Let It Go

12-_00168v

I grew up in Houston, Texas in the south. As a child I remember hearing Dixie being played and sung now and again. When I was young I actually believed that I had descended from Confederate Rebels and it was only later that I found out how wrong I had been. Of course my mom’s ancestors were busy chafing under the rule of Hungarians while the Civil War raged here. It was from my father’s side that I assumed that I had come from bonafide Johnny Reb stock. Imagine my shock, and maybe even a bit of relief, when my genealogical searches revealed that my great grandfather, John William Seth Smith, was a Lieutenant in the Kentucky Volunteers and that he fought for the Union. In fact, he participated in a number of crucial battles and was around to bury the dead at Shiloh. It ends up that the inclement weather and horror of that event badly affected his health in later years and after the war he seemed rather intent on putting his days of fighting behind him. I suppose that those of us who are still arguing over the aftermath of that terrible conflict might be wise to follow his lead.

I’ve always had a fascination for history and so I have read a number of biographies and historical texts. Robert E. Lee was someone about whom I wanted to know more. In so many ways he was an enigma. He graduated from West Point and for a time was one of the most highly respected generals in the Army of the United States. He sometimes questioned the morality of slavery, but nonetheless held the odd belief that it served a purpose in helping the enslaved humans to learn the necessary skills to be full fledged members of society. He loved his country but felt a higher allegiance to his state. He saw secession as treason, but agreed to join the Confederate cause nonetheless. In other words he was a highly conflicted man who wanted to be honorable but often demonstrated profound confusion about how one should live. In the end he actually felt that the long war should never have happened, and he spent much of his later years attempting to free his soul from guilt. 

The aftermath of most wars becomes a time for trying and punishing those guilty of crimes or treason, while the rest of the population goes on to live ordinary and quiet lives like my grandfather. The days after the Civil War were different. Both Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant felt that no purpose would be served in meting out vengeance against their fellow countrymen who had gone astray. There were no trials in which Robert E. Lee and other Confederate leaders were held accountable or punished. Instead they were allowed to live with only their own self reflection to determine the final chronicle of what they had done. For Robert E. Lee it was a bitter pill to ruminate on the utter folly of the war and its impact on the entire country. He must have asked himself time and again why he had gone against his own beliefs that secession would be a fools errand.

Time has a way of glossing over the ugly realities of history. As the years passed people from the south often found ways to excuse the actions of their ancestors who had believed that destroying the country was actually the only way to deal with political conflicts. They saw the war as being noble and courageous, but the truth is that it was a horror that need never have happened. To celebrate those who led their fellowmen into the very jaws of hell seems to be a rather ridiculous idea, and yet that is what happened in cities and towns all across the south where monuments and statues were erected to honor men who in many ways had been fools. Perhaps it was a way of ignoring the truth of how incredibly wrong the entire conflict had been.

It would be one thing to mourn the lost souls who died in those terrible battles that pitted American brother against American brother, but it is quite another to glorify those who had took the common people so far astray. It would be akin to building monuments in honor of Adolf Hitler all over Germany. We would surely see the inappropriateness of such memorials, but somehow we fail to realize how ludicrous it is to honor men who literally performed treasonous acts against the United States when they chose to go to war against the government. Perhaps Robert E. Lee said it best. “I think it wiser not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the example of nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered.”

We have harbored the feelings of separation and divisiveness far too long. Walking through the Shiloh battlefield I felt no glory, but only a deep sadness that people were unable to find ways to settle their differences through any means other than fighting and killing. There is no magnificence at Gettysburg, only despair that man’s anger overwhelmed his ability to find common solutions. War is always hell. Slavery was wrong. We all know in our hearts that these are truths. Why then do we continue to quibble over hunks of stone and metal that remind us of a past that was horrific by anyone’s standards? We can remember all of those who lost their lives with compassion, but we need not attempt to honor those who were responsible for the carnage. Taking down the troublesome statues does not erase the history, for we can never forget how terrible it was. Instead it focuses on understanding and a willingness to move on and let go of feelings that seem to have festered long after they should have been set aside.

