, the hopeless.

President Trump recently signed a bill offering many reforms of the federal criminal justice system, but the vast majority of the prison population are governed by state laws that do not fall under the umbrella of the changes made by the president. There are also still many citizens who sincerely believe that the only correct answer to discourage criminal acts is to follow a hard line. The debate continues while the number of the incarcerated grows.

More and more criminologists are learning that people can and do change if given opportunities to redirect their lives. They know that removing all hope only creates even more violence. Prisons now use more women guards who have the effect of calming the prisoners. Conditions are improving as research teaches more and more about how to rehabilitate the fallen.

There are those whose acts were so horrendous that they should never again walk amongst us, but there are also people who have paid for their mistakes and truly changed. It’s time we consider humane and caring ways of helping them to become contributing members of society.  States should follow the president’s lead in enacting justice and prison reforms. We need programs that understand and support the unique needs of those who are attempting to reenter the world of freedom. We need to focus on education and counseling at the earliest possible ages. It’s not about letting monsters run lose but about providing purpose and direction for those who have genuinely changed. It’s about compassion and forgiveness for those deserving of our consideration. It’s a focus that should be a priority for all good minded people everywhere.

A Dark and Shady Place

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When I was in the second grade I stole a fifty cent piece from the dresser of a friend. I rather impulsively grabbed it when she was out of the room and stuffed it in my pocket. Even before I had taken it home I was beginning to feel queasy about what I had done but I was unable to find a way to return it without being caught in the act. My regrets grew into full blown guilt by the time I was hiding the coin in my room. I had no idea how to pay for my sin other than to carry my ill gotten gains with me each time I visited by friend in the hopes of finding a moment alone when I might return her money to her. It took a number of tries but I eventually placed the shiny half dollar back where it belonged.

Somehow my conscience would not allow me to feel as though I had done enough. I found myself leaving quarters and even dollar bills in my friend’s room as compensation for what I had done. I even considered confessing to her but never had enough courage to do so. Instead I began repeating the story of my theft over and over again when I went to confession in my parish Catholic church. Nonetheless I wasn’t able to shake the feeling of regret that seemed to follow me like a bad penny.

It never occurred to me that any of the priests to whom I admitted my sins might remember my story but one of them did and when I told him what I had done for the umpteenth time he cautioned me in frustration to either believe that my transgression had been forgiven or quit coming to him with my lack of faith that God had already absolved me. He went so far as to tell me that my unwillingness to pardon myself was far worse than the small transgression that I had so thoughtlessly committed against my friend. He urged me to move forward with my life and not keep looking back.

That moment was crucial in my development as an adult. It taught me the true meaning of reconciliation, a willingness to acknowledge that we humans may fall but we also have the possibility of reforming our ways. When such a change takes place it is time to focus on the beauty of the salvation that has occurred rather than to obsessively keep returning to the past. Just as I grew and learned from my experience as a very young child, so too do we all become different and often better versions of ourselves as we journey through life. Until we draw our last breaths there is always the possibility of righting wrongs we have committed and making peace with those that we have hurt. Once we do that it is toxic to either carry our own baggage of guilt or to force someone else to be weighed down by theirs. If forgiveness is to be real it must blot out the past.

There is a new trend to search through the words and actions of mostly famous people to find something that they may have done or said many years ago and hold them up to judgement and ridicule. It doesn’t appear to matter that they may have changed or that they have apologized. They are shamed and held accountable to such an extent that they sometimes lose their jobs and their reputations. It is a kind of modern day witch hunt with comments being taken out of context or twisted to the point of losing their original intent. This practice is intended to create havoc for the targeted individual and often comes with personal information that leads to harassment. Even when the people victimized by this technique attempt to provide explanations or make atonement they are often deemed eternally guilty without hope of forgiveness.

There is something quite wicked about refusing to allow a person or an entire group of people the benefit of reconciliation. It implies a kind of dictatorship of the mind that binds transgressions into a cycle of eternal punishment. Once someone has fallen there is no hope of rising again with this type of thinking. It runs contrary to our very humanity and pits us in lifelong struggles with one another. We become a nation of Hatfields and McCoys, Montagues and Capulets engaged in a never ending feud.

The reality is that most of us have done something in the past for which we ultimately felt regrets. We evolve as adults hopefully becoming better versions of ourselves. We each deserve the opportunity to be redeemed and seen as our wiser and kinder selves. Unless our former transgressions were so egregious as to require jail time, our sins should be forgotten once we have made peace with ourselves, our God and those that we may have hurt. The focus should be on who we are now, not who we once might have been.

People have the power to change. Nations have the power to change. Just as we should not hold the children of Germany responsible for the sins of their parents and grandparents, so too should we be willing to focus on good intentions and efforts rather than only on the bad. It accomplishes nothing to spend time dwelling on past transgressions when there is more work on improving to be done. Throwing us into the shade of continual guilt trips is as wrong as I was when I so childishly obsessed over my own flawed character. It’s time we genuinely embrace forgiveness for those who earnestly seek it.