I suspect that if Robert E. Lee were to hear of the battles that now ensue over the appropriateness of monuments to in his honor he would remind us of his own words and respectfully ask us to take the monoliths down. We should do so not out of a sense of political correctness, but because it is time for healing that will never fully happen until we are willing to admit to the wrongness of that terrible chapter of our history. We can place those images on battlefields or inside museums where the story of that time might be told, but it is no longer necessary to glorify the mistakes of our past. We must move ever forward and remember the words of another contemporary of Robert E. Lee.

As the war neared its end and President Abraham Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address his mood was melancholy and compassionate. He pointed to the horrific waste of the war but also its necessity in bringing justice to our land. Still he wanted all of us to come together as brothers “with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have born the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and all nations.”

This is our challenge as the American people. In the name of all 600,000 men who lost their lives as well as those who were forever altered, it is time for us to heed the words of our great president who himself became a martyr to his noble dedication to the proposition that all men are created equal. It is far past time to stop the fighting and to let it go.

Advertisements

The Very Best Way

Image-credit-Aldo-Tapia-A.-via-Photopin-CC

There are so many things in life over which we have little or no control. Rain may ruin the outdoor party that we planned. A loved one may die leaving us feeling alone and bereft. We may not get the job that we so wanted to land. The candidate that we worked so hard to get elected loses. Someone we thought was a friend betrays us. We may be diagnosed with a life threatening disease. A criminal steals from us or even worse murders someone about whom we care.

Each of us will face terrible moments throughout our lifetimes that have the potential to leave us feeling devastated and powerless. We will find ourselves wanting to whine or cry or rage about our bad luck, but the truth is that we are not alone in facing great challenges. It is part of the human journey to encounter difficulties. It is our reaction to such things that determines how we will feel about ourselves and the people around us. If our only thoughts are of anger or self pity we may be continually whining that life is unfair. If on the other hand we accept that everyone faces disappointments, we might instead think less about our misfortune and more about what we might do to deal with the realities of the situations.

Last fall I learned that one of my favorite cousins was dying. He had battled heart disease for decades and had tried multiple medications, surgeries and life style changes. His doctors told him that he had run out of options. His heart was failing and there was nothing anyone might do to change that reality. He was sent home to spend his final days. Amazingly whenever I spoke with him he kept his ever present sense of humor and made me laugh in spite of wanting to cry for him. He spent his last days saying his goodbyes to the people that he most loved. He prepared for his passing in every possible way, and made it clear that he was ready for what was to come.

I always loved my cousin. We had shared our childhood together and had so many stories of the fun times that we had experienced. I knew that he was a very special person, but I found myself nonetheless in awe of his faith and the way in which he so unselfishly gave so many of us the gift of peace and comfort. He had taken what might have been a horrific time and somehow transformed it into something beautiful and inspiring. In the process he had actually seized control of his life rather than allowing his circumstances to dictate his reactions.

My own life has been disrupted on so many occasions. Losing my father was life changing, but my mother demonstrated so much courage and determination to keep our family safe that I was able to keep moving forward with a sense of security. Later when she was overtaken by bipolar disorder I was  given a role that I did not want. I was put in charge of her care by default. I made a number of mistakes, but ultimately learned how to get her the help that she needed and how to monitor her progress. It was neither fun nor easy to spend four decades watching her go up and down again and again, but I knew that I would always be able to get her back on the right track if I did what I had to do. Eventually my brothers joined me in keeping her as healthy as possible. As a result our memories of our mother are filled with far more happiness than sorrow. We found a sense of accomplishment in knowing that we never let her down.

Now I’m faced with a new challenge. My husband had a stroke that was quite serious. My first instinct was to cry and feel quite sorry for myself, but ultimately I understood that the only aspect of the situation that I might control is my own attitude. I’m doing whatever I can to encourage him to adopt a healthier lifestyle, and I’m determined to enjoy each minute of each day. I’ve quickly learned that true joy comes from within myself, and I am finding ways to bring it into the open in the very simplest of ways.

We all get those terrible blows that seem to be so unfair, and it is only natural for our first reactions to be negative. Sometimes it appears to us that other people have it so much easier than we do. The truth is that when we begin to learn more about others we generally find that everyone is dealing with pain, illness, problems. The people who seem to be the happiest are often that way mostly because they have chosen to smile rather than to wallow in negativity. They understand that they have choices about how to live, and they choose joy.

At the end of her life my mother had little of material consequence. She kept her life quite simple  often out of necessity. She had lost her husband at the age of thirty. She battled mental illness for decades. She was told that she had lung cancer that was too far advanced to treat. A lesser person might have felt beset upon, but she continually spoke of how blessed she had been throughout her life. She was proud of her accomplishments that included raising three children alone all of whom had advanced college degrees. She loved the members of her family and was confident that they would always stand beside her, and she was absolutely correct in that assessment. She spoke of her adventures and travels with a big smile. She felt that hers had been a full and remarkable journey. She was as satisfied and content as she might have been if she had accumulated vast amounts of power and wealth. She had all that she ever needed, because she had chosen to be the mistress of her thoughts.

I have a friend who is attempting to simplify his life. During the month of July he began to remove many of the possessions that seemed to be occupying far too much of his time and attention. Each day of the month he donated the number of items that corresponded to the date. By the end of the cycle he was scrambling to find thirty one things that he no longer needs. It was such a freeing experience that he plans to repeat the process in August and until he no longer feels as though possessions are impeding his happiness. I think that his is a delightful idea that all of us might consider, and we might also begin to apply it to our attitudes as well.

If we feel as though life is terribly unfair and that we are continually on the wrong end of luck, then maybe it’s time that we begin to change the way that we think about our situations. We need to ask ourselves what we might adjust or do to reorient ourselves. Perhaps we might begin with small steps and then slowly accelerate our efforts as time goes by until our attitudes begin to lean toward the positive exponentially. To do that we will need to be as good to ourselves as we are to the people around us. We have to be willing to extend our sphere of kindness to everyone.

It may take time for the dividends to pay off, but when we begin to see that we really do have the power to determine our own destinies everything becomes more beautiful, even in the midst of trouble. We will learn how to refocus our fears and our pain and our anger in ways that make us feel good about ourselves. We will begin to view the world from a perspective that makes us feel powerful rather than powerless. Those who have mastered this art will tell you that it is the very best way to live.

Honesty

deep-sorrowI do my best to maintain an optimistic outlook on life, particularly in public. I often write about how to enjoy the simple aspects of existence and speak of the positive effect that my faith has on me. Recently my husband had a stroke that has profoundly changed our lives. He has a seventy percent blockage in his brain that is not treatable, so the possibility of his having another stroke is strong. In his first foray he was lucky enough to be in the company of our entire family and was near a great hospital. There were no residual effects of the attack, so now he is driving again and performing most of the tasks that he did before the incident. Still, his doctor has warned us that the possibility of a second stroke in the ninety days after the first one is very high. All in all this news has left both of us floundering, but determined to do whatever it takes to keep him healthy.

With the support and love of friends and family we are attempting to carry on and enjoy each moment of each day with a new appreciation. I am not one to surrender to challenges and so the fighter in me has come to the fore. So many people have mentioned how wonderful and inspiring I appear to be. This worries me just a bit because I imagine that other folks who are also struggling with horrific situations may misunderstand my strength and wonder why they don’t seem to be able to muster the courage and hopefulness that I demonstrate. I suspect that in my quest to never surrender to the dark feelings that creep into my mind, I may have inadvertently presented a picture of myself that is not complete. Because I strive to be honest and to help those who are really hurting I think that it is important for me to unveil some of the angst and horror that has stalked me since the day that I saw my husband lying helplessly on the floor.

I’m not nearly as brave as I sometimes appear to be. I’m about as human as they come and as such I have been shaken to the very depths of my soul. There have been moments when I had never ending conversations with God in which I was generally begging Him to lift the burdens from my shoulders. Eventually those prayers became less and less demanding and finally led me to ask for the strength to do whatever I need to do. First, however, I had to rage at the heavens. Thankfully I believe that God is quite understanding about our weaknesses. Before I was able to hand myself back over to Him I went through a very dark period of doubt and fear. It is what most of us do. It is part of our makeup to question and falter. He waits patiently for us to trust Him once again.

I have spent quite a bit of time inside my closet feeling very sorry for myself as I wailed in grief for all that I thought that I had lost. My confidence was shaken. My plans were dashed. I was afraid and angry and confused. I felt as though I would not be able to take another breath. I also felt guilty for being so selfish at a time when my husband needed me so. I chided myself for even considering my own feelings. It took me quite a long time to sort things out in my mind and compose myself once again.

I have always been a control freak. I abhor situations that are uncertain. The specter of a future that I cannot plan is unnerving and for a time it paralyzed me. I thought of my life as being over in a sense. I felt that the joy that I had shared with my husband in our travels would be a thing of the past. I imagined us living in a chronic state of panic. I was intensely jealous of family and friends who had the luxury of continuing their lives as though nothing had happened. I felt very alone and vulnerable.

I knew that it would be impossible to continue along such a path of despair. I slowly began to use my talents and resources to regain a semblance of control over our lives. I know that I can’t repair the occlusion in my husband’s brain, but I am able to create a diet that will help him to lose weight and keep his blood pressure low. I have the power to support him as he takes his medications and to keep our home as happy as possible. I have had to remind myself of my own belief that the best moments in life are actually the simple pleasures that come our way. I have begun to rejoice over dinners in our backyard, times with family, pleasant moments with friends. I try to find something upbeat about each day and mostly I have learned to express the loving feelings that I have for people as soon as I experience them.

One thing I know for sure is how very much I love my husband. I feel almost as though we are dating again. I like holding his hand and smiling at him. I find that spending time with him is what is most important  right now, no matter where we go or what we do. It’s funny how just sharing a joke or walking together makes both of us incredibly happy. A trip to Walmart can be as much fun as an extravagant trip.

I count my blessings literally every second now. I try not to let the inevitable irritations that come my way bother me, but now and again I lose my cool. I still find myself worrying more than I should but I’ve learned to be kind to myself. I am far more conscious of other people and my empathy for their suffering has increased a hundredfold. I spend my time controlling what I can and letting go of the rest. For now I need so little. All of the things that I dreamed of one day owning seem rather inconsequential. On some days I feel as though I am floating aimlessly in shark infested waters, and I try not to be fearful. A bit of bad news here and there has the power of sending me back to my closet to cry, but I know now that I will somehow somewhere find the strength to come back out and face the demons that stalk me.

I am no better nor any stronger than anyone else. I make the same mistakes and have the same questions that have plagued humans for eternity. I try to think less of myself and more about others. I rein in my tendencies to overthink the future. Right now I am fragile but I am also strong. Thus is the irony of the human spirit.

I appreciate the compliments that my friends shower upon me. They really do help me to keep going. The people who truly care about me have been indispensable. They have encouraged me and helped me to understand that we are never as alone as we might imagine. There is much goodness in the world if only we ask. Sometimes we need that helping hand and most people are only too willing to extend it. We just have to be willing to admit that none of us are capable of being perennial towers of strength.

I am fine for now, but I am quite certain that something will come along to shake my resolve once again,. I will try to remember that it is okay to lose one’s way from time to time. The important thing is to face the emotions that work to bring us down. In admitting our weaknesses we actually become stronger, and we learn how to overcome the feelings that are holding us back from being our best selves. As for me, I am choosing to find the beauty in my new situation and to grab whatever joy I might find. Time slips by far too quickly to spend it in a state of dread or pessimism, but we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves when we temporarily fall victim to an horrific case of the blues. So long as we do our best to cope with whatever situation we are facing, we will make it again and again.

Forgiveness

636218183085011754-1819095975_15a25241I listened to a TED talk in which a man described what he would have done to Adolf Hitler if he had somehow had the opportunity to meet with him back during the height of the Fürher’s power. It was a violent depiction which even frightened the individual who was outlining it. He noted that he was a generally peace loving person, against gun ownership and war. He pointed out the human tendency to be vindictive and admitted that he was no better than anyone else when it came to that aspect of our natures. In truth we sometimes fantasize how to get even with those who have harmed us or others. We sentence murderers to death and consider it just to hang those who commit crimes against humanity. At the same time we question acts of forgiveness that seem to be unwarranted. We have great difficulty with the concept of mercy even though many of us purport to follow the Golden Rule.

I’ve been there myself. Even after many years I struggled to find compassion for a man who emotionally abused my mother when she was the most vulnerable. I despised his politics which bordered on white supremacy, but mostly what I hated about him was the fear that he used as a means of controlling my mom. To this day I wonder if he was a great part of the reason that my mama succumbed to the tragic symptoms of bipolar disorder. One of her psychiatrists once told me that if she had lived a less stressful life she might have been merely eccentric rather than psychotic. This man was a major contributor to her descent into madness. She tried over and over again to get away from him, but he manipulated her with tales of having contacts willing to get rid of anyone that he wanted gone forever. She was terrified of what might happen to her and to us if she crossed him. Ultimately she broke down completely one night while in his presence. It distressed him so much that he backed away from his threats. A nudge from my uncles completed his departure from our lives which was a welcome relief to me and my brothers. He is the only person that I has ever made me feel utterly hate-filled.

I have been thinking about such things because a cousin who is wise and loving recently posted an article about a man who believes that we need to forgive everyone for everything. That is a major but interesting challenge for all of us. I think that it is possible in most cases, including with regard to my mother’s nemesis, Nonetheless I have to ask if there are indeed times when forgiveness simply can’t be forthcoming, as in the instance of Adolf Hitler. Certainly his crimes were egregious enough that it would almost seem to be naive and foolhardy to even consider giving him a pass, and yet I wonder if there is a tiny bit of merit in the idea of forgiving all people at all times.

If I think carefully about the man that I have literally hated for decades I find myself understanding why he was like he was. He was one of three brothers and his siblings were incredibly successful men. He on the other hand never amounted to much other than being movie star handsome. His wife had died of cancer and he was raising two children on a rather meager and unstable income. His son was ultimately killed in a robbery gone awry and his life showed little promise of getting better. I think he actually loved my mother but did not know how to demonstrate his concern for her properly. His boasts and putdowns were meant to make him look better in her eyes, and he saw his jealousy as a way of demonstrating how much he cared. Sadly his way of doing things was foreign to us and he and my mother were a grotesque mismatch.

One of the things that happened when she had her first psychotic break was that she came home from the hospital for a weekend furlough and refused to return. I was beside myself because she was not out of the woods. She turned to him because she had lost her trust in me. To his credit he told her that the best way to get everyone off of her back was to cooperate with them. He was the one who talked her into going back for continued treatment. That certainly demonstrated a level of goodness in him that I had never before noticed. In other words he was not as fully evil as I had imagined. I ultimately found it in my heart to forgive him, but with the caveat that I did not want him to ever be around anyone in my family again. I think that while total absolution is a good thing there must sometime be restraints associated with it.

For the most part forgiveness has the potential of being a healing act for the person who finds it in his/her heart to set aside the anger and negativity that lurks in the soul. It is a powerful way of restoring calm and optimism. It does not however need to include association with the person or persons who inflicted the hurt. For example, I would never ask someone who had been betrayed in a relationship to return to that individual. In fact it would no doubt be harmful. Forgiveness does not mean submission.

I also think that there are indeed some actions that are so egregious that it is impossible to find forgiveness. In the case of Adolf Hitler I can’t imagine anyone being so magnanimous as to absolve his sins against humanity other than God Himself. Still, I would rather see him rot in prison that to inflict bodily harm. In fact, I think that putting him away in chains forever would have been a fitting punishment had he not chosen the cowardly act of suicide. Then again perhaps he did us all a favor by taking care of the problem for us.

Most of us will be faced with minor inflictions of hurt against us. Only the individual who has been betrayed will be able to decide if he/she is able to harbor no malice against the person who has produced the pain.  It may take time for the wounds to heal as in my own case with the man who had brought so much fear into my mother’s life. Like my situation a pardon may ultimately be a somewhat selfish act designed to eliminate the poison of loathing that so pollutes the heart and that is okay.

Forgiveness demonstrates the ultimate act of love. Jesus absolved the thief while he was dying on the cross, but he did so only after the sinful man truly and deeply uttered his contrition. We are told that the other man who was being crucified with them was not willing to show that he was sorry and thus did not receive the same favor. I suspect the Jesus, the teacher, wanted us to know that while it is noble and just to exonerate those who have come to see the error of their ways, it is not necessary to be magnanimous with anyone who remains dedicated to evil.

I think that the world would indeed be a better place if we truly learned to be more loving and forgiving. We often hold onto grudges and anger long after it is healthy to do so. Reaching out to one another and understanding that we all make terrible mistakes is something that we should all strive to do. In the end the vast majority of people are good even if misguided. Our goal should always been to bring out the best in everyone that we encounter and to love them and welcome them into our world until they prove to be harmful. Then I think that even Jesus Himself would encourage us to walk away